No, C. S. Lewis Didn’t Teach a Ransom Atonement

No, C. S. Lewis Didn’t Teach a Ransom Atonement January 24, 2018

One of the less astute canards in Reformed circles is the idea that C. S. Lewis taught a ransom theory of the atonement.

This is usually deployed as part of an assault on Lewis’s orthodoxy and value as a Christian thinker, and is almost always accompanied by several other lines of attack, for example, that he affirmed a form of purgatory, that he was too high-church or ecumenical, that he was open to Darwinian evolution, or that he didn’t take a strictly evangelical view of Scripture’s inerrancy. Curiously, one aspect of Lewis’ writing I often hear fellow Calvinists attack most vigorously is his use of classical apologetics (as opposed to Van Tilian presuppositionalism).

Lion-1Some of these charges are more defensible than others, and it would take far more time to respond to them all than I have here. Right now, I want to deal with the accusation that C. S. Lewis takes a view of Christ’s atonement which most evangelical and Protestant theologians would consider unorthodox, or at  least inadequate.

The passage usually cited in support of the “ransom theory” charge, amusingly, is a scene from “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” a children’s book, and the first (by published date) of “The Chronicles of Narnia.” The relevant section opens with the White Witch, having lost the traitorous boy Edmund to a horde of liberators, approaching the Lion, Aslan at his camp. I will quote it at length, because it’s necessary for the point I want to make:

“You have a traitor there, Aslan,” said the Witch….

“Well,” said Aslan, “His offense was not against you.”

“Have you forgotten the Deep Magic?” asked the Witch.

“Let us say I have forgotten it,” answered Aslan gravely. “Tell us of this Deep Magic.”

“Tell you?” said the Witch, her voice growing suddenly shriller. “Tell you what is written on that very Table of Stone which stands beside us? Tell you what is written on letters deep as a spear is long on the fire-stones on the Secret Hill? Tell you what is engraved on the scepter of the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea? You at least know the Magic which the Emperor put into Narnia at the very beginning. You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill.”

“Oh,” said Mr. Beaver. “So that’s how you came to imagine yourself a queen–because you were the Emperor’s hangman. I see.”

“Peace, Beaver,” said Aslan, with a very low growl.

“And so,” continued the Witch, “that human creature is mine. His life is forfeit to me. His blood is my property.”

“Come and take it then,” said the Bull with the man’s head in a great bellowing voice.

“Fool,” said the Witch with a savage smile that was almost a snarl, “do you really think your master can rob me of my rights by mere force? He knows the Deep Magic better than that. He knows that unless I have blood as the Law says all Narnia will be overturned and perish in fire and water.”

“It is very true,” said Aslan, “I do not deny it.”

Most know how the story ends. Aslan volunteers to take Edmund’s place on the Stone Table, is killed by the White Witch, and rises again the next morning because of the “Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time,” which states that when an innocent and willing party is killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack, and death itself would start moving backward.

Now, working from the assumption that Lewis was writing a strict allegory in which Aslan corresponds to Christ, the White Witch to Satan, the Emperor to God the Father, and Edmund to fallen humanity (which Lewis often disputed), Reformed and evangelical critics will read this passage and say, “Aha! Ransom theory!”

What they understand by “ransom theory” is an idea popular in the early years of the Christian church that on the cross, God was giving Jesus to Satan as the price for our redemption. Satan owned us, but was willing to give us up in exchange for a juicier prize, the life of God’s own Son. In doing so, fathers like Origen and Gregory of Nyssa thought God played a sort of fisherman’s trick on Satan by getting him to swallow the “hook” of Christ’s divinity, concealed within the “bait” of His humanity. And this was Satan’s downfall.

This theory, say critics, stands in contrast to the biblical, penal substitutionary teaching on atonement, in which Christ dies in the stead of sinners to appease the justice of God, not the demands of Satan.

On a superficial level, it looks as if Lewis taught a ransom theory in “Narnia” in lieu of penal substitution or any other model of the atonement. There is even a remark he makes in “Mere Christianity” which seems to support this reading:

Now before I became a Christian I was under the impression that the first thing Christians had to believe was one particular theory as to what the point of this dying was. 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 to me quite so immoral and so silly as it used to; but that is not the point I want to make.

Right here in black and white, Lewis calls penal substitution “immoral” and “silly,” albeit not quite as silly as he believed before his conversion. Contrast this with the Scriptural language from Isaiah 53, in which Christ, the suffering Servant, is “pierced for our transgressions,” and “crushed for our iniquities.” Notice also why He was pierced and crushed (“the chastisement of our peace was upon him”), and Who it was that did the crushing (“it pleased God to crush him”).

The Bible, it seems, teaches a doctrine of the atonement C. S. Lewis abhorred. Lewis, like the arch-heretic he was, chose another, less biblical model. He even (for those who have read his “Space Trilogy,” invented another Christ figure who saves another planet from another Satan-figure. His name? Ransom.

Case closed. At least I began to believe this myself a few years ago. But little clues here and there started to nag me–things that seemed inconsistent with this otherwise slam-dunk criticism of Lewis’ theology.

