Who Is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53?

Who Is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53? August 22, 2012

Who Is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53?

I don’t remember when or where it happened, but I remember the shock I felt when I first heard that many, perhaps most, Old Testament scholars, including many evangelical Christians, deny that Isaiah 53 refers to Jesus. It was a shock of bewilderment; why would they say that? Christians have generally, since the beginning (Acts 8) believed the Suffering Servant described there is Jesus.

Why is it important? Well, the debate over the atonement depends, in part, at least, on what one believes about Isaiah 53. A case for vicarious sacrifice, penal substitution, might be made without reference to it, but, generally speaking, that chapter has played a crucial role in developing and defending so-called “objective” theories of the atonement such as those.

I’m well aware now of the scholarly reasons for saying the Suffering Servant is Israel and not Jesus, but only two seem to me to carry some weight. (Notice I did not deny that the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 IS Israel; I am talking here about the belief that the Suffering Servant is NOT Jesus.)

First, the Suffering Servant would not be Jesus if predictive prophecy is ruled out as untenable. Why would anyone do that? The only reason I can think of is naturalism—that no prophet can predict the future that specifically. My study of higher criticism has led me to believe that many so-called “assured results” of higher criticism are driven by naturalistic reasoning.

Second, the Suffering Servant is not identified as Jesus because to identify the Suffering Servant as Jesus is anti-Semitic. I had a German Bible professor during my doctoral studies who was, perhaps understandably, obsessed with “anti-Semitism in the Bible” and especially in Paul. As much as I despise anti-Semitism, I think it can be over used as an objection. For example, some people think any criticism of the State of Israel is anti-Semitic. I don’t.

Those two reasons for EXCLUDING Isaiah 53 as referring to Jesus seem untenable to me, especially if one believes in God who is able to speak through prophets about the future. And why wouldn’t he be?

I have no objection to Christian scholars saying the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 IS Israel. What I object to is saying it ISN’T Jesus. Why? My main reason is simply that Acts 8 says it IS Jesus and portions of the New Testament refer back to portions of Isaiah 53 when referring to Jesus (e.g., 1 Peter 2:24 and Matthew 8:17). Also, all the church fathers treated Isaiah 53 as referring to Jesus.

If a theologian excludes Isaiah 53 from consideration when discussing the atonement and how Jesus’ death saves, then I have serious questions about why. To me, it has to be relevant; it can’t be ruled out in advance. And no arguments I’ve encountered convince me that it should be ignored in such theological discussions.

Does that mean the vicarious sacrifice/penal substitution models of the atonement are automatically right? Not necessarily, but they certainly find support in Isaiah 53 IF the Suffering Servant is Jesus. Sometimes I wonder if some theologians who opposed those theories of the atonement rule out Isaiah 53 in advance in order to bias the discussion their way.

Now, in all this, as I have said here before, I am not endorsing any particular view of penal substitution. That model of the atonement has been stretched and misused, but I don’t think it’s fair to blame the theory itself for the ways it has been abused by preachers and some theologians (e.g., implying that the cross somehow changed God from wrathful to loving). The term “penal substitution” has been so closely identified with distortions that I would like to find some other term for the proper interpretation of the theory.

So who has presented a proper interpretation of the theory? Well, one recent example is Hans Boersma in Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross (Baker Academic, 2004).

My question (and I welcome reasonable, respectfully stated answers) is why Isaiah 53 should be ruled out of theological discussions of the atonement of Jesus Christ as irrelevant? Are there other reasons, than the ones I gave above, for denying that the Suffering Servant is Jesus (perhaps as well as Israel)?

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  • Is it a naturalistic pre-disposition against prophecy that precludes Jesus as the object of the Suffer Servant verses or a distaste for verses being read as prophesying two independent events at the same time?

    • rogereolson

      Well, I suppose that is possible, but it doesn’t carry much weight with me.

  • It seems to me that Jesus himself must have had Isaiah 53 in mind as he set his mind toward Jerusalem.

  • So, so pleased to read this, Roger. I totally agree, and am delighted to hear you say so!

