"You have a traitor there, Aslan," said the Witch. Of course everyone present knew that she meant Edmund...Last week I read Christus Victor by Gustuf Aulen. Aulen's book is considered by many to be an important recovery of the original Christian understanding of the atonement. Most Christians tend to think of the atonement in terms of satisfaction, often with the legal twist seen in penal substitutionary atonement. In this view, which hardly bears repeating, Jesus dies in our place to satisfy God's justice. As Aulen notes, this view, while common among modern Christians (the Orthodox are the exception here), was not the original Christian understanding. Satisfaction theory was a more recent invention, taking full shape round 1027 with Saint Anslem's treatise Cur Deus Homo? (Why did God become man?). During the Protestant Reformation the notion of legal satisfaction (i.e., God's justice requires a death-sentence to achieve satisfaction), a slant going beyond Anselm's seminal work, took final shape and became the antecedent view in Western Christianity.
"Well," said Aslan. "His offence was not against you."
"Have you forgotten the Deep Magic?" asked the Witch.
"Let us say I have forgotten it," answered Aslan gravely. "Tell us of this Deep Magic."
"Tell you?" said the Witch, her voice growing suddenly shriller. "Tell you what is written on that very Table of Stone which stands beside us? Tell you what is written in letters deep as a spear is long on the firestones on the Secret Hill? Tell you what is engraved on the sceptre of the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea? You at least know the Magic which the Emperor put into Narnia at the very beginning. You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill...that human creature is mine. His life is forfeit to me. His blood is my property..."
"It is very true," said Aslan, "I do not deny it...Fall back, all of you," said Aslan, "and I will talk to the Witch alone..."...The rising of the sun had made everything look so different - all colours and shadows were changed that for a moment they didn't see the important thing. Then they did. The Stone Table was broken into two pieces by a great crack that ran down it from end to end; and there was no Aslan...
"Who's done it?" cried Susan. "What does it mean? Is it magic?"
"Yes!" said a great voice behind their backs. "It is more magic." They looked round. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane (for it had apparently grown again) stood Aslan himself.
"Oh, Aslan!" cried both the children, staring up at him, almost as much frightened as they were glad.
"Aren't you dead then, dear Aslan?" said Lucy.
"Not now," said Aslan...
"But what does it all mean?" asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.
"It means," said Aslan, "that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know: Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitors stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards..."
"And now," said Aslan presently, "to business. I feel I am going to roar. You had better put your fingers in your ears."
And they did. And Aslan stood up and when he opened his mouth to roar his face became so terrible that they did not dare to look at it. And they saw all the trees in front of him bend before the blast of his roaring as grass bends in a meadow before the wind.
But for the first thousand years of the church a different view held sway, a view Aulen labels Christus Victor. It is also called the "classical" or "ransom" view of the atonement. Aulen describes the central idea:
[T]he central theme [of this] idea of the Atonement [is] a Divine conflict and victory; Christ--Christus Victor--fights against and triumphs over the evil powers of the world, the 'tyrants' under which mankind is in bondage and suffering, and in Him God reconciles the world to himself.In the New Testament these "evil powers" are most closely identified with Sin, Death, and the Devil. In many places in Paul's writings Sin, Death, and the Devil almost function as synonyms. Collectively, these are the powers that hold humanity "hostage." We are the "captives" of Sin, Death, and the Devil. And without Christ we are doomed. Thus, according to Christus Victor theology, Christ comes to earth to do battle with and ultimately defeat Sin, Death, and the Devil. And by defeating these enemies Jesus sets humans free.
Colossians 2.20One aspect of ransom theory was how the first Christians interpreted passages like this:
Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules...
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
1 Corinthians 15.20-26
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
Mark 10.45Most modern Christians read these verses through the prism of satisfaction theory. In this theory the ransom is paid to God to satisfy God's demand for justice. But the first Christians didn't see it that way. The first Christians believed that the Devil held humanity captive and, thus, the ransom was being paid to the Devil. God, in this view, is wholly loving and benevolent. Satan demands the blood and the death. Not God.
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
1 Timothy 2.5-6
For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men...
I like to call ransom theory "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Theory" because, as seen above, it is the theology behind the actions of Aslan and the White Witch. Due to his sin, according to Deep Magic of Narnia, the White Witch has a rightful claim upon Edmund. As she says: "That human creature is mine. His life is forfeit to me. His blood is my property..." This is how the first Christians saw the fall of Adam and Eve and all humanity since Eden. Because of our sin the Devil "owns" us, our blood is the Devil's property.
So Christ, like Aslan does for Edmund, substitutes himself for us. Christ pays the blood ransom setting us free from the Devil's rightful claim. And thus are we saved. The White Witch kills Aslan instead of Edmund. The Devil kills Christ instead of Adam and his offspring.
