Harry Potter and the Atonement

by Dan Miller
AtonementThe books on our shelves contain a lot of good things but are also prone to error. No matter what we read, whether for pleasure or education, I do not believe we should accept any idea that isn’t biblical. Books should be divided in our minds into two categories: “Scripture” and “all else.” There is danger in communicating that some books are trustworthy and that others are untrustworthy. Of course, there are levels of trust, but only Scripture is truly trustworthy. Certain books will have certain errors and certain dangers. Some are more dangerous than others. We benefit from being aware of the specific dangers of specific books. This knowledge will affect whether we read and how we read. The purpose of this article is to elaborate on some of the dangers in the Harry Potter series while maintaining their value.

Did J.K. Rowling intend the books to be “Christian”?

I’ll answer this question in the broad sense of the word “Christian.” To the extent that the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Church of Scotland are “Christian,” she did mean these books to be Christian. These churches may have theological errors, but even they do not utterly fail to ever speak the truth. Likewise, book seven, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, quotes Scripture twice: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:26) is on Harry’s parents’ tombstone, and “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:21) is on Dumbledore’s sister’s tombstone. About these quotes, Rowling says, “They’re very British books, so on a very practical note Harry was going to find biblical quotations on tombstones, [But] I think those two particular quotations he finds on the tombstones at Godric’s Hollow, they sum up—they almost epitomize the whole series.”

J.K. Rowling has said that Harry is messiah-like. She recently gave an interview in the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant. (Unfortunately, the interview is in Dutch.) Here’s part of the interview (translated with assistance of Google’s translator):

Wilma de Rek: But Harry is a kind of Jesus. He must die in order to save humanity from the evil. You have a messiah of him.

JKR: Yes, he has messiah-features. There have I deliberately chosen.

I think that my SI readers will agree that the story of sin and redemption in Christ resonates in the consciences of all men. I believe that is one reason these stories are so popular. To some extent, they do parallel the story of Christ. Thus, they resonate with our consciences. Since the books do have Christian parallels, we must ask what sort of theological positions they parallel.

Is the series syncretistic?

While Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows quotes the Bible, it also opens with two other quotes. One is from a “Christian” source (William Penn), and the other is from a pagan source (Aeschylus). The mixture of Christian and non-Christian might be most easily seen in that the characters celebrate Christmas but also are doing magic.

No doubt this eclectic make-your-own religion resonates well with postmodern readers. This is the second factor in the enormous popularity of the books.

Is it bothersome that Dumbledore is gay?

Rowling has said that Dumbledore is gay. The books themselves do not depict Dumbledore as being gay. There is not even a suggestion of his homosexuality. John Reynolds, Professor of Philosophy at Biola University, takes exception with the idea that we should think of Dumbledore as gay, even if J.K. Rowling says he is.

At this point, it is bothersome that Dumbledore is gay. Certainly homosexuality is sinful behavior. But we don’t know what Dumbledore’s behavior was—his story is only briefly sketched. If Rowling ever tells the story of Dumbledore (and I think she will), we may learn more. According to Rowling, he loved Grindelwald. That relationship brought punishment to Dumbledore. Eventually, he discovered that he had allowed himself to be duped into making evil plans. Dumbledore renounced these plans, but the ensuing fight with Grindelwald brought on the death of Dumbledore’s sister. There is no evidence that he ever engages in another homosexual relationship. So, at this point, it is possible (but unlikely) that he was punished for his tragic flaw.

I’m not saying that Rowling takes a biblical view of homosexuality. I doubt she does. Her church doesn’t. But it is surprising to me that she didn’t put Dumbledore’s orientation into book seven. Tolerance is a significant theme in the books. I doubt that she meant to punish Dumbledore for his illicit relationship. More likely, she’ll defend him as a deep and true lover. But either way, we must view the character as sinful.

Do the books have dangers? If so, what are those dangers?

Yes.