The first problem is that the Bible doesn’t describe the atonement in exclusively penal terms. Indeed, Christ Himself uses the word “ransom” to speak of His death (“…the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” — Matthew  20:28). Other motifs seem odd if Christ is nothing more than a sacrificial lamb to God. He is “the last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45), our “high priest” (Hebrews 4:14-16), our “temple” (John 2:19), the “bread of life which comes down from heaven” (John 6:25-59), “the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep” (presumably to a marauding wild animal like a lion or a wolf – John 10), and the One Who crushes the head of the Serpent (Genesis 3:15), and disarms the “powers and principalities” (Colossians 2:15). The New Testament portrays the Savior using a bewildering mosaic of terms and titles, from the martial and ministerial, to the culinary and agricultural. Can penal substitution by itself account for them all?

Then there are features of Lewis’ own writing that defy simplistic criticism. For example, in the same chapter of “Mere Christianity” in which he apparently criticizes penal substitution, he clearly disclaims  any one theory of the atonement as the correct or only theory:

We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is 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 do not help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself.

Lewis goes so far as to compare models of the atonement to models of the atom. Scientists, he points out, do not actually believe atoms look like the pictures they draw for us. What they really believe in is not a picture at all, but a mathematical formula. And when Lewis finally goes on to describe his own theory of the atonement he warns readers that if it doesn’t help them, they should “drop it.”

These are not the words of a writer dogmatically fixed on the wrong model of the atonement. But it gets much more interesting. When Lewis lays out his own understanding of the atonement in “Mere Christianity,” in the chapter “The Perfect Penitent,” it bears little resemblance to classical ransom theory. He begins with substitutionary atonement expressed in terms of a debt:

…what possible point could there be in punishing an innocent person instead? None at all that I can see, if you are thinking of punishment in the police-court sense. On the other hand, if you think of a debt, there is plenty of point in a person who has some assets paying it on behalf of someone who has not. Or if you take “paying the penalty,” not in the sense of being punished, but in the more general sense of “standing the racket” or “footing the bill,” then, of course, it is a matter of common experience that, when one person has got himself into a hole, the trouble of getting him out usually falls on a kind friend.

What was the “debt” mankind had incurred? According to Lewis, it was joining forces with a cosmic rebellion against God, in the course of which we lost our very ability to repent of our treason. We were in a real pickle. Repenting and “dying” to ourselves, as Lewis writes, was absolutely necessary if we wanted to return to God. But we could no longer do it, in our fallen natures. God had to help us do this impossible about-face. But God, writes Lewis, cannot repent. He cannot sorrow. He cannot submit. He cannot die. These things are not part of His nature.

And then comes my favorite passage in the book:

But supposing God became a man–suppose our human nature which can suffer and die was amalgamated with God’s nature in one person–then that person could help us. He could surrender His will, and suffer and die, because He was man; and He could do it perfectly because He was God. You and I can go through this process only if God does it in us; but God can do it only if He becomes man. Our attempts at this dying will succeed only if we men share in God’s dying, just as our thinking can succeed only because it is a drop out of the ocean of His intelligence: but we cannot share God’s dying unless God dies; and He cannot die except by being a man. That is the sense in which He pays our debt, and suffers for us what He Himself need not suffer at all.

To anyone who has studied Christian atonement theories, this is pretty obviously neither penal substitution (though he hints at it), nor ransom theory, nor even the all-beloved Christian hipster favorite, Christus victor, but recapitulation theory. That is, Lewis is here teaching the idea first expressed by Irenaeus that God in Christ joined Himself inseparably with fallen human nature, perfectly obeyed the Father (unlike Adam), died on a tree under the curse of death as expressed in Genesis 3 and the Mosaic covenant, and because He was God, rose from the grave, our nature in tow. In other words, Christ stepped into our skin–literally–and fulfilled the terms of the covenant on our behalf, as one of us. And because He is one of us, if we hold tight to Him through life and the grave, He will pull us out the other side in our own, personal Easter morning.

This atonement theory may sound strange to evangelical and even Reformed ears, but it shouldn’t. It’s part of a full and deeply biblical expression of Christ’s multifaceted work on the cross, and does justice to biblical language neither penal substitution (which I affirm), nor ransom theory (which I have some hesitations about), can account for.

But what about Narnia? What of Aslan offering himself to the White Witch in place of Edmund, whose blood she claims is her “property”?

To those who insist this represents latent ransom theory in Lewis’ mind, I always ask a simple question: Whose magic was Aslan appeasing when He died on the Stone Table?

Notice what Mr. Beaver says: The Witch is the Emperor’s “hangman.” She carries out His sentences, much as Satan, who “holds the power of death” (Hebrews 2:14), is said to carry out God’s sentences. But the sentences are God’s. They are decreed by the Emperor, written on the steps of His throne and on his very scepter, according to Aslan. “Work against the Emperor’s Magic?” the Lion asks. “No.” To do so would mean the certain doom of Narnia, a world into whose very fabric the Emperor has woven justice, sacrifice, and (as we learn at Aslan’s resurrection), atonement.

No, ironically for those who claim Lewis teaches a ransom theory of the atonement, the debt Edmund owes and which Aslan pays isn’t to the White Witch. It is to the Deep Magic, which the Emperor–God the Father in Narnia–deliberately created. Thus in dying, Aslan not only does what Edmund cannot (by fulfilling the terms of justice yet returning to life). He “appeases” (Lewis’ word, not mine), the demands of the Emperor’s Magic in a distinctly penal and substitutionary manner.

All of which goes to show, I suppose, that C. S. Lewis was not a tame writer. But contrary to many of my Reformed friends, I believe he was a very good one.

Image: William H. Majoros, Wikimedia Commons


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