Wednesday, March 23, 2016

God is not the Witch! C.S. Lewis on the Atonement - Brad Jersak

No Christian thinker has synthesized the rich and varied imagery of the gospel into a single beautiful picture as did C.S. Lewis in his classic novella, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Through Lewis’ children’s fantasy, the New Testament themes— redemption and reconciliation, substitution and sacrifice, ransom and victory—coalesce into one of literature’s greatest plotlines. After all, it is a retelling of the greatest story ever told! 

Spoiler alert: I’ll summarize the epic climax shortly! 

Plot: Four English adolescents pass through a magical wardrobe into the strange world of Narnia, which has fallen into a deathly winter through the dark magic of the witch, Jadis. The witch succeeds in luring one of the boys, Edmund, into her evil clutches and deceives him into betraying his siblings. 

The great lion Aslan—Lewis’ Christ-figure— conceives a plan to rescue Edmund, but Jadis claims eye-for-an-eye justice to demand Edmund’s execution. Aslan secretly bargains for Edmund’s life by offering his own in exchange. Jadis is delighted; Aslan’s death will be her final victory. She and her minions tie Aslan to ‘the Stone Table’ (representing the law of condemnation). They shave his mane, mock and beat him, and finally, Jadis delivers the fatal wound with a stone knife. Wondrously, though the Witch can kill Aslan, she cannot take his life! Aslan is resurrected, the stone table is broken, Edmund is redeemed and the witch is destroyed! 

This is the Beautiful Gospel as C.S. Lewis imagined it. This famous fiction captures essential truths of Christ’s saving work as understood by the first apostles, evangelists and theologians. But the tale also underscores Lewis’s corrections to the most popular ‘atonement theory’ of his time (or ours). In his letters (to Bede Griffith), Lewis refers to the Anselmic theory (after Anselm of Canterbury) and says it “was not to be found either in the N.T. or most of the fathers.” In Mere Christianity he describes it:
“According to that theory God wanted to punish men for having deserted and joined the Great Rebel, but Christ volunteered to be punished instead, and so God let us off. Now I admit that even this theory does not seem quite so immoral and silly as it used to; but that is not the point I want to make. What I came to see later on was that neither this theory nor any other is Christianity. The central belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start.”
Yet neither Lewis’ letters nor his non-fiction compare to the beauty and clarity of the gospel preached in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. 

To summarize: 

1. In the story, God appears only as Aslan—the Incarnation of God in Narnia. 

2. In the story, God never demands the death of Edmund or of Aslan. The witch does. God is not the witch. God is Aslan. 

3. In the story, the witch thinks she has cornered Aslan into satisfying the wrath of the Stone Table. But she has not and he does not. There is no law higher than Aslan. He willingly gives himself to save the victim, he breaks the Table and conquers both death and the witch. 

4. The Table is not God’s intractable wrath. It is the law of retribution and condemnation, broken by the deeper “magic” of sacrificial love. If the Stone Table can be broken, then it is not one of God’s eternal attributes. 

5. The witch could and surely did execute Aslan—but she was wrong to believe she could take his life. Like Christ, Aslan alone has the power to lay down his life, and therefore, the power to take it up again. She never took his life. He gave it, but not to her and not to death. He gave it for love to ransom everyone. The witch (like Satan and death) fell into her own trap and found Aslan to be very much alive. 

C.S. Lewis provides an important corrective to ideas of the Cross that mistakenly cast God into the witch’s role. But more importantly, he expresses the Beautiful Gospel in a way that even children can see it, even if some theologians cannot. 

Brad Jersak

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