  • They’re syncretistic—they mix “Christian” religious themes with pagan spiritualism.
  • They’re postmodern in that they promote and resonate with our culture’s desire to chase after spiritualism while refusing to look to Scripture for absolute truth. The magic of Potter is made up and not like real world magic. But that fact doesn’t necessarily make it better. His magic might be thought to have danger because in this postmodern mindset, each person may idiosyncratically formulate his own religion. The freedom of this idea resonates well with her readers.
  • They might be too promoting of the idea of questioning authority. I say, “might be,” because there is a respect for authority on the part of the characters, but there is also a constant questioning of that authority. As the story develops, that questioning proves to have been legitimate since few in the story prove to be as wise and noble as the three main teenage characters. We must also consider that Rowling was deliberately depicting the type of things seen in Nazi Germany. In that setting, Rowling is correct to lament the lack of questioning of authority that eventually led to the destruction of a great number of people.

The kids in this story do question authority and otherwise shoulder responsibility in ways beyond their age. I believe that this questioning of authority is the third reason these books are so popular. These kids, without the need of supervision, are pretty good. They live together fairly peaceably. They discipline themselves, for the most part, to do homework. And they usually make good moral decisions to the satisfaction of their good adult leaders and their author, for which they are rewarded.

So do the books have value? If so, what is their value?

My previous article on the first six Potter books asserts that they have value. In my view, they are valuable in that the stories echo the story of Christ, giving us an open door to bring up and discuss the real story of Christ and redemption. I wrote that article before book seven was released. So does Deathly Hallows effectively echo the Christian story? Yes, in some ways it does so more powerfully than the other books. But it also specifically echoes a significant doctrinal heresy.

[Spoiler Warning] Harry engages in a long and complicated effort to defeat Voldemort. This involves several quests. Harry is helped in these by his friends. At one point Harry goes underwater. In the end at the final conflict, Harry dies. In fact, he voluntarily lays down his life for his friends. He is protected even in “death” by blood and the sacrificial death of his mother. Then Harry returns, and the power of Voldemort’s evil is overcome.

For me, the value of the story lies in two factors:


  1. The story’s similarity to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
  2. The story’s popularity—allowing us to use a popular subject to bring up an even better subject.

Are the books an acceptable tool for the gospel?

The series has value and danger. So can we really use Harry Potter to point others to Christ? Christ is holy. Potter is not. Is it acceptable to use such a thing as the Harry Potter series, with all of its problems, to point to the holy gospel of Jesus Christ?

The answer, even in the strict terms of the regulative principle, is yes. I want to make a few observations from Paul’s address at the Aeropagus (Acts 17:22-34).

(v. 22) “Men of Athens…”

(v. 23) “I found an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

(vv. 27-28) “Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘in him we live and move and have our being.’”

(vv. 28-29) “as even some of your own poets have said, ’For we are indeed his offspring.’ Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver.”

In verse 22, we find that Paul was speaking to unbelievers. In verses 23 and 27-29, Paul quoted three interesting sources. The first was an inscription placed on altars to a false god. The Athenians believed that gods controlled local areas. The altar to an unknown god was an effort to appease a local god they might have inadvertently neglected to worship. The second quote is from the sixth century B.C. poet Epimenides. The third quote Paul used in his message is from third century B.C. poet Aratus. What’s remarkable is that both poets were talking about Zeus.

Surely Paul’s first choice to accurately describe truths about God would not have said that God is like Zeus or an unknown deity with authority over a neighborhood. Yet Paul did use these ideas. Paul used religious ideas that were understood and culturally acceptable to his hearers. He started there and then drew parallels to the true God. The fact that Paul used these cultural items as places to begin talking about God does not mean that Paul believed that Zeus and God were generally comparable. Nor does it constitute Paul’s acceptance of everything Epimenides or Aratus taught in those poems.

We also should take culturally acceptable ideas and use them to begin talking about God. Harry Potter serves both as an everyman and as a Christ figure. Just as Paul did, we can use the knowledge our friends have about Potter to point to Christ and the gospel. We should not be afraid to say that Potter is like Christ, especially if we can point out how they are different. But to effectively compare Potter to Christ, we must understand where Potter bears similarities to the Christian story and where he is different.

