Christopher Hitchens’s brother, Peter, says it was two paintings that challenged his atheist convictions. He found the contrast between beauty and ugliness suggestive of larger issues of good and evil.

Peter and Christopher were raised by the same parents only a few years apart. They attended the same boarding school and saw the same hypocrisy. Like Christopher, Peter also embraced atheism. He begins his memoir, The Rage against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith, this way: “I set fire to my Bible on the playing fields of my Cambridge boarding school one bright, windy spring afternoon in 1967. I was fifteen years old.”[1] Years later, he saw things differently, admitting that though he “had some good reasons for refusing some of it [Christianity], [his] mistake was to dispense with it all, indiscriminately.”[2]

Peter’s story turns on the ugliness of atheism. Sometimes it was atheists’ unkindness toward people of faith. For all their talk about religion poisoning everything, Peter saw far too many atheists poisoned by their own faith-like commitment to unbelief. He highlights Virginia Woolf ’s harsh words about T. S. Eliot’s conversion as one of many examples. She wrote to her sister, “I have had a most shameful and distressing interview with poor dear Tom Eliot, who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. . . . A corpse would seem to me more credible than he is.”[3]

The bulk of Peter’s disillusionment with atheism came when he lived in Moscow. He saw a government system built on a godless worldview. In contrast to the positive descriptions he’d read in books, he encountered physical ugliness, economic inequities, rampant corruption, ubiquitous dishonesty, and the dehumanizing treatment of the nation’s citizens. Peter began to wonder if Soviet Russia accurately embodied atheism or had devolved into an aberration of it. He wanted to find favor with the atheist state, but when he saw how cruelty permeated Soviet life, he reluctantly and unhappily concluded, “Enormous and intrusive totalitarian state power, especially combined with militant egalitarianism, is an enemy of civility, of consideration, and even of unenlightened self-interest.”[4]

Later in his memoir, he says, “I have seldom seen a more powerful argument for the fallen nature of man, and his inability to achieve perfection, than those countries in which man set himself up to replace God with the state.”[5] What nudged Peter Hitchens across the line from doubt to faith wasn’t a dramatic and emotional experience, intense intellectual study, or close relation- ships with people of faith, though those play legitimate roles in others’ journeys. For Peter, a lover of art, architecture, and music, it was seeing two paintings—The Last Judgment by Rogier van der Weyden and The Prodigal Son by Thomas Hart Benton. You can Google these strikingly different paintings. They drew Peter Hitchens to consider alienation from God and the loss of family connections. Ultimately, they pushed Peter in an unpredictable and, to some extent, unwanted direction.

Art can do that. So can natural beauty. It can awaken, clarify, or convict. Pleasures of many kinds can raise questions about existence. They point us beyond ourselves.

A Larger Story

You may have heard that C. S. Lewis was a professor of English literature at Oxford and Cambridge. Many people know him as the creator of The Chronicles of Narnia, but few know his journey from atheism to Christianity.[6] Lewis’s mother died when he was nine years old. That tragedy prompted a rejection of his parents’ Christian faith. Lewis had prayed for God to heal his mother, but she died anyway. So Lewis gave up on God and persisted in unbelief for more than twenty years. Academic training only sharpened his mind for rigorous arguments against theism. Later he wrote, “I maintained that God did not exist and I was angry at God for not existing.”[7]

But amid this unbelief, Lewis was drawn to story. He loved Norse mythology. Through his days at Oxford and into his time as a professor, he loved how mythology delved into struggles between right and wrong, the need for rescue, and the role of sacrifice. Lewis befriended J. R. R. Tolkien and other writers who challenged him to rethink the Christian story. They pointed to an inconsistency between Lewis’s love for mythology and his rejection of any larger narrative. During a long conversation, Tolkien and another friend, Hugo Dyson, suggested that perhaps we love myths because there is a grand, overarching “myth” from which the lesser myths derive. Years later, Lewis summed up his inner contradiction: “Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary. Nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.”[8] After that conversation, Lewis wrote:

Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself . . . , I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it. . . . The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even though I could not say in cold prose “what it meant.”

Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.[9]

Some people’s indirect journeys of belief through terrains of doubt seem uneventful, plateaued, or stagnant until an event or an idea serves as a tipping point. Often that event is a tragedy or trauma. For Lewis, it was the opposite. It was the undeniable reality of beauty that flipped his worldview. The conversation about myth was the tipping point. Once he conceded that a larger myth could be the source of all lesser myths, he was more open to Christianity. He investigated it with all the intellectual skill he had honed for decades. What resulted was a two-stage conversion from atheism to theism and then to Christianity. The first stage felt far from pleasant.

You must picture me alone in that room at 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.[10]

It took a while to progress to Christian conviction, the culmination of which he recounted as a remarkably unemotional and rather mundane event: “I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.”[11]

The Transcendence of Music

My indirect journey of belief met its tipping point after a major tragedy. I first tried to connect with God through Judaism. Then, I went off to college and thought little about God. Instead, I majored in beer, with a minor in cynicism. My official university registration claimed music as my major, but given the hours spent at drunken parties, watching Woody Allen movies, or reading existentialist literature, it’s safer to conclude alcohol and absurdity took priority. I’d given up hope that Judaism could provide the answers I was looking for. I’d mostly given up looking for answers anywhere, assuming life was meaningless.

But music kept drawing me back toward the transcendent. I held on to slivers of hope by attending performances by the Philadelphia Orchestra every Saturday night. I longed to find some piece of music I could claim as a link to the eternal. Dvořák, Rachmaninoff, or Tchaikovsky came close, but every piece also brought disappointment. The magic dissipated even before the music drew to its finale. My subway rides back to my dorm room brought despondency and despair.

