From the April, 2009 issue of Touchstone

Mere Atonement by Ariel James Vanderhorst

Mere Atonement

C. S. Lewis & the Multiple Angles of Redemption

by Ariel James Vanderhorst

When The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe opened in theaters in December 2005, the feature-length film generated cries of wonder, huge box-office takes, skyrocketing Lewis book sales, and considerable gnashing of teeth. Posthumously, C. S. Lewis had gained thousands of new fans—but his critics were all the more vehement. Specifically, they faulted him for the “magical” Atonement represented so vividly in Lewis’s acclaimed children’s book—a gory death on a Narnian stone table—a depiction that some detractors found non-biblical. But while the anti-Lewis voices were insistent, they were generally drowned out by the movie magic.

Lewis-hecklers have never been more than a raucous minority. But the Narnian blockbuster was a catalyst for a new wave of criticism targeting Lewis’s theology. While the detractors targeted a variety of perceived shortcomings in Lewis, a recurring theme was his Atonement perspective—or lack thereof. The disapproval was especially evident on the Internet, disseminated via theological articles, discussion boards, and blogs, and while the denigration never became mainstream, the “virtual” dialogue over Lewis often became heated.

“C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Is a Silly Fairy Tale,” announced David Cloud, a “Fundamental Baptist” author, on his website, citing “Lewis’s heretical stand on the atonement.” On, a popular Evangelical blog, Hall noted, in regard to the upcoming film of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, that Lewis’s “understanding of the Atonement is biblically problematic,” and “misses the heart of the gospel.” A sentence written by Martyn Lloyd-Jones for Christianity Today in 1963 was widely circulated: “C. S. Lewis had a defective view of salvation and was an opponent of the substitutionary and penal view of the atonement.”

Yet in the middle of these accusations, a wider array of voices maintained the beauty and appropriateness of Lewis’s writing. Many months later, with Lewis’s books selling briskly and another Narnia film having come out, the debate continues to simmer.

The propriety of Lewis’s Atonement views seems to depend on whom you ask. Various writers have, at various times, characterized Lewis’s Atonement theology as overly subjective, as anti-substitutional, as pagan, as Catholic, and as entirely missing. What really was Lewis’s stance?

To answer this question, it will be necessary to look beyond the boundaries of Narnia and examine the larger spectrum of Lewis’s writing, both fiction and theology. Lewis’s personal life also sheds light on the problem, as here we discover the silent context for his published theological efforts.

True Myth

Intriguingly, before his conversion, Lewis experienced considerable confusion over the Atonement as he wrestled with the demands that he found Christianity making on him. His bafflement on the topic of Christianity’s “dying God” was one of the final hurdles that seemed to bar him from embracing the gospel. “What I couldn’t understand,” he wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves,

was how the life and death of Someone Else (whoever he was) 2000 years ago could help us here and now—except in so far as his example helped us. And the example business, tho’ true and important, is not Christianity: right in the centre of Christianity, in the Gospels and St. Paul, you keep on getting something quite different and very mysterious.

In The Narnian, Alan Jacobs observes, “The problem for Lewis was the ‘somehow’: he just could not figure out how the thing was supposed to work, and until he did figure it out, he did not see how he could embrace Christianity.”

It took a late-night conversation with colleagues J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson to dispel the murkiness that seemingly surrounded the idea of Atonement. After a talk that finally concluded at 3 A.M., Lewis again reported to Greeves:

Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: and again, that if I met the idea of god sacrificing himself to himself . . . I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving God (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose “what it meant.”

Lewis made his peace with the notion of the dying Christian God by recognizing the story of Christ as “a true myth: a myth that works on us in the same way as the others, but with the tremendous difference that it really happened.” For Lewis, this meant a willing credulity—not so much the suspension of disbelief as a worshipful acceptance, “remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths.”

To put it in biblical terms, here was Lewis struggling to see “through a glass dimly” without trying to look behind the mirror. He had surrendered to the Cross by concluding that the Christian myth deserved a joyous embrace—one that stood on trust, without clinical dissection.

