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Hello, and thanks for joining in. I'm Jana Harmon, and you're listening to the Side B Podcast, where we see how someone flips the record of their life. Each podcast, we listen to someone who has one been an atheist but who unexpectedly became a Christian. There are those who have never had any belief in God and embraced atheism from their youth, and there are those who once believed in God and then changed their mind, becoming an atheist.
It's not uncommon to hear from skeptics that belief in God is nothing but blind faith, that there is no evidence for God's existence, but sometimes that's also the way religious people talk and believe as well. When difficult questions arise, we're sometimes told to, "Just believe," or, "Just have faith," in the midst of our doubts. By these statements, we are led to presume that there isn't much more than our willed faith, that there is no evidence to support our beliefs or perhaps we shouldn't even try to have a reasoned faith. For someone who is a thinker, an intellectual, who wants solid reasons to support his or her beliefs, this approach doesn't work very well. It may, in fact, cause many to leave their faith behind, along with with other perceived childhood fairy tales.
In today's episode, Dr. Peter Harris lost his childhood Christian faith when confronted with intellectual challenge at university. He was hard pressed to find any substantive answers for his questions, other than to just have faith in faith. The seeming lack of evidence for Christianity did not satisfy his brilliant mind, and so he left it behind to become an atheist. What was it that drew him back to Christianity to now become one of its strongest intellectual defenders? I hope you'll come along to find out.
Welcome to the Side B Podcast, Peter. It's so great to have you!
Thank you very much for inviting me on. Thank you.
As we're getting started, Peter, why don't you tell us a bit about who you are, where you live, perhaps your education?
Okay. I live in Gravesend, which is in the southeast corner of England. At the tender age of 18, I went to University of Cambridge to study history. I've since acquired two master's degrees and two doctorates, one of which concerns the anti-theism of Christopher Hitchens, and the other was a study of the military service tribunals of the first world war, which essentially were committees set up to decide whether men who wished not to fight in the war could actually be allowed not to fight and perhaps do something else or have nothing to do with the war at all. And that took about 6-1/2 years to do, that one, whereas the other one, on Hitchens, took me about 3 years, because I'd already read and listened and watched so much of what Hitchens had put out on the internet and in his books about his anti-theism.
I'm married to Hasina, and we have two children. I work for Lucent University in Texas. I have created their online History of Christianity course, and I also work as a high school teacher as well. So yes, I'm very busy, but what I do, I really enjoy.
It sounds really quite fascinating. It also speaks to your depth of intellect and thought. You obviously like to think deeply about certain issues. You are driven by ideas, it sounds like. Very interested in issues of theology and history and I guess truth, I would imagine. I understand you study apologetics and those kinds of things as well. So I'm terribly intrigued by the story that you're going to tell us today because you are really quite an extraordinary person in terms of just liking to think about ideas and issues and history, especially Christianity in the context of history. I think that would come into play when we hear more about your story. Because I know you didn't begin on this side of understanding Christianity and its history and understanding and teasing out Christopher Hitchens' anti-theism, that perhaps you were on more of his perspective, maybe not... It sounds like you share brilliance. Let's just say that. You share brilliance, perhaps, but you perhaps also shared a bit of his atheistic worldview from the beginning, or somewhere along the line, and as someone who's intrigued by your story, why don't we start back at the beginning? Tell me... Obviously, you are from England. Did you grow up in England? Is that your home?
Yes. I did. I've lived in England all my life. I have traveled fairly regularly abroad because my wife is French, and my children hold dual citizenship. They're both French and British. And yes, I've essentially lived for 52 years in England. Well, this is my 52nd. I'm not yet 52; 51, so that sounds a bit better, doesn't it? And yes. I mean I suppose in many ways I'm not only interested within my own culture but also in other cultures as well, and in particular, I'm very interested in the United States also, its American Christianity and its history that perhaps most intrigues me.
So yes, I suppose I do have a very British outlook, but I think I'm very cosmopolitan as well and very interested in other nations, cultures, and histories and how Christianity has played a role in shaping, forming nations and what they are today in their culture, their laws, their attitudes, and I suppose even their foreign policies.
You do have a very broadened perspective, it sounds like, very intentionally so. So back when you were growing up in England, what was that culture like? Was it a Christian-centered culture? Was your family religious at all? Why don't you take me back to your roots?
