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C. S. Lewis and Theories of the Atonement

Nov 25, 2016

There is a richness both in Scripture and in church history when it comes to trying to understand what transpired at Calvary for our behalf. That Christ died for our sins is a basic theological given accepted by all true Christians. But how exactly that came about has always been an issue where much discussion – and debate – has occurred.

The idea of the atonement (mankind’s reconciliation to God through the work of Christ) has been viewed differently over the years by Christian thinkers and theologians. We can say there are not only many different portraits painted of this most wonderful of actions in the Bible, but over the past 2000 years believers have grappled with just what took place when Jesus died on the cross, and then rose again.

Anyone familiar with basic theology and the history of Christian thought will know that there are many models or theories of the atonement. This cannot be discussed in detail now, but in outline form here are some of the main theories and their proponents, laid out roughly in order of their appearance:

-The ransom theory (the early church fathers)
-The recapitulation theory (Irenaeus)
-The satisfaction, or commercial theory (Anselm)
-The penal substitution theory (Paul (?) and the reformers)
-The moral example, or subjective, or moral influence theory (Abelard)
-The governmental theory (Grotius)
-The Christus Victor, or dramatic theory (Aulen)

lewis-2Obviously many more could be mentioned and an entire library already exists weighing up the pros and cons of each model. The simple truth is there may be aspects of most of these theories that fit in with the biblical data, and none may be fully “correct” to the exclusion of all others.

Evangelical Christians of course will for the most part want to emphasise certain aspects here. We would argue that somehow there was certainly substitution involved (Christ died in my place), and most would state that it was penal in nature (having to do with the breaking of the law, and punishment).

So the penal substitutionary theory tends to be the main evangelical option. However we are to understand it, it is a wonderful and mysterious divine activity that we will never fully fathom in this life at least. See more on this topic here: billmuehlenberg.com/2009/01/25/on-the-atonement/

The great Christian apologist and theological layman C. S. Lewis was certainly aware of these various theories of the atonement, and he struggled to make sense of it all. While not a trained theologian or a professional theologian (if we can put it that way), he was very deeply steeped in theology and church history, so he had a very good working grasp of theology, more so than most believers today.

Evangelicals who are theologically literate will not be happy with all of what Lewis had to say about the atonement. A good introductory piece on this can be found here for example: www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=22-03-027-f

But in this article I want to simply highlight a few fundamental truths that Lewis shared in his important volume Mere Christianity. The very idea of a “mere Christianity” meant for Lewis that while we can and will differ on many details, there are some basic core truths of Christianity which should unite all believers. Based on this foundation, this in part is what he had to say about the atonement, and theories thereof:

The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter. A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work. I will tell you what I think it is like….
Theories about Christ’s death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works. Christians would not all agree as to how important these theories are….
But I think they will all agree that the thing itself is infinitely more important than any explanations that theologians have produced. I think they would probably admit that no explanation will ever be quite adequate to the reality. But as I said in the preface to this book, I am only a layman, and at this point we are getting into deep water. I can only tell you, for what it is worth, how I, personally, look at the matter. On my view the theories are not themselves the thing you are asked to accept….
We believe that the death of Christ is just that point in history 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 that we could fully understand it, that very fact would show it was not what it professes to be–the inconceivable, the uncreated, the thing from beyond nature, striking down into nature like lightning. You may ask what good it will be to us if we do not understand it. But that is easily answered. A man can 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 has accepted it. We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed. Any theories we build up as to how Christ’s death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to be left alone if they do not help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself. All the same, some of these theories are worth looking at….
Such is my own way of looking at what Christians call the Atonement. But remember this is only one more picture. Do not mistake it for the thing itself: and if it does not help you, drop it.

Obviously those who are really keen on their particular pet theory of the atonement will not be all that satisfied with this. However, while he did not propose a specific model of the atonement, he did remind us that regardless of how we conceive of it, it is a glorious core truth that all believers hold to. Indeed, it is the reality of the atonement that saves us and unites us, even though theories about it will continue to be debated and discussed.

There would be many folks who have shared their concerns about Lewis at this point; that he should have been more specific about a particular atonement theory. As just one example of many, consider this recent piece by one leading evangelical author: blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/kevindeyoung/2011/01/28/cautions-for-mere-christianity/

But my purpose here is not to defend Lewis in all things, nor is it to promote a particular view of the atonement (although it should be fairly obvious that the penal substitutionary theory is the one I most closely adhere to here). The purpose of this article is to simply refocus our minds on the fact and reality of the atonement.

