“The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” makes its screen debut in December
2005, millions of people who have never heard of C. S. Lewis will go to see
the picture. Millions will also buy the DVD when it goes on sale after the theatrical
release. If the experience of “The Lord of the Rings” holds true, then
millions more will buy the other volumes in The Chronicles of Narnia
and read the stories for themselves. Narnia will become a cultural phenomenon
like Middle Earth, and preachers will have an opportunity to engage their congregations
about the movie and the books that can serve as a model for how to examine any
movie or novel.
S. Lewis never claimed to be a theologian. He taught literature and loved stories.
He also understood that stories operate at a much deeper level than logical
arguments. He did not oppose logical arguments. In fact, the argument he presents
in Mere Christianity has persuaded vast numbers of people to take the
gospel seriously. All the same, he understood that logical arguments and stories
serve different purposes.
Lewis did not write The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and the other
books in The Chronicles of Narnia series to teach Christian doctrine.
He believed that a story had to stand on its own two feet as a story. To teach
doctrine, a person should use logical discourse.
the other hand, Lewis believed that a story told by a Christian who actually
believed the gospel would reflect the essential Christian faith to the extent
that the author had actually made their faith more than a formality. He argued
that the best apologetics did not consist in a lecture or book about why Christianity
is true. The best apologetics involved Christians writing books about all sorts
of subjects from art to physics, with their Christian faith latent within their
a literary man, Lewis recognized the power of stories to shape the way people
think and organize their world. In his own life, Lewis had experienced the power
of stories to prepare him to accept the truth of the gospel. Lewis had the unique
background to appreciate this character of stories since he had what Americans
would call a double major in philosophy and English literature and had maintained
what Americans would call an “A” average in his college studies.2
his university years, Lewis had heard all of the standard arguments for the
existence of God, but he had his own argument for why he did not believe in
God. His mother had died of cancer when he was a boy. Logical argument has its
place, but it does not reach into the deep recesses of the emotions.
earliest childhood, Lewis had devoured the myths of classical antiquity and
of the Norse peoples with relish. Once he began teaching medieval and renaissance
literature at Oxford, Lewis grew to regard Christianity as just another of the
great myths that spoke of a dying and rising god, like Osiris, Baal, and Baldur.
conversation one night with his friend J. R. R. Tolkien, Lewis raised this objection
to the truth of Christianity. Tolkien replied that Christianity certainly was
another myth of the dying and rising god, with one exception. It was the myth
that actually happened in time and space: in Bethlehem, Galilee, and Jerusalem
between the time that Augustus sent out a decree to tax the world (when Quirinius
was first governor of Syria) and the time when Pontius Pilate was governor of
Judea and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee (during the high priesthood of Caiaphas
after the late night talk with Tolkien, Lewis realized that he did believe that
Jesus Christ was God incarnate. The stories had come to Lewis as preparation
for the gospel, but they came at him “under the radar” of his intellectual
defense mechanisms. Lewis would remark that, “A young man who wishes to
remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful about his reading.”4
remark about Christianity being the myth that really happened would clash with
Rudolf Bultmann’s understanding of myth, but it also gave Lewis an insight
into why the same story appears in so many unconnected cultures around the world.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader the children ask Aslan if he is in their
world too. He replies that he is known by another name in their world, but that
by knowing him a little in Narnia, they will know him better in their world.
It is as though God placed the stories in every culture as stories that raise
expectations but do not satisfy in and of themselves. The Chronicles of Narnia
are like these myths, though most of the details have a direct correspondence
to the Christian story. They are not, however, for teaching Christian doctrine
but for recognizing human longing that only the gospel satisfies.
observed that a journey provides the best vehicle for exploring human spiritual
struggles.5 John Bunyan understood this principle when
he wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress, as did Dante when he wrote The
Divine Comedy. The stories in The Chronicles of Narnia, as in Tolkien’s
The Lord of the Rings, involve a journey in which people change. The
only ones who remain unchanged are the ones who do not undertake the journey.
narrative foundation for Lewis’s Narnia stories and his space trilogy is
the Christian understanding that life involves a journey. Consider the place
of journey and its spiritual implications in the Bible:
Adam and Eve
Cain going to the Land of Nod
Noah’s voyage on the flood
The dispersion of people from Babel
Abraham and Sarah leaving Ur and going to Caanan
The children of Jacob going down to Egypt
The nation of Israel leaving Egypt
The wilderness wandering
The Babylonian Captivity
gospel story itself involves the journey from heaven to earth, the flight to
Egypt, the itinerant ministry, the journey to Jerusalem, the journey to Golgotha,
and the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to the entire
human longing found in the world’s stories finds its fulfillment in the
gospel, it is not surprising that The Chronicles of Narnia express these
basic longings again in terms that sound familiar when one knows the gospel.
Likewise, if one has read the Chronicles but never heard the gospel,
the gospel will sound familiar when it finally comes.
Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe contains the most obvious Christian metaphors
of any of the Narnia books. In this story, the great lion Aslan – whom
no one has seen in perhaps centuries – offers himself as a hostage to substitute
for a boy who is to be killed. Aslan sacrifices himself so that the child can
morning after he is slain on a stone table, strongly suggesting an altar, Aslan
rises from the dead more powerful and dreadful than ever. He has defeated his
enemy through a “deeper” magic.
one tries to develop a Christian theology of the atonement from this story,
frustration will ensue. For one thing, Aslan does not die for the sins of the
world. Lewis does not “teach” a doctrine of sin. Rather, he describes
behavior that children understand from their own experience as worthy of punishment.
relies upon reminding people of what they already know about right and wrong.
