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How C.S. Lewis Changed His Mind About Atheism

C. S. Lewis is among the most influential Christian writers of the twentieth century.

Many people are somewhat surprised to learn that Lewis, who was dutifully raised in a traditional Christian household in Ireland, actually became an avowed atheist in his early teens while attending public school at the prestigious Malvern College in England. It would be years later, after World War I and well into his years at Oxford University, before he began his great search for a deeper and richer understanding of God’s existence.

Lewis writes that there were two events in his life that ultimately led him to the Christian faith. The first step began when he read G. K. Chesterton’s book, Everlasting Man, and the second, he has written, had a “shattering impact” on him. This event occurred one night, when one of the more militant atheists on the Oxford faculty staff, a man by the name of T. D. Weldon, came into his room and confided that he believed the historical authenticity of the Gospels appeared to be surprisingly sound.

This conversation deeply disturbed Lewis. He reasoned that if such a staunch atheist as Weldon thinks the Gospels may be true, where does that leave him? Lewis, you see, had always believed the New Testament stories to be nothing more than mere myths; there wasn’t a shred of history or practical truth in them.

He began to reason that if the Gospel stories are, in fact, true, then this would mean all other truth would have to fade into insignificance. For the first time, he says, he began to wonder if his whole life was headed in the wrong direction.

Weldon’s remarks about the historical authenticity of the Gospels wouldn’t let his rest, as the conversation echoed in his memory and continued to haunt him. So Lewis, a determined seeker of truth, began an investigation. He decided to carefully read the entire New Testament in the original Greek. And as he read through the text, he was surprised at what he found.

Lewis, a professor of English literature at Oxford, had spent his entire professional life studying ancient manuscripts. And though, up to that time, he had never seriously read the Bible, he nonetheless considered it to be one of the world’s great myths, like Norse mythology. The Gospels, Lewis noted, didn’t contain the rich, imaginative writing techniques of most ancient writings. With a literary critic’s ear for language and meter, Lewis recognized that the New Testament didn’t contain the stylized and carefully-groomed qualities one would expect in any myth-making culture.

Lewis writes, the Gospels,

. . . appeared to be simple, eye-witness accounts of historical events primarily by Jews who were clearly unfamiliar with the great myths of the pagan world around them . . . I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myth. They had not the mythological taste.

Lewis continues, emphasizing that the Gospels were different from anything else he had ever read in ancient literature.

Now as a literary historian, I am perfectly convinced, that whatever else the Gospels are, they are not legends. I have read a great deal of legends and myth and am quite clear that they are not the same sort of thing. They are not artistic enough to be legends. From an imaginative point of view, they ae clumsy; they don’t work. Most of the life of Jesus is totally unknown to us and no people building up a legend would allow that to be so.

And so, as an expert in ancient documents and languages, he began to wonder. If these aren’t’ myths and legends, then what are they? Were they truly eyewitness accounts of historical events that actually took place?

Here we have this brilliant man, C. S. Lewis, an expert in ancient literature, a man of integrity and great education, who, for so many years, had dismissed the Gospels – the most influential body of writing in the Western world – simply because they sounded so unconvincing and without merit.

Everything changed, however, when Weldon, his trusted friend and colleague, an atheist with absolutely no trace of bias or hidden agendas, admitted that he found it highly likely that the Gospels present historically accurate accounts of the life of this man Jesus.

What I have found to be true is that when men and women are seriously willing to seek and search for spiritual truth, they will find it. When C. S. Lewis was willing to read seriously the pages of The Bible, he eventually had an encounter with the living God.

(This material is an excerpt from Richard’s book: Reliable Truth: The Validity of the Bible in an Age of Skepticism, and the book is available here at Amazon.com

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