How Alister McGrath Interprets Aslan’s Death

Derek Ouellette —  January 13, 2013

I’d like to share with you an extended quote of Alister McGrath’s interpretation of Lewis’ atonement theology as depicted in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and then offer a few critical thoughts and reflections.

“Lewis’s narrative in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe contains all the main themes of this medieval atonement drama: Satan having rights over sinful humanity; God outwitting Satan because of the sinlessness of Christ; and the breaking down of the gates of Hell, leading to the liberation of its prisoners. The imagery is derived from the great medieval popular religious writings which Lewis so admired and enjoyed.

So what are we to make of this approach to atonement? Most theologians regard Lewis’s narrative depiction of atonement with mild amusement, seeing it as muddled and confused. But this is to misunderstand both the nature of Lewis’s sources and his intentions. The great medieval mystery plays aimed to make the theological abstractions of atonement accessible, interesting, and above all entertaining. Lewis has brought his own distinct approach to this undertaking, but its historical roots and imaginative appeal are quite clear.” (p.296)

This is a helpful analysis, but it is also somewhat perplexing.

It is helpful because McGrath helps us understand where C.S. Lewis got his atonement theology from. Lewis, an expert on medieval literature, adopted what he knew of how writers, artists and dramatists colourfully illustrated the atoning work of Christ, and added his own spin.

That much is helpful. What is perplexing however, is why McGrath sees Lewis’ approach – and that of the medieval literature he borrowed from – as little more than an entertaining attempt to make a theological idea more accessible. To put it bluntly, why doesn’t McGrath see Lewis’ approach for what it is: a credible theological atonement motif which the earliest Christians on through the medieval ages had held? Namely, Christus Victor.


It would probably be a mistake to say that Lewis knowingly held to Christus Victor. The phrase was invented by a Lutheran scholar named Gustaf Aulén in 1931 – the year Lewis became a Christian (according to McGrath). As McGrath points out, Lewis was a historian of medieval literature, not a theologian. He might have read Aulén’s book, but it was certainly not in Lewis’ field of speciality. That is to say, he probably didn’t. If he did I’m sure it would have been pointed out by now by those who see that atonement motif all over Narnia.

Aulén assigned the phrase Christus Victor to what he shows to be the oldest dominant atonement motif dating to the Early Church Father’s and reigning for over 1000 years as a given. In the eleventh century a new theory entered the scene – satisfaction theory – and during the reformation the penal view famously showed up. But like most things, Christus Victor was too deeply embedded in the mind of the church to simply disappear. It reigned throughout most of the medieval period, sputtering out but still lingering arguably in the thirteenth and fourteenth, perhaps even the fifteenth century on a popular level.


This is significant because when Lewis reached for an atonement motif, one that seemed to make sense to him, he reached for the view held dominantly during most of the medieval period by academics, church leaders and lay people. Even if Aslan’s atonement was based on the late medieval period when the satisfaction theory grew in strength among church leaders and academics, the common folk still had Christus Victor woven through their psyche. It came out, as McGrath says, “in medieval popular religious writings.”


So I find it surprising that McGrath would interpret Lewis’ use of this great, rich and intellectual tradition as serving the purpose of “above all” entertainment. I would also like to know who “most” of the theologians he mentions are who view Lewis’ depiction with “mild amusement” and as being “muddled and confused.” Surely these scholars can’t be blind to the connection here to the Christus Victor motif – an atonement theory that is neither amusing, muddled nor confusing – well at least not any more than the other theories.

Notably, on the previous page McGrath points out that “the writings of the Middle Ages – not the works of academic theologians, which generally were critical of such highly visual and dramatic approaches,” came from the “popular” religious literature in regards to the ideas related to Aslan’s death.

There’s something amiss with how McGrath has evaluated Aslan’s atoning work. First it seems to be an odd omission to not mention the atoning motif that the popular religious literature was rooted in. Second it seems slanted to highlight how the academic theologians were critical of the “popular” atonement depictions without also mentioning that those depictions are the residual ethos of a long, academic, theological and orthodox tradition.


I’m suggesting here that McGrath’s bias is felt just a little bit too strongly at this point in the narrative. Since “most” other theologians see Lewis’ understanding of the atonement as “muddled and confused” – my guess is because any view today that is not penal is seen as muddled and confused – McGrath may feel obliged to give Lewis some credit while simultaneously explaining why Aslan’s death is not penal in nature.

I think Lewis knew what he was doing. He may not have heard of Christus Victory, but he was clearly teaching it.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.