Lecturer, professor, and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis has been remembered as one of the greatest and foremost Christian apologists of the 20th century. He is probably best remembered for his books The Chronicles of Narnia and The Screwtape Letters, but he also wrote books dealing with a number of apologetics topics from Mere Christianity (explaining morality, various concepts about God like atheism and pantheism, his conversion, etc.) to The Problem of Pain, which discusses the problem of suffering known in theological circles as theodicy.
Many issues plagued C. S. Lewis in his lifetime, however, one of the earliest and most traumatizing was the agony and disillusionment he felt as a result of his mother’s death. In this blog, I will recount Lewis’ first religious experience as he prayed for his mother’s healing, his disappointment when his mother died, and other events that resulted in his loss of faith and subsequent atheism. In part two, I will connect his experience with some traumatic events that shook my own faith, highlight the lessons I learned in the process, and how insights gained from reading Lewis have enhanced my faith walk and will hopefully enhance yours too.
Plagued by the loss of his mother
At the age of nine while C. S. Lewis lay ill on his bed—with a headache and toothache—expecting his mother to come and take care of him, Flora Lewis, his mother, was on her own sick bed losing a battle against cancer. The unfulfilled hope for his mother’s comfort coupled with the protracted debilitation of his mother’s health was such a traumatic experience for young Lewis that it rocked his fledgling faith. His young mind was overwhelmed with agony as he witnessed cancer take the life of his otherwise versatile mother on August 23, 1908. Lewis recounts the event in the following words: “For us boys, the real bereavement had happened before our mother died. We lost her gradually as she was gradually withdrawn from our life into the hands of nurses and delirium and morphia, and as our whole existence changed into something alien and menacing, as the house became full of strange smells and midnight noises and sinister whispered conversations.”1 This bereavement was pivotal to Lewis’ disillusionment with God, Christianity, and his gradual slide into atheism at age sixteen.
Although Lewis was raised in a Christian home, his first religious experience was praying for his mother. He prayed sincerely with childlike faith and petitioned with the full expectation that his mother would be healed. Even after the death of his mother, he prayed more fervently she would be raised from the dead. He had—in a childlike manner—conjured an idea of God that was akin to the idea of a magician. His expectations were shattered when his mother was neither healed nor raised from the dead. Lewis could not understand why.
However, it seemed to Lewis that there was an apparent discrepancy between the avowed promises in the Bible and what was obtainable. Lewis felt so bad that according to Lyle Dorsett: “The death of Mrs. Lewis convinced young Jack that the God he encountered in church and in the Bible his mother gave him was, if not cruel, at least a vague abstraction.”2 Also, his father never fully recovered from the death of Lewis’ mother. Lewis recalls of his father: “Under the pressure of anxiety his temper became incalculable, he spoke wildly and acted unjustly.”3 Within six years of the loss of his mother, Lewis was on a downward spiral. He had lost his mother, was alienated from his father, separated from his brother and tutored by some teachers who taught that there was no God. These compounding events aggravated his disillusionment and subsequently led to the loss of not only his childhood “flawed faith” but the “would-have-been” real faith in God.
- C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. (New York, NY: First Marina Books edition, 2012). 18-19.
- Lyle W. Dorsett, “C.S. Lewis: A Profile of His Life.” https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine/article/c-s- lewis-a-profile/. Accessed June 1, 2017.
- Lewis, 19.