So instead of wrestling with more complex Biblical analyses or adding more points to my argument, grab your fur coat and join me on a magical adventure into Narnia.
I’ll tell a REALLY brief version of the story, explaining the Christian symbolism as we go, to set us up for the important bit at the end.
(Even after hearing the story countless times, this realisation blew my mind a little bit.)
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis – The Story and the Symbolism
Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy stumble across a wardrobe which takes them to the magical land of Narnia. They soon discover that Narnia is being ruled by an evil queen, the White Witch, who is keeping the land in a perpetual winter.
A bit like the idea that the world and everything in it is under the power of “sin” and needs rescuing.
It as been foretold that she will lose her power when four humans become kings and queens of Narnia, so as soon as she hears of the children’s presence in Narnia, she does all she can to capture them. The great lion Aslan, the rightful ruler of Narnia, has not been seen for many years but is now rumoured to be “on the move” again.
Aslan is the Jesus figure. (Stating the obvious I know, stay with me…)
Edmund meets the White Witch, who tempts him with enchanted Turkish Delight and tricks him into betraying his brother and sisters. But when he fails to bring them to her, she is furious and threatens to kill him. The other children go to find Aslan, who orders a rescue mission and brings Edmund back safely to his camp.
The White Witch comes to Aslan’s camp, claiming that according to “the deep magic from the dawn of time”, laws placed at the creation of Narnia by the “Emperor-beyond-the-Sea”, a traitor in Narnia is her rightful kill.
The Emperor-beyond-the-Sea is the Creator, Father God figure. The “deep magic” is like the laws of divine justice and retribution that Christians talk about, when they say God has no choice but to punish sin – that He doesn’t want to but it’s just the way things are.
Aslan snarls, “Do not cite the Deep Magic to me, Witch. I was there when it was written.”
That has to be one of the coolest lines in any book ever.
Aslan secretly does a deal with the Witch where he offers his own life in Edmund’s place. That night Aslan sneaks off to the Stone Table where the Witch and her evil creatures humiliate, torture and kill him.
Aslan gives his life for Edmund, like Jesus giving his life for us on the cross…
The next day as Lucy and Susan are about to leave his dead body, the Stone Table cracks and Aslan miraculously comes back to life.
…and then rising from the dead on the third day.
And here’s the really interesting bit.
When Lucy and Susan ask Aslan the meaning of what has happened, he explains:
“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.”
So here’s the thing.
If C.S. Lewis had believed in the Penal Substitution theory of the atonement, there would have been no “deeper magic”, and it would have been the ‘Emperor-over-the-Sea’ demanding the sacrifice, not the White Witch.
The Emperor, Aslan’s father and the Creator of Narnia, would have been bound by the laws of retribution and vengeance – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – so would have had no choice but to kill either Edmund or Aslan, even though he loved them both.
But in this story it is the White Witch, the embodiment of evil, demanding the kill. She gets her kill but is tricked…
“Though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know.”
So what is this deeper magic?
Love. Sacrificial, self-denying love. It is this that cracks the stone table and causes Death itself to start working backwards.
Love is more powerful than retribution.
Love demands no punishment.
Love is not bound by the law.
Love sets us free, no strings attached.
Love brings us life.
Love is the deepest and most powerful force in the universe.
Love is at the centre of Reality, and is the fundamental characteristic of the Divine.
And Penal Substitutionary Atonement, still the dominant interpretation of the meaning of Christianity, fiercely defended by many, would disagree.
This story fits with the ‘ransom’ theory of the atonement, and still contains the idea of God paying a price, substituting himself for us. The main difference between this and Penal Substitution is that it is not God who is being paid. This is a VERY significant distinction, not least because it repaints the character of God. This is closely related to the ‘Christus Victor’ theory – currently growing in popularity, which suggests that Jesus died to break the power of sin and death, and ultimately defeat it. They are still just theories attempting to explain an inexplicable mystery, but arguably far more healthy, reasonable and Biblically accurate theories than Penal Substitution, and much closer in meaning to what the first Christians would have understood.
Read my entire Atonement Series here.
Photo by (C)2007 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man) (Own work (Own Picture)) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)], via Wikimedia Commons