Question: "Who was C.S. Lewis?"
Answer: Clive Staples Lewis (1898–1963), better known as C. S. Lewis, was an Irish author and Oxford and Cambridge literature professor known for his popular writings. These include the seven-book series The Chronicles of Narnia, several books of which have been adapted into feature films. Other well-known writings by Lewis include The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, and The Great Divorce, as well as a science fiction trilogy. Although he was an Anglican, C. S. Lewis endures as a popular writer among Christians of all denominations due to his ability to connect art, scholarship, and faith.
In terms of impact, C. S. Lewis is often described as one of the greatest Christian apologists of the twentieth century. The great strength of his writing is in connecting spiritual ideas to everyday experience. Lewis’s approach to defending the faith is simple and direct, yet profound. Rather than grappling with convoluted philosophy, his best writing explains Christianity in terms easily understood by all readers. For Lewis, faith in Christ wasn’t some irrational leap into the dark. Instead, faith was a submission to common sense—an acknowledgement of everything daily life already tells us.
The ability to present Christianity in a clear, personal way is especially notable, given that C. S. Lewis was a vigorous atheist through his teenage years. It was his exposure to new ideas and deeper learning while at the university that eventually led to his conversion. A voracious reader, Lewis was fond of the writings of Christian authors George MacDonald and G. K. Chesterton. MacDonald’s book Phantastes caused Lewis to rethink his atheism. In much the same way, G. K. Chesterton’s book The Everlasting Man led Lewis to question his dismissal of religion.
While teaching at Magdalen College, C. S. Lewis met two Christian men who later became close friends: Hugo Dyson and J. R. R. Tolkien. Soon Lewis recognized that most of his friends, like his favorite authors—MacDonald, Chesterton, Johnson, Spenser, and Milton—were Christians. He was also greatly influenced by Owen Barfield, a writer who had earlier converted from atheism to Christianity, and author Nevill Coghill, another devout Christian.
Unlike many converts, C. S. Lewis was not eager to become a believer. Even as evidence mounted, demonstrating the truth of the Bible, Lewis struggled to maintain his unbelief. Rather than fleeing to faith or fulfilling a personal wish, Lewis resisted acceptance of God. He came to faith, in his own words, “kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting [my] eyes in every direction for a chance of escape” (Surprised by Joy: The Early Shape of My Life, p. 228–229.). Lewis described himself, at the moment of his conversion in 1929, as “perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” (ibid.).
C. S. Lewis’s eventual enthusiasm for Christianity spawned a lifelong stream of books on Christian apologetics and discipleship. His first major work, The Pilgrim’s Regress, published in 1933, was about his own spiritual journey to Christian faith. Though best known for his Chronicles of Narnia series, Lewis wrote 74 books during his lifetime, leaving an enormous literary legacy for generations to follow.
In 1956 Lewis married American divorcée Joy Gresham, sixteen years his junior, who died four years later of cancer. Despondent over her death, Lewis turned to the outlet he knew best: writing. His book describing the process of loss, A Grief Observed, was originally published under the pseudonym N. W. Clerk to avoid the pain of even greater publicity. Ironically, friends and relatives often suggested that Lewis read the book as a means of overcoming his anguish. Only after Lewis’s death did the publisher acknowledge that Lewis was, in fact, the author.
After the death of his wife, Lewis’s own health deteriorated, and in the summer of 1963 he resigned from Cambridge. Mere months later, Lewis died. His death would have been considered a more notable event, but at that moment, the entire world was watching the United States. On November 22, 1963, Lewis passed away on the same day that American President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
As with any deeply studied figure of religion or philosophy, C. S. Lewis also attracts criticism for some of his doctrinal positions. Among the most frequently mentioned are his views on the inerrancy of the Bible, the existence of a literal Adam and Eve, and eternal security. While conservative Christian scholars would generally consider Lewis to be in error on these points, such issues clearly didn’t dampen his zeal for literary evangelism. In fact, Lewis was often criticized by his peers and passed over for teaching opportunities for his vocal defense of the gospel.
A major plank of Lewis’s philosophy of religion was that myths were mankind’s way of foreshadowing God’s eventual revealed truth. In accordance to that belief, he accepted the possibility that many Old Testament stories, including those of creation, were purely mythical and not necessarily true. For Lewis, this even included the possibility that Adam and Eve were entirely mythical, and not actual people.
In a similar way, Lewis held that the Bible was the work of human authors and therefore fallible. While convinced that the New Testament was more literally true than the Old Testament, he still believed there were errors and contradictions within the Scriptures. In Lewis’s view, divine inspiration by God simply meant that truth was contained in the Bible, not necessarily that everything written in the Bible was true.
As explored in books such as The Screwtape Letters, Lewis held to a conditional view of salvation. According to his perspective, people were in constant spiritual motion, either toward God, or away from Him. This, rather than some once-for-all redemption, was what eventually determined their eternal destiny. While not as overtly controversial as his views of inerrancy or history, this is a point of caution that should be applied when interpreting Lewis’s works.
C. S. Lewis stands as a shining example of the influence a Christian can have in both the university and popular culture. His works changed the lives of many during his lifetime and beyond, offering a model for those who desire to live as “salt and light” in a dark culture (Matthew 5:13). As an apologist and writer, C. S. Lewis was exemplary, and his books are among the most useful ever written for explaining the value of Christian faith to a skeptical world.