The Deep Magic Of Narnia: Ransom Theory Vs Penal Substitution

 The Ransom Theory Of C.S. Lewis

In the enchanting world of C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, there’s a scene that’s nothing short of a theological thrill ride—the White Witch demands Edmund’s life for his betrayal, invoking the “ancient Deep Magic.” The icy glint in her eye as she proclaims her rights convinces her she’s got the upper hand. But then, enter Aslan, the great and majestic lion, who ROARS, “Do not cite the Deep Magic to me, Witch. I was there when it was written.” Ironically, this is exactly what I quote to my children when they try to explain Mario Kart racing to me.

This moment in The Chronicles of Narnia is meant to depict a beautiful, roaring allegory of the Ransom Theory of atonement. The White Witch, much like Satan, demands justice as a prosecuting attorney and claims Edmund, a sinful rebel deserving judgment, not too dissimilar to Zechariah’s heavenly vision of Joshua the high priest (Zechariah 3:1-5).

Aslan, in all his regal wisdom and sacrificial love, offers himself as the ransom, flipping the script and showcasing the ultimate plot twist of redemption. It’s a magical illustration of how Christ’s sacrifice breaks the chains of darkness, paying the price to set the captives free. But is it biblical?

Critiques Of C.S. Lewis’ Ransom Theory

Critiques of this scene often point to Aslan paying the ransom to the White Witch, as if Jesus is somehow contractually and legally subservient to Satan. For those with a rightly exalted Christology, this is an unexpected interpretation of ransom theory. A kidnapper stealing God’s most prized possession and threatening to destroy it is not too dissimilar from a spider threatening the US military. There is such an incalculable power differential between the spider and an aircraft carrier that the spider’s threats seem comical. In the same way, Satan is a created being unable to threaten God with any meaningful consequence.

This has caused proponents of Ransom Theory to get creative with their illustrations. After all, the Bible clearly says that Jesus was given as a “ransom” in verses like Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45, and 1 Timothy 2:5-6. If Jesus was given as a “ransom,” Satan could not possibly be the extortionist who holds us hostage.

Why I Like Lewis’ Ransom Theory

I actually think Lewis gets this illustration precisely right in The Chronicles of Narnia. You see, the White Witch does not coerce Aslan into submission by her own power and authority; she merely appeals to “the ancient magic.” In my reading of this analogy, the “ancient magic” is the law’s demands. Back to Zechariah, Satan is a prosecuting attorney; an attorney is not appealing to their own authority to get the judge to act but rather to the objective standard of the Law. Though Satan is the instrument of enacting the crucifixion (John 13:27), he was an ignorant and unaware participant in delivering the payment of sin to God himself (1 Corinthians 2:8).

Is Ransom Theory Any Different From PSA?

This begs the question: if Ransom Theory is Jesus’s act of paying off the Law’s demands for perfect obedience, how is it any different from Penal Substitution Theory? Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) teaches that Jesus, as a sinless substitute, bore the punishment sinners deserved, satisfying God’s justice and reconciling humanity to God through his sacrificial death on the cross. The “Penal” in “Penal Substitutionary Atonement” means that we have broken God’s “Penal code,” his “law.” With every violation of the law, there is a just and fair necessary punishment that must be paid. This is where the “substitutionary” part comes in. Jesus substitutes himself for us. Paul teaches us that the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), and Jesus dies in our place as a substitute. This creates an atonement for our sins, making us “at-one-with” or reconciled to God.

In short, I think that the ransom theory emphasizes a purchase and payment illustration without emphasizing the satisfaction of God’s wrath (just judgment, not an angry outburst) in the atonement of the cross, which PSA emphasizes. I think it is still a good, godly, and biblical way to picture the atonement, but I do believe that PSA does a better job of saying the same thing, especially when you consider the Old Testament use of “kippēr.”

The Meaning of Kipper

“Kippēr” will likely be a familiar word for many in our church. The Jewish high holy day of Yom Kippur is the “Day of Atonement.” The word translated “make atonement” (kippēr) has a range of meanings—to purge, to ransom, or to expiate. If you are an ancient Israelite and you’ve messed up big time, you owe God a debt. Now, instead of facing the dire consequences yourself, you’re allowed to pay it off with something valuable. In Exodus 30:16, the Israelites use money as a ransom for their lives, symbolizing their atonement. It’s like paying a fine to settle a score, ensuring they’re back in good standing with the Lord. Similarly, in Numbers 31:50, they bring gold articles to make atonement, indicating a form of payment to balance the scales.

Leviticus 17:11 takes this concept further, explaining that the life of a creature is in its blood, and it’s given on the altar to ransom lives. This is where things get really interesting. Instead of money, it’s the life force in the blood that acts as the ransom. When the Israelites sacrificed an animal, they weren’t just killing it; they were offering its life in place of their own. It’s a dramatic and poignant picture of substitution—the animal’s life for theirs. This idea is underscored in other stories, like when Moses offers his life to atone for the people’s sins, or Phineas makes atonement by slaying the guilty. Essentially, the sacrificial system wasn’t just about the death of the animal but its life being given as a ransom, a powerful act of redemption and restoration.

Without this context, it appears as if ransom theory is telling one aspect of what the atonement accomplished and PSA is telling another aspect. However, with this crucial little tidbit of Hebrew, we can see how the ransom language of the New Testament, or even the “purchase” language of the New Testament, points us to a more holistic view of Penal Substitution.

Isn’t The Gospel Supposed To Be Simple?

Some might say, “Now Josh, the gospel is simple, it is meant to be simple, why are you using all these highfalutin words to muck up the simplicity of the Gospel?” ‘Tis true, the gospel is simple and true. But if you had the option of watching the remastered Chronicles of Narnia on an old black-and-white boob tube, or at the full-screen 4K McSwain Theatre, here in Ada, Oklahoma, with surround sound and the world’s most comfortable seats, where would you choose to watch the movie? They are both telling the same story, but the simplicity of the black-and-white screen cannot attempt to expose the beauty and splendor of the story in the way that the rather complex McSwain Theatre can.

Yes, the gospel is simple, but as we mature in our faith, it is our responsibility to mine all the intricate details out of the story to extract every last God-glorifying detail. This process of theological excavation continues to enrapture our hearts, inspire our minds, and captivate our worship as we grow in our knowledge of the mystery of the Gospel.

Grace and Peace,
Joshua Lewis

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