Returning to John 3, Jesus suggested in his interview with Nicodemus that his death would accomplish the reversal of a poisoning. He said:
3:14 ‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; 15 so that whoever believes will in him have eternal life. 16 For God so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 18 He who believes in him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19 This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light, for their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21 But he who practices the truth comes to the light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.’ (Jn.3:14 – 21)
Penal substitution advocates interpret this saying of Jesus as supporting their atonement theory: Jesus predicts that he will die in place of others, just as the bronze serpent was symbolically judged in place of Israel. In response, I argue three things. First, a word of caution: Old Testament examples on their own frequently underdetermine their future use by the New Testament. So I would want to be cautious about appropriating it too quickly one way or the other.
Second, however, the past incident of the snake suggests that there is an internal problem in human beings that must be resolved, not simply a legal-judicial problem that was internal to God manifested by a ‘conflict of His attributes’ and specifically an opposition between his holiness and his love. Yes, the poison came about because of snakes sent by God to bite the people for their sin (Num.21:4 – 11), so in that sense God’s judgment and wrath against Israel was manifested. However, the snakes’ venom merely made evident what Israel was already learning, that there was a deeper poison already in them because they share in the humanity of a fallen Adam and Eve. Hence, even in the symbolism of the episode of Moses holding up the bronze serpent, we find that God’s forgiveness of the people and His cleansing of them are not two separate things. They are joined. I will elaborate still further about the placement of this episode in Numbers and the Pentateuch as a whole, which will add more weight to my argument.
For now, if we can go a bit further to say that bronze was a metal associated with God’s judgment by virtue of being the metal out of which altars were made, and if being hung on a wooden pole was already a symbol of God’s judgment as well (which I think is reasonable, even though Dt.21:22 – 23 had not yet been written as such), or became that as a result of this episode, then God arranged for a bronze snake, as the source of venom, to be judged symbolically, and offered to the Israelites to heal them. Forgiveness and healing/cleansing are absolutely joined, in the Pentateuch and in John’s thought. They are not compartmentalized between the Son who supposedly offers forgiveness and the Spirit who supposedly offers cleansing, as in penal substitution theory. No: The Father has localized forgiveness and cleansing together in the Son, and shares the Son with us by the Spirit. What Jesus has worked out in himself, the Spirit works out in us. Ontological substitution holds the roles of the Son and the Spirit closer together logically than does penal substitution, which keeps them a bit further apart.
The ontological substitution atonement theory has a further advantage over the penal substitution theory because it better explains the symbolism of the serpent in the wilderness. It captures the sense that Jesus is participating personally in the very thing that is causing the problem, to be the resolution to that problem. Jesus seems to parallel his being lifted up to the lifting up of the serpent in this way: Human beings are now the source of the real venom of sin, pictured in the form of the serpent of old. The venom is now part of our very being, though it was not originally. Since human beings are already under judgment, already dying from this poison, Jesus had to become a source of the venom himself in human flesh, hang in the place of the guilty on the wooden cross, and thereby judge the poison at its source: in the corrupt ‘flesh’ of the human being. Hence Jesus’ statement in John 3:18 that God’s judgment is not only future, but already overlaps with the present: ‘He who does not believe has been judged already.’ The poison, or corruption, is already present in human beings. Thus, on the cross, Jesus condemned the sinful ‘flesh’ he had taken on. He killed it in himself so that he could rise as a new human being with a thoroughly God-soaked, God-united human nature, to share his Spirit with us.
