Clive Staples (C. S.) Lewis (1898–1963), the famous novelist and author, is perhaps one of the most well-known converts to Christianity in the twentieth century.
Lewis was a gifted intellectual. He held academic positions at both Oxford and Cambridge. He is widely known for his fictional works, perhaps most famously The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956).
Importantly, Lewis converted from atheism and became a renowned Christian apologist. He produced popular books such as The Problem of Pain (1940), Miracles (1947), and Mere Christianity (1952). Lewis was a close friend of the famous fantasy author J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973) and they both served on the English faculty at Oxford University. Tolkien and Lewis often have discussions and debates on religion and philosophy when together.
Lewis was an atheist and spoke of a “blandly Christian childhood” as he was brought up in the home of a religious Anglo-Irish family in Belfast, Ireland. But despite his religious upbringing, Lewis maintained a “firm belief in the inexistence of God” and became an atheist at fifteen years of age. He saw Christianity as nothing more than a chore and duty.
Doubt soon crept into Lewis’ atheism after he came to know Tolkien as a close friend. This doubt, Lewis explained, was also supplemented by his reading of author and philosopher G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936),
“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.”
But despite these doubts, Lewis was reluctant to 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”.
Lewis took two years to become a Christian. He came to believe in God in 1929 and would become a Christian in 1931 following a discussion and late-night walk with his friends Tolkien and Hugo Dyson (1896-1975). They chatted until three AM and several days later Lewis “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 claimed his conversion was rational rather than emotional. He read the gospels of the New Testament and was surprised, from his perspective as an expert as a writer, that they did not sound like fiction. Neither was the resurrection of Jesus Christ fiction.
Rather, the gospel writers appeared too unimaginative to have made the whole story up. In Lewis’ view, the gospel read more like historical reports than stories,
“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 is worth noting that similar views have been expressed by the former atheist literary critic Holly Ordway.
The Jesus of history had a massive influence on Lewis which becomes apparent in what is known as Lewis’s Trilemma. To truly understand Jesus one has to consider how he viewed himself. Lewis challenged the idea that Jesus was a great moral teacher but not God. He argued that Jesus made several implicit claims to divinity that 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’ former atheism could be seen across several areas. Lewis listed the beauty of nature, art, intelligence, and morality to challenge the foundations of an atheistic worldview. In just one area, Lewis witnessed a huge problem in the atheist’s attempt to trust 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.”
Further, a great deal of Lewis’ influence emerges from his notion of a universal morality. One can, for instance, identify that some acts (like torture or rape) are morally evil rather than good. In Mere Christianity, Lewis reveals that people across the world have a standard of behavior to which they expect others 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”.
This he believed is strong 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”.
This, of course, conflicted with his atheism. In fact, one of Lewis’ major contentions against God was grounded on morality: “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust.” Yet Lewis noticed the problem with atheism,
“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?”
Lewis realized that to call something unjust is to identify a moral law. But how could a moral law exist on atheism that undermined the objective nature of moral values? After all, to call an act evil as an atheist is nothing more than citing one’s subjective preference. Yet this conflicts with our overwhelming human experience that some acts are indeed moral evils and that this is not due to subjective preference. As Lewis came to believe, some acts are evil or good only because God exists and is the foundation for objective morality.
Lewis became a strong defender of Christian faith and truth, and today his essays on faith, grief, and love are among the most read and effective works of twentieth-century Christian apologetics. Lewis concludes,
“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.”