C. S. Lewis: Finding Faith On the Way to the Zoo

Men Must Endure Their Going Hence.

So warns Edgar in Shakespeare’s classic King Lear.

And so says the tombstone shared by illustrious Christian apologist Clive Staples Lewis and his brother Warren.  The tombstone, located in the yard of Holy Trinity Church in Headington Quarry, Oxford, commemorates the writer C.S. “Jack” Lewis, who died 48 years ago on November 23, 1963, and his quieter older brother who died in April 1973.

Lewis was one of the intellectual giants of the 20th century, contributing a wealth of literature ranging from children’s literature and fantasy (most popular being The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and others in the Chronicles of Narnia series), to allegory, to literary criticism and popular theology.  During World War II, his reflections on his BBC radio broadcast—later republished as Mere Christianity—made the case for Christianity through the use of logic.

Despite Lewis’ prominence in Christian apologetics, he was not always a follower of Christ; during his university years, he was an avowed atheist.  At Oxford, he often debated philosophy and religion with several Christian friends including J.R.R. Tolkien (best known for the Lord of the Rings trilogy).  And those friends were persuasive!  “Really, a young Atheist cannot guard his faith too carefully,” Lewis confided in his conversion story, Surprised by Joy.  “Dangers lie in wait for him on every side.”

Lewis wrote poignantly in Surprised by Joy about his first steps toward faith, toward confirming the existence of 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.”

So Lewis embraced Christianity, albeit reluctantly. But was Jesus real?  His interest piqued by the faith of friends who seemed too pragmatic to fall for a myth, Lewis read the Gospels—and he was amazed to find them believable.  The writers, he thought, were too unimaginative to have made the whole thing up; they seemed to truly believe the accounts of Jesus’ ministry, death and Resurrection.

Perhaps Lewis’ best known application of Aristotelian logic is his “Liar, Lunatic or Lord” syllogism. Evaluating Jesus’ claims to be God, Lewis points to three possible explanations: either he really was God, he was deliberately lying, or he was not God but thought himself to be (in other words, he was delusional or insane). Nothing in the Gospel, according to Lewis, suggests that Jesus was not a person of truth; nor did he appear mentally impaired. The only logical answer, then, was that Jesus is truly what he said he was:  He is God.

On September 19, 1931, Jack Lewis engaged his friends Hugo Dyson and J.R.R. Tolkien in a discussion of myth.  The trio walked and talked all night:  Tolkien explaining how myths were God’s way of preparing the ground for the Christian story, and Dyson showing how Christianity worked for the believer, liberating him from sin and helping him to become a better person.  Lewis’ stubborn arguments for atheism were demolished.

It took days of ruminating and meditating for Lewis’ conversion to be complete.  Lewis himself explained that on November 12, he and his brother Warren traveled by motorcycle to Whipsnade Zoo.  “When we set out,” Lewis wrote, “I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God; and when we reached the zoo, I did.”

Lewis’ book The Pilgrim’s Regress tells the story of his dramatic conversion in allegorical form.

  • Barb S

    This former agnostic gives a lot of credit to C.S. Lewis with helping me in my faith journey. I look at Lewis as a modern-day St. Paul and often wonder if Lewis’ conversion was driven by God to create an Apostle who could speak to the “fence sitters” blinded by excessive devotion to the material world and “scientific reason”. The logic in “Mere Christianity” is nearly perfect and “The Screwtape Letters” resonates even more today with the growing obsession with “fairness” and parasitic government policies. But the Lewis work that stays with me the most is “The Great Divorce”, his stunning vision of Heaven and Hell and the inhabitants. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein – what incredibly gifted men.

  • http://victor-undergo.blogspot.com/ Victor

    (((“I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God; and when we reached the zoo, I did.”)))

    Kathy! I didn’t know that you believed Darwin when he said that we humans came from animals?

    I recall in the early 60′s and although “I” was forced to take a two year course, “I” still recall a teacher who I think liked me for some reason but of course most teachers liked me unless they were a Orr!

    I hear ya Kathy! Victor, you don’t know me so please get to the point or “I” might not even allow this to go through if you know what “I” mean cause Joe’s Watching. http://www.americancatholic.org/Features/SaintofDay/default.aspx

    My point is that my science teacher, “Mr Brunt” told me in so many words that we lose millions of cells each day and we don’t even know about “IT” whitch, if true, “IT” is really a shame expecially if they are truly sent by GOD (Good Old Dad) cause we could use these cells during Eternity and go back in time to check “IT” all out for ourselves and see if “JESUS” really was telling U>S (usual sinners) the truth?

    Well that’s just my Canadian .02$ worth Kathy and you will keep praying for me, won’t ya? :)


  • Rhinestone Suderman

    I love C.S. Lewis—one of the best thinkers of the 20th Century.

  • Mark

    Read a book by some guy named Fr. Dwight Longenecker called ‘More Christianity’ which took CS Lewis book to the next level and to the Catholic faith. I also read a book by the person who managed the CS Lewis Foundation which talked about how the changes in the church of CS Lewis has so changed that in his view, had CS Lewis lived, he would have become a Roman Catholic.
    I have long been a fan of CS Lewis and also Father Longenecker both in his blog and in his books.

  • Elaine T

    Nitpick because it bugs me when I see Lewis given full credit for it: the Liar, Lunatic or Lord choices for what Jesus was did not originate with Lewis. Chesterton said it long before him. Others may have said it before Chesterton, too, but I know it is in The Everlasting Man .

    I never ran across that bit about Lewis and the zoo, and I must say the image of the great apologist on a motorcycle on his way to the zoo brings him to life.

  • Kathy Schiffer

    Mark, Father Longenecker knows that that’s one of my all-time favorite books! And have you read his “Adventures in Orthodoxy,” which follows on the heels of G.K. Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy”?

  • Mark

    I have not read Adventures, but it is on my list to read. Not sure why, but I have had a problem reading Chesterton.