ENG 375R 01
Aslan the Terrible
“Some people talk
as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think
again,” observes C.S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity. But how can
something, or someone, be good and terrible at the same time? Is it possible?
Indeed it is, as Lewis well knows and illustrates in The Chronicles of Narnia:
“People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good
and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so, they were
cured of it now. For when they tried to look at Aslan’s face they just caught a
glimpse of the golden mane and the great, royal, solemn overwhelming eyes; and
then they found they couldn’t look at him and went all trembly” (LWW, Ch. 12,
established that it is possible--Aslan, who is Lewis’s representation of God
Himself, is both good and terrible. But how? This is the question Erik
J. Wielenburg addresses in his essay Aslan the Terrible: Painful Confrontations
with Absolute Goodness.
In the 18th
century a Scottish philosopher named David Hume put into words a question that
has puzzled mankind for thousands of years: How can God be omni-benevolent and
at the same time allow so much human suffering? This philosophical paradox was
labeled “The Problem of Pain”. Two centuries later C.S. Lewis took it upon
himself to solve the problem. The result was a book called The Problem of
In this book,
Lewis explains that there are two causes of suffering. The first is moral evil,
or the sins and mistakes we humans commit. This is estimated to be 4/5 of all
evil. The second, the other 1/5, is natural evil, such as natural disasters,
famine, plagues, etc. Wielenburg makes it clear that he is only referring to the
first 4/5 of evil.
The first reason
why a loving God would allow such pain is that it forces us to see our evil in
its true light. “ Pain insists of being attended to,” writes Lewis. “God
whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our
pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world. A bad man, happy, is a man
without the least inkling that his actions do not ‘answer’, that they are not
in accord with the laws of the universe” (The Problem of Pain, 91).
Who does Aslan
first rouse with his megaphone? Why, Edmund Pevensie, of course, in The
Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Edmund’s main sin, or source of evil, is
the betrayal of his brother and sisters to the White Witch.
But there are
other sins that he commits on the way. Before they even enter Narnia, Edmund
teases his sister Lucy mercilessly. This illustrates his lack for kindness and
compassion. Even when he has joined Lucy on a short journey to Narnia, he lies
to Peter and Susan about it, precisely to be mean to Lucy. When the children
discover that Tumnus has been taken away for treason, Edmund questions his
goodness. When they encounter the beaver, he does the same. “ ‘I think it’s a
nice beaver,’ said Lucy. ‘Yes, but how do we know?’ said Edmund (LWW,
Chapter 7, 31?). He is skeptical rather than faithful, and has lost the sense
of intuition that children as young as Lucy often feel about people.
The queen’s hold on
Edmund results in him suffering manipulation, threatening, bribing, physical
and verbal abuse. This forces him to face the truth about the witch. “All the
things that he had said to make himself believe that she was good and kind and
that her side was really the right side sounded silly to him now” (LWW, Chapter
But the real
turning point for Edmund is when he stops thinking about himself and begins to
feel sorrow for others. When the queen sees a group of animals enjoying a meal
from Father Christmas, she becomes very angry and points her wand at them to
turn them into stone. Edmund can’t bear to think of such happy innocent animals
to lose their lives. And in one desperate measure, he stands between them and
the witch, and pleads with her not to do it. He is greatly reprimanded, but the
courage and unselfishness of that moment was a right turn on the road of life.
Not long afterwards Aslan’s
followers rescue him and bring him to their camp. He experiences a moment of
unspeakable terror at the great golden beast before him. Aslan gives him a long
talk. We know nothing of what he says, but apparently it changes Edmund for the
rest of his life.
Eustace Scrubb from The
Voyage of the Dawn Treader is probably one of the most unlikable heroes in The
Chronicles. He is selfish, arrogant, condescending, obnoxious, hostile,
pessimistic, and lazy. What’s even worse is that he has no idea he possesses
all of these negative characteristics.
Eustace is in need of a
much more radical treatment of Edmund. Yes, Edmund’s sins were worse, but his
character was better. Eustace was never presented with an opportunity to do
anything as bad as Edmund, but had he been given one, he probably would have
taken the bait. Also, Edmund’s betrayal was partly a result of bewitching by turkish
delight. And Edmund’s sins never entirely deceived him. His conscience was
always in the back of his mind. Eustace seems to have been completely
His sentence is to be
turned into a dragon, losing his power of speech, and to have a bracelet on his
arm that is constantly cutting into his scaly skin. When he first sees himself
as a dragon in clear pool of water, “He realized that he was a monster cut off
from the whole human race. An appalling loneliness came over him. He began to
see that the others had not really been fiends at all. He began to wonder if he
himself had been such a nice person as he had always supposed.”