  • Jeff Martin

    I believe Shalom Paul, an OT scholar would say Isaiah 53’s servant is the righteous minority in Israel that takes one for the team. In Numbers 25:4 the leaders are impaled so that the LORD’s wrath would turn away from Israel. He also talks about verses where the guilt of the parents is transferred to the children as an example of transference. I believe that is also a theme in the Maccabees where the sons are taking on the sins of Israel.

    Overall though I would say that the very question is misguided. It is simply that, regardless, if it is a righteous minority or an individual, The whole thing is typological. Obviously Jesus fits into this category because he is, for all intensive purposes, Israel. He goes to Egypt, walks in the wilderness, is fed by angels, he is prophet, priest, and king. He reflects all those in the Old Testament who were considered righteous in their generation.

    The fact is, the prophecy does not have to be predictive to be talking ultimately about Jesus, because Jesus fulfills all righteousness. The same interpretation applies to Galatians 3 and talk of the “seed”. Isaac is a type of Christ, because he was born from a promise and was the seed through whom the promise came

    Whether or not this Scripture or the Scripture about a virgin being with child are predictive or not is quite beside the point. Jesus was such a game changer that everyone including the disciples did not really know what to make of Jesus until after the resurrection. At that point there was no turning back. Jesus changes everything, not the Bible

    • rogereolson

      Why it matters has to do with models of atonement. It seems to me that IF we view Isaiah 53 as referring to Jesus (by divine intention through the prophet), then that gives great support to atonement as vicarious sacrifice if not penal substitution. If not, then that seriously undermines it. But one of my implied questions was–what do Christians who deny that Isaiah 53 refers to Jesus do about Acts 8?

  • Matt

    What is often not mentioned in individualistic, ignoring-the-larger-story-of-the-bible, pop-evangelicalism is that the NT writers bend over backwards to present Jesus as fulfilling Israel’s mission and going beyond it. Jesus is faithful Israel. At the same time, Jesus stood in Israel’s place. Such thinking helps make sense of passages like Jesus’ baptism, his temptation, but also a prophetic interpretation of Isa 52-53. As you suggest, the answer to the question, “Is the servant Israel or Jesus?” is “yes!”

    • Tim Reisdorf

      Matt, I believe that you are right – that the gospel writers believed it was both. In the same way that Hosea could say “Out of Egypt I called my son” in reference to Israel, Matthew could say that that also referred to Jesus. They had ways of understanding these things that some of us (including myself) find hard to accept. A good read on this is Richard Longenecker’s book “Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period”.

  • Josh T.

    It seems to me that if a big part of Jesus’ messianic mission was to represent Israel, then there should be no conflict for Isaiah 53 to be able to refer to Israel specifically and be interpreted to mean Jesus. There are other New Testament-referenced prophecies (I’m thinking in Matthew) that are even more readily criticized (the young girl/virgin with child issue of Isaiah 7:14 or the prophecy from Jeremiah 31:15), but perhaps work out given the Jesus-as-Israel vocation. This might be similar (if I understand him correctly) to some of what N.T. Wright has said.

  • Ted

    I think there is another valid reason to doubt the connection between Isaiah 53 and Jesus. Though I am unsure where I stand on this, I believe a reasonable case could be made for the more liberal interpretation that the portrait of Jesus as displayed in the gospels was in large part shaped by contemporary Jewish understandings of sacrifice, atonement, and of course, Isaiah 53 itself. I say that being fully aware that this view of the Bible is not accepted by all; however, it is another way to disassociate the passage from the person of Jesus.

    • rogereolson

      My blog post assumed some belief in special divine inspiration of Scripture.

    • Credo

      ‘ however, it is another way to disassociate the passage from the person of Jesus.’
      If you wish to validate the making of images of Jesus you certainly will not invoke Isaiah 53 as providing a good description of the subject. Interestingly, after His resurrection He was not recognizable to those who had known Him for years. Having shed the burden of sin which He carried to the cross, He now skipped along; appearing and disappearing. Before this He was weak, seemed to tire easily, waited at the well, surprised Pilate by His quick death on the cross;and someone challenged with ‘Physician heal thyself.’