Yes. I think I would probably go back to the early 1980s, when I was about 11 or 12. Because I was in a church choir. I sang for a local Anglican parish church, and I don't come from a Christian background. My parents never went to church. They never spoke much about faith or religion. My grandparents, I don't think, had any sort of regular church observance. So I came from a very sort of secular, not de-Christianized context, but I suppose an indifferent context. People just didn't worry about church. They didn't seem to think much about God. They weren't particularly hostile, either. In fact, they weren't hostile at all. They were just indifferent to that side of life. And I would say that maybe Britain in the 1980s was more overtly Christian than it is now, but the slide away from Christianity really began in the 1890s, actually. There's evidence of church ministers, at the end of the 19th century, complaining that they were losing congregants at quite a fast rate, and that decline has continued, and it really got going after the first world war, which I can only imagine is a consequence of people not being able to imagine God exists after having seen so much suffering in hospitals and on battlefields.
So there has been a steady, relentless drop away from church attendance in Britain. But we are still a very spiritual nation, because generally, when governments do censuses, they find that perhaps around about 70% of British people have a belief in the transcendent, the metaphysical, or some kind of God. And that figure has been fairly consistent over, I think probably the last 20 or 30 years, but it doesn't translate into church observance, so probably maybe 3% to 5% in the British population is in church on a Sunday morning, but 70% will say they believe in God. So that's the sort of context in which I grew up.
But the wonderful thing about my childhood is that my parents made some very good choices as to which school to send me as a child, and they sent me to a grammar school, and I had to pass an exam to get into this grammar school. And it was a school that had a Christian headmaster, or principal, and there were lots of Christian teachers. Now it was not a Christian school. It was a public school, a state school, but I became a Christian because I went to that school. That school had a Christian Union. There were many Christian members of staff. There was one particular member of staff who organized this Christian Union so that we would have prayer meetings before the day began. Students would gather to pray on a Thursday evening after school.
And I became a Christian whilst I was participating in a school production of a musical called Fiddler on the Roof, and as I'm sure everyone's aware, in that musical there are Russian Jews living in the early 20th century who are awaiting the Messiah. And I like to think that I actually found the Messiah during that time. And the reason why is that I heard the gospel being explained by members of the school cast who were also Christians. And I was the easiest convert. I heard once, and I believed immediately. And I took one of the gospel tracts from one of these students who had told my group of friends the gospel. I took it home. My parents did not like me reading late at night. They wanted me to go to sleep. So I would use a torch, and I would hide under the blankets or the covers, and read, and I read that tract by torchlight. I said the prayer at the end and became a Christian. And I felt tremendous love and peace, and I wasn't expecting that. No one told me that that would happen And I concluded that that was God. That I had been reconciled with God.
But my loss of faith occurred when I was 19. And when I look back on that time of my life, I had drawn some very serious lessons, and when I think back to that time in my life, to some extent, that shapes what I do now as an apologist. Because I lost my faith at university, and I think it's tragic because I'm aware of some of the statistics regarding how many young people go to university or college as Christians and come out as atheists and agnostics. And they're not prepared to be able to answer some of the really difficult questions that will come their way. I'm aware of a Christian apologist who's also a biologist, and he said on the very first day of one of his lecture series, the lecturer who was teaching evolutional science said to the class, "Stand up if you are a Christian," and he stood up. There were a few other people who stood up. And he said, "Well, by the end of this course, you won't be, I can assure you," which is appalling discrimination. If you had a Christian lecturer who did it the other way around, Twitter would be in uproar. So I'm very, very concerned about that particular age group.
So it sounds like as a child you came to believe quite readily and you experienced what you thought was the Christian life and you felt the love and peace of God, and that, I guess, was a very settled thing for you. Were you active in your faith during your teen years? I'm just curious. And were you taught more or discipled in any way intellectually before you got to college, how to think in more worldview or grander terms than the simple gospel?
Yeah. That's a brilliant question because it really helps me to elucidate my own experience. I left my Anglican church when my voice broke because I didn't want to sing the harmony section. I quite liked singing the melody, which is what the treble, the sopranos do.
So my voice broke just short of my 13th birthday. I had gone through that sort of croaking frog stage that many boys do as their voices break and then finally the adult voice emerges. My church essentially was my Christian Union at school for about four years.
