Saturday, May 18, 2019


Someone in one of the online groups I am a part of asked a couple of questions about Christianity that I think lots of people struggle with:

1. Is Christ's death as a punishment for our sins ("penal substitutionary atonement") central to Christianity?

2. Is this teaching equal to "cosmic child abuse"?


Yes. Penal substitutionary atonement is central to the Gospel and therefore to Christianity. 

This is stated quite explicitly and emphatically in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4: 

"Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. 3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,...."

Note that Paul states that the Gospel is summed up as: Christ died for our sins, was buried and was raised again. And "Christ died for our sins" is clearly shorthand for PSA. And he does not merely say that this is the summary of the Gospel. He says that it is "of first importance" and that: "By this Gospel you are saved, IF you hold firmly" to it. "Otherwise you have believed in vain." This is all stated quite clearly and emphatically. And since is the Gospel, it is clear also that Paul declares the utmost condemnation on anyone who preaches another Gospel (Galatians 1:6-10).

So the fact that there are other implications of Christ's death that are taught in Scripture does not set aside the centrality of the penal substitionary atonement understanding of Christ's death. Only the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ's death brings cleansing of our sins; and if we are still in our sins, then our faith is useless. We are still condemned and separated from God for eternity. So yes the penal substitutionary atonement is absolutely central.


And the concept of penal substitutionary atonement is taught throughout the Scriptures:

Isaiah 53:4-6: Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him PUNISHED by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the PUNISHMENT that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Isaiah 53:10-12: Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied[; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

Matthew 26:28: This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.

Romans 3:25-26: God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

Romans 4:25: He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.

2 Corinthians 5:21: God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Galatians 1:4: who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father,

Ephesians 1:7: In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace

Hebrews 10:11-12: Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God,

1 Peter 2:24: “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.”

1 Peter 3:18: For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.

1 John 2:2: He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.


And No. The Scriptural teaching of Penal Substitutionary Atonement is not "cosmic child abuse." This is a very old slander brought against the Gospel by liberals/progressives who want to reduce the Gospel to moralistic deism (or in the last few decades panentheism....or any other worldview rather than Biblical theism). They bring this empty charge by divorcing the concept of penal substitutionary atonement from its context and cherry-picking only the details that serve their purpose.

First, Jesus is not a mere human child--powerless under the sway of a manipulative human father. He is God incarnate. He is co-eternal and equal and one with the Father, in the incomprehensible mystery of the Triune Godhead. And everything they do is done first out of love for each other and then out of love for their creation.

Second, Jesus is explicit when he says: "No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord" (John 10:18). And even as he is being arrested, he is clear that he has the power to back out at any moment: "Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?" (Matthew 26:53).

So this is clearly not child abuse of any kind or anything like it. This is more like a father sending his child off to war to defeat an evil foe and bring about justice--with tears of great sorrow in his eyes but knowing that it must be done. And the son goes off to war with the same conviction as the father and with a mixture of dread overcome by great courage and desire for justice. It is more like this, but much more so.


Consider the clear implications of Romans 3:25-26:

"God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus."

God is a just Judge because he requires punishment for lawbreakers. What kind of judge simply forgives everyone who comes before them? Such a judge would make a mockery of justice by ignoring all the harm done by every criminal.

But God is both just and justifier because he provides that punishment for all through the voluntary death of his eternal Son who took our punishment upon himself, once for all time.

Crucified Christ" (Viktor Vasnetsov, 1885-1896)

Saturday, April 20, 2019

THE VIRGIN BIRTH: The Messianic Prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 Defended

A response to Zvi Zaks' argument against Matthew's use of Isaiah 7:14 as a messianic prophecy.

(NOTE: I have quoted the relevant parts below,  precisely as he quoted them to me in a public Facebook conversation in the group "The Biblical Worldview Defended." And my response below is the one that I shared with him in the group.):

//Isaiah 7:14 (KJV) "Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." Christians say this verse predicts the virgin birth of Jesus, who they maintain is the deity come down to earth to be with us. However, this citation has been poorly translated, taken out of context, and is not messianic in any event. (Note, by the way, how the book of Matthew in the Christian Bible misquotes this verse).//

