I must confess here what a pure joy it has been to have been reading McGrath’s analysis of Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. I never read them as a child and thus never had that childhood understanding of fantasy literature. In fact for most of my life I never even liked Fantasy or even Science Fiction as a genre. On the contrary, it used to irritate me no end and it wasn’t until Michael Crichton appeared with a kind of science fiction where it was difficult to see where the science left off and the fiction began (I’m thinking of his classic The Andromeda Strain) that I could begin to see any redeeming value in the genre.That was something I found educational and useful. This other stuff was a waste of my time.
But for me and my conversion nothing was more important than C. S. Lewis. Thanks to Lewis, it was as if all my reading and my literary understanding of truth and beauty were finally made accessible to and enveloped in the person of Christ where previously it had only been able to stand outside, making me a mute observer of miracles, never able to fully embrace and completely believe. McGrath’s reading of Lewis is so perceptive and follows my own path of conversion. Lewis and I just simply connected.
Lewis develops many of the classic Christological statements of the New Testament in the Chronicles of Narnia, generally focusing these on the person of Aslan. Yet perhaps his most intriguing reworking of a classic theological theme concerns his depiction of the death and resurrection of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. So what does Lewis understand by atonement?
One major theme in Christian theological reflection concerns how the death of Christ on the cross is to be interpreted, especially in relation to the salvation of humanity. These ways of interpreting the Cross, traditionally referred it to as “theories of the Atonement,” have played a major role in Christian discussion and debate through the ages. Lewis positions his account of the death of Aslan at the hands of the White Witch within the context of this stream of thinking. But what ideas does Lewis himself develop?
Before considering this question, we need to appreciate that Lewis was not a professional theologian, and did not have any expert knowledge of the historical debates within the Christian tradition on this question. While some have tried to relate Lewis to, for example, the medieval debate between Anselm of Canterbury and Peter Abelard, this is not a particularly profitable approach. Lewis tends to know theological ideas through their literary embodiments. It is therefore not to professional theologians that we must turn to explore Lewis’ ideas on the Atonement, but to the English literary tradition — to works such as Piers Plowman, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, or the medieval mystery plays. It is here that we will find the approaches that Lewis weaves into his Narnian narrative.
Lewis’s first discussion of approaches to the Atonement is is found in The Problem of Pain (1940). Lewis argues that any theory of the Atonement is secondary to the actuality of it. While these various theories may be useful to some, Lewis remarks, “they do no good to me, and I am not going to invent others.”
Lewis returns to this theme in his broadcast talks of the 1940s. Lewis here remarks that, before he became a Christian, he held the view that Christians were obliged to take a specific position on the meaning of Christ’s death, and especially how it brought about salvation. One such theory was that human beings deserved to be punished for their sin, but “Christ volunteered to be punished instead, and so God let us off.” After his conversion, however, Lewis came to realize that theories about redemption are of secondary importance:
“What I came to see later on was that neither this theory nor any other is Christianity. The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter.”
Broadcast Talks, p.52
In other words, “theories of the Atonement” are not the heart of Christianity; rather, they are attempts to explain how it works. We see here Lewis’s characteristic resistance to the primacy of theory over theological or literary actuality. It is perfectly possible to “accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works.” Theories are always, Lewis holds, secondary to what they represent:
“We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has lashed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself, that’s the formula. That’s Christianity. That’s what has to be believed. Any theories we build up as to how Christ’s death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to be left alone if they don’t help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself.”
Broadcast Talks, p. 53, 54
These reflections are in no way inconsistent with actually adopting such a theory; they merely set a theory in context, insisting that it is like a plan or diagram, which is “not to be confused with the thing itself.”
One of the most shocking and disturbing scenes in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the death of Asian. Where the New Testament speaks of the death of Christ as redeeming humanity, Lewis presents Aslan’s death initially benefiting one person, and one person only — Edmund. The easily misled boy falls into the hands of the White Witch. Alarmed that the presence of humans in Narnia is a portent of the end of her reign, she attempts to neutralize them, using Edmund as her unwitting agent. In his attempts to secure her goodwill (and more Turkish Delight), Edmund deceives his siblings. And that act of deception proves to be a theological turning point.