  • Aaron

    Dr. Olson,

    Would you please do a post on your view of healthy/orthodox view of penal substitution? I’m not sure that I buy God the father venting his wrath upon his son.


  • Dan Holmes

    I am aware of some who deny it as part of a broader defense of open theism, which of course isn’t purely naturalistic (it also isn’t a view to which I personally hold).

    • rogereolson

      I’m not aware of that and I know all the leading open theists pretty well. They all affirm predictive prophecy while also affirming that SOME prophecies were conditional. This was not one of them.

  • Hans Deventer

    I’m not that knowledgable, but perhaps this helps:
    Dennis Bratcher wrote here: http://www.naznet.com/community/showthread.php/7381-Isaiah-53?p=122549&viewfull=1#post122549

    “[…] part of the difficulty we face is the confusion between trying to understand a particular passage of Scripture and understanding the theological trajectory of that passage both within the larger corpus of Scripture as well being tradent of the tradition within historical and theological development. So as biblical interpreters we must ask two questions of a text. 1) What does the passage mean within its own context? 2) How have the ideas within the passage been incorporated and adapted in light of later contexts (re-contextualization)? I would argue a much different approach than the traditional “what it meant-what it means” dichotomy (another topic). Yet, in some sense these are very different questions that cannot be collapsed into a neatly schematized systematic theological explanation, if we are going to be faithful to the biblical witness.

    I am totally convinced that the theological trajectory of a prophetic text must remain anchored in its original context and not cut loose from that context (against most forms of reader-response interpretation, and some forms of structuralist interpretation; see quote below). As Fee and Stuart put it, a text cannot mean what it never could have meant. The later trajectory may mean more but cannot mean something totally different without denigrating the authority of the original text (also another topic).

    So the question of whether Isaiah 53 is about Jesus needs serious qualification in light of those questions. And I think it is crucial for the integrity of Scripture, as well as theology, that the theological trajectory runs forward from its anchor in the original text to later application and re-contextualizing of the passage rather than vice versa. That means that to ask the identity of the servant in Isaiah 53 is to ask the first contextual question. To ask about the Gospel’s use of references to Isaiah 53 (rare in light of how much emphasis the Church has placed on this passage) is to ask the second question of application and re-contextualization. It is in that light that the larger theological question, not of the identity of the servant, but of the broader theological issue of the meaning of Isaiah 53 takes center stage.

    The primary focus, then, is not on the specific identity of the servant. It is on the new act of God symbolized by the servant. That focus on God’s new action in history allowed the New Testament writers to see the servant of Isaiah 53 in a new light as God acted yet again in Jesus. [The Servant of the Lord, http://www.crivoice.org/isa53.html%5D
    Yet it remains that the most likely answer to the first question is that the servant in Isaiah 53, as it is in the other 27 of 28 occurrences in Isaiah 40-66, is the communal people of God symbolized as the servant of the Lord. The theological trajectory of that passage, however, picks up the larger implication of God’s work of renewal in the face of human failure. That is a sound basis for the recontextualizing of this text to apply to Jesus.

    The text can certainly be extended beyond the scope of the original prophecy, but the theological link with its origin must be maintained in order to sustain its authority. It is impossible to have free-floating literary constructs which are totally without historical rootage because authority ultimately rests on divine communication through these prophetic messengers. . . .

    A prophetic text is specific and concrete, yet its imagery continues to reverberate within the tradition. It continues to exert a coercion on future generations of recipients and gives evidence of its force in the way in which a text is repeatedly actualized to remain highly existential even in changing historical contexts. This echoing effect arises from a widespread conviction that the authority of a single text extends to the larger story and partakes of the selfsame reality. By means of intertextuality a text can be extended into the future by means of Fortschreibung [extrapolation] or it can be retrojected into the past by expanding and enriching the earlier imagery from the content of later events. [Brevard Childs, “Retrospective Reading of the Old Testament Prophets” (1996: 375, 6) ZAW 108, 362-77]

    Grace and Peace,
    Dennis B

    • rogereolson

      My question would no doubt sound fundamentalistic to you and your sources, but I wonder what GOD had in mind when he spoke through the prophet Isaiah about the Suffering Servant. The church fathers (and apparently the apostle Philip) believed God ALSO meant Jesus. My question is whether they were right or wrong. As helpful and erudite as your comment is, it leave me wondering about the answer to my question.

