Doctrine Ch.22 - Jesus’ Punishment for Sin

Talking about God punishing Jesus might give the impression that God is a cruel father. The Bible says that Jesus bore our punishment, but surprisingly it never actually says that God directly punished him.

One of my biggest professional gaffes was when I was on a review board for Steve Chalke’s The Lost Message of Jesus before publication, and I didn’t spot how people might misconstrue one passage. It included one particularly nasty term coined by Japanese American theologian Rita Nakashima Brock, who compared the crucifixion to “cosmic child abuse.”1 Steve said that he disagreed with this, saying that the crucifixion was not like that. But many readers believed he had invented the phrase (because he didn’t cite the source), so they thought Steve gave tacit support to this concept despite his expressed disagreement. Consequently, his book caused a huge controversy among UK evangelicals on a similar seismic scale to Rob Bell’s book Love Wins in the US.

       For the record I’d like to say that the crucifixion isn’t at all, in any way, remotely, no way, never, ever to be regarded like that! Sometimes, though, when I preach about the cross, a listener might think that’s what I’m saying—and I suspect this is why I react so strongly against this ghastly phrase. I have often preached things such as: “My sins were wiped away when God poured the agonies of my punishment onto Jesus.” This implies that God himself was punishing Jesus with one of the cruelest forms of torture ever invented. But when I think about it, I realize that I’m in danger of portraying God as though he were uglier than some of the amoral Greek and Roman gods. I’m presenting the Holy God as a perpetrator of parental cruelty, which is rightly regarded as revolting and illegal in every civilized society.

       I would defend myself by saying we have to be true to what the Bible says. It tells us that God is rightly angry at sin and if we don’t repent, we will face his wrath (John 3:36; Rom 2:5, 8; 3:5; Eph 5:6; Col 3:6; Rev 6:16-17). It also says that Jesus saves us from that wrath (Rom 5:9; 1 Thess 1:10; 5:9) and that our salvation from that wrath came by means of Jesus’ suffering (Rom 4:25; 1 Pet 2:21-24; Isa 53:4-5) as well as by his death. It is therefore easy to understand how many of us have jumped to the obvious conclusion that God poured his wrath on Jesus by punishing him in our place—in fact it is a very common teaching. However, none of the authors of the Bible actually described salvation in this way.

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How the Bible says it

I was very surprised when I did a careful search for supporting Bible texts, and I asked a group of other Bible enthusiasts to look too. I wanted to find a place in the Bible that says or predicts that God punished Jesus for our sins. Of course, there are places that speak about Jesus being “despised,” “stricken” (i.e., being struck with something), “crushed,” “pierced,” “condemned,” “cursed,” and “insulted” (Isa 53:3-5; Gal 3:13; 1 Pet 2:23)—but we are never told that this was done by God! It took me a long time to accept that there was no text in support of this idea. Some others in the group also refused to believe that there wasn’t a text, even though none had been found.

       This doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t true that God punished Jesus for our sins, but it does mean that we should take care how forcefully we state the conclusion. We can still preach that “God punished Jesus for our sins,” but we should be aware that we have extrapolated this from the Bible, and it is something that the Bible itself never says. On the other hand, if the Bible can describe God’s salvation in so many places without ever saying that God punished his son, then perhaps we also should avoid stating it this way.

       The reason we like to speak about God punishing Jesus is that this view of the cross helps to explain why Jesus had to suffer so terribly, and it helps us understand how a righteous God deals with sin. However, like all images or metaphors, not every detail fits perfectly with the full meaning of the crucifixion. As soon as we assume that God himself punished or poured suffering onto Jesus, we fall into problems. John Stott made this clear when he warned against using a “crude construction” in which we portray the cross as “a sacrifice to appease an angry God, or ... a legal transaction in which an innocent victim was made to pay the penalty for the crimes of others.”2 According to Stott, this is “a caricature” of the true doctrine of penal substitution.

       The term “penal substitution”—the idea that Jesus endured the penalty for our sins on our behalf—is not problematic. This phrase sums up perfectly what we know from the Bible: that Jesus suffered in order to save us, and because he suffered, we won’t face God’s wrath. That is, because of Jesus’ substitutionary sacrifice, we won’t suffer the penalty of God’s wrath—hence “penal substitution.” The problem lies in the way that we present this. As Stott warned, we should avoid saying something that the Bible doesn’t say; and it doesn’t say that God punished Jesus instead of us.

