Penal Substitution and the Pacifists

Isaiah 53:5 says that “He was crushed for our iniquities.” On the ordinary and prevailing (evangelical) reading of this passage, what v. 5 expresses is this truth:

(R1)  Jesus was crushed as a punishment for our iniquities.

Call (R1) the “penal substitution” (PS) reading. According to Isaiah 53:6, the LORD has “laid upon” Jesus “the iniquity of us all.” According to (PS), Jesus Christ, in a marvellous act of grace and mercy, took the punishment for all of those sins—each and every one, both yours and mine—upon himself. For “it was the will of the LORD to crush him” (Isa 53:10), so that we might be “saved by him from the wrath of God” (Rom 5:9) and “be accounted righteous” (Isa 53:11). Surely it is good news—unspeakably good—to find that the punishment due to us was actually borne by the “lamb without spot or blemish” (1 Pet 1:19), who “loved us and gave himself for us” (Eph 5:2). Glory!

In some evangelical quarters, however, this good news (while it might be news) is anything but good. Brian McLaren, Brian Zahn, and Greg Boyd (the 3B’s)–along with other emergent teachers–have all come to reject penal substitution as “potentially hostile,” certainly no part of the gospel. McLaren says it involves an “act of injustice”; Zahnd dubs it “divine sadism.” Not surprisingly, thinkers in this camp insist on a non-penal reading of Isaiah 53:5. Instead of saying that God himself crushes Jesus for our sins, they tell us that it is the Roman soldiers (perhaps in concert with the religious leaders) who did that. It is their collective wrath, the wrath of us all—not the Father’s—that was poured out on Jesus at the cross.

Unfortunately, this pacifist reading of 53:5 leads to perplexity if not outright falsehood. For consider: what pacifist emergents presumably want to say, in the first instance, is something like this:

(R2)  Jesus was crushed by the Romans as a consequence of our iniquities,

not as a punishment for them. Fair enough. Now (R2) is ambiguous. We can read it causally as follows:

(R2a)  Our iniquities caused the crushing of Jesus by the Romans,

which, if you pause to think about it, is strictly absurd. First, the “iniquity of us all” (past, present, and future) isn’t yet complete. There are future individuals—individuals not yet born—who will sin just like we ourselves have. To say that their forth-existing iniquities somehow (partially) causally brought about the Romans’ crucifixion of Jesus is to embrace a bizarre form of backwards causation. This is quite a metaphysical pill to swallow to avoid penal substitution, especially since that doctrine can be philosophically defended against 3B-like challenges (see here). Secondly, we should also note that the text doesn’t say that our sins retroactively caused Jesus’ crucifixion by the Romans. It says our sins were “laid upon” him by the Lord. It’s divine imputation that’s in view here, not backwards causation.

Still, there is another way of reading (R2). We can take ‘consequence’ in a logical sense, in which case (R2) expresses this claim:

(R2b)  Our iniquities are a sufficient condition for the Romans crushing Jesus.

But this can’t be right either. For there are possible worlds in which “the iniquity of us all” obtains and yet Jesus isn’t crucified by the Romans. Think, e.g., of a world with sin but no cross. There is nothing logically impossible in that. After all, it is only by an act of free (unnecessitated) grace that God has chosen to send his Son into the world to save sinners. Thus (R2b) is false.

There is, of course, a lot more to be said on this score. Even so, it does seem to me that the 3B’s—given their open disavowal of penal substitution—owe us far more by way of detailed fine-tuning of propositions and argumentation than they have hitherto provided. Just putting (R2) on the table in opposition to (R1) does very little. What we need from the B’s is a rigorous defense of (R2) in and of itself. As far as I’m aware, this has yet to be undertaken. The B’s are hereby invited to do so.


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