Was the Crucifixion of Jesus God’s doing or Humanity’s? Those who promote the Reformers’ relatively recent explanation of Substitutionary Atonement say God needed Jesus to die (“so God could forgive us”!) and they rely extremely heavily on four verses in Isaiah chapter 53 to make their case. But how strongly do those verses actually support their case?? My answer is: not very strongly at all…
In my view, the Cross is about Jesus bearing our infirmities and sorrows and also about us mistakenly believing that it was God who was (justly) smiting or punishing Jesus. This is how the religious establishment justified killing Jesus 2000 years ago and, sadly, this explanation has become dominant again in the Church for the last 1000 years or more. Appropriate, life-changing confusion has given way to certainty about false notions of God and His ways.
Isa 53:4 Surely He (Jesus) took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, YET we considered Him stricken by God, smitten by Him, and afflicted.
Isaiah is emphasizing our capacity for unconscious scapegoating – i.e. how human beings frequently (at critical junctures) unjustly blame others for their own sins and even feel justified and righteous for punishing those innocents. In exactly that way, we made Christ “carry” infirmities and sorrows that were ours – i.e. we blamed Him and punished Him for our own weaknesses and griefs…. and then we considered it to be all God’s will!
The scapegoating is not completely unconscious. There’s also a desire to go along, perhaps to avoid being scapegoated ourselves for disagreeing with the powers-that-be. Not surprisingly this can be accompanied by an inability to think clearly and, when we start to get near the truth, a sense of confusion. Isaiah 53:4 speaks about error and confusion. “Surely (this was the case)…. – yet we considered (that to be the case)!”
See Jesus’ disciples’ confusion (and fear) after Jesus died resulting in a lack of purpose initially. Unable to continue with Jesus’ Great Commission to preach the Gospel, unable to stand up to the religious authorities, unable to readily believe when Jesus appeared to them after His resurrection. Why unable? Yes, Jesus ‘career’, mission and achievements didn’t fit what anyone expected. But why didn’t they? And why were they not able to learn from Jesus’ prior teaching about what had to happen?
A big part of the answer is the universal human mindset which Jesus came to challenge, which Walter Wink and others have described. In my own words, Jesus’ crucifixion made it appear to everyone, including the disciples, that God had forsaken the man Jesus; the national leaders had been vindicated in their condemnation of Him; His claims to Divinity must have been blasphemy after all; the miracles must have been a good start but went to Jesus’ head or else He was doing them by the power of Satan as the leaders had suggested. For as long as the disciples believed that God was on the side of the national and spiritual leaders in this execution they would remain confused and completely unable to carry on Jesus’ message. Thomas insisted he could only believe if He saw a resurrected Jesus with his own eyes.
But after the resurrection, as they became clear on what had actually happened, their whole world view must, I think, have been changed – both their understanding of God’s goodness and of the nature of the corporate sin of humanity. It had been an evil act of the religious and secular establishment – at the (supposedly enlightened) conjunction of Roman organisation, Greek-style democracy/philosophy & Jewish spiritual sensibility – to kill God when He visited as one of us – an act so calculated, blatant and immoral that it forever undermines confidence in the legitimacy of the worldly (non-kingdom of God) power structures. With a faith in a God “Who is Love” and Who will resurrect us, the Apostles preached their new faith and Spirit-inspired understanding boldly:
“… Jesus from Nazareth, whom you crucified but God raised from the dead.” (Acts 4:10 ISV)
The God of our ancestors raised Jesus to life after you killed him by hanging him on a tree. (Acts 5:30 ISV)
For the people who live in Jerusalem and their leaders, not knowing who Jesus was, condemned him and so fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath. Although they found no reason to sentence him to death, they asked Pilate to have him executed. (Acts 13:27-28 ISV)
Would God perpetrate an injustice? No! But He lets human miscarriages of injustice happen despite His love for us. Is this not the history of the world: the innocent are victimised -? How can He let all that injustice happen if He is truly loving and just? That is exactly what the Gospel is about – a demonstration of His own justice as well as His ability to make us just (Rom 3:26). It is the Gospel that resolves our confusion about these matters.
