Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Narnia as atonement theology beyond the stone table

The stone table cracks. Aslan, who has given his life for Edmund, returns from the dead. This was my childhood understanding of the Lion, Witch and Wardrobe. In doing so, I was trading on traditional atonement theories; Jesus/Aslan as substitute, giving his life for someone else. So I was pleasantly surprised in watching the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, to find a number of layers added to traditional understandings of the atonement.

A brief overview of atonement through the ages: Throughout the centuries; 3 main ways of understanding atonement – how Christ made at-one-ment for humanity – have starred.

Victor – Christ is the victor. Pushed to extremes, Jesus becomes the bait, which the devil swallows hook, line and sinker. In doing so, the devil is tricked. This is one of interpreting the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Aslan tricks the witch because he knows a deeper magic.

Inspiration – Christ is the greatest example of love. The manner of his life and death are a triumph of love. This in turn, motivates us in our Christian lives. And so the Witch whispers in Aslan’s ear of his foolishness, thinking that love could triumph.

Substitution – Christ offers himself in our place. The problem of sin demands a legal payment. Christ becomes this payment.

Contemporary concerns: Handled poorly, these understandings present serious problems for Christians. Do we want to follow a God who tricks people (Victor)? What should be the place of sacrificial love in Christian behaviour, particularly when relationships become abusive (Inspiration)? How vengeful does this make God? What sort of Father would sacrifice his son (Substitution)? These concerns warn us that traditional atonement theories need to be handled with care.

I found it fascinating that in the movie, the motives for Aslan’s death all come from the mouth of the witch. She urges adherence to the code of violence. She questions Aslan’s sacrificial love. This suggests we need to handle with care. Aslan suggests this is her “interpretation” (very postmodern word). In doing so, we are allowed a moment of hermeneutical suspicion. How much should we believe the White Witch? How much might her chilling icy darkness be distorting her “reading”? Alongside this call for care, the movie brought some more metaphors to the surface.

Relational redemption: In recent years I have pondered 1 Peter 2:9, 10, where once those who were no people are now the distinctive people of God. This suggest a relational and communal understanding of at-one-ment, in which the significance of Christ births a distinct community.

In the movie, Aslan initiates the return of Edmund well before the stone table. He lets the wolf go and so Edmund is saved and the family is re-united. He encourages practices of forgiveness and the children move beyond distrust. Finally, they tumble out of the closet, back into the real world, as allies in shared adventure. Once no people, now the Pevenses children are a distinctive family. Such at-one-ment is secured by Aslan well before the stone table and suggests quite a fresh understanding of the atonement.

Integrator of Creation – In Colossians 1, the at-one-ment of Christ offers integration to every atom and molecule. Christ’s death is cosmic in significance and tree hugging a normative Christian practice.

In the movie, the mice eat away Aslan’s ropes. The trees talk. The breath of life redeems stone creatures. The movie offers a vision of at-one-ment which is environmental in its scope and global in its concern. The death and life of Aslan are integrally linked to the whole planet. We are offered and environmental angle on at-one-ment.

Conclusion: The Bible describes the atonement in many ways (Jesus as victor, as sufferer, as martyr, as sacrifice, as redeemer, as reconciler, as justifier, as adopter, as pioneer, as merciful). The Biblical data is like a diamond, reflecting the beauty of at-one-ment in many different facets. It is sad when we get locked into one part of the diamond and limit Jesus death to one narrow interpretation.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe suggests we adopt a hermeneutic of suspicion toward traditional atonement theories. We are forced to ponder how much we should trust the words and motives of the White Witch. The movie then turns the at-one-ment diamond, hinting at a relational redemption achieved through Jesus life as well as death. It suggests a cosmic view of the at-one-ment of creation.

Further reading:
I have a chapter on contemporary atonement images being published in Proclaiming the Atonement, edited by Mark Baker (forthcoming from Baker Books)
For Narnia quiz go here.
For Narnia church service go here.
For my reflection on atonement in another contemporary movie, go to Open Letter to Mel Gibson.

Posted by steve at 09:52 AM


  1. Steve,

    I just took my kids to see the movie today. Unbelievable. I am totally with you. I found myself thinking constantly how limited and narrow my own view on Christ’s atonement really is. And how I tend to think of it linearly (is that a word?), but how “loopy” it really is.

