Thursday, December 15, 2005

The ransom theory

One criticism of the new Narnia movie I’ve run across in several different venues is that it presents the ransom theory of the atonement rather than penal substitution.

I’ve not seen the movie, and it’s been years since I read the book, but it seems to me that this particular criticism is deeply confused.

It’s true that Lewis had a subscriptural theory of the atonement. But the death and resurrection of Aslan is an allegory of the atonement, not a theory of the atonement. This is symbolic picture-language. And at an allegorical level, the depiction of his death, as I recall it from the book, which, to judge by the movie reviews, is faithfully reproduced in the cinematic adaptation, is perfectly consistent with penal substitution.

To be sure, Lewis denied that his Christian fiction was allegorical. But he seems to have been operating with a very narrow definition of allegory. His fiction doesn’t set up a point-by-point correspondence between the narrative and extranarrative levels, as we have in Dante or Bunyan, where nearly everything stands for something else.

But there’s a lot of calculated Christian symbolism in his fiction, so they are allegorical in both broad and specific ways without being allegorical through-and-through. And the death and resurrection of Aslan is quite clearly allegorical.

Indeed, the very objection to this depiction takes it to be an allegory of the atonement. But, in that event, we need to distinguish between the allegorical and the literal level. On an allegorical plane it symbolizes the atonement, but at a literal level it is not a theory of the atonement. It is simply an imaginative emblem of the atonement.

Another problem with this criticism is the tacit assumption that Lewis began with an idea of the atonement, and then figured out how to translate that idea into word-pictures. And maybe that’s how it happened.

But it’s at least as likely that he began, not with an idea of the atonement, but an image of the atonement, a mental image derived from Christian iconography, from cross, and crucifixion, and innumerable paintings of the Crucifixion, and translated that artistic tradition into an allegorical counterpart.

So both in terms of the creative process as well as the distinction between the allegorical narrative and its extranarrative referent, this objection strikes me a fundamentally ill-conceived.


  1. What is an allegory of an allegory? Does it not become a half-truth? Or at best, a dim reflection of the original?

    Speaking of half-truths, Daniel is collecting snippets of truth, er error, in everyday common knowledge. Thought you might like to join the healthy discourse.

    Click here to accept

  2. The tome and the film of LWW unfortunately does depict a ransom theory view - if we take them as an allegory; something Lewis never intended it to do. Even Lewis in his day was having to defend his 'fantasy for children imagery' against that same charge that it did represent a ransom theory view.

    Lewis made it clear though that LWW is not allegory at all. It is "fairy-tale analogy." Approaching the tome and film as allegory (as I did myself) leads one to examine the imagery and symbols in light of Scripture; and the scrutiny yields several theological deficiencies - including a ransom theory view.

    In an oft-quoted letter to a fifth-grade class in Maryland, Lewis wrote, "You are mistaken when you think that everything in the books 'represents' something in this world. Things do that in The Pilgrim's Progress but . . . I did not say to myself, 'Let us represent Jesus as He really is in our world by a Lion in Narnia': I said, 'Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as he became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would happen.'" -- World Magazine, December 5, 2005

    Very enlightening...

    I spoke to a friend of mine earlier today who is quite knowledgeable and extremely well-studied about Lewis and Narnia; he told me that "C.S. never meant LWW to be an allegory at all but a simple fairy-tale... an analogy if you please."

    IOW, Lewis was never meaning to communicate the biblical story of redemption by using 'allegory'; but to write a fairy-tale for children about a Lion who is gentle, but strong; a protector, but kind; one who is the king, but yet a friend; will let a child tug at its mane, but will roar at The Witch; and who will even give his life for you, but is stronger than death.

    Apparently, this was Lewis's 'picture' for children about Christ through Aslan. It was not meant to communicate the gospel, or theological beliefs, doctrinal convictions or biblical essentials about salvation; but something in a fairy tale about the character of Jesus.

    So what are we to make of all this? Here is my simple precription: "Enjoy the movie, read your Bibles and don't confuse the two."


  3. Shouldn't that be a capital R for "Ransom"?

  4. It would only need to be capitalized were it the character of Ransom in the Space Trilogy.

  5. An allegory is a fictional analogy.

  6. Ransom had the most exciting life out of any fictional philologist ever!