Part of resolving our confusion is to understand that it was not God rejecting humanity in the Person of Jesus. Quite the opposite was happening – Humanity was rejecting God in the Person of Jesus Christ. Humanity rejected the real God to protect humanity’s idolatrous false image of God. Jesus’ claim to be God was considered “blasphemous” against humanity’s false God. Humanity’s refusal to believe in Jesus stemmed from the refusal to believe in the Triune God as He really is – a God of love, whose justice puts all things to rights (no retribution necessary). How did the real God react to this rejection from Humanity? He “bore” the hatred, blame and condemnation of Humanity without retaliation – in the person of Jesus Christ. So Jesus bore our sins – i.e. He patiently endured the consequences of our sinfulness. And all the while, His persecutors were sure they were doing their (false) God’s righteous will.
What really happened on the Cross
But he was wounded because of our transgressions, he was crushed because of our iniquities: the chastisement of our welfare was upon him, and with his stripes we were healed.
Isa 53:5 Jewish Publication Society Bible
Most Christian translations translate two prepositions in this verse as “for” rather than “because of”. From my limited ability with lexicons, I understand that “because of” is a valid translation. Other translations of the Bible which use “because” instead of “for” include the NET & the Holman.
In addition, it makes complete sense of how verse 5 follows on from verse 4. In verse 4, Humanity is mistakenly thinking that ultimately we are doing God’s will in smiting Jesus. Logically, if Christ wasn’t smitten, afflicted and wounded by God…. then we weren’t doing God’s will in smiting Him. In fact, smiting Jesus – or anybody – is antithetical to God’s will – in a word, our woundings of others are “transgressions.” Verse 5 goes on to confirm this – “He was wounded because of (by, due to) our transgressions; He was crushed because of (by, due to) our iniquities…” “Because of” is better than “for” because “because of” makes complete sense of the two verses.
Following on in this line of thinking, “the chastisement of our welfare” and the “stripes (by which) we were healed” likely refers to the sweetness of revenge and retribution. Why does anyone seek retribution, if not to feel some (warped) kind of ‘healing’ and ‘welfare’ by making the one blamed for the fault suffer? Christ was blamed – and God is still blamed – for all kinds of suffering and injustices in the world. Humanity projects responsibility and blame for suffering and injustice onto God and we had opportunity to extract revenge and retribution on Him when He came preaching to us truth we didn’t want to hear. e.g. those who seek their life will lose it / you cannot serve God & mammon / in that you did (kindness) not to (the poor & oppressed) you did it not to Me / (etc). “By His wounds we are healed” – sort of.
The wonderful irony and paradox is that for those who understand this dynamic – Humanity’s sin, God’s submission to unjust retribution, Jesus’ resurrection and God’s forgiveness for this human sin – and to those who confess to their own scapegoating of others and convert to the worldview of Christ – there is a genuine and enduring ‘welfare’ and ‘healing’ of the spirit. In my opinion, “the chastisement of our welfare” and the “stripes (by which) we were healed” refer to both kinds of benefits that Jesus’ crucifixion brought Humanity – the superficial sweetness of revenge for the unbelieving and the deeper and lasting healing of spirit to the believing.
After (Jesus) was arrested according to the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified this very man and killed him by the hands of lawless men. But God raised him up…. (Acts 2:23-24a ISV)
Of course, Jehovah is sovereign and He is, therefore, ultimately responsible for all that happens. I plan to have a longer discussion on the “problem of evil” elsewhere. But let us just ask here in what way did God promote Jesus’ execution? Well, it wasn’t as executor or as prosecutor or as a puppeteer controlling the human actions and events. God’s part in it all was to allow humanity to fall and then to make it possible for humanity to meet God on more equal terms…
The predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God is seen in many prophecies that were made about and fulfilled by Jesus: born in Bethlehem, called a Nazarene, coming on a donkey, hung on a “tree”, a lottery for his garment, pierced, buried in a rich mans tomb, etc. However, Humanity’s determination to exterminate Him was not caused by God over-ruling Humanity’s choices. Definitely not. As said above, it was Humanity, in transgression and iniquity, that acted against Jesus. We acted against Him just like we act so often to settle the rebellious or angry mob by a show of force and by blaming and “making an example” of scapegoats. Such is a central part of Humanity’s essential sinfulness expressed against Humanity. It is what Jesus came to address. It is definitely not anything God orchestrated against His Son!
