C. S. Lewis had a significant ministry in corresponding with people who wrote to him about their spiritual doubts. One such person was Sheldon Vanauken who recorded the integral place Lewis had in his own conversion in a book, A Severe Mercy (Harper & Row, 1977). 

Vanauken records his own correspondence with Lewis while he was engaged in post-graduate studies at Oxford. The letters from Lewis—eighteen of them in all—are a model of pastoral concern and intellectual rigour. As Vanuaken explains, ‘Seldom if ever have I encountered anybody who could say so much in so little’. For example, in the initial letter to Lewis, Vanauken writes:

I said at starting that I felt I was treading a long road that would one day lead me to Christianity; I must, then, believe after a fashion that it is the truth. Or is it only that I want to believe it? But at the same time, something else in me says: ‘Wanting to believe is the way to self-deception. Honesty is better than any easy comfort. Have the courage to face the fact that all men may be nothing to the Power that made the suns’.

At this stage in his spiritual journey, Vanauken says that he had come to question whether he was simply coming to believe in Christianity because he wanted it to be true, but not necessarily because it really was. Lewis’ response to Vanauken was a masterclass in Christian apologetics, writing back:

My own position at the threshold of Christianity was exactly the opposite of yours. You wish it were true; I strongly hoped it was not. At least, that was my conscious wish: you may suspect that I had unconscious wishes of quite a different sort and that it was these which finally shoved me in. True: but then I may equally suspect that under your conscious wish that it were true, there lurks a strong unconscious wish that it were not. What this works out to is that all that modern stuff about concealed wishes and wishful thinking, however useful it may be for explaining the origin of an error which you already know to be an error, is perfectly useless in deciding which of two beliefs is the error and which is the truth. For (a.) One never knows all one’s wishes, and (b.) In very big questions, such as this, even one’s conscious wishes are nearly always engaged on both sides. 

This is a profound insight. While Lewis acknowledges that subconscious ‘wishes’ do explain why we sometimes choose to believe—or do—what is wrong, it’s not a sufficient explanation for every situation. For no-one is aware of all their own wishes, and what’s more, our wishes never represent just one perspective. Indeed, because our hearts deceive us in all kinds of pernicious ways (see Jer. 17:9–10) our wishes are a terrible basis upon which to base our decision making.

But Lewis doesn’t simply leave the issue there. In a deft move of apologetic precision, Lewis intellectually pivots to drive the point home:

What I think one can say with certainty it this: the notion that everyone would like Christianity to be true, and that therefore all atheists are brave men who have accepted the defeat of all their deepest desires, is simply impudent nonsense. Do you think people like Stalin, Hitler, Haldane, Stapledon (a corking good writer, by the way) would be pleased on waking up one morning to find that they were not their own masters, that they had a Master and a Judge, that there was nothing even in the deepest recesses of their thoughts about which they could say to Him ‘Keep out! Private. This is my business? Do you? Rats! Their first reaction would be (as mine was) rage and terror. And I very much doubt whether even you would find it simply pleasant. Isn’t the truth this: that it would gratify some of our desires (ones we feel in fact pretty seldom) and outrage a great many others? So, let’s wash out all the wish business. It never helped anyone to solve any problem yet.

What Lewis is doing here is the get the unbeliever to ‘doubt his own doubt’. In short, an atheist is not courageous—i.e. suppressing their innate desire for Christianity to be true—but is instead in denial. They need it to be false because the alternative is horrific. It would entail admitting that he was at fault and require him to change his ways. And why would anyone subconsciously wish for that?

As such, Christianity might fulfil our small desire for existential comfort, but the reality that Jesus is the Son of God offends our other conflicting desires for autonomy. ‘Desires’ themselves then resolve nothing. They are an unreliable guide in being able to discern what is right and true.

Even the letters of C. S. Lewis could be viewed as being classics in apologetic discourse. As Vanauken himself observed at the time, they have the power to ‘frighten’ the reader through their piercing logic. And yet they are also marked by genuine humility. For example, Lewis finished his letter to Vanauken saying: “I don’t know if any of this is the least use. Be sure to write again, or call, if you think I can be of any help”.

Lewis’ letters are a wonderful model of value of corresponding with those who have serious questions, and being able to give an answer to those who ask (1 Peter 3:15–16).

Postscript. Vanauken became a Christian not long after his correspondence began. Lewis’ reply speaks volumes of his personal warmth and pastoral wisdom. A small part of what Lewis wrote is as follows:

There will be a counter attack on you, you know, so don’t be too alarmed when it comes. The enemy will not see you vanish into God’s company without an effort to reclaim you. Be busy learning to pray and (if you have made up your mind on the denominational question) get confirmed. Blessings on you and a hundred thousand welcomes. Make use of me in any way you please: and let us pray for each other always.

                                                                                    – Mark Powell