Responsibility and Atonement (Pt. 2)

It’s Easter Weekend! Its the time of year we Christians celebrate Christ’s atoning work for us on the cross and his resurrection, which we participate in through baptism into Christ. In light of the fact that it is Easter weekend I will be blogging on Richard Swinburne’s Responsibility and Atonement this easter weekend. I hope to show that Swinburne’s atonement is full of shortcomings. Today, on Holy Saturday we be looking at another aspect of Swinburne’s atonement theology. After this we will be in a position where we can critique his theory =)


In addition to these four components of atonement (repentance, apology, reparation, penance) there is another component which is very important for Swinburne’s moral system. He believes that a person can help another person make atonement. One can help a person to make atonement by encouraging her to repent or apologize. One can also help a person make atonement by providing another person the means to make reparation or penance if that person does not have the means to do it themselves.[1] The act of helping to make atonement for another person will be very important for Swinburne’s theological work on atonement.

Swinburne’s primary work on the theological side of atonement is found in chapter ten, “Redemption.” He claims that “each human sinner owes atonement to God for the sins (objective and subjective) which he has committed himself,” and that this atonement involves repentance, apology, and reparation. However given man’s sinfulness it is extremely difficult for humans to make the necessary atonement. Thus humans need help from outside.[2]

Swinburne believes that no person can atone for the sins of another person, however one can help another person atone for their sins. Thus God can provide the help humans need to perform atonement. God provides the necessary reparation and penance for human atonement. This is Christ’s life and death. Swinburne makes it clear that the crucifixion is not a payment of a penalty, in other words he disavows Penal Substitutionary Atonement. However he argues for what he calls a sacrifice model, which is for all intensive purposes a version of the satisfaction theory of atonement. Christ is a sacrifices, who gives something valuable to God, namely his life ‘lived in obedience to God and laid down on the cross.’[3] Christ’s offering of himself as a sacrifice is a supererogatory act. Since God did not owe God anything, and he owed other humans very little, his giving of his life is meritorious. Christ’s meritorious work can be applied to human work of atonement. Thus humans who repent and apologize to God for their sins can use Christ’s life and death as their own reparation and penance. Just as a friend can help another friend make atonement, Christ can help a repentant and apologetic sinner make atonement. Thus if we are to summarize Swinburne’s position, humans repent and apologize but Christ offers reparation and penance for them. These four actions combined remove the guilt that humans cannot remove on their own.

[1] Swinburne 91

[2] Swinburne 148

[3] Swinburne 152


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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