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Melanie Blakely

Professor Card

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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, 168-69).

So we’ve 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 Pain.

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 11, 162).

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 desensitized.

            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.

Afterwards, Eustace 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 loves.”

            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).

“What would 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 time.

Wielenburg 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.

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