“The Most Reluctant Convert in all of England”: Why Former Atheist C.S. Lewis Became a Christian.

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Lewis is perhaps one of the most well-known converts from the 20th century. There is much more about him that just his conversion. For example, he too proved to be a prolific writer as well as a gifted intellectual (1). He held academic positions at both Oxford and Cambridge and is widely known for his fictional works, perhaps most famously being his book The Chronicles of Narnia which has been popularized on stage, TV, radio, and cinema. He also penned other popular fictional works of the likes of The Screwtape Letters, and The Space Trilogy. Subsequent to his conversion from atheism he also became a Christian apologist and penned the popular works of Mere Christianity, Miracles, and The Problem of Pain. He was also a close friend of the famous author J.R. Tolkien as they both served on the English faculty at Oxford University. Tolkien and Lewis would often debate religion and philosophy in each others company. Lewis’s works have since been translated into more than 30 languages and have sold millions of copies.

Lewis was a professed atheist and spoke of a “blandly Christian childhood” as he was brought up in the home of a religious Anglo-Irish family in Belfast. But even given this upbringing he maintained a seemingly “firm belief in the inexistence of God,” and became an atheist at the young age of 15. His initial exodus from religious belief was due to the fact that he saw Christianity as nothing more than a chore and a duty. However, doubt soon begun to creep into Lewis’ atheism after he got to know Tolkien as a close friend. This doubt, Lewis explained, was also supplemented by his reading of the author and philosopher GK Chesterton, “In reading Chesterton, as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.” Lewis informs us how reluctant he was to actually convert to belief in God, “You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” (2).

It took Lewis two years to actually become a Christian though. He had obtained belief in God in 1929 and would become a Christian in 1931 following a long discussion and late-night walk with his close friends Tolkien and Hugo Dyson. They talked until after three in the morning and a few days later Lewis wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves saying, “I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ, in Christianity…. My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a great deal to do with it.” But Lewis would emphasize that his conversion was logical and rational and not emotional (3). On the rational, evidential side Lewis read the gospels and was surprised that they did not sound like fiction and that neither was the resurrection itself fiction. The writers seemed too unimaginative to have made the whole thing up; rather, the gospels accounts read more like historical reports than stories as Lewis elucidates, “Now as a literary historian, I am perfectly convinced that whatever else the Gospels are, they are not legends. I have read a great deal of legend (myth) and I am quite clear that they are not the same sort of thing” (4). Some very similar views were expressed by the former atheist literary critic Holly Ordway who also has an awesome testimonial of her conversion.

However, the Jesus of history had a massive influence on Lewis. One piece of evidence for this is what is known as Lewis’s Trilemma (5). Here Lewis argued that to truly understand Jesus we have to consider how he saw himself. Lewis challenged the view that Jesus was a great moral teacher but not God. He argued that Jesus made several implicit claims to divinity which would logically exclude that claim, “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” So, either Jesus was who he said he was, the divine Son of God, or he was someone who had lost his mind man or who was deliberately deceiving and thus evil. Given what we can learn and know about Jesus from history the last two seem very unlikely candidates and therefore Jesus must be who he said he was.

The difficulties for Lewis’ atheism extended to several places (6). For example, Lewis listed the beauty of nature and art, intelligence and morality as powerful challengers to the foundations of atheism. Lewis saw a massive problem in any atheist’s attempt to put trust in his thought processes, “Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought. But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? It’s like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London. But if I can’t trust my own thinking, of course I can’t trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist, or anything else. Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.”

Lewis brought up a very good point here and one that contemporary thinkers have worked on. Notably the renowned philosopher Alvin Plantinga springs to mind in his well thought out Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. Evolution, argues Plantinga, only cares whether or not our actions are adaptive and whether or not they contribute to our fitness. Therefore, the naturalist would be incorrect to expect that his faculties would be aimed at truth as they would solely be aimed at fitness.