      • Dan Holmes

        I should add that Bratcher is primarily who I had in mind when I made my above comment about open theism. He is by no means an academic but seems at least marginally influential at the popular level.

      • Joseph O.

        Perhaps GOD meant Jesus when inspiring Isaiah 53 because eventually GOD would think of Jesus when thinking of Israel. I did meet a fellow Jew who felt it was anti-Semitic to reason that way, but I just didn’t grasp the danger of this way of reasoning. The issue seems to be whether Jesus and Israel are sometimes theologically interchangeable. Once that conclusion is reached, the identity of the servant of Is 53 seems to takes care of itself, doesn’t it? Something like, “Okay, yes, the servant is Israel…but then isn’t Jesus considered (new?) Israel? (especially in light of NT passages referencing OT passages about Israel but applying them to Christ).

      • Hans Deventer


        My take would be that I don’t think Isaiah had Jesus in mind. Nor had Hosea Jesus in mind when he wrote “out of Egypt I called my son”. Yet, the church recognized Jesus in those words in Isaiah and in Hosea. I don’t have a problem with that.
        What God meant when Isaiah spoke those words? I have no problems believing He had more in mind than Isaiah was aware of.
        So what I appreciate in Dennis Bratcher is the approach to try to first read the text (as far as possible) with the meaning it carried when written. However, considering God’s inspiration in both writing and in our reading, a text need not to be limited to the intent of the original author.


        • rogereolson

          What I’ve been saying (or perhaps assuming) all along. I never said that I thought Isaiah had Jesus in mind. That would be absurd.

    • Percival

      Dennis, you said:
      The text can certainly be extended beyond the scope of the original prophecy, but the theological link with its origin must be maintained in order to sustain its authority. It is impossible to have free-floating literary constructs which are totally without historical rootage because authority ultimately rests on divine communication through these prophetic messengers. . . .

      But this seems to be exactly what happens with much of the OT when it is quoted by NT writers. The passages are totally removed from the original context and given a completely new meaning, Peter Enns talks about this a lot in his book, `Inspiration and Incarnation’. It seems that many of these passages were not about Jesus, but that Jesus was all about these passages. What did God have in mind as he inspired the OT writers to include these things? Perhaps that he was letting them sense shadows and hints of a deeper truth to come. Prophecy is not always about foreknowledge and fulfillment of prophecy is not always a perfect match.

    • J.E. Edwards

      This passage in Isaiah is quoted in the N.T. at various times (7 or 8 times) and in relation to Jesus. How does this weigh in on understanding if Jesus is the suffering servant?

  • The New Testament authors views Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel’s vocation. Thus, nearly all motifs and prophecies concerning Israel in the OT are linked to Jesus in the NT. Thus, Jesus gives a new Torah (Moses), raises the son of a widow (Elijah), spends 40 days in the wilderness (Exodus), escapes a slaughter of children (Moses), appoints 12 disciples (Jacob and 12 tribes), claims to be the temple, etc. Given this, it should not surprise that the NT writers would view Jesus as the fulfillment of the “suffering servant” passages. Yes, they are about Israel, but since Jesus is the ultimate embodiment of Israel, they are ultimately about Jesus.

  • Jeff Martin

    Dr. Olson,

    When you ask about what God had in mind speaking through Isaiah I would say it could be either the righteous minority or an individual. Ultimately God knew that Jesus would fulfill all righteousness, but in the specific context of Isaiah it could have very well been the righteous minority.