Then, one Sunday night, two friends were playing a game of toy basketball in the sixth-floor lounge of our high-rise dorm. They bounced off each other going for a rebound, and one crashed through a plate glass window and plunged to his death six stories below. Forty years later, I still gasp at the horror of that night. As I sat at his funeral a few days later, I knew I needed to get answers about life’s meaning, because comedy, cynicism, and cocktails weren’t helping me.

Inexplicably, I’d brought that copy of the New Testament given to me years before along with me to college. I found it buried in my closet, dusted it off, and started reading. I also dug into the other book those friends told me about—C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity.[12]

Matthew, the writer of the first book in the New Testament, was Jewish, and he wrote his account of Jesus’s life with a Jewish audience in mind. He quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures, building an argument to show that Jesus was the promised Messiah. Matthew’s book struck me as the exact opposite of the antisemitic writing my rabbi had warned about. It seemed overwhelmingly Jewish.

Lewis put exclamation points on what I was concluding as I read Matthew, but it was Lewis’s insights about beauty that intrigued me most. It was as if he’d been sitting next to me in the balcony of Philadelphia’s Academy of Music taking in those concerts. Lewis spoke of disappointments in life and how we might handle them:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to [sic] them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.[13]

I loved how Lewis expanded his discussion beyond beauty to all of life. Whether it’s an experience, a job, a spouse, or anything else, we often sense a letdown—even with the very best in life. Lewis said we can handle these disappointments in one of three ways. We can keep chasing other experiences, jobs, or spouses, only to find more disappointments. We can become cynics and give up any hope of finding satisfaction beyond the mundane. Or there’s “the Christian way,” which concludes, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”[14] That insight put a frame around all of life for me, and it pointed me to the God of that “other world.” Lewis’s words transformed a multitude of disappointments—in music, relationships, experiences, accomplishments, you name it—into pointers to the God who made our world filled with pleasures, beauty, delights, and delicious food. Yes, even food can be a pointer to the God who gave us the senses of smell and taste.

Lewis persuaded me I was longing to find God. Matthew showed me I needed to find him. Together they convinced me that Jesus is the Savior who brings us to God.

This brings us to one more important milestone:

We need perspectives within us that can account for the beauty around us.

Questioning Beauty

Do you relate to these experiences of longing? If so, where does your longing show up—when seeing a beautiful sunset, standing before a Van Gogh painting, hearing a captivating song, or staring up at the sky? Is it in reading a well-told tale, savoring a delicious meal, or laughing at a friend’s joke? Which seems more likely—that displays of natural beauty point to a supernatural source or that they are coincidences in a random world? How have you reconciled the experiences of pleasure in your life with the beliefs you hold about meaning, faith, and God?

How do you make sense of the problem of pain and the wonder of beauty occurring in the same world? If you’ve ever had the privilege of visiting the Louvre in Paris, you probably braved the crowds to get a glimpse of the statue of Venus de Milo. Millions have been captivated by the woman’s physical beauty displayed in stunningly smooth marble. They’ve also been disturbed by seeing her arms broken off. Somehow the damage done to her arms doesn’t destroy the aesthetic pleasure of viewing the sculpture as a whole. But it does cause a conflicted experience—such beauty, marred by such violence.

I doubt if anyone has ever stood in front of that masterpiece and asked, “Why did the sculptor break off the arms?” More likely, everyone concludes the beautiful parts are the work of a master artist and the broken parts are the results of someone or something else—either a destructive criminal or a natural catastrophe.

We need a unified perspective on created beauty and marred ugliness that can make sense of both. The Christian faith provides that. It points to a good God who made a beautiful world with pleasures for people to enjoy. But it also recognizes damage caused by sinful people. Ultimately, it points to a process of restoration that has already begun and will continue forever.

Content taken from Questioning Faith by Randy Newman, ©2024. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers,

[1] Peter Hitchens, The Rage against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 17.

[2] Hitchens, The Rage against God, 10.

[3] Hitchens, The Rage against God, 24.

[4] Hitchens, The Rage against God, 91.

[5] Hitchens, The Rage against God, 152.

[6] For Lewis’s book-length account of his faith journey, see Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: HarperCollins, 1955; repr., San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2017); or one of several biographies, such as George Sayer, Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005), or Harry Lee Poe, The Making of C. S. Lewis: From Atheist to Apologist (1918–1945) (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021), the second part of a trilogy on Lewis’s life.

[7] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: HarperCollins, 1955), 115.

[8] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 11.

[9] Paul Ford, ed., Yours, Jack: Spiritual Direction from C. S. Lewis (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 28, emphasis original.

[10] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 279.

[11] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 290.

[12] If you’ve never read Lewis’s classic, you owe it to yourself to read at least the book’s first two sections, “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe” and “What Christians Believe.” This book has helped many sort out issues of faith, and it continues to be a bestseller around the world. Some of its content may seem dated to twenty-first-century readers, but don’t let that dissuade you from giving it a fair hearing.

[13] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory: and Other Addresses, rev. ed. (1980; repr., New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 30–31, emphasis original.

[14] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 1955), 136–37.

Dr. Randy Newman is the Senior Fellow for Apologetics and Evangelism at the CS Lewis Institute. After serving for over 30 years with Campus Crusade for Christ, he established Connection Points, a ministry to help Christians engage people’s hearts the way Jesus did. He has written six books, Questioning Evangelism, Corner Conversations, Bringing the Gospel Home, Engaging with Jewish People, Unlikely Converts: Improbable Stories of Faith and What They Teach Us About Evangelism, Mere Evangelism: 10 Insights from C. S. Lewis to Help You Share Your Faith, and numerous articles about evangelism and other ways our lives intertwine with God’s creation.

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