Moreover, much of Lewis’ influence stems from his idea of a universal morality. Our ability to identify that some acts (like torture or rape) are morally evil as opposed to good. Lewis expressed this in his book Mere Christianity in which he discusses the idea that people, all over the world, have a standard of behaviour to which they expect people to adhere, “These then are the two points that I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in” (7). This, Lewis contended, was good evidence for God’s existence, “The other bit of evidence is that Moral Law which He has put in our minds. And this is a better bit of evidence than the other, because it is inside information. You find out more about God from the Moral Law than from the universe in general just as you find out more about a man by listening to his conversation than by looking at a house he has built” (8).

This realization, however, conflicted with his atheism. In fact, one of his main contentions against God was grounded on his moral intuition, “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?” (9). But, as Lewis well saw, to call something unjust is to identify a moral law. But how would such an obvious thing exist on atheism that so seemed to undermine the objective nature of moral values? To call something evil as an atheist is no more than subjective preference but that was anathema to what our overwhelming human experience seemed to affirm. Rather, that some things are really cruel or good only makes sense if God exists and is the foundation for objective morality.

Lewis went on to become ardent defender of faith and of Christian truth. Today his essays on faith, grief and love are among the most effective works of 20th century Christian apologetics. If readers are up for some intense reading I’d recommend Lewis’ book A Grief Observed which was written after the death of his wife. To me, and many others, Lewis continues to be an inspiration, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.

References.

1. Saunders, M. 2015. Five atheists who lost faith in atheism. Available.

2. Lewis, C. 1955. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life.  p. 115.

3. BBC. 2009. C.S. Lewis. Available.

4. ABR. Available.

5. Lewis, C. God in the Dock. p. 100–101.

6. Monda, A. The Conversion Story of C. S. Lewis. Available.

7. Lewis, C. 1997. Mere Christianity. p. 21.

8. Lewis, C. 1997. Ibid. p. 36

9. Lewis, C. 1997. Ibid. p. 36

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8 responses to ““The Most Reluctant Convert in all of England”: Why Former Atheist C.S. Lewis Became a Christian.

  1. Pingback: “The Most Reluctant Convert in all of England”: Why Former Atheist C.S. Lewis’ Became a Christian. | Gadol Elohai: Father's Service, Son's work, Spirit's gift·

  2. Lewis made a good point that the Gospels read like sober-minded, unembellished records. They’re a lot less fanciful than the apocryphal stuff written later. Thank God for C.S. Lewis.

    • But Mark, which most scholars say was the first published gospel, is far less fanciful than the other three gospels, because it doesn’t have the virgin birth or resurrection appearances. Are the other three gospels “more fanciful” than Mark’s?

      The Jesus of John’s gospel is always talking in tones far more lofty than he ever does in the Synoptics, with his explicit claims to deity, a problem that scholars have acknowledged for centuries. Is John’s gospel more fanciful than the Synoptics?

      How can you decide what’s “too” fanciful, if you have a Christian assumption that God can do anything? If miracles can really happen, why should Jesus walking on water be judged any less fanciful than Jesus as a child clapping his hands and causing clay birds to come to life? Aren’t “all” things possible with God? On what basis do you “know” that a claimed miracle is “too” fanciful to be believed?

      Some would say God turning a dirt-Adam into living flesh by blowing into his nose isn’t more fanciful than Jesus causing clay birds to come to life.

      The only people that would have authored the more fanciful apocryphal gospels, would be Christians. They likely felt that writing such works was consistent with their religion.

      Furthermore, Luke admits in his preface that there existed inaccurate written accounts of Jesus, and his purpose in writing was to make sure Theophilus would be set straight regarding the “exact truth” about Jesus life and ministry. So errant gospels were floating around even as early as the days of Luke.

      I simply do not see what’s so great about the observation that the later gospels give miracle stories that sound more fanciful than the miracle reports in the earlier canonical gospels.

  3. “Now as a literary historian, I am perfectly convinced that whatever else the Gospels are, they are not legends. I have read a great deal of legend (myth) and I am quite clear that they are not the same sort of thing”
    ———–It would appear that Lewis the literary historian had not known Pindar’s Pythian Ode # 12, securely dated to at least 400 b.c., wherein the virgin Danae is made pregnant while Zeus is in the form of a mist of gold, and she is called the “virgin goddess” even after this conception. It also appears that he didn’t notice how loudly Mark’s silence on the virgin birth actually screams.

