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After mocking those who believed in God, a former atheist came face to face with the weaknesses of his own claims. Find out how God transformed him.
My story starts in a small college town. We had moved there a few years before as an escape for my father, a former pastor who had given up on a church that had given up on him.
I would not say that my father was an openly religious man (even during his years as a minister), and he had never told us what to believe. When we had moved there, he became even more reticent. The only conversations that I remember having with him about his faith concerned the “fluidity” of biblical interpretation—something he had learned from seminary. To be honest, looking back, I am not sure he ever believed what he had once preached. Being the son of a minister, despite certain expectations, does not mean that you will have any sort of faith in God.
To be fair, I did try it. My mother has never given up on her belief, and she made sure that we at least went to church occasionally. It was a timid experiment to say the least: four boys who preferred high jinks to hymns. But we enjoyed our church bulletin artwork and crawling under the pews whenever the chance arose. We were mostly biding our time until we turned 16 and could make the “adult” decision not to go to church. It turned out, however, that we really didn’t have to wait that long.
The older we got, the more my parents drifted apart. My mom occasionally made the sojourn to church, often carting me along as the youngest. I went because I had some friends who went; I went because I thought it was good to do so. But I did not see church as anything more than a location with other people.
As any child of the 1980s, I spent much of my youth getting information from educational programs on cable and PBS. I was voracious to learn everything I could about the world, about the universe, about matter, space, time. I wanted to learn it all, and there never seemed to be enough resources. In those dark ages before the Internet, there were only so many books at our library and only so many TV shows. I absorbed everything I could about dinosaurs and our “ancient” cosmos and the history of the earth. In fact, I spent my summer vacations reading in my room.
I have to admit that I was marginally interested in religion in general during that time, and I studied ancient mythology. But I found the Bible itself to be rather dry. Thees and thous were not nearly as interesting to me as star formation, animal habitats, and chemical processes. That, I believed, was where the “good stuff” was.
What I did study of the Bible led more to questions than answers. On one hand, I was reading a paleontology book that could lay out a timeline of dinosaurs and their extinction. On the other hand, I didn’t see anything about them in the Bible.1 If God were truly God, surely He would have to have said something. But my footnotes were stubbornly silent (though I do recall them mentioning something about a hippo or elephant in Job).
When I think back, I lost all confidence in the Bible at a youth group meeting during high school. The main pastor of our large church met with us to answer some of our most serious questions about God, the Bible, life, and anything else. We all took a scrap piece of paper, wrote our question on it, and placed it in a hat. Many of the questions, given that we were teenage boys, had to do with relationships and girls, but my question was very different and simple: where are dinosaurs in the Bible? He purposefully skipped my question.
Really, I didn’t want an answer. My father’s “fluidity” lessons had taught me that there was no reason to trust what the Bible said. And the fruit of saying that the Bible (especially the first few books) is full of mythological stories and allegories was that I had no reason to believe that any of it was true. If the Bible wasn’t true for history or science, then there was no reason to trust it for spiritual purposes: if the Bible can’t be trusted on what people can see, it is very unlikely that they will trust it on what they can’t see.
When the pastor skipped my question, I decided that the books and TV programs had better answers. It was just that simple.
I had decided to be an anthropologist—or astronomer—or philosopher—or poet—or teacher. College, after all, was a cornucopia of options, and I loved the freedom of it all. My advisors didn’t understand my good grades coupled with my “extended stay.” I had convinced myself that they just didn’t understand my desire to take it all in, be everything all at once.
I was free; I was miserable. My parents were continuing to drift apart, and I felt like my life was quickly spiraling down. I convinced myself that all the anger and sadness in my life would make excellent writing material, since that’s all that I had. There is, after all, no hope when you believe that you are nothing more than a collection of senseless electrons, winding down—when you believe that your life is merely the end result of millions of random genetic mistakes.
But I could argue against the existence of God with the best of my peers. In fact, it was about that time that I was introduced to something amazingly ridiculous by an anthropology professor.
But I could argue against the existence of God with the best of my peers. In fact, it was about that time that I was introduced to something amazingly ridiculous by an anthropology professor. Before then, I had never really thought it conceivable that someone would take the Bible literally or think that the earth was young. When I think back, I find it ironic that except for an atheist professor, I may never have even heard of young-earth creation. However, at the time, I howled in delight as she explained how some Christians believed that men had one less rib because God took one to make Eve. I also secretly derided one of her religious friends that she told us about who found no disunity between evolution and the Bible. That person, I decided, was simply someone who could not give up on an archaic belief system and was clinging to a “crutch.”
On the other hand, I was interested in knowing how someone could ever believe that the earth was 6,000 years old. In several of my classes, I later heard about Archbishop Ussher’s calculation for the age of the earth, and I decided to look it up at some point when I needed a good laugh.
My parents separated in 2003, and I was never the same again. I slid into severe depression with suicidal tendencies and sought help at the university’s therapy center. After two months, the sessions ended, but my depression did not—nor my thoughts and plans for suicide. By March of that year, I had my strategy laid out and my note written. I did not believe in heaven or hell, and I certainly did not believe that I was accountable to anyone or anything. My life was mine alone.
I didn’t go through with my suicide attempt because of a single phrase. At the moment I had planned to finish the job, one simple phrase came to my mind, one solitary verse: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” I did not know what the phrase meant, nor did I know where it came from. But given my voracity to know as much as possible, it was enough to keep me from following through. However, it wasn’t until a few months later that I even tried to figure it out.
