The Almost Atheist: A Christian Preacher Struggles With His Message, Part II

 

All seemed lost. I was a breath away from throwing in the towel, never to preach or even attend church again. I was devastated and angry on the inside. “Perhaps it's all been a lie.” To Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, I inwardly conceded “Almost thou persuadest me to be an Atheist.”

 

But help came, as it sometimes does, from the unlikeliest of places.

 

While in college I had worked with and become friends with a man named Nick Peters. I recalled how he was always going on and on about some funny thing called “apologetics”, which he explained was the “defense of the faith”. At the time, I thought his “defense” of the Christian faith was unnecessary. I had thought, “We proclaim Truth. We don't need to defend it.” I cared little for the ancient thinkers he read, or the ideas he discussed. But flash forward several years later, and my life had changed. The stained glass in my cathedral had cracked and the falling shards were crushing me. Being frighteningly close to a wholesale rejection of Christianity, I decided to give Nick a try. In a skeptical last ditch effort, I emailed Nick a list of pointed questions.

 

Unlike some of the other Christians I had talked with before, Nick didn't insult me (any more than old friends are sometimes inclined to do). He didn't dismiss my questions, even if they were way off base. He didn’t get sidetracked with minor issues. We talked for months. Over the passing weeks, Nick invested a tremendous amount of his time in responding to my numerous frustrated emails. Realizing that my questions were surface indicators of deeper misunderstandings, he patiently dealt with the deeper underlying issues. He didn't give a witty one liner and leave me with it, secure in his own holy smugness. Nick took my questions one by one, and walked with me through my doubts. Rather than engaging my recycled New Atheist witticisms, he recommended books by actual scholars to read on the important topics, and chatted with me on the phone afterwards to clear up confusion and answer my objections. While the Atheists I had read were deeper than many Christians I had read or talked to (they were certainly deeper than I had been as a Christian), this Christian nudged the conversation deeper than I realized possible. It wasn’t an easy or quick process. It was work for both of us. But I was committed to cutting through the non-sense and to understanding what is true, and Nick was committed to helping me.

 

To my dismay, I did not find simplistic answers to my complicated questions.  The world is not as simple as at first I'd thought it was. Contrary to what a YouTube search would cause one to believe, there was no convenient, all-inclusive, magical “PROOF OF ATHEISM” or “PROOF THAT EVERYTHING IN THE BIBLE IS TRUE”.  No single, clever logical argument or bit of data could conclusively prove or collapse an entire worldview.

 

What I found was much more interesting. Rather than an easy, simplistic answer quickly proving one view or another, I found a vast ocean of ideas, with many points of examination. Some of the points I gave serious thought to:

 

-How did the Universe come to be?

-Why does anything exist at all?

-What does it mean to be human?

-It isn’t necessary for humans to ever have come into existence. Yet we exist. Why?

-What is morality?

-What is Evil, and why do good people face it?

-Why do we suffer? Is our suffering without meaning or hope?

-What is Beauty?

-Why is it that the Universe can be rationally understood by humans in the first place?

-What is Justice?

 

Many major world views address all of these points. I also examined points that specifically deal with Christianity:

 

-Did Jesus of Nazareth exist in history?

-If so, who is right about who he was, what he did, and what he taught? (Was he a failed apocalyptic prophet? A hippie? Were stories borrowed from earlier pagan myths and applied to his legends? Was he a fraud?)

-Is there any reason whatsoever to believe he actually rose from the dead, besides that I was told to believe that he did?

-Is belief in God merely a comforting child’s fable of a father figure in the clouds?

 

Each point was important on its own, but no potential answer to any particular point would satisfactorily convince me that any belief system, Christianity or otherwise, was true. Yet these points suggested a larger mystery; they were whispers of a larger reality. Statements like, “It’s faith, I just believe it”, or its counterpart, “Science is for the intelligent. Faith is for the ignorant” became trite and unhelpful. The complex world I sought to understand could not be explained in such simple terms. Keeping tabs with Nick, I further examined many logical arguments, theories, and ways of thinking. In each major worldview, be it Buddhism, Islam, Existentialism, or Atheism, some of the pieces fit together, but sometimes pieces had to be jammed together to form a jumbled overall picture. Yet, on the major points, the world as Christianity portrays it seemed to match the world I observed.

