Conversion

The following is my attempt at writing down how I became a Christian; a follower of Jesus Christ, in 1976. It's more introspective than things I usually write and I have to apologise at the start that it expresses what happened very imperfectly. It's written from my point of view because that's the only one I have available, but of course I now believe that God was working in me through many experiences, debates and trains of thought. I wasn't aware of that at the time and probably still don't fully appreciate it now.

In my teens I took to atheism as the simplest explanation for just about everything. The branch of atheism I favoured was materialistic atheism, maintaining that not only was there no God, but the material world was all there was. This went well with my early interest in science, particularly physics and astronomy. For some years I found this a neat, self-consistent world view.

In my university time studying mathematics, though, I began to be troubled by some of the limitations and difficulties of this viewpoint. I know that this is oversimplifying a huge area of philosophy, but some of the problems I saw were:
Because of this feeling that something was missing, I was interested in other philosophies and enjoyed religious debates. I prided myself on listening to anyone, confident that I was able to distinguish truth from error. I now think that this time was a window of opportunity for me to honestly seek the truth. As we go on in life, developing habits, an unwillingness to admit we've been wrong for a long time, and favourite "sins" which we would have to give up, develop a kind of armour against seriously thinking about God. It's possible to change later in life, but I think it's harder.

I came to a realisation that, if materialistic atheism wasn't actually true, it really should be easy to disprove! It's such a bold claim, completely denying the existence of anything except the material world, that one single counter-example would sink it. Seeing a ghost, having a premonition, witnessing a miracle, experiencing telepathy, receiving a divine revelation; anything at all "non-material" would blow my world-view apart. With this, I also realised that I had developed a particular habit of thought as a defence against just this possibility. Actually, I may well have been experiencing a steady stream of hard-to-explain things and promptings, but I was well practiced at thrusting them aside and explaining them away as coincidences or my own perceptions. It was now time to face up to the question. I remember saying or thinking, "God, if you're real, I would like to know!" and I now recognise that as a prayer although at the time I would have found the idea of praying ridiculous.

In my university the Christian Union were having a "mission". I was aware of their posters and meetings, but I didn't take any notice until two of them came knocking on the door of my room. I was still interested in debates so this wasn't the annoyance to me that it often seems to be to others. We sat down and talked things over. They didn't convince me and I didn't convince them, but they did suggest I should try reading the Bible and I agreed out of interest.

That evening, reading it alone, I experienced conversion. This is now hard for me to describe and explain. It was as if God spoke to me: “OK, all the debates have been very entertaining, but now, what do you choose?” I remember a moment of total disorienting freedom: for the first time, it really was possible for me to step out of unbelief and into, well, knowing God. It was like being lifted up onto a knife-edge ridge; I knew I was going to fall down again soon, but I could freely choose whether it was back down the side I had come up from, or down the other unknown side. I prayed, “Yes, God, I admit that you’re right and I’ve been wrong.” I'm describing this experience very imperfectly, but I've read enough of other people's accounts to be sure that they have faced the same inescapable choice.

One thing that convinces me that this was a real experience and not just a product of my own mind is that it immediately led me to do things I didn't want to do. I knew I needed to talk to God, to pray, but I didn't know how, so I used the Lord's prayer remembered from school. But then I remember very clearly thinking, "What have I done? I'll have to go to church! I'll have to tell my friends and family!" One particular friend from school days, who was a Christian and had long suffered my argumentative attempts to get him to give it up, would have to receive a letter. (He later told me that he wasn't sure whether to believe it or whether it was "one of my stunts").

The visitor who had lent me his Bible was quite surprised about the change in me the next day. He tried to give me some helpful advice: read the gospels; use the Lord's Prayer; tell people. It seemed that God had already led me in all these directions. I remember two other key things which he showed me:
I got into the routine of the Christan Union and going to church. Then, at the end of term, God gave me a nice confirmation that I was now going the right way. Christian Union friends warned me that the first vacation, away from university and with family and old friends, was the time when a new convert was most likely to "fall away". I made this a matter of prayer: "God, when I go home, please show me which church I should go to". After the term, arriving back at my parents' home, I found an envelope from another school friend, also a Christian, who didn't yet know about my conversion. It was an invitation card for the opening of his church's new building a few hundred yards away! I hadn't previously realised that God could give answers to prayer in writing.

Now all this could easily have been a short-term student fad, except that I was reading the Bible and learning about it as much as I could. I became aware of how good the New Testament is as historical evidence, leaving aside any questions of inspiration. Several of the authors are the eyewitnesses of what they report. There are multiple accounts: clearly distinct (not composed together), but complementary. There are overlaps between the gospels, to the extent that scholars have to postulate even more documents which must have existed before them. There are supporting materials like letters which back up the main accounts. The main writings all existed within a few decades of the events they described. Later in life, some of the authors refused to deny what they had recorded, even under imprisonment or torture.

Most historical events as well documented as this are accepted by historians without hesitation as facts. In the case of the gospels there is one, and only one, reason why this doesn’t happen. They describe Jesus’ miracles; particularly him rising from the dead! History spills over into religion and morality and collides with science. People with prior positions in these areas have to reject the accounts as fiction. I didn’t have to do that, and I was therefore able to take the accounts at face value and try to follow the amazing person revealed in them.

Some might think I'm missing out some important features. Isn't conversion meant to include awareness of sin, repentance and recognising God's grace in Christ's death on the cross? Yes, now I think so, but at the time those key features were disguised by other areas of thought, and God mercifully allowed me to find out about them slowly. It's been several decades, and I'm still finding out.

I now think that it's quite rare for anyone to be convinced into Christianity just by argument. I think conversion is actually what God does in us, not what we do. It seems to only really be a possibility when He puts us "on the spot" as He did me, and I suspect that this happens to everyone at some time in their life. If He hasn't done that for you yet, maybe you could try asking Him as I did. At the same time, though, I'm convinced that Christianity is a reasonable belief, supported by various kinds of evidence. If it wasn't, my initial enthusiasm wouldn't have lasted long.