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The Table Video

Richard Swinburne& Steve L. Porter

Swinburne: On the Atonement

Emeritus Nolloth
 Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion, University of 
CCT Scholar-in-Residence and Executive Board Member / Professor of Theology, Spiritual Formation, and Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and at Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University
September 13, 2012

Visiting Scholar Richard Swinburne discusses his views on the atonement with CCT Associate Director Steve Porter.


How would our theology of The Atonement, fall into that? So there might be a sense in which that Christ atoned for our sins is maybe, on some views is a non-negotiable of Christian doctrine, but then there’s various views and you have one on exactly how that worked. so what’s your thoughts on The Atonement in that respect?

Yes, it is interesting, in fact, that there, as you say, it’s a central Christian view that Jesus Christ died for our sins and we are thereby, secure atonement from them. The church has never spelled out in any further just how that is achieved, but I certainly have a view which I think is the view of the one book of the Bible that treated that matter of any length and that is The Letter to the Hebrews.

And my view is this. Let’s just think, start with forgetting God and self for the moment. What situation is when we do wrong to somebody else? Suppose I steal something from you. I steal your watch, and I am found out perhaps, and what ought to happen here. Well, one thing that clearly ought to happen is I ought to be penitent. I ought to regret that I have done this, admit that I have sinned and resolve to not– let it not happen again. And clearly, I need to apologize to you who have done this, to whom I have hurt in this way. Yes, but that’s not quite enough, is it? I mean, [snickers] I still have the watch.

Clearly, I ought to give it back but maybe I haven’t got the watch still. Maybe I’ve broken it or something. Then there’s a problem. How is this to be resolved? Well, I ought to do something about this. I ought to buy another watch. Well, suppose I haven’t got money to buy another watch. Well, suppose somebody says, “I’ll give you the money to buy another watch and pay it back”? In that case, I certainly ought to accept it with much gratitude and hand the watch over.

And ideally, in these circumstances, I ought to hand a bit more than the watch over in view of all the trouble I’ve caused. So I think these are the four elements on the part of the wrongdoer. The wrongdoer must repent, apologize, make reparation and perhaps something further, which I call penance, and if you can’t make reparation, perhaps someone else could help him. When the wrongdoer does that, then, the person wronged, can forgive him and it would, I think, be a bad thing to forgive somebody who didn’t want to be forgiven.

That would be treating, treating their wrongdoing as trivial. Treating them as trivial, saying, “I’m not gonna mind about this,” but clearly when they are penitent, make apology and certainly make some effort to reparation, one would expect the wrongdoer or it would be good if the wrongdoer forgave. Right. Well, that’s the situation of relations between human beings. Now, what if… What is our relation to God? Well, God made us, gave us this wonderful world. We’ve, all of us made a bit of a mess of it in various ways. We haven’t used our lives in worshipful ways. We have used our lives to benefit others. Not totally. We have spoiled His creation.

Therefore, we owe Him. We owe Him repentance and apology, but we’ve made a big mess of things. We owe Him reparation as well and what would reparation consist in? Well, we haven’t lived a perfect life, long way away. Reparation would consist in doing more that we ought to in relation to God, living an even more perfect life than the one we ought to have led and haven’t. Well, even if that is logically possible, it’s not gonna be practically possible.

On the other hand, the Christian religion teaches us that somebody else led a perfect life, this Jesus, and that we are in position to say to God, “Please, accept instead of the life we ought to have led, the life that Jesus led and of course, didn’t have to lead because he was God,” and that is what we do in Baptism. In Baptism, we are Baptized into the death of Christ. That is to say we accept his death, life and death as our reparation. It’s what we do each week if go to the Eucharist.

We use, in Paul’s words, “Show forth his death until he come again,” and so, in the sacraments of the church, Baptism and Eucharist, we present the death, life and death of Christ and say, “Instead of our good lives we have failed to live, please accept this supreme life,” and the Judges teaching is that God does forgive us if we are sincerely repentant in these circumstances, and it’s in virtue of the life of Christ because that is what we offer as a substitute for the life we should have led.

That is my view of The Atonement. Some rival views just think of The Atonement as being provided by Christ’s example for us to follow but scriptural teaching on this is that it’s a much more objective matter than that. It’s something that Christ did and avails for us, not merely because it serves as an example but because it has an efficacy, which is a lot more than that and I think this brings out what the Letter to the Hebrews was saying because it pictures Christ’s life as a sacrifice. Now, the thinking behind that is in Old Testament sacrifice. You offer a victim to God and then you get the benefits of it by sharing in a sacrificial meal, and that is the idea behind the Eucharist.

The way you put that, Richard, is helpful because I was thinking that, so while atonement theorizing has been quite divergent in the history of the Christian church, it does seem that there’s some sort… That there’s a requirement on a view on The Atonement that would connect Christ’s work on the cross to the forgiveness of sins in some sort of meaningful way, and that it would, in a sense, count against a theory of The Atonement if they gave an account of perhaps what was accomplished on the cross, but if there was no link between what they said about Christ and what he did on the cross and forgiveness of sins. I mean, do you think that that’s an important feature?

Oh, yes. I mean, all’s in Paul’s teaching is that it’s through the cross and the resurrection that we are able to obtain his forgiveness, and of course, one function of the resurrection in that is to show that God accepted the sacrifice. You accept the sacrifice if you, as it were, use it and God accepts the sacrifice by bringing Christ to life again and showing us that He has done so, yes.