Third, I believe the language of darkness and light, judgment and truth in John 3:16 – 21 confirms the central thesis of ontological substitution better than it does penal substitution. Of course, this language is tailored (either by the writer John, or, as I take it, Jesus himself) to be a commentary on Nicodemus. Will Nicodemus come ‘to the light’ of Jesus, or remain in darkness? The immediate question of whether Nicodemus will ever stop coming to Jesus by night and proclaim his connection with Jesus by day becomes a physical representation of a deeper spiritual question. The implication for the choice to remain in darkness is that there is a poison – a venom – that already exists in human beings. That is probably why Jesus’ remarks about being born of ‘flesh’ (sarx) appear here in this dialogue with Nicodemus (Jn.3:6). Perhaps this is also why Jesus reserves his strongest condemnation language for this episode with Nicodemus: ‘men loved darkness rather than the light, for their deeds were evil’ and so on. Nicodemus had the Hebrew Scriptures at his disposal, yet was covering up the truth of its diagnosis of humanity, and God’s desire to heal human beings through His Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. That, more than anything else in John’s Gospel, is ‘evil’ and a willful repudiation of God’s light for darkness instead. The judgment of God is already against those who identify with this fleshly corruption in their nature, refuse to acknowledge the truth of the Old Testament’s diagnosis, refuse to see the truth of who Jesus is, and pretend that human beings can simply go their own way.
Central to understanding John’s own atonement theory is the interpretation of John chapters 2 and 3. As penal substitution proponents argue, the Temple sacrifices represented a ‘penal substitute’ symbolically. John’s own understanding of the Temple’s purpose appears to undermine that interpretation. To briefly recap observations I made in the section above, in John 2, there are literary and conceptual links made between the miracle at Cana (Jn.2:1 – 12) and the cleansing of the Temple (Jn.2:13 – 25). (1) Mention of a ‘third day.’ (2) Both occur in the joining of two: marriage joins two people, the Temple joins God with humanity, heaven with earth. (3) In both cases, something good is being made into something better. (4) Both involve stone instruments of purification: the stone jars of purification at Cana, the stone Temple at Jerusalem. (5) Both stone instruments are ruined after Jesus uses them. (6) Thus, in both cases, something depleted or exhausted is being transplanted by something full. This link between the stone jars and the stone Temple appears to be intentional in John, and it substantiates my argument that the Temple sacrifices were not ‘penal’ in their symbolism. They served as symbols of ‘purification.’ Thus, the Temple sacrifices did not symbolically pay the human side of sin’s penalty; they symbolized the cleansing of humanity which God would enact in Jesus.
In John 3 with his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus returns to motifs of atonement. As I argued above, the bronze serpent lifted up in the wilderness in Numbers 21 is also an act of God’s medical purification of Israel, not a penal image, and Jesus’ invocation of that episode as an analogue for his own death only strengthens my case here. Jesus’ controversial act of clearing the Temple made the authorities spring into action. Nicodemus, ‘the teacher of Israel’ in Jesus’ own words, a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling court of the Jews, tried to broker a deal with Jesus. Nicodemus came at night to apparently negotiate with Jesus, as one powerful person to another. He probably wanted to keep the Sanhedrin in power, the Temple in order, his career in place, and the Romans happy. He wanted to entreat Jesus to not be a political or military threat. So Nicodemus does not want to testify about Jesus, like John the Baptist did to his two disciples (Jn.1:35 – 37), like Andrew did with Simon Peter (Jn.1:40 – 42), and like Philip did with Nathanael (Jn.1:43 – 51), the servants at the wedding by the direction of Mary (Jn.2:5), or the Samaritan woman would do later with her village (Jn.4:28 – 29, 42). Nicodemus did not want to lose his position by affirming Jesus’ identity. So the physical setting of night becomes a symbol for understanding that Nicodemus was also in spiritual darkness.
