The Mouse Trap Theory of the Atonement

In a few days, some friends of mine and I are going to be discussing whether or not C.S. Lewis’s book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe espouses a form of the mouse-trap theory of the atonement. I don’t have a whole lot of knowledge of this theory. However, here are at least the bare bones.

Jesus’ blood is the bait and the trap is the cross. Satan was fooled into thinking he had won when he clamped down on the blood of Christ. Then on Easter morning, he realized he had been duped. Objections raised against this theory have been several: one is that Satan tempted Jesus to avoid the cross, which seems to indicate that he already knew the implications of the cross. A second objection is that it seems to involve a ransom being paid to Satan, which we know is false, since the sinner is in debt to the law of God, not to Satan.

So, the question is this: does the LWW espouse this theory? My inital thoughts on this are that it is not a mouse-trap theory. However, my argument hinges on one crucial point: how critical to the MTT is the idea of paying a ransom to Satan? I do not believe that Aslan paid a ransom to the White Witch. The reason that someone had to die was because of the law written in letters as deep as a spear is long on the trunk of the world ash tree (Yggdrasil) for those ignorant of Norse mythology, in which Lewis was very learned. In other words, the debt was in fact to the law of the Emperor Beyond the Sea, not to the White Witch. I think that the White Witch poses as the Emperor’s hangman (to use the phrase of Mr. Beaver) so that people might think that she has the power of death in her hands. But Aslan’s question is eloquent: “Work against the Emperor’s magic?” (emphasis added).

It would seem to me right now that the ransom-to-Satan theory is essential to the MTT, since how else is the mechanism of Satan “falling for it” supposed to work, other than that God deceived Satan into thinking that the ransom was due to Satan? If the ransom was due to Satan in Satan’s thinking, then that would provide the impetus for him to take the bait. I would appreciate any insight that my readers could provide.

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28 Comments

  1. September 2, 2008 at 1:57 pm

    [...] Mouse Trap Theory of the Atonement On GB, I have posted something hoping to get some discussion going. I would also like the PB’s thoughts [...]

  2. Sam Steinmann said,

    September 2, 2008 at 3:09 pm

    Satan is fundamentally proud and rebellious: that doesn’t change.

    It makes sense, to me, that he thinks the ransom due God is due him; he has thought himself entitled to God’s prerogatives elsewhere–that’s his foundational sin.

    Doesn’t I Corinthians 2:7-8 somewhat teach something like the mousetrap theory?

    But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory: Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

  3. Kevin said,

    September 2, 2008 at 3:21 pm

    I guess I had always read it as advocating a ransom theory. Had not thought of the other. At any rate, I found the whole series intolerably dull. Give me Tolkein any day. :)

  4. tim prussic said,

    September 2, 2008 at 5:15 pm

    I’m interested in the notion that Satan tried to get Jesus to avoid the cross. I have thought of Satan offering Jesus 1) what was under Satan’s dominion and 2) though a specific means. As to #1, there’s probably little discussion. One nation had God known. Satan’s dominion was the nations. Jesus came to build his church and sends her to take dominion of the nations under him. Eschatological stuff aside, that is pretty clear. As to numero dos, Satan offers the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worship: “Hey, bow down and worship me and all these kingdoms, their glory and splendor, will be yours.” Now, was Satan seeking to have Jesus avoid the cross, as such? It is certainly so indirectly, or by implication. However, it seems very much in keeping with Satan’s drive for glory and worship (things due God alone), that he simply wants Jesus’ worship and will give what he’s got to get it. This interpretation seems confirmed by Jesus’ response: “Hey, worship’s for Yahweh only.” Simply, I think it’d be hard to prove that having Jesus avoid the cross was specifically on Satan’s mind, unless you’re thinking of passage other than Jesus’ temptations.

  5. schreibs83 said,

    September 2, 2008 at 5:52 pm

    I don’t know if Satan tempts Jesus away from the cross. According to John, Satan entered Judas to betray Jesus (Last Supper).

    I think it could be said that Satan, previously, was tempting Jesus towards the profaning of his mission – whatever that was. Jesus would have been ruined if he could have been tempted to self-glorification.