//Poor Translation: The Hebrew word for virgin is "betula". The root of the word is so specific that the Hebrew scriptures mention it with reference to stained bedsheets. However, the word used in Is 7:14 is "alma" which most dictionaries translate as "young woman." The word "alma" is found only seven times in scripture. In some places, it could mean either "virgin" or "young woman" but two verses suggest that an "alma" need not be virginal (Proverbs 30:19 -- "the way of a man with an alma", which is usually sexual -- and Song of Songs 6:8 -- "queens, concubines, and almas", the first two clearly not virginal, which suggests the third also is not.) To think the prophet would have used "alma" rather than the unequivocal "betula" strains credulity.//

First, there is no reason to think that "young woman" would be a better translation of almah in Proverbs 30:18-19. The writer is speaking of things that are extremely amazing (v.18). And what is more amazing than the first time that a man and a woman make love together? To translate almah as "virgin" would be quite natural here.  Certainly, there is nothing here to indicate that "young woman" is preferable to "virgin."

The same is true of Song of Songs 6:8-9: "Sixty queens there may be, and eighty concubines, and virgins beyond number; but my dove, my perfect one, is unique, the only daughter of her mother, the favorite of the one who bore her." Here the contrast seems to be between his lover and all the other possible love interests, but his lover is the one who has his attention. It is certainly much more likely that almah would be translated as "virgin" here, since a Jewish writer of Scripture would not be seen as looking out on the whole field of women (including married women) for a wife. At any rate, there is absolutely nothing to favor a rendering of "young woman" over "virgin."

On the other hand, it is quite certain that when Isaac uses almah in Genesis 24:43 that he is looking for a virgin for his wife and not a young married woman. And that virgin is Rebekah. And in Exodus 2:8 there is every indication that Moses' sister is a virgin. And in Song of Songs 1:3 it is safe to assume that in the context of ancient Jewish Scripture it is virgins who are attracted to the subject of this play.

Furthermore, Isaiah 7:14 says that this will be a sign. When the LORD gives a sign, it is a miraculous sign. (See Numbers 14:22; 16:38; Deuteronomy 4:34; 6:22; 7:19; 11:3; 13:1-2; etc.)

See Isaiah 38:7-8 for Isaiah's use of the word "sign" in a similar context: "‘This is the LORD’s sign to you that the LORD will do what he has promised: I will make the shadow cast by the sun go back the ten steps it has gone down on the stairway of Ahaz.’ So the sunlight went back the ten steps it had gone down."

A "young woman" becoming pregnant and giving birth to a son would not be much of a sign, but a "virgin" conceiving and giving birth to a son is most certainly a sign.

But most importantly, the Jewish scholars who translated the Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14 into Greek when making the Septuagint (centuries before the Gospel of Matthew) chose the Greek word parthenos, which explicitly means "virgin." Do you really think that nearly 3000 years later you have a better understanding of the word almah than the elite Jewish scholars who lived in that ancient culture and who lived in much closer proximity to the time of Isaiah?

So your attempt to show that "virgin" is a "poor translation" completely fails on all accounts.


//Also, "will conceive" is unlikely. The Hebrew "hara" is most likely present tense and is better read "is pregnant."//

First, your "unlikely" and "most likely" are a matter of your own bias and not fact, and therefore of no substance. But more importantly, it really makes no difference, as Old Testament prophecy is often spoken in the present tense (as the prophets/"seers" were often seeing things in visions and speaking about them as they were happening in their visions).


//Context: This verse concerns a specific political problem of that era, and has no messianic significance at all. Isaiah writes in a highly flowery style, which makes it difficult to follow his point. However, if you read verses 1-15 slowly and carefully, you will see that Isaiah is telling his king, Ahaz, not to worry about two neighbors, Rezin and Pekah, who threaten the kingdom, because these two "firebrands" will be vanquished. How long will that take? A few years -- i.e. in the amount of time it takes a young woman to bear a child, and raise him to know the difference between good and evil.//

I agree that it is important that when reading the words of the prophets that you read them "slowly and carefully." Doing that, you will notice that God tells Ahaz to ask for a sign, but Ahaz refuses. God's response is to rebuke Ahaz and then announces a sign that is for "the house of David" (not Ahaz). The definitive proof that it is not Ahaz that the sign is given to is found in Isaiah 7:14: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you [plural] a sign...." The Hebrew word for "you" is plural (and also in the Greek Septuagint). So the sign of a virgin is a sign for the house of David, the line of the Messiah (and not for Ahaz--because Ahaz has refused to ask for a sign when the Lord tells him to do so).