Harry is like Christ, but how is he different?

We take many doctrines for granted. Penal substitution is such a doctrine. The word penal indicates punishment associated with justice. In this just punishment, Christ was our substitute. Mankind is sinful. Punishment must be given for justice to be satisfied. God is just. Therefore, He will punish the guilty. Four ideas are wrapped up in “penal substitution”:


  1. Our guilt makes us enemies of God who deserve punishment.
  2. Jesus Christ became guilty in our stead.
  3. Jesus Christ died as a substitute when we deserved to die.
  4. The holy justice of God was satisfied when He punished Christ for our sin.


We tend to consider these ideas so basic that we don’t realize that huge segments of “Christendom” do not believe them.

Another perspective on the atonement has recently been labeled the “Christus Victor view.” According to this view, there is a great battle between God and evil. When Adam and Eve fell, they sold the entire human race into bondage to Satan. Christ achieved victory over Satan by tricking him into accepting a sacrificial death as payment for mankind. In this way, the ransom was paid to Satan. Therefore, it was not the wrath of God that was assuaged by Christ’s death. It was the wrath of Satan. Proponents of this view claim that it was the view of the church prior to the 11th century, when Anselm of Canterbury wrote his Cur Deus Homo. Pierced for Our Transgressions lists the works of early church fathers that describe, sometimes incompletely, penal substitution. While it’s beyond the scope of this paper, a biblical defense of penal substitution would be a great topic for a paper here at SharperIron.

It is obvious to the reader of Rowling’s books that Harry sometimes represents Christ. But how he does so should get our attention. In the climax of Deathly Hallows, Voldemort is waging battle against the staff and students of Hogwarts. Voldemort presents Harry with a promise: if he will give himself up, Voldemort will spare Hogwarts. Harry does give himself up. He walks voluntarily to his death at Voldemort’s hands. Harry “dies” but is protected by blood and the sacrificial death of his mother. He is returned to life. Harry’s choice of voluntary death makes a protection so Voldemort cannot harm those he was threatening. Harry then kills Voldemort in the final battle.

At this point, I was disappointed. Yes, Harry died to save humanity. Yes, it was voluntary. Yes, he was resurrected, and he defeated evil. But Harry’s death did not assuage the wrath of God (or even, as I was hoping, a literary stand-in like the perilous all-consuming power of love). Harry’s death satisfied the wrath of Voldemort. It was a sacrifice paid to Voldemort that gave salvation to Harry’s friends.

Compare the climax of book seven to the four ideas I listed as important in penal substitution:


  1. The idea of the guilt of mankind isn’t represented in the books. The students of Hogwarts are not enemies of good.
  2. Harry did not take on anyone’s guilt.
  3. Harry died in the place of the rest of Hogwarts, but there is no idea of their death being deserved.
  4. Also missing is the idea of holy justice being satisfied by one death.


Still, these books promote ideas that are good and useful. Rowling has said that memento mori, Latin for “Remember you are mortal,” is an important theme of her books. Any reader of the books who has been paying attention should at least be able to remember that he will die. In chapters 33 and 34, Harry realizes that he must die. As he walks to his death, he contemplates mortality.

I really don’t give any credence to the idea that the books hold danger of turning our kids into witches. And I believe, while it can go too far, questioning authority is a good thing. These extremely popular books give us opportunities to start conversations about death and belief in Christ. In my opinion, the greatest problem in the books is that they are analogous to a gospel without penal substitution—a false gospel. If you’re going to speak about Harry and Christ, I hope that you will be able to point out the difference.

miller_small1.jpgDan Miller is an ophthalmologist living in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He received a B.S. in Premed from Bob Jones University in 1991 and an M.D. from The University of South Carolina School of Medicine in 1995. He serves as youth leader and board member at Cedar Heights Baptist Church, also in Cedar Falls. He has been happily married to Jenny since 1992. His opinions are not necessarily those of his church or SharperIron.
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