A woman on our staff sent me a C.S. Lewis quote that I had forgotten about that she found meaningful in light of our worldwide pandemic. I’m glad she reminded me of it. Lewis is reflecting on the concern about living in a world that had the atomic bomb at its disposal, and the fresh fear of death and calamity it was bringing.
His reflections on that fear are worth reading in light of our present day:
In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”
In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.
This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.
I find Lewis’ point well taken. Death is a certainty, no matter our current world circumstances. It’s not if, but rather when and how. Living in fear, no matter the age in which we live, is no way to live. It only cheapens the already short life we have and the way it is meant to be lived in light of eternity.
Some have seemingly taken offense to taking Lewis’ words to heart in light of COVID-19, as they were not written about the Coronavirus and were rooted in the 1940s. But that misses the precise point Lewis was making: every era has its challenges. It isn’t about the specifics of our day – whether that be the atomic bomb, medieval plagues or the threat of Viking invasions – but about how to live with threats in general. And yes, social distancing might mitigate against Lewis’ remark about having a pint, but let’s not parse his words in such a way that we miss the forest for the trees.
Live life in light of eternity, not in light of fear,
… and live it fully.
James Emery White
C.S. Lewis, “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays.
Jon Mathieu, “Please Stop Posting That C.S. Lewis Quote,” The Christian Post, March 23, 2020, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His newest book, Christianity for People Who Aren’t Christians: Uncommon Answers to Common Questions, is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.