Tuesday, June 22, 2010
“There is at least a difference to note between God directly punishing Jesus in order to satisfy the demands of justice and Jesus being implicated in the direct punishment of Israel (in order to satisfy the demands of the Law).”
This is indeed much more Jewish and historical than the classical Calvinist presentation of penal substitution, but it is something I would also want to ultimately reject as well, in particular that last part about “punishment... in order to satisfy the demands of the Law.” The reason not because I reject the biblical narrative, but because I think this only tells half the story.
Much of the book of Isaiah indeed conveys exactly this above narrative: Israel has sinned and now, Isaiah tells them over and over, they are suffering calamity, oppression, and death for their sin. This is not just in Isaiah, it is all over the OT. Andrew writes further that, “in the biblical setting we should recall that sickness is a consequence of Israel’s failure to keep the covenant (cf. Deut. 28:20-22).” Again this is quite true. In the Old Testament mindset, sickness is conceived of as both impurity, and punishment from God.
While this represents the broad picture of sickness in the Hebrew Scriptures, it is important to note that the Old Testament does not present a single static view, but a dynamic one containing internal critiques and developing understandings of who God is. In the book of Job for instance we find a divine critique of the view of Job’s friends, who assumed that Job’s afflictions must have come as the result of his sin. In contrast to their judgment, Job is declared by God to be “a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil” (Job 1 :8). The rest of the book that follows proceeds to give us one long and colorful protest against judging the sick and suffering. Similarly, in Isaiah we again find a critique of the connection of sickness with sin in the story of the suffering servant who, Isaiah tells us, was falsely considered “struck down by God, and afflicted” (Isa 53:4). Yet it is through the righteous suffering of the servant that healing is to come to Israel: “by his bruises we are healed” (Isa 53:5). One might even say that the suffering servant song serves as an internal critique of the view in Isaiah itself that suffering comes as the result of sin.
This inner-biblical critique of the view that sickness and suffering are punishment for sin finds its strongest statement in the gospels. At times Jesus seems to associate sickness with sin (for example in the healing of the paralytic Lk 5:20ff), and other times he explicitly denies it (as with the blind man in in Jn 9:2-3), his focus throughout however is never on ascribing blame, but that “the works of God might be displayed” through a reversal of the curse of sickness and affliction. Andrew is again spot on when he writes, “when Jesus heals the sick, it is to be understood as a sign that the curse is being lifted, that forgiveness is being offered to Israel.” The paradigmatic statement of Jesus here is “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Lk 5:31–32). Here a connection is indeed drawn between “sinners” and “those who are sick,” but the order is reversed: instead of saying that the sick are guilty, he is saying that sin is an illness in need of healing, rather than judgment. This reflects a significant shift: even if sickness is the result of sin, God’s action in Jesus is now to reverse that judgment via healing.
Now here's the part that I think Andrew leaves out: The primary way in which sickness is expressed in the gospels is not in terms of God’s curse, but of demonic affliction. By the time of the gospels, a major shift had occurred in Judaism, and the idea that affliction and sickness stemmed from Satan had become widespread. So while there was still the sense in Second Temple Judaism that Satan served as an “agent of God’s wrath,” and thus that sickness was ultimately the result of God’s judgment, there was now also the notion that sickness came from “the enemy.” This later focus is what we observe in Jesus, who saw the Satanic reign as something to be opposed and overcome. Jesus frames his healing ministry in terms of the kingdom of God advancing against Satan’s kingdom (cf. Lk 11:17–20). This approach to sickness carries over into the approach Jesus took to sin: people are in need of being liberated from both sickness and sin. Jesus "came for sinners" because "it is the sick who need a doctor." Here we have a more sophisticated understanding of sin and sickness: it is not just something to be quarantined, it is something to be healed. The full narrative is not "do good and be blessed, do bad and be cursed" but a way to make the rotten pure and new again.
That is why I would ultimately disagree with a view of the atonement that views Jesus as bearing the “punishment of Israel in order to satisfy the demands of the Law.” In one sense this may be true. I would agree that (as Martin Hengel puts it) Jesus bears the full weight of human wretchedness. But I have a big problem with the idea that this “satisfies” the “demand” of God’s law. The picture I see in the NT and the early church is that the punishment itself is seen as evil, and identified with the will of the devil and not with God’s will. It is something that needs to be opposed and overcome, not fulfilled or satisfied.
God did not kill Jesus, nor did justice or the law. Injustice did. Evil did. We did. As Peter says on Pentecost, “wicked men put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead.” (Acts 2:23) That’s Isaiah 53 in one sentence.