That's where I got my fellowship. That's where I got my teaching from. That's what gave me the opportunity to pray and to worship God. Because I was a little bit scared about going to church by myself, because I knew that no one else in my family would go. But when I got to the age of 16, I decided that I wanted to go to church, and I remember, in January of 1986, going to a local Pentecostal church, which was about two minutes' walk from my house, and I fell in love with that kind of worship, although I'm not into Pentecostalism any more. I'm an Anglican again. But I have very fond memories of that church because the worship was very warm. It was very authentic. People always seemed pleased to see me, which is really important for a teenager. And I remember enjoying the preaching. I liked the people. The people were very, very welcoming. And that continued for two years, until I was 18, and then I went to university.
But your question, was I discipled? I would say no. People showed interest in me, but there was no one individual who spent regular time with me, which again I think is really important. And secondly, I certainly had no knowledge or understanding of how to defend the gospel against intellectual attack. For me, C.S. Lewis was a writer of children's stories. He was not the author of Mere Christianity or The Abolition of Man or The Problem of Pain or whatever. He was not an apologist. He was a writer of children's stories. And that's great. I think everything he wrote is amazing, but it is hard to formulate an argument on the basis of fiction, although sometimes you can. I mean I know philosophers do write fiction to explain their ideas, like the existentialists, but I had no training.
So when I went to university, I was very lucky for the first year because I had two very good friends who were Christians. They were in their final year. They were two years older than me, and they really took me under their wing, and I ended up going to a Presbyterian church, so whilst I was at college, I was going to a Presbyterian church and dressing up smartly, taking a Bible, and going and enjoying hour and a half long sermons, which... I mean, I love long sermons, and so I loved my Presbyterian church, but in vacation, I would come back to my Pentecostal church, where it was just very different, and I suppose I drew a lot from both those Christian traditions. It was a true Reformed Presbyterian church. It was not a liberal Presbyterian church. And there was very faithful preaching of the gospel, very faithful preaching of the word generally, but again I did not have any sort of education regarding the defense of the gospel against skeptics. And that's what basically undermined things for me.
In my second year, I made friends with an individual who was a real anti-theist. He had no time at all for Christianity. He had no time at all for any religion, and because he was studying philosophy, he knew all the arguments against religion, and so he would present to me David Hume's skepticism regarding the teleological argument or the cosmological argument. He would present to me Hume's argument against miracles. And I'd never heard any of this in my life. And I was defenseless in the face of what he was saying. But I do remember being tormented by this question of whether my faith was true. And I would say that there were intellectual and emotional forces working at the same time, in the sense that I had this desire to be an academic, an intellectual, and I had come to the conclusion that, to be one of those, I could not be a Christian. Because everybody I knew who was teaching was not a Christian or never spoke about any kind of faith. A lot of the very bright undergraduates with whom I was studying had no faith, either. They found it ridiculous to be a Christian.
And I remember one evening, it was a Sunday evening, and I get the impression from my memory that it was maybe a Sunday evening in November. I don't know... You probably know a lot about the British climate because you studied in Britain, but Britain seems to specialize in really gloomy, dark, wet, cold November evenings, so that's why I think it's November.
And I decided I was going to answer this question once and for all, and I decided to call upon an acquaintance of mine who struck me as the most spiritual person I knew, and he emanated peace and love and gentleness and all that sort of thing. He seemed to me to be a living saint. And I thought, "If anybody knows the answer, he does," and I remember calling on his lodging, as he was renting a room outside of college. So was I. So I was on my way home from studying in the library all day. It was a Sunday evening. I went and knocked on his door, and he opened his door, and he looked rather perturbed at seeing me because I had gotten the impression that he was going to have an early night because he had a week of lectures and seminars and experiments to do. He was studying natural science. Yet he was a gentleman. He invited me in. He made me a cup of tea. And I remember, in the course of the conversation, saying to him, "Can you give me a reason why I should be a Christian?" And I believed that he could give me the answer. And I remember he looked rather startled because the conversation now had become very serious, and he sat there and he thought for a few moments, and he said to me, "Peter, it's faith. You just have to believe it." And that was the last answer I wanted.
If there was an answer I didn't want, it was that one!
So I remember leaving. No, actually. I remember saying to him, and I'm pretty sure I must've said it very robotically because I didn't mean a word of what I was saying. I said to him, "Thank you for your answer. You have put my mind at rest." Actually, the complete opposite was the case, and when I left his lodgings and cycled home, I decided, "Yes, I am now an atheist. If that's the best Christianity can do, I'm not a Christian anymore." And my faith sort of flickered on and flickered off over the next four years, but by the age of 23, I was a pretty hardened atheist. I mean I probably would've defined myself as an agnostic, but I behaved like an atheist. I didn't pray. I didn't read the Bible just in case God was there. I didn't investigate any other religions, either. But I do remember being very hardened in my skepticism. And at times being quite aggressive in my response to Christians, which I don't like to think about now.