A More Adequate Language

Perhaps it is unsurprising that once Lewis had grappled with, and submitted to, the mythic significance and the truth of Christ’s sacrifice, the Atonement continued to play a vital part in his theology. In a letter referring to the radio talks that would later be incorporated into Mere Christianity, Lewis described his upcoming broadcasts as “an attempt to convince people that there is a moral law, that we disobey it, and that the existence of a Lawgiver is at least very probable and also ( unless you add the Christian doctrine of the Atonement) that this imports despair rather than comfort.” Lewis saw the Atonement as the lynchpin, indeed, the crux, of the Christian faith.

In The Problem of Pain, Lewis’s earliest apologetic work, he says, “The guilt is washed out not by time but by repentance and the blood of Christ: if we have repented these early sins we should remember the price of our forgiveness and be humble.” Clearly, Atonement, if not Atonement theory, was essential for Lewis. Colin Duriez, one of today’s more prominent Lewis scholars, observes, “The atonement for Lewis was at the centre of Christian faith, and this emphasis is warmly in tune with evangelical belief.”

How did this understanding and emphasis translate into the Atonement outlook that has created such confusion? Part of the dilemma may be an inaccurate evaluation of Lewis’s stance as a writer and his approach to biblical thought.

In an essay on contemporary Atonement theories, John McArthur notes that “C. S. Lewis was no theologian,” and this is a view that Lewis’s education (he held degrees in philosophy, classics, and literature, but not in theology) and his own words seem to confirm. Referring to his realization of Christianity’s status as “true myth,” Lewis expanded upon what this implied: “The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that wh[ich] God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.”

In other words, Lewis was not particularly interested in systematic theology; his allegiances lay with what he regarded as the sacred heart of faith: the mysterious, “magical” grace that burst into the world through the Cross. Perhaps Lewis should have read Paul’s epistles with greater frequency and attention; nevertheless, he saw his own mythic approach to the Cross as stemming directly from Christ’s own reliance on story. Moreover, Lewis saw “theology,” at least in a systematic sense, as inferior to myth. And in his own words, “The imaginative man in me is older, more continuously operative, and in that sense more basic than either the religious writer or the critic.”

Circling a Mystery

It seems likely that this perspective, coupled with his own paralyzing pre-conversion bewilderment, informed the somewhat vague (and unsatisfactory, for some) treatment of the Atonement that Lewis presented in Mere Christianity:

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 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.

Doggedly, Lewis emphasized the what of the Cross, not the how. His deliberate downplaying of Atonement theories, while “surprising from a man who expects that the Christian will seek to know as much about God as possible,” as Professor Steven P. Mueller put it, suggests that he did not want his readers to become “trapped” (like he had) by logistical matters when the vital thing was the effective “magic” of grace.

Lewis’s studied non-commitment to any one theory also seems to have been strengthened by what he saw as a weakness in Anselmic theory as he saw it: God wanted to punish us, but Christ volunteered to be punished instead, so God let us off. Lewis asked, “If God was prepared to let us off, why on earth did He not do so? And what possible point could there be in punishing an innocent person instead?” Lewis did not understand why God would need to buy himself off. Thus the “forensic” aspect of such an arrangement seemed random and unnatural to Lewis (who did not, in 1942, have access to Leon Morris’s Apostolic Preaching of the Cross).

Nevertheless, it is clear that Lewis was highly aware of Atonement theories, and wrestled with them. This awareness appears later in Mere Christianity:

You can say Christ died for our sins. You may say that the Father has forgiven us because Christ has done for us what we ought to have done. You may say we are washed in the blood of the lamb. You may say that Christ has defeated death. They are all true.

Lewis had the sense that he was circling a mystery, as in the Robert Frost poem: “We dance round in a ring and suppose, but the Secret sits in the middle and knows”; and despite his respect for the secret, Lewis could not keep himself from occasionally “supposing.”