After this, I received my B.A. in English, and I took a job in information technology. The job was, in many ways, a less-than-stressful occupation, and most of my time was spent setting up computers and monitoring the nightly backup of a server. This did allow a great deal of time to read the news on the Internet while I waited for the system to finish recording.
It was during this time that I met my first living, breathing, walking, talking young-earth creationist. I did not know he was a creationist for several weeks, but he and I spent a great deal of time talking about my family and the recent issue with my parents. But when I did find out, I have to admit that I felt like I was studying an undiscovered species—a living fossil, per se. He believed, and I felt like I should get a scalpel to examine his brain. Although my first instinct was to beat him over the head with the “facts” of the age of the earth and evolution, I decided instead to let him talk.
And what surprised me is that, first of all, he didn’t believe that men have one less rib—I assumed he must simply have missed that part of his Sunday school lesson. He also was very rational in the reasons why he believed. As per my training, I figured he was “cherry-picking” the data he used to counter evolutionary claims. The mantra I was taught and clung to was that the wealth of evidence and all credible scientists supported billions of years. Case closed.
After a few weeks, I finally agreed to go to a website that my creationist friend had told me about: www.answersingenesis.org. Why did I go? Was I searching for the truth? Sadly, I went to the site because I wanted to see what ridiculous claims these people were making. It had been a rough day, and comedy was in order. And I laughed—hard—that first night. I laughed so much, in fact, that I went back the next night and the night after that. I found Ussher, and I found people with doctorates who actually believed that the earth was 6,000 years old. I also found a good number of evolutionary sites that laughed with me over that first week.
But I also found something else. There, buried in the archives, was an interesting story about the peppered moths2 that I had studied throughout my childhood. There was some question as to the validity of these experiments that were put forth as one of the cornerstones of evolutionary thought. I didn’t believe it at first, but I found correlating evidence on other secular sites as well. That may not seem like much to many people, but it caused a subtle shift in my thinking. And then there was the Miller-Urey experiment: classic foundational truth of abiogenesis. But why had no one ever bothered to discuss chirality? Why was that left out? Sure, I could find sites all over the Internet that attempted to address these issues and how they didn’t disprove evolution, but what I was concerned with was the fact that they had never been brought up before. It was as if all the difficult spots in evolutionary theory had been whitewashed.
The only controversy I had ever been taught concerning the history of the world was where life had originated and how it developed from there. I had never even thought to question the foundational principles.
The only controversy I had ever been taught concerning the history of the world was where life had originated and how it developed from there. I had never even thought to question the foundational principles; I had never even considered taking a metaphysical look at the framework that I assumed to be truth. The unspoken rule seemed to be that anyone who did would automatically become contemptible. One could be a genius one moment (as long as they followed the evolutionary principles) and an idiot as soon as one stepped beyond those bounds.
Now, I wanted to know why I based all my preconceptions on an evolutionary foundation. It wasn’t so much that I believed the creationist material; it was just that I needed to start with “what did I know” and “how did I know it.” I began re-reading some of my anthropology textbooks with an eye to find the basis for the extrapolations. What I found was that the texts themselves assumed evolution to be true from the beginning. Thus, all data was interpreted to fit that paradigm. Many of my professors had often accused creationists of the same thing as a means to destroy their arguments. But these textbooks, too, were starting from a framework (naturalism) to construct hypotheses.
To be honest, the one recurring argument I read on the Internet to support evolution was the same “all evidence supports it” argument. But I found that to be very unsatisfying. Where was all this evidence? All dating methods have to assume certain conditions in order to work. Fossils also have to be interpreted. Though I continued to read the rebuttal sites, their arguments were increasingly unsatisfying, and all of them continued to pound the “all evidence, all scientists.” This is characteristic, I found, of a great deal of anti-creationist literature—not suffocating, scintillating proofs of evolution, but, rather, angry attacks on scientific credentials, intellect, and sanity, caricatures, even hopes of “removal” through natural (and not-so-natural) selection. When I wanted proof, the only thing I found was vitriol.
I did not realize how much of an impact these discoveries were having on me until I began disagreeing with TV shows and books that I had previously accepted without question. It was also about this time that I discovered Evidence that Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell (a former agnostic)—a book that completely transformed what I thought I “knew” about the unreliability of the Bible, a book that made me want to try reading that dusty tome once again.
And when I picked up the Bible, not knowing where to start, I decided that John would be a good place (the name of that book is fairly catchy, after all). There, on the first page and the first line, I read that same verse that had stayed my hand so many months before, even though I had not read it in many years: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”—in the beginning, indeed. Those words became my prayer of confession and obeisance that day and everyday since.
Since coming to know the Lord, it has never ceased to amaze me when pastors say that accepting a literal Genesis has nothing to do with salvation. After all, they say, people have interpreted Genesis differently throughout history. But I rejected the gospel message for most of my life for the very reason that these pastors say doesn’t matter. If secular science trumps Genesis, then it trumps Christ’s message of salvation, too.
To those pastors, I ask, “If not on Genesis, where will you stand? Why should the world listen to the message of redemption when the very people who are preaching it don’t believe what God says?” This is not a backburner issue; this is not something secondary. I am living proof that people need answers, and if they don’t get them at church, they will find them somewhere else.