Depiction and Argument in C. S. Lewis: The formula of Blood atonement and the Blessed sacrament

We have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle.
For the bodies of those beasts, whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned without the camp. Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered without the gate.

(Hebrews 13:10-12)

(This is a follow-on from Penal substitution: C S Lewis and the “formula” of Christ’s blood shed for our sins).


In the Bible, the greatest commandment is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength” and the second is “Love your neighbour as yourself.” For C.S. Lewis the adoration of the “Blessed sacrament” is second, and “Love your neighbour” is in third place. (C.S. Lewis and the three great commandments: Love God, love the blessed sacrament, love your neighbour; necessarily in that order). He also proposes that you can choose which “formula” (of faith) works for you. For example, instead of saying “I have been washed in the blood of the Lamb,” you could opt for “Christ died for my sins.” Lewis’ reasoning seems to be that it all comes out in the wash. In this article I argue that such talk is not merely irresponsible, but not Christianity at all. I also examine the link between Lewis’ elevation of the “Blessed sacrament and his denigration of blood atonement.

Depiction and Argument in C. S. Lewis

First a definition of the term the Passion of Christ. “Passion.” In normal English usage, “passion” means “strong emotion” of short duration. The heart of the “Passion” lies in its historical (etymological) meaning. “Passion” comes from the Latin root passio “to render.” So when we suffer, we have to submit to causes that deprive us of our freedom or well-being; we remain passive, and that is what the “Passion” of Christ means. (See Passivity and Suffering in the Passion of Christ).

Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” presents Mel Gibson’s view on how Christ died, but said nothing about why He died. The film, though, was indeed meant to be about the physical suffering of Christ, and not about why he suffered physically – and spiritually. His spiritual suffering, Christians believe, was far greater than his physical suffering, which itself was unique in the history of a crucifixion. This was so was because of the appalling treatment he received before the crucifixion. (Mel Gibson’s “How” in the Passion of the Christ: And the Why?). Gibson’s depiction of the Passion – many hate to admit this – is a moving description of the physical suffering of Christ.

C.S. Lewis is a master of depiction. We admire C.S. Lewis as “a master at two rhetorical arts, which he combined fluently: argument and depiction,” This double mastery contributed much to the success of his “Mere Christianity”, which “became the most important and effective defence of the Christian faith in its century.” (John G. Stackhouse Jr., “Why ‘Mere Christianity’ Should Have Bombed,” Christianity today, December, 2012).

Mere Christianity” is filled with deep philosophical/ theological arguments such as the the moral argument for the existence of God. Lewis shows how moral absolutes presuppose the existence of God. Mere Christianity works, says John Stackhouse, because “Lewis can both show and tell. He can tell us what he thinks we should think, and then make it appear for us in an image that usually lasts long after the middle steps of the argument have vanished from memory.” Here is an example from Mere Christianity:

Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”

One cannot separate why Christ died (which Gibson above is silent about) from what Christ wants to do for sinners (the topic of Lewis’ paragraph above). What Lewis thinks – and tells us to think – is indeed unforgettably vivid ( “throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards”). The problem is that not only the middle steps of his argument but all of it from beginning to end is an imaginative flop. The reason: if the Gospel starts in the flesh – “Imagine yourself as a living house” – it may end in the flesh – Imagine yourself as a dead house.

Here is the biblical account (a masterful display of Christian argument and depiction). Begin by imagining yourself, not as a living house, but as dead in your house. Here is the Apostle Paul:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2).

We, in our natural state, are sinners standing under God’s divine judgement. God’s justice requires punishment. Instead of punishing sinners with eternal punishment, God the Father sent His Son into the world to suffer and die on their behalf. Whereas in the view (above), the most important point is the change that Christ’s Passion has wrought in sinners, the more important point is what Christ’s Passion has wrought in His Father, namely, the Father’s wrath has been “propitiated” (expiated, satisfied). The effect of the Passion was the overthrow of the powers of darkness (the devil and his angels) and the granting of God’s totally unmerited love. By dying on the cross, Jesus paid the price for the sins of his “sheep” (John 10:3), turning the Father’s ‘no’ into a ‘yes’. Jesus Christ became the sinner’s substitute for the punishment sinners deserved. “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). (Mel Gibson’s “How” in the Passion of the Christ: And the Why?).

