On C.S. Lewis, Reason, Rationality, and Revelation

On November 3, 2021, the movie The Most Reluctant Convert was released in theaters. Starring Max McLean, the movie tells the story of C.S. Lewis’s conversion from atheism, to theism, to Christianity. The movie depicts Lewis’s aversion to God and his philosophical reasons for not believing in Christianity. After reasoning through whether or not God exists and debating against apologetic defenses for the Christian faith, Lewis reluctantly acknowledges that Christianity is true. Many in the Christian community find the role of reason and of apologetics in Lewis’s conversion story fascinating.

 

Some Christians are enamored with “apologetic conversions.” Sean McDowell, Lee Strobel, and J. Warner Wallace are well-known apologists whose lives were changed through reasonable arguments for Christianity. Popular movies like God’s Not Dead and The Case for Christ encourage viewers to see the rationality of the Christian faith. For many, these movies are exciting and encouraging.

The Apologetic Conversion of C.S. Lewis
Clive Staples Lewis—often referred to in the movie as “Jack”—had one of the most famous apologetic conversions. The Most Reluctant Convert depicts Jack’s life from childhood up to his conversion to Christianity. At the beginning of the film, when Jack is young, he loses his mother to cancer. Having prayed fervently for the recovery of his mother, Jack rejects the Christian faith because of his anger at God for allowing his mother to die. He had a cold and distant relationship with his father, which drove him into a world of the mind—both of the intellect and the imagination. In his teens, Jack’s atheist tutor, William Kirkpatrick, gave him the vocabulary and reasoning skills he needed to reject God with vigor. At eighteen, Jack was drafted into the ranks of the British Armed Forces during the Great War, which briefly interrupted his studies. His time in the military acquainted him with horrific violence, further convincing him that a good God could not exist and allow such pain. At this point, Jack’s life was plagued with emotional and intellectual doubt. Post-war, he attended the University of Oxford, and eventually became a tutor there. Scholarly debates and conversations continued to demonstrate to Jack the abundance of diverse religious ideologies. Through rational arguments, he reluctantly became a theist. In the following months, the now-famous author J.R.R. Tolkien talked with Jack about the truth of Christian claims and invited him into further apologetic conversations. After long nights of fighting with God, Jack found that his theism could only be realized in Christianity, and he acknowledged Jesus as Lord. The film concludes with Jack taking communion, finally at peace with God and ready to embark on a new adventure.

Christians tend to see Jack’s life as an exemplary apologetic conversion. Many wish that they could explain and defend their Christian faith as rationally and articulately as the actors do in the movie. Watching the film, they might call to mind their loved ones who are not Christians and think: If only they could have a conversion like this one. If they heard this truth, then they would finally believe! Well-reasoned and loving appeals for Christian belief can certainly strengthen faith, cultivate critical thinking skills, and convince people of truth. However, if we are not careful, our dependence on well-reasoned arguments could slowly morph into rationalism.

Rationalism and Rationality
Rationalism and rationality may sound synonymous, but they are not. Rationalism is the belief that truth can be known through reason alone.1 Rationality, on the other hand, uses critical thinking skills to come to logical conclusions. Rationality does not affirm that reason is the only way to know truth. During his time as an atheist, Jack believed that almost everything could be known through reason and logic. However, although Christianity affirms that reason is one way we can know truth, not all truth is known through reason (even if it is reasonable). A Christian worldview claims that truth about the world and about God is known through general and special revelation.

A Christian worldview embraces rationality as an ability given to humans by God, but it ardently rejects rationalism. Reason is not bad but Christians believe that there is more to the world than what reason alone can tell us. Intending to help someone see the reasonability behind faith, some Christians may accidentally fall into a sort of rationalism. Not everything can be known about God through nature and reason alone. Believing that you can reason someone into saving faith without relying on the Bible or the Holy Spirit to tell you about the person of Jesus Christ is impossible. Christians must learn to embrace rationality—a God-given ability—without falling into rationalism. This process may begin by recognizing the difference between general and special revelation (i.e. the “book” of Nature and the book of Scripture). If Christians are going to use apologetics to witness to people, they must be careful to rely on the truth found in special revelation just as much as they rely on rationality and general revelation.

General Revelation
Theologically speaking, revelation refers to what God has revealed about himself to humanity. General revelation is “God’s universal revelation about himself and morality that can be obtained through nature.”2 It is knowledge from God about himself for the world. General revelation is communicated through creation ( Psalm 19:1-4), the human conscience, and rationality. Bruce Demhurst says, “general revelation conveys the conviction that God exists and that he is transcendent, imminent, self-sufficient, eternal, powerful, good and a hater of evil.”3 Using general revelation, we can philosophically explain God’s existence.

