Notable Christians: C. S. Lewis
Where does one begin in writing up such a remarkable Christian? His impact has been monumental, and he has left an indelible legacy for generations to come. As Thomas Howard wrote, “We all have the same difficulty here: how to tap into some shape the great heap of debts we owe to C.S. Lewis. There are, by now, millions of us.”
He of course is the great Christian apologist, writer, academic, literary critic, and scholar. He is also famously known as a writer of fiction, most notably his Narnia series, his space trilogy, and such classics as The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce. He perhaps did more than any other believer of the past century to establish the intellectual credibility and attractiveness of the Christian faith.
He was born in Belfast on November 29, 1898. Just after his mother died when he was 10, he and his brother went to boarding school in England. He studied at Oxford, and graduated with first-class honours in 1925. He taught there for three decades, before becoming a professor of medieval and renaissance literature at Magdalene College, Cambridge, in 1955.
For over thirty years Lewis became the most celebrated Christian apologist of the twentieth century. Until his death on November 22, 1963 (the same day John F. Kennedy and Aldous Huxley died), he was a tremendously prolific and powerful voice for the defence of what he called “mere Christianity”.
Of special note is his loss of faith at an early age, and his recovery of faith in later life. He abandoned his Protestant upbringing in his mid-teens, and became an avid atheist. But an amazing conversion experience when he was in his early thirties forever turned his life around.
In 1929 his conversion to theism occurred, and in 1931 his conversion to Christianity took place. The best read on all this is of course what he wrote in his autobiographical, Surprised by Joy (1955). In it he famously describes how he was “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England”.
Before this he was “living, like so many Atheists or Antitheists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world.” But fleeting moments of joy which he had known throughout his life, but seemed so unfulfilling, found their true source in God.
Glimpses of joy, and unsatisfied desires, pointing to another world, made it difficult for him to maintain his unbelief: “Really, a young Atheist cannot guard his faith too carefully. Dangers lie in wait for him on every side”. As he wrote in Mere Christianity, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. 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.”
So the holy hound of heaven finally got his man, and the entire world is richer for it. Perhaps the best way to summarise his life, conversion, beliefs and wisdom is to simply offer a few quotes (of hundreds) which tell us so much about the man and his faith:
“Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about ‘man’s search for God.’ To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat.”
“A creature revolting against a creator is revolting against the source of his own powers–including even his power to revolt…It is like the scent of a flower trying to destroy the flower.”
“Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.”
“A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word, ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.”
“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: just as, if there were no light in the universe, and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.”
“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?”
“I haven’t always been a Christian. I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”
“Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”
“God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”
“It costs God nothing, so far as we know, to create nice things: but to convert rebellious wills cost Him crucifixion.”
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done’. All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find; to those who knock it is opened.”
“There is no neutral ground in the universe: every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan.”
“The great difficulty is to get modern audiences to realize that you are preaching Christianity solely and simply because you happen to think it true; they always suppose you are preaching it because you like it or think it good for society or something of that sort.”
“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.”
For those who want to read further, there are numerous books out there. Obviously the first port of call is the many works penned by Lewis. Perhaps the ones that most need to be highlighted are:
The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933)
The Problem of Pain (1940)
Mere Christianity (1943, 1945, 1952)
The Great Divorce (1946)
The Abolition of Man (1947)
The Screwtape Letters (1942)
Till We Have Faces (1956)
Reflections on the Psalms (1958)
The Four Loves (1960)
His seven part Narnia series was penned between 1950 and 1956, while the volumes in his Space Trilogy were written in 1938, 1943, and 1945. Also, Lewis wrote two autobiographical works, one of which I have already mentioned:
–Surprised by Joy (1955) which tells of his conversion to Christianity.
–A Grief Observed (1961) which describes his reaction to the death of his wife, Joy Davidman.