The White Witch demands a meeting with Aslan, at which she declares that Edmund, by committing such an act of betrayal, has come under her authority. She has a right to his life, and she intends to exercise that right. The Deep Magic built into Narnia at its beginning by the Emperor-by-the-Sea laid down “that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill.” Edmund is hers. His life is forfeit. And she demands his blood.
Then a secret deal is done, of which the children know nothing. Aslan agrees to act as a substitute for Edmund. He will die, so that Edmund may live. Unaware of what is about to happen, Lucy and Susan follow Aslan as he walks towards the hill of the Stone Table, to be bound and to die himself at the hands of the White Witch. This scene is as moving as it is horrific, and parallels at some points — but not at others — the New Testament accounts of Christ’s final hours in the garden of Gethsemane and his subsequent crucifixion. Aslan is put to death, surrounded by a baying mob, who mock him in his final agony.
One of the most moving scenes in the entire Narnia series describes how Susan and Lucy approach the dead lion, kneeling before him as they “kissed his cold face and stroked his beautiful fur,” crying “till they could cry no more.” Lewis here shows himself at his imaginative best reworking the themes of the images and texts of medieval piety – such as the classic Pieta (the image of the dead Christ being held by his till Mary), and the text Stabat Mater Dolorosa (describing the pain and sorrow of Mary at Calvary, as she weeps at the scene of Christ’s death).
Then everything is unexpectedly transformed. Asian comes back to life. The witnesses to this dramatic moment are Lucy and Susan alone. paralleling the New Testament’s insistence that the first witnesses to the resurrection of Christ were three women. They are astonished and delighted, flinging themselves upon Aslan and covering him with kisses. What has happened?
“But what does it all mean?” asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.
“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”
Aslan thus lives again, and Edmund is liberated from any legitimate claim on the White Witch’s part.
And there is still more to come. The courtyard of the White Witch’s castle is filled with petrified Narnians, turned into stone by the Witch. Following his resurrection, Aslan breaks down the castle gates, romps into the courtyard, breathes upon the statues, and restores them to life. Finally, he leads the liberated army through the shattered gates of the once-great fortress to fight for the freedom of Narnia. It is a dramatic and highly satisfying end to the narrative.
But where do these ideas come from? They are all derived from the writings of the Middle Ages — not works of academic theology, which generally were critical of such highly visual and dramatic approaches, but the popular religious literature of the age, which took pleasure in a powerful narrative of Satan’s being outmaneuvered and outwitted by Christ. According to these popular atonement theories, Satan had rightful possession over sinful human beings. God was unable to wrest humanity from Satan’s grasp by any legitimate means. Yet what if Satan were to overstep his legitimate authority, and claim the life of a sinless person — such as Jesus Christ, who, as God incarnate, was devoid of sin?
The great mystery plays of the Middle Ages — such as the cycle per formed at York in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries — dramatized the way in which a wily and canny God tricked Satan into overstepping his rights, and thus forfeiting them all. An arrogant Satan received his comeuppance, to howls of approval from the assembled townspeople. A central theme of this great popular approach to atonement was the “Harrowing of Hell” — a dramatic depiction of the risen Christ battering the gates of hell and setting free all who were imprisoned within its realm. All of humanity were thus liberated by the death and resurrection of Christ. In Narnia Edmund is the first to be saved by Aslan; the remainder are restored to life later, as Aslan breathes on the stone statues in the Witch’s castle.
Lewis’ narrative in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe contains the main themes of this medieval atonement drama: Satan having rights over sinful humanity; God outwitting Satan because of the sinlessness of Christ; and the breaking down of the gates of Hell, leading to the liberation of its prisoners. The imagery is derived from the great medieval popular religious writings which Lewis so admired and enjoyed.
So what are we to make of this approach to atonement? Most theologians regard Lewis’ narrative depiction of atonement with mild amusement, seeing it as muddled and confused. But this is to misunderstand both the nature of Lewis’ sources and his intentions. The great medieval mystery plays aimed to make the theological abstractions of atonement accessible, interesting, and above all entertaining. Lewis has brought his own distinct approach to this undertaking, but its historical roots and imaginative appeal are quite clear.