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Inclusivism and the Atonement

Written by: Reichenbach, Bruce R.    Posted on: 03/27/2005

Category: Theology

ABSTRACT: Richard Swinburne claims that Christ's death has no efficacy unless people appropriate it. According to religious inclusivists, God can be encountered and his grace manifested in various ways through diverse religions. Salvation is available for everyone, regardless of whether they have heard about Christ's sacrifice. This poses the question whether Swinburne's view of atonement is available to the inclusivist. I develop an inclusivist interpretation of the atonement that incorporates his four features of atonement, along with a subjective dimension that need not include specific knowledge of Christ's sacrifice.

In what follows I will explore the apparent tension between a particular view of the atonement that requires the subjective element of knowledge of the sacrifice and a Christian inclusivist view of religion, where persons are the recipients of salvific grace quite apart from their knowledge of Christ's death on their behalf. It would appear that the inclusivist view would not require as a subjective condition knowledge of Christ's death for experiencing the effects of the atonement, since such knowledge would be unavailable to many persons.

Swinburne's Sacrificial View of the Atonement

Richard Swinburne argues that a person who has done something wrong is under obligation to atone for the action.1 Atonement involves four features (though not all are required in every case): repentance, apology, reparations, and penance. "They are all contributions to removing as much of the consequences of the past act as logically can be removed by the wrongdoer. The consequences are, first, the harm caused by and distinguishable from the act of causing it and, second, the purposive attitude of the wrongdoer towards the victim manifested in the causing of the harm."2

In repentance, guilty persons acknowledge that they have done the wrong act, take responsibility for it, admit that it was wrong, and affirm that the action is contrary to their present ideals and purposes (what Swinburne terms "distancing oneself from the act")3. Repentance is necessary only in cases of subjective guilt, that is, where persons know that what they are doing is wrong and intend to act in that fashion, or act negligently in a morally culpable way. Objective guilt, which results from objectively wrong actions done with neither knowledge of their wrongness, the intent to do wrong, nor morally culpable negligence, needs no repentance, since the moral norms of the offender remain the same as before the wrongful act was committed.4

Swinburne's second feature of atonement is apology to the victim, which is the public expression of repentance. Apology, he holds, is necessary for forgiveness, for whether the guilt is objective or subjective, one has harmed another by the wrong action. The third and fourth features are reparation for the wrong done and penance. Reparation is an attempt to make good or compensate the other for the harm done and losses suffered. Penance is the something more required to show that the apology was sincere, that one truly wants to distance oneself from the wrong actions. Though generally necessary for atonement, reparation and penance are not required for less serious wrongs.5

Christians teach that our sins require atonement. Swinburne understands this to mean that offenders are obliged to repent, apologize, and give as reparation and penance something of value to God whom they have offended. However, due to the enormity of the sin, which is against the holiness of God, and the poverty of their own good, they lack adequate resources to make proper reparation and penance. However, Christians can appropriate Christ's life and death as a sacrifice, "an offering made available to us men to offer as our reparation and penance.... It is simply a costly penance and reparation sufficient for a merciful God to let men off the rest."6 God allows the Son to sacrifice himself so that we can apply the merits of his innocent death to atone for our sins. Consequently, the model of atonement on which he settles is that of a sacrifice that makes resources available to needy sinners.

What is of interest to us is Swinburne's claim that the objective event of Christ's sacrificial death "has no efficacy until men choose to plead it in atonement for their sins. In so far as Christ the Son is distinct from God the Father, the sacrifice takes place independently of us, but even here we can hardly gain the benefit of forgiveness from it until we associate ourselves with it.... The sinner has to use Christ's death to get forgiveness."7 But then is this view of atonement available to the religious inclusivist? According to the Christian inclusivist, salvation has both an objective and a subjective dimension. The objective dimension involves Christ's death as atonement for our sins. The subjective dimension includes, among other things, the individual's faith and good acts. While only Christianity makes clear Christ's atoning provision, God can be encountered and his grace manifested in various ways through diverse religions. Salvation is available for everyone, regardless of what religion they practice or whether they have heard about Christ's sacrifice, though it does not follow for the inclusivist that all are saved or that all religions provide equally adequate means to facilitate the discovery of God or spiritual development.

