Bob's blog – A skeptical lawyer

C.S. Lewis – Is this guy the best you got?

Posted on January 2, 2019


A.N. Wilson, one of C.S. Lewis’ many biographers, wrote that Lewis has become “something very like a saint in the minds of conservative-minded believers.” Many Christians, including Watergate conspirator Charles Colson, say Lewis’ Mere Christianity changed their lives. According to apologist Norman Geisler:

Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) is arguably the most influential twentieth century Christian theist and apologist. An Oxford University professor, this former atheist so expressed profound truths in simple language he reached into the hearts of millions. Lewis disclaimed being a philosopher or theologian, but his insight into the essentials of theism made him a significant apologist and communicator.[1]

I don’t understand the attraction. Lewis was a fine scholar who held academic posts at both Oxford and Cambridge, and he wrote much-beloved fiction – both science fiction and The Chronicles of Narnia. However, I find Lewis’ apologetic literature to be dull as dishwater. Or, is it ditchwater? No matter, Lewis is really dull. His primary contribution to apologetics seems to be Lewis’ Trilemma – an unoriginal logical fallacy I addressed in a previous post, False dilemma – Lewis’ trilemma and other failures of imagination.

Although I find Lewis tedious, my real beef is with Evidentialist apologists who make exaggerated claims about Lewis. John Ankerberg claims, “Cambridge scholar C. S. Lewis, a former atheist, was converted to Christianity on the basis of the evidence, according to his text Surprised by Joy.” I researched such claims as part of my research for The Resurrection Briefs, so I read Surprised by Joy  looking for the aforesaid evidence. However, Lewis never discusses anything remotely related to hard evidence.

Lewis as atheist

Lewis’ parents raised him in the Church of Ireland, and then two influences combined to lead him away from Christianity. He felt Lucretius  stated the strongest argument for atheism.

Had God designed the world, it would not be
A world so frail and faulty as we see.

He combined this idea with an interest in the occult. He never made any logical connection between these two influences, and they “had only this in common, that both made against Christianity. And so, little by little, with fluctuations which I cannot now trace, I became an apostate.”

Lewis wrote, “I was at this time 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.” I don’t know any real atheists who are angry at God, and I harbor some suspicion about such claims by Christians who claim to be former atheists .

Lewis’ return to Christianity – step one

Lewis returned to Christianity through a two-step process: (1) from atheist to theist in 1929 and (2) from theist to Christian in 1931. Lewis described his conversion to theism in the penultimate chapter of Surprised by Joy, and it is as clear as mud to me.

Lewis wrote that his renewed belief in God began (more or less) with reading Hippolytus, a Greek tragedy by Euripides. Surprised by Joy is difficult to understand, in part because Lewis constantly refers to all sorts of highbrow literature that most of us hoi polloi have never read. Lewis – a genuine scholar – probably did not intend to be pompous, but modern apologists seem more than a little pretentious when they heap praise on the erudite, but often unintelligible, Oxford/Cambridge professor.

I suspect that apologists want people to believe that Surprised by Joy must contain some great wisdom – even if we don’t understand it. I, for one, and not embarrassed to admit that I do not understand a great deal in Surprised by Joy. Nonetheless, after some research, I think I have a handle on the obscure connection between Hippolytus and God.

In Surprised by Joy, Lewis relates how Hippolytus inspired a feeling of “joy,”[2] but he does not mean happiness or pleasure. Instead, Lewis’ “joy” is “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”[3] Lewis often uses “longing” synonymously with “joy”, but the German word sehnsucht may be closer to Lewis’ “joy.”

Lewis believed this unsatisfied longing to be “a pointer to something other and outer.”[4] The simplest way to interpret this would be that great poetry can make us feel that there must be more to human existence than the mundane world around us. This “pointer” may also refer to Lewis’ “argument from joy.” In Mere Christianity, published several years before Surprised by Joy, Lewis explained that unsatisfied desires support God’s existence because:

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, then; 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.”

In sum, a Greek play filled Lewis with German longing, and God will someday satisfy that longing in Heaven. I will discuss the argument from joy in another post. In this post, suffice it to say that it may or may not be a valid argument, but it is definitely not evidence.

In a passage much quoted by apologists, Lewis described accepting God (but not Jesus).

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. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert … who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape.

Apologists quote this passage to support their claim that “C. S. Lewis became a Christian because the evidence was compelling and he could not escape it.” However, Lewis said no such thing. Lewis said he was brought in kicking and struggling, but he never said it was that evidence forced him to admit that God was God.

Lewis’ return to Christianity – step two

In the last chapter of Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes his conversion to Christianity.

I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought.

I consider that to be a telling point regarding Lewis’ attitude toward evidence for Christianity. He knows when, but not why, he became a Christian.

In Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes only one event tangentially related to evidence for Jesus’ resurrection.

Early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good. “Rum thing,” he went on. “All that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once.” To understand the shattering impact of it, you would need to know the man (who has certainly never since shown any interest in Christianity). 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?

That’s about it for evidence in Surprised by Joy. Some other dude – who never converted to Christianity – said there is evidence.

Exaggerated claims about Lewis

Evidential apologists obviously want to claim the beloved Oxford professor as one of their own, but they overstate their case. Evidentialist have no evidence (regarding Lewis’ conversion) to support their claims that evidence (regarding Jesus’ resurrection) convinced Lewis to become a Christian.

By the time he wrote Miracles in 1947, two decades after his return to Christianity, Lewis had apparently come to believe that evidence supported Christianity. However, Lewis explained in the first chapter:

This book is intended as a preliminary to historical inquiry. I am not a trained historian and I shall not examine the historical evidence for the Christian miracles. My effort is to put my readers in a position to do so. It is no use going to the texts until we have some idea about the possibility or probability of the miraculous. Those who assume that miracles cannot happen are merely wasting their time by looking into the text: we know in advance what results they will find for they have begun by begging the question.

Lewis then spent most of Miracles making various philosophical arguments that miracles are possible and evidence can prove them. In the epilogue, Lewis encouraged readers to study for themselves the historical evidence of Jesus’ ressurection.

In sum, Lewis eventually believed that evidence supported Christianity, but he never discussed any specific evidence or claimed that such evidence convinced him to become Christian.

[1] Norman L Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics 420 (Baker Academic 2007).

[2] A PBS documentary indicates that Lewis found the following lines by the chorus to be particularly moving.

Oh God, bring me to the sea’s end
To the Hesperides, sisters of evening,
Who sing alone in their islands
Where the golden apples grow,
And the Lord of Oceans guards the way
From all who would sail
Into their night-blue harbors —
Let me escape to the rim of the world
Where the tremendous firmament meet
The earth, and Atlas holds the universe
In his palms.
For there, in the palace of Zeus,
Wells of ambrosia pour through the chambers,
While the sacred earth lavishes life
And Time adds his years
Only to heaven’s happiness.

[3] Unless stated otherwise, all quotes are from Surprised by Joy.

[4] You will find this quote on the last page of Surprised by Joy.