Friday, January 09, 2009

C. S. Lewis and the Atonement

A redated post, linking to an essay on the atonement.

Mere Christianity, Book 2 Chapter 4
C. S. Lewis and the Atonement

Question: If you had just a few minutes to explain Christianity to someone, how would you explain it?

Liberal Theology focuses on what Jesus taught. The textbook for my History of World Religions class spends pages and pages on the personality and teachings of Jesus, and spends only one short paragraph on the crucifixion and resurrection.

I Cor. 15:14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.

Lewis: And now, what was the purpose of it all? What did he come to do? Well, to teach, of course, but as soon as you look into the New Testament or any other Christian writing you will find that they are constantly talking about something different—about His death and His coming to life again. It is obvious that Christians think the chief point of the story lies here. They think the main thing He came to earth to do was to suffer and be killed.

But how does the Atonement work? Fundamentalism, the great opponent of Liberal theology, (and here I am referring to Fundamentalism as a set of doctrines, not as an epithet or an intellectual vice) affirmed Five Fundamentals:

1) The Verbal Inspiration of the Bible
2) The Virgin Birth of Christ
3) The Substitutionary Atonement
4) The Bodily Resurrection of Christ
5) The Second Coming of Christ

But what does it mean to call the atonement a substitutionary atonement? What it typically means (I heard this on the radio today), is that as sinners, we human beings face the wrath of God. Because of our sins, we deserve to suffer everlastingly in hell. But Christ on the cross suffers the punishment that we deserve to suffer, therefore it becomes possible for God to forgive us our sins and allow us to be saved. This site explains theory:

Many people believe this. But does it make sense? Does it follow from the fact that the being sinned against is infinite that the deserved punishment is also infinite? Back in the Middle Ages, it was thought that you deserved a greater punishment if you committed a crime against a greater person, so stealing something from the king is worse than stealing something from a peasant. Also, because the suffering is on the part of an infinite being, does that make the payment sufficient? Does a few hours of pain on the cross pay for what I would have to pay for in an eternity in hell?

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Lewis employs a picture which in theology is often called the Christus Victor model. Christ’s death, according to this picture, Christ’s death pays a ransom to Satan (the White Witch), who has a right to punish us. However, Christ escapes the clutches of Satan through resurrection. This view is defended by Charles Taliaferro and Rachel Traughber in “The Atonement in Narnia,” in the book Philosophy and the Chronicles of Narnia (Open Court, 2005).

In the traditional “substitutionary” picture God has an obligation, based on His own holiness, to punish humans; in the “Christus Victor/Narnian picture Satan (and/or the Witch) has the right to punish humans.

But what Lewis says in this chapter is interesting. His claim is the important thing is to accept Christ’s atonement, not to accept some theory about Christ’s atonement.

“On my view the theories are not what you are asked to accept. Many of you no doubt have read Jeans or Eddington. (Physicists who wrote for the general public-VR). What they do when they want to explain the atom, or something of that sort, is to give you a description out of which you can make a mental picture. But then they warn you that this picture is not what the scientists believe. What the scientists believe is a mathematical formula. The pictures are only there to help you understand the formula. They are not really true in the way that the formula is; they do not give you the real thing but only something more or less like it. They are only meant to help, and if they do not help you can drop them.” The thing itself cannot be pictured, it can only be expressed mathematically. We are in the same boat here. We believe that the death of Christ is just that point at which something absolutely unimaginable from outside shows through into our own world. And if we cannot picture even the atoms of which our own world is built, of course we are not going to be able to picture this. Indeed, if we found we could fully understand it, that very fact would show that it was not what it professes to be--the inconceivable, the uncreated, the thing from beyond nature, striking down into nature like lightning…A man may eat his dinner without understanding exactly how food nourishes him. A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he as accepted it.”
Lewis the offers a mental picture that is different from either of the two pictures presented above. Salvation requires a death to self and a surrender to God; the more sinful we are the more we need to repent and the more difficult it is for us to do that, Jesus as the God-man surrenders to the Father in a way that allows us to “buy into” it, thus enabling us to be saved. However, this is a picture designed to help, and is not simply one more “theory of the atonement” to go alongside the others that have been developed.


Steven Carr said...

You have to admire the sheer chutzpah of Lewis in being one of the biggest hypocrites of the 20th century and just brazening out any contradictions.

'A man may eat his dinner without understanding exactly how food nourishes him.'

And presumably naturalists can accept that the brain can produce a mind without understanding exactly how brain nourishes mind.

Lewis lambasts naturalists for not being able to give an account of extremely difficult philosophical problems, and then waves away the absurdity of believing that killing a scapegoat means our sins are foregiven with the argument that nobody needs to understand it before they are asked to believe it.