    What I am trying to say is that it does not matter and that Philip can still be correct when telling the eunuch that the prophecy is about Jesus because Jesus fulfills all these servant roles regardless if was about him or not. In the overall scheme of things it was about Him. It has been since the creation of the world.

    Galatians 3 in the interpretation of the seed is even more telling since in one way Paul was not completely accurate to state that the verse meant to be singular instead of plural, since it means both in Hebrew! He was making an eschatological point

  • Matt

    I heard a great sermon about 10 years ago during holy week in which the preacher put it like this: “I understand why Jews claim why/how Isaiah 52-53 can’t possibly refer to Jesus. But standing at the cross, I would ask anyone who denies that these verses are ultimately fulfilled in Jesus to reconsider.” Simple, but profound.

  • Jae Lewis

    Mr. Olson-
    Concerning the scholars who deny that Isaiah 53 is referring to Christ in order to undergird their own atonement theory; what do they posit as an alternative to penal substitution? #very curious

    • rogereolson

      Most recently what is known as non-violent atonement or “narrative Christus Victor” (J. Denny Weaver). But also some who advocate traditional Christus Victor (as in Gustav Aulen).

  • J.E. Edwards

    It seems that those who would disagree with penal substitution somehow think that the Father carried this out as a vendetta against the person of His Son. I’m just thinking out loud here. Wasn’t the Father’s wrath poured onto Jesus because of the sins of the world? Not because of anything that Jesus himself had done. That’s what made Him a worthy substitution. I know this is obvious, but I just wanted to state it. Also, the picture of Abraham and Isaac weigh heavily into this. Jesus trusting His Father that He would raise him from the dead like it’s stated in Hebrews. I see no abuse in regard to what the Father did, Jesus knew what needed to be done. That God is wrathful toward sin is evident in Scripture, isn’t it? Maybe I need some help to understand opposing view points here.

    • rogereolson

      I think you’re on the right track, but questions remain. Opponents of penal substitution will still wonder whether the picture you paint makes Jesus an innocent victim of God’s wrath. My whole point with regard to penal substitution is that, at its best, it does not portray Jesus or the Father that way. That way of regarding it ignores the Trinity and the fact that Jesus was not “just a man,” but the Son of God, one substance, being, with the Father and that, as the Son of God, Jesus volunteered be the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. “He could have called ten thousand angels….”

      • J.E. Edwards

        I agree with you. This was a really good post. (Not because I agree with you:) How do you think I Cor. 5:21 fits here? “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” How would they understand Jesus BECOMING and embodying our sin and our curse? I know this is risky to some, but I would highly recommend R.C. Sproul’s message that he gave at Together 4 the Gospel in 2008. It’s titled “The Curse Motif of the Atonement”. I think it’s a very good exposition. He comes out of Galatians 3. He really goes back into the O.T. to paint a nice picture.

        • rogereolson

          It pains me to post a comment that recommends anything by Sproul, but, since you’re such a faithful (if often critical) visitor and participant here…here it is. Why does it pain me? My experiences of reading Sproul on the subject of Arminianism have been painful. And he’s the one who declared Pinnock NOT a Christian and said publicly he would not have Christian fellowship with him. Talk about separatistic fundamentalism.

          • J.E. Edwards

            Oh, I understand your reservations based on some of your writings about your interaction with him. It doesn’t wander into Arminianism or Calvinism. It is one of the best treatments of the issue (in a single message) that I’ve listened to. I think coming here has really helped me think through things better and clearer. Thanks for your patience.

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    May I suggest that the Suffering Servant is BOTH Israel and Jesus, and that Jesus is Israel. The Scriptures clearly teach that the Messiah would ultimately originate “from among” the children of Israel: Deuteronomy 18:15 (NASB95)– “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him.” The Hebrew Scriptures (God’s covenant to Israel) is ultimately conditioned on a promised Redeemer (“from among the people”) who, upon his arrival, would represent ALL of their spiritual needs. Thus when the risen Christ later appeared to the two men on the Emmaus Road, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27 (NIV).

