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:
- No ultimate meaning. After enough centuries, I and the
people I lived among would have disappeared, our thoughts and ideas
forgotten. So how was any real achievement possible? My strong feeling
that the things I did had some importance was either a delusion or
evidence that my world view was faulty.
- No foundation for morality. Yes, morality can be built in to
atheism, but it's an optional extra. There was no objective standard of
right and wrong. The only constraint on my behaviour was what was
legally and socially acceptable. In other words, fear of punishment was
my only guide. OK, I could be a good person if I so chose, but I didn't
have to and I had no real grounds for complaint if anyone else chose
differently. I feared that if I really lived according to my beliefs, I
wouldn't like myself. This fear also was either irrational or a clue
that I was missing something.
- This lack of morality was dramatised for me
at the time because
of the cruelty of atheist regimes in the Iron Curtain countries. Here I
saw the logical outcome of my beliefs, and it didn't look good. The rulers of those states could
justify any act of oppression if it was "good" for the state, and
neither I nor anyone else could say that what they did was objectively wrong.
- Was materialism an incomplete description of reality? Science is
a great way to probe the properties of matter and the nature of the
universe and it has led to wonderful technological advances, but there
is one area into which it shed no light: my inner thought life! I was
impressed by Descartes' famous statement "I think, therefore I am". This raised
the thorny question: if the material world is all there is, how could
one part of it (me) be conscious and aware of the rest of it? My inner
thought life should be an observed fact to be explained as much as any
physical phenomena. A science which ended up reducing everything to
particles and waves had surely missed something important: it was
describing everything except the scientist.
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.
- A hunger for God. I really wanted to know if, in spite of my
belief to the contrary, God did exist and was perhaps mildly amused by
my naivety. Again, this feeling which I describe imperfectly as
"hunger" was either a delusion or a clue that I was missing out
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,
could freely choose whether it was back down the side I had come up
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
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:
- If I was to truly follow Jesus, this had to
mean becoming like Him. It wasn't something which could be faked. He
showed me Matthew 7:16 - "Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or
figs from thistles? Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree
bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree
cannot bear good fruit."
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.
- I should consider carefully whether I really wanted my life
to be transformed. He showed me Jesus' parable: "Suppose one of you
wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the
cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the
foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will
ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and
wasn’t able to finish.’" (Luke 14:28).
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
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.