Friday, January 9, 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.