I’m not usually into anime,1 but there is one anime that I really did enjoy sitting all the way through,2 and it goes by the name of Fullmetal Alchemist. But what probably evokes the most controversy for Christians when it comes to this show is not the fact that it is an anime3, but the fact that the entire show centers around the concept of alchemy… and that just sounds too much like witchcraft for our ears.
But the truth is that alchemy has a long, and rather intriguing, history alongside Christianity. From Lactantius to Pope Innocent VIII, some fairly noteworthy alchemists were themselves Christians. In fact, even when they had strong opinions against alchemists, many of the fathers of our faith, such as Augustine and Martin Luther, were still able to find much redemptive value in alchemy. And today I hope to do the same.
Now, as a disclaimer, I’ve not studied alchemy as much as I’d like. In fact, if anyone feels like getting me an early Christmas/birthday/just-for-the-fun-of-it gift, I wouldn’t mind receiving this little gem. So most of what I know about alchemy is coming from a Japanese cartoon, Wikipedia, that one Harry Potter book, and a small (but valuable) smattering of encyclopedic books that I’ve been able to get my hands on. So, that being said, I don’t know if what I’m about to talk about is an actual alchemical doctrine, or just something that made for a great television show. But I think it bears discussing.
The story of the Fullmetal Alchemist opens up by introducing us to the underlying principle of alchemy (at least, as it exists in the story world), namely the Law of Equivalent Exchange. It goes something like this…
“Alchemy: the science of understanding the structure of matter, breaking it down, then reconstructing it as something else. It can even make gold from lead. But alchemy is a science so it must follow the natural laws: to create, something of equal value must be lost. This is the principal of equivalent exchange.”
As the story goes, two young boys sought to resurrect their mother who passed away. However, due to some rather messy miscalculations, they were unable to do so. Thus, the rest of the series largely depicts their journey to discover the most valuable item in all of alchemy – the Philosopher’s Stone.4 This fabled item would allow them to bypass the Law of Equivalent Exchange and essentially get something for nothing, even if that something happens to be a mom.
And it struck me the other day that two of the major views of the Atonement in Christianity happen to fall in line with these two alchemical ideas. On the one hand, we have Penal Substitution, which claims that in order for God to be able to forgive mankind of our sins someone must first pay a price or penalty equivalent to the debt we’ve incurred. In effect, Penal Substitutionary atonement operates on the foundational Law of Equivalent Exchange. God cannot just forgive mankind our sins; He has to punish someone (anyone) to pay for them, even if that someone happens to be His own Son.5
On the other hand, we have Christus Victor atonement, which claims that God was ready and willing to forgive us all along. He just had to free us from the dominion of Satan first so that we could experience that freedom. In effect, Christus Victor atonement operates much like the Philosopher’s Stone. Once it has been obtained it grants you restoration free of charge. We don’t have to pay for our sins, we don’t have to do mental gymnastics to figure out how guilt could actually be transferred from us to Jesus, and we don’t have to come up with some way of saying that the death of Jesus (divine though he was) was somehow payment enough for the sins of billions of individuals. Instead, we are left with the non-legalistic and entirely unfair reality of grace, gaining salvation with no payment needed.
So, there you have it. A simple6 comparison, to be sure; but one that, I think, helps us understand why the God of Christus Victor sounds much more beautiful and desirable, especially to anyone who appreciates this pretty awesome anime.
1: And in saying that, I just lost half of you.
2: And with that, I just lost the other half of you.
3: I mean, even Jesus has his own manga now.
4: Or for you American Harry Potter fans out there, the Sorcerer’s Stone.
5: And as I’ve said before, it doesn’t make things sound a whole lot better to say that God has to punish Himself to pay for our mistakes. Apply that logic to pretty much anyone else, and you would be talking about a very mentally ill person.
6: Perhaps simplistic.