Narnia and the Atonement?

Many people were moved in the last few years over the newly done “The Chronicles of Narnia.” I know I was excited to see it, as many others were, Christian and non. I particularly was excited to see it because I was interested in seeing the spiritual truths and analogies used by C.S. Lewis in his classic that I wasn’t at a younger age probably keen to pick up.

So, upon the release, I went with the masses to see this beloved story made film. I can say that it touched me in a way beyond my expectations. For it was here in the “Chronicles of Narnia” that I was deeply moved by the offering of Aslan of himself in place of the boy Edmund, so that he might be freed from the White Witch and her dominion. Aslan took the place of the “traitor” and was killed by those in the Witch’s kingdom. I was so struck here by the picture of Christ giving Himself as an offering for me. Edmund, the boy who should have been the one killed, is spared by the love of Aslan. So it is that Christ gave Himself, to be put to death by the kingdom of darkness, so that the enemy could be satisfied. But as Christ rose from the dead, so does Aslan. Aslan shows that the White Witch has no power over him and his kingdom. The movie ends with the “daughters of Eve” and the “sons of Adam” being crowned as kings and queens of Narnia. In this picture, I was moved by the love of God displayed in the offering of Christ.

I later discovered that Lewis was in fact bringing words and pictures to something that many of the early Christians believed about the Christ’s atonement for us. And Disney took Lewis’ work and displayed the magnificence of this “rescue”also known in theology as the Ransom View of the atonement. It was in this film that I was stunned by the deep love of God, something that I understood for that moment in time.

Many of my protestant friends, as I have been looking in Eastern Orthodoxy, interestingly enough bring up the atonement quite often. They don’t “agree” with the Orthodox and are “concerned” about my views. Funny, many of them went to see “The Chronicles of Narnia” and saw Christ. And when I think about the atonement, it is this ransom of Christ giving Himself as an offering so that the Evil One might be defeated, that I rest my faith. Many of these friends would agree with me until they hear that it isn’t the modern understanding of the atonement.

It wasn’t until the 11th century that a Western theologian brought further details to this that were not what the Church seemed to believe for the first 10 centuries. Up until Anselm, an archbishop of Canterbury, Christ’ death had been chiefly understood as a ransom from the devil. Frederica Matthewes-Green explains, “The wages of sin is death,’ and due to our sins we were enslaved by death, poisoned and helpless to resist sin. Christ comes on a rescue mission, and in the process he suffers…..As a human, he dies and gains entrance to Hades; once there He blasts it open, as God, and sets the captives free.”

What is interesting is that in western theology, in ‘Satisfaction Theory’, the Father is the one who needs to be appeased and it is the Father who demands this. However, Gregory of Nazianzus in the 4th century (closer in proximity to the apostles) protested that the question of “Who received the payment?” should not be pressed hard. Matthewes says regarding this, “No matter what the debt the Devil was owed it could not possibly have included God himself. On the other hand, the Father could not have been the recipient of the ransom, since he was not the one holding us captive. And if the blood of Isaac had not please him, why would he desire the blood of his beloved son? In fact, Nazianzus sums up: the Father accepts Christ’s sacrifice without having demanded it; the Son offers it to honor him; and the result is the defeat of the Evil One. ‘This is as much as we shall say of Christ; the greater portion shall be reverenced with silence.’ “

In closing, I feel that Frederica sums it up well here,

“Anselm took aim at the exaggerated versions of the ransom theory, but didn’t agree to leave the greater portion to silence. He theorized that the payment *was* made to God the Father. In Anselm’s formulation, our sins were like an offense against the honor of a mighty ruler. The ruler is not free to simply forgive the transgression; restitution must be made. (This is a crucial new element in the story; earlier Christians believed that God the Father did, in fact, freely forgive us, like the father of the Prodigal Son.) No human would be adequate to pay this debt, so God the Son volunteers to do so. “If the Son chose to make over the claim He had on God to man, could the Father justly forbid Him doing so, or refuse to man what the Son willed to give him?” Christ satisfies our debt in this, the “Satisfaction Theory.””And that has made all the difference,” as a tousled Yankee poet liked to say. Western Christian theology marched on from that point, encountering controversies and developments and revisions, but locked on the idea that Christ’s death was directed toward the Father. When Western theologians look back at the centuries before Anselm they can’t find his theory anywhere (well, there are some premonitions in Tertullian and Cyprian, but it wasn’t the mainstream.). You can read St. Paul to support the “satisfaction” view, so Anselm is hailed as the first theologian to understand St. Paul.That’s a stretch, though. Would Christians really have misunderstood their salvation for a thousand years? Did the people Paul wrote his letters to have no idea what he was talking about? Did the early martyrs die without understanding the Cross that saved them? Why would the Holy Spirit permit such a thing, if He was sent to lead them into all truth? Is the “plain meaning of Scripture” is so obscure that it couldn’t be discerned for a thousand years, and then only by someone from a culture utterly different from its authors?Western theologians search the pre-Anselmian millennium and can’t find the theory they’re after, but fail to see the theory that permeates there. Before Anselm, the problem salvation addresses is seen as located within us. We are infected by Death as a result of Adam’s fall. This infection will cause us be to spiritually sick and to commit sin, both voluntarily and as a result of the Devil’s deceptions. Christ offers to rescue us in accord with the Father’s will, like the young police officer above. In this action, God the Father and the Son are united: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.”That’s the “before” snapshot. With Anselm, the problem salvation addresses is between us and God (we have a debt we can’t pay). After Anselm it is even sometimes formulated as *within* God (His wrath that won’t be quenched until the debt is paid). This theory loses the unity of will between the Father and Son; it can appear that the Son has to overcome the Father’s resistance. It loses the idea that the sickness is within us, and we need to be healed; it can appear that a legal acquittal is sufficient and a transformed life a nice afterthought at most.”

I have decided for myself that the next time someone wants to be concerned about the eastern view of atonement, and my life, that I am much more comfortable, biblically, siding with that of the earliest Christians.

*If you would like to read all of Frederica Matthewes-Green’s article that is quoted from here, here is the website:


One Response

  1. Beautiful

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