Hence we pose the question. For Swinburne, "if the sinner could be forgiven as a result of Christ's death, without using it to secure forgiveness, we could be forgiven by God as a result of what has happened on Calvary independently of our knowing about it; and that seems a suggestion very distant from the New Testament. Forgiveness is available through 'repentance and baptism in the name of Jesus Christ,' And ... baptism is baptism into the death of Christ; it is using that death."8 If atonement requires this specific subjective dimension, if the person must personally appropriate the sacrifice of Christ in order to receive God's forgiveness, can one be a Swinburnian Christian inclusivist?


Karl Rahner sees Christianity coming to persons in a historical way. Christianity has a pre-history that incorporates among others the saved Jews of the Old Testament. It also has a post-history, where Christianity in time comes to people who might be followers of other religions but have not had any significant, persuasive contact with Christianity that would provide for them a sufficient basis for adopting an alternative religious outlook. Prior to an such encounter, their religion is lawful for them. That is, it contains "supernatural elements arising out of the grace which is given to men as a gratuitous gift on account of Christ."9 Through practicing their religion, these persons can partake of God's grace available uniquely through Christ. Therefore, the lawful religion is "an institutional religion whose 'use' by man at a certain period can be regarded on the whole as a positive means of gaining the right relationship to God and thus for the attaining of salvation."10

Not all elements of lawful religions are free from error or moral wrong. Indeed, Rahner claims that diverse religions might stress beliefs and practices at critical variance with orthodox Christianity.11 Hence, being lawful says little about the precise belief content but rather refers to that religion's ability to function as a social means whereby people can obtain salvation provided by, but apart from hearing about, Christ and his deeds.

If this is the case, then the individual beliefs of the person regarding the person and sacrifice of Christ matter not at all. For Rahner the objective dimension -- the salvific act of Christ and God's intervention to confer the grace secured by Christ -- remains central and operative. Without this, neither Christians nor nonchristians are saved. But the subjective element regarding belief in Christ is missing. Rahner appears to place greater emphasis on the participation of believers in their social religion than on holding any given religious belief.

One can find a similar view in C.S. Lewis. At the end of The Last Battle Emeth finds it puzzling that he should be accepted into Aslan's kingdom without even having recognized Aslan. Indeed, he has served Tash all his life. Aslan comments, "I take to me the services which thou hast done to [Tash], for I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not."12 One can be reconciled with God quite apart from the subjective element of appropriating or believing in the sacrifice of Christ.

The Christian inclusivist affirms two distinct elements. On the one hand, the voluntary sacrifice of God's Son provides the necessary, objective component of atonement. This act, truly made known in Christianity, makes available grace that can be used for the reparation and penance that are due God because of the sins we have committed against him. On the other hand, the subjective component is indefinite. Lewis puts constraints on the subjective component, suggesting a universal moral law, known to all, that delineates acts that can be done only to a holy God and not to any demonic being. Similarly, Clark Pinnock, who has a more pessimistic view of the efficacy of other religions, places emphasis on believers' faith and moral life, on whether they fear God and pursue righteousness in their behavior.13 Rahner seems unwilling to go quite that far, suggesting that other religions need not be morally perfect. It is rather that on the whole these other religions provide for their believers the locus for supernatural action on their behalf.

It is clear that the subjective and objective components will not, indeed, cannot, correspond in the case of those religions where Christianity has not made a historical presence. Then what is it that a nonchristian must believe about Christ's sacrifice? A little bit? This is impossible because of the historical restrictions. None? Then the subjective component can and often will have a different intentional object than Christ's sacrifice.