    I was also taken by how many comparisons there really are in the movie to the gospel story (when I read the book I was not a Jesus-follower and so, I guess I saw the story with new eyes).

    Thanks for this post.

    BTW, I am doing a chapter by chapter review of “the out of bounds church?” on our blog starting tomorrow. Love to have you check in.


    Comment by Pernell — December 28, 2005 @ 6:12 pm

  2. I wish I would of read this post before going to the movie. This mindset was not in at the time of the viewing so I lost out on see those facets in the movie. Now I got to go see it again:)

    Comment by Mark Miron — December 29, 2005 @ 5:03 am

  3. i went to see the movie and really enjoyed it, but i didnt look at it in a religious view. afterwards when my friends told me it was a religious movie i was definitely surprised.

    Comment by pink panda — December 30, 2005 @ 3:46 pm

  4. Hi Steve,

    Interesting take on the film.

    Being a stickler for book-details, I found myself niggling at every little nuance the film producers missed…the resurrection didn’t *feel* like it did in the book…the element of surprise is gone, blahblahblah…

    Personally I don’t think a novel written in the 20th century has much bearing on how we should or shouldn’t be reading the atonement, especially since Lewis didn’t particularly write the book with redemption theories in view.

    I suppose that juxtaposing stories can help us to understand them all a little better; in studying the shapes of stories, we begin to understand how Story works. At least, that’s how the critics who write for their Masters do it.

    But that is very different from what you’re talking about, as I read you. You’re proposing that the movie/novel implies a critique of modern and reductionist redemption theories.

    I don’t see that following at all. While I am irritated by closed, simplistic readings as much as you, and while I think that the corpus of Bible itself taken as a whole disallows such exclusive readings if we are honest, still I don’t see that Lewis’ work has much to contribute to hermeneutical discussions by itself, except as perhaps another helpful illustration. But your reflection on the movie itself was very interesting, and I agree that modern atonement theories have long been wrongly forced apart as mutually exclusive.

    To answer your question: “Do we want to follow a God who tricks people?”


    Trickery in itself is not necessarily sin. In fact, like death, it can come as a judgement on the enemies of the Lord. The Holy Spirit deceives Ahab, and he rides into battle and is struck down. The Hebrew midwives deceive Pharaoh and save the lives of newborn Hebrew sons. Rahab deceives Canaanite soldiers and so the Israelite spies live. Jael deceives Sisera and he dies in his tent.

    Paul, in Romans, says that the enemies of God (meaning the disobedient) were handed over to deception.

    And so thus, Christ conquered death by death; if the enemies of God had foreseen this outcome, they would not have crucified Him. The notion of the Divine trick is consistent with, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” just as God’s death-dealing acts are consistent with, “Thou shalt not murder.”

    In Scripture, the righteous are often commended for being shrewd with the wicked. In fact, some (e.g. Rahab) are even justified by such behavior. If such behavior is commended by God, how can we properly assume that God should act differently? Is what is right for us wrong for God?

    I sometimes think that in our fear of anthropomorphizing God we forget that He has imaged Himself in us, and so we tell Him who He is based not on the image He has revealed, but on some Western moralistic construction of a Perfect Rational Absolute Essence that bears no relationship to us, that looks nothing like any human being on earth and certainly nothing like Jesus Christ.

    Comment by theoloblogger — January 9, 2006 @ 1:04 pm

  5. To further comment on the point, the fact that God, like us, has friends and enemies, should mean that we want be the friends of God, since we have seen how the enemies of God fare. It’s a prudential argument, to be sure, but it’s not a wrong one to make. It fits in conjunction with all other injunctions to fear the Lord and serve Him only.

    God deceives His enemies, but let’s not forget that His enemies are our enemies. This means that the Lord is for us a deliverer.

    Comment by theoloblogger — January 9, 2006 @ 1:09 pm

  6. Conceptions of at-one-ment are intimately related to how a person understands why atonement needs to be made, and what is the nature of the relational disturbance between God and us/nature. Without reflecting on this it’s hard to clearly discuss the nature of Christ’s work.

    I also thought that substitution had more to do with God’s wrath and judgement against sin than a ‘legal payment’ or a balancing of the scales?

    Comment by Scott — January 18, 2006 @ 4:39 pm

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