Atonement in “Out of the Silent Planet”

What is Out of the Silent Planet’s atonement theory?

While C. S. Lewis is sometimes known as an apologist or deep Christian thinker, most would are more familiar with his fiction. Most children are familiar, to some degree, with the world of Narnia, if at least because of the films. But as we grow older, Lewis’s readers should start to discern the allegory behind his tales. The sacrifice of Aslan on behalf of Edmund to save him from the White Witch has easy parallels to the Christian story of the Passion. Out of the Silent Planet seems to be an allegory for the ransom theory, at least in part.

It seems correct to say that Lewis was not a fan of a singular atonement theory, but may have leaned more toward the Ransom theory, bolstering the opinion of this article. I wills start by defending, from outside the novel, the idea that Lewis favored the ransom model, despite his distaste toward atonement theories writ large. From a letter written before his death, he tells a friend that focusing on a single doctrine would be incorrect as it is only a representation rather than the whole: “When Scripture says that Christ died ‘for’ us,a I think the word is usually ὑπέρ (on behalf of), not ἀντί (instead of). I think the ideas of sacrifice, Ransom, Championship (over Death), Substitution, etc., are all images to suggest the reality (not otherwise comprehensible to us) of the Atonement. To fix on any one of them as if it contained and limited the truth like a scientific definition wd. in my opinion be a mistake.” (Collected Letters, vol III., p 1476, italics original).

In Mere Christianity, he says that he is not a fan of the penal substitution model: “According to that theory God wanted to punish men for having deserted and joined the Great Rebel, but Christ volunteered to be punished instead, and so God let us off. Now I admit that even this theory does not seem quite so immoral and silly as it used to; but that is not the point I want to make. What I came to see later on was that neither this theory nor an other is Christianity.” (pp. 57-58) Lewis finds it silly that God would hold man accountable to himself, if only to sacrifice himself, to free man from himself. ,”On the the other hand, if you think of a debt, there is plenty of point in a person who has some assets paying it on behalf of someone who has not.” (p 59)

I believe that the novel’s main thrust is its portrayal of the ransom theory. Based on my argument above, Lewis favored the debtor model. It is not only his personal views which influence this: the book inherently suggests this type of reading. The narrator tells us the story of Dr. Ransom, who encounters two scientists: Weston and Devine. The connotations of their names can be instructive: divine and west, the direction which priests move through the temple toward the Most Holy Place. Other names are just as meaningful, though more obviously so: the earth is called Thulcandra, or silent planet, as it has not been heard from before. Malacandra, I suggest, might be a combination of “mlk”, the Hebrew root for “prophet” or “messenger” and “handra” (remember: the “h” after “c” is dropped), or earth. As Oyarsa is the prophet who tells of a great social upheaval, the “messenger planet” is an apt name. Anyway, I digress.

The Ransom Theory, which in some forms was the predominant theory held by the Church Fathers, says (1) that humanity, because of sin, was trapped by Satan, held in debt to him. (2) This debt could not be repaid ourselves, and it was the greatest barrier between us and God. As we sinned, we fell deeper and deeper in debt. The longer that humanity stayed in sin, the more harm she would do to herself. (3) This model does teach that God has judgment coming on sinners, but the bigger problem for man is being under the thrall of Satan. (4) So God sent Christ to live as a perfect man who would free us of our debt. (5) Satan, seizing the opportunity to stand against God’s plan, took hold of Christ and killed him. Satan, not knowing who Jesus was or what he was capable of, took God’s bait and killed Jesus. (6) In his death, the debt was repaid, and humanity was freed and ownership returned to God. It seems that each aspect of this synopsis is captured in the novel.

In some way, each character is said to be “indebted”, in some way, to an evil force (1). Trying to find a place to stay, Ransom crawls under a hedge to find shelter from a professor in the middle of the night. It is at this house that he meets two scientists, Westos and Devine. Unbeknownst to Ransom, the pair wants to colonize the solar system to extend the lives of mankind (2). Even though they represent the pinnacle of the sciences, they can do nothing about man’s eventual fate of death. As one world’s resources is used up in the hunt for eternal life, they would move to the next. This pattern of overuse and destruction would eventually bleed the solar system dry.

To appease the “gods” with whom they were about to revisit, they thought it best to take a sacrifice. Westos and Devine take Ransom hostage, in order that they may offer him as a sacrifice to the sorn. They acknowledge that they are trampling on his rights, but only because he initially broke into their property. The novel never says why they assumed this to be the case. I take this as Lewis subtly, yet damingly, critiquing the penal substitution model. Though the sorn have not asked for a sacrifice, man has assumed that it was they would want. Lewis may think we have made the same error: though God has not asked for a sacrifice, we have found the need to make Jesus into one.

