How does Christus Victor atonement square with Isaiah 53:10, which seems to teach that it was God who punished Jesus?
This is a really great question, so I want to be careful about how I answer it. Let’s look at the first part of the verse, which is really what this question is concerned with. Many Christians take the phrase in verse 10a, “But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief,” as referring to God crushing (punishing) Jesus on the cross.
Now, Isaiah 53 is one of four poems1 concerning the Suffering Servant. While this poem has often been cited as containing messianic prophecies (prophecies about the Messiah, Jesus), it would probably be helpful to take some time to properly understand Hebrew prophecy before we go using a passage like this as a proof text.
For starters, what we tend to think of as prophecy today is not what ancient Israelites thought of as prophecy. Our concept of prophecy essentially boils down to fortunetelling and forecasting. We’ve adopted the Hollywood idea of prophecy as somebody predicting something that will happen in the future. However, when it comes to the Bible, prophecy is a much richer concept than that. For starters, very little of prophesy found in the Bible is concerned with the future. What’s more, “less than 2 percent of Old Testament prophecy is messianic.”2 You see, prophecy is primarily about dealing with issues here and now. Sure there is a future-element to some of it, but only insofar as it has relevance to the prophet’s contemporaries. Because of this, Old Testament prophets were a lot less like Miss Cleo or Edgar Cayce and a lot more like Martin Luther King, Jr. with his “I have a dream” speech.
On top of this, we should be aware that many3 of the messianic prophecies found in the Old Testament are examples of typology. Typological prophecies are not one-to-one predictions; rather, they are times when we see a later “fulfillment” (like Jesus) falling into the same “type” as an earlier event (like Isaiah’s suffering servant).4 So, for example, the Gospel writer Matthew says that Joseph and Mary fleeing to Egypt with baby Jesus and then returning to Israel was in fulfillment of Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I called My son” (Mt 2:14-15). But if you go back and read Hosea 11:1 in its original context, it has nothing to do with the coming Messiah; rather, Hosea is talking about Israel’s exodus from Egypt. So the proper understanding is that Jesus’ coming back from Egypt to the land of Israel fits well within the same “type” as the Israelite Exodus. Matthew (and other New Testament writers) is not saying, “that predicted this,” but simply “this fulfills that.”
With regard to Isaiah 53, while the New Testament certainly sees Jesus as fulfilling this passage (Acts 8:32-35; cf. Mt 8:17; 1 Peter 2:24),5 the majority of Old Testament Christian scholars (and pretty much all modern Hebrew scholars) agree that in its original context the Suffering Servant refers not to Jesus, but to Israel.6 Certainly, Jesus is the quintessential suffering servant and, therefore, rightly fulfills this prophetic writing. However, bearing all of this in mind, we can now appreciate how Isaiah 53:10 is not a direct prediction of Jesus’ atoning death, but simply a strong example of the sort of thing that the crucifixion would later embody. On this alone, we should be careful not to use this passage as a way of proving a Penal Substitutionary doctrine. It just stretches the nature of prophecy a bit far to insist that if Jesus fulfills an Old Testament passage then every detail of that passage must directly apply to Jesus.
As an extra note, the verb “crushed” here in Isaiah 53:10 is the Hebrew dākāʾ and is only ever used in the context of poetry, which as we all know is the realm of metaphor and hyperbole. So, while not definitive, we should be careful not to strip it of its poetic nuance for the sake of enforcing a theological system.
Last of all, Old Testament writers clearly had no problem seeing God as permitting (or even performing) acts of violence.7 While I hope to one day get around to fleshing out how I reconcile the often violent God of the Old Testament with the altogether loving God of the New Testament, for now I will simply say that Jesus presents us with the clearest understanding of who God is and what He is like (Jn 1:18; Heb 1:3). And if Jesus was all about non-violence, then God must be too!
1: Isa 42; 49; 50; and 53
2: Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 182.
4: As Thomas R. Schreiner has said, “Some are hesitant to embrace typology, but such an approach is fundamental to biblical theology, for it is a category employed by the biblical writers themselves … Typology acknowledges a divine pattern and purpose in history” (Schreiner, “Preaching and Biblical Theology,” 9Marks Journal, 23-24).
5: I think it worth noting, however, that in Acts 8 when the Ethiopian eunuch asks Philip, “of whom does the prophet say this?” Philip does not simply reply, “Jesus.” Rather, he merely begins with the passage in order to preach Jesus (v 35).
6: To be fair, throughout history a wide cast of names have been suggested as the identity of Isaiah’s suffering servant, ranging from the Messiah to Moses to Isaiah himself.
7: For example, Gen 6-7; Exod 21:15, 17; Lev 20:9; Num 31:17-18; Deut 7:1-2, 23-24; 20:16-20; 1 Sam 15:2-3; Hos 13:16.