Other Theories of Atonement

It should not be thought that the other atonement theories fare better on this score. The moral influence theory, which sees in the atonement Christ setting the example for us, suffers from the same defect. Christ might be a model for those who are aware of him but serves no function for those who have not heard about him or his suffering. The Abelardian could hold that Christ's death was only one place where the demonstration of supreme ideals occurred. But then the centrality and uniqueness of Christ's death as an atoning event is lost; the Buddha or Confucius can likewise serve as a moral example.

According to the governmental theory, Christ's death takes the place of our deserved punishment. His death was not punishment, for one person cannot be punished for another. Rather, it stands as a lesson that God's justice cannot be thwarted, that sin is tied up with guilt, which in turn deserves punishment. But the Grotian theory too has the required subjective element. Christ's death, though not itself a punishment, acts as a deterrent, warning us about God's hatred of sin, about the need for punishment, and the requirement that we turn from our sin. Thus, the atonement will have its full effect only insofar as it is known and appropriated by us, bringing about repentance and conversion.

Some theories fare better, but that is because they lack the subjective condition as a necessary condition. The classical ransom theory, for example, does not require that we play an active role in the transaction. Christ's death provides adequate payment to ransom us from Satan. We are passive recipients. The atonement can go on without our knowledge of or participation in the event. But Swinburne's theory would be telling against such strictly objectivist views.

Repentance and Penance

Let us begin to answer the question whether one needs to know Christ's atoning act by returning to Swinburne's four features of atonement. Swinburne' first condition for atonement is repentance. To truly atone for their sins, persons must express sincere sorrow for their actions. This component of atonement is possible for persons regardless of the institutional religion of which they are a part. Individuals of all faiths (or none at all) can express their sorrow for their evil deeds, for the harm they have caused others, and for their own lack of moral virtue, and can seek to mend their ways and character.

The fourth condition -- penance -- likewise is manageable under an inclusivist scheme. Swinburne suggests the purpose of the penance is to perform some act costly to oneself in order to show the sincerity of one's repentance. To show oneself sincere we need to "give what we cannot too easily afford."14 But penance does not require an infinite payment or a cost beyond what we can afford, for the whole point of it is to show our sincerity in repentance. Neither need it require knowledge of Christ's act of atonement. The notion of penance is found in the world religions, expressed in actions such as abstinence, taking of vows, making a pilgrimage, bathing in a sacred river, and flagellation.

Grievousness of Sin

The third condition -- reparation or what Anselm terms satisfaction -- is more problematic for the Christian inclusivist. First, are reparations necessary? Swinburne holds that reparations are not necessary in instances of less serious offenses. Is sin to be taken seriously? Anselm believes sin is serious, for in it we have robbed God of his honor.15 How serious is sin? Anselm sees sin as "so grievous, ...no loss will compare with it."16 Consequently, we cannot restore what we have taken from God.

But why is it so serious that we cannot make reparations for our sin from our own resources? One argument for its seriousness is that we have sinned against a being whose very nature is to be morally perfect and hence abhorrent of evil. That is, the fact that we have sinned against the Holy One exacerbates its seriousness. But one might wonder whether this feature is relevant to the determination of the reparations we owe. Reparations vary according to the seriousness of the crime; grand larceny requires greater reparation than petty theft, rape than assault. But will the reparations vary depending on the moral character of the person we wrong? It would seem not. To wrong or do evil to someone is to violate his or her personhood. It is to treat persons as only means to some other good or end and not as moral ends intrinsically valuable in themselves. But as Kant argued, we have a duty to treat people as ends or valuable in themselves and not merely as means. Further, from the Christian perspective we are all made in God's image and hence equally valued by God. God does not love one person, qua person, more than another. Consequently, the degree of innocence of the offended is irrelevant to determining the seriousness of the sin. No one is to be unjustly harmed or wronged, so that it is no less wrong to steal a car from an immoral executive than from a moral one. What one owes in reparation is determined not by the value of the person wronged but by what one steals and the harm that results from the theft. If what one steals is the same and the consequences for the person remain the same, all else being equal, the reparations owed to each will be the same. Hence, the fact that one has sinned against the Holy One should not make a difference in the reparations owed. A violation against other persons would be equally serious. Accordingly, what matters in calculating reparation is the degree of our offense.