As an evangelical Christian, I subscribe to some theories of the atonement more closely than to other ones. I believe the penal substitutionary atonement may come the closest to doing justice to the biblical data. And I believe that some of the other theories have some aspects of truth as well in varying degrees.

But the one obvious point Lewis was making, and rightly so, is that a mere theory of the atonement will not save anyone. The atonement itself, and our personal connection with it, is what saves us. As someone who loves theology, I am of course interested in the atonement and the various views of it as offered over the centuries. But at the end of the day I realise that I am not saved by a particular theory, but by what Christ did at Calvary on my behalf.

If this article helps provoke believers to look more closely at this wonderful biblical truth, I will be quite satisfied. I will be less satisfied if some folks will want to come here and seek to pick yet another fight with me – or Lewis – because we may not as doggedly hold to a particular view of the atonement as they do.

So as always I ask my readers to cut me a bit of slack here. Other articles in the future may more forcefully uphold some of these theories and seek to make the case for them. But here I merely wanted to remind us of the wonder of the cross and the glorious work of Christ.

Praise God for the cross.

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8 Responses to C. S. Lewis and Theories of the Atonement

  • Nice piece Bill,

    Thank you. That fact that Jesus died and rose again, his resurrection as we know, is central to the message of Christ’s gospel and it was only by the grace of God that I even understood the message of salvation through Christ, so I’m not surprised Lewis was unable to explain the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.

    As a Calvinist, I am very grateful for Calvin’s 5 points (TULIP) at the center of Reformed Theology, which goes a long way into explaining Christ’s atonement and we do not use this or predestination as an excuse not to evangelise as we do not know whom God has called therefore in effect it may be our evangelism that God uses to bring a predestined person to faith in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. We can know though that it is by grace that we have been saved through faith in Christ, The Five Solas are:

    Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”): The Bible alone is our highest authority.
    Sola Fide (“faith alone”): We are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ.
    Sola Gratia (“grace alone”): We are saved by the grace of God alone.
    Solus Christus (“Christ alone”): Jesus Christ alone is our Lord, Savior, and King.
    Soli Deo Gloria (“to the glory of God alone”): We live for the glory of God alone.

    For this I am very grateful to the Reformers for, this also may go part of the way to remind us of the glorious work of Christ on the cross and the glory we can give to God for redeeming us from the ‘pit’.

    Like a Lamb (He Was Pierced)
    by Maggi Dawn

    He was pierced for our transgressions
    And bruised for our iniquities
    And to bring us peace He was punished
    And by His stripes we are healed
    He was led like a lamb to the slaughter
    Although He was innocent of crime
    And cut off from the land of the living
    He paid for the guilt that was mine
    We like sheep have gone astray
    Turned each one to his own way
    And the Lord has laid on Him
    The iniquity of us all

    Like a lamb, like a lamb
    To the slaughter He came
    And the Lord laid on Him
    The iniquity of us all

    © 1987 Kingsway�s Thankyou Music
    Blessings

  • Hi Bill, thank you again for a well researched and well balanced essay. We accept in faith that when we embrace what Christ did on the cross at Calvary we are saved and have eternal life. Even inThe Apostle Paul’s time spent in his earthly ministry, he must have encountered similar debates. I am no theologian and will probably get shot down in flames for quoting it in this context. But I reckon Paul penned 1Cor. 13:12 as a response; “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; the I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” NRSV. On this side of Glory there are many things we will not fully understand. The mechanics of the atonement, I do not fully understand. But I do accept it and embrace it by faith. I believe that on the other side of Glory, I will fully understand. If I don’t, then In one of Heaven’s many coffee shops, I can have a “chin wag” with Jesus on how it all works. Let’s face it, we’ll be living there for eternity, so we won’t be short of time! Once again Bill, a well thought out article, and citing C.S. Lewis, made it outstanding! Kind regards, Kelvin. P.S. How come we didn’t have a crack at this when I was one of your students all those years ago?

  • Dear brother Bill, thanks for this little window on the mind of CSL. What a lovely man, humble, kind because he found forgiveness which he did not want, but once “dragged kicking into the Kingdom” (he said) of Christ, he was captured as many theologians are not because they love theology more than Theos Himself. I feel that CSL probably believed vicarious substitutionary atonement as Paul (for my satisfaction) says it in Galatians 2:20 “I have been crucified with Christ and so I live…” how can anyone describe this? That Christ became me on the Cross; suffered all the holy wrath that I have due before my Creator, by what I am in my Adamic rebel humanity to release me from the whole guilt of it by just, righteous, holy judgment on me, in love, in Him, in His unsullied by sin body!. And more than that. He also in the same! became the reprobate in His Love, so that when judged at the Last Day this one will say “It is just”. Holiness and Love: one in Jesus, Son of man, Son of God Saviour of the world and its’ Judge in perfect righteousness. Soli Deo Gloria. No wonder Paul ends Romans 9 – 11 in rapt doxology. Oh that we His church might be overflowed by the Spirit Who enabled Jesus in that task for God and His people. Heb. 9;14 Acts 2. How many more might there be being “dragged into the Kingdom” in our Australia by the humble “fishermen” such as CSL. Bless God.