//As for the name of the child, Emanuel, though Christians render it as "God with us," it should be rendered as "God is with us," a statement to King Ahaz that he will defeat his two neighbors because he, Ahaz, has a divine ally. The name is a comment about God, not a description of the person so named. (See also comments on Isaiah 9:6).//

First, either rendering of Emmanuel is acceptable, and both renderings bear the same meaning. Second, if this is meant to be a sign of God being with Ahaz in order to comfort and assure him, then why is it followed (7:17-25) with the prophecy that the Assyrians will leave his kingdom desolate? Third, who is this woman who bears a son as a sign to Ahaz and why is Emmanuel (which you say is a great sign to Ahaz) never mentioned in 2 Kings or 1 & 2 Chronicles? One would think that this son must surely be a member of Ahaz's own family, but the name never appears in any records of his lineage (the lineage of the kings being a focus of the writers of Kings and Chronicles). Since Isaiah is apparently written first, one would think that the writers of Kings and Chronicles would be especially interested in noting who this Emmanuel is. Fourth, throughout the Old Testament, the meanings of names usually bear significance for the child that is named (e.g., Genesis 3:20; 25:25-26; 35:10; 35:18).

The same things apply to the son spoken of in Isaiah 9:6-7. The son named in Isaiah 9:6-7 is clearly a king for whom "the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever." And yet, the writers of Kings and Chronicles never name him. And of course, none of the kings of Israel/Judah written about in Kings and Chronicles reign "forever" (except God).


//What the text says is simple. To paraphrase -- look, the young woman is pregnant and will give birth to a boy and she will call him "God is with us" he will be eating butter and honey before he knows to choose good from ill. Before he knows how to choose good from ill the lands of those people you fear will be forsaken.//

Perhaps there is a deeper meaning. Possibly even a double meaning. Perhaps what the text is actually saying is that these kings and their kingdoms will fade away. They won't even exist when the Messiah comes. Look for the coming of Messiah.

At first blush, the meaning that you have given seems more natural. But when one looks more closely, it becomes clear that there must be a very different meaning, as I believe I have shown conclusively above. Certainly, Matthew, a Hebrew scholar and First Century Jew, saw that deeper meaning and applied it to Jesus--whose miracles and prophecies, sinless life, transcendent teaching, fulfillment of many Old Testament Messianic prophecies, death and resurrection he witnessed and wrote about.


//Parenthetically, Jesus was never called "Emanuel".//

Well, actually he was. See Matthew 1:23....and billions of Christians since then! :)



(1) Your arguments against the interpretation of Isaiah 7:14 given in Matthew 1:23 fail. You fail to give any substantive argument against it. And you have failed to consider the considerable evidence for it.

(2) It remains true that the young woman spoken of in Isaiah 7:14 is an unmarried virgin. This is shown to be true by the use of the word almah in the Old Testament and by the fact that the ancient translators of the Old Testament chose to use the Greek word parthenos to translate it. Furthermore, it is shown to be so by the fact that this is given as the Yahweh's sign that he will fulfill his promise to the house of David (the messianic line): a  young woman conceiving and giving birth to a son is not a sign, but a virgin conceiving and giving birth to a son is most certainly a miraculous sign from the Lord.

Additionally, you find yourself caught in an "Catch-22" situation: If Matthew is simply making up stories about Jesus (as I assume you believe), then why would he make up a story about Jesus being born of a virgin and try to sell it as the fulfillment of a messianic prophecy to the Jews to whom he is writing--unless this was the well known meaning of Isaiah 7:14 among the Jews of the First Century? That would be a ridiculous thing to do. And it is hard to see how such ridiculous claims could become accepted unless there was evidence that they were true. And if the claim that Jesus was born of a virgin was simply to satisfy a prevalent contemporary interpretation of Isaiah 7:14, why does Luke never mention Isaiah 7:14 in his narrative of the virgin birth? If however, Jesus was truly born of a virgin, then this messianic prophecy and miraculous sign from Yahweh were truly fulfilled in him; and he is your Messiah.


Gustave Dore (1832-83), Wood Engraving

Tuesday, January 8, 2019


I wrote an article last July 2018 for the Growing Deeper Roots  titled: "The Beautiful Mind of Jesus." The article challenges the idea that being like Jesus can be reduced to showing grace to others. I invite you to check it out. 

Other Resources
*Groothuis, Douglas. "Jesus" Philosopher and Apologist" (Article)
*McDowell, Josh and Sean McDowell. Evidence That Demands A Verdict (2017 edition). "Introduction" Section I., third point: "Jesus the Apologist"
*Groothuis, Douglas. On Jesus (Wadsworth Philosophers Series). (Book: 112 pages)