One might object that while personal status does not matter when applied to human persons, God differs in kind from humans, such that an offense against God is more serious than an offense against a human, all else being equal.17 But what is there about the status of God -- his difference in kind -- that would support this? Swinburne bases his view of the seriousness of sin on the fact that God is both our cause and our end. We are totally dependent on God, so that to offend God is, as it were, to offend our parents by refusing to use our talents in ways that further our lives. Similarly, if God made us to have friendship with him, then sin is a way of rejecting that friendship, which is a serious affront to God.18 But appeal to particular qualities, such as being an originating and sustaining causal power and friendship, like appeals to longevity and moral goodness, do not justify this conclusion, for differential possession of these same qualities would not justify differential treatment of humans. It is no less wrong to strike or murder a stranger than to do the same to one's parents or a friend, for in both cases one is not treating them as intrinsically valuable.19 One could appeal to the mere fact that God is God to justify differential judgments, but as Jonathan Kvanvig points out, such an appeal begs the question by failing to provide principled grounds for the claim that the status of the one sinned against matters.20

One might also reply that sinning against God is more serious because of God's relation to the moral law. One might reasonably hold that it is more wrong to kill a police officer or judge than an ordinary citizen, not because these persons are more valuable or praiseworthy, but because the police officer or judge stands in relation to the law executively or judicially, so that an attack against such a person extends beyond the person to the very law the person in such a position represents. Similarly, since God is connected to the moral law legislatively, executively, or judicially, in sinning against God one is not merely wronging God but attacking the moral law itself. It is not merely rejecting God but also the moral law that provides the foundation for human social interaction and moral accountability.

This argument is persuasive. But what it establishes is that sinning against God is a very serious matter, not that every case is infinitely serious. In certain circumstances sin might be tantamount to attacking the moral law itself, insofar as the moral law is grounded in the nature of God. Yet it seems that one cannot separate the seriousness of the sin from the nature of the sin itself, so that sin's seriousness can be a function of two elements: the sin committed and, at times, the one sinned against (when that person represents something more). Hence, there might well be degrees of sin, so that some is more serious than others, thereby warranting different reparations.21

Forgiveness and Reparation

Let us grant that sin against God is serious business, in fact, so great that in general it merits great reparation. The second question that arises is whether it would be enough for God to accept the reparations we can offer and forgive us nonetheless, without requiring something beyond our means.

Swinburne concedes that though it is within the victim's rights to ask for full reparation, it is not necessary that the victim demand reparation. Should victims not ask for reparation they would not be committing a moral wrong. In fact, for the victim to dismiss the claim to reparations might be a supererogatory action. Similarly with God. If indeed God possesses all, then one might think it niggling of God to demand reparations from us for our sins. God, it would seem, could forgive without such demands, for God does not need what little we can give in return.

Anselm replies that to forgive without compensation or punishment is not right. In particular, it leads to indifference between the guilty and not guilty. Further, sin would not affect the outcome, for whether we are sinners or not happiness would be our final state.22 God cannot simply forgive without violating his justice.

Furthermore, Anselm continues, unless God gets compensation, God will not be just to himself, for he wrongly will have allowed his honor to be taken away and not restored.23 Finally, should there be no reparation it would show that God is deficient in his management of the universe, which would be contrary to his wisdom and power.24

Swinburne takes a more mediating position, arguing that one can forgive without reparation. However, following Anselm, he notes that forgiveness without reparations can be a sign in serious cases, especially to the culprit, that the victim did not take seriously the evil done to him or her. It "trivializes human life ... and human relationships."25 And surely, God wants us to take sin seriously, in virtue not only of God's holiness but also of God's concern for our moral development. Hence, it seems right that God require reparations for sins committed, for in doing so God sets an example of his hatred of sin and gets us to take seriously the sins we commit. In this respect the moral influence theory of the atonement conveys an important insight.

