Penal Substitution and Isaiah 53

53:5 But he[was] wounded for our transgressions, he was] bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace[was] upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

It looks pretty conclusive that the OT considers penal substitution as a viable means of redemption from sin.

But I don’t want to get into a does/doesn’t argument about penal substitution. I do want to write down some things about how I think I, and people in general, need psychologically, our psyches need, to accept penal substitution, for the relief and restoration there is in the emotional understanding that another has been made to carry our burden for sin.

It goes back to types. In the UK, and in the USA even more clearly, public and political catharsis is carried on generally and obviously, and with common approval, by the use of penal substitution. Sometimes someone will put up their hand and take the blame. More often a person, normally a person more or less in the thick of the current scandal or outrage, will be traduced and hung out to dry in the press and by media, and our sense of having aired the closet is thus satisfied.

Of course this is not Christian, nor is it suffered voluntary, nor even commendable; but for us the catharsis is very much the same, and it is routed through very much the same psychological highways as those that a person as a Christian might use so as to prefer to feel that Jesus bears his iniquities and his pains, suffers the penalty he should suffer, and bears away sin and its pain and blame for his sake and on his behalf.

This sense of penal substitution goes very deep in me myself, and in us all. The civil versions of course lack the gratitude and the admiration and the love and the astonishment that the Christian version that Jesus brought into the world inspires in lots of people. The civil versions are a sort of palming off of personal responsibility and pain and guilt; a pointing of the finger, and a ganging up on the disgraced or the vulnerable, or the person in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Even when the case is grave, and an ugly character like a vicious murderer is the sacrificial victim of the penalty; it is the full burden of others’ bile and spleen and of others’ own ugly brutal sides (that such a murderer is made to bear in public show trials by media and after the fact) that is our noxious reservoir of standing effluent that we happily offload into such a murderer’s lap.

This act is the mirror image, the sinister side of Christ’s penal substitution; whereas Christ’s deed done for us is its inverse, and as such his is the ultimate reality and the beautiful and the ideal and the marvelous.

Much of this inverse ugliness is present, ironically enough, in the Easter story as it is written in the gospels. The almost maniacal anger and rage of the High Priests; their bitter rending of Jesus’ garments; the spit in his face, the mockery and the almost uncontrolled, uncontrollable outburst of hatred and wrath made against him – it strikes a normal person reading about these things that the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin during that night protested too much, over and above anything Jesus could have said or done to deserve such a response. It’s as if indeed that here is that outlet, that opportunity, that release, which the pinched Pharisees have felt previously only a minute inkling of, the mere trace of a sense that they stand in direst need to get their demons out of them, conveniently to burden this man with their almost possessed wrath and ire.

But of course, in any and in all of us such wild uncontrolled rages fuel the fires they start, and the demons who have possession take possession even more so and with greater and securer hold thereafter. This nurtures the mirror image of humility, which like its antithesis is also endless.

So this madness of the Sanhedrin is part of the scorn and anger and despite and vilification that Jesus bore for us; as if, almost, the High Priests were the surrogates for us and did and spoke and hated wiser than they knew and in our names. As if they, the High Priests were the media and the common consensus we share and that we happily acquiesce in when we murder the murderer in our daily publications and on our TVs and in our hearts, as we relieve by living them out our own malignities upon him. This is all in the very same vein of irony as that which Caiaphas mines as he prophesies that ‘one man should die for the people’.

This brings us to the odd conclusion that the vile murderer is in fact a type of Christ, in so far as he bears the wrath and sickness of we who revile him; attacking him with all the intensity over and above that which is due to him as a vile felon. Our rage eats us up. And we would that the vile felon was eaten up likewise.

Anyone who lives with their family knows how anger and blame can and too often does circulate and reverberate and spread like contagion to eventually trouble the whole household, unless, until, someone sometime steps in and does due service, and pours the oil of love into the wounds and binds up the hurt ones.

Our society is likewise a family that has too few relatives willing to step in and do due service. Christ in the UK is not known so well as he could be, should, be; and so the source of all redemption and the balm for all our ills is cut off from the knowledge of too many here. Were he known more widely and understood better we should then route more of our civic troubles and daily strifes through him and so live better, and have more honourable public lives.

Nonetheless it is still the case that Jesus today, in concrete fact, is present in many, many places and presides at numbers of events; he is here in a major way so as to carry away the wrath and dark and madness of our lives and so quell the strifes in our societies – today still he is here and able to carry our sins away and to take our unrighteous wrath and hectic blame upon his righteous self and carry it for our sakes.

We have a hymn titled ‘Take it to the Lord in Prayer’; we have secular songs like ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’; we have the great and amazing Isaiah, who for only coining the phrase should be remembered for all time, regardless of whom he thought he was writing for:

‘With His Stripes We Are Healed’