The Theodicy of Narnia

When I was a child, I read and devoured C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia books. I was too young then to understand most of the religious symbolism, and didn’t realize that Lewis had intended the series as a Christian allegory until the end of the very last Narnia book, The Last Battle, which makes the comparison explicit. I will say, however, that I enjoyed the books greatly, and that they were a great source of inspiration to my young imagination. Even now, though the Narnia books have aged somewhat, I still derive pleasure from rereading them.

However, now that I’m an atheist, I think the Narnia books can be used to make an entirely different point, one which their author almost certainly didn’t intend.

In addition to his life as a fantasy author, C.S. Lewis wore another hat, that of a Christian apologist. In books such as The Problem of Pain, he passionately defended Christianity against the atheist argument from evil, arguing publicly that the existence of evil and suffering, no matter how terrible, should not alter in the slightest the conviction that a just and benevolent deity exists. However, when he took off this hat and resumed writing fantasy – when, perhaps, the need to defend Christianity was not always uppermost on his mind – a different belief seemed to come to light.

The following excerpt is from the seventh and last Narnia book, The Last Battle. I hope my readers will forgive the length, which is a bit excessive, but it’s necessary to quote it in full to make an important point:

“Oh, this is nice!” said Jill. “Just walking along like this. I wish there could be more of this sort of adventure. It’s a pity there’s always so much happening in Narnia.”

But the Unicorn explained to her that she was quite mistaken. He said that the Sons and Daughters of Adam and Eve were brought out of their own strange world into Narnia only at times when Narnia was stirred and upset, but she mustn’t think it was always like that. In between their visits there were hundreds and thousands of years when peaceful King followed peaceful King till you could hardly remember their names or count their numbers, and there was really hardly anything to put into the History Books. And he went on to talk of old Queens and heroes whom she had never heard of. He spoke of Swanwhite the Queen who had lived before the days of the White Witch and the Great Winter, who was so beautiful that when she looked into any forest pool the reflection of her face shone out of the water like a star by night for a year and a day afterwards. He spoke of Moonwood the Hare who had such ears that he could sit by Caldron Pool under the thunder of the great waterfall and hear what men spoke in whispers at Cair Paravel. He told how King Gale, who was ninth in descent from Frank the first of all Kings, had sailed far away into the Eastern seas and delivered the Lone Islanders from a dragon and how, in return, they had given him the Lone Islands to be part of the royal lands of Narnia for ever. He talked of whole centuries in which all Narnia was so happy that notable dances and feasts, or at most tournaments, were the only things that could be remembered, and every day and week had been better than the last. And as he went on, the picture of all those happy years, all the thousands of them, piled up in Jill’s mind till it was rather like looking down from a high hill on to a rich, lovely plain full of woods and waters and cornfields, which spread away and away till it got thin and misty from distance.

This seemingly innocuous passage, when read for what it’s really saying, takes on a totally different aspect. In actuality, it’s a thunderbolt against Christian theodicy, one which casts serious doubt on whether even Lewis himself believed his own words when arguing for the compatibility of evil and a loving god.

In its seven-book tenure, Narnia faced many threats – a white witch who wrapped the land in a blanket of endless winter, another witch who kidnapped the royal scion and bewitched an army of subterranean Earthmen to launch a war against the king, cannibal giants, warlike Calormenes who threatened their Narnian neighbors, an antichrist ape who turned the Narnians from the worship of Aslan the Lion and ushered in the demonic Tash, and more. In the end, usually with help from Aslan, Narnia always survived, though it often took battles and the sacrifice of innocents.

In the above passage, the human Jill is lamenting the fact that Narnia always seemed beset with war and strife, only to have the unicorn Jewel explain to her that these dark times were nothing but brief blips in a vast ocean of peace and happiness; that, in fact, Narnia was a joyous, paradise-like land for the overwhelming majority of the many ages of time during which it was in existence.

Why did Jewel (actually, why did Lewis) feel the need to reassure Jill in this way? Presumably, it was because Narnia was created by Aslan, and it wouldn’t speak highly of Aslan if he created a world that was constantly in turmoil and at war. It would, indeed, cast considerable doubt on Aslan’s benevolence if the world which he created with his divine power turned out to contain continual death, suffering and strife; a world where justice was not always done, where the evil frequently ruled over the good, where most lives were full of pain and want, and where tragedy struck capriciously and randomly. It would cast considerable doubt on Aslan’s presumed omnipotence if he could not plan a world that would turn out the way he wanted (he described his intention in the first book, The Magician’s Nephew, to make Narnia a “kindly land”); and it would cast even more doubt on his goodness if he did not want it to turn out well.