I remember when I was in my hometown of Chatham, there was a man with a megaphone preaching the gospel outside a McDonald's restaurant where loads of people were. And he was a member of the Salvation Army, and I remember shouting out at him, "Why don't you shut up?"
Oh, my! Okay.
So it got that bad. So here I was, very easily saved at the age of 12, and here I am now being rude to a street preacher, and he ignored me, of course. I walked on. But that was my attitude at that time. Yeah.
I can see how that would happen, but disappointing to lose that one thing you had that gave you peace. But you were doing it in an honest way, though. I would imagine, as someone who was an intellectual, who wanted to pursue life as an intellectual, that you had to be honest with your beliefs, and there was no other option for you. If at that time you felt that belief was blind, that it was just a matter of faith, almost in faith. That that wasn't sufficient. I guess, especially, too... I mean all of those to whom you looked up in academia were all nonbelievers. So I can see why you would move that direction, but I imagine you felt a loss. At least at the beginning. Because, like you say, it kind of flickered on and off. So I presumed you kind of just moved into that understanding and more sobered understanding. "This is the way life is." Again, as an intellectual, that's how you pursued your reality and pursued your education and whatnot.
I'm curious, at this point within your atheism, did it change the way you lived your life? Were you intellectually honest enough to really look at the underbelly, as it were, the logical implications of your own worldview as an atheist?
Well, again, that's a really, really interesting question. When I look back on that time, I don't see any significant drop in the moral standards of my life. I think that I've always had a pretty good moral compass, and so from the age of 23 until 27, when my faith was restored, I basically lived for myself, which I suppose in itself is not right, but I don't remember my life going off the rails. I mean I was teaching at the time. I was enjoying my work as a teacher. I had my life all mapped out. I would go for drinks with friends at the weekend. I would go to the gym a lot. I'd write and publish poetry, so I don't see any sort of catastrophic decline in behavior.
In terms of whether I thought much about the implications of my atheism, the one that really did worry me was the fact that I couldn't now believe in any sense of an afterlife. And I suppose I was very young and very healthy, and there was no immediate chance of my leaving this mortal coil, as it were, but every now and then, I would stop and think, "Well, what happens when I die?" Because one day I will, no matter how strong and healthy I feel at the moment. No matter how much life is enjoyable, I'm going to eventually leave, and what is there? And I sort of clung onto the thought that there could be an afterlife. Now, there was no God in this afterlife, but this afterlife would somehow be a continuation of what I was doing on earth, which is impossible because my body would be dead and I would be some sort of disembodied fragment.
That was one thing that troubled me. And I think that the major problem that I had was a sense of meaninglessness. Now, the problem of pain and suffering, or the problems of pain and suffering, have never been a problem for me. In the sense that I can see a struggle between good and evil in the world, and even as an atheist, I never really used that argument against Christians.
My concern as an atheist was whether life had any meaning. That's why I was drawn to the existential philosophers and Soren Kierkegaard. He was a Christian existentialist. And Martin Heidegger, who actually argued he wasn't an existentialist, but Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir. And their solution, or Sartre's solution and I assume de Beauvoir's as well, was that you create your own meaning. There's no transcendence.
And in my bravest moments, that made sense, but every now and then, I would think, "Well, actually, I wouldn't mind having a transcendent meaning attached to me," and every now and then, I would have a feeling that I had been created. I didn't like that feeling because, of course, I had adopted the notion that I am an evolved creature, that I am physical matter that's highly organized but nothing more, but every now and then, there was a sense that I had been created as well. And in my bravest moments, I would... Let's say I'd be walking home, and one of the symbols of meaninglessness was the stars. Now, that sounds really strange, but I had come to the conclusion that life was meaningless because it was predetermined. There was nothing you could do to change the course of your life. It just happened to you. And you just had to be brave and try in some way to resist, even though ultimately you're going to lose.
I would defy the meaninglessness of my life by trying to give it some sort of meaning, but that didn't seem sufficient. I had this need of something beyond this world actually giving me my purpose, and I didn't like that thought, that that's what I wanted. I thought, "How can I think this? This is undermining my integrity as a human being," but still there was a desire for that. And it was not being able to cope with that meaninglessness that brought me back to Christianity, so in a sense, it was both an emotional and an intellectual movement at the same time that brought me back at the age of 27.
