A nerd and a Friday night’s existential crisis

Some years ago I was at Dallas Baptist University taking a class with Dr. William E. Bell. He’s second from the left here. I learned about the penal substitutionary atonement, and happened to learn that, according to Dr. Bell, C. S. Lewis denied the doctrine.

No, not that William Bell. (Picture by Gage Skidmore, available here.)

I considered Lewis to be the great Christian thinker that he is. I grew up on Lewis: originally the Narnia books and movies (the old BBC ones, with the bad special effects and the awesome portrayals of the White Witch and Puddleglum), then Screwtape Letters in middle school and Mere Christianity in high school. My family has been reading Lewis for several generations.

My reverence for Dr. Bell was no less. I saw him as the bulwark of orthodoxy and serious biblical teaching that he is.

So my college hero was telling me that my childhood hero was a heretic whose salvation was uncertain as a result of his bad doctrine. This was a big deal. We’re talking about a genuine existential crisis here (though I admit I’ve had worse existential crises in my time).

So, of course, I went to the library and wrote a paper. What else is a little nerd with an existential crisis supposed to do on a Friday night?

In it, as I recall, I tried to make three points.

1. In Mere Christianity Lewis doesn’t deny the penal substitutionary atonement. He just admits that the modern mind has trouble understanding the idea, and then suggests an understanding of the atonement that makes sense to the modern mind: the theory that Jesus paid our debts on the cross. (Looking at the relevant passage recently, I had to admit I may have misread it; I think he really does reject the penal substitutionary atonement here, although it wasn’t the main point of the passage.)

2. The theory that Jesus paid our debts on the cross is an orthodox theory. Here I cited a passage in the New Testament; it may have been 1 Timothy 2:5-6. I also alluded to the old hymn that says of Jesus, “He paid a debt he did not owe/I owed a debt I could not pay/I needed someone to wash my sins away.”

3. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lewis illustrates the penal substitutionary view of the atonement in Aslan’s death in place of Edmond.

I shared my paper with Dr. Bell, who read it more than once. He thought it was a valiant effort to defend Lewis, but he wasn’t convinced.

Now up to this point I still thought Lewis did not reject the penal substitutionary atonement, but Bell shared with me a story that finally convinced me: that Lewis had personally told J. I. Packer that he did not accept the penal substitutionary atonement. Packer had personally passed this information on to Bell, who now passed it on to me. I now pass it on to you.

The third point from my paper is puzzling in light of this, but I think it may yet be correct. I suspect that in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Lewis wrote a better book than even he intended, and managed to illustrate an extra view of the atonement. (See here for a brief word on the Christus Victor view he intentionally depicted. )

Still the man.
(Picture from here)

C. S. Lewis is still the man. This may suggest a poor memory on my part, but I can only think of about three sentences in all of the fifteen or so books I’ve read by Lewis with which I disagree. It is largely because of the occasional problem like this that I suggested that Christians read N. T. Wright and John Stott alongside Lewis. But C. S. Lewis is irreplaceable. A solid grounding in ten or twenty of his little books will do any Christian good, and, I might add, will probably do more good than thirty or forty large books in philosophy and theology.

P. S. Todd Kappelman, another of my favorite undergrad teachers, wrote this on the need to read Lewis. I agree.

P. P. S. This sort of allegation that C. S. Lewis is a heretic and the author of “demonic fantasies” is no doubt well-intentioned; but it is incorrect, impolite, unhelpful, poorly researched, and hardly worth the time I’ve already spent writing this sentence.

(More articles at www.ThinkingThroughChristianity.com)

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