  • Interesting that you should bring up this topic now as recently I’ve been challenged with a certain belief system re. Jesus having been made ‘a little (while) lower than the angels’ Heb.2:9 At the end of the day I guess it doesn’t really matter who is right – the important aspect is that He was born as a human (but as the Son of God) that He died (for our sakes) & that He rose & will return in order for us to have eternal life (paradise regained)
    What a wonderful privilege we’ve been given, which passes understanding! How can we not be grateful if we truly believe this truth?

  • Sir

    My experience of being saved is that when I was nine years’ old I was persistently being redefined by bullies (both by people of my own age and by adults).

    I began looking for an Intelligence outside and superior to myself and society to tell me the truth about my status as a creature.

    I looked in the rubbish bins of my next door neighbour and found an essay written on Stoicism. I became a practising Stoic.

    My mother became worried as she had not seen me smile nor heard me laugh for six months.

    My indifference to pain and pleasure brought me to a place where I found life meaningless.

    I marked a date on a calendar when I would throw myself under a bus.

    Between marking the date and my appointment with death I secretly began reading the Bible.

    This man Jesus I thought was the only one who could understand me. I read up to the point where he was executed – and slammed the Bible shut. ‘He’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead. You were the only one who could have saved me.’ I began shouting over and over again in my bedroom. Then for the first time I blurted, sobbing in rage against God: ‘You murderer. You murderer. He was the only one. What crime did he commit? You had him executed. He was your own son, you murderer.’

    I got up and dried my tears and said to myself: ‘It’s over. The King is dead. Time to die.’

    The next day I went to school. On the walk there I saw in detail blades of grass, red bricks of houses and their slate grey roofs – as if I were seeing them for the last time.

    Just before the school bell rang out to signal the end of the day, my school teacher Mrs Matthewson roared to the entire class , ‘You must always finish what you’re reading.’ Those words rang in my ears until I got home. There one last time I thought I’d finish reading his story to the last page.

    To my utter amazement I found he had come back to life. I got up and began shouting, ‘Jesus! Jesus! You’re alive! You’re alive. You’re here, and you’re alive! I can live! I don’ have to commit suicide!’

    That evening when my father switched off the bedroom light, I whispered to him, ‘How can I talk to you? Please talk to me? How can I be with you?’ I figured that if one man can live, die and live again – then another following through, me, could do the same. But how to get to him?

    After some time, he whispered back in the darkness: ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’ For some time I mulled that statement over and over again, and then, eureka, I said to him, ‘If I walk behind you, I’ll find the truth and then I’ll find the life. That’s it! I’ve found the answer!’ Tears of joy ran down my cheeks. I didn’t have to die.

    I knew then, that the King had died so that I could live.

  • I’ve been talking to two seasoned ministers here in Scotland about The Atonement. Here is what they said:

    “Penal substitution is vital.

    Any idea of a ransom paid to Satan is ridiculous because it raises Satan, a creature, to a position similar to God. God could annihilate Satan with a word. The ransom is paid to divine justice.

    The recapitulation theory has a grain of truth in it in that Christ is the last Adam and succeeds where Adam failed, but it is inadequate to explain the Atonement.

    Anselm’s view is usually is usually taken as being penal substitution and the view further explained by the Reformers. Christ takes our place, suffers for our sins, satisfies God’s justice.

    The Moral influence theory again is totally inadequate though along with being our substitute we have the example and moral influence of Christ.

    They governmental theory is wrong in that it asserts that Christ did not suffer what our sins deserved – but God accepted his limited sufferings as a demonstration of his justice and so forgives believers. It doesn’t accept that the absolute justice of God requires the substitute to suffer all that our sins deserve.

    The Christus Victor theory presents an aspect of the atonement but is inadequate on its own. Christ did indeed triumph over satan through his death and his work is first presented as crushing Satan’s head (Genesis 3:15). That is only a part but the main part proclaimed over and over again in Scripture is the idea of sacrifice.