So you say it was an emotional and intellectual movement. That existential angst, as it were, and then-
So how did you make that movement? Obviously, you were... almost like Lewis's argument from desire. There was something in you that wanted more. And that there had to be a source underlying that. And so how were you able then to move from this place of wanting and desiring something more but knowing that it didn't exist in reality? How did you bridge gap from nonbelief towards belief?
Okay. Well, during those I suppose four years of really quite hardened atheism, I never once heard the gospel. The only people who showed any sort of interest in my soul, as it were, were two sets of Jehovah's Witnesses who knocked on my door, and I was happy to engage them in debate, and I argued from an atheist point of view. But they seemed to be genuinely interested in the state of my soul, but I didn't have any Christian contact at all. I had two colleagues who were Christians. One was a rather sour, bitter individual, and I thought to myself, "He's not a very good advert for Christianity." He had a book on his desk which was titled How to Reach Your Colleagues with the Gospel, and I thought, "Well, you haven't done a very good job, because no one will listen to you because you're so unpleasant to talk to."
But the other individual was the head of RS, Religious Studies, and he left after a year. He went on to become a Baptist minister, and I was very impressed with him both professionally and personally. I sensed he was a man of integrity. And so that started to make me think again. Maybe there is something to this. But I never attended church. I never heard any gospel proclamation at all. I had not thrown my Bible away, which is interesting. I still had my little red pocket miniature Bible that I'd bought as an undergraduate years earlier. And I didn't throw it away because I felt that, even though I didn't believe it, there was something wrong in throwing the Bible in the bin. I couldn't do it. It was too sacred, as it were, and I couldn't explain to myself why I felt that way, but I just couldn't do that.
What happened was... I remember standing in my kitchen, and I remember looking up at the clock on the wall because I had to go to work that morning. I was making sure I wasn't going to be late. And I remember saying the following prayer, I said, "God, if you exist," — and I do remember saying, "God, if you exist," — "Would you help me? Would you tell me why I'm here? What am I doing? What is my life for? Where is it going?" So it wasn't a prayer of repentance. It wasn't a prayer to say sorry for all the things I'd done wrong or the good things I hadn't done. It was actually a prayer that was asking God to be a philosopher on my behalf. And to sort out this problem of meaninglessness. And I did not get an answer from God. I didn't hear a voice. I didn't see a piece of paper floating down from the ceiling, saying, "Peter, this is your purpose."
What I got instead was what I hadn't had for a long time and that is a sense of God's presence and His love again. And my heart started to soften towards Christianity. Now, I didn't go back to church. I still had no Christian contact. It was as if there were internal forces that had brought me to that point. It wasn't any sort of external encouragement from friends or acquaintances. It just happened, and I can only imagine that there was some sort of seismic shift within my thinking and my feeling. But again, I couldn't tolerate this question of meaninglessness or this issue of meaninglessness anymore.
And I remember walking to work. I did not drive to work. I liked to walk to clear my mind and think about the day ahead. And I remember feeling someone was walking alongside me, and it felt like Jesus. And I'm not prone to spiritual mystical experiences, but that was very strong, and I thought, "This is becoming real again to me." And luckily I had a local library where there were some very good commentaries on the Bible, and I remember getting a book out. I can't remember the name of the author or the name of the book. I can still see his picture, though. He was an elderly man with thick spectacles. But in his book, he wrote about the historical reliability of the New Testament, and for the first time, I came across an actual formal defense of Christianity, and I thought, "I have been wanting something like this for so long!" And I remember reading that book and marveling at this man's intelligence, his ability to present Christianity as true, and all the thoughts I had about the Bible being a plethora of legends and make believe and superstitious and nonsense, gibberish basically, started to melt away. And my trust, my intellectual trust in Christianity, started to be recreated again. Well, I never had it. It was being created for me.
But I didn't go to church for a year. I stayed away from church. My faith was a very private thing, but it started to grow again. I fell in love with the Bible again. I really like the book of Daniel. I really like the book of Romans. I really like the book of Ruth. And the notion of hell troubled me. I thought, "Well, if people are not repentant, God will put them out of His presence," but the thing that helped me overcome that was I thought, "Well, look what God has done to stop people from going there. What more could God do?" So that was an important apologetic for me regarding God's judgment.