 

Does the fact that the Universe (all spacetime, matter, and energy) seems to have been created in an instant out of nothing prove the Christian doctrine of ex nihilo? No, it doesn’t. But if Christianity is true, the Universe coming into existence in this way makes perfect sense. Does the unfathomable mathematical precision required in the formation of the early Universe to allow the eventual existence of sentient beings, who question the reason for their existence, conclusively prove that a Being with immense intelligence designed it in just such a way? Not conclusively. Yet, this is precisely what one would expect if an Immense Intelligence had designed it with sentient life in mind. Does the fact that I intuitively feel that Good and Evil are deep realities rather than evolved social fabrications prove that the Christian view of morality is correct? No. But if Christianity is true, Good and Evil are quite real, as my life experiences with them compel me to believe. Does the fact that the Universe is rational and intelligible (it certainly didn't have to be) prove Christian theism? Again, not necessarily. But if a Rational Being (the Logos) created it as Christianity has always held, we would expect it to be just so. And the list goes on.

 

Slowly, I traced the dots. I came to see each point of examination not as absolute proof, but as pieces to a larger puzzle. As I placed the pieces together in the unfolding mystery, the realization gradually overtook me. Christianity, after all, makes sense. A lot of sense.  

 

While I respected Western Atheism for confidently removing the superstitions that its competitors sometimes seemed to happily baste themselves in, I saw that, in the end, Atheism’s attempted explanations of some of the points were actually quite poor, and its ability to explain how things fit together across the Great Puzzle was vastly inferior. This is not to say that because Atheism could not explain a thing that Atheism is necessarily false, but that some other worldviews, most especially Christianity, simply offered better explanations of many of the points. Moreover, Christianity offered a beautiful way of comprehensively piecing things together. Staring at a single puzzle piece was sometimes underwhelming. But seeing how the individual pieces fit together to form a coherent picture was both elegant and compelling. It turned out, the Christian Faith was not an arbitrary list of do’s and don’ts, or a heaping plate full of beliefs so difficult to swallow one would have do it with his eyes closed.

 

Christianity is not a set of simple antiquated beliefs disproven by modern science and irrelevant to modern life. Rather, Christianity provides an overarching narrative, a picture of the Universe, that offers explanation for many of the important questions we ask. Christianity offers an unparalleled comprehensive framework for understanding the world we exist in, which resonates with what we can observe in the world, and in ourselves. What I observe in the world matches the Christian world picture. Further, if Christianity is true, it offers light into the shadows of what I cannot observe. Perhaps more valuably, it offers a way of helping me make sense of my human experience. I finally understood what C.S. Lewis meant when he famously said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”[i]

 

When some Christians said we should ignore the Puzzle, or only look at one or two of its pieces[ii], and many Atheists preached that Christianity offers no help in piecing together the Great Puzzle, when I stepped back and examined it, Christianity simply made sense. More sense than Atheists and even some Christians gave it credit for.

 

But something was missing. I had realized that the Christian worldview was coherent, elegant, reasonable, and meaningful. I had begun with a renewed interest to respect Christianity. But intellectual assent is not spiritual consent. Piecing together the Great Puzzle had become merely an intellectual endeavor for me. Because I did not want to be manipulated by my emotions or by loud preachers into “feeling” something was true, I had tried to leave them out of my intellectual odyssey. I had studied world thought for years. I studied even more intensely during the months Nick and I were talking. I spent every waking moment studying and thinking. I felt I had to know the truth, yet I simply wasn't prepared for the implications of it. One memorable night, God again became much more than an intellectual puzzle.