In Mere Christianity, Lewis advocates a theory of natural law by which
everyone knows when someone has treated them wrong. The human dilemma is not
one of insufficient information about right and wrong. The human dilemma concerns
the failure to do right even though we know right.
obvious than the substitutionary, atoning sacrifice of Aslan is the idea of
the incarnation. Aslan is not just another lion, just as Jesus Christ was not
just another man. Lewis does not provide a full-blown Christology or theology
of the incarnation, but he suggests the need for a savior who can save because
of his uniqueness. Aslan is really there and he really dies.
story also assumes a theory of divine revelation. The Narnians all seem to know
of a prophecy about sons of Adam and daughters of Eve who will usher in the
defeat of the dreadful witch-queen. The concept of prophecy requires a source
of revelation and narrows the possibilities of what kind of ultimate reality
exists. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism have no prophecies because they have
no personal God.
did not shy away from retelling the great stories of literature that others
have retold countless times. During the Middle Ages, dozens of poets wove together
their own attempts at the story of King Arthur. To a certain extent, Prince
Caspian involves a retelling of Homer’s Iliad. In the Iliad
a princess is stolen and a great war ensues. In Prince Caspian a throne
is stolen from Caspian by his uncle and a great war ensues.
might suggest any number of alternative sources for the basic conflict of Prince
Caspian and in the suggestion, Lewis’s point is made. The human race
keeps telling the same stories over and over again about human treachery.
Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Prince Caspian derives its inspiration from the Iliad, then surely The
Voyage of the Dawn Treader derives its inspiration from the Odyssey.
Just as the Greeks wandered from place to place after the Trojan War, so too
Caspian and his crew travel from place to place. While the Greek story has a
foundational presupposition of fate, Lewis’ story has a foundational presupposition
of purpose, choice, and hope.
Silver Chair retells the story of Orpheus who went to the underworld to
retrieve his wife, or of Hermod’s journey to Hell to retrieve Baldur. In
the gospel, Jesus Christ descended to Paradise to retrieve Abraham and all the
righteous dead from the realm of Sheol.
would think that Aslan should make the journey to the underworld to retrieve
the son of Prince Caspian who dwells in darkness, snared by lies. Instead, two
children and a Marsh Wiggle make the journey on behalf of Aslan, who sends them.
The trio are apostles who bring the good news that sets at liberty the captives
and restores sight to the blind; they bring the light of the gospel to people
who dwell in darkness.
Horse and His Boy
The Horse and His Boy, Lewis explores the issue of religious pluralism.
Who is to say that one religion is true and another religion false? In an ingenious
way, Lewis does not deal with the question head on, but in terms of the Pauline
theology of slavery and freedom.
tells a story of flight from slavery in a despotic culture where life is cheap,
to a place where freedom and dignity are the expectations of Aslan. He does
not merely compare the theological systems or the concepts of deity, but the
impact that theology has on everyday life.
The Magician’s Nephew Lewis explores the problem of evil and the
problem of pain in the context of the doctrine of creation. Aslan does not create
evil, nor is evil a rival to Aslan. Evil corrupts the good of Aslan’s creation,
but it provides the opportunity of free choice. Not all religions believe in
a deity who created the world, nor do all religions believe that the world actually
exists. Lewis introduces the idea of creation into his Narnia stories, but in
doing so, he also explores a number of serious issues for modern science that
represent a different “layer” of the story for adults.
all the Narnia stories, Lewis introduces Narnia time, which allows children
to spend days or years in Narnia while barely moments have passed on earth.
In other words, he tells his stories in Einstein’s universe with its relative
understanding of time and space. In The Magician’s Nephew he introduces
the possibility of parallel universes, rather than merely different planets.
modern discussions in science pose no threat whatsoever for Lewis’s God,
who could just as easily manage a billion universes as one universe with billions
The Last Battle, Lewis explores what Christians think of as the end of
time, the second coming, and the last judgment. The point of the story is that
heaven is the real thing and earth merely the shadow. Because he has stressed
the reality of the physical world throughout, Lewis is not demeaning the physical
world like the ascetics. Rather, he is confronting the growing materialism of
the West after World War II.
introducing ideas of time and space in earlier books, Lewis imagines what it
might be like when a person dies. People die at different times and places,
but Lewis imagines them all arriving in “Aslan’s country” at
the same time; yet our understanding of time hardly prepares us for it.
world has not come to an end, but the last judgment has taken place. The children
pass from life to life without experiencing the pain of death (‘O death,
where is thy sting?’). Some are present who experience death as darkness
(dwarves who believed in Aslan but were only for themselves), while one is included
from a different flock (a soldier from Calormen who had worshipped the idol
adults get confused at this point, wondering if Lewis teaches that someone may
be saved apart from faith in Jesus Christ. Lewis does not teach anything about
how to be saved in the Narnia stories. He only conveys that we all need to be
saved and that salvation is possible. Aslan is a fictitious character, but the
stories raise the spiritual questions and the occasion for their biblical answers.
Lee Poe is Charles Colson Professor of Faith and Culture at Union University
in Jackson, TN.
C. S. Lewis, “Christian Apologetics,” God in the Dock , ed.
Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 93.
2 Lewis earned a first in Classical Moderations in 1920 and then stayed
on at Oxford to take a first in Literae Humaniores (Greats) in 1922 and a first
in English in 1923.
3 For Lewis’s account of this conversation in a letter to Arthur
Greaves, see C. S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, ed. Walter
Hooper, vol. I (New York: Harper SanFrancisco, 2004), 976-977.
4 C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and
Company, 1956), 191.
5 Lewis discusses the power of journey to convey inner spiritual struggle
in C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love (New York: Oxford University Press,
1958), 63, 68-69.