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What Moves Someone from Skeptic to Believer? (Part Two)
By Jana Harmon
Last week, in part one of this series, we began looking at four “catalysts” that played a key role in the conversions of the former atheists I’ve interviewed for the Side B Podcast. There we surveyed the Disruptive Witness catalyst and the Disruptive Longings catalyst. Today we’ll conclude by discussing the Disruptive Crisis and Disruptive Circumstances catalysts.
the Disruptive Crisis catalyst occurs in the face of a personal dilemma or tragedy. Someone’s life is interrupted by an unexpected negative event and the status quo of normal ways of thinking and living no longer seem adequate to the crisis at hand. Often, unforeseen personal challenges such as an illness or death can be humbling and produce an openness that was unthinkable up until that point. Of course, crises can push someone in the opposite direction towards or reinforcing their atheism, elevating their hatred or hubris against God. But, it can also serve as a tempering catalyst that softens a hardened heart.
Brandon McConnell’s (Ep. 3) unanswered prayer in the face of his father’s death catapulted him into “a war with God.” This first disruptive crisis propelled him away from a nominal belief into full-fledged anti-theism. After five years another set of personal disruptive crises, two episodes of sudden and unexplained visual loss and recovery, caused him to rethink his trust in science and medicine as the ultimate explainers. When his mother told him the story of Saul (later Paul) being blinded so that he could see, it opened the door to the reality of the Jesus of the Bible.
Successful in life, Warren Prehmus (Ep. 8) felt no need for God. God was for weak people who needed a crutch. After the sudden loss of his premature twins, his wife began to search, believing there must have been a reason for their deaths. Through this disruptive crisis, he, too, recognized “a hunger” to find the truth, believing, “there’s got to be something more” (sparking a disruptive longing). He began to read the Bible (and apologetics writings) and was stunned by what he found—not only himself as a sinner, but Jesus as Savior. His pride melted into humility and surrender.
Last, the Disruptive Circumstances catalyst is a non-crisis situation that causes someone to reconsider their own or another’s worldview more closely. This disruption can take the form of a normal course-of-life event or perhaps, in a more unusual form, a supernatural occurrence or encounter.
A natural disruptive circumstance catalyst may be that someone they know changes their life and becomes a Christian, or they unexpectedly meet (and/or are attracted to) a Christian, and this reality inconveniently raises issues of truth, whether of the other or their own worldview. As many non-believers have a presumed understanding of the truth of their own perspective, it can become unsettling when another person(s) close to them adopts another point of view.
Daniel Rodger (Ep. 13) culturally presumed God’s non-existence, enjoying the moral freedom this brought. When his grandparents became Christians, this natural disruptive circumstance precipitated a personal inner challenge to investigate and disprove Christianity. It led him to read the Bible and Christian thinkers, leading him to the reality of God, his own human condition, and need for the gospel.
Alternatively, a supernatural occurrence may be a dream or vision with an encounter with Christ as the pivotal catalyst towards openness or change.
University professor Mary Poplin (Ep. 14) was spiritual but not religious, living life in her own way and wanting nothing to do with the morally demanding Judeo-Christian God. Her perspective suddenly changed when she encountered the holiness and forgiveness of Jesus in a vivid dream. After this supernatural disruptive circumstance catalyst, she began a journey to find the One who had personally met her and from whom she had experienced perfect peace. She reflected, “God used a dream with me because I wouldn’t listen to anyone. There was no other way to reach me.”
As Christians, we need to be careful about our presumptions about others, what we think they may need, or what will change their minds. These stories show that catalysts towards openness are varied and different from person to person. They are door-openers, an attraction to something that is good that invites further exploration towards truth. The God that we believe in and worship knows us intimately and reaches our hearts and minds in unique and very personal and powerful ways.
Let’s do our part to be effective, disruptive catalysts, to be faithful, embodied, loving, intelligent, kind, gracious, generous, relational, available ambassadors whom the Lord uses at pivotal places and times in people’s lives to bring them to Himself. Let us pray that the Lord provide disruptive catalysts in the lives of those whom we love as ways to open them and turn them in the right direction. And mostly, let us trust that He is faithful to complete the work He begins in the lives of those He has called.
— Jana Harmon is the host of the Side B Podcast, a forum in which former atheists tell their stories of conversion to Christianity. She is a Teaching Fellow for the C. S. Lewis Institute of Atlanta and former Adjunct Professor of Cultural Apologetics at Biola University. She holds an M.A. in Christian Apologetics from Biola and a Ph.D. in Religion and Theology from the University of Birmingham in England. Her doctoral research studied the religious conversion of atheists to Christianity through the interviews and stories of 50 former atheists.
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