With around a quarter of a billion of C. S. Lewis’s books in print and much-loved films adapted from his novels, Lewis is so well known as a Christian writer and apologist that it is easy to forget that he was once a firmly convinced atheist. Indeed, it was the depth and intensity of his atheism that made him the formidable advocate for the faith that he became. As the profundity of his atheism, so the persuasiveness of his faith. He had known the Christian faith, as he put it, from the outside. His atheism was no casual conviction. He knew it from the inside, he knew many strong atheists, and he had read all the best-known atheist writings from Epicurus and Lucretius to Voltaire, Nietzsche, H. G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw. And yet his thinking eventually convinced him that atheism did not satisfy.

Lewis described his fifteen-year journey toward faith as an intellectual quest that moved him from atheism and materialism to idealism, to theism, and finally to the Christian faith. Yet his passion for the intellect was balanced by his appreciation of intuition and imagination; throughout the whole quest a recurring signal of transcendence played a key part in turning him around and spurring him on: Joy. “All joy wills eternity—wills deep, deep eternity!” Nietzsche’s Zarathustra exclaimed in his midnight song. But where Nietzsche did not follow the logic of what he was saying, Lewis did—and it was joy that troubled his atheism and sent him out as a seeker and a “lapsed atheist.”


Ever the serious thinker, Lewis thought long and hard about his experiences of Joy. Were they only a form of Romanticism, on the order of the poet’s “heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter”? Were they wishful thinking in the manner of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s assertion that “the blazing evidence of immortality is our dissatisfaction with any other solution”? Or was the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth correct—“In every real man the will for life is also the will for joy”? Barth continues, “It is hypocrisy to hide this from oneself. . . . A person who tried to disbar himself from joy is not an obedient person.”

Such questions are important, and they must be answered, but the answer lies beyond the experience or the signal itself. As with all signals of transcendence, joy raises questions; it supplies no answers. C. S. Lewis was well trained in Oxford philosophy, and knew too much to leap ahead of the logic of his experience. The signal and its satisfaction were two different things. It was quite possible that reality would never satisfy this unsatisfied desire that was more desirable than any satisfaction. The signal of transcendence punctured the settled assurance of his atheism and pointed beyond it. But whether there was anything real “beyond,” and whether the beyond was solid or insubstantial, he would have to find out for himself—and his search began.

There was one thing about the signal, however, that gave it not only thrust but direction. Lewis pointed out that unless the intimations were capable of fulfillment, the capacity for them is odd. Physical hunger does not prove that someone will find bread— “He may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race that repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. . . . A man may love a woman and not win her; but it would be very odd if the phenomenon called ‘falling in love’ occurred in a sexless world.” C. S. Lewis, then, became a seeker because of joy just as Malcolm Muggeridge did because of the glimpse of home, W. H. Auden did because of the necessity to judge evil, and G. K. Chesterton did to justify gratitude. In the lives of each of them there was the major course of the quest still to cover. But the thrust of the questions tore them from their complacency, propelled them across the divide between the indifferent and the concerned, and turned them into seekers.


Being “surprised by joy” was all important to C. S. Lewis, but he was clear that the signals and signposts were only signs, and they could be forgotten in the full satisfaction of the discovery they pointed to. Such signals are invaluable today in prompting people to think and search, especially those who think more deeply. At the very least, the signals hint loudly that there is far more to reality than the world experienced through the five senses, the prison world of Plato’s cave. For those who hear the signals and pay attention, they compel them to see that “reality is very odd, and that the ultimate truth, whatever it may be, must have the characteristics of strangeness.”

At the same time, Lewis warned, there was a danger in idolizing such experiences in themselves and therefore of failing to go beyond them. Those who make that mistake have stopped too soon. They have reached only “the suburbs of Jerusalem” and the “outskirts of heaven,” but they have yet to reach the city itself. Too much gazing at the moon may make someone a lunatic, he said, but it is an equal mistake to forget that the beauty of the moon is only “sunlight at second hand,” so we would be wise to press on to see the sun itself.

Lasting pleasure and true happiness are rare enough, but Joy is at another level altogether, so the signal of transcendence that points to such joy will be almost irresistible. But remember once again that each signal of transcendence sounds out its own special call. No signal is a signal for everyone to hear, so one person’s signal is another person’s silence. Be ready, then, for the call that comes to you in your life. Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear.

Adapted from Signals of Transcendence by Os Guinness. ©2023 by Os Guinness. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press. www.ivpress.com.