C. S. Lewis’s Journey to Faith
By Robert B. Stewart
C. S. Lewis left his childhood Christian faith to spend years as a determined atheist. After finally admitting God existed, Lewis gave in and knelt in prayer to become what he described later as “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
Lewis’s long journey away from, and back to, faith began with his mother’s death from cancer when he was a boy. Disillusioned that God had not healed his mother, Lewis set out on a path toward full-bodied rationalism and atheism.
The road back to faith was cluttered with obstacles Lewis once thought impossible to overcome. His conversion to a robust Christianity required years of intellectual struggle and came only after being convinced that faith was reasonable.
The journey of C. S. Lewis, perhaps the greatest defender of the faith of the twentieth century, provides valuable lessons for Christians today in sharing the Gospel with an unbelieving generation.
Lesson One: The Importance of Reason and Good Theology
Lewis was deeply bothered by evil and suffering in the world that didn’t fit with whom he imagined God to be.
In time, Lewis came to see evil and suffering as both an argument against atheism and an argument for God and Christianity. Suffering was a dilemma for atheism; only within Christianity did Lewis find a satisfactory explanation.
My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. Just 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? … Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning. (Mere Christianity, 45-46)
Lewis came to recognize that suffering and pain are not without purpose. Like Joseph, who told his brothers in Genesis 50:20 that God had used their harmful actions for good, Lewis wrote:
God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a dead world. (The Problem of Pain, 93).
Sorrow entered Lewis’s life again when Joy Davidman, his wife of only three years, died from cancer. Lewis was left to face the problem of grief and unanswered prayer.
Through the ordeal, Lewis learned that prayer is not about calling down miracles on demand. He also realized God had answered his prayers by giving him and his wife more time together with the cancer’s brief remission.
A second intellectual stumbling block for Lewis was the parallel mythologies found in other religions, such as the pagan stories of a “dying god.” As a young atheist, Lewis believed only the unsophisticated could mistake the Christian myth for history.
Lewis was shocked to hear the strong atheist T. D. Weldon concede that the evidence for the Gospels was really quite good.
Early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room . . . and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was surprisingly good. ‘Rum thing … All that stuff … about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once.’ … If he, the cynic of cynics, the toughest of the toughs, were not—as I would still have put it—‘safe,’ where could I turn? Was there then no escape? (Surprised by Joy, 224).
After his conversion, Lewis insisted that myths in other religions shadowing the Christian story are not surprising since God is a revealing God.
We should therefore, expect to find in the imagination of great Pagan teachers and myth makers some glimpse of that theme which we believe to be the very plot of the whole cosmic story—the theme of incarnation, death, and rebirth… It is not the difference between falsehood and truth. It is the difference between a real event on the one hand and dim dreams or premonitions on the other. (The Weight of Glory, 128-30).
Lewis’s struggles show that misunderstanding Christianity can keep a person from Christ. Much of Lewis’s apologetic and evangelistic work, such as Mere Christianity, simply “unpacked” for the masses a clearer picture of classical Christianity.
To be effective evangelists and apologists we must be good theologians.
Lesson Two: The Importance of Longing and Imagination
Lewis spoke and wrote often of “joy,” a deep longing of the human heart this world cannot satisfy, and presented it as evidence for God.
“Joy” was a recurring experience for Lewis as a child and adolescent and came to him through nature, literature or music. Lewis argued this longing is common to all mankind.
The atheist Bertrand Russell wrote of the same yearning.
The center of me is always and eternally a terrible pain—a curious wild pain—a searching for something beyond what the world contains—something transfigured and infinite . . . I do not find it, I do not think it is to be found—but the love of it is my life. (Bertrand Russell, 1916, Letter to Constance Malleson, The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell).
Lewis made a case for God by arguing that every natural, innate desire corresponds to some real object that can fulfill that desire. Since humans desire something this world cannot satisfy, something exists outside this earthly world that can satisfy—God.
Lewis addressed this basic human desire allegorically in The Pilgrim’s Regress, autobiographically in Surprised by Joy, reasonably in Mere Christianity, andin sermon in The Weight of Glory.
If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. (Mere Christianity, 120).
Christians must present the faith as fulfilling our deepest desires. We too often present Christianity as merely a philosophical system, or the conclusion to a string of inferences made based upon Scripture, but the salvation promised us in Scripture applies to the whole person.
Lesson Three: The Personal Nature of Evangelism
Lewis was not won to Christianity overnight. Christian friends such as J. R. R. Tolkien, Hugo Dyson, Owen Barfield, and others, faithfully and patiently walked beside Lewis as they helped him resolve his many misgivings about Christianity.
Lewis recognized that God seeks us out personally and makes demands upon us. We have a personal God who calls us individually to make a personal response to the Gospel.
Friendship is invaluable in communicating the Gospel. Lewis found his friendships with Christians before coming to Christ deeply satisfying as they shared interests on many levels.
Who in your life needs to know Jesus as Lord?
Do you want to know the God that C.S. Lewis served?
Related article: The Inklings: A Fellowship of Imagination
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Robert B. Stewart is the Greer-Heard Chair of Faith and Culture, and associate professor of philosophy and theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author or editor of several books including The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N. T. Wright in Dialogue, with Fortress Press. Robert is the general editor of a forthcoming multi-volume monograph series on Christian Apologetics from B & H Academic Press.
© Robert B. Stewart. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
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