       The main Bible passage concerning penal substitution is Isaiah 53, where a servant of God on whom he has “laid … the iniquity of us all” is described as suffering on behalf of sinners. This is applied to Jesus in various places (especially John 12:38; Acts 8:32-33; Rom 4:25; 1 Pet 2:21-25). These passages emphasize the rejection and suffering of Jesus, but none of them state that God himself was the source of his suffering. One verse comes extremely close to saying this but steps back from doing so. Isaiah 53:10 says that the suffering heaped on this servant was “the LORD’s will.” This implies that God permitted it, though putting it like this deliberately avoids saying that God himself did it. The Hebrew may imply God’s involvement a little more strongly, because it could be translated either “the LORD wished to crush him” or “the LORD wished him to be crushed.” The technical reason for this ambiguity lies in the grammatical form: a piel infinitive. The only other occurrence of this form of this verb is in the phrase “to crush underfoot all prisoners.” In that instance it says God does not will it (Lam 3:34), and it is clearly not done by God in that case. This doesn’t mean we can be certain which way to translate Isaiah 53:10, but it shows that it may well mean “the LORD wished him to be crushed”—that is, by someone else. The significance of this is not that we aren’t sure, but that the text carefully avoids stating that God was directly punishing him.

       We might, of course, conclude that God, who is in charge of all things, was acting through the Jews and Romans who executed Jesus, because we know from Isaiah 53:10 that it was God’s will. However, this introduces new difficulties. If we conclude that all the evil that humans do (such as killing Christ) is by the direct control of God, it is tantamount to saying that God is also directing and controlling us when we sin. This means that if God was directly punishing Jesus through his executioners, then he is also directly causing the sins for which Jesus was punished! The Bible avoids saying anything that implies this, so perhaps we should too.

       Instead, the Bible simply informs us that Jesus suffered the consequence of sin and “the curse of the law” (Gal 3:13-14), and that his suffering saves us from God’s wrath (Rom 5:9; 1 Thess 1:10; 5:9). We never read that God himself turned his wrath or punishment or curse on Jesus. Of course, we can choose to infer something that is not stated in the text. We can theorize that God punished Jesus just as he would have punished us, which is why we no longer face that punishment—but we have to realize what we are doing: we are filling in a detail that the Bible is silent about.

Other models of the cross

This “punishment” imagery isn’t the only way that the Bible attempts to explain the crucifixion to us. We are also told that Jesus “redeemed” us (i.e., ransomed us back from slavery or kidnapping, e.g., Mark 10:45); he “reconciled” us (i.e., repaired our broken relationship with God, e.g., Rom 5:10); he “abolished the law” (Eph 2:14-15); and he defeated demonic forces at the cross (e.g., Col 2:14-15). These are all valid and useful images and explanations of what happened at the crucifixion, but none of them are adequate by themselves—we need them all in order to understand the cross.

       The cross-as-punishment image may be useful to present the gospel as a solution to sin in cases where we want to avoid mentioning a personal devil. The “redemption” or “ransom” images imply that we were captured by an enemy; “reconciliation” implies we were previously allied with an enemy; and “abolishing the law” was accomplished by “triumphing over” the enemy. All of these imply the existence of the devil, which could make the gospel less believable for those non-Christians who don’t think Satan exists. This means that the gospel can be presented in a way that is easier to understand for them. On the other hand, the current generation is thoroughly engaged with stories of conflict against strange forces, and this may be the right time to describe the cross in a way that the Bible often does—as a battle against evil.

       We know that all of these images are incomplete; none of them are a full explanation of what happened at the cross. We can see that they are incomplete when we try to investigate details that aren’t actually explored in Scripture—because they start to become inconsistent. For example, if the enemy was defeated, then why pay any ransom money? If the law was abolished, then why was any punishment required? These questions are, of course, nonsensical. They are like asking: Is an electron a particle or a wave? The answer is that both images of an electron are correct, but neither is adequate. The realities of both the cross and atomic physics are more complex than the images we use to describe them. Each of these scriptural images of the cross gives us only partial insights into a reality our minds can’t comprehend fully.

       Isaiah 53 is a precious insight into the crucifixion. It tells us that Jesus’ suffering was real human agony. It helps us understand the dereliction and sense of abandonment behind his cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Through it, we can see his love for us. It is also theologically important because it shows that his suffering was on our behalf and that it dealt with our sin. However, when we infer from this that Jesus was being punished directly by God, we should be aware that we are concluding something that Scripture itself doesn’t state and appears to be careful to avoid.

       So how do we understand the cross? I believe that J. I. Packer gave us the solution: “The mystery of God is more than any one model, even the best, can express.”3 The Bible gives us many ways to comprehend the crucifixion, and we need them all—including that Jesus suffered the penalty for our sins. Each of them helps us to fathom a little more about God’s love and mercy, which he enacted on our behalf though the suffering of his Son.

1^ The phrase comes from Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power (New York: Crossroad, 1988)., 56.
2^ John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 172. Stott is quoting this “caricature” from William Neil (
3^ J. I. Packer, “What Did the Cross Achieve?” (

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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