The Most Reluctant Convert: The Story of C.S. Lewis

by Dr. Mark Cook, DBU Faculty

Day 20 of Advent

C.S. Lewis was born just before the beginning of the 20th century, lived through two World Wars, and died on the same day as John F. Kennedy. Throughout the course of his life, he became known for his intellectual brilliance, vivid imagination, and for embodying what it meant to be an Oxford don. While he spent most of his life in the academy, most people know him because of what he did in his “spare” time: writing works of fiction and defending the Christian faith. His two most famous works, The Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity, continue to delight and inspire new generations of readers.  

But faith in Christ and his life-changing Advent did not come easily for Lewis. He in fact described himself as the “most reluctant convert in all England.” The story of Lewis’ conversion to Christianity illustrates much more the New Testament example of James than it does the Apostle Paul. Lewis’ conversion was a lengthier process than the rather instantaneous Damascus road encounter and thereby helps us see the oft-hidden power of friendship in God’s work of redemption.

While he attended the official Church of Ireland growing up and was even baptized there, Lewis did not have a true heart change until later in life. As he put it: “I abandoned all belief in Christianity at about the age of 14, though I pretended to believe for fear of my elders.” This is one of the reasons he would connect so well later in his Christian apologetics. He genuinely knew what it was like to be skeptical towards the Christian faith.

Well, the Hound of Heaven would eventually catch up to him, and in 1929 he had his first conversion: from agnosticism to theism, which he describes in his autobiography Surprised by Joy. But Lewis needed a second conversion. You see, while he had come to believe in God, he did not yet believe in Jesus Christ. The first conversion had largely taken place because of the influence of G.K. Chesterton’s book The Everlasting Man, but the second would require one of God’s foremost tools in evangelism: friendship.

Two years after his initial conversion, Lewis was talking one night with his friends J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, when his life would forever change. He tells the story powerfully in Surprised by Joy, describing it as a “good long satisfying talk” that helped him finally pass on from “believing in God to definitely believing in Christ.” He would later describe that momentous midnight conversation to a friend by saying: “What I owe to them all is incalculable. Dyson and Tolkien were the immediate human causes of my own conversion. Is any pleasure on earth as great as a circle of Christian friends by a good fire?”

Lewis’ life is marked, before and after his conversion to Christianity, by the importance of friendship. In the ensuing years after his conversion, he would write and publish numerous works of fiction as well as Christian apologetics, which propelled him into the public square, even landing him on the cover of Time Magazine.

Though Lewis was being used by God on this much larger platform, draw your attention to the way Lewis’ continuing friendship with Tolkien exhibits the way God so often uses this “smaller” platform of friendship to transform the world.

Tolkien was struggling to finish what would become The Lord of the Rings, and just never did quite feel like it was good enough. He read chapter after chapter to Lewis and other friends known as the Oxford Inklings, but Tolkien still did not think it was ready. At several points, Tolkien was about ready to give up the project, but Lewis would not let him give up so easily. Listen to the way Tolkien described Lewis’s encouragement: “He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby. But for his interest and unceasing eagerness for more I should never have brought the Lord of the Rings to a conclusion.”

God used friendship powerfully in Lewis’ life, to both transform his own life through conversion to Christ and then to encourage others. Reflect this Advent season on the way God might be working in and through your circle of friends. Friendships transform the world. Lewis is evidence of this, as are countless other men and women throughout Christian history. We can be as well.