Of the two scientists, the Oyarsa says, “I see now how the lord of the silent world [earth] has bent you. […] He has taught you to break all of them [the laws] except this one, which is not one of the greatest laws; this one he has bent til it becomes folly and has set it up, thus bent, to be a little, blind Oyarsa in your brain. […] He has left you this one because a bent hnau can do more evil than a broken one. He has only bent you; but this Thin One who sits on the ground he has broken, for he has left him nothing but greed.” (pp 137-38) An interesting tangent: greed fully breaks a person, while imperialism is only slightly evil (remember the 1937 context). The two scientists, as both humanists and sinners, are indebted to the Bent One, being made (bent and broken) into his image, contrary to the image of Maledil that they were supposed to be made in (119).

In this sense, everyone is owned by someone else. Just as Satan took the bait and killed God himself, saving humanity, humanity was saved when Weston and Devine took Ransom instead of the original boy they had planned. He was an “idiot”, “half-wit”, and only a menial laborer (pp 14-16). He would not have been a fitting sacrifice: it is easy to imagine this man simply dying, with no added benefit to humanity. The cycle would have continued, most likely leading to the death of the entirety of the human species. In comparison, Ransom was seen as the ideal human (113) (4). The men did not know whom they were capturing when they took Ransom captive (5).

By bringing him to a point of “death”, life on another planet destined to be sacrificed, he saved everyone. He interprets the men’s plan to the Oyarsa, who belittle them, and send them back to the Bent One on earth. This saves humanity from being swept up in a scheme that would only prove to be their downfall. The Oyarsa says that their people have been alive far longer than man, so their time is shorter than ours. To follow in the Malacandran example would mean death for us. Thankfully, Ransom points out that not all men are like that, and that these two stand apart as truly Bent. In his exaltation, Ransom is able to help provide judgment on his people and save them in the process.

As in all allegorical tales, it is not a 1:1 comparison. Some aspects are changed, and some do not look exactly the same as the theory postulates. This is okay. For example: it would be inappropriate to say that the Christ figured is ransomed just as much as humanity, but Ransom is by no means an exact parallel to Christ. He does have a “death” experience, in his judgment, but he is exalted in this meeting with Oyarsa to his teacher and translator (6). This is common in messianic literature: death scenes are crucial to a character’s development, even if they do not truly die. Oyarsa has the ability to judge the humans for both killing a hrssi and for impeding on their land, but he says that men are outside of his jurisdiction. Right now, they  belong to the Bent One, the prince of the air (86). His own ideal humanity, that of learning from the aliens, of loving a world beyond his own, saves him from Oyarsa’s judgment.

Not everybody in the story was ransomed, just as it is in Christ. Christ paid the price for humanity to be freed from Satan, but some don’t want to come over. Weston and Devine don’t become good men, though they are changed in the return voyage. They, still under the Bent One’s jurisdiction, are returned as is. Ransom cannot pay the debt for the two scientists, who return to earth foiled in their plan.  (It is by no means a perfect analogy, but an author must not find himself entirely beholden to a singular viewpoint if he is to tell a new sounding story!)

A final piece of evidence comes from The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Aslan, laying prone on an ancient slab, offers himself to the White Witch in the place of Edmund. The young boy had recently sold his family out, turning against the side of the good in Narnia and teaming up with the world of eternal winter. Aslan knows that if he were to die in the place of anybody else, Deeper Magic would revivify him in a few days’ time. While this could be seen as penal substitution, it is blended with ransom theory (at the very least! judging from the above we may say that Lewis may not have wanted much substitution in his literature at all.)

The White Witch has a legitimate claim on Edmund: he has willingly given himself over to her control (1) and her kingdom, a wintery kingdom that stands in direct opposition to the judgment of Aslan (3). As Edmund has no ability to leave on his own (2), Aslan offers himself in death to bring Edmund back to the side of good (4), to restore Narnia to its original patterns of seasons and life. The White Witch thinks she has it made: her ultimate enemy will be destroyed (5)! As Aslan dies, we learn something: Deeper Magic, invoked by the Emperor at the Sea, is more ancient than her brand of magic. She is fooled: she thinks that her magic spells the end of her enemy. Rather, there is a Deeper Magic, which will begin to work death in reverse to bring Aslan back. Edmund is now free to turn to the side of good, where he soon takes the throne as a son of Adam (6).

Based on Lewis’s own personal atonement theories, the narrative and allegorical nature of the novel, and his climactic atonement scene from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, it seems safe to say that Out of the Silent Planet generally stands as an allegory of ransom. In the next post, I will try and argue that Lewis uses this novel to say that only the ransoming death of Christ can save us from the march of humanism toward our death.

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