It would not be difficult for anyone who understood this, let alone for God, to prophesy what would happen if ever God lived among us as a human equal, preaching His own preferred way we should live….. – we would kill Him! that is, if Jesus would act consistently with God’s character and if Humanity too would act in character, then the execution of God was inevitable!
Hence a literal translation of Isaiah 53:6 says –
the LORD hath caused to meet on Him, the punishment of us all – Isa 53:6
Translations that say “The LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” attribute active instrumentality to God somehow(?) “laying” our sins “on” Christ – but this is both nonsensical and not a literal translation of the original Hebrew. Sins aren’t blankets that they can be laid on this person or that, and “laid on” is not a correct translation. Humanity made Jesus carry the burden and consequence for our own sinful ways. God’s sovereign contribution was to cause this meeting to happen by the Incarnation which in turn allowed the punishment of us all to meet on Jesus.
Note that the “punishment of us all” is the punishment that we – humanity as a whole – handed down to Christ. This punishment is the characteristic and corrupted form of “justice” elicited when humanity’s most basic cultural foundations are at risk of being exposed as rotten. This form of “justice” is in fact rotten itself and is nothing more than misguided and vicious revenge. In fact, other translations say that what the Lord caused Jesus to meet up with was the “iniquity” of us all.
Alternatively if, as the 16th century Reformers taught, this verse was referring to GOD handing down a just “wage” for our sins onto Christ instead of onto us, you’d think there would be a lot of teaching to that effect elsewhere in Scripture, wouldn’t you? But in fact there isn’t. The main Scriptural support for the Reformers view are these four verses from Isaiah and, as we are seeing, these verses don’t say what the Reformers claimed they say.
Delight in Hyperbole
Isa 53:10 And Jehovah hath delighted to bruise him, (Young’s Literal Translation)
The last three verses of Isaiah 53 talk about God’s delight in the outcomes of the Suffering Servant’s suffering – the offspring raised up, His prolongation of life, the triumph of God’s will by Him, the seeing of light and finding of satisfaction, the making of many righteous, and the greatness of His achievement. So great is God’s delight in the outcome that the delight is figuratively generalised to the whole process, including the grisly death. This is captured in the phrase “Jehovah delighted to bruise Christ.” In other words, we are dealing with a figure of speech! God, being love and delighting in joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control cannot literally “delight” in Humanity’s cruel treatment of anyone.
Similarly, in the phrase “Jehovah delighted to bruise him”, the word “bruise” is metaphorical. The Adamic promise that Satan would bruise Christ’s heel and Christ would bruise Satan’s head in Genesis 3:15 was given using a metaphorical language. Christ was not merely “bruised” – no, literally He was beaten, whipped, nailed to a cross and suspended there until He died.
The word translated “delight” (and elsewhere “will”) means, literally “to bend” perhaps (I suppose) referring to the bodily motions of someone filled with enormous pleasure and excitement about some wonderful happening.
In summary, the hyperbole in Isaiah 53:10 is highlighting God’s absolute delight in Calvary. It is as if His delight in the salvation wrought by His Son through the horror of the Cross was so great that it even extends to God’s decision to ALLOW the crucifixion as if He had orchestrated the whole thing Himself. But God did NOT orchestrate it and we were NOT doing God’s will when we crucified Christ – as we are NOT doing it when we blame, turn away from and victimize the marginalised in today’s world.
(Note: I address how God can ALLOW sin – whether against Christ or against ourselves – elsewhere.)
– Jub, 6 Nov 2012, last updated 31 July 2016