But need God exact so great a reparation, given our poverty and his riches? If the purpose of reparation is to communicate to us God's hatred of sin and to get us to forsake sinful ways, the reparations demanded must be costly. But do they require not only the meritorious action of a sinless person but the death of God's Son? It would seem that less drastic measures could be taken to satisfy this demand.

Anselm replies that the "satisfaction should be proportionate to guilt. Otherwise sin would remain in a manner exempt from control."26 And sin against the holy God, as we have noted, is so grievous that no human could possibly provide adequate reparations. Anselm might be correct were only justice taken into account. But the redemptive process includes both justice and mercy. Thus, though from a strictly judicial perspective one might expect that the reparations would match the loss, God might invoke other considerations to redress this imbalance.

Swinburne denies the necessity of proportionality. But whether or not one holds to parity, we cannot make complete or adequate reparation because of our spiritual poverty. We are fallen, sinful.27 More than this, Anselm argues, we have nothing left to satisfy God's honor, since all that we already have we owe to him as our creator. We have nothing extra that could be used to satisfy the claims against us.28

Here God the Father intervenes through the Son's voluntary sacrifice. Since due to our sinfulness we lack the resources to make adequate amends for our action, God the Father sends his Son to supply our deficiency. Such a sacrifice might be appropriate, but is it necessary? Could not God forgive based simply upon the reparations that we can and do offer?

The key here has to do with the purity of the reparations made. Swinburne holds that "appropriate reparation and penance would be made by a perfect human life, given away through being lived perfectly."29 The biblical motif of sacrifice always required a perfect animal, without blemish. The same theme is reiterated in the sacrifice of Christ, who the New Testament writers claim was without sin. So one might say that it is not illogical or unreasonable for God to demand such reparations, since we are the ones who sinned in the first place. At the same time it might be difficult to argue that such expectations are necessary, even if God is holy or morally perfect.30

Reparations and Inclusivism

This discussion makes plain the relevance of the objective aspect of the atonement account. What remains to be shown is that individual sinners must consciously apply Christ's provision of reparations to their account. As we have seen, Christian inclusivists must argue that the merits of Christ's sacrifice can be applied to persons regardless of their ignorance of Christ's sacrifice or their failure to invoke it as a sufficient reparation for their own sins. That is, they have to show somehow that one might make amends in ignorance of what is truly required or what is provided for the reparation.

Interestingly enough, Swinburne provides a response to the subjectivist problem. He sees sin as occasioning a debt. Though ordinarily the sinner pays this debt, Swinburne holds that it is possible for the descendants of the debtor to satisfy the debt.31 By granting this, Swinburne allows reparations to be made by another, even when the debtor is dead and unaware of the reparations. This preserves the recognition of the seriousness of the sin, since the reparations are made in full, though the application of the subjective element here is assigned to others. Within the theological atonement context, Christ supplies the reparations on behalf of the debtors. As the descendants can pay off the debt of their progenitor, so Christ can pay off our debt, since we are united together with him in his death.

Thus it would appear that on Swinburne's own position the payment of reparations need not be made by the debtor him or herself but can be accomplished by others apart from the subjective condition of the debtor's knowledge. In the case of the atonement, Christ, who knows the purpose of his death as the fulfillment of the mission assigned to him by the Father, voluntarily pays the reparations, with or without our knowledge.

Apology and Pardon

This leaves us with Swinburne's second condition: apology or request for a pardon. On the one hand, this does not seem problematic in that offenders from any religion can apologize sincerely to those whom they have wronged. This is compatible with a Christian perspective that sees the Holy Spirit working in people's lives, bringing them by grace to repentance.

But since the act is a sin, the offender has not only offended another human person, he or she also has wronged God. Hence, the offender owes God an apology as well. But if offenders do not believe in God or they practice a religion that does not hold such beliefs, such an apology would not be culturally or religiously relevant to them. The broad inclusivist would either have to exclude practitioners of nontheistic religions from participating in atonement or find an alternative way of understanding apology.