And it was only when I moved back to the southeast, because I had been teaching in the Midlands, the middle region of Britain. I was living in Lincolnshire, and I moved back to Kent, the southeast, and that's when I rejoined the church. And I started again to read and explore what apologist Christian philosophers and scientists and writers had to say, and it was a steady education. And I found it to be absolutely vital, and that's one of the reasons why I get quite irritated if people dismiss apologetics, because that was my lifeline. That's what reignited my faith. And when people dismiss that and say it's not important, it's rather like someone saying, "Well, you were rescued at sea by the Coast Guard, but the Coast Guard is not really important." "Well, sorry," you know?
My salvation is quite important.
And the salvation of other people who come to faith in that way.
So it was a steady movement back. I think what I heard from you, though, is that not only was there a longing but there was a willingness to see, which allowed you to begin not only experiencing a palpable presence of God but also to really actually look at the data, at the, like you say, philosophy and intellectual writings, the substantive writings that really substantiate the Christian worldview.
I can hear a skeptic in the back of my mind saying, "Well, you just wanted it to be true." I don't know. You may have encountered this, but, "You just wanted it to be true, so you see what you want to see, and you wanted Christianity to be true," But what I know of you is that you are not someone who... Again, intellectual honesty is incredibly critical for you-
Yes, it is. Yeah.
... as a thinker. As someone who is true to yourself. So I would imagine that, when you began looking at all this material, whether it was the Bible or whether it was philosophy or apologetics, that you looked at it again with a fairly honest and sober perspective. I guess as neutral as one could be. We're always biased. I mean we cannot escape that. But in a way that was intellectually honest to the material itself. Whether they were presenting adequate arguments and evidence and logic. Whether it was making sense with what you understood about reality. How would you answer someone who might push back on you a little bit about that?
Yes. Well, I've thought about this a lot, and I would say that I may have wanted it to be true, but even if, let's say, my emotions or my heart is driving me in a certain direction, my mind is the gatekeeper and if my mind says no, then the heart stops, as it were. The emotions stop. So I had a drive towards Christianity, but I would not have become a Christian if I had not come to the conclusion that it was true. So I may have wanted it to be true, but I would not have become a Christian if I didn't think it was true, because in a sense, my mind has the last word on these things. So that's how I would answer that.
And I'd also say that there are atheists who want atheism to be true. They're equally subjective. I think Thomas Nagel, the famous atheist in New York, has said, "I don't want God to exist, and I'll be honest about it." So I think any atheist or skeptic who wants to make that line of argument, perhaps also ought to consider whether he or she has the same inclination. "I want atheism to be true because I don't want to have to deal with a metaphysical being or give an account of my life or even lay down my life," hopefully picking up a new life, an authentic life, but I don't want to have to take into account somebody or something, an entity or deity or whatever, who in some ways is interested in me. So that's how I would answer that question. Yes.
That's a great answer.
Yeah. And I presume, because of the nature of who you are and your intellectual path and your studies and your teaching pursuits, that you yourself became fully convinced by what you read, whether it was philosophically, biblically, theologically, that the pieces, as it were, kind of came together and gave you a fully orbed understanding of the world, understanding of reality that made sense to you, to your mind, that is the best explanation for what you see and experience, both I guess in the universe out there with regard to historical nature of Christianity, as well as... It sounds like it was fulfilling for you as a person. I presume that you found the meaning, the source of meaning and meaning itself, that you were seeking.
I did, actually. Yes. It's interesting, because when we think about what is the meaning of life, sometimes it's very hard to say what it is, but I would say that my worries or concerns about that have been quelled by my knowledge of God.
And in a sense also, there's an element of mystery to this as well, because I obviously... Once we become Christians, everlasting life has already begun, even if we go through the valley of death and we are temporarily separated from our bodies. We are still on that everlasting trajectory. It's like the potential infinite. And what manner of challenges and developments and excitement lies ahead of this, I think we can only say we have glimpses. I don't think we fully now what God has in store for us. We know a lot, but we don't know everything. And there is meaning in that as well. But love has its own way of answering that question, "What is the meaning of life?" Because when a person experiences love for God and experiences God's love for him or her and then is able to communicate that love to others, that in itself is an answer to the question, "What is the meaning of life?" It's not a philosophical answer necessarily. It's not the sort of thing that you could put into a philosophical journal, but it's an existential response. It's your manner of living that gives you that sense of purpose. And it's the most satisfying thing of all.