Ed Harbin said...

The map is not the territory. A verbal description of the map is not the map.

This is true of many domains, - our religious experience as well as mathematical physics.

Anonymous said...

FYI. The Way to be saved perfected by the crucifixion of Jesus is the faith to repent of the one sin of Jesus' murder for the forgiveness of ALL sins.

Ilíon said...

How can there indeed be forgiveness for the one who does not desire to be forgiven? How can there indeed be desire to be forgiven if one will not admit that one has offended?

How can there indeed be mercy if there is not first justice indeed? How can there indeed be forgiveness if there is not first judgment indeed? How can there indeed be reprieve if there is not first condemnation indeed?

Does the one who has offended *deserve* to be forgiven? Of course not! For, if he deserves to be forgiven, then he has not offended at all; rather one is oneself mistaken in thinking that he has offended.

Perhaps the offender is one's own beloved child (and thus one stands in a position to punish the offence), who did indeed offend. And so one punishes the child; does the child *now* deserve to be forgiven? Of course not! Or, the child, whether before or after the punishment, admits to the offence and truly asks to be forgiven; does the child *now* deserve to be forgiven? Of course not!

Forgiveness is *never* a desert; it is the opposite of what one deserves. But it cannot *really* be given unless it is desired; and it cannot *really* be desired without admission of the offence.

No amount of punishment, not even an eternity of punishement, can remove even the "smallest" offence; but only forgiveness can. No amount of punishment, not even an eternity of punishement, makes one "deserving" of being forgiven -- *nothing* can ever make one deserving of forgiveness for one's offences, whether against God or against one's fellows.

No amount of intellectually dishonest whinging changes this reality.

Only those who truly desire to be forgiven, only those who will admit that they do stand in need of forgiveness, can ever truly be forgiven. For anything, by anyone -- even the All-powerful Living God can do only that which can be done; he cannot do that which cannot be done.

Victor Reppert said...

Ilion: I can't see where the link to "intellectually dishonest whinging" goes to. It looks like it goes to one of the prior comments, but I can't figure out which.

Anonymous said...

It's nice to know that demi-gods exist in the world; beings who are above all moral and logical reproach.

I guess Lewis deserves to suffer in "secular" hell....where the ad hominem does not die and the mockery is never quenched.

As to Lewis' view of the "atonement"...I think he made a good point about the importance of believing that Christ offers eternal life, even if you're lacking some theory of the atonement. In a similar fashion, it's not necessary for an ailing patient to understand "why" a particular medicine helps him/her, in order to receive the benefits of it [medicine]. I don't think primary care doctors are usually aware of all the biological and chemical nuances that explain why a medicine works....that is left up to the pharmacologist/pharmacist.

Illion and Lewis are working from a juridical/penal model of the Divine and human relationship; namely, that God is the Judge, and humans are guilty convicts/trespassers of Divine justice. Christ is, on this view, seen as the Divine-human bailout for mankind. Christ, as Divine, is the offended party. But Christ, as human, is the representative and offering to God in behalf of mankind qua defense....and so forth.

But that is not the only metaphor that the scriptures paint of God and man's relationship. There is also the metaphors of Bride and Bridegroom; the Great Physician and the greatly sick; the Prodigal son and the forgiving Father; the Shepherd and lost sheep; a Hen and her chicks; unfaithful wife and faithful Husband; etc. And, of course, there's the Judge and convict model too.

Each metaphor has validity. But problems arise when one metaphor is believed to exhaust the possibilities; or is believed to be a dominant metaphor. Let me illustrate this with the juridical model:

This metaphor does illustrate the fundamental truth that mankind, by free choice, has disobeyed God's law and is guilty before Him. But in terms of the Gospel, or "good news", this model falls short; because justice demands retribution. Judges pronounce guilt or innocence, depending on the evidence. In the case of evident innocence, or of insufficient evidence for conviction, the Judge dismisses all charges and the defendant is free to go. In the case of the guilty, however, the Judge must convict and sentence the guilty with an equitable punishment. To merely let a convicted prisoner go, is to subvert justice--in that it, consequently, punishes the victims by freeing the guilty. The victims then suffer while the guilty get away.

So, the juridical model cannot offer hope. It can only assure the "guilty" that they will be punished. Furthermore, in the practicalities of the Christian life, an exclusive "juridical" understanding of God undermines faith; for how does a person console themselves or others when, after having accepted the forgiveness of Christ, they continue to sin (Heb. 6:4-6, 10:26,27)?? Of course, this leads to despair.

The ideas of "atonement" and/or "forgiveness", are not taken from the juridical model. But they are intrinsic to almost all other metaphors in scripture; especially the ones I've already listed. Any or all of the aforementioned metaphors of scripture must be appealed to in order for the world to have any "good news".

