Why Christian Theology Needs (Former) Atheists

A lot of prominent 20th century Christian thinkers used to be skeptics.
Why Christian Theology Needs (Former) Atheists
Image: Ben White / Unsplash

Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis’s personal secretary, once commented to the great Christian writer about a clever inscription engraved on an atheist’s tombstone: “Here lies an atheist. All dressed up with no place to go.” Not bemused, Lewis quipped: “That atheist probably wishes now that were true.”

Impertinent as Lewis’s one-liner might first appear, it was not a malicious verbal barb. Lewis was deadly serious. After all, he viewed atheism as having deadly serious consequences. Rather he sought to woo and warn atheists they faced a desperate future apart from Christ.

Lewis’s specific apologetic endeavor to thwart atheism possesses an intriguing backstory: Lewis had been a convinced atheist himself. He knew very well of what he spoke. He had “been there, done that” credibility. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis recounts his conversion to theism, a sinuous path from childhood belief to atheism to theism and finally to Christian faith.

My personal “surprise” in reading the book was caused by the discovery that Lewis’s account contained experiences with which I could loosely identify. The simple reason—one for which I am not proud—is that as a young person I, too, had rejected the Christian faith. It was reassuring to learn that Lewis had experienced an unconventional journey of faith similar to the one I had experienced. Not everyone becomes a Christian by going forward at an evangelistic altar call in a church or camp. God sometimes chases people down in very surprising ways.

Countering an Assumption

Retelling the conversion stories of former atheists who became Christians, like Lewis and myself, is especially needed today. These stories decisively countermand the widespread secular myth that atheism is the inevitable final intellectual stop for any serious, educated person determined to be scholarly, scientific, rational, and objective in assessing the world as it is.

Especially in certain academic settings, the influence of methodological naturalism is assumed. Notre Dame historian Brad S. Gregory observes: “Regardless of the academic discipline, knowledge in the Western world today is considered secular by definition. Its assumptions, methods, content, and truth claims are and can only be secular, framed not only by the logical demand of rational coherence, but also the methodological postulate of naturalism and its epistemological correlate, evidentiary empiricism.”

In American culture, atheism as a belief has grown substantially in recent years. In 2016, the Pew Research Center reported that between the years 2007–2014, the number of self-identified atheists in the United States jumped from 4% to 7%, the number of self-identified agnostics from 2.4% to 4.0%. The number of Americans claiming to be Christian fell from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014.

But despite this trend and the narrative that is purported to explain it, secularism is not the inevitable outcome of the life of the mind. Before his conversion, Lewis noticed that some of the most intelligent people he knew were Christians. After my own conversion, I began to recognize that a number of the Christians I most admired included many former atheists: Lewis, John Warwick Montgomery (apologist and church historian), Kenneth S. Kantzer (theologian and editor of Christianity Today), Carl F. H. Henry (theologian and editor of Christianity Today), William Craig (apologist), Graham Cole (theologian and educator), Alister McGrath (scientist and theologian), Scott Chapman (pastor), Lee Strobel (journalist and apologist), Craig Ott (missiologist), and the list goes on.

These individuals and many others had moved from disbelief to faith as a result of—not in spite of—their intellectual pursuits. The reflections of former atheists like these can provide valuable apologetic insights regarding perplexing questions they felt forced to navigate in coming to faith, and many become apologists or scholars who dedicated their lives to answering these questions.

The Departure of the Prodigal

But the questions are real and can be a stumbling block for many. In my own case, it was these questions that initially led me away from faith into cynicism and atheism. Raised in a caring Christian home, I attended attractive church youth ministries and summer camps and received a solid liberal arts education at a Christian college. During my sophomore year of college, I encountered Ludwig Feuerbach’s assertion that prayer is simply self-catharsis. The proposition struck me as a brilliant insight.

At a Sunday evening church service, a godly pastor said, “Let us pray,” and people reverently bowed their heads. I did not. Nor did I close my eyes. For the first time, I realized I did not believe. At the same time, I did not feel there was anyone with whom I could dare confide about my private unbelief. I now had to navigate life as a non-believer in a Christian community.

On graduation day, my father asked if I were planning to go to a seminary for which I had been pre-enrolled. “No,” I replied. Somewhat startled, he asked why not. I said calmly, “I do not believe.” Almost like a quip, but it wasn’t, he said: “That’s a good reason not to go to seminary.” At the time, I experienced no feelings of remorse for any potential pain I might have caused my father. And pain there could have been. After all, my father was the 14th generation of pastors in our family and had counted on me to be the 15th.

I headed off to a Big Ten university to work on a master’s degree in history. I tried to recover my Christian bearings by acting like a Christian. Internally at least, my subterfuge didn’t work. Possibly sensing my hypocrisy, a few Campus Crusade for Christ friends urged me to visit Campus Crusade headquarters in Arrowhead Springs, California, before I began a trek to study in France as a Fulbright scholar. For some reason, I acceded to their suggestion. Such was a bad mistake. To my dismay, I found the intensely evangelistic atmosphere at Campus Crusade more than a little off-putting. When I was told I had to engage in beach evangelism along the Pacific Ocean, I had had it.