I remember reading somewhere Soren Kierkegaard wrote in one of his journal entries, not long before he died, I think, that he found it amazing that so many people could go through life not realizing that they were loved by God, and that sort of is the tragedy, and that's why it's so important to tell people about the love of God, so that they are reunited with their Creator. Some won't be, unfortunately. I don't believe everybody will be saved. I'm not a universalist, but thank goodness and thank God for those who are, who are drawn into His kingdom.
Peter, now you have mentioned the gospel, referred to it a few times throughout your story, both in childhood, both in your time where you were away from faith, and now you're speaking of love from Creator. And I wondered if just, in a nutshell, you could describe what the gospel is and how that relates to the love from a Creator?
Yes. Well, I believe that God has given humanity free will, and every human being has chosen to disobey God. We have all fallen short of the glory of God, as we're told in Romans. We are all sinners. We are described by reformed theology as depraved and degenerate, not because we are totally evil but because every area of our being is infected by sin, and that sin is a law in a sense that people are, in a way, almost... because it's so ingrained in their personality and character, they feel they are under the compulsion of sin, and the gospel is the recognition that every human being stands guilty before God, because God is a holy God. And the means by which humans are reconciled to God and become God's children, rather than individuals who face God's judgment, is through the substitutionary death of Jesus. Jesus, who is God as a human being, the God-man as it were. However you'd like to say it. God the Son assuming human flesh in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, dying of crucifixion, paying the penalty for our sins, and so then we are declared righteous. Our status is righteous. If we so choose to believe and trust in that death, but obviously there's more to it, in the sense that Jesus is resurrected by His Father. He's resurrected by his Father's love, and that means therefore that we are, when we are united with Christ, we are in a way resurrected into a new life. To use perhaps now a rather cliched phrase, we are born again.
Now that doesn't mean to say that we suddenly become perfect, but we are in the process of being sanctified we cannot save ourselves. There's nothing in us by which we can be saved. It is purely by His grace, which is unmerited favor, that we are saved. It's His righteousness imputed to us. And that is a covenant that God has with us everlastingly. God will never go back upon what Christ, God the Son, in human personality and form, has done for us. And that invitation is to everybody, so Christianity makes that claim, makes that call to salvation to every single person.
And I would add also to that every human being's made in the image of God, which is one of the most revolutionary doctrines of Judeo-Christian thinking. And the Bible makes it very clear. It says, all are made, male and female—it's almost as if the writer was anticipating all the rude things said about women and their status. No, no. Everybody. Male, female, whoever they are, wherever they come from, they are all made in the image of God, and we all have that potential to respond to God in a way by which we come to him through salvation.
Yes, yes. So, like you say, everyone is loved by God and can be united with their Creator through that love, through the Person of Jesus. Thank you for that.
And as we're closing our conversation, I always like to end, particularly with these two questions because you understand, you know, you have lived what it feels like, what you think as an atheist, what it means to be on the other side of things, raising a skeptical eyebrow. But there may be those who are listening who, as you did at one point, perhaps were willing to consider Christianity. What advice would you give to a skeptic or someone who's curious about Christianity?
Well, I would say I'd consider Christianity at its strongest points. The atheist turned deist philosopher, Antony Flew, said whenever you are criticizing a worldview or a philosophy, take it on at its strongest points. Don't take on straw men or don't take on that worldview at its weakest points. Look at what the very best spokespersons are saying on behalf of that worldview, and if you can overcome their arguments, then the rest of the worldview will collapse. It's rather like Quine's web of beliefs. There are certain strands within the web upon which the whole web hangs, and if you can cut those, the web will collapse, but if you can't cut those, then the skeptic has got a lot of thinking, then, to do. "Why am I not able to overturn the evidence for the resurrection?" for instance. "Why is the Kalam cosmological argument so good?" That would be the first thing.
I think the second thing is I would say to a skeptic, "Don't get too caught up in New Atheism," the Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, Harris brand of atheism, because they do go after the worst examples. It’s very important to look at the very best of what Christianity has to say, and don't listen to the New Atheists, who specialize in attacking Christianity at its sort of, I suppose its worst parts, in terms of individual Christian behavior and whatever. What I mean by that is I don't think there are any intellectual weaknesses in the Christian case, but you can certainly point to Christian individuals whose behavior can be imprudent.
The other thing I would say is please don't expect Christians to be perfect in their behavior. No Christian, I think, should be saying that they can be perfect in this life. We are being sanctified. We still make mistakes. We still do wrong things. I believe that habits, sinful habits and patterns, are broken, but certainly Christians can fall into sin. It's an exception, I think, but they can still do it, and therefore, the skeptics shouldn't be looking for perfection in us.
