C.S. Lewis was a committed atheist before he became a Christian. He describes his journey in his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy. Here’s one of the famous passages:
“You must picture me alone in that room in 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. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? The words “compelle intrare,” compel them to come in, have been so abused be wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.”C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy.
Lewis describes his conversion as though he was playing a long game of chess with God. All his intellectual moves were countered and bested until Lewis realized that his atheism was impossible, and he must become a Christian.
This might give you the impression that he was unhappy. Far from it. The thing that brought him in was his very profound notion of Joy and the fact that the Christian religion has the greatest explanatory power for making sense of our deepest longings.
But I think Lewis’s testimony of his reluctance has been profoundly helpful to thoughtful folks who struggle with thorny intellectual questions regarding the relationships between faith, reason, doubt, suffering, joy, etc.
I hear his testimony reflected in some of the characters in his fictional series, The Chronicles of Narnia. Most recently, I’ve been reading The Silver Chair. In this book, Jill Pole is the reluctant convert. Remember, that the Christ figure is the great lion, Aslan. In this scene, Lewis is depicting a very biblical idea straight out of the Gospels of the New Testament wherein Christ declares that he is “Living water.” If anyone thirsts (that is, has spiritual longing), he should come to me (Jesus) and drink (see John 4:1-45 and John 7:37-39).
Here’s Jill with Aslan:
Jill got up and looked round her very carefully. There was no sign of the Lion; but there were so many trees about that it might easily be quite close without her seeing it. For all she knew, there might be several lions. But her thirst was very bad now, and she plucked up her courage to go and look for that running water. She went on tiptoes, stealing cautiously from tree to tree, and stopping to peer round her at every step.
The wood was so still that it was difficult to decide where the sound was coming from. It grew clearer every moment and, sooner than she expected, she came to an open glade and saw the stream, bright as glass, running across the turf a stone’s throw away from her. But although the sight of the water made her feel ten times thirstier than before, she didn’t rush forward and drink. She stood as still as if she had been turned into stone, with her mouth wide open. And she had a very good reason: just on this side of the stream lay the Lion.
It lay with its head raised and its two fore-paws out in front of it, like the lions in Trafalgar Square. She knew at once that it had seen her, for its eyes looked straight into hers for a moment and then turned away–as if it knew her quite well and didn’t think much of her. “If I run away, it’ll be after me in a moment,” thought Jill. “And if I go on, I shall run straight into its mouth.” Anyway, she couldn’t have moved if she had tried, and she couldn’t take her eyes off it. How long this lasted, she could not be sure; it seemed like hours. And the thirst became so bad that she almost felt she would not mind being eaten by the Lion if only she could be sure of getting a mouthful of water first.
“If you are thirsty, you may drink.”
They were the first words she had heard since Scrubb had spoken to her on the edge of the cliff. For a second she stared here and there, wondering who had spoken. Then the voice said again, “If you are thirsty, come and drink,” and of course she remembered what Scrubb had said about animals talking in that other world, and realised that it was the Lion speaking. Anyway, she had seen its lips move this time, and the voice was not like a man’s. It was deeper, wilder, and stronger; a sort of heavy, golden voice. It did not make her any less frightened than she had been before, but it made her frightened in rather a different way. “Are you thirsty?” said the Lion.
“I’m dying of thirst,” said Jill.
“Then drink,” said the Lion.
“May I–could I–would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.
The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realised that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.
The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
“Will you promise not to–do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.
“I make no promise.” said the Lion. Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.
“Do you eat girls?” she said.
“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry, It just said it.
“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.
“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.
“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.
It never occurred to Jill to disbelieve the Lion–no one who had seen his stern face could do that–and her mind suddenly made itself up. It was the worst thing she had ever had to do, but she went forward to the stream, knelt down, and began scooping up water in her hand. It was the coldest, most refreshing water she had ever tasted. You didn’t need to drink much of it, for it quenched your thirst at once. Before she tasted it she had been intending to make a dash away from the Lion the moment she had finished. Now, she realised that this would be on the whole the most dangerous thing of all. She got up and stood there with her lips still wet from drinking.
“Come here,” said the Lion. And she had to. She was almost between its front paws now, looking straight into its face. But she couldn’t stand that for long; she dropped her eyes.
“Human Child,” said the Lion, “Where is the Boy?”
“He fell over the cliff,” said Jill, and added, “Sir.” She didn’t know what else to call him, and it sounded cheek to call him nothing.
“How did he come to do that, Human Child?”
“He was trying to stop me from falling, Sir.”
“Why were you so near the edge, Human Child?”
“I was showing off, Sir.”
“That is a very good answer, Human Child. Do so no more. And now” (here for the first time the Lion’s face became a little less stern) “the Boy is safe. I have blown him to Narnia. But your task will be the harder because of what you have done.”
“Please, what task, Sir?” said Jill.
“The task for which I called you and him here out of your own world.”
This puzzled Jill very much. “It’s mistaking me for someone else,” she thought. She didn’t dare to tell the Lion this, though she felt things would get into a dreadful muddle unless she did.
“Speak your thought, Human Child,” said the Lion.
“I was wondering–I mean–could there be some mistake? Because nobody called me and Scrubb, you know. It was we who asked to come here. Scrubb said we were to call to–to Somebody–it was a name I wouldn’t know–and perhaps the Somebody would let us in. And we did, and then we found the door open.” “You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you,” said the Lion.
“The you are Somebody, Sir?” said Jill.
“I am.”C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair, 15-19.