The Church Fathers developed rational proofs for God including the Cosmological Argument, the Teleological Argument, and the Moral Argument. These ancient “proofs” are logical arguments for the existence of God and they are wonderful tools! Showing that God exists, however, is very different from showing that the eternal, loving, communal God of Christianity exists. General revelation “while not imparting truths necessary for salvation—such as the Trinity, incarnation, or the atonement…conveys the conviction that God exists.”4Through general revelation, everyone can know that God exists. Romans 1:19-20 (ESV) says,

For what can be known about God is plain to them because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

Through general revelation, the world can know that a God exists but not who he is. That is, “Scripture nowhere indicates that people can know the gospel, or know the way of salvation, through general revelation.”5 Humanity is without excuse for knowing that God exists; it “is written on our hearts as well as in our observation of creation.”6 However, if we rely solely on general revelation to communicate about God in apologetics, we are liable to fall into rationalism. Creation and reason do not tell us who God is and therefore cannot tell us about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is vital for salvation. If we are going to use apologetics and rational argumentation to contend for the faith, we cannot rely only on general revelation. By doing so Christians rob their faith of Jesus Christ and therefore strip the Christian message of its salvation.

In The Most Reluctant Convert, Jack becomes a theist because of a fellow professor who rationally convinces him of the existence of a deity. This weighty scene in the film depicts Jack’s reluctant conversion to theism but not his conversion to Christianity. Scholarly, rational conversations based on general revelation can bring about a belief in a God, but they cannot tell you who that God is. Therefore, this moment in the film is not Jack’s conversion to the Christian faith, because it is devoid of the person of Jesus Christ. The scene is his acceptance of theism, a halfway point between Christianity and atheism.

Many people will use emotional hardships, doubts, and pain as reasons for disbelief in God. Although their pain is legitimate and has had a profound effect on their lives, it is a personal bias that cannot change reality. Whether or not God exists is not determined by feelings. Jack has many reasons to disbelieve in any God–especially the God of Christianity. His mother passed away, his relationship with his father was extremely broken, and his world was shattered by the violence of war. When faced with new information and arguments for the existence of God, Jack reasons through the facts. When looking for answers to life’s biggest questions, one cannot look within themselves for solutions. If humanity is going to know the truth about the world, we must look beyond ourselves. If humanity is going to know who God is, he must speak. God’s personal self-disclosure is called special revelation.

Special Revelation
Special revelation is what distinguishes the God of Christianity from Allah or the god of theism. When speaking about special revelation, theologians are referring to “God’s unique revelation about himself through Scriptures, miraculous events, and Jesus Christ.”7 God speaks about himself and his particular identity to humanity through special revelation which enables Christians to enter into a redemptive relationship with him.8 What makes Christianity unique is God’s personal identity. His speech is not only rational but it is also relational. God became incarnate in Jesus Christ to bring humanity personal knowledge of who he is, and we can read about this unique revelation in the Bible.

God himself provided a way in which we can be saved by sending his own Son Jesus, ”who is both God and man” to pay the price for our sin.9 This is the ultimate example of God’s love and justice. Special revelation reveals the Gospel that Jesus came and died as an atonement for our sins, and was resurrected that we might be given eternal life. Theologian Wayne Grudem says the Gospel, “which seems commonplace to the Christian ear, should not lose its wonder for us; it could never have been conceived by man alone apart from God’s special, verbal revelation.”10Only the special revelation of God reveals how humanity can receive salvation.

Conclusion
Ultimately, Christian apologetics should defend that what is revealed in Scripture (special revelation) is true. Special revelation can be defended through general revelation because “a belief, thought, or statement is true if it corresponds to reality.”11 However, without being informed by special revelation, we will never be able to figure out who God is or how to be saved. If we believe that we can know God’s identity through general revelation alone, then we do not believe in the God of Christianity, but rather the god of theism.

Jack’s apologetic conversion was reliant on his friend J.R.R. Tolkien’s faithful witness and defense of God’s special revelation. Tolkien invited Jack to see how Christianity might be the one “ true myth.” Reasonable apologetic arguments defend the Christian faith logically, showing the truth of the Gospel. Tolkien invited Jack to continue a conversation about Christianity. Their friendship was long-lasting because Tolkien never sacrificed their friendship to win the debate. Through rational and kind argumentation, Jack was invited to believe that Jesus was God incarnate, died on the cross, and rose again. The Holy Spirit used Tolkien’s faithfulness to draw Jack to faith which gives him confidence in the work and person of Jesus Christ.

If Christians are going to use apologetics to witness to people, they must be careful to rely on the truth found in special revelation just as much as they rely on rationality and general revelation. Like Tolkien, they must be kind and loving, willing to tell the truth. They must be committed to defending what God says about himself more than winning the debate.

Apologetics can be a way to build the Christian faith, encourage others, and share truth with the lost, especially when it is reliant on the words and works of God. We can be encouraged through the lives of people like C.S. Lewis, Sean McDowell, and J. Warner Wallace when we see the change brought about in their lives. Salvation is not brought about through apologetics but through the grace given to those who profess faith in Jesus Christ.

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