360° in 180–Supporting Christian Students at Secular University: Insights from Christ-Followers in Belgium (Part 26)

by Patricia Engler on May 20, 2020
Featured in Patricia Engler

Thank You for this opportunity to trust You, I prayed, closing my inbox; please help.

The prayer had become a recurring refrain throughout my mission to backpack 360° around the world in 180 days documenting Christian students’ university experiences—especially for these final weeks when I had no itinerary. A campus minister I’d contacted had just offered to meet me in Belgium the next day, so I bought a bus ticket there. Not that I had anywhere to stay.

Hesitant to book a random hostel under my circumstances, I prayed for alternative accommodations, adding, I’ll wait till half an hour before my bus leaves tomorrow, and if You haven’t opened another door by then, I’ll assume I’m supposed to book a hostel.

Morning came, and so did the final half hour. With no other direction, I booked a hostel—no refund, no cancelations. Five minutes later, I received an email. The campus minister was inviting me to stay at her house that night!

Too late!

Had I just failed some test of faith? And wait—why did my hostel confirmation claim I made two bookings, and only one deposit? With the minutes ticking down to my departure, I typed my question into the hostel website’s chat box.

“Looks like there was some sort of website glitch,” someone responded, “so you’ve got a void booking. I’ll refund your deposit!”

Whoa. I’d wondered whether God might provide for me at the last minute, but this adventure reminded me that sometimes, God works after what we, as humans, would consider the last minute. Belgium, here we come!

Welcome to Belgium

Youth’s questions about the Bible’s reliability can lead to serious faith crises if unaddressed.

I didn’t know it as Belgium’s farmland rolled past my bus window, but a turning point in this nation’s religious history involved the very phenomenon I was traveling to learn how to prevent: university students abandoning the Christian faith because of “evolution.” When youth hear unbiblical ideas like human evolution taught as fact, their questions about the Bible’s reliability can lead to serious faith crises if unaddressed. As the book Already Gone documents, such unanswered questions about evolution help explain why so many Western youth are leaving the church.1

Now, I was backpacking to find out what helps Christian students keep their faith even while they’re learning evolutionary (or otherwise unbiblical) teaching at university. But over 150 years earlier, another church-raised student unfortunately helped introduce universities to evolution in this very country.

The History of Evolutionary Thinking in Belgium2

After Darwin released Origin of the Species in 1859, his ideas didn’t initially gain much momentum in France3—and therefore, amongst the French-speaking intellectuals of Belgium. A French translation of Origin eventually did come out, however, in 1862.4 Around 1863, a young Belgian science student called Édouard Joseph Louis Marie van Beneden (try fitting that on the name line of a university exam) got a hold of this translation.

Though Édouard’s father, Pierre-Joseph van Beneden, was a prominent scientist and creationist, Édouard found Origin incredibly persuasive. He even personally wrote to Darwin several years later, saying, “In Belgium, the young generation has hoisted the flag of intellectual independence and has blown away prejudices and preconceived ideas.”5 Decades after, he would still extol Origin as the most important book history had ever seen for “the liberation of thought.”6

Based on the (forged7) embryological research of Ernst Haeckel, the pantheistic German scientist I’ve discussed earlier, van Beneden went on to found his own evolutionary research program within Belgium’s University of Liège. While other evolutionists eclipsed van Beneden’s role in the origins debate after Haeckel’s views fell out of favour, van Beneden is still remembered, in the words of a modern Belgian researcher, as “the great Belgian Darwin. He (forsook) the Christian faith of his youth and became one of the prominent Darwinian protagonist(s) of the end of the XIXth century.”8

Van Beneden’s life highlights the urgency of equipping Christian youth to defend their biblical beliefs, showing that for better or worse, just one student can help change the worldview of an entire culture. While in van Beneden’s time, his culture was mostly Catholic, a public opinion poll in 2011 found that these days, 36% of Belgians do not believe in God or a supreme being(s).9 The same poll also found that 61% of Belgians believe in evolutionary human origins—a necessary tenet of atheism.

How do Christian students in such a secularized culture keep their faith at university today?

As I made my way towards the campus minister’s door, I suspected I was about to find out.

The Campus Minister’s Insights

“Hello,” the campus minister welcomed me, ushering me up the stairs, “come inside.”

After swapping stories over an amazing spaghetti dinner, she began sharing her observations about Christian students in Belgium.

Student ministers worldwide had emphasized that Christian students need discipleship to answer worldview questions biblically and graciously.

“Often,” she remarked, “students don’t know how to share their faith and relationship with God with non-Christians, or don’t know how to answer the questions that non-Christians have. Some are normal ‘curiosity questions,’ but some others are ‘state your case’ questions about why students are Christians, what they believe about sexuality, or how they can believe in God when there’s so much misery in the world.”

Back to the importance of intellectual foundations, I noted, like apologetics training, to help students defend their Biblical beliefs. In countries ranging from Canada to Dubai to an Asian restricted-access nation to the Netherlands, student ministers worldwide had emphasized that Christian students need discipleship to answer worldview questions biblically and graciously. My host continued,

I remember one day a student came to me, and she was so shaken because someone had told her that the trinity was not in the Bible. She asked me, “Is it true?” I said, “Yes; you won’t find the term trinity in the Bible, but you don’t need to be shaken by that. It’s just the word for the concept that we see all over the Bible—for example in the great commission.”10 This might seem like a little thing, but for that student, it was huge. She wondered, “What have I believed?” So, it was important for her to have someone who could guide her, reassure her, and help her know how to understand the situation.