Jesus had no qualms about challenging this senior statesman. Since the Hebrew Scriptures were the common foundation between them, the discussion unfolds as between two rabbis. Jesus speaks of being ‘born again’ and ‘born from above’, which aside from being deliberately provocative to the aging Nicodemus, accompany the mention of ‘water and Spirit’ (Jn.3:3 – 8) to reference Ezekiel 36:26 – 36. In that passage, Ezekiel envisioned God giving ‘hearts of flesh’ in exchange for ‘hearts of stone.’ The ‘wind’ reference connects to Ezekiel 37:1 – 12, where the wind of the Spirit blows across a valley of dry bones and resurrects them into new life – a companion vision to the new covenant hope of heart change. Ezekiel had a diagnosis of the human heart which corresponded with Moses’ (Dt.30:6) and Jeremiah’s (Jer.4:4; 17:1 – 10; 31:31 – 34). Surely for Jesus to engage with Nicodemus over Ezekiel means that he was pressing Nicodemus to fully embrace Ezekiel’s diagnosis of the problem, as well as its solution. And Ezekiel himself seemed to be thinking about Genesis 1 in the following way:
|Genesis 1||Ezekiel 36 – 37||John 3|
|God created life by His Spirit hovering over water (Gen.1:1 – 2)||God will create a new humanity internally by water and Spirit (Ezk.36:26 – 36)||Jesus causing birth of new humanity by water and Spirit (Jn.3:5)|
|God breathed into Adam (Gen.2:7)||God will breathe His Spirit like wind into Israel to cause new life (Ezk.37)||Spirit blows like wind to cause new birth; after his resurrection, Jesus breathes his Spirit (Jn.20:22)|
Jesus quoted that passage in this context to warn Nicodemus against trying to control the movement of the Spirit. The Spirit was guiding Jesus, and bringing about those who believe in Jesus. In effect, Nicodemus was trying to deny what the entire Old Testament and the history of Israel pointed to: that the human heart needs transformation by the Spirit. That is why Jesus was so pointed and sharp with Nicodemus.
So how would Jesus solve this problem? Following the narrative of John’s Gospel, we know that the Spirit resided in Jesus (1:32 – 33), and as of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, had not yet been poured out (Jn.7:38; 14:16 – 21; 20:22). That would only happen after Jesus’ resurrection. So the question remains: Why could Jesus not pour out his Spirit on his followers prior to his death and resurrection? John’s simplest explanation for that is that Jesus was not yet finished creating in himself a renewed humanity that is fully reconciled with the Spirit. Permit me to step back and take a high level view of John’s Gospel once again, which will make John 3:1 – 21 more clear. Here is a strong structural literary allusion John is making to Genesis 1 – 2:
|Old Creation||New Creation|
|In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1)||In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)|
|7 Miracles||7 Discourses||7 ‘I AM’ statements|
|1||Emptiness to joy. Water into wine at Cana. (2:1-10)||Second birth with Nicodemus (Jn.3:1-21)||I am the bread of life (6:35)|
|2||Sickness to health. Healing of the royal official’s sick son. (4:46-54)||Living water with Samaritan woman (Jn.4:1-42)||I am the light of the world (8:12)|
|3||Debilitation to wholeness. Healing the invalid man. (5:1-15)||The ‘Son and Father relationship’ debate with the Pharisees (Jn.5:16-45)||I am the door (10:7)|
|4||Hunger to satisfaction. Multiplication of bread. (6:1-14)||Bread of Life (Jn.6:22-71)||I am the good shepherd (10:11)|
|5||Fear to peace. Walking on water. (6:16-21)||Abraham debate with the Pharisees (Jn.8:12-59)||I am the resurrection and the life (11:25)|
|6||Blindness to sight. Healing of the blind man. (9:1-41)||Good shepherd (Jn.10:1-38)||I am the way, the truth, and the life (14:6)|
|7||Death to life. Resuscitation of Lazarus. (11:17-44)||Upper Room discourse (Jn.13:1-17:26)||I am the true vine (15:1)|
|Old Creation||New Creation|
|Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)||Jesus breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ (John 20:22)|
Seldom are large, macro literary parallels this clear and this simple. Naturally, one of John’s theological purposes in structuring his Gospel narrative this way is to say that Jesus is truly God. But Christian interpreters have long been convinced that John affirms the humanity of Jesus, not only because he demonstrates human tiredness and thirst and emotions, but especially because he ‘became flesh’ (Jn.1:14). Jesus was preparing his own body and the human nature therein to be shared by his Spirit. It was not yet ready to be shared until Jesus had taken it through death and resurrection. He was cleansing it for the world. When he said, ‘In my Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you’ (Jn.14:2), he was speaking of himself and the temple of his own body (Jn.2:21), not some ‘heavenly palace.’ Jesus clarifies that he was speaking of himself in the very next verse, ‘If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to myself, that where I am, there you may be also’ (Jn.14:3). This connects with his statements just minutes later about his disciples being ‘in him,’ and him being ‘in them,’ by the Spirit ‘in that day,’ that is, in the era of his resurrected humanity being available to all (Jn.14:20 – 23). The Spirit will take of Jesus, not merely his ‘knowledge’ or ‘spiritual power’ but his very own new humanity, and share him personally with the believer: ‘He will glorify me, for he will take of mine and will disclose it to you’ (Jn.16:14).