 

In our talks, Nick had introduced me to the arguments of the Medieval thinker, St. Thomas Aquinas. Drawing from Aristotelianism and from what can be observed in Nature, Aquinas sought to show in formal fashion that the existence of God is logically coherent with reality. With the combined weight of many other puzzle pieces in mind, I began to work through one of Aquinas's dense logical arguments. He argued from what he called “motion” to the conclusion that a Being which we call “God” must exist to put things into motion. While reading Aquinas in college, I had grossly misunderstood him, and dismissed his argument as a primitive conception of inertia. When Nick brought him up, I mocked. Nick patiently suggested I carefully reexamine what Aquinas was getting at. It took me some time to wrap my mind around the argument (a couple of days, actually). One night, while lying in my safe bed beside my wife, with a book in hand, as I’d done hundreds of times before, it clicked. I realized that the argument was valid and coherent. In a terrifying moment of clarity, the implications of this argument combined with the implications of many other puzzle pieces hit me: All of Creation depends on this Being not only for its beginning, but for its continued existence. God exists. And if all of this is true, then He isn't a safe, far away God, uninterested in human lives… in my life. I was, in that very moment, depending on His existence for my own. I depended on His existence to read my book and question His existence (as your existence depends upon His as you read this page). He is infinite and timeless, which means He exists in all times and all places, including... Like lightening, I was no longer safely in my bed reading an interesting book about an abstract idea. I was dealing with a Person. And He was there.

 

Startled, I threw the book across the room and ran.

 

All of the memories and feelings of God calling me to be with Him again flooded my mind. I again felt the presence of the One Who Is There. At first it was utterly terrifying. But then I felt warm affection, like when you welcome a dear old friend into your home. As I had in the past, I humbled my heart before Him. Tumult gave way to Peace.

 

When considering the overall coherence and explanatory scope of Christianity, the resonance of the Christian world picture with the world I observe, the many reasons to believe in God, together with the historical evidence for the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (a topic for a coming post), and the inescapable sensing of God's presence, I came to the sobering realization that I no longer had any clear reason whatsoever for considering Atheism. You see, Atheism is not always the confident proclamation, “There is no God.” It is more often skepticism about confident Theism. But I now had far more reasons to believe in Christian Theism than to be skeptical of it. Like John the Baptist, I had needed to step back and ensure Christianity is true before I committed until the end. As God in His grace allowed John his answer, so He allowed me mine.

 

In my journey, I've learned that God is bigger than I once took Him to be. I've learned that Christianity is not antiquated, anti-scientific superstition which must be taken on blind faith in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  I’ve learned that Faith is not a form of ignorant guesswork. I've learned that Christianity is not irrational (even if some Christians are), but has great explanatory scope and power. I’ve learned that certain things must be true in order for Christianity to be true, but that differences of opinion on secondary and tertiary doctrines need not threaten the whole system. I’ve learned that Christianity has much to say to today's shallowing world, and wields great existential relevance in modern life.  While I do not agree with some of the minor doctrinal positions I once held, I do hold, more confidently than ever before, to traditional Christian beliefs. Because there are many good reasons to do so.

 

At the end of my journey, I arrived at the beginning. Or perhaps just next door.

 

I’ll always be grateful to Nick, a true friend, for taking the time to study, and to talk. It changed the course of my life. It changed the way I view the world. It changed how I’ll raise my children. My children will decide what they believe for themselves, but in the years God gives me with them, they will learn something of the Great Puzzle, they will know something of what others believe and why, and they will certainly look back as adults and know why their Daddy was a Christian.

 

 

I am unabashedly Christian. But I was almost an Atheist. And I am not alone. There are many like me.

 

 

 

 

I share my story not because it is unique. But because it is common. The American Church is hemorrhaging young people. I personally know or have talked to hundreds of young adults who have left Christianity. I know former Christian college students, Sunday School regulars, and even Christian ministers who walked away. I know many others who remain in church (some in ministry), but are privately disillusioned, doubting, or confused. Some hold on to belief in God or Christian ideas to varying levels, and are merely disenchanted with organized religion. Many others are skeptical of the entire Christian belief system, and lean toward agnosticism, atheism, post-modernism, and Buddhism. While there will always be those who merely want to “sow their wild oats”, I am convinced that throughout our civilization, masses are walking away from Christianity because they don’t believe it. And many don’t believe it because they don’t understand it. Young adults marching in the mass church exodus often say they perceive the Church as shallow, anti-science, anti-intellectual, smug, irrelevant, and that the Church is not a safe place to ask questions or express doubts. This ought not be.

