For this installment of “Images of Faith and Discipleship in The Chronicles of Narnia,” I reproduce a brief chapter from Mark Baker’s book Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross: Contemporary Images of the Atonement on Lewis’ wonderful picture of Aslan’s death and resurrection in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Enjoy.
What is sin? How does Satan rule and enslave? How does God provide salvation from sin and freedom from Satan's reign? Often stories help us understand answers to these questions in ways beyond what we can grasp from statements in a theology text. C. S. Lewis, a masterful storyteller, takes us to another world, Narnia, to help us better understand the power of sin and salvation in our world. Lewis wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first of The Chronicles of Narnia, in England in 1950. Lewis's story clearly displays the substitutionary character of Christ's death. However, unlike stories that paint a picture of penal substitution, Lewis does not portray Aslan as suffering a punishment from God that another person (in this case, Edmund) deserved. The conflict is with the Witch.
The story is meaningful in ways far beyond this brief summary! For instance, rather than describing Aslan's death as a payment to a Satan figure, one could also emphasize how Aslan suffers the consequences of sin that the human, Edmund, deserved to suffer. The theme of "deeper magic" and how that conquered the power of death and evil provides an opportunity for rich reflection.
In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the four Pevensie children enter a wardrobe in World War II England and find themselves in Narnia, a world of talking animals. The feared and deceitful White Witch, a Satan figure, is ruling Narnia. Throughout the book Lewis graphically portrays her great power as well as the tragic and sad results of her rule. She has brought unending winter to Narnia and with her magic wand has turned those who resist her rule into stone statues. Edmund, one of the Pevensie children, came under the Witch's sway when she gave him delicious Turkish Delight; promised him more, and offered to make him a prince. He ate so much Turkish Delight he got sick, yet he craved more. The Witch used that craving to manipulate him. As Lewis's readers know, her goal was to keep Edmund and his brother and sisters from becoming royalty. The Witch's influence soured Edmund's relationship with his siblings and he deserted them, but all too soon found that life with the Witch was not what he imagined.
When Aslan, a great Lion and Christ figure, came to Narnia, he brought immediate change. The snow started melting and the animals tasted a freedom and joy they had not experienced under the White Witch. Although the Witch had hoped to use Edmund to entrap and kill all four children, with Aslan's arrival she decided to kill Edmund. Just before she sliced his throat, however, Edmund was rescued by animals loyal to Aslan. They brought Edmund to Aslan and he was reconciled with his brother and sisters and with Aslan.
The White Witch had not yet played her final card, however. Coming before Aslan, she protested that Edmund was a traitor and that according to the Deep Magic which the Emperor-beyond-the-sea (Lewis's God figure) had put into Narnia, all traitors belonged to her. She had the right to kill Edmund, she claimed. The newly reconciled children were aghast. Aslan walked away and talked privately with the White Witch and, unbeknownst to the children and the animals, Aslan offered to die in Edmund's place if she would renounce her claim on his life.
Later that day Susan and Lucy Pevensie accompanied a somber Aslan to the huge Stone Table, and then hidden in the bushes, watched in horror as Aslan allowed beasts loyal to the Witch to bind him, shave his mane, and muzzle him. They mocked him, spit on him and hit him, and then hoisted him on to the Stone Table. Lewis describes what happened next:
“The Witch bared her arms as she had bared them the previous night when it had been Edmund instead of Aslan. Then she began to whet her knife. It looked to the children, when the gleam of the torchlight fell on it, as if the knife were made of stone, not of steel, and it was a strange and evil shape.
At last she drew near. She stood by Aslan's head. Her face was working and twitching with passion, but his looked up at the sky, still quiet, neither angry nor afraid, but a little sad. Then, just before she gave the blow, she stooped down and said in a quivering voice, "And now, who has won? Fool, did you think that by all this you would save the human traitor? Now I will kill you instead of him as our pact was, and so the Deep Magic will be appeased. But when you are dead, what will prevent me from killing him as well? And who will take him out of my hand then? Understand that you have given me Narnia forever, you have lost your own life, and you have not saved his. In that knowledge despair and die."
The children did not see the actual moment of the killing. They couldn't bear to look and had covered their eyes.
While the two girls still crouched in the bushes with their hands over their faces, they heard the voice of the Witch calling out, "Now! Follow me all and we will set about what remains of this war! It will not take us long to crush the human vermin and the traitors now that the great Fool, the great Cat, lies dead."'
After the Witch and her hoard of beasts left, the girls crept out and stroked Aslan's lifeless body and wept. They managed to remove the muzzle from his face but could not untie the cords holding his body to the Stone Table. They passed a sad and miserable night. As dawn approached and the sky began to lighten a very strange thing occurred. Many mice came, crawled on to the Table, and gnawed through the cords. The girls cleared away the remains of the cords and began walking around to get warm. Just as the sun broke the horizon they heard a great cracking noise. They turned around to see the Stone Table was broken in two and Aslan's body was gone. "Oh, oh, oh!" cried the two girls, rushing back to the Table. "Oh, it's too bad," sobbed Lucy; "they might have left the body alone."
"Who's done it?" cried Susan. "What does it mean? Is it more magic?" "Yes!" said a great voice behind their backs. "It is more magic." They looked round. There shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane (for it had apparently grown again) stood Aslan himself.”
The girls, both frightened and glad, stammered through a conversation with Aslan trying to determine, without actually saying it, whether he was a ghost. They quickly decided he was real and hugged and kissed him. "But what does it all mean?" asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.
"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 goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the 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."
After romping playfully with the two girls Aslan stated they must turn to business. He let out a great roar and rushed off to the Witch's castle to release from their stone bondage all the creatures whom the Witch had turned to stone. Then all of them went to join the battle against the Witch and her forces who were surprised and quickly overwhelmed.
I begin the book with C. S. Lewis for a number of reasons. It is a gesture of honor and respect for this great thinker, who has gone before us. Chronologically, it is the oldest contribution. Like the following chapter, it reaches back to the church's earliest theological explanations of the atonement, which emphasize the cross and resurrection as a victory over death and the devil. So in these two chapters we return to our roots.
I also begin with Lewis because he does so well what I hope others will do. He develops a story, an image that does not simply repeat biblical phrases about the atonement, but helps his audience to understand and feel the reality of biblical atonement teaching. Like any metaphor or image, his tale does not communicate all there is to understand about the saving significance of the cross and resurrection. But as an image, a narrative, it communicates layers of meaning, more than would be possible in simply repeating an explanation of the atonement in propositional form.
Words Lewis wrote elsewhere apply not only to his work but are also important to keep in mind as you read other presentations in this book. In a short chapter in Mere Christianity, Lewis discusses the atonement. He offers an explanation and image of substitutionary atonement different from the one above, yet also different from traditional penal substitution. Lewis frames his explanation, or theory of the atonement, by emphasizing what is primary: Christ's death and resurrection put us right with God and gave us a fresh start. The theories and images we use to try to explain how that happens are secondary. He writes, "Such is my own way of looking at what Christians call the Atonement. But remember [that] this is only one more picture. Do not mistake it for the thing itself; and if it does not help you, drop it"4
Mark Baker. Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross: Contemporary Images of the Atonement (pp. 37-41). Kindle Edition.