Throughout the month of February, this column will be featuring stories of noted atheists who experienced dramatic shifts in their views, eventually becoming Christians. The stories will highlight the reasons why they held their atheistic views to begin with, and the reasons they became convinced of the truth of Christianity.
Like most Irish-born children, Clive Staples Lewis was raised in the church; and like most boys raised in church, this was more a matter of childhood ceremony than personal conviction for him. He was a boy very much enraptured in imaginative fictions (many of which he created himself), and remained so throughout his life. One fiction he could not abide, however, was that foisted upon him by the church.
Lewis’ mother died when he was 10, and he was sent off to boarding school. He served in World War 1, where he was injured by shrapnel and where he saw men die – among them, a close friend whose mother would later become a surrogate mother to him. It was possibly this chain of misfortunes which prompted Lewis’ atheistic outlook. As he writes in Mere Christianity, “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust.”
Lewis went on to become involved in the academic world, graduating from Oxford University and then becoming a professor himself.
When not teaching classes, he found himself hobnobbing with fellow writers and intellectuals in a club called The Inklings, which included such noteworthies as Lewis’ brother, Warren Lewis, and famed author, J.R.R. Tolkien.
Contrary to the experience of many atheists, it was his academic studies and his association with these other weighty intellects which began to affect his thoughts concerning the existence of God.
In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis writes:
“Really, a young Atheist cannot guard his faith too carefully. Dangers lie in wait for him on every side”. He goes on to say, “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. There are traps everywhere — ‘Bibles laid open, millions of surprises’, as Herbert say, ‘fine nets and stratagems’. God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”
If it was cruelty and injustice which led Lewis into atheism, it was the existence of beauty and joy which led him out.
In his autobiography, Lewis talks about Joy. He says:
“…an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense), has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.”
Elsewhere, Lewis makes the case that one does not experience a desire which cannot be attached to anything. A person hungers because there is such a thing as food. A person thirsts after liquid. Even so, the Joy he defines above must have some greater source of attachment.
It was in his talks with the famous author J.R.R. Tolkien, surprisingly enough, that Lewis found himself more and more persuaded by the truth of Christianity. After one particularly intense talk, Lewis wrote to his old 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.”
In Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes his conversion experience:
“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.”
Elsewhere, Lewis states, “The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape?… The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.”
For Lewis, this was no soft conversion, no persuasion because of a mushy, emotional experience. He would have liked to have remained an atheist, but was unable under the weight of evidence and conviction to do so.
To say that Lewis went on to be influential in the world of Christianity would be to comically understate the matter. He is perhaps the most influential Christian Apologist, and among the most influential Christian writers of all time – his works ranging in appeal from children to adults, from uncomplicated to profound.
During World War II, Lewis was asked by the BBC to give a series of talks on the Christian faith. Lewis did a masterful job of communicating profound truths in understandable ways, and was influential in winning a great many converts to Christianity. These talks became so popular, they were eventually collected into the book Mere Christianity, which is still one of Lewis’s best-selling books.
But, of course, nothing Lewis wrote has quite out shown his most popular children’s series, The Chronicles of Narnia.
This is hardly surprising, considering that Narnia combined all of Lewis’s lifelong interests. As a child, Lewis wrote and illustrated talking animal stories with his brother. As an adult, Lewis was fascinated by ancient mythology and legends. And, of course, Lewis wove what he considered to be the most profound and beautiful elements of his Christian beliefs into the Narnia stories, as well.
As an atheist-turned-Christian, Lewis is among the very few who took a true interest in breaking down profundity into simplicity through allegory, such that a child might understand what he was trying to communicate.