Students need to have mentors who are available for discussing tough questions.

In other words, I realized, students need to have mentors who are available for discussing tough questions. This reflected the importance of interpersonal foundations, or a strong Christian support network surrounding students.

“One thing that is lacking,” mused the campus ministry leader,

You know how in Acts, Paul commended the Bereans for searching the scriptures to see if what he was saying were true? I think that’s something we don’t do enough in the church: challenging people to think biblically. Many Christians have dos and don’ts in their minds from the Bible, but they don’t really connect those to who God is and to his character. They don’t know why we do or don’t do those things. I think that most of the students, even those who grow up in the church, don’t have these kinds of tools and biblical thinking principles. That’s what we want to do in our ministry: equip students to understand their worldview as Christians, as well as the worldview in which they are living.

Christian students’ most vital resource, she explained, is the Word of God. Students trying to navigate life without truly knowing who God is and what He says, as revealed through Scripture, may as well be sailors adrift on a stormy sea without a compass. This reality underscores students’ need for spiritual foundations, or a personal walk with God rooted in a deep familiarity with his Word.

“The basis of discernment,” summarized my host in Belgium, “is to ask, ‘Is this in agreement with what God’s Word says?’” (In fact, this is the first step of the 7 Checks of Critical Thinking tool I present for equipping Christian students, based on my own university experiences.)

I’d add, however, that while knowledge of God’s Word helps students understand what to do in specific situations, it’s not enough for students to simply know about God’s Word, like the Pharisees did. Students need to know God Himself, for, as this campus minister put it, “It’s only to the extent that we really know God that we’ll be able to communicate our relationships with him to others.”

This communication includes not only evangelism (helping non-believers to know God for the first time) but also discipleship (helping believers to know God even better). One of the ways my host did this herself is to mentor students in person or over video chat. The next morning, in fact, I had the chance to speak with one of these students over video chat myself.

When I asked this student what advice she’d give another Christian at university, she emphasized interpersonal foundations, saying, “Don’t think that you are alone. You’ll have to search for someone; pray for God to show you someone. But there is another Christian in the university. You’re not alone.”

The Moral of the Story

All around the world, campus Christians I’d met had shared how vitally Christian students need spiritual, intellectual, and interpersonal foundations to keep their faith strong at university. My new friends in Belgium posed no exception, especially urging for biblical discipleship to help students know God, found their thinking on his word, and defend their biblical beliefs.

While it’s too late to change history, it’s not too late to disciple upcoming history-shapers—the young people of today.

What if 150 years ago, someone had discipled Édouard Joseph Louis Marie van Beneden this way?

Imagine if 19th-century churches, families, and ministries had intentionally equipped van Beneden’s generation to build and maintain rock-solid spiritual, intellectual, and interpersonal foundations.

How would Belgium’s history look different?

While it’s too late to change history, it’s not too late to disciple upcoming history-shapers—the young people of today.

Now, I’d need to journey on from Belgium to meet some more of those young people—if I could find another place to stay. Thank You for this opportunity to trust You, Lord . . . please help!

Stay tuned for Part 27!


  1. Ken Ham and Britt Beemer, Already Gone: Why your kids will quit church and what you can do to stop it, (Green Forest: Master Books, 2009).
  2. Kostas Kampourakis, The Reception of Charles Darwin in Europe, Edited by Eve-Marie Engels and Thomas F. Glick, Volume 1, (London UK: Continuum, 2008).
  3. Evolutionary ideas were already being discussed in French intellectual circles, especially because of the French zoologist Lamarck, whose views are mentioned in other articles about pre-Darwinian evolutionary thought. However, Lamarck’s ideas did not create the same level of stir or lasting impact in Western culture as Darwin’s.
  4. Charles Darwin, De l’origine des especes : ou des lois du progres chez etres organises / par Ch. Darwin ; traduit en francais sur la troisieme edition avec l’autorisation de l’auteur par Mlle Clemence-Auguste Royer avec une preface et des notes du traducteur, Translated by Clémence Royer, (Paris: Guillaumin/Victor Masson, 1862).
  5. Van Beneden to Darwin, December 17, 1870, as cited in Kampourakis, 2008 (Reference 2).
  6. Van Beneden, in an address at the 1909 International Darwin Day celebration in Cambridge, as cited in Kampourakis, 2008 (Reference 2).
  7. Brian Freeman, “The Myth of the ‘Biogenetic Law’,” The American Biology Teacher 63, no. 2 (2001): 84
  8. G. Hamoir, "The breakthrough of darwinism in Belgium. From the creationist Pierre-Joseph Van Beneden to his Darwinian son Edouard." Annales de Medecine Veterinaire, ISSN 0003-4118, (2002).
  9. Ipsos, “Supreme Being(s), the Afterlife, and Evolution,” 2011, Retrieved May 5, 2020, https://www.ipsos.com/en-us/news-polls/ipsos-global-dvisory-supreme-beings-afterlife-and-evolution.
  10. Matthew 28:18-19.


Get the latest answers emailed to you.

I agree to the current Privacy Policy.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA, and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Answers in Genesis is an apologetics ministry, dedicated to helping Christians defend their faith and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.

Learn more

  • Customer Service 800.778.3390