    But here’s the part most evangelical Christians have failed to grasp: Not only was Christ the representative Redeemer of ALL Israel, he is also the representative Redeemer of ALL Humanity. Thus it is written: “For as in Adam ALL Die, so in Christ ALL will be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22). This, then, helps us to fully appreciate what the prophet saw when he penned those all-inclusive words: Isaiah 53:6 (NIV)–“We ALL, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us ALL.”

  • John

    “The Servant of the Lord can be represented by a triangle or cone. The bottom represents the entire nation, thus the servant of Isa 41-48. The middle portion represents the more faithful servant, whether interpreted as the righteous remnant or the prophet himself (or even someone else). The apex represents the servant who perfectly serves the Lord, having ‘borne our griefs and carried our sorrows’ (53:4). He is the one who made himself an offering for sin (v. 10) and made many to be accounted righteous (v. 11). He is the true Israel, who fulfills to the utmost the will of Yahweh and the purpose which Yahweh had in mind when he first chose Israel. ‘Accordingly, the fuller meaning of the servant passages has to do with the perfect Servant, and the Christian rightly identifies this Servant with the one who came in the form of a servant and who was obedient even unto death (cf. Phil. 2:7-8)'” (La Sor, Hubbard, and Bush, “Old Testament Survey,” 394). La Sor, instead of isolating various “servant songs,” sees all of Isa 41-53 as being about the Servant of the Lord (392). Without explaining why, these writers state that pure exegesis of Isa 53 and Acts 8:35 does not require the conclusion that the Servant is Jesus (393). But, as seen in the quotation above, they do come to that conclusion.

  • John C. Gardner

    Tom Wright holds that Is 53 was fundamental for early Christians and Jesus himself. I think this is both intellectually foundation and a reasonable supposition. Assuming a high degree of inspiration of Scriptures and a fuller Christian meaning(e.g. Sensus Plenior) it seems that God could and did include larger, deeper meanings to some prophetic passages which became known in the fullness of time.

    • rogereolson

      I’m always pleased to have Tom Wright on my side! 🙂

  • Jason Powell

    I’m preaching through Daniel right now, and I think there is a parallel argument to be made for “the son of man” in the later half of that book. NT Wright (and of course many others) speak of Jesus as “summing up” Israel…even in my old S baptist roots we spoke of Jesus as the “perfect” Jew…or more commonly the “perfect man”. So I think many OT texts that speak of Israel completing or becoming something that is eschatologically beautiful is very “Christian” in it’s thinking…whether those scholars know it or not. Israel must be the son of God, the suffering servant, the son of man, etc….because their and our representative (ie their/our substitute) is none other than Jesus. Great post Roger!!

  • Christian

    I haven’t personally studied the atonement debate too much, but, as of right now, I hold to the Christus Victor view of the atonement. From what I understand (which is very little), Christ’s atonement was “penal” in the sense that God gave his son over to the evil powers of the world (Satan, evil people, etc.). Greg Boyd believes in something like this I believe (I’m a big Greg Boyd fan, including his Open Theism). God’s wrath was satisfied in the sense that His giving up of Jesus showed his wrath against sin, Satan, etc., not necessarily people. And God did not need to vent his wrath in order to forgive people, but he needed to vent his “wrath” in order to free us from Satan, sin, guilt, etc. I just took my intro to New Testament class at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (why is an open theist attending an SBC seminary? Well, I don’t know). But in the words of John Drane (wrote my NT textbook): ” [in talking about Penal Sub./Satisfaction theories] Critics of this view highlight its inconsistency with some fundamental New Testament convictions about God as revealed through Jesus. Far from exemplifying perfect principles of justice, for example, it seems to imply that God is actually less than a human judge, for how many of us would consider justice to be satisfied if an innocent person were punished in place of a guilty one? . . . His suffering for the wrongdoing of others was not something imposed by a stern judge to fulfill the demands of some abstract notion of justice; it was rather suffering in the way that a person might suffer for the wrongdoing of a member of their own family.”