But now comes the obvious point which, in his fantasy-writing mode, seems not to have occurred to Lewis: Narnia may not have been such a place, but our world is. Our world does contain near-constant warfare, death and suffering. Our world is a place where the good do not always triumph and where the innocent often suffer needlessly. Our world is a place where tragedy often strikes without warning or reason. If it would have led us to doubt Aslan had he created such a world, is it not the logical conclusion from Lewis’ very own words that the sorry state of our world should lead us to doubt God and to consider seriously the possibility that he does not exist? And is it not a further conclusion that, when Christian apologists assert the compatibility of God’s existence and evil, we should seriously consider whether they even believe their own arguments, or whether they are simply employing them insincerely to defend a belief to which they already have a preconceived and non-rational attachment?

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://rightside.fissure.org/ Shishberg

    Just to play dev… er, god’s advocate for a second… Is it possible that you’re suffering from the same selection bias as Jill; that the worst of the world’s suffering is obvious to you because it’s constantly brought to your attention, but that those are really just brief interruptions in the overall niceness of the world that is too commonplace to notice? Maybe Lewis’ point was to get his readers to think that, despite all the suffering in the world that would make you doubt God, there is more than enough happiness that goes unnoticed to make up for it.

    Of course, that’s probably not true. But because no one person ever sees more than a tiny fraction of what actually happens around the world, and because the vast majority of Lewis’ readers would have been from the educated Western population with very little experience outside that (WW2 London bombings aside), it’s an argument he could easily have gotten away with.

  • Alex Weaver

    I remember reading the Narnia books as a young child and liking them, but not really “getting” the last three, and wishing that the series as a whole focused more on the original four characters. I hadn’t had nearly enough experience with Christian mythology to recognize the books as a Christian allegory, though when other things I read made the connection it became immediately obvious.

    Speaking of fiction and allegory, one of the stranger claims I had read was that the original Doom games were Christian allegories. I thought about that and realized that they were humanist allegories, if anything, in that they depicted the forces of evil being defeated by the actions of a single dedicated, courageous, and principled (as evidenced from his being deported to Mars after assaulting a superior officer rather than obey an order to fire on civilians) human. God and Jesus were mentioned in the games, if at all, only as interjections. No wonder certain fundamentalists hate the games… ^.^

  • ellen

    “Maybe Lewis’ point was to get his readers to think that, despite all the suffering in the world that would make you doubt God, there is more than enough happiness that goes unnoticed to make up for it.”

    Maybe…but it would be pretty disingenous to claim seriously that the world is mostly happy rather than filled with misery. Even in the US where most people are pretty well fed, clothed and housed by world standards, people are depressed, alienated and unhappy more often than not. Millions of people worldwide die of starvation-related causes alone every year. The theists of course claim that god has his own good reasons for allowing suffering, genocide, holocausts, etc., but I don’t see them (generally) claiming this is the best of all possible worlds.

    Good thoughts, adam. I enjoyed this. I read the chronicles as a teenager and was so out of the loop that I had no idea they were supposed to be a xian allegory.

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    Perhaps because I was raised a Christian, it always startles me to hear of people who didn’t realize Narnia was Christian – seemed to me the first book hits you over the head a lot harder than even the last one – subtle misogyny and hatred of sex included. The problem of Susan made the books difficult for me to like once I got older, though I still love a couple of them – Dawn Treader especially.

    I also always thought that in the book Aslan was sorry to suffer but knew he’d come back – and it’s one of the movie’s flaws, I think (along with having Peter ride a Talking Horse there at the end!!!) that it’s pretty clear that he knows his death will be temporary. I mean, he knows all about the Deep Magic, etc – and what sort of sacrifice is it when you know it’s not permanent?

  • Alex Weaver

    “Problem of Susan?” Refresh my memory.

    Anyway, it occurs to me that I may have to work on Prince of Twilight in between working on Arkalian. I’ve never been on the non-editing end of a serious editing relationship; anyone have any suggestions?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    In the last Narnia book, Aslan states that Susan (one of the four children from the first book) is no longer a “friend of Narnia”, and despite having been there, no longer believes that there is any such place. It’s implied that her sexual maturation is the cause of this.

  • andrea

    The unicorn’s words seem to me to be simply lies. Oh it was nice here in Narnia, but I can’t prove it. You’ll just have to believe me. Nice fairy tales but nothing true. Just like “hey, God was doing miracles left and right back then. why doesn’t he do them now? oh, it the devil/snow queen/bad people/”free will”, etc ad nauseum”.