Furthermore, fascinating as these large structural allusions to the Exodus and the creation are, these themes cannot be interpreted alone. For in the Old Testament, the Exodus itself structurally echoes the creation. Creation and Exodus were thematically related events. In Genesis 1, God uttered ten ‘Let there be…’ or ‘Let us bless’ declarations in Creation, establishing boundaries between light and darkness, land and water, and bringing forth and blessing life (Gen.1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 22, 24, 26, 28). In Exodus, God again uttered ten declarations, but it was ten plagues on Egypt. These plagues on Egypt reversed the creational pattern: God relaxed the boundaries between light and darkness, land and water, ruler and subordinate. God established those boundaries in the creation to establish order and life, but the plagues upon Egypt erased those boundaries and thereby brought about chaos and death. Ultimately, the Egyptian army and Pharaoh drowned in water, which echoes the primordial watery chaos of the creation before life (and the flood of Noah before new life on earth). But the watery demise of Egypt in the Red Sea also signaled the birth of Israel as a nation. Israel emerged to inherit the garden land, like Adam and Eve emerged to inherit the original garden land. Therefore, it makes sense that Jesus brings about a new creation and new exodus. This provides the basis for integrating the new exodus theme in John with the new creation theme also clearly present in John.
Finally, one major literary feature of John’s Gospel must be noted. If being passively obedient is central to the atonement, then why does John seem to deliberately excise that imagery and any reference to Jesus’ supposed passivity? Interestingly enough, there is no quotation of Psalm 22:1, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,’ which I take to be ‘forsaken to the Gentiles.’ Jesus was invoking David’s pre-enthronement suffering at the hands of the Gentiles as a lens for interpreting his own pre-enthronement suffering at the hands of the Romans. He was not experiencing absolute forsakenness by the Father in ‘passive obedience.’ For David did not experience absolute forsakenness by God; David still experienced God as loving and protecting him, as having His face turned toward him with favor: ‘For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; nor has He hidden His face from him’ (Ps.22:9 – 11, 24). But since penal substitution advocates might resist that interpretation, there lies one more roadblock. The fact remains that John excludes that statement and instead records Jesus saying, ‘Behold, an hour is coming, and has already come, for you to be scattered, each to his own home, and to leave me alone; and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me’ (Jn.16:32). Jesus specifically contrasts the disciples’ upcoming abandonment with the Father’s never-failing presence with him. This is surely a problem for the theory of God-forsakenness required by penal substitution.
Even the resurrection is not, in John’s narrative, the working of an active Father on a passive Son, but of the Son actively obedient to the will of the Father (Jn.5:26; 10:17 – 18). This corroborates my suspicion that there is, in fact, no ‘passive obedience’ of Christ, at least in relation to his adult life. Our salvation is wrought by the will of the Father enacted in and by the Son in his active obedience, triumphing over the corrupted flesh that resisted the Father, and cleansing his own humanity to share with others by his Spirit. In John’s Gospel, for Jesus to be the new Passover lamb means that he is God’s truly human being who always reflects the Father. He has himself gone through an exodus out of the state of corruption, through death, and into the liberation of resurrected, cleansed, and purified humanity.