    The minister concluded by sayiong: “C S Lewis is not a good guide in theology”.

    The other minister said:

    “I would say that C S Lewis is a mixture of Ransom and Christus Victor. I would not give house room to any view but the penal substitution. There are so many good works on it – Hugh Martin, John Murray, R L Dabney Christ our Penal Substitute.

    I [the other minister] was reading recently in W G T Shedd how the substitutionary atonement stands or falls with that of endless punishment. ‘Vicarious satisfaction for sin is the keystone of the arch of Christianity, and if endless retribution for sin be taken out, the whole scheme of redemption by the sufferings of Christ falls to the ground’.

    The other minister added:

    “For Lewis the atonement is not fundamentally a matter of pardon, imputation and forgiveness, but rather the actual transformation of fallen beings into Christlike creatures. Salvation is not primarily a matter of having our sins wiped away but rather overcoming the chief sin of self-will or pride”.

    End of quotes.

    As for me, I think your comments might be ok for theology scholars, but I also think you are courting controversy by promoting C S Lewis among your less scholarly readers. Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones said: “C S Lewis had a defective view of salvation and was an opponent of the substitutionary and penal view of the atonement”.

    I’m not a theologian myself, so you won’t get 10,000 smart words from me on this subject, although I understand The Atonement to be about PROPITIATION (not mere expiation). I believe in penal substitution. Christ satisfied Divine Justice. Christ appeased the WRATH of God.

    Yes, there are elements of truth in most of your other quoted “theories” of The Atonement – and there are certainly not many people who could delineate that kind of detail in the first place!

    Christian regards

  • Thanks Andrew. But of course everything you mention in your comment I did in fact cover in the article!

    -I did say that there may be some truth in the various theories, but some theories come closer to the biblical data than others.
    -I did say that – several times in fact – that many evangelicals would not be fully happy with Lewis’ particular views on the atonement, and I even provided links to that end.
    -I did say that say that the most biblical version of the atonement theories seems to be the penal substitutionary one. (Anyone who has read my thirty articles on soteriology would be clear on that much!)

    And I also said (which was the main point of the article) that a particular theory of the atonement itself saves no one, but the actual atoning sacrifice of Christ on our behalf – which none of us will ever fully comprehend and understand in this life – is indeed what provides salvation for us. In this regard at least Lewis was 100 per cent correct.

    So I was not “courting controversy by promoting C S Lewis among your less scholarly readers”. Given that millions of people have been greatly helped in their faith, and/or even came to the faith by the tremendous apologetics ministry of Lewis, I most certainly will continue to promote him. The fact that he did not get everything perfectly right (just like me and you) is no reason to not continue in promoting this great champion of the faith.

    But thanks for your thoughts.

  • Hi Bill,

    Ha ha, this is a good discussion, I think, it is not easy to think like C.S. Lewis, he is a great writer as I understand, not everyone can follow him though, he writes of his point of view well and when one has time to ponder over his different ways of expressing his faith, one may indeed see eye to eye with his point of view. Much can be learned from C.S. Lewis’ writing, college lecturers often refer to his profound thoughts on Christianity and propitiation in the dictionary is defined as humor which I sometimes think that the writing style of C.S. Lewis is, after all God has a sense of humor.

    Maybe his sense of humor was the great C.S. Lewis’ saving grace, his writing being both complicated and simple at the same time, after all we must have a simple childlike faith to enter into the kingdom of heaven. Was C.S. not writing from prison at some point, just like the apostle Paul and our Savior also did a stint in jail, did he not? This must have given Lewis some insight into the life of our Lord if not only time for reflection, I think the KISS principle applies here ‘keep it simple stupid’ we may not all be scholars but we are all theologians! Boxed sets of C.S. Lewis’ collection of books, still make great Christmas gifts particularly when you can find a home without an up-to-date copy of these popular classics, he obviously had something right!

    It takes a lot of different individuals to make up the church of Christ, all with differing gifts, to work together for our Lord to build his body in the Kingdom of God! Why else would there be the number of different denominations of God’s church, reaching new believers with different methods of teaching the one gospel of salvation through Christ, fulfilling the great commission? It is amazing how God calls us sinners to service in his kingdom by his grace, mercy and love, even though we don’t deserve it, especially that he calls us sinners to obey our faithful God through belief in his holy word, by which we are convinced of sin, becoming Christ’s followers because we are his workmanship, but he does, particularly when we take him at his word because he keeps his word! Truly he does, don’t take my word for it though, believe Jesus, he fully satisfies! Does he not?

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