    On the other hand, one of the temptation accounts ends with something like “and Satan left Jesus until another time.” I think the church has posed the idea that this “other time” was Jesus’ long night in Gethsemane. Perhaps Catholics, and then maybe Anglicans (Lewis), may have picked up on this. This partially explains the scene that begins The Passion by Mel Gibson. Anyways, in this line of thinking, Satan is trying to get Jesus to to reject the cross.

    Anyways, it doesn’t really matter all that much. Evil is usually duplicitous – which Lewis would say.

    I also prefer Tolkien : )

    Deception, by the way, is not always evil.

  6. natrimony said,

    September 2, 2008 at 8:47 pm

    Gustaf Aulen in “Christus Victor” locates early Ransom theories of the atonement as incorporating a gross sort of bait and switch divine deception. He wisely distances himself from this formula in promoting his classic theory of the atonement. This is a dynamic portrait of the sort of redemptive battle strategy which, while consistent with the divine character, hardly provides a satisfactorily holistic picture of applied atonement.

  7. Rick Phillips said,

    September 3, 2008 at 8:43 am

    I think you are right about LWW. Aslan died to satisfy the “deep magic”, i.e. the law, not to satisfy the rights of the White Witch. But I think the existential rapture of the White Witch in Aslans’ death magnificently captures Satan’s lust in the cross. This is the kind of thing Lewis does especially well — he captures the spirit of the thing. (See also The Great Divorce.) In general, we want to avoid demanding doctrinal precision of this kind of literature, but so far as it goes, I think LWW presents a pretty biblical picture of the atonement.

    As for the MTT, I do not think that it necessitates the ransom theory, although that may be its natural association in most minds. The MTT is essentially true: Satan was lured in by his uncontrollable craving to bite the Seed of the woman, and to his dismay he finds that his own teeth have pulled down his kingdom: his moment of victory is the undoing of his entire kingdom. The problem is in the ransom to Satan theory, but in my view, the MTT in its essence does not require a ransom to the devil.

    As for Satan seeking to lure Jesus away from the cross, which he clearly did, I think this is simply an alternative strand of devilish perversity. The Devil is reactive when it comes to God. So when the Incarnation takes place, Satan mimicks it by multiplying demon possessions. When the Messiah steps forth, Satan tries to tempt Him into rebellion. When the Messiah refuses to turn from His divine mission, Satan strikes out to kill him. I think we give too much credit to Satan to assume that these are pieces of a coherent strategy. Rather, I think that while Satan possesses great knowledge, he lacks wisdom and self-control. Indeed, the very nature of Satan’s kingdom is anti-wholeness, thus the idea of a coherent program against the Christ is unsuited to his rebel heart. Cunning, yes. But wise, no. At every point, Satan simply fails to understand, for all that he knows. If he understood the nature of the Incarnation, he would not have thought that demon-possession is a higher achievement. If he understood the heart of Christ, he would have foreseen the certain failure of his temptations. If he understood the death of Christ, he would have sent legions of demons to protect Jesus from the cross. But for all that he knows, Satan does not understand. He lacks wisdom. Thus, for him, a mouse-trap is the perfect tactic and most exquisite judgment.

  8. Chris H. said,

    September 3, 2008 at 1:04 pm

    Rick stole my thunder and said it far better and more comprehensively than I could have. In essence, while Satan is tremendously more intelligent than any of us, he is still at heart stupid and unwise. We must not think that he is always consistent with his own interests. Sin and rebellion leads to disorder and self-destruction. As Edwards said, “Satan is the biggest blockhead who ever lived!”

    Thanks for the helpful reading of LWW. I had always read it as the ransom theory, and was troubled by it.

  9. greenbaggins said,

    September 3, 2008 at 1:06 pm

    Hey, Chris! Welcome to my blog.

  10. Chris H. said,

    September 3, 2008 at 3:15 pm

    It’s just me, Lane. I just don’t have much time these days for much blog commenting. But thanks! Hope you are well! We miss your brother.