As for the persons who despair of God's mercy....the problem is in their having understood God in purely juridical terms; and having neglected the plethora of other metaphors available in scripture that speak to the mercy, long suffering and patience of the God of Love.

The juridical metaphor is helpful for some people at certain times in their spiritual journey. However, there's a temptation towards abusiveness by reading the scriptures myopically through penal/legal bifocals.

The upshot, to recapitulate Lewis' point, is that there is no single theory of the atonement. In fact, there's relevance to all of them. And the reason why is because God is much bigger than all of our theories about Him. It would not only be foolish, but also idolatrous to squeeze God into a limited concept or group of concepts. "Concepts" are merely a condescension to human finitude, and our inability to comprehend or fully grasp the nature of the infinite God (John 21:25, 1 Cor. 1:21)

Doctor Logic said...



Anonymous said...


The situations are disanalogous: the Christian is asked to accept the atonement because he realises it is an important doctrine, and this fact outweighs his puzzlement. And Lewis' argument against materialism is not based on simple puzzlement, but on the idea that it is an in principle impossibility for neurophysical facts to explain mental facts.

A little charitable thought can go a long way.

Ilíon said...

VR: "... It looks like it goes to one of the prior comments, but I can't figure out which."

It goes to Mr Carr calling Lewis a hypocrite.

Ilíon said...

... which just happens to be where one lands when one clicks on it (I tested it before I posted it).

Ilíon said...

Blip: "... A little charitable thought can go a long way."

You're asking/expecting this of intellectually dishonest persons.

Anonymous said...

Something interesting to note about skeptics:

They are philosophical parasites. Plato has rightly named them "philodoxers".

Skeptics can do nothing but critique. But ask them to present a defensible position of their own and they will come up pitifully short.

Atheism is magical thinking of the highest order. More magical than Middle-Earth or Narnia; because they believe this bit of alchemy:

From nothing comes something. From disorder comes order. From zero complexity to high complexity. From non-organic life to organic life. From non-rational processes to rational processes. From non-moral reality to a moral universe.

And they believe that the "nihil" can somehow accomplish all this. Yet, they will accuse Christians of believing in "fairy tales" and "superstition".....yet the real hypocrisy is their own. Somehow, scientific language acts as a sheet that is supposed to cover and disguise a Skyscraper.
Or even better, it's the "invisible" robe that is given to the Emperor.....

Theism can account for this because God is a Creative Being. Human creativity does not make sense on any other view. Music, arts, literature, academic science....are all creative endeavors. They are superfluous to biological survival. But these pursuits are, in fact, inevitable because mankind is painted in the image of a Creative Being....and volitionally acts and reasons like a "creative" being, instead of like repetitive, "uniform" natural events.

Water cannot rise above it's source. You cannot buy something for nothing. Atheists want a free lunch....but they can only get it by stealing yours and mine; and then proceed to claim that no one really made the lunch to begin with.

Skeptics are nothing but cackling hyenas.

They set a bar for the theist that is much, much higher than the bar they will set for themselves.

And to have the pomposity to call themselves "Dr. Logic", and then proceed to spew out fallacy after fallacy.

Totally shameless. Zero moral compass in the heart...and all the while proudly lifting himself up to the heights of the gods. Yet, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle will be your judge in the end....and they will account you as one who despised wisdom, who would not heed instruction, and a person who recklessly spit on their graves.

Ilíon said...

Gregory: "... Skeptics can do nothing but critique. But ask them to present a defensible position of their own and they will come up pitifully short. ..."

That would be OK, if only they didn't tend to be unprincpled (aka: intellectually dishonest) in their application of "skepticism."

Ilíon said...

An interesting read, somewhat related to this blog-item: Touchstone magazine - Hell’s Back

mormongoldandcurrency said...

Lewis is one of my favorites, and continues to be so. Though he is not of my denomination, I admire his thoughtfulness and his own "parables." How exactly the atonement works can be difficult to explain, how does the finite understand the infinite, how does the mortal understand the immortal. Quite frankly, you don't - at least not completely. And for good reason, we aren't there yet. We will not put on immortality until we shall be called forth in the resurrection. Like anything else, you can talk it to death, but until you have experienced it - you still don't get it. The truth is, Jesus did die for our sins, without his sacrifice we would not rise from the dead, physically or spiritually. How it works is really, and here we go, unimportant. Belief and faith have nothing to do with understanding - understanding comes from experiencing it. I think all scripture, in its basic format, explain this principle. It is coming unto the Father as a child, fully trusting and believing in Him. And for the person who desires not to be forgiven, has no claim on the atonement - apparently, everyone can be satisfied.