The irony is that
during his period as a dragon, he acts nothing like one. In fact he is as kind,
helpful, and unselfish as a silent dragon could ever be. He uses his breath to
light fires, takes the others on joyrides, helps repair the ship, and does
everything he can to make up for his previously rotten character.
Soon he is ready
for an encounter with Aslan. At first sight Eustace cannot bear to even look at
him. The lion, without ever speaking, leads him to a warm pool and asks him to
undress and wash himself in the water. He sheds as many layers of skin as he
can, but soon realizes that he cannot do all of what Aslan asks. He needs Aslan’s
help. As he later told Edmund: “The very first tear that he made was so deep
that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the
skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt.” Such is the repentance
process for mankind.
occasionally has relapses of nastiness, but they are to a lesser degree because
he is aware of them and tries very hard to avoid them. In the end he is not
only good, but actually becomes likable.
The second reason that God
allows suffering is to help us discover our hidden strengths. Wielenburg
actually begins with the story of God’s commandment to Abraham to sacrifice
Isaac. When God halts Abraham’s knife just before he would kill his son, He
says, “Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your
only son, from me” (Exodus 22:12). Wielenburg writes that it was not actually
for God to find the depth of Abraham’s faith, for He is an omnipotent being and
therefore already knew. Rather it was Abraham that needed to learn who he was.
A similar story occurs in The
Horse and His Boy, when a lion chases Shasta and Aravis on their horses.
They discover that they cannot outrun the lion, and in one spur of courage,
Shasta leaps from his horse, and without weapons of any sort, yells at the lion
to leave. And to their surprise, the lion stares at him and then walks away.
Not only was this a moment of discovery for Shasta, but for the older Aravis,
who says, “I’ve been snubbing him and looking down on him ever since you met us
and now he turns out to be the best of us all” (HHB, Ch. 10, 275).
One thing that Wielenburg
failed to mention is that Edmund also finds his strength in the battle with the
witch at the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. He charges
the witch all on his own, smashing the witches wand and nearly killing himself.
He becomes a hero. And later on, as king, he is crowned Edmund the Just,
because he has experienced evil first hand and can give fairer sentences to
those who have broken the laws of the land.
The final reason God
allows suffering is to discipline his children, just as an earthly father would
discipline his son. Hebrews 12:6 says that “The Lord disciplines him whom he
Wielenburg says that
Lewis believes in the Retributivist theory of punishment—that it is only
justified because an offender deserves it, and only to the extent that the
offender deserves. Theories that are based upon goals, such as rehabilitation,
are ineffective. “If the justification of exemplary punishment is not to be
based on desert but solely on its efficacy as a deterrent, it is not absolutely
necessary that the man we punish should even have committed the crime.”
When the lion first attacks Aravis and Shasta,
before the chase, Aravis is raked by its claws. Earlier she had whipped a slave
for oversleeping as a result of a drug that she gave her. Later Aslan tells her
why he hurt her. “The scratches on your back, tear for tear, throb for throb,
blood for blood, were equal to the stripes laid on the back of your
stepmother’s slave because of the drugged seleep you cas upon her. You needed
to know what it felt like” (HHB, Ch. 14, 299).
really satisfy us” Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain, “would be a God
who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as
they are contented?’ We want . . . not so much a Father in Heaven as a
grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who as they say, liked to see young
people enjoying themselves and whose plan for the universe was simply that it
might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all’” (31).
The true nature of goodness is not that of a
passive, spoiling grandpa. God certainly loves us, but because he loves us, He
wants us to attain real happiness, rather than what the natural man thinks
happiness is—feeling good. He wants us to become better people.
But why couldn’t we just be perfect to begin with?
Because God also wants us to have free will. Free will and instant perfection
are contradictory. Some would argue that if God is omnipotent, couldn’t he give
us perfection and free will? Couldn’t he make it work out somehow? What they
don’t understand is that omnipotence does not mean being able to do anything
you want. It means being able to do anything that can actually be done. It
would be incompatible with the laws of the universe to say that God can give us
free will and at the same time force happiness and perfection on us at the same
doesn’t explain why can’t God simply change the laws of the universe—change
what is contradictory and what isn’t. D&C 93:29-30 reads: “Intelligence, or
the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be. All truth
is independent in that sphere wich God has placed it, to act for itself, as all
intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.” According to this
scripture, truth (which the laws of the universe are certainly a part of) is
independent of God. In a sense truth has it’s own agency. God cannot control
it. Otherwise free will could not exist. In fact, nothing could exist.
Not only are
goodness and terror compatible; Aslan’s goodness actually requires that
he also be terrible. It is only real, terrible goodness that is concerned with
helping us become good.