Rather, John stresses Jesus’ active obedience throughout his Gospel, which makes an interesting challenge for penal substitution advocates to explain. For John is more explicit than Matthew, Mark, and Luke that Jesus was thoroughly in command over all the circumstances of his own death. Jesus referred to his death not as a demand made upon him from the Father, but as an ability of his own: ‘I lay down my life for the sheep…I lay down my life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from me, but I lay it down on my own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from my Father.’ (Jn.10:15 – 18). John’s phrasing strongly suggests that it is the death of Jesus, not the pain experienced by Jesus, or the supposed spiritual torture suffered by Jesus, or some visit by Jesus’ soul into hell, which effects the atonement. Also, John does not include the story of Jesus’ agonized prayer in Gethsemane, which could be interpreted (I would be quick to add, mistakenly) as Jesus ceding control of his own life, or as a brewing conflict of sorts between the Father and the Son. John’s exclusion of that story corroborates his marked stress on Jesus’ active, not passive, obedience. Instead, John includes Jesus’ emotion at the tomb of Lazarus, where Jesus was ‘troubled,’ as in indignant and angry, and moved to tears (Jn.11:33 – 35). From a literary standpoint, shifting the location of Jesus’ strongest emotions from the garden of Gethsemane to the tomb of Lazarus demonstrates that Jesus saw sin and death as the ultimate tyrants to be conquered on behalf of all humanity, exemplified by Lazarus, and not only over his own bodily existence.
In penal substitution theory, God the Father, or God in general, must be said to punish the Son. But as T.F. Torrance notes, ‘The New Testament nowhere uses the word kolazo, punish, of the relation between the Father and the Son.’ Even the word ‘judge’ is not used to describe the relation between the Father and the Son. Rather, Jesus says, ‘For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son’ (Jn.5:22; cf. 3:17 – 18). So in fact, the Father does not judge the Son. Rather, the Father’s judgment on the corruption of human nature is carried out by the Son’s own judgment on the same, within himself. That is consistent with Jesus’ statement that the Father ‘has given all judgment to the Son.’ And that is consistent with ontological-medical substitutionary atonement. I do not see how these statements about the Son’s judgment being the Father’s judgment, and the Father’s never-failing presence with the Son especially at the cross, can be reconciled with penal substitution.
Then Jesus gives verbal explanations about his death in relation to the will of the Father. Jesus said his death glorifies, or reveals, the Father (Jn.12:28; 17:1 – 5), which according to the great Father-Son discourses of John 5 and 14 – 17, refers to the will of the Father to give new life to human beings in and through Jesus by the Spirit (e.g. Jn.5:19 – 27; 14:8 – 13). But in the active sections of the narrative, this glorification and revelation of the Father is not achieved by an editorial explanation of the cross as a collision of divine wrath and divine love, but in concrete interactions between Jesus and everyone around him, including Jesus’ love for others, witness to them, rejection of all the lies of human beings, and most importantly, unswerving victory over his own flesh. Jesus came out of the garden of Gethsemane and, with the word of divine self-disclosure, ‘I am,’ tripped up or laid flat the cohort that came to arrest him (Jn.18:1 – 11). Even though the high priest and Pontius Pilate wanted to interrogate Jesus, Jesus clearly interrogated them in a brilliant turnabout of questioning (Jn.18:12 – 19:16); Jesus even turned Pontius Pilate into his witness to the Jewish leaders, since Simon Peter did not serve as an adequate witness.