  • SM

    I don’t think Unicorns lie in Narnia. That would be like having a good witch- some creatures there are just Good or Evil.

    I thought Susan’s seperation from Narnia had less to do with her sexual maturation and more to do with her becoming a selfish and superficial person who grew up part way and then stopped. Her immaturity just happened to involve a teenaged fixation with clothes and makeup and short-lived romantic relationships. I recall that I found some things in the books odd until I had read them all, then came vaguely to understand the allegory.

  • andrea

    So Aslan created evil? Heh.

  • http://rightside.fissure.org Shishberg

    So Aslan created evil? Heh.

    Actually, Digory brought evil into Narnia when he brought the White Witch over from Charn. So Aslan didn’t create evil… in Narnia.

    Of course, Charn was created by… well, you’re not supposed to think too hard about that.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    To address Shishberg’s earlier commnt:

    Is it possible that you’re suffering from the same selection bias as Jill; that the worst of the world’s suffering is obvious to you because it’s constantly brought to your attention, but that those are really just brief interruptions in the overall niceness of the world that is too commonplace to notice? Maybe Lewis’ point was to get his readers to think that, despite all the suffering in the world that would make you doubt God, there is more than enough happiness that goes unnoticed to make up for it.

    I don’t deny that there is a vast amount of happiness and love in the world – I gladly acknowledge it! It would be most difficult to be a humanist if that wasn’t the case.

    However, in parallel with this, it is also important to recognize that there is an equally vast amount of pain and suffering. Clearly, that is not the sort of world Lewis sought to depict. He has Jewel explicitly state that Narnia has known periods of peace lasting for “hundreds and thousands of years” at a time, eras lasting so long that the most important things that can be remembered to have occurred during them are dances and feasts. This is light-years away from our own world. Our world has never been entirely at peace during any period of its history, and there is probably not an adult alive in any corner of the planet who does not have firsthand acquaintance with some war, disaster, or other great catastrophe that happened during their lifetime. As I said, Lewis strongly implies that Narnia’s creator would be in some way deficient if he had made a world that contained constant strife and suffering, but fails to notice what that very statement implies for his own religious beliefs.

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    I think that Lewis pretty clearly meant sex. Notice that none of the others have a boy or girlfriend, and Lucy sums up Susan with ‘boys’ and all that. At that point in his life Lewis was a pretty asexual celibate. But beyond that, there was all the “battles are ugly when girls fight” stuff, too. Subtle, but I felt it.

    I also think that many of Lewis’s new fans in the evangelical community won’t be at all happy with the statement in The Last Battle that many who worship Tash – the evil Calormene god – will go to heaven, because they were “really” worshipping Aslan, and that many who claim to serve Aslan were really serving Tash…

  • http://onlycrook.wordpress.com Jude

    I read the Narnia books as an adult, along with the other books C.S. Lewis wrote. Since I didn’t approach them with childlike innocence, I thought they were fairly awful. His non-fiction books are worse. The most glaring example I can remember of his illogic was when he explained why, after he became a theist when he could have chosen any Protestant denomination or Catholicism, he chose to join the Church of England. His conclusion was something along the lines of, “having investigated the different denominations, I concluded that the Church of England was the best one.” Yeah, right. It had nothing to do with the fact that the Church of England was the predominant denomination in England? It was simply the best denomination. What a loser.

  • snail

    I’m awfully glad to see that there are other atheists around who read these books as kids and loved them; Narnia and Nancy Drew were the two series I read dozens of times. I honestly didn’t get that they were a Christian allegory until book six, I believe it was…The Silver Chair, when the witch is trying to convince them that the sun is nothing but their imagining a bigger, brighter lamp. Puddleglum’s answering “Well, if it is, I still believe in it anyway because this world sucks” always hit me as kind of…wrong, somehow. I never liked the 6th and 7th books as much as the earlier ones.

    Honestly, the end of the last one just gave me goosebumps, in both good and bad ways–further up and further in, forever? And the people on the other clouds? And all of them *die*? It did get me thinking more about the afterlife than probably is healthy for a kid.

  • http://nesoo.wordpress.com/ Nes

    I read and loved the Narnia books as a kid too, though it struck me as pretty obvious even in the first book that Aslan = Jesus, and I was only loosely Christian. Though, I must admit, that even now, reading that passage, and even remembering having read it before, I had no clue where Ebon was going with it. “What’s wrong with this passage,” I thought, “I don’t see what’s contradictory about it.” It definitely surprised me to see the glaring contradiction when Ebon finally revealed it!

