I have birthday money, so I’m thinking about what books I should get with it. Right now, I’m thinking King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight, How God Became King by N.T. Wright and A Better Atonement by Tony Jones.
You might notice a trend, but all three of these books argue that modern-day American Christians have lost the true meaning and method of salvation. Most Christians grow up with the concept of penal substitutionary atonement – Jesus died to save me from the wrath I deserve; he bore it in my place. McKnight in particular argues that when we look at the first statements of the gospel – the writings of Paul and the sermons of Acts – a heavy focus on the individual and the wrath of God is not in sight.
In fact, although atonement is clearly a piece of the salvation story, I would argue that the penal substitutionary variety creates a distorted view of God. Rather than seeing a God who loves the world so much that he would sacrifice anything to bring humanity back to a sin-free Eden, we see a God who is so angry, Jesus had to die to save us from him. And we can see how many Christians’ view of grace, sin, judgment and the end times all grow out of this view of God, which I would speculate is the result of misguidedly attempting to reconcile the incomplete, even inaccurate, description of God in pieces of the Old Testament with the much different descriptions of him provided by the New Testament.
So I look forward to getting and reading those books because, frankly, theology blogs sometimes feel a little over my head, and I haven’t given this issue enough thought. But I’ve been thinking about it a little more lately thanks to the work of another theologian, who treats the issue of salvation and atonement on a level I can understand.
I’ve been reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis to my oldest daughter the past few weeks. We just finished the part where Aslan, the Christ figure of Lewis’ fantasy world of Narnia, dies and rises again. And I can’t help but think how much better all of us would be if we grew up learning about God the way we learn about Aslan.
If you don’t know the story, shame on you. Go get the book, read it and come back. If you don’t have time for that, a brief synopsis is that four children stumble into the world of Narnia through a wardrobe door. Narnia is ruled by the White Witch, who has made it always winter and never Christmas, and one of the children, Edmund, is captivated by her (and her delicious Turkish delight, which after having tasted a piece, I can tell you is an oxymoron, but anyway) and sneaks off to betray his siblings to her. Meanwhile, the other three go to meet Aslan, the lion who rules the Narnian universe. Aslan has arrived to break the witch’s spell, and his forces rescue Edmund. But the witch has a claim on Edmund’s life because of the rules of the Deep Magic, which give all traitors to her. Aslan agrees to hand himself over in Edmund’s place, and the witch and her minions kill him on the ancient Stone Table. Of course, he rises from the dead the next morning, and rallies the troops for a decisive victory over the witch and her forces. The children are enthroned, as prophesied, at the castle Cair Paravel and have a long and prosperous reign as the coregents of Narnia. The end.
When looking at Aslan’s death and resurrection, the details Lewis includes are telling:
- Aslan is thoroughly trinitarian – he creates Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew and appears to Lucy mostly in dreams and apparitions in Prince Caspian yet is most known to the human children and talking animals as the incarnate deity with whom they have a personal relationship. He is both Emperor Beyond the Sea and the untamed, physical lion.
- Edmund is marked for death because, through his betrayal, he has become rightfully the property of the White Witch, the satanic ruler of the world.
- Aslan dies in place of Edmund, so there is certainly an atonement aspect, but Aslan does not die to save Edmund from Aslan. He dies to save him from the witch. That is a key distinction.
- Further, while Edmund individually is the focus of salvation, Aslan also dies to save all of Narnia – Edmund’s betrayal has made it impossible to overthrow the witch and fulfill the prophecy of the four thrones of Cair Paravel without Aslan’s death.
- Aslan’s death alone would not have saved anyone. The witch makes clear that she planned to kill Edmund anyway on the field of battle because without Aslan to help the four children and the Narnian army, her forces and magic were much stronger than theirs. Therefore, the land would have remained enslaved in the witch’s permanent winter unless Aslan had been resurrected.
- The resurrection, then, is the key moment. The witch knew the Deep Magic from the dawn of time, by which she believed could either keep Narnia enslaved and kill the human threats to her reign. She did not know the Deeper Magic from before the dawn of time, by which her reign over Aslan’s world was crushed by the willing sacrifice of the innocent victim.
We can see Edmund as a picture of us individually; we can also see him as a picture of humanity as a whole, our betrayal enslaving us – and the world around us – to the powers of sin and death until Jesus willingly allowed himself to be killed, freeing us from our chains and restoring us to relationship with our brothers and sisters, as well as with our God.
As Aslan says:
Though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge 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 backward.
I can’t say this enough times because I feel it is vitally important for us to truly understand who God is: The point of Aslan’s death and resurrection was not to rescue Edmund from divine wrath but to rescue him from the witch. The enemy defeated at the cross and in the tomb was death. And don’t take my or C.S. Lewis’ word for it. Just ask the author of Hebrews:
Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he also shared the same things in the same way. He did this to destroy the one who holds the power over death—the devil—by dying. He set free those who were held in slavery their entire lives by their fear of death. (2:14-15)
That involves not just the notion of us, too, rising again after we die, but the notion that we can live freely today because sin and death are powerless in our lives. The witch has been vanquished, Aslan has risen, and we are restored to our rightful place on the throne of Cair Paravel. We need not be afraid of the endless winter in which we were trapped, betraying ourselves and our loved ones to the evil ruling powers of this world for a few pieces of Turkish delight. We are free.
Christ has won!
Update: Scot McKnight actually has a couple of posts already on this topic today, but this one is a much more scholarly look at how we’ve distorted the New Testament to find an atonement doctrine that is not actually in the text. We’ve taken “expiation,” in which God uses the death of Jesus to remove a barrier between us and him, and turned it into “propitiation,” in which Jesus dies to satisfy God’s wrath.