Fiscal over Forensic

Notably, in a modification of his original characterization of Anselmic theory as “very silly” (“our being let off because Christ has volunteered to bear a punishment instead of us”), he was open to substitution theory, assuming one could view it in a financial rather than a forensic sense, in terms of “standing the racket” or “footing the bill.” He says, “There is plenty of point in a person who has some assets paying it on behalf of someone who has not.” Given this context, says Steven Mueller, a contemporary Lewis scholar, “it would appear that Lewis’s disagreement is not with the substitution of Christ for humans but in the depiction of this as a forensic act.”

It seems fair to say that Lewis did not subscribe to penal substitution, but admitted a fiscal substitution view. This conclusion is supported by a passage in Reflections on the Psalms where Lewis writes, “The price of salvation is one that only the Son of God could pay; as the hymn says, there was no other ‘good enough to pay the price.’” Once again, the language is financial, not forensic. There can be no argument, however, that he saw the death of Christ in our place as essential and irrevocable, even if he would not hang his hat on penal Substitution theory.

Lewis reinforces this fact in a letter he wrote following the publication of Mere Christianity: “I think I gave the impression of going further than I intended in saying that all theories of the Atonement were ‘to be rejected if we don’t find them helpful.’ What I meant was ‘need not be used’— a v. different thing.” In a further letter, he softens his tone in regard to Anselmic theory:

I shouldn’t have written as I did if I had thought that there was a consensus of theologians in favor of the Anselmic theory. I believed that it was not to be found either in the New Testament or most of the Fathers. If I’m wrong in this, it is a plain matter of historical ignorance.

Later, in Miracles, Lewis commented on Christ’s death, saying, “He dies in the place of all others, and is the very representative ‘Die-er’ of the universe. . . . Because vicariousness is the very idiom of the reality He has created, His death can become ours.” Had Lewis acknowledged that Christ’s compensatory death was payment to God, he would have presented an essentially Anselmic theory.

A Deeper Magic

But despite his increased openness to Anselm, and a willingness to reword previous statements, Lewis did not concede his main point: that Atonement theories did not call for the same level of belief that Christianity itself did. He remained reluctant to assume full working knowledge of something he saw as wholly mysterious. Lewis’s fictional work adds still more clarity to his unique position.

In the Space Trilogy (1938–1945), Lewis’s first work of fiction, the Divine Voice speaks to Ransom, the protagonist: “‘My name is also Ransom,’ said the Voice. It was some time before the purport of this saying dawned upon him. He whom the other worlds call Maleldil was the world’s ransom. . . . So that was the real issue.” At the conclusion of the second book in the trilogy, the king of Perelandra washes Ransom’s injured foot, saying, “So this is hru [blood]. . . . And this is the substance wherewith Maleldil remade the worlds.” Mueller notes that the Space Trilogy “consistently reflects Lewis’s theological writings on the Atonement. Neither does he offer any specific theory of how the Atonement works, nor does he use forensic language to describe the work of Maleldil.”

The Space Trilogy carries the trajectory of Mere Christianity into a fictional realm. Likewise, in Till We Have Faces, Lewis portrays a young woman, Psyche, who is the substitute sacrifice for the whole land of Glome—but he offers no commentary on how or why the transaction takes place, only that it does. This approach is maintained, at an even deeper level, in Lewis’s most well-known book: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Appropriately, the 2005 blockbuster that spurred considerable anti-Lewis rhetoric is based on what is arguably his most vivid and decisive treatment of the Atonement. In The Way into Narnia, Peter Schakel writes that “as he constructed the episode of Aslan’s death, Lewis inevitably found himself dealing with the question, ‘Why did Aslan die?’” In every way, Aslan’s death and return to life is the climax of the story. When the great lion appears, joyous and alive, the gruesome stone table breaks in half, and Lucy and Susan ask Aslan what it all means:

“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge only goes back to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and 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 backwards.”

The poetic beauty of this scene has caused tears to flow from thousands of Evangelical eyes, and rightly so: The death and shocking resurrection of Christ is pictured with a clarity and originality that defies convention. But as Jacobs queries in The Narnian, “Really, what sort of explanation is that? Why should things be this way? How does the death of the ‘willing victim’ take the traitor from the clutches of the Witch? And how can the magic that frees the traitor be older than the magic that condemns him?” Instead of questioning Aslan’s explanation, Lucy and Susan immerse themselves in his presence. And Jacobs notes, this is because “it is not the explanation that matters: it is the sacrifice itself—and the new life it brings.”