    Chris Hutchinson
    Blacksburg, VA

  11. greenbaggins said,

    September 3, 2008 at 3:20 pm

    Oops! I thought it was my other friend Chris Harper, since your comment was held for moderation. But I’m glad you commented. I’m glad that you enjoyed Adrian’s time there.

  12. Tony said,

    September 3, 2008 at 6:11 pm

    I haven’t heard this term (the Mousetrap theory) before, but it might help to note that it is one theory of the atonement with a long, early-medieval history. For its outlines and discussion of why it was elaborated in early-medieval society, Richard Southern’s “The Making of the Middle Ages” and John Bossy’s “Christianity in the West” are both very good.

  13. Lee said,

    September 4, 2008 at 11:43 am

    I hate to disagree with Lane, Rick Phillips, and the numerous other people on this list, but I still think that Lewis is putting forth a MouseTrap theory, and I think it is a blending of the Ransom to Satan idea and the Christus Victor atonement model. While, I agree with Lane that the Deep Magic is involved, I think that the Magic is saying the traitor (in this case Edmund) belongs to the Witch. The Witch explains what the Deep Magic says, “You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill” (pg. 155 in my copy). Aslan’s response of course is “It is very true, I do not deny it” (pg. 156). So it seems to me the Deep Magic not only says a death is required, it says that the blood of the traitor belongs to the Witch. I believe that implies a Ransom idea of atonement.

    The problem here is a lack of the idea of wrath in the death of Christ (or Aslan in the book). The MTT of the atonement has as its primary goal the overthrow of Satan’s power, not the satisfaction of a debt to the law of God. The MTT is substitutionary, but not a satisfaction. It is the offer of more important innocent blood in place of the traitorous blood, which unbeknownst to Satan, overthrows his power and authority. Thus, the bait and switch or Mouse Trap. While I appreciate Rev. Phillips point about not ascribing to Satan a coherent strategy of attack, I do think Satan has real knowledge of Christ and His ultimate victory. Take the story of the demon Legion. In the Matthew version of that story he says that Jesus has come to torture them before the appointed time, implying the demons know that Jesus wins. In the Luke version of the story they beg not to be thrown into the Abyss, which implies they know their eternal destination. Can we not use the argument of the lesser to the greater to assume Satan has such knowledge as well. The points about Satan sending an army of demons to protect Jesus from the cross implies that Satan has such power in his hands to send an army of demons, which I believe is a highly debatable point. Thus, I am forced to reject the MouseTrap idea with or without the Ransom idea.

    I do, however, agree that we should not demand doctrinal precision from a children’s story book. I really enjoy Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, and just to cause trouble, in many ways it is superior to Tolkien. Tolkien’s Romanist objective mysticism can become annoying.

  14. Kevin said,

    September 4, 2008 at 1:02 pm

    “Tolkien’s Romanist objective mysticism can become annoying.”

    Hmmm…I must have missed something. :p

  15. Lee said,

    September 4, 2008 at 2:11 pm

    I just think that Tolkien’s work is full of relics from saints of old (ex. the shards of Narsil) and holy places (ex. Lorien) where saints are protected from evil’s power. It is also full of objects that carry mystical power like Elvish Lembas.

    I think Lord of the Rings a wonderful story, a magnificant fantasy adventure. However, if we are going to look at the theology that underlies these books, I think it is impossible not to at least note that the Roman view of relics and sacramentology underpins much of the Lord of the Rings.

  16. greenbaggins said,

    September 4, 2008 at 3:13 pm

    Lee, I think you are ignoring an important bit of information that is crucial to the story. For instance, Aslan says that the offense was not against the White Witch. The treachery was against Aslan, and, by implication, the Emperor Beyond the Sea. Therefore, the death that must result from that treachery is put into law by the Emperor. Hence, there most definitely is a wrath of the Emperor that must be satisfied. The death is prescribed by the law. The White Witch is only the person to put said traitor to death. Now, that is different from the Bible in that it is God who puts sinners to their eternal death. However, the other thing that must be remembered is Rick’s dictum that we must not press every detail in the story to match up with biblical thought.