How are those who have never heard of the sacrifice of Christ or who do not believe in God to request a pardon from God based on Christ's work? Two possibilities exist. One can be developed from a suggestion by Anselm. He writes that the atonement applies not only to Christ's contemporaries but also to others. He gives the example of a great king who wished, because of a great service, to pardon all those who had rebelled against him. But not all can make it on the appointed day. Accordingly, the king announces that any who "acknowledge that [they] wished to obtain pardon by the work that day accomplished, and subscribe to the condition there laid down, should be freed from all past guilt."32 One might develop this to suggest, as Swinburne does,33 that after their death God informs nonchristians of good will about the salvific death of Christ and makes available to them for their acceptance the grace that results from Christ's death. This solution requires that individuals live again after their death and at that time be given a chance to apologize and request God's forgiveness.

Let us attempt a second response that does not require this presupposition. Why does Swinburne require apology? His answer is that it is necessary for forgiveness. But cannot the offended forgive those who by repenting have expressed deep sorrow for their actions, even if they have not apologized to the offended? That someone is sorry for his or her action but has not apologized to the offended is not very plausible if the offender knows whom and how he or she has offended. But it is more plausible in certain other types of cases, for example, where offenders are ignorant of whom they have offended or have no way of contacting those whom they offended. Here it could be sufficient for the offended simply to know that the offender sincerely repents of the offense and has apologized to those whom he or she thought was offended.

Swinburne notes that in apology the offender "assures the victim that he recognizes its wrongness and that he purposes to amend."34 Although the person offended has not him or herself received a direct apology, direct apology does not seem always necessary to provide to the victim the necessary assurance of the wrongdoer's sorrow and change of life. In the kind of unusual circumstance we are considering the offended could be reasonably assured by noting the wrongdoers' contrition for the act, their apology to those the offender believes were offended, and their public change of behavior. Forgiveness in such cases would not exemplify cheap grace but is an appropriate response to the offender's sincere repentance.

Forgiveness would not restore the conscious relation between the offender and God, but in the type of case under consideration, the individuals did not have such a relation in the first place, since they did not acknowledge God's existence. Apologies that restore conscious relations would be direct.

So far we have assumed that the phenomena in other religions must parallel Swinburne's four subjective criteria, including that the person normally must actually apologize in so many words to the offended. But is this assumption justified? Could not the condition of apology be met in ways that are not strictly parallel? For example, one might perform an action that would be functionally equivalent to the expression of apology though not itself an apology. It would seem that definite language or specific behavior is not always necessary to express a particular subjective desire. After doing some wrong, a child, for example, might climb into a parent's lap and snuggle, an action the parent can interpret as an apology, though the child has no such concept. Similarly, those who do not know about the death of Christ or the reparation won thereby, or who are not party to the Swinburnian analysis that atonement requires among other conditions apology, might perform a variety of acts, such as meditation, purification, or acts specified in the Eight-Fold Path directed toward moral rectification. As the parent must discern the true wishes of the child without relying on specific deeds or even correct language, so the heavenly Parent discerns the attitudes and desires of the penitents and can make available Christ's grace on their behalf, treating these acts as somehow functionally equivalent to apology. By actions that are not point by point comparable to the Swinburnian elements but that contextually reflect the moral seriousness with which they understand what they have done and express their regret and desire for moral rectification, penitents can fulfill the subjective dimension.


In conclusion, one can appropriate something subjectively without knowing how it is achieved objectively. We have numerous examples of this. Suppose I have no idea how the stock market works, what transactions must be made to consummate a stock trade, or who carries out the trade. I simply request a broker to obtain some stock for me. Both objective and subjective elements apply. The broker purchases the stock for me and objectively it is mine. Subjectively, I accept what he has done (and objectively send him the money). But my ownership of the stock does not depend on my knowledge of any of the tran

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