When Jesus was on the cross, he knowingly and actively brought one last detail of Passover lamb imagery towards himself: the hyssop branch. ‘Knowing that all things had already been accomplished, to fulfill the Scripture, said, ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar full of sour wine was standing there; so they put a sponge full of the sour wine upon a branch of hyssop and brought it up to his mouth. Therefore when Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, ‘It is finished!’ And he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.’ (Jn.19:28 – 30) I have already explored the Passover imagery involving hyssop and the doorway; they are emblematic of an invitation to participate in ‘dying and rising with Jesus,’ as Paul would say. What Matthew, Mark, and Luke note in terms of Jesus giving up his life on the cross, John makes thoroughly, colorfully, and emphatically explicit. More details of John’s narrative can surely be explored. But I think that what I have listed above is sufficient to raise a very significant problem for penal substitution advocates: John is the writer who most highlights Jesus’ role as the true Passover lamb, but he is simultaneously the author who most pointedly stresses Jesus’ active obedience and removes anything that could suggest a ‘passive obedience of Christ.’
Thus, after considering John’s Gospel and Paul’s brief comments in 1 Corinthians 5, I return to the subject of the Pentateuch. Is the Exodus-Passover redemption motif governed by a penal substitution logic? No. Already in the Pentateuch, we see that the Passover lamb should not be understood as a substitute for the worshiper to avoid punishment, but as an expression of the worshiper who was really putting some idolatry to death (the possessive control of one’s own sons) through the mechanism of the Passover lamb. It was costly, and expressed a real repentance. In that sense, the Passover lamb carried the sin of the Israelite away. The blood of the lamb placed on the doorway symbolized a new birth into, or perhaps within, the life of another which was made possible by a real and costly repentance. And as such, it was a foreshadowing of the truest act of the truest Israelite, the Messiah of Israel, who would really put sin completely to death through the mechanism of his own death. Jesus would give up his life to vanquish the corruption within his humanity, carrying it away from us, and opening up to us a doorway to a new birth into and within his resurrection life.
In the Pentateuch, circumcision governed the interpretation of Passover and the bronze serpent. Through circumcision, God was cleansing the human baby boy for seven days (and girls in fourteen), decisively cleansed them through circumcision on the eighth day, and brought them into new life symbolically as part of the covenant community. Similarly, God cleansed Israel through the feast of Unleavened Bread for seven days, decisively finished with that cleansing through the Passover on the eighth, and brought them into new life in Firstfruits. The reason why the Passover lamb had to be perfect and spotless, as did all the sacrifices, is because they symbolized the thing sacrificed being cleansed and being costly.
The inversion of cleansing occurred with the bronze serpent. To be cleansed of the snake venom, the Israelites had to look to a judged serpent. The source of the venom in its uncleanness had to be hung in judgment on a wooden pole. So the Israelites were looking beyond Moses as the first mediator of the covenant – imperfect and mortal as he was – to the messianic mediator who would judge the venom in himself. Ultimately, Jesus would sacrifice himself, having cleansed himself through his life and death, judging the corruption of sin at his death on the wooden tree, not merely symbolically but ontologically, to emerge into the new life of resurrection on the eighth day, ‘on the first day of the week’ (Jn.20:1).
 R.C. Sproul, Christ’s Descent into Hell, says, ‘Sin against an infinite being demands an infinite punishment in hell. In a few hours, Jesus suffered and exhausted the infinite punishment that impenitent people cannot exhaust even after an eternity in hell. He could do this because, in His deity as the Son of God, He is an infinite being… On the cross He suffered the full wrath of God that is poured out in hell… the hopelessness of losing the gaze of His Father’s blessing and the torment of experiencing God’s wrath for the sins of His people.’ http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/christs-descent-into-hell/ last accessed December 10, 2013.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, book 2, chapter 16, paragraph 10 believed that Jesus descended into hell after his death: ‘If Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual. No — it was expedient at the same time for him to undergo the severity of God’s vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgment. For this reason, he must also grapple hand to hand with the armies of hell and the dread of everlasting death… No wonder, then, if he is said to have descended into hell, for he suffered the death that, God in his wrath had inflicted upon the wicked!’
 T.F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), p.72