Repost: The Theodicy of Narnia

[Author's Note: I'm reposting some old favorites while I'm away on vacation this week. This post was originally from December 2006.]

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, shouldn’t alter 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 wasn’t 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’re 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.

  • Ani J. Sharmin

    It’s a weird feeling to reread books you read as a child and recognize things you didn’t notice before. From what I’ve heard of Narnia, there are other people who’ve had a similar realization about some of the Christian messages. And I’ve had a similar feeling with books I’ve read. This also reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s short story about The Problem of Susan.

  • Russell Wain Glasser

    I was raised atheist, and my parents are atheists. One of my dad’s friends once saw me reading one of the Narnia books, and simply said to me, “You know, Aslan is Jesus.” I actually said “That’s not true!” Not only did it not occur to me at the time, but it seemed ridiculous at first.

    I’ve always liked CS Lewis as a fiction writer, Less impressed with his direct apologetics.

  • ClintonKing

    The world may be that way, but my own life certainly isn’t. While it is true I have ‘blips’ of crisis, the majority of my life has been filled with relative peace and contentment. I assume, of course, that as an American in the 21st century, I’m an exception rather than the rule of human existence on this planet.

  • Jonathan Flint

    I think the most interesting thing about the Narnia books is that, for all that they try to show how the “sceptical” characters are in the wrong, and you can’t perceive Aslan unless you believe in him (that is, trying to make the metaphor hold in this fantasy setting he created and in the real world)… he also has Aslan performing explicitly supernatural acts which directly and physically affect non believers (e.g. what happens to Trumpkin in Prince Caspian). That is, he gets to have his cake and eat it, too – you have to accept Aslan before he will reveal himself to you, and at the same time he can still affect you in tangible ways even if you don’t accept him.
    Which means that all the other cases, the times when someone is NOT directly physically affected – touched, thrown around and spoken to – by C.S.Lewis’ version of God, he has to believe that that is due to choice. So for all his attempts to weasel around the problem of “why doesn’t God show up in person”, he still falls into it.
    Compartmentalization, eh?

  • Ohtobide

    Remember that Lewis thought that our world was created as a ‘kindly land’, without suffering, strife, injustice and tragedy. He believed that human beings, by disobeying God, made our world the way it is now. Of course that raises a lot of other questions which Lewis tried, and probably failed, to answer but he definitely did not think that the pain of our world was part of God’s original intention.