    • rogereolson

      I think Drane’s description of the penal substitution theory is distorted. Not all substitution theories view it that way. There is what Peter Schmiechen calls the “trinitarian defense” (which he doesn’t buy but I do).

  • Christian

    A quick addition to my above post: So, if God didn’t need to have someone slain in order to forgive, why did Jesus have to die? (and if you think about it, is it really true forgiveness if someones has to pay you back. Isn’t forgiveness, well, forgiveness when we forgive someone even if they haven’t paid us back). The reason is this: Satan is often portrayed as the cosmic accuser (Rev. 12:10; Zech. 3:1), and as the cosmic accuser, he demands that a penalty is paid in order for someone to be forgiven (Boyd compares him to inspector Javert). In fact, Satan has a rightful claim over sinners because of their sin. In essence, he is our master. God knows this, so instead of letting us suffer our deserved enslavement to Sin, Satan, etc., God rescues us from him by sending us his spotless Son to die on the cross.

    To summarize it up, God sends his son to save us from Satan and Satan’s wrath, while at the same time God expresses his wrath against Satan, sin, etc. Since Jesus died in our place as a spotless sacrifice, Satan no longer has any claim over us. We are free. In fact, if you look at the the Gospel of John, he, in my opinion, stresses Jesus death as a rescue mission. He compares Jesus to the sacrificial lamb of the Exodus, which was used to rescue Israel from captivity (similar to Jesus rescuing us from captivity to Satan, sin, and guilt). I’m sure I’m missing some crucial points, but this is the gist of Christus Victor, at least my own version.

    • rogereolson

      Advocates of penal substitution (such as Hans Boersma) do not reject Christus Victor. Penal substitution isn’t exclusive; one can believe in it AND believe in many other theories of the atonement. Problems arise when they, the other atonement theories, are held exclusive of penal substitution. There’s no necessary conflict between Christus Victor and penal substitution. And I don’t see how Christus Victor, alone, can incorporate “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”

  • Christian

    And I heard something about NT Wright above. At least according to this video, NT Wright believes in the Christus Victor theory, at least some version of it.


    • rogereolson

      Again, one can certainly believe in Christus Victor without rejecting penal substitution. I don’t know whether Wright does or does not also believe in penal substitution.

  • Bob Brown

    The way of salvation is only understood in the context of God’s character. He clearly revealed in Ex. 34 that He was compassionate, gracious, long-suffering and abouding in lovingkindness, faithfulness and mercy willing to forgive all manner of sin and transgression, BUT would not allow the guilty to go unpunished meaning there is a justice in God’s heart and character. In order for God to be in harmony and consistent with Who He is, He designed the way of the cross. All of heart and character meet there…including His justice. The wages of sin is death and God would be unjust and inconsistent to change. God does not change.

    The beauty of the cross is that God can save whoever He chooses because Christ died for the sins of the whole world for all time. That is why God was pleased to punish sin in Himself at the cross.

    This statement needs to be restated found in Roger’s post linked above:

    I identify with Lesslie Newbigin’s oft-quoted statement in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (182-183):

    “It has become customary to classify views on the relation of Christianity to the world religions as either pluralist, exclusivist, or inclusivist … [My] position is exclusivist in the sense that it affirms the unique truth of the revelation in Jesus Christ, but it is not exclusivist in the sense of denying the possibility of the salvation of the non-Christian. It is inclusivist in the sense that it refuses to limit the saving grace of God to the members of the Christian church, but it rejects the inclusivism which regards the non-Christian religions as vehicles of salvation. It is pluralist in the sense of acknowledging the gracious work of God in the lives of all human beings, but it rejects a pluralism which denies the uniqueness and decisiveness of what God has done in Jesus Christ.”

  • Christian

    Yeah I definitely agree with you. I don’t think one atonement metaphor can explain everything, but I do think Christus Victor is the atonement metaphor that seems to be be a “controlling” metaphor for all others, at leasy in my opinion. But in the end, I don’t really know for sure. I am perfectly fine with accepting Penal Sub., Governmental, Christus Victor, etc. All are Evangelical options to me, despite what some Evangelicals may say.