Find the formula that suits

Imagine yourself as living house” is a good foundation for what Lewis wants Everyman to think about the plan of salvation. What he thinks you should think is that you can think what you like (almost):

You can say that Christ died for our sins. You may say that the Father has forgiven us because Christ has done for us what we ought to have done. You may say that we are washed in the blood of the Lamb. You may say that Christ has defeated death. They are all true. If any of them do not appeal to you, leave it alone and get on with the formula that does. And, whatever you do, do not start quarrelling with other people because they use a different formula from yours.”

Yes they’re all true, but its highly irresponsible, at best, to tell human beings, who, in their natural state, all hate Christ that if the “blood of the lamb” formula (penal substitution, substitutionary atonement, blood atonement) does not work for you, ditch it. I will not be nice about it and so will quarrel about it.

The Blessed Sacrament and the Blood

In contrast to the Lewis’ à la carte of what Christ did, where the shedding of Christ blood for sinners is one among several delectables on the menu, what Lewis tells us to think about the “blessed sacrament” carries for more weight. In his “Weight of glory,” we read:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

Jesus reiterates the two greatest commandments of Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul and the “royal law” (James 2:8), love you neighbour as yourself. For Lewis the two great commandments become three, with “love the blessed sacrament” displacing the “royal” commandment into third place.

For Lewis, what does it matter whether a Christian believes in the “formula” that he is washed in Christ’s blood? It’s no better than believing that “the Father has forgiven us because Christ has done for us what we ought to have done.” But this bloodless salvation through Christ’s life (or through what “we ought to have done” ) rather than through His Cross is, according to scripture, no salvation at all. The New Testament mentions the “blood” at least 90 times: “And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission ( of sin)” (Heb. 9:22). “Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us” (Heb. 9:12).

Where does all this leave Lewis’s “second” great commandment – love the “blessed sacrament.” Why not make the former, as he made the blood sacrifice of Christ, one more optional formula. Or should a person eventually wean himself off “mere” Christianity and mature into full blooded bloodied Christianity, without which there can be nothing “blessed” about the Eucharist for the obvious reason that without the sacrifice on the cross re-presented (not represented) in the Mass there is no body. No body of Christ means no re-presenting of the body of Christ in the Eucharist, the sacrament of “Communion.” (C.S. Lewis and the three great commandments: Love God, love the blessed sacrament, love your neighbour; necessarily in that order). For the Protestant Reformers, the reason for the existence (raison d’être) of the act of communion, in which the church – the “body of Christ) partakes of the bread and wine – is to commemorate Christ’s body broken and blood spilt for his sheep. Outside of communion, the bread and wine no longer have any Christian significance. (See Note1 on different views of the “Eucharist”).

Lewis regards the shedding of the blood of the precious Saviour as an optional “formula” of faith. It is hard to fathom that a good reader such as Lewis could arrive at such a view of clear scriptural passages that stress the centrality of the “blood” in redemption. Perhaps Lewis’ view that the incarnation (the word made flesh) is the grand miracle my help us understand why he thinks that second to the incarnation is the “Blessed sacrament” (the bread made flesh; the wine made blood).

The word made flesh; the bread made flesh

Here is his opening to “The Grand Miracle” (in ”God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975, p. 80), wherein he stresses the importance of miracles in Christianity, and what he says is the pre-eminent miracle of the Incarnation:

One is very often asked at present whether we could not have a Christianity stripped, or, as people who asked it say, ‘freed’ from its miraculous elements, a Christianity with the miraculous elements suppressed. Now, it seems to me that precisely the one religion in the world, or, at least the only one I know, with which you could not do that is Christianity. In a religion like Buddhism, if you took away the miracles attributed to Gautama Buddha in some very late sources, there would be no loss; in fact, the religion would get on very much better without them because in that case the miracles largely contradict the teaching. Or even in the case of a religion like Mohammedanism, nothing essential would be altered if you took away the miracles. You could have a great prophet preaching his dogmas without bringing in any miracles; they are only in the nature of a digression, or illuminated capitals. But you cannot possibly do that with Christianity, because the Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle, the Christian assertion being that what is beyond all space and time, what is uncreated, eternal, came into nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing nature up with Him. It is precisely one great miracle. If you take that away there is nothing specifically Christian left.” (See The Incarnation or Substitutionary Atonement, which is the grand miracle? CS Lewis and John MacArthur say the former; George MacDonald, definitely not the latter).