    As far as Susan goes (and it has been a while since I’ve read them, so my memory is a bit fuzzy on this), I just read it as she was an atheist, which was represented by her only being interested in “worldly” things, such as boys, makeup, etc., and not into “spiritual” things such as the fantasy that is Narnia. I hadn’t ever made the sex connection before, though this does give me good reason to reread the series (which I do still like) and see if that makes more sense.

  • http://nesoo.wordpress.com/ Nes

    Finish thought, then post.

    Continuing with Susan:
    The first time I had read the final book, I remember thinking that it was rather cruel that Susan didn’t get to join them, just because she didn’t believe in Narnia anymore. I felt bad for her, and I understood that Aslan might have been a little sad that she didn’t believe that he or Narnia was real, but I also felt a bit angry at Aslan for not forgiving her and letting her join them anyway. What kind of “friend” was he that he couldn’t forgive that?

  • SteveC

    > Speaking of fiction and allegory, one of the
    > stranger claims I had read was that the original
    > Doom games were Christian allegories.

    That is a weird one. John Carmack is on the celebrity atheists list so it seems pretty unlikely, even ignoring considerations of what Doom looked like.

  • n8 mcd

    I was an avid reader of C. S. Lewis as a child, and was disappointed in the theistic hintings throughout The Cronicles of Narnia, although the degree to which the books are alledgely biblical alagories was lost on me then, and to a lesser extint still is now.

    The Last Battle came across as heavy handed and preachy, and was an anti-climactic finalle to a series that never seemed to beg one. The Narnia Cronicles would have been a more rewarding read had they either never come to a conclusion, or had come to the sort of conclusion set forth in The first book. It seems that Lewis spent all his best material in the The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and was left with scraps to populate the remnants of his Narnia works with nothing worthwhile to use as a proper conclusion to the tract.

    As to his theology… I found his writings in Peralandra and so forth smacking more of the principles of Gnosticism, and could easily have been a predecessor of Bloom’s The Flight to Lucifer. I always resenting the implications that Lewis was an avid christian, and its my understanding that representation of him is entirely American. Appearantly, he is/was a bit of an embarrassment in English eyes, with his alledged debaucheries, and considered far from christian. From what I have been able to gather, he kept being a troubled or faithless christian in the closet, as well as his mother complex and alledged homosexual relations with his fellows in academia (unsubstantiated but often speculated on).

  • http://evilbender.wordpress.com Evil Bender

    Excellent post and discussion here. I’d only add that Lewis’ best work, to my view, is Out of the Silent Planet, which is also the only book in either the Narnia or Space trilogy where the alegory seems to take a back seat–or at least where the alegory is less explicitly Christian. Lewis had some talent, but too often he was forced to do mental gymnastics to avoid the obvious answers to his theological and philisophical questions. What a shame.

  • pkiwi

    I liked the books as a kid, sort of got the allegory but managed to ignore it for the sake of the story! Like later on ignoring some of the obvious racism in the Horse and his Boy and the Calormen. But on re-reading a few of the books recently (as my kids were dipping into 1 or 2), and seeing the movie, I now can’t help but think they are poorly written. There is really so little in the way of development of the characters and no moral dilemmas. Its pantomine level stuff that could do with a slapstick narrator: “Don’t eat the turkish delight Edmund… Oh no… now how do we put that right?”. My kids have found much better challenging fiction thank goodness. I thought the Last Battle was turgid as a kid, now it reads as insufferably bad.

  • pkiwi

    I also had the hots for Susan, not Lucy…what does that mean???

  • Paul A

    “Problem of Susan?” Refresh my memory.

    A bit off-topic but the new Neil Gaiman short story collection has a fantastic piece entitled The Problem Of Susan situated around the Narnia books and other children’s fiction. Oh, and it also has the best Sherlock Holmes meets Cthulhu story you’ll ever read :-)

  • Matt

    The Sherlock Holmes meets Cthulhu story is on Neil Gaiman’s website, actually. It’s great, go and read it.

  • speedwell

    “Problem of Susan?” It’s only a problem if you fail to realize that Narnia is not a world mappable onto our world, but more an image of childhood and innocence. Peter, older than Susan but still in touch with his innocence and still in sight of ideals of a chivalric age, didn’t lose the right to come back, you will notice. It’s not just sex that constituted Susan’s “problem,” it’s wordliness, not so much in the Christian sense as in the sophisticated, tiresome, wannabe-grown-up self-denial sense. There simply wasn’t much of the original Susan left to bring back by that time.