 

I would like to offer some suggestions for moving forward.

 

 To The Skeptical:

 

Thank you for taking the time to read my story! In my journey, I discovered that the world is more complicated than it sometimes appears. We each have different backgrounds and life experiences, and so perhaps have different doubts and questions. Sometimes, there aren’t easy answers. But, as with many things that are valuable, some ideas are worth investing time and effort into understanding.  In an upcoming series called, “Why I am a Christian”, I’ll be sharing some of the “puzzle pieces”, or reasons why I’ve come to think Christianity is true, and how it is relevant in my life. I’ll give the summary version in my blog, but will recommend books if you’d like to go deeper. I’ll also be candid about questions I still have, or things I’m unsure of. I’d love to read your comments, provided we all remain civil. I can’t promise that I’ll respond to every comment, but I am interested to listen to what you have to say. As a friend helped me, I hope, in some small way, I can be of help to you on your journey.

 

 

To Christians:

 

1.      Apologetics is no longer a luxury. It is a necessity. It must be incorporated into our Sunday Schools, Christian school curriculums, and college programs. Culture is changing rapidly. In the market place of ideas, Christianity cannot afford to pack up and go home. We can no longer assume that non-Christians understand Christianity. We can no longer assume that our children will grow up understanding Christianity, unless we invest in teaching them. My private studies of these very important topics took me years of personal investment. Nick took months of his time investing in me, not to mention the years he spent in study. Yet, I had spent years attending church. I went to a conservative Christian college. I attended seminary. During those years, time could have been spent teaching not just Bible stories, basic doctrine, and a list of do’s and don’ts. Time could have been spent laying the foundation for why we believe Christianity is true in the first place. We desperately need to reach out to our culture. But just as importantly, we need to reach in to our own congregations with preventative apologetics, and reach people before they slip away.

 

2.      When we present Christianity, we must be careful to not muddy it with secondary things. I take certain positions regarding politics, economics, or secondary doctrines. But I mustn’t let someone think that because they disagree with my political views or secondary doctrinal stances, that it is Christianity they disagree with. We must separate core Christian beliefs from secondary doctrine and cultural specific practices. If God exists, and Jesus is who Christianity claims, then Christianity is true. Regardless of how old the earth is. Regardless of the scope of the Genesis flood. Regardless of one’s preferred economic model. Regardless of one’s chosen position on the doctrine of election. Regardless of who I vote for. If Christianity is a structure, we must show people the firmness of the foundation and strength of the support walls. Arguing about the best color of curtains is optional, and should never be our focus when talking with people who don’t live in the house.

 

3.      When dealing with doubters and unbelievers, we must not get arrogantly locked into winning an argument. Humans are complicated. There is always something going on underneath the surface. While my doubts about Christianity were intellectual in nature, in reality, they went deeper than my intellect. My pain, personal mistakes, and confusion about past life events fed my doubts. The problem of Evil carries more weight when accompanied by experience. When discussing Christianity with unbelievers, or with doubters, or even with Christians, we must realize that intellectual objections may be only a part of what's at work. Bitterness, pain, sin, disappointment, lust, fear, and personal loss are factors that may well be at work deep within the human being we're talking to. We must be sensitive to the humanness of our conversation partner, and not be in it merely to win an argument.

 

The Christian Church cannot compromise core Christian doctrine simply to appease cultural fads or keep attendance high. But the Church can wisely navigate its environment, seek to improve its stewardship of people in its care, and better engage with a culture in need. We must begin the slow work of teaching the reasons for, and relevance of, our Faith. The Church can do better. We must do better. And we must do it very soon. The fate of our culture, and faith of our children, are on the balance.

 

 

End                                                                                       

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Lewis, Is Theology Poetry?

[ii] When some well-meaning Christians argue for the truth of Christianity, they tend to spend more time arguing about how old the earth is, than focusing on the weightier points. If God exists, and Jesus is who He claimed to be, then Christianity is true. If God does not exist in the way Christianity claims, or if Jesus is not who Christianity claims, then Christianity is false. The age of the world is a secondary detail involving other puzzle pieces (hermeneutics and epistemology). The support structure of the Christian world view is far removed from the age of the world.