Of interest, the story of how he coped with her death was made into a film. Actually there was more than one version of the film made. The 1993 Hollywood version Shadowlands, starring Anthony Hopkins, is not as good in demonstrating his Christian faith during this ordeal. The older 1985 BBC film, Through the Shadowlands, starring Josh Ackland, was much better.
Then there is a growing mountain of literature available about Lewis – his life, his apologetics, his faith, his influence, and so on. While there are heaps of books to choose from, several good biographies and books about his life and work include:
David Baggett, Gary Habermas and Jerry Walls, C. S. Lewis as Philosopher. IVP, 2008.
Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings. Ballantine Books, 1978.
Janine Goffar, The C. S. Lewis Index. Crossway Books, 1995.
Roger Green and Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis: A Biography. HBJ, 1974.
Douglas Gresham (Lewis’s stepson), Jack’s Life. Broadman & Holman, 2005.
Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis: A Complete Guide to His Life & Works. HarperOne, 1998.
Alan Jacobs, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis. HarperOne, 2008.
Peter Kreeft, C. S. Lewis for the New Millennium. Ignatius Press, 1994.
Wayne Martindale and Jerry Root, eds, The Quotable Lewis. Tyndale, 1989.
Justin Phillips, C. S. Lewis in a Time of War. HarperSanFrancisco, 2002.
George Sayer, Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis. Crossway Books, 2005.
Will Vaus, Mere Theology: A Guide to the Thought of C. S. Lewis. IVP, 2004.
If you do not yet know of the wonderful world of C. S. Lewis, you are doing yourself a severe disservice. By all means, grab some of his works and enjoy them tremendously.
20 Replies to “Notable Christians: C. S. Lewis”
I’m extremely grateful for some family friends pointing me to Lewis and Mere Christianity shortly after I decided to follow Christ as an 18 year old. Soon after I also read Surprised by Joy, The Problem of Pain, The Four Loves, Miracles and The Screwtape Letters. The popular modern idea that Christianity is irrational was forever banished from my thinking. Lewis was an utterly brilliant man and I’m certain he got a ‘Well done, good and faithful servant!” when he entered into eternity.
The ‘Lord, Liar or Lunatic’ argument is my favourite. Poached eggs are never quite the same…
“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 a 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 up with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
Yes a great quote from a great book. Just one of so many. He was very instrumental in my early Christian life as well, along with Francis Schaeffer.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
If you haven’t already read it, the following very interesting article details Lewis’s views on evolution which he called “the central and radical lie in the whole web of falsehood that now governs our lives”:
And for those who haven’t yet read all of Lewis’s fiction; I particularly liked the second in his science fiction trilogy: Perelandra. Very insightful.
Thank you, Bill. Yes, how many of us who never knew him – he died the year before I was born – owe him such a great debt – I can truly say he was my spiritual father. He left so many of us not only converted but equipped which such wisdom to counter the flimsy arguments and evasions of the world.
Undoubtedly the greatest apologist of the 20th century, that uncompromising intellect coupled with his personal humility and the willingness of an immensely private man to share his own inner struggles has also made him countless true friends around the world.
Helen Cowan, UK
Yes, a brilliant scholar even if he held some odd theological beliefs. A very nice speech by John Piper on C.S. Lewis can be found at http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/biographies/lessons-from-an-inconsolable-soul
A less starry-eyed biography, not for the young or faint-hearted, came from A N Wilson C S Lewis: A Biography – I have a Flamingo paperback edition from 1990.
Liam, some of Lewis’s “odd” theologies come from his terminology. For example, he deferred to the scientists about “evolution” which in his time meant less than it does today, along the lines of development or variation within species.
However, as Mansel points out, he was rigorously against the entire proposition of “naturalism” which these days we would call “evolution” ie. the theory of “goo to you” or “in the beginning there was nothing, then for no apparent reason, it exploded” – much favoured by that infamous Christophobian, Richard Dawkins.