    Poor Lewis, who suffered so much from the loss of innocence in his own life (the public schools he went to were notoriously abusive to a sensitive, intelligent boy like him and like so many others), remained an idealistic man throughout his life. Aslan is not Jesus Christ; he’s what Lewis wished Christ was really like. If I lived in Narnia, I would find it pretty easy to be religious, if religion consisted merely of belief in Aslan’s role in history. Which, as a previous commenter pointed out, is only part of the issue.

    I frequently mention in chats with fellow atheists that it looks very much to me as though Lewis became an atheist because it was the sophisticated, worldly, angry-young-man thing to do. In other words, he drew Susan from his own experience of himself. I wonder if he considered himself lost to innocence in the same way Susan was lost to Narnia. I think it’s likely.

  • speedwell

    That should say worldliness. OK, back to work. :)

  • you there

    I think there are other more damning “improvements” that Lewis made to the Christian story. For instance, having Aslan willingly give himself up, rather than being betrayed by his friends while in hiding. That changes the dyanmic a bit.

  • Ben Boyd

    You are quite sure that this world is full of war and strife, but hen I might ask who causes such strife? War is a consequence of man. Man is all together Evil, and without God with have such men as Hitler, and Stalin. Hitler killed 6 million jews, and he was an atheist. (Not to put you in the same category.) In “The Magician’s Nephew”, Lewis writes that Aslan tells them that Kirke and Polly brought the Witch (Evil) This is not an attack either, but reminds us that We brought evil into the world. I would disagree that he is attacking Christianity. You have to understand that there is a War, an eternal war between Good and Evil. Understanding that will make you understand that there is no way of keeping a everlasting peace which can not exist until the Prince of Peace returns.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse
  • Webuffy

    I never really got in to Narnia – I think I was to much a LOTR reader to want yet another fantasy world. I found Lewis apologetics in Mere Christianity nothing short of brilliant; and even if one doesn’t believe in an almighty God the case he makes is compelling. His own experience of faith is detailed in his autobio., an interesting read, which was the last book he wrote titled Surprised by Joy. His search for God actually began with a search for joy, something on a higher level than mere happiness. The book tells how he began to shift from being an atheist to a theist – slowly and agonizingly. Quote from the book: “In reading Chesterton, as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. . . . God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.” Chesterton wrote The Everlasting Man, a portrait of Christ and of his impact on history. For me, Lewis remains as a mentor and helps me bridge the chasm in my own belief which always exists between faith and reason.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    I found Lewis apologetics in Mere Christianity nothing short of brilliant…

    Then I suggest you take another look. Lewis’ style of apologetics is breezy at best, and when there are significant flaws in his argument (like the ludicrous assertion that every culture throughout history has had essentially the same moral code), his usual response is simply to ignore them.

  • Ben Boyd

    HItler wasn’t an atheist? He did not believe in God. The Definition of atheist is one who believes there is no god. I have read your little article you gave me. It seems that you have misunderstood him. “Evil will trimuph when good men do nothing” Edmund Burke. I would like to tell you that Hitler thought himself to be God, and thus any commandment to obey god would beneficiary to his cause. Hitler also threw preachers into prison. Have you ever heard of the “Why We Fight” series?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    HItler wasn’t an atheist? He did not believe in God.

    That claim is a fantasy unsupported by any evidence. Hitler repeatedly claimed to believe in God both in public and in private and never said he was an atheist in any record that we know of.

    Hitler also threw preachers into prison.

    Yes, just as many religious people throughout history have persecuted other religious people who believed different things. Or do you suppose that the Spanish Inquisition, the Taliban, and the Puritan witch-hunters were all atheists?

    Your comments are off topic in this thread. If you want to continue this discussion, you may do so in the post I previously cited.

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    I had an interesting idea regarding this post. Perhaps C.S. Lewis did not intend that Narnia be an allegory of life on earth, but an allegory of the life of the average human or someone C.S. knew or maybe even C.S. himself.

    There are many people who have long periods of happiness in their life interrupted by patches of difficulty. Perhaps this was Lewis’ meaning. I recognize that there are those who live in difficult places, but I have been to these places and find that, rather than despairing at their misfortune, these people have found reason to rejoice and be happy notheless.

    Maybe C.S. is saying that we must not let the difficult parts of our lives ruin our whole life. We will encounter hardship, to be sure, but we must not let the hardship dominate or define our lives.

    Perhaps this is a stretch, but I think it does work.

    Cheers,

    Matt R.


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