In the appendix of Welcoming Gifts, I argue that Penal-Substitution Atonement (also known as Substitutionary Atonement) is not plausible as an explanation of biblical sacrifice. This theory says that Christ saved us by taking upon Himself the punishment due our sins. It begins with the biblical teaching that the consequence of sin is death—not just physical death but spiritual and eternal death. It understands this consequence as a punishment owed for offending God’s justice, a debt of punishment God cannot simply cancel or ignore, even though His love drives Him to redeem the sinner. Finally, it proposes that God resolved this conundrum (the tension between His love and justice) by sending His Son to take the punishment we deserve; dying on the Cross, Christ thus settled our accounts with God and enabled Him to accept us into His Kingdom.
As I say in Welcoming Gifts, Penal Substitution does not fit the facts or logic of Old Testament sacrifice. Here I will go even further and say that it is not consistent with the consensus of the Church Fathers and the Orthodox Tradition generally. However, it is hard for us not to read certain phrases in the Bible, especially the New Testament, as supporting this theory. These phrases seem self-evidently to describe salvation in Christ as His assumption of our debt of guilt and punishment. One such phrase is “He [i.e., Christ] bore our sins,” which occurs in the Greek (Septuagint) text of Isaiah 53:4, in 1 Peter 2:24, and (in a slightly different form) in Hebrews 9:28. For many readers, this phrase seems obviously to describe a situation in which Christ took the guilt of our sins upon Himself.
Now, as obvious as that reading of these verses might seem, I propose that it is not proof of the Penal-Substitution theory but its offspring. This theory has been the dominant explanation of salvation among Western Christians (including both Catholics and Protestants) going back to their schism from the (Eastern) Orthodox Church (ad 1054). It is thus older than all existing English translations and was part of the interpretive lens that produced all those translations. As my biblical-studies professor at seminary taught us, every translation is an interpretation—that is, every translator is guided by his or her understanding of what the Bible is supposed to mean. Therefore, all translations reflect the translators’ theological presuppositions; in particular, our translations, to greater or lesser degrees, presuppose Penal-Substitution Atonement in the way they render the original text into English.
Moreover, those of us who grew up with Protestant or Catholic religious education—or even with Orthodox religious education that had unwittingly incorporated Protestant or Catholic ideas—have these same presuppositions embedded in our minds. Therefore, when we read the Bible, we find it difficult to see the biblical text from any other perspective, even if we have come to believe that this teaching is false. Difficult, I say, but not impossible. By carefully examining the original text of the verses in question and comparing them to related verses elsewhere in the Bible, we will see that the Penal-Substitution interpretation is far from certain.
We will begin with the oldest of these texts: Isaiah 53:4. This chapter from the Prophecy of Isaiah is taken as one of the strongest proofs of Penal-Substitution Atonement. It foretold that the Messiah would suffer greatly and be despised, all for the sake of God’s people. It said that this would happen according to the will of God and would make many people righteous.
The Hebrew text of Isaiah 53:4 does not actually mention sin. In the RSV translation it reads,
Surely he has borne our griefs [or sicknesses]
and carried our sorrows [or pains];
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
However, the Septuagint (one of the common Greek translations of Jesus’s time) renders the first two lines as follows:
He bears our sins
and is vexed concerning us.
As is sometimes the case in the Septuagint, the translators depart from a strictly literal translation in order to make the meaning of the Hebrew clearer. Through this translation, they explain that the griefs or sicknesses at issue were spiritual in nature—the sicknesses of sin—and that the Messiah would “carr[y] our sorrows” through His anxious (“vexed”) concern to help us. This spiritual reading of “griefs” (or “sicknesses”) as sins is confirmed by verse 6, in which the Hebrew reads, “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (RSV, emphasis mine).
Within the interpretative framework of Penal Substitution, “bore our sins” and “laid on him the iniquity of us all” might seem to obviously foretell that Christ would assume our debt of guilt and punishment. However, before we jump to this conclusion, we ought to consider the only direct quotation of this verse in the New Testament, in Matthew 8:16–17:
When evening had come, many demoniacs were brought to Him, and He cast out the spirits with a word, and He healed all who were ill. He thus fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah, saying, “He took our infirmities [lit., “weaknesses”] and bore our sicknesses.”
Matthew’s quotation is not taken from the Septuagint translation of Isaiah 53:4; instead, it more directly resembles the Hebrew original. Like the Hebrew, his quotation seems to literally refer to physical illnesses, though (like the Septuagint) Matthew also extends it to spiritual infirmity by referring to those suffering from evil spirits.
The question that concerns us is this: how does Matthew understand Christ to have taken and borne the ailments of the people? If he understood “bore our sicknesses” in the same sense as the Penal-Substitution understanding of “bore our sins”—that is, “to suffer the consequences of”—then we would expect here to see Christ assuming the symptoms of the others’ illnesses and even taking onto Himself the demons of the demoniacs. However, that is not what Matthew describes. Here Christ does not suffer the people’s ailments in their place but rather cures them. Thus, in this passage, “bore” means something like “took upon Himself the responsibility for healing or fixing [the problem],” akin to our idea of bearing responsibility.
Matthew’s interpretation of this prophecy thus opens up a whole new perspective on the idea of Christ bearing our sins. Instead of describing a transfer of liability or vicarious suffering, “He bore our sins” would mean that Christ took responsibility for healing our sickness of sin, that He took it upon Himself to cure our sins. Likewise, “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” in verse 6 would mean that the Father placed this responsibility on His Son’s shoulders by sending Him to save humanity. It’s not about accounting at all but about leadership in spiritual transformation.
This could also be the significance of the two New Testament passages that (according to the usual translation) refer to Christ bearing sins: 1 Peter 2:24 and Hebrews 9:28. In the RSV, these verses are translated, respectively,
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed,
Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
Understood in light of Matthew 8:17, these would both refer to Christ taking responsibility for curing our sins through His Cross.
However, there is another way to translate both these verses. The verb translated “bore” or “to bear” in them is not simply pherō (as in the Greek text of Isaiah 53:4) but the compound anapherō, “bear up,” which usually refers to sending up an offering to God through sacrifice. Additionally, in Leviticus, sin offerings are literally called sins (see, for example, Lev. 4:33 and 6:24 [6:17 in the Septuagint])—one must determine based on the context whether the meaning is actually “sin” or “sin offering.” Therefore, the translations of these verses might not have anything to do with “bearing sins.” Instead, they would be translated as follows:
He Himself offered our sin offerings in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed,
Christ, having been presented once to offer the sin offerings of many, will appear a second time, without a sin offering, to those who eagerly await Him for salvation.
It is, therefore, most likely that none of these verses have anything to do with Penal Substitution. In future posts, we might explore other supposed proof texts for this theory of atonement. Stay tuned!