And what if you take away the “formula” of we were washed in his blood? Adolph Saphir hits the nail on the head: “But while we adore the great mystery of the Incarnation, let us remember, that the Incarnation necessarily leads to the Crucifixion. The mystery of the manger involves the mystery of the cross. It is not enough to know that unto us the Child was bom, the Son was given, that the Word was made flesh. He never would have come down to earth unless His purpose had been to offer His life as a sacrifice for sin.”(Adolph Saphir, from his lectures on 1 Corinthians 2).

But isn’t Saphir merely referring to one of Lewis’ optional formulas, namely, “he died for my sins.” No, Saphir emphasises crucifixion, the cross. Lewis regarded George MacDonald as his “master.” MacDonald considered the idea of penal substitutionary atonement (blood atonement) an affront to God’s justice. This fact may help help us understand the reason for Lewis’ attitude to the blood. God’s justice and the lamb that was slain: A critique of George MacDonald’s rejection of penal substitutionary atonement.


The Passion – the breaking of Christ’s body and the shedding of his blood on the cross – is the central even of human history. If you are one of those squeamish types, you don’t have to stick with the formula “I have been washed in the blood of the Lamb.” What is important, Lewis maintains, is not to believe the means (“Father if you are willing take this cup [of blood] from me” – Luke 22:42a) but to believe the end (salvation). For this reason “Christ died for my sins,” Lewis proposes, should cut it. This may be “mere Christianity” but is certainly not Christianity. For undermining the blood, C.S. Lewis, most of whose work I admire very much, deserves censure.

“Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is wellpleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen”  (Hebrews 13:20-21).

1Here is Louis Berkoff from his “Summary of Christian doctrine”:

a. THE VIEW OF ROME. The Church of Rome conceives of the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper in a PHYSICAL SENSE. On the ground of Jesus’ statement, “this is my body,” it holds that bread and wine change into the body and blood of Christ, though they continue to look and taste like bread and wine. This view is open to several objections: (1) Jesus, standing before the disciples in the flesh, could not very well say that He had His body in His hand; (2) Scripture speaks of the bread as bread even after the supposed change has taken place, 1Cor. 10;17; 11:26-28; and (3) It is contrary to common sense to believe that what looks and smells and tastes like bread and wine is indeed flesh and blood.

b. THE LUTHERAN VIEW. Lutherans maintain that, while bread and wine remain what they are, the whole person of Christ, body and blood, is present IN, UNDER, and ALONG WITH, the elements. When Christ had the bread in His hand, He held His body along with it, and therefore could say, “this is my body.” Every one who receives the bread also receives the body, whether he be a believer or not. This is no great improvement on the Roman Catholic doctrine. It ascribes to Jesus’ words the unnatural meaning “this accompanies my body.” Moreover, it is burdened with the impossible notion that the body of Christ is omnipresent.

c. THE ZWINGLIAN VIEW. Zwingli denied the bodily presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, while admitting that He is spiritually present in the faith of believers. For him the Lord’s Supper was mainly a mere sign or symbol, a memorial of the death of Christ, and an act of profession on the part of believers. Some of his statements, however, seem to indicate that he also regarded it as a seal or pledge of what God does for the believer in Christ.

d. CALVIN’S VIEW. Calvin took an intermediate position. Instead of the physical and local, he taught the spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. In distinction from Zwingli he stressed the deeper significance of the sacrament. He saw in it a seal and pledge of what God does for believers rather than a pledge of their consecration to God. The virtues and effects of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross are present and actually conveyed to believers by the power of the Holy Spirit.

(See related article Penal substitution: C S Lewis and the “formula” of Christ’s blood shed for our sins).

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