    On Tolkien, the examples you provide are not to the point. The shards of Narsil have no power in and of themselves. It is only as reforged into Anduril *and wielded by Aragorn* that the weapon has any meaning. No one is bowing down to Narsil, or praying to Elendil to operate the sword from the realm of the dead. Lorien is not to the point either, since there is no textual evidence that Tolkien meant by it anything other than that it was a description of the power of the elves. If you wanted a much more evident example of sacramentology, you should look at the lembas bread. But there the exact implementation of the power that it provides is left vague. There is no bell to look at and receive the blessing, for instance.

  17. Lee said,

    September 4, 2008 at 5:41 pm

    Lane,
    I do not think the Ransom or MTT says that the offense is against Satan. No theory I know of thinks that the offense is against Satan. What the deep magic says is that Edmund belongs to the Witch. “His blood is my property.” This is a belonging to Satan that makes the one being paid off for Edmund, not the Emperor or the Deep Magic but the Witch. I think the text only implies that the Deep Magic gives her the rights over traitors. They belong to her.

    As for Tolkien, I think Narsil is apt because they are treating it as a relic. Also in other books objects and especially swords are given a power or destiny all their own. The Children Of Hurin is a good example of this with Hurin the Blacksword. Lembas is a wonderful example as of course the rings themselves. Not just the One ring, but all of the rings of power including the three Elvish rings. Even the White Tree has a power. I might could agree with you about Lorien, but other places have their own power like Mordor where even the water is poison and the Dead Marshes too.

    I could go on and on with my insane complicated theories, but Tolkien himself called his work “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.”

  18. thegreycoats said,

    September 4, 2008 at 6:59 pm

    schreibs83,

    I’d like to hear what you mean by saying that, “Deception, by the way, is not always evil.”

  19. natrimony said,

    September 4, 2008 at 7:03 pm

    schreibs83,

    I’m curious to know what you meant by saying that deception isn’t always evil.

  20. September 4, 2008 at 11:00 pm

    [...] Keister, over at Green Baggins, has recently written The Mouse Trap Theory of Atonement, involving some interesting analysis of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. [...]

  21. natrimony said,

    September 4, 2008 at 11:12 pm

    It seems as if the mouse trap theory goes further than Ransom conceptualizations by adding the aspect of divine trickery.

  22. GLW Johnson said,

    September 7, 2008 at 8:46 am

    rey
    How long has your mental institution allowed you access to a computer?

  23. Ron Henzel said,

    September 7, 2008 at 6:01 pm

    rey,

    No, seriously: how long?

  24. natrimony said,

    September 7, 2008 at 7:27 pm

    rey,

    Read Romans 9 about 10 times, then read the whole book of Romans, then read Romans 9-12 ten more times.

    I’m still intrigued by the concept that deception isn’t always evil. Perhaps there is another explanation besides relegating sovereign grace to satanic chicanery. I can see how someone might mistake Calvinism for divine trickery at first but I think that after a fair hearing of the Reformed position that this would be impossible.

  25. G.C. Berkley said,

    September 7, 2008 at 8:26 pm

    Natrimony,

    Jesus withheld his identity for a time from the 2 men on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24–that was a form of deception that wasn’t evil.

    Rey,

    I don’t think Augustine or Calvin ever had access to a computer…

  26. natrimony said,

    September 7, 2008 at 10:07 pm

    I guess I’ve never really noticed that as deception before. I’m not quite sure what I think about it.

  27. G.C. Berkley said,

    September 8, 2008 at 8:59 am

    I believe it was said earlier that deception in and of itself is not evil, only the intent behind the deception is what makes it evil or good. For example, if you’re having a surprise birthday party for someone, it’s not a sin to only tell them you’re inviting them over for dinner when in reality you’ve got about 40 people hiding in the kitchen. Maybe not the best example, but you get the idea….

  28. thegreycoats said,

    September 8, 2008 at 4:40 pm

    I’ve just never thought deeply about deception in a positive light. A lot could depend on perspective, i.e. surprise vs. story. But darn that pesky problem of evil. Its hard to account for. At any rate, thanks for the brain-food.


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