Recently I’ve been reading The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis to my sons while they fall asleep. They like the stories of other worlds and magic and it is far more enjoyable for me than the picture books they used to require me to read over and over and over again. Just last week we finished “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe” which features Aslan as the Christ figure who brought Narnia to life and the White Witch Jadis who claims a kind of Godship over Narnia and ends with a story that is a creative illustration of the ransom theory of the atonement. Jadis laid claim to Edmund who had betrayed Aslan and his own brother and sisters. He betrayed them for a dessert that was in fact false. But it was not only his desire for Turkish Delight that drove him away from his siblings, it was an attitude that I think was part of his innate character. He wanted to be alone and he wanted to be right. Edmund didn’t like admitting that anyone else might have a clearer picture of reality than him. It infuriated him when the flaws in his conduct were revealed and pointed out for all to see. In reluctance I have to admit that I identify with Edmund more than I’d like to admit; I imagine we all do.
Edmund’s siblings don’t want the queen to have him as a slave or to turn him to stone as she has done with so many other Narnians because they love him, character flaws included. The problem is she has laid claim to him on the basis of ‘deep magic’ that cannot be undone, because the deep magic has always been and cannot be changed. In order to satisfy eternal law set forth from the creation of the world Aslan secretly offers himself to the White Witch as a kind of prisoner exchange. He made no fanfare and had no parting celebration or farewell but did appreciate Lucy and Susan accompanying him as he willingly walked to his slaughter. You see Aslan had greater vision, more wisdom, and deeper knowledge than the White Witch. By offering himself as a sacrifice he tapped into a magic that was deeper and older than the kind the Witch was calling on. He tricked her by giving himself up.
As I read the least few chapters I was surprised that I was getting choked up and had to stop once or twice to gain enough composure so I could finish reading. I don’t get teary very often. I am not emotionally touched easily. Further, as a very skeptical person the theories of the Atonement are generally quite unsatisfying, though they do fit well within their proper historical context and do make sense if we transport ourselves to late antiquity or to the middle ages. There, the theories are coherent and satisfying. But in the modern world they are not. So why was I crying in my sons’ room while trying to wrap up a reading?
I wasn’t thinking of Aslan when my voice broke up. I was actually thinking of Edmund. Just after Aslan rises from his death and proceeds to terrify and destroy the Witch and her evil minions, we have Edmund described as fighting on the good side and performing excellently in defense of his siblings. I think it was the thought of being redeemed or being inspired to be redeemed that struck me. Edmund had become something bigger than himself, or maybe he had just tapped into the excellence that was within him and was able to shun the self-centeredness that had plagued him in the past. He didn’t do this on his own. He was loved by his brother and sisters, and by Aslan. As far as he knew Aslan, whom everyone loved, had saved him from the Witch, had granted him a new start.
I doubt many things, maybe too many things. But I do still feel deeply. It doesn’t happen often but it does happen. I’ll find myself crying during a Christmas Carol or while reading some of C.S. Lewis’ stories. Do my feelings make these ancient ideas more real or true despite my questions and skeptical mind? Maybe, but I don’t think so. What I do know is that my feelings are real and legitimate. Also when I am touched this way it makes me want to be better. It makes me want to change from the Edmund early in the story that is concerned with belittling Lucy and getting that Turkish Delight to the Edmund at the end that is part of a team and is putting himself on the battlefield in defense of those he loves. My sentimental feelings are rounding me out as a better person and if that isn’t real I don’t know what is. We may be redeemed after we die but I think we still need the Easter and other Holy seasons to help us become redeemed now.
Thank you for sharing those beautiful comments on this Easter day.
Thanks Brian. One of the Barker family’s favorites as well.
OK, I’ll bite. Why are the theories of the Atonement “incoherent” in the modern era? What’s different about the spiritual condition of one of our brothers or sisters born into mortality today as opposed to one born 800 or 2,800 years ago? When the latter died, did something different happen to them than what will happen to us upon death? Does the Book of Mormon, brought forth for this, the modern era preceding the Second Coming, provide an incoherent theory of the Atonement?
That is a lot to respond to and any response is tied up in many assumptions that you and I probably do not share, at least not all of them.
What I’m saying is that the theories of the Atonement, which were generated after the fact with the purpose of explaining the death of Jesus, make the most sense in the time of their construction. For instance, the Ransom theory makes a lot of sense for people of the middle ages whose feudal lord was very much a God figure who often had to bargain for prisoner exchanges, and in the case of the Atonement this lord is God and he tricks the devil out of a prisoner exchange. Additionally the Satisfaction theory also makes more sense to a pre-modern worldview wherein honor and hierarchies are valued much more than they are now. In modern times the ransom theory and the satisfaction theory don’t make as much sense, unless we see our military and/or political leaders as models for understanding God, which I do not.
For a more thorough contextualization of Atonement theories I strongly recommend chapter 13 of “Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy” edited by Miranda Wilcox and John Young. Also this post by Kevin Barney is a great distillation to work from. (https://bycommonconsent.com/2009/03/28/atonement-stew/)
It is just my opinion that the theories mostly don’t make sense in a modern world, that is in explaining the nature of God or more precisely why God had to die to forgive sin or make the Resurrection a universal experience, but the theories can still be deeply meaningful – as I was trying to express in the post.
(I’m going back over to this margin so my response isn’t squeezed into a long stalactite.)
I suppose it depends on what counts as a “theory” of the Atonement. Is it what theologians come up with to explain “how” the Atonement works in relation to cosmic or eternal forces of which almost nothing is known? Here is what I should have asked: How is a theory of the Atonement different from an understanding of the Atonement? Must the latter depend on the former?
Surely the scriptures mean something. In the only first-person account we currently have of what Jesus experienced during the Atonement, he simply says at one point:
“For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent.” (DC 19:16)
Doesn’t this count as an explanation of what the Atonement is about? Is this too straightforward for the modern, sophisticated mind? Is it unsatisfying? Does it not make sense unless it is fit into one or another classification scheme?
Straight-forward too is this:
“…The atonement bringeth to pass the resurrection of the dead; and the resurrection of the dead bringeth back men into the presence of God…”(Alma 42:23)
Is not this factually true?
What’s wrong with the introduction to the Gospel Topics entry for Atonement:
“As used in the scriptures, to atone is to suffer the penalty for sins, thereby removing the effects of sin from the repentant sinner and allowing him or her to be reconciled to God. Jesus Christ was the only one capable of carrying out the Atonement for all mankind. Because of His Atonement, all people will be resurrected, and those who obey His gospel will receive the gift of eternal life with God.”
If the “theories” of which you are wary are those academic ones designed to describe what “makes” the Atonement work (and work infinitely), “how” the atonement brings to pass the resurrection, then I am wary as well; we shall probably find ourselves at sea. But to say that a discussion of the Atonement can only take place within such theories is misleading as well.
To paraphrase the Book of Mormon, it’s laying hold on the word of God that leads the followers of Christ in a straight and narrow course across the gulf of misery and lands their souls at the right hand of God to go no more out. The follower of Christ can get there with the understanding of the Gospel and Christ and the Atonement found in the scriptures. The Book of Mormon and other scriptures are abounding with references to the Atonement. The scriptures have explanatory power in and of themselves.
Don’t overthink everything, Brian D.