But it gets even more interesting than this. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe something else happens beyond the substitution. The Witch kills Aslan, but that's not the end of the story. There is a Deeper Magic that the Witch doesn't know about. And this Deeper Magic brings Aslan back to life, cracking the Stone Table and, thus, ending the era of sacrifice in Narnia. But more than ending sacrifice, Aslan also defeats Death itself: "the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards..."
The Stone Table cracks because Aslan tricks the White Witch into taking an innocent victim: "Though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know: Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation." Interestingly, some of the Church Fathers, Gregory of Nyssa in particular, articulated something very similar regarding Christ's defeat of the Devil. Specifically, in the Incarnation God hides himself in human form. Kind of like a Trojan Horse. The Devil can clearly see that Christ is special, perhaps even the Messiah, but still just a man. So Satan kills Jesus thinking he will thwart God's plan. In the words of St. Augustine, the Devil took the "bait." Like a fish taking a worm on a hook. Like the White Witch killing Aslan thinking that would be the end of the story.
So the Devil takes Jesus down into hell, his Citadel of Sin and Death, where all humanity, starting with Adam and Eve, are being held captive. There the Devil tries to lock Jesus up with the rest of humanity when--Surprise!--the Devil discovers that Jesus isn't just a man. Jesus is God Incarnate. The Devil has been fooled into letting God into hell. Jesus then leads a jail break, cracking open the gates of hell and freeing humanity, leading them up to heaven. These events are called the harrowing of hell and are recounted in a couple of places in the New Testament:
1 Peter 3.18-20aAgain, for the first thousand years of church history this was how Christians understood the atonement. Our modern theory of satisfaction didn't arrive until much later. But one of the reasons the modern version did take over was due to the fact that people began to be increasingly uncomfortable with the power afforded the Devil in ransom theory. Could the Devil really have a rightful claim on humanity? Does God really have to bargain with the Devil to free humanity? And isn't the whole notion of tricking the Devil into killing Jesus a little outlandish? Questions like these swirled around ransom theory from the very beginning, but they grew more and more acute until, finally, one atonement theory was swapped for another around 1027.
For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago...
1 Peter 4.6
For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to men in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.
This is why it says:
"When he ascended on high,
he led captives in his train
and gave gifts to men."
(What does "he ascended" mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)
Now why am I going into all this for a Good Friday meditation? Well, because I agree with Aulen that something was lost when we turned our backs on the original understanding of the atonement. I agree with Aulen that we should return to the first Christian understanding of the atonement.
But the immediate objection to this is that if we were to return to the original Christian understanding wouldn't that mean readopting all those shenanigans associated with the Devil? The deal making, the trickery and all that weirdness?
Aulen says we don't. And his argument goes like this. All this drama about the Devil is just that, a drama, a story told to get across some very important ideas. Read literally, the details about Christ's defeat of the Devil are hard to swallow. But the theological truths associated with this drama are so very, very right. And right in ways that the modern satisfaction theory is so very, very wrong.
Aulen discusses, among others, three ways ransom theory gets it right.
First, it is true that all the deal making and trickery in ransom theory looks strange. But it points to a key theological insight: the non-violence of God. As Aulen writes:
[T]his whole group of ideas, including the semi-legal transaction with the devil, the payment of the ransom-price, and the deception, is presented, often explicitly, in order to deny that God proceeds by way of brute force to accomplish His purpose...He overcomes evil, not my an almighty fiat, but by putting in something of His own, through a Divine self-oblation.This is a huge contrast between ransom theory and, say, modern penal substitutionary atonement. In penal substitutionary atonement violence is an intrinsic feature of God. God's blood lust and violence drives the whole mechanism. It's paganism all over again.
But in ransom theory God is non-violent. God demands no blood price. More, God even deals with the Devil non-violently. God overcomes evil by self-sacrificing. The Devil--like the White Witch--craves blood. Not Aslan. And not God.
Second, the legal transaction between God and the Devil--the White Witch claiming that Edmund is her "lawful prey"--shouldn't be taken to mean that God and the Devil are equals. Rather, as Aulen writes, "in the Fathers the essential idea which the legal language is intended to express is that God's dealings even with the powers of evil have the character of 'fair play.' Thus this point connects with the last. Evil is overcome not by an external use of force, but by internal methods of self-offering."
Finally, what are we to make of the drama of "tricking" the Devil? What theological insight does that communicate? In response to this question Aulen writes that "behind all the seemingly fantastic speculations lies the thought that the power of evil ultimately overreaches itself when it comes in conflict with the power of good, with God Himself. It loses the battle at the moment when it seems victorious."
Here, then, is the dramatic power of ransom theory. The climax of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The upside down logic of Good Friday. The scandal. The stone of stumbling. The foolishness.
The lamb that was slain is the Lion of Judah.
There, on the cross, where it seems that death is now victorious, a Deeper Magic is at work.