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Philip Ellwood

The Offence of Aslan

“I don’t need anyone to die for me. I’ll take my chances”

My friends, family and teammates have various responses to Jesus. Sometimes intrigued, often apathetic, occasionally dismissive. But every now and then there are those who are downright offended.

Polly Toynbee is a well known, gifted journalist for The Guardian and one rightly admired for her skill and passion for social justice and the rights of those not born into the privileged world of the elites. Recently, I was preparing a sermon in which I wanted to use CS Lewis’ character, Aslan, in order to illustrate what it is to possess an appropriate fear of God. Whilst scouring the internet, I came across an article Toynbee wrote 10 years ago in response to the release of the latest cinematic version of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.  Despite Toynbee being a well-known atheist, I was genuinely taken aback by the force of her diatribe against Aslan who, she states, is “an emblem for everything an atheist objects to in religion.”

Toynbee goes on:

Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to?

As a Christian, one can disagree or be offended or feel sad. What I want to know, however, is why? Why does Toynbee recoil at Aslan and in turn the Gospel itself?

The answer lies, to an extent, in Toynbee’s accurate understanding of the Gospel.

My beloved grandfather understands it too. Unlike Toynbee, he is an ‘admirer’ of Christ and – in a traditional, military, middle-upper class kind of way – an advocate for the established Church and the ‘values’ it espouses. Yet, with typical honesty he refuses to put his faith in Christ as his Lord and Saviour and once famously stated, “I don’t need anyone to die for me. I’ll take my chances”. This I think is the same feeling that is at the heart of Toynbee’s fury. To quote the Apostle Paul, they have confronted the ‘offence of the cross’ (Gal 5:11).

Polly Toynbee and my grandfather are – quite understandably – offended at the idea they need a Saviour, an Aslan.  Their objection is less about an argument over the existence of God and more offence taken at the Gospel message itself. It tells us who we are: fundamentally flawed, incapable of fixing ourselves and deserving of punishment at our continual decision to put up ourselves and other created beings and concepts as gods.  It tells us too that God loves us far too much to leave us as we are and has intervened with spectacular sacrificial love.

Toynbee’s closing remarks are tragic not just in their hopelessness but in the fact she is almost touching the wonder of the Gospel and instead turning it into foolishness:

His [Aslan’s] divine presence is a way to avoid humans taking responsibility for everything here and now on earth, where no one is watching, no one is guiding, no one is judging and there is no other place yet to come. Without an Aslan, there is no one here but ourselves to suffer for our sins, no one to redeem us but ourselves: we are obliged to settle our own disputes and do what we can. We need no holy guide books, only a very human moral compass…but we can do well without an Aslan.

Where my grandfather, Polly Toynbee and I agree is that there can be no casual response to the Gospel message. For, as Paul says when quoting Isaiah, “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” The Gospel, properly understood, must evoke strong reactions. I pray that Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit, would bring this extraordinary message to my friends, team mates, neighbours and family in order that they might have faith to believe, as Tim Keller puts it, not just that we are “more sinful than [we] ever dared imagine” but also that in Christ we are “more loved than [we] ever dared hope.”


Picture: Fire King Artwork by Inspiring Wallpapers