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Mere Atonement

Ariel James Vanderhorst

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C. S. Lewis & the Multiple Angles of Redemption

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 MatthewHall.net, 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.


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