I made an appointment to see Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru), who graciously invited me into his office. He had taken a class in church history from my father in seminary. I sat down on a spacious couch. Bright kindly asked me what was on my mind. I attempted to muster my best asinine voice: “Dr. Bright, do you actually believe Christianity is true?” Not unsurprisingly for the founder of Campus Crusade, Bright responded, “Yes.” Discerning my rebellious spirit, Dr. Bright engaged in no Christian handholding. He proceeded to hit me over the head with a verbal two-by-four: “Woodbridge, your life will either count for God or you will become an intellectual bum.”

I promptly stood up from the couch and replied, “Thank you, Dr. Bright.” I wheeled around and walked out of his office. We would become friends in later years, and he graciously never brought up my insolence that day in his California office, though when I asked him on one occasion, he told me he remembered it. On that fateful afternoon, though, I didn’t care a fig what he thought. At last, I had really been outed, and I was on my way to France to study with several world-class historians. Christianity was now very much in my religious rearview mirror and fading fast.

No Escape

While intellectual scruples may lead some away from Christianity, they do not necessarily have the last word. The conversion testimonies of former atheists provide both apologetic support and genuine solace and comfort to Christian parents whose children have turned away from the faith. No matter where these children might find themselves spiritually, they are not beyond the reach of being chased down by God the Holy Spirit.

In Surprised by Joy, Lewis described a pre-conversion encounter with an atheistic friend:

Early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good. “Rum thing,” he went on, “All that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying god. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once.” To understand the shattering impact of it, you would need to know the man (who has certainly never since shown any interest in Christianity). If he, the cynic of cynics, the toughest of the toughs, were not—as I would still have put it—“safe,” where could I turn? Was there then no escape?

Just before Lewis had this “alarming” encounter with an atheist, he had finished reading G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man. Chesterton claimed that the “one great startling statement that man has made since he spoke his first articulate word” is the assertion that the Creator of the cosmos walked this earth. Other religions cannot make this claim. For this reason, wrote Chesterton, Christianity “makes nothing but dust and nonsense of comparative religion.” It was a turning point for Lewis that would eventually lead him to theism: “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 England.”

My own story is similar. At the University of Toulouse in France, I thoroughly enjoyed my studies and drifted to the political left. But then it happened—something totally unexpected. Lewis’s warning to young atheists about the danger of reading Christian books came true. A bibliophile but with little money, I wandered one day into a bookshop in Toulouse. Out in front of the bookshop was a scrambled collection of cheap books for sale.

For whatever reason, my eyes lit upon the volume, Jesus Christ in His Times [English translation], written by Henri Daniel-Rops, a French Roman Catholic historian. For whatever reason, I picked up the book and purchased it, not realizing such was a dangerous mistake. And for whatever reason, upon returning to my student room, I began to read the book—another bad mistake given my atheistic orientation.

As I began to read Daniel-Rops’s volume, I encountered his recitation of a passage from Tacitus, a Roman pagan historian, referencing the life of Jesus and the spread of early Christianity (Annales 15:44):

A persistent rumor associated Nero with the starting of this fire. To combat this he decided to provide culprits and inflicted the most atrocious tortures upon that sect, popularly detested for their practices, who are known as Christians. This name comes to them from one Christ, who was condemned to be crucified by the Procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. This pernicious sect, formerly proscribed, has established itself not only throughout Judea where it originated, but in the Very City itself.

Like a thunderbolt, the idea struck me that Jesus might very well have existed and walked this earth. After all, I reasoned, Tacitus was no Christian propagandist and had nothing to gain in reporting a myth. If you have been a believer all your life, you will probably find it difficult to imagine that anyone could be so out of touch with the Christian faith that coming to understand Jesus existed would constitute a surprise. But major surprise it was. Not only the fact itself, but what the fact possibly meant.

As I read the statement by Tacitus, it dawned on me that if Jesus had existed, it had potentially huge implications. I had never read Chesterton as Lewis had, but in a much more simplistic fashion, I came to his same conclusion. Could it be that Jesus not only existed but that his message was true after all?

Late one evening, I was walking through the streets of Toulouse only to be trapped in a torrential downpour without an umbrella. The Romanesque Basilica of St. Sernin afforded the only open door I could see where shelter might exist. I entered the large dank and empty church to get out of the pelting rain. Puddles of water were scattered on the floor. Naked light bulbs strung across the church provided the only light.

After a few minutes, I felt compelled to go up to the front of the church. I paused by a pew and asked God—if he existed at all—to accept my very meager faith because I did not believe much of anything. Something of an interior nature happened when I prayed that prayer. I felt as if I was now at least a theist—perhaps even a Christian.

Valuable Witness

Testimonies of former atheists provide evidence of the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ to transform lives, reminding us that the gospel really is the very power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16). Additionally, former atheists themselves often possess a fair amount of patience and empathy in interacting with persons struggling with matters of faith. Often, hostile atheists are close to the kingdom.

A prominent American intellectual who is an avowed atheist once said to me that despite his acclaimed academic career, he had not found satisfaction or happiness. His words were poignant and also unforgettable: “John, don’t you know there is nothing at the top of the ladder?” Like everyone else, atheists—whatever their intellectual posture—need to be born again (John 3:1–12). They need to know that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6) and that the gospel of Jesus Christ is in fact life-giving. It offers marvelous resurrection hope. Through the convicting power of the Holy Spirit and Scripture (Heb. 4:12), even the most hardened atheists can be converted to Jesus Christ.

John Woodbridge is research professor of church history and the history of Christian thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois.

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