The concept of atonement is a topic which is prevalent throughout the work of C.S. Lewis. Often self-described as an advent theologist, the works that Lewis created contained many different concepts and ideas that were highly propagated by Christian faith and Lewis used his work to reflect upon many of the ideas that were contained within the faith itself. Lewis focused a large portion of his work on understanding what concepts of the Christian faith meant and entailed, such as atonement for one's sin. Lewis' viewpoint throughout his life was often that of bafflement at the concept of atonement. He found it difficult to wrangle the ideas of atonement and make sense of them. He found it difficult to understand how the death of Jesus Christ had a pertinent effect on our modern lives, some 2,000 years later.
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As such, his most famous work The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe reflects heavily on his idea of atonement and what he feels constitutes proper atonement so thoroughly. Lewis' perspective of God's atonement is that it was a “true myth,” one which was significant in the conception of Christianity and stood higher than the other concepts of religion due to it being synonymous with God and His word. Atonement in itself is something that Lewis found tremendously important as he continued to develop his own understanding of Christianity and religion. As he became more invested in these discoveries, he began studying and reflecting upon the ideas that were propagated in terms of atonement. Traditional atonement seemed to have little effect on the mind of Lewis. He felt as if the actual events that Jesus was believed to have committed were more speculative and mythical in nature but chose to embody these concepts to show the effects that they had on our world, and by extension, Narnia.
In this way, The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe is a reflection on the concept of atonement and accounting for one's sins. It is evident through the primary character, Aslan, and his actions, that we see a particularly traditional examination of atonement in the form of substitutionary atonement. Aslan, the Christ-like figure in this story, proceeded to sacrifice himself so that the remainder of the world itself could live and grow. The concept of substitution atonement made sense to Lewis, as he believed that there was “plenty of point” in someone who had a significantly larger amount of assets covering and paying on behalf of those who do not. Thus, it is evident that Lewis agreed with the idea that Jesus Christ died for the sins of all humans on Earth, but his issue with the concept of atonement is the reason why Jesus is believed to have performed this act. Lewis arguably didn't follow any sort of penal substitution or system of punishment but rather, it came from a more fiscal concept. Jesus, to Lewis, was the only one who could actually die for our sins as he was the one who had the ample amount of worth to do so.
As such, The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe and Aslan's character can be seen as Lewis attempting to revise the concept of atonement. Aslan is forced to die to keep the remainder of Narnia safe from the effects of the “deep magic,” but it isn't because of the actions of the Narnians that he has to die, but rather because he is the only one who possesses the qualifications and the “assets” per say to do so. Aslan's character and his death could be seen as a reinvigorating of the concepts that have been used to define Christianity since its conception. (Hooper, 1476) The idea of atonement never disappeared to Lewis but the inspiration behind performing the act is represented much differently.
In this sort of regard, one could also view Aslan's death as an extension of the ransom theory of atonement. Aslan's character was presented as a sort of ransom to The Witch, largely due to the prominence of his character. In Christianity, ransom theory posits that the reason that Jesus was crucified was because he was a ransom that was used to help satisfy God and release the souls of humanity that had inherited sin. Aslan's character is much the same, having been taken from Narnia to ensure the survival of the remainder of the land. The whole reason that Asland does this is to reconcile for the disobedience of Edmund's character. Aslan and his demise are reflections on the concept of atonement and what is intriguing is the way that Lewis is able to weave together so many different ideas of atonement and theories pertaining to it without ever directly addressing one particular type within the story. This could be Lewis attempting to revise the concepts of atonement without directly denying them.
For instance, there are many different incorporations of concepts that pertain to various different theories of atonement. Aslan's sacrifice as Edmund's substitute is relatively substitutionary while the concept of ransom imagery is present in the way that the Witch is perceived to have rights over the traitors in the country, how she is subsequently fooled by the deeper magic how Aslan chooses to become the ransom for Edmund. In this sense, Aslan's character represents Lewis' commentary on Christianity itself and what it means to truly be Christ-like. In this example, the only individual with the capacity to help the situation is Aslan, who does so as both a substitution and a ransom. (Hooper, 1476) Lewis, instead of subscribing to one particular train of thought, expands upon the traditional concept of atonement in a way that defines it from a fresh, new perspective.
It goes without saying that Lewis believed that Christ was presently an individual who had to be sacrificed for the good of mankind. There were many theological concepts that Lewis chose to embody and portray that were heavily reliant on this sort of imagery. Yet, Aslan's sacrifice is one that is interesting because it brings forth an amalgamation of atonement concepts and introduces the audience and the theological perspectives themselves to a more combined, unified reasoning for Aslan to perform the acts that he did. Lewis' view of salvation is one that is more economical and presents atonement as necessary, but simply because Aslan was capable of doing so.
In this regard, it appears as if the purpose of The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe was to redefine the way that atonement is perceived. Furthermore, the idea of different forms of atonement is not uniformly present in this book, as it is apparent that Lewis' goal was to present atonement in a unified sort of way. In essence, the actions of Aslan are indicative of a Christ-like figure, but in many different forms. There are remnants of substitution and ransom atonement in the reasoning that Lewis posits for why Aslan was sacrificed. As such, this character and the book itself could be seen as Lewis attempting to revitalize the ideas that were brought forth regarding Jesus' sacrifice. Rather than simply submit to the ideas that were being introduced and discussed at the time, Lewis takes a fresh perspective on the concept and presents these themes in a way that stands contrary to simple traditional interpretation of atonement.
- Hooper, W. (Ed.). (2009). The annotated chronicles of Narnia. HarperCollins.
- Lewis, C. S. (1950). The lion, the witch & the wardrobe. HarperCollins.
- Lewis, C. S. (1952). Mere Christianity. HarperOne.
- Murray, I. H. (2019). Atonement theories: A way through the maze. InterVarsity Press.
- Pugh, T. (2016). The idea of the Narnian atonement: C. S. Lewis and the problem of vicariousness. In A. Wolfe & H. Williams (Eds.), C. S. Lewis at Poets' Corner (pp. 42-58). Bloomsbury Academic.
- Rayment-Pickard, H. (2019). C. S. Lewis, Atonement Theories, and The Chronicles of Narnia. In Theology and Literature after Postmodernity (pp. 189-205). Routledge.
- Reppert, V. J. (2012). C. S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason. InterVarsity Press.
- Riley, M. (2013). Atonement and incarnation: An essay in universalism and particularity. Journal of Inklings Studies, 3(1), 40-54.
- Sayers, D. L. (2015). The mind of the maker. HarperCollins.
- Ward, M. (2016). Planet Narnia: The seven heavens in the imagination of C. S. Lewis. Oxford University Press.