An Eclectic Model

Underlying Lewis’s obliqueness, there is an ironic beauty and mastery to the account, in that he skillfully weaves together threads from several Atonement theories while fully endorsing none of them. At first glance, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe seems to implicitly favor Ransom theory, and Lewis’s storyteller’s mind may have adopted the dramatic Ransom metaphor readily (a copy of Gustaf Aulen’s Christus Victor was in Lewis’s library at the time of his death). But a closer look at Narnia reveals that there are other theories at play. Remarkably, adherents to each of the main Atonement camps (Subjective, Substitutionary, Christus Victor) have attempted to adopt Lewis’s “deeper magic.”

The cover story of Time on April 12, 2004, asked, “Why Did Jesus Die?” and went on to present the three major theories of Atonement. The writers cited Lewis as a contemporary example for the “role model” or Subjective theory: “C. S. Lewis, the Christian thinker and author of the Narnia series . . . was not a doctrinaire exemplarist, but the lion Aslan, who stood in for Christ, was clearly a figure to be emulated.” Peter J. Schakel, responding to this assertion , argues, “The writers of the article definitely miss the point. . . . Aslan gives himself to the Witch as a sacrifice to make amends for Edmund’s disobedience. By focusing on that theory, Lewis takes a stronger [Substitutionary] stand than he does in Mere Christianity.

Likewise, in reference to Aslan’s death, theologian Howard Worsely readily states, “The precise interpretation of the atonement is penal substitution.” Another Lewis pundit, Shanna Caughey, chimes in: “This form of soteriology is called substitutional atonement.” Meanwhile, authors like Charles Taliaferro (gleefully) and Matthew Hall (gloomily) state that Narnian Atonement theology lands most definitely in the Ransom, or Christus Victor, camp.

Lewis’s incorporation (or hoodwinking, depending on how one looks at it) of such a wide spectrum of theologians is most extraordinary. He accomplishes the feat, logically enough, by interweaving substitutionary language (Aslan’s blood is shed, the lion is Edmund’s substitute, the deeper magic is invoked by the Emperor-over-the-Sea) with ransom imagery (the Witch has rights over traitors, is “tricked” by the deeper magic, and Aslan is Edmund’s ransom) and glowing subjective incentive to emulate the majestic Aslan. Therefore, people tend to read into Narnia whatever theory they wish to find.

Mueller notes that “in Narnia, Lewis’s model of the Atonement is eclectic. Refusing to be bound by any one depiction of the Atonement, he takes elements from each theory as they best suit his purpose of presenting Christ.”

Romping Aslan

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe may be the sterling example of Lewis’s distinctive Atonement position. Not content to define Christianity with theories or to subscribe to any one of them, Lewis attempted to tap the “mythic” qualities he found in the true story of Christ.

In order to do this, he drew freely from each of the three major Atonement perspectives, particularly the Ransom and Substitutionary theories. His discomfort with penal substitution, as seen most clearly in Mere Christianity, stemmed in reality from his concern with a very narrow interpretation of Anselmic theory. Undoubtedly, he understood that Christ was a sacrifice for humankind, that he was a substitute in our place, and decisively bought our forgiveness with his blood.

Despite his misgivings with the forensic aspect of Substitution, Lewis’s emphasis on, and love for, the deeper magic of the Cross, retain a freshness and vibrancy that few writers have matched. Thus, we find various voices, each pointing to Lewis as an example or champion for his Atonement camp.

Lewis himself saw “theories,” as such, as dispensable; he did not subscribe to penal substitution as it is set forth in Evangelical circles today. However, if the name-calling and precipitate adoption of Lewis into various theological circles is any indication, he succeeded in his central purpose: to display a romping Aslan, a mythic dying God who really returned to life—and to make the image stick.

Ariel James Vanderhorst , having recently earned his M.Div., lives with his family—wife Lindsay and their two young sons—in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, where they are in the process of planting a gospel-centered, culturally targeted urban church. He also blogs about theology and culture at

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