    “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell.”
    ———-Or the real historical Jesus your basic rational messianic figure and many of his recorded words are corruptions and exaggerations of what he really said. That’s my view.

    “The difficulties for Lewis’ atheism extended to several places (6). For example, Lewis listed the beauty of nature and art,”
    ——–In the eye of the beholder, totally subjective. Untouched mountain ranges in the Spring are not beautiful to the stranded lost person who is about to perish.

    “But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true?”
    ———-perhaps Lewis was not aware that axioms really are the points at which the regressing justifications actually stop.

    “But if I can’t trust my own thinking, of course I can’t trust the arguments leading to Atheism”
    ——–you also cannot trust your own thinking under a biblical worldview, since this God will cause your mind to stray from the truth (Deuteronomy 28:28, 1st Kings 22:19-23) and otherwise force you to sin against your will, after which he will punish you for having done what was unavoidable, Ezekiel 38:4 ff.

    “Therefore, the naturalist would be incorrect to expect that his faculties would be aimed at truth as they would solely be aimed at fitness.”
    ———-Evolution would be a complete failure if it tended toward fitness and not truth. Fitness in the world requires the mind to correctly understand the world outside one’s self so as to correctly know when predators are lurking, and which places are good for hiding. Fitness wouldn’t be fitness unless it was bound up with truth.

    “Our ability to identify that some acts (like torture or rape) are morally evil as opposed to good.”
    ——–Anything that God does is good by definition. And the bible-god “delights” in Deuteronomy 28:63 to cause rape (v. 30) and the horrors that come with pagans kidnapping Israelite children (i.e., child-sacrifice, molestation, etc, v. 41). Hence, according to the bible, it must be “good” to “delight” in rape and child-sacrifice, which means nothing about God can support your contention that rape is absolutely immoral.

    “First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it.”
    ———-Lewis wasn’t thinking about how human beings were quite capable in the past of doing things that contradict modern common sense, such as child-sacrifice, a problem that eventually involved the Israelites themselves (Jeremiah 7:31).

    “Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it.”
    ——-the bible god claims personal responsibility for all murders, Deuteronomy 32:39, and it is He who takes credit for the decision of one nation to sinfully attack another (Ezekiel 38:4, 16).

    “You find out more about God from the Moral Law than from the universe in general just as you find out more about a man by listening to his conversation than by looking at a house he has built”
    ———–I haven’t met any Christians who felt that causing rape and child-sacrifice were good, which means these morals of God (Deut. 28:31, 41, 63) cannot be discovered from mere “moral law”.

    “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust?”
    ———from the same sources everybody gets their ideas of just and unjust…from their genetic predispositions and their environmental influences.

    “A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.”
    ———–the need to survive is a good naturalistic explanation for why most mature adults have agreed that acts which threaten survival, like rape, torture, stealing, etc, are immoral.

    “What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”
    ———–You were probably comparing it to the goals in your life, and therefore, since you desire the opposite of rape, any rape that occurs in the world, you will judge to be immoral. Again, survival by itself necessitates that most people would find acts that bar that goal to be immoral. Rape, child abuse, stealing, murder, etc, etc, all get in the way of humanity’s goal to survive.

    “To call something evil as an atheist is no more than subjective preference but that was anathema to what our overwhelming human experience seemed to affirm.”
    ————–We also find slavery and child-sacrifice anathema, but the Israelites somehow found those things acceptable in various eras of their history. Most apologists have no genuine appreciation for how powerfully the social context they are born into creates their moral outlook.

    “Rather, that some things are really cruel or good only makes sense if God exists and is the foundation for objective morality.”
    ————-Then because God causes rape and child-sacrifice (Deuteronomy 28) and inspires the horrific plans of the writer of Psalm 137:9 to slam children to death on the rocks, you cannot call those acts absolutely immoral, you must be content to say they are only immoral in those situations where God doesn’t want you to do them. Then you run into the brick wall of Calvinism, which says God secretly wills all sinful behavior, which means the worst evils of men were eternally desired by God, thus making the Calvinist god eternally responsible for “absolute” evil.

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  5. TRULY an inspiration!
    To know of his incredible faith is a true convincing for a Christian to continue on until the Final triumph when our Father calls us home

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