Given that Wilson was abandoning his own Christian faith at the time, and proudly embracing atheism, his biography of Lewis is far from ideal – almost a hatchet job. Steer clear of it. (But for what it’s worth, in 2009 Wilson wrote that he had returned to faith.)
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
Why all the fuss? Lewis has been dead for yonks and yonks and yonks. Wasn’t he in Oxford? That’s where today’s “Pontius Pilate” Prof Richard Dawkins lives.
Screwtape letters, read. Check. Abolition of man. I had a copy of that once. Never lend good books to friends if you value them. Good writer.
There is more to Lewis than just theology; Lewis was also an outspoken political conservative. Consider this prophetic piece from The Abolition of Man that could easily describe modern Oz, Britain or the USA;
“The natural trend in a democracy where everyone aims to live as he wants is for politicians to promise more and more to fulfill the multitude of incompatible desires of the populace. To meet these promises, they print reams of money and borrow in epic proportions. As the system becomes unstable and begins to collapse, the people call for a leader to bring them out of this crisis.”
But this only happens, Lewis notes, after the subjectification of man’s values (“men without chests”) so that people think they are entitled to anything and have a ‘right’ on other people’s property. Exactly how modern leftists manipulate voters.
Thanks Bill, I always love hearing quotes from CS Lewis, he had so many insightful things to say. I first read his ‘Narnia’ series when I was 10, and ever since have loved everything of his I can find. ‘Screwtape’ was a favourite, and I’ve finally got my hands on a copy of ‘Mere Christianity’ – I can’t wait to read it!
And it should be added that Lewis emphasised the importance of the Natural Law he called the “Tao”. This is the grounding of traditional moralities that precedes all cultures and is a rebuff to 20th century moral subjectivism that allows the government to manipulate the people.
I just finished reading, well 2 months ago, The Pilgrims Progress, so my eyes lit up when you recommended The Pilgrims Regress. Be getting that book. Also, I just love this, hilarious but deadly serious. ‘The Atheist says the universe has no meaning, If the universe has no meaning, we should never have found out it has no meaning.’ To me it’s sort of, a witty comedian from God.
“Really, a young Atheist cannot guard his faith too carefully. Dangers lie in wait for him on every side” – if he wrote that today, he’d probably be in court for causing offence to atheists – imagine Richard Dawkins foaming at being told he had a faith!
Yes, I wonder what A. N. Wilson does, now, about his anti-Christian books (on Lewis, but also St. Paul). Does he suppress sales – but would his agent/publisher allow that? I’d love to see his literary contracts!
John Thomas, UK
Just a quick note Bill. I was converted by reading ‘Mere Christianity’ in 1963, the year Lewis died (the same weekend as J F K and Aldous Huxley). I became a Religious Studies teacher and retired in 2003. Anyone interested in understanding the rationale behind Lewis’s fiction might be enlighted by Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia. Fascinating stuff.
Alan Williams, UK
Your mention of the fact that Lewis died on the same day as JFK and Aldous Huxley reminds me of Peter Kreeft’s book “Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C. S. Lewis & Aldous Huxley ”
This book was presented to me by a very good friend (and mentor) soon after I became a Christian and was in fact my first introduction to C. S. Lewis in any form, leading me to become an avid reader of Lewis’s books.
An excellent article. Found a slightly cheaper DVD of Through the Shadowlands at booko.com.au
Looking forward to it!
You forgot to mention the book by Sheldon Vanuaken ‘A Severe Mercy’ which details the friendship a young American history post grad and his wife had with Lewis in the 1950’s.
Yes quite right Wayne. Vanauken’s book (Harper & Row, 1977) is very good indeed.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
Thanks so much for that Wayne. I was given a stack of books some years ago and had put them away (as I thought there wasn’t much of interest there). I do remember that book was in amongst them!
I’ve just read Peter Kreeft’s web master’s summary (on his own website) on The Screwtape Letters. Sounds like a must buy!
Here are a few key points Dave includes in his summary;