Substitutionary atonement for kids


We were on the second of our “big words that end in SHUN” yesterday, substitution.  If you’ve thought that the thought of teaching substitutionary atonement to kids is a little daunting, you’re no different to me, until I realised that much of our kids’ movie culture is steeped in models of substitution.

Nemo and Dory.
Nemo is told by his dad never to leave the safety of the reef. He thinks he knows better but, when he swims off the reef, he is caught by a diver and taken to an aquarium in a dental surgery in Sydney. Nemo escapes from the dentist’s tank and then bumps into Dory, his dad’s memorable friend. Dory takes Nemo to find his dad, and so rescues Nemo, but as she does she is caught in a fishing net and nearly dies.

Mr Incredible and Elastigirl.
Mr Incredible lives a secret life, doing superhero work behind his wife’s back. He is lured to an island where he meets his nemesis, Syndrome, who captures Mr Incredible. His wife, Elastigirl, flies a plane to rescue him but the plane is shot down by Syndrome’s missiles. Syndrome tells Mr Incredible that his whole family has died trying to rescue him, but Elastigirl and her kids survive the crash and rescue Mr Incredible.

Mowgli and Baloo.
Mowgli had been told by Bagheera, the panther and Mowgli’s guardian, to return to the man-village to avoid Shere Khan, the tiger, who would try to kill him before he reached manhood.  Mowgli rebels, runs away and is eventually caught by Shere Khan, but is rescued by his friend, Baloo the bear, who takes the beating Mowgli deserves from Shere Khan and then lies “dead” in a puddle:

Mowgli: Baloo? Baloo, get up. Oh please, get up. Oh.
[Bagheera arrives]
Bagheera: Mowgli, try to understand.
Mowgli: Bagheera, what’s the matter with him?
Bagheera: You’ve got to be brave, like Baloo was.
Mowgli: You don’t mean — oh, no, Baloo.
Bagheera: Now, now. I know how you feel. But you must remember, Mowgli, Greater love hath no one than he who lays down his life for his friend.

The biblical reference to John 15:13 in Baghera’s speech introduces the love that Aslan has for Edmund in the last of our four movies:

Edmund and Aslan.
Edmund falls into the hands of the Witch, after agreeing to betray his brother and sisters, and she says that she will execute Edmund as a traitor. Aslan speaks to her privately and persuades her to renounce her claim on Edmund’s life. That evening, Aslan secretly leaves the camp, but is followed by Lucy and Susan. Aslan has bargained with the witch to exchange his own life for Edmund’s. The Witch ties Aslan to the Stone Table and then kills him with a knife. The following morning Aslan is restored to life. Unknown to the witch, “deeper magic from before the dawn of time” allows someone who willingly dies in the place of another to return to life.

You, me and Jesus.
Having turned our backs on God and chosen to do things our own way, we fall into the hands of Satan and so need rescuing from sin, death and hell. Jesus came to rescue and gave his life on the cross for our sin, taking our place in judgement.

The kids’ movies above show how deeply substitutionary atonement is embedded in our culture. Everyone applauds the characters who sacrifice themselves whilst rescuing the undeserving. We love Dory for finding Nemo and almost dying in the process; Elastigirl gets our sympathy for her sacrifice for her husband; Baloo almost gave his life to save his friend and we love him for it and Aslan receives the highest praise by actually dying and rising again for Edmund. The death of Christ for sinners, in their place, as their substitute, has taken a knock in recent years after Steve Chalke made some injudicious remarks about the character of God. Far from the repulsion many liberal scholars feel at the death of Christ in our stead, there are many positive contemporary models for holding sacrificial love in high esteem, and therefore adoring Christ not pitying him.

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