Surprised by God, Part 1
by Jana Harmon
We hope you enjoy part one of this guest post from Jana Harmon, who is an adjunct professor of cultural apologetics at Biola University and a Teaching Fellow for the C. S. Lewis Institute of Atlanta. You’ll find lots of insightful observations about reaching out to skeptics based on her research of more than 50 former atheists. Look for the other two parts in coming days.
Christopher Reese, Paul Copan, and Paul Gould
Surprised by God: Reaching the Resistant 
by Jana Harmon
“A creature rebelling against its Creator is like a plant refusing to grow towards the sunlight. It results in a broken relationship which separates that creature from the eternal source of all life, love, truth, and well-being, including its own.” — C. S. Lewis
If there is something common in all of us, it is our deep need for acceptance and love, for meaning and fulfillment in life, to know what is true and real. Yet we’ve all seen many flatly reject God even though He is the source of all we desire and can be shown to be so. When you see or hear of someone resisting God, perhaps you’ve wondered if God is good, the source of unconditional love, of belonging, acceptance and deep satisfaction, why resist who and what we all ultimately desire? If God is true, and can be shown through evidence, reason, and revelation, why does someone rebuff what is intellectually and experientially real? And, If God is relevant, the giver of abundant life, what motivates someone to become open towards God, towards life that is truly life? What ways and means does God use to draw those who resist Him towards Himself? Is anyone outside of God’s reach?
These questions fueled an investigative journey engaging over fifty former secular atheists to discover why they held resistance towards religious belief, the catalysts opening their mind and heart towards change, and the reasons they finally became followers of Jesus Christ. On survey, nearly two-thirds (63%) reported no amount of evidence would convince them of the truth of any other worldview than atheism. This response begs the question of their intellectual honesty; and, answers the question as to why substantive evidence seemingly falls flat. Further, in light of such heightened resistance it also piques interest as to not only what caused such defiant walls to be built but also what eventually caused such stalwart barriers to fall down.
As we consider these issues, it is important to first realize that most people say ‘no’ to any type of religious conversion. Resistance is the normal or typical reaction of both individuals and societies to conversion attempts according to leading researcher Louis Rambo. Becoming a Christ follower entails more than merely changing one’s mind about belief in God; it demands reconsideration of life’s biggest questions as well as deep commitment to a new way of living. As such, the cost of belief for mind, heart, and life is of too great a consideration for most.
And, although many resistant to God will first provide intellectual reasons for disbelief, it’s also valuable to be aware that ‘beliefs are not formed in a vacuum, but rather they are wrapped up in a story of how they got there and why they believe what they believe.’ We are human beings with minds, emotions, and wills, driven by our families, friends, experiences, culture, social media, education, spiritual influences, and desires. Expecting the resistant’s walls to easily crumble with an apologetic argument may be unrealistic for it may be bouncing off of years of experiential, emotional, volitional, intellectually rationalized layers solidly built brick by brick over a prolonged period of time. Consider the circumstances upon which four individuals rejected belief in God:
As a child, Matt occasionally visited church and was taught Jesus loved him. However, at age seven when his house caught on fire causing the death of two brothers and burning his young faith to the ground. Guilt-ridden, depressed and angry, Matt gradually developed an impassioned hatred for God, refusing to step foot in any church building for a wedding or funeral, at great social expense. He also bolstered an arsenal of rational arguments to support his underlying emotional angst, fiercely refuting any alternative evidence for the reality of God. God is not good or true. What would it take to soften his resistance?
Joe was raised in a home absent of religious influence apart from his mother’s fluid ‘new age’ spirituality. Present, however, was his father’s ‘high-brow scientific intellectualism.’ Instead of a Bible, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos found a steady home on the coffee table. Captain of the debate team, Joe perceived himself as extremely bright and competent on the academic playground, a self-proclaimed nihilist at age 14. His friends constituted a ‘disproportionate number of antagonistic atheists and agnostics’ who enjoyed ridiculing Christians, readily defeating any argument. God is not true. What would it take to soften his resistance?
Susan believed in God as a child, but became resistant due to the legalistic, oppressive use of Christian ‘religion’ in her life. This distorted experience was compounded by personal pain and disappointment with God due to the sudden death of a close friend. She found beauty in other religions that seemed lacking in Christianity. God is not good or relevant. What would it take to bring her back to belief?
Paul had everything he ever wanted in life, highly successful by the world’s standards with no felt need for God. His personal, social and intellectual world lacked any substantive or personal exposure of Christian faith apart from one esteemed, erudite grandfather. Regardless, he viewed Christians as extraordinarily strange, as a group of whom he would be exceedingly ashamed to be associated. Belief in God would’ve interfered with his lifestyle. God is not good, true, or relevant. What motivated him towards Christianity?
It’s most likely someone will have an array of reasons for believing that God is not real.
Although intellectual reasons are often center stage as the motivation for resistance against God, we need to pull back the curtain and acknowledge those and other potential life influences as well. As seen in these four stories, resistance against God and Christian belief is influenced by socio-cultural environment (family, friends, community, education, culture), sense of identity (intelligent, rational, autonomous), intellectual and emotional doubts (‘Where is God?’), personal experiences (negative ‘How could God?’ and positive ‘no need for God’), as well as moral choices. We are more than merely rational beings. We are whole persons whose conscious rational choices are formed by many things inside and outside of us.
Getting to the root of a skeptic’s objection is important according to one former atheist in the study. Identifying different types of skepticism leads towards asking appropriate probing questions. If you went to the doctor for a chronic headache and he or she began treating your foot, you would not feel heard and the treatment would have no positive effect on the originating complaint. Similarly, it is important to discover a skeptic’s particular areas of doubt in order to intentionally guide them to discover the holes in their own worldview through good listening, strategic question asking, and leaning into the ready guidance of the Holy Spirit. We want to thoughtfully engage with the doubts they are offering and questions they are asking, not the ones they aren’t.
 A play on C. S. Lewis’s religious conversion autobiography Surprised by Joy where he journals his journey from secularized atheism to robust Christianity against all odds.
 C. S. Lewis argues this premise per former atheist Philip Vander Elst in his article “From Atheism to Christianity: A Personal Journey,” bethinking.org.
 Rambo, L. R. 1993. Understanding Religious Conversion, Yale University Press.
 Tim Meuhlhoff, PhD, Biola University
 These names are pseudonyms used to protect anonymity.
 One former atheist in my research recommended understanding different types of skepticism fueling objections to belief in God: (1) Spiritual (questions about God, the afterlife, the supernatural); (2) Scientific (questions about the origin of the universe, evolution, faith vs. reason, etc.) (3) Moral (questions about values, truth, justice, fairness, war); and (4) Biblical (questions about the Bible’s authenticity, reliability, relevance). From the accumulation of interviews, areas of socio-cultural (pressures from family, friends, sources of cultural ‘authority’ and influence) and experiential (positive – ‘no need for God’ and negative – ‘Where is God?’ life experiences) sources of skepticism could be added to this list.
— Jana Harmon is an Adjunct Professor of Cultural Apologetics at Biola University and a Teaching Fellow for the C. S. Lewis Institute of Atlanta. She holds an M.S. in Communication Disorders from University of Texas at Dallas, an M.A. in Christian Apologetics from Biola University, and a Ph.D. in Religion and Theology from the University of Birmingham in England. Her doctoral research studied the religious conversion of educated atheists to Christianity, looking at the perspectives and stories of 50 former atheists. She views apologetics through a practical, evangelistic lens.
Image by Mihai Paraschiv from Pixabay
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