C. S. Lewis Came to Christ in a Motorcycle Sidecar
“WHEN WE SET OUT I did not believe that Jesus is the Son of God and when we reached the zoo I did.” So wrote C.S. Lewis, describing his conversion to Christianity in the sidecar of his brother Warnie’s motorbike, which took place on this day, 22 September 1931.
Lewis had been reaching this understanding for some time. Reared an Irish Protestant, he rebelled against Christianity following the early death of his mother. While obtaining his education, he slid into outright atheism. However, encounters with Christian friends and reading the works of George MacDonald and G. K. Chesterton drew him back to theism (the belief in God). He wrote of that return to God, “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.” But he did not yet believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God.
Three days before he came to that belief, he had a long talk with two Christian colleagues: J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson. Tolkien argued that some myths might originate with God, as a means of preserving a rudimentary level of truth. Lewis said he did not believe there was any truth in them at all. They were still talking at 3AM when Tolkien had to go home. Dyson continued the conversation, pointing out the practicality of Christianity—a religion with power to actually free from sin, instill peace, and provide genuine outside help to change one’s character.
Evidently, these ideas were percolating in Lewis’s mind as he rode to the zoo. Three months later, on Christmas Day, he expressed his new faith publicly by returning to the Anglican church in which he had been confirmed, joining his local parish and taking Communion for the first time since his childhood. Within six months of taking that step, he had written The Pilgrim’s Regress, the first of his many apologetic works.
Perhaps his best-known apologetic book is Mere Christianity, compiled from a series of radio talks he gave for the BBC. It includes one of the most famous passages in all apologetics: “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 the level with a man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the devil of hell. You must make your choice. Either he 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 with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
Other beloved books by Lewis include his Narnia fantasy series and A Grief Observed, the account of his loss of his wife, Joy Gresham. Lewis married this American divorcee, a friend of his, after she contracted a painful cancer. Following a brief respite, she relapsed and died. Their story has twice been filmed under the title Shadowlands.
C. S. Lewis, one of the twentieth-century's great apologetic voices came to Christ reluctantly. His story is told admirably through Lewis's own words by Max McLean in C.S. Lewis Onstage - The Most Reluctant Convert. For more on the events that brought Lewis to Christ, read "Lewis Sought Joy and Found Christ." For more about Lewis and his friends, read our last issue, Christian History 140: Jack at Home.