C.S. Lewis, the 20th century’s greatest Christian writer, spent the first half of his life as a committed atheist. In his late 20s, his religious worldview began to be challenged, thanks largely to his friendship with fellow author and Oxford University colleague, J.R.R. Tolkien. Lewis and Tolkien, whose fantasy books were some of the best-selling of the century, met for the first time this day, May 11, back in 1926.
Let's explore how Tolkien led Lewis to Christ and the difference it made in him afterwards.
In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis talked of the role Tolkien played in re-shaping his thinking. Lewis said he had a difficult time understanding how the death of someone 2,000 years ago could possibly be relevant for him in the present. Tolkien helped Lewis see that what Christ enacted is essentially an embodiment of what all of the ancient myths about a dying and resurrected dimly foreshadowed. Lewis came to see that Christ’s death and resurrection is, as he put it, a “true Myth”.
Such an abstract understanding of Christ’s work might not resonate with many modern people, but for Lewis, a lifelong lover of ancient mythology, understanding Christ in such terms helped break down prejudices against the Christian narrative.
Lewis also credited G.K. Chesterton’s 1922 book, The Everlasting Man, as having a profound influence on his thinking. Lewis said that Chesterton’s book, written in response to H.G. Wells’ Outline of History, was the first time he’d ever seen human history laid out from a Christian perspective in a way that thoroughly made sense.
Perhaps the clincher was Lewis’ own reading of the gospels themselves. In the gospels, Lewis encountered a figure who couldn’t possibly be regarded as just a “good, moral teacher”—the popular perception of Jesus in 20th century England. Jesus’ own statements and actions in the gospels show that he regarded himself as Divine. Jesus, therefore, must either be the Lord, as he claimed to be, or else a liar (if he deliberately was misleading his followers) or a “lunatic”—someone who’d lost touch with reality and mistakenly thought he was God. Lewis couldn’t accept the premise that Christ was either a liar or mentally ill, and so he was forced to conclude that Jesus was and is God. That central belief intact, the rest of the Christian worldview fell naturally into place.
In Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes an outing he and his brother took to the Whipsnade Zoo. Lewis was riding in the sidecar of his brother’s motorcycle, and he said that when they set out for the zoo, he did not believe Jesus Christ was the Son of God. When they arrived, he did. It was an non-emotional experience that Lewis later described as like having woken up after a long sleep.
Lewis had been baptized as an infant and had been confirmed in the Anglican Church as a teenager, although he had already lapsed into
atheism by this point. To make his return to the faith public, Lewis decided to take Communion on Christmas Day 1931 at the church he’d been attending, Holy Trinity Church—Headington Quarry. Ever since his conversion from atheism to Theism two years previously, he’d been attending chapel services, but he had refrained from participating in sacramental acts since, though he considered himself a believer in God, he hadn’t regarded himself as a Christian.
Lewis’ conversion may have been unemotional, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t involve his whole self—heart, mind, soul, and body. Lewis, the consummate scholar, did, in a sense, “think his way” into the faith, but his emotions were involved. One can easily see this by reading his 1933 allegorical and semi-autobiographical classic, The Pilgrim’s Regress.
The greatest immediate change Lewis detected in himself after coming to Christ was that he, as he put it, lost all interest in himself. He’d long kept a diary, but ceased at his conversion. His whole approach to life, which hitherto had been inward and self-focused, was now outward focused and Christ-centered.
In his 20s, he had restlessly aspired to be a famous poet. He craved literary success and was devastated by his setbacks when success as a poet didn’t come to him. After coming to Christ, he gave up trying to write anything “important” and began to just try to be the best English professor he could be. His ambition now out of the way, God did in fact use him to write some of the most “important” literature of the 20th century. God used Lewis’ years of atheism to make him an ideal person to speak to the skepticism so many 20th century people felt. Unlike many evangelists who trivialize objections to Christianity as if they weren’t to be taken seriously, Lewis grappled with objections humbly, knowing firsthand what it felt like to have bought into the lie of unbelief.
Lewis’s first massive success as a writer was his 1942 book, The Screwtape Letters, which he dedicated to Tolkien. The two men went on to found an informal literary group called The Inklings, which would gather together to discuss their writings. As Tolkien spent years working on what would eventually become his acclaimed Lord of the Rings trilogy, he at times got discouraged and considered scrapping the project. Lewis was a constant source of encouragement to him to keep plugging away.
The change in Lewis’s post-conversion demeanor is most sharply seen by reading his letters, which have recently been published in three volumes by Walter Hooper, literary advisor of C.S. Lewis’ estate. In his 20s, Lewis’ letters often come across as sarcastic, snobbish, and somewhat condescending to people less intellectual than him. Even racism and sexism are not absent from Lewis’ pre-conversion letters. After becoming a Christian, the tone of Lewis’ letters changed. He ceased to talk about himself and his own prerogative. He came to regard people—all people, whether male or female, educated or uneducated—as image-bearers of God, and therefore deserving to be taken seriously with respect and dignity.
It would be overly simplistic to say that Lewis never wrestled with doubts ever again. In 1960, after the loss of his wife, Helen Joy Davidman, to bone cancer, Lewis struggled to make sense of how a good God could permit his wife to undergo such torture. Lewis despaired at times, as any man would in the same situation, but he didn’t lose his faith. His classic, A Grief Observed, shows a man who has had the audacity to cry out to God, not holding back his frustration. Though he never “got over” Joy’s death, in the end, Lewis had peace that God hadn’t abandoned him.