Last weekend, the classic book and movie, Ben Hur, was released as a new movie. Many watch the movie every year around Easter and enjoy the fictional character, Ben Judah, and his struggle to come to faith. What many people do not realize is the original book was inspired by an atheist! In fact the author, Lew Wallace, became a believer while penning the original book. Read the account of the story below.
In 1876, after a conversation on a train with a well-known atheist, Col. Robert G. Ingersoll, Lew Wallace realized that he didn’t know as much as he would like to about his own faith. (He attended the Methodist Church off and on throughout his life, but consider himself indifferent to religion.) He thought that the idea of doing research for a book he could write would be the best motivation for him to tackle reading the Bible. He had already written a short story describing the journey of the wise men to Bethlehem - a subject which has fascinated him since he was very young. This became the first book of Ben-Hur, with the rest of the novel describing the “religious and political conditions of the world at the time of the coming,” as he says in his Autobiography. Although he may have been indifferent to religion before writing the book, he says in the preface to The First Christmas, 1899, that the act of writing Ben-Hur resulted in “a conviction amounting to absolute belief in God and the divinity of Christ.”
Ingersoll didn't mean to do it, but he goaded Lew into taking Christ seriously. Taking a train to Indianapolis one evening, Lew Wallace heard someone call his name. It proved to be the notorious agnostic Robert Ingersoll, who, as a colonel with the 11th Illinois Cavalry volunteers, had fought under General Wallace at Shiloh. Ingersoll invited Lew into his compartment to talk.
Lew claimed the right to choose the subject. His themes were all of a religious nature. He gave them to Ingersoll and here is Lew's description of what happened --
"He was in prime mood; and beginning, his ideas turned to speech, slowing like a heated river. His manner of putting things was marvelous; and as the Wedding Guest was held by the glittering eye of the Ancient Mariner, I sat spellbound, listening to a medley of argument, eloquence, wit, satire, audacity, irreverence, poetry, brilliant antitheses, and pungent excoriation of believers in God, Christ, and Heaven, the like of which I had never heard. He surpassed himself, and that is saying a great deal. The speech was brought to an end by our arrival at the Indianapolis Central Station nearly two hours after its commencement. Upon alighting from the car, we separated, he to go to a hotel, and I to my brother's, a long way up northeast of town. The street-cars were at my service, but I preferred to walk, for I was in a confusion of mind not unlike dazement. To explain this, it is necessary now to confess that my attitude with respect to religion had been one of absolute indifference. I had heard it argued times innumerable, always without interest. So, too, I had read the sermons of great preachers...but always for the surpassing charm of their rhetoric. But--how strange! To lift me out of my indifference, one would think only strong affirmations of things regarded holiest would do. Yet here was I now moved as never before, and by what? The most outright denials of all human knowledge of God, Christ, Heaven, and the Hereafter which figures so in the hope and faith of the believing everywhere. Was the Colonel right? What had I on which to answer yes or no? He had made me ashamed of my ignorance: and then--here is the unexpected of the affair--as I walked on in the cool darkness, I was aroused for the first time in my life to the importance of religion. To write all my reflections would require many pages. I pass them to say simply that I resolved to study the subject . . . It only remains to say that I did as resolved, with results - first, the book Ben Hur, and second, a conviction amounting to absolute belief in God and the Divinity of Christ."
Countless people wrote Lew, thanking him for his book. Many said they became Christians through it. One man wrote, "I could scarcely work, eat or sleep." Under deep conviction, he united with a church. "Since that time I have been blessed with a new home, a new life, and a perfect peace of mind." Ironically, Lew himself never joined a church. The former general and U. S. President Ulysses S. Grant informed Lew that he had become so enthralled with Ben-Hur he sat up 30 hours straight to read it from cover to cover. Up to the present time, it has never been out of print.
Lew was drafting Ben Hur at the time. Up to that point, he had not even cared if there were an afterlife. But as he wrote, his outlook changed. He came to recognize that Jesus must be taken for who He says He is. Ben-Hur had looked for a king to defeat Rome. Instead, he got a suffering Savior. Lew saw what this meant: "It is not an easy thing to shake off in a moment the expectations nurtured through years...He [Ben-Hur] persisted, as men do yet today in measuring the Christ by himself. How much better if we measured ourselves by the Christ?"