I often talk with atheists, since atheists are human beings deserving of respect and I used to claim to be one. I say “claim” because if an atheist is defined as someone who is certain there is no God, then after awhile I had to admit that no can be certain of that.
We can choose to believe things based on probabilities as we perceive them, which is what humans do all the time, but then non-believers would have to admit, if honest, that they are then agnostic (nothing can be known.) That’s what I claimed next; not only did I not know, but nobody else knew, either. That last part may have been a bit arrogant.
In a recent Twitter discussion with an atheist who I think is a good person, I pointed out that what we think we know, we got from other people. Personal experience is more convincing evidence. She asked what was my personal experience with God and I cannot answer in 140 characters on Twitter.
First, a precaution. We are all, myself included, prone to Confirmation Bias. It has been demonstrated repeatedly that we filter all new information through our pre-existing worldview. Well, what else could we do? Filter it through other people’s worldview?
If information hits the filter and jars our pre-existing worldview, we want to ignore it, minimize it or explain it away. This sounds a bit stupid, but it serves to protect our entire system of beliefs, which, let’s face it, have kept us alive up to that point, so they can’t all be bad. We feel very uncomfortable when our belief system is challenged, as you may have noticed.
We often get angry and defensive. It’s just humans being human. It is impossible to force a person to believe a thing, even if it’s true. The best we can do is to encourage an open mind. So I suspect a militant atheist would take my and other people’s experiences with God as baloney, insanity, or brain quirks. Anything but an actual experience with God, since they hold a preconception that there is no God. But here goes anyway; mine is the last one.
C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)
C.S. Lewis was an atheist professor at Oxford and author of The Chronicles of Narnia, among other works. His story is kind of funny and I’ll let him tell it:
“You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” (Surprised By Joy, ch. 14, p. 266).
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) mathematician, physicist, inventor
He lived what most of us would consider a good Christian life and after his death this note was found, dated 1654:
“From about half-past ten in the evening until about half-past twelve … FIRE … God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, and not of the philosophers and savants. Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.”
Charles Finney (1792-1875) was an American lawyer who gave his local pastor a hard time. A logical man, he did not like emotionalism.
North of the village lay a piece of woods, and I turned and bent my course toward these woods, feeling that I must be alone, and away from all human eyes and ears, so that I could pour out my prayer to God.
But still my pride showed itself. As I went over the hill, it occurred to me that someone might see me and suppose that I was going away to pray. Probably there was not a person on earth that would have suspected such a thing, had he seen me going. But so great was my pride, and so much was I possessed with the fear of man, that I crept along under the fence, till I got so far out of sight that no one could see me. Then I penetrated into the woods and knelt down for prayer, vowing that I would give my heart to God, or never come down from the woods again.
As I returned to the village, I found that my mind had become wonderfully quiet and peaceful. No words can express the love that was in my heart.
Watchman Nee (1903-1972) was a brilliant law student born in China, who wanted to have all the facts before he made up his mind. He wrote several books after his conversion and was jailed by Mao in 1952. He died in prison in 1972 and left this note for his relatives who would come to pick up his ashes: “Christ is the Son of God, died for all to redeem their sins, raised in the third day–this is the greatest fact in the universe. I died because I believe in Christ.”
On the evening of April 29, 1920, I was alone in my room. I had no peace of mind. Whether I sat or reclined, I could find no rest, for within was this problem of whether or not I should believe in the Lord. My first inclination was not to believe in the Lord Jesus and not to be a Christian. However, that made me inwardly uneasy. There was a real struggle within me. Then I knelt down to pray. At first I had no words with which to pray.
But eventually many sins came before me, and I realized that I was a sinner. I had never had such an experience in my life before that time. I saw myself as a sinner and I also saw the Savior. I saw the filthiness of sin and I also saw the efficacy of the Lord’s precious blood cleansing me and making me white as snow. I saw the Lord’s hands nailed to the cross, and at the same time I saw Him stretching forth His arms to welcome me, saying, “I am here waiting to receive you.” Overwhelmed by such love, I could not possibly reject it, and I decided to accept Him as my Savior.
Previously, I had laughed at those who believed in the Lord, but that evening I could not laugh. Instead, I wept and confessed my sins, seeking the Lord’s forgiveness. After making my confession, the burden of sins was discharged, and I felt buoyant and full of inward joy and peace.
My experience. What am I doing here with these famous people? But then, the whole point of the good news is that every soul is equal before God, so here goes:
I was in art school and claimed by this time to be agnostic. I did not want to hear anything about Christianity, because I was sure I already knew all about it. I had just told off a Christian who wanted to discuss this stuff, when another student approached me. “What are you-one of those “good Christians, too?” I asked in disgust.
“It’s not about being good,” he answered. “Would you read a little book with an open mind?” Open mind! I had the open mind, not them! I read it, just the simple good news I strangely had never heard before.
You sin. Duh. You cannot stop. Can’t I? Who knows, I never tried. The book said go try. The gift of God is eternal life-you cannot earn it. If you could earn it, you would brag about how great you are. Yes, I would. It’s free. Do you want it?
“I’d be a damn fool not to try this,” I thought. Yes, I said, “damn fool.” So I prayed a little prayer. Nothing. The book said I was a new person. Nothing.
I went out into the kitchen and wondered, somewhat doubtfully, “So am I a new person?” BAM. Lewis called it “surprised by joy.”
I say I got hit with the Holy Sledgehammer because I was such a hardhead. All those cliches: light, joy, peace, yeah, all that-and I KNEW I KNEW that I was a child of God. My life turned around 180 degrees, not that I became a plaster saint then nor am I one now. It’s a process, a very difficult but ultimately joyful process.
If I had just read the book and assented mentally to its contents, I guess I would say I was a Christian. There are probably a lot of Christians like that. But that other thing, that life-changing thing, that is way beyond mental assent.
I could collect thousands of these stories, all very different in details because we are all unique. Testimony is evidence and most of what we believe is based on somebody’s testimony-often from people we label as authorities. Do you believe in the Big Bang? You believe it based on testimony. We know authorities can be wrong; they have been wrong before.
I would suggest that even better evidence than testimony is a changed life, because we humans can say anything but we are extremely reluctant to change. An experience that results in a radically changed life and a change that not only lasts, but grows-that is powerful evidence.
So how could a person have this experience? I am no better than anyone else, and worse than some, how did I have it? I just opened my mind a little crack, just enough to let some light in. God is not far away on a mountain in Tibet; you don’t have to pay for a course called How to Find God or know the meaning of reams of magical symbols or drape yourself in crystals or any of that. In fact, Jesus said unless you change and come as a little child, you won’t see it, though it’s right in front of you, because it will look too simple to you.