    • rogereolson

      I agree. But, some of them are definitely alternatives (to each other). One cannot accept both the penal substitution theory and the governmental theory. They’re close, but at a crucial point they diverge. Did Jesus suffer the punishment for everyone’s sins (either everyone as in all people or everyone as in all the elect)? Or did he suffer an equivalent punishment to the one we deserve (but not ours)?

  • Emily G

    I think you need a richer articulation of what it means to fulfil scripture and that ‘is’ needs more unpacking – along the lines of multivalent meanings (first and later historical-theological contexts), as others have suggested. Perhaps it’s more that “Jesus is about the Suffering Servant/Isaiah 53” than the Suffering Servant/Isaiah 53 is about Jesus?

    • rogereolson

      Why? Why not just say (with the vast majority of Christians from Philip to the Ethiopian eunuch almost to today) “the Suffering Servant of Isaiah is Jesus”? It doesn’t exclude the Suffering Servant also being the faithful remnant of Israel.

  • Emily G

    I don’t think the confession that “the Suffering Servant of Isaiah is Jesus” has, for most of church history, been an intentionally exclusive claim, and I would want to affirm it without ruling out other historic meanings. But today, if you said “the Suffering Servant of Isaiah is Jesus” to the ‘average’ member of my local congregation, they would probably assume that you WERE excluding that the Servant is Isaiah/Israel/faithful Israel even if you did not necessarily intend that – hence the need for some better/more qualified expression. By saying “Jesus is about the Suffering Servant” I mean to pick up ob everything

  • Emily G

    …that is already invested in that imagery and say that’s true of Jesus. But perhaps there’s a better way of doing that. As for models of atonement (Christus Victor, penal substitution, and others), why must we choose one? Are they really mutually exclusive, or just different analagous ways of trying to express the unique person and work of Christ? (like the four Evangelist’s, each with their special emphases)

    • rogereolson

      The problem is that some advocates of penal substitution do pretend it is the only orthodox doctrine of the atonement and some critics accuse all versions of it of promoting violence and abuse.

  • Charles

    why dwell in unbelief with the phrase IF Jesus is the sufferring servant. Tge Bible easily interprets itself in the matter…..this answers the question of the infidel…”how do we know that the God of the Bible is the true One?” easy…..many infallible proofs, Isaiah 53 is one. God will be quite just condemning those to Hell who don’t believe and repent.

  • lightbeamrider

    I have been reading Bart Ehrman’s book, ”Did Jesus Exist.” He addresses Isaiah 53 and cites Isaiah 49:3 as context. ”You are My servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified” The servant is Israel. What Ehrman does not address is Isaiah 49:5-6
    And now the Lord says-
    He who formed me in his womb to be His Servant
    to bring Jacob back to Him
    and gather Israel to Himself,
    for I am honered in the eyes of the Lord
    and My God has been My strength-
    He says
    It is to small a thing for you to be My servant
    to restore the tribes of Jacob
    and bring back those of Israel I have kept
    I will also make you a light to the Gentiles
    that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.

    Here the serrvant is distinct from Israel. The servant is not always and only Israel. Ehrman is refuted.

    • rogereolson

      Indeed. Bart is another person I imagine spending some time in educational purgatory before entering heaven (alongside Calvin and many other more orthodox Christians of church history).

  • shoke

    if we look at the historical context simply, we see that the suffering servant is Israel on the first level and in the history of interpretation, it is Jesus (at least for Christians). Israel is undoubtedly the servant of Yahweh, the son whom he has begotten. but historically at that time, the servant of Yahweh was in exile suffering- suffering servant. israel was suffering for many reasons but it is basically a punishment from Yahweh, who crushed the proud and the unjust.

    • Roger Olson

      I don’t expect a non-Christian to recognize Isaiah’s suffering servant as Jesus Christ, but I do expect a Christian to recognize him there–because the New Testament clearly makes that connection. That’s not to say Israel was not also meant by Isaiah.