When the Apostle Paul brought the good news to Athens, he was initially dismayed by the great number of idols that dotted the landscape of the Athenian marketplace. That is, until he noticed one idol dedicated to an unknown god. Convinced that he had found a bridge by which to connect the longings of Greek paganism with the gospel of Christ, Paul requested an audience with the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers of the city.
Having assembled the intelligentsia of Athens, Paul began by complimenting them for their religiousness, even choosing to use the word “temple” rather than “idol” to describe their myriad centers of worship. Among these temples, Paul explained, he was excited to find one dedicated to an unknown God: excited because he (Paul) had come to Athens for the very purpose of proclaiming to them the true name of that nameless God.
From one man, Paul told them, God had made all the races of men and assigned them their times and places. And he did this, not so that the nations would go astray, but “so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27; NIV 1984).
Augustine perhaps had this verse in mind when he began his Confessions with the profound observation that God made us for himself and that our hearts are restless until they rest in Him. Behind these two insights lies a firm conviction that when God created us, he implanted within us a desire for him. True, the Fall has corrupted our desires, even as it has corrupted our reason, emotions, and will, but the desire that God breathed into us in the beginning remains.
It is no exaggeration to say that all of Lewis’s fiction and non-fiction is underwritten by our ineradicable longing for God. The reason Lewis was able to build so many bridges of faith to so many diverse people may have less to do with the power of his logic than with the wide appeal of his apologetics of desire. Without denying original sin, Lewis called on his readers to search within themselves for that deep yearning that cannot be denied or effaced.
In his finest sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis explains that our desire for God and our desire for heaven are, ultimately, the same desire. And because they are the same, Lewis feels confident in asserting that no one who truly desires heaven will miss it. For to desire heaven is not to desire some mercenary reward, but to long for reality itself—to long to dwell for eternity in the direct presence of the One who made us for Himself.
Too often, Americans fear that their desires are too strong, and that they must therefore deny them if they are to achieve salvation. In sharp contrast to this semi-gnostic view of the body and its longings, Lewis assures us that the real problem with our desires is not that they are too strong for heaven but that they are too weak.
“We are half-hearted creatures,” writes Lewis, “fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” Heaven promises a purification, not a mortification, of our deepest desires.