How “The Lion King” Teaches Us the “King Jesus” Gospel
I watched a rerun of “The Lion King” on TV the other night. It struck me that this film is a parable of the gospel as the “King Jesus” gospel (hereafter KJG), to use Scot McKnight’s term, in contrast to what McKnight dubs the “Soterian” gospel (hereafter SG) of much traditional western theology.
The latter version of the gospel focuses on the cross of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins appropriated by the individual through faith thus assuring that person of their eternal security.
The “King Jesus” gospel, on the other hand, focuses on the act of God in Jesus Christ to defeat the powers of sin, evil, and death to secure God’s eternal purpose of having a world of creatures with whom he will live in loving communication, communion, and community through the ages on this earth. God calls fallen humanity back to relationship with him through the cross and the resurrection of Jesus so that, forgiven, we might take up the delight and duty of our primal call to be God’s image-bearers, that is, his royal representatives who reflect his character and oversee the growth of his creation to its full flourishing.
In short, the KJG entails God’s reclaiming his creatures and creation from their bondage to sin, decay, and death, and restoring them to original vocation.
Both of these dimensions of the gospel are memorably portrayed in “The Lion King.” The first, the reclamation, is given in the scene where King Mufasa gives up his life in order to rescue his son Simba from the mortal danger in which his own folly and the machinations of his evil uncle Scar have placed him. Simba is rescued from certain death at the cost of his father’s death.
Far from the end of the story, as the SG would have it, however, Simba’s reclamation is the necessary prelude to his restoration to his true identity and vocation in the world – King of Pride Rock which he is to protect and care for the benefit of all the other creatures and of the land itself! Thus the movie continues on detailing Simba’s eventual acceptance and embrace of who he is and what he is to do. The gospel, the “good news,” here is that God in Christ has done what had to be done to move his creatures and creation away from the oblivion toward which both were headed and placed both back on track to fulfilling his dream for both them and himself.
In other words, and here lies the main difference, in my judgment, between these two versions of the gospel, God did not create humanity to sin so Jesus could come and save us (reclaim) to magnify his love and grace, as seems implicit in the SG account. Rather, God created humanity for the purposes outlined above, and in, with, through, and as Jesus of Nazareth acted through his death and resurrection to both reclaim and restore us for the divine dream for which we were created.
Thus, “The Lion King” pictures for us a drama of redemption along the lines of the KJG. The SG seems to foreshorten the scope of God’s work in Christ to the reclamation of individuals from the danger in which they have placed themselves through sin, considered primarily as a violation of God’s law. The emphasis is on what humanity has become – sinners – and what is needed to rectify that situation. The KJG, on the other hand, emphasizes who and what humanity is, by God’s creation, and how in spite of our breaking faith with God and rejecting our calling and vocation, God in Christ has saved us both from our plight and for our restoration as divine image-bearers. And this, this restoration, is the end game God’s work in Christ aims at.
The difference the KJG makes for us is profound. One major difference concerns the way we view and approach other people. The SG inclines us to see them primarily as sinners in need of forgiveness (what we have become). The KJG inclines us to see others as God’s image-bearers created to protect and nurture each other and creation to our full flourishing and maturity who have tragically and culpably forfeited this calling. The call of the gospel, then, is not only or even primarily to accept God’s forgiveness in Christ (though this is a crucial and non-negotiable aspect of the process of redemption) but rather to humbly and gratefully embrace anew God’s gift of becoming who we were always meant to be and begin to live that life even now.
To put it crassly, SG wants us to believe that salvation is ultimately a salvage operation. Jesus comes to save as many as he can or God wills (depending on your view of predestination and election) from the wreckage of a fallen planet and through him we know that we are safe forever to live with God in God’s realm (heaven) in a form of existence presumed discontinuous with the life we have experienced here.
The KJG names salvation as God’s achieving through and in Jesus his “eternal purpose” (Ephesians 3:11) of a what we might well call (using Michael Polanyi’s felicitous term) a “convivial” existence of God and his people forever here on a renewed and flourishing terra firma. God’s intent in this view (or at least in my version of this view) was always to come among us and unite himself as fully with us as possible. Thus Jesus was always going to come as the incarnate One. Once the fall occurred and God’s work had to take the form of reclaiming and restoring those fallen from the grip of the evil to which they had given themselves, Jesus’ work became problematized and complexified. But in the unfathomable resources of creativity with God, his coming, already intended and planned, also become the way God would take care of the reclaiming and restoring work that needed to be done. One can certainly understand Paul’s cry of wondrous incomprehension of the depth and mercy of God’s gracious intention to make and keep us his own!