So those are the three things that I would say. Another thing is, you know, I've met quite a few skeptics who criticize the Bible, but they haven't actually read it, so I would suggest that skeptics, perhaps one weekend, make a nice cup of coffee or tea, put your feet up, read the Bible, have a commentary at hand so you can understand some of it, because I think there's a bit of laziness going on with some skeptics, who will say, "Well, the Bible's a load of fairy tales." "Have you actually read it?" "No." "Okay, so I think you need to go and read it first before you can come to a conclusion on it." So those would be the four things that I would say to skeptics from my own experience.
That's some great advice.
And, Peter, for the believers, for those who have a heart for those who don't believe and want to engage in a meaningful, perhaps an intellectually credible way, what would you say to them?
I think I have more to say to the Christians than I do to the skeptics. I would say to Christians, "Please don't think all atheists are the same." I mean, I am aware that the atheist philosopher John Gray, in his book, he says that there are seven types of atheism historically. And so therefore when we're dealing with atheists and skeptics, they do come in different categories. I've sort of identified, in my own experience, three. There are the anti-theists who really are adamantly opposed to the idea of God and religion, and Christopher Hitchens fits in that camp. There are the indifferent atheists who would say, "Well, whether God exists or not, my life carries on the way it's going," and then there are the theistic atheists who want there to be a God but can't see any reason to think there is one, and I've encountered a few of those in my time. And they're a very interesting group of people. There's a novelist in England called Julian Barnes who has gone on record as saying, "I don't believe in God, but I miss Him," and I thought that was a very interesting statement.
So we need to take the atheists as they come. I think also I would say that, for me and for many other skeptics—well, when I was a skeptic and for other skeptics, often we are the only evidence they have of God. The messenger and the message can't be separated. So 1 Peter 3:16 talks about giving a reason for the hope that's within you, but it does say sanctify your hearts and do present those reasons with meekness and fear, or respect and humility in some of the more modern translations. So the reason why the message and the messenger go together in the gospel is because we are saying God can transform us. God can take a rotten personality and start to create a work of art. So if the skeptic can't see evidence in our own lives of that proposition, then he or she is going to ignore us. And it's so important that we watch the quality of our lives. I mean, for example, I led an Alpha course at a local church a couple of years ago, and I remember saying to this group of skeptics—I had all the hard bitten atheists in my group. The other Alpha leader, she had some really nice people, but I had all of the obnoxious hard skeptics who wanted an argument with me. And I don't know why I got them. I can't imagine.
But anyway, after a couple of weeks, when I had sort of gained their trust, I said to them, "Is it the case that you want me to present evidence of God's existence?" and they said, "No. It's not that. And I didn't press them on it, but I realized that I was the evidence, that they were assessing me. They were trying to work out how authentic I was. "Does this guy really believe what he's saying? And if we're sort of pretty harshly skeptical with him, will he still welcome us? Will he still be kind to us? Will he forgive us?" So I felt as if I was going through a personality test. That's really important.
And the other thing I would say is that the church really generally needs to grow up in its behavior towards doubting Christians. I think doubting Christians need to be handled very carefully and gently and to be restored gently, and people shouldn't be treated as if they are carrying some sort of virus because they are in doubt. There has to be... I'm not going to use the phrase "safe space." I can't stand it. Let's use the good old term sanctuary or refuge. There has to be a sanctuary, a place where they can air their doubts and for people to listen to them and then say, "Well, have you thought of this?" "Have you considered reading this?" "I can't give you a straightforward answer at the moment, but I'll come back with something," because I'm aware of some very high-profile people who went to their ministers with questions and doubts, and they were told, "Well, you've fallen into sin. You're a terrible sinner. You are doubting the truth," rather than saying to them, "Okay, let's sit down, and let me to listen to what you're saying to me. And then let me tell you some ways in which you can rethink what's happening," and perhaps ease the doubt out of them.
And just very quickly—I'm aware of the time. One other thing is, in particular, before young people go to university or go out into the world of work, they may have grown up in a Christian cocoon, but they're going to go in an environment where people are going to be quite merciless with their faith. I mean, some people will respect it. Others will be indifferent to it. But as I found out with my friend in my second year, there are people who will take you on, so what are we teaching these young people about the reasons why their Christians. I know of a tragic case recently of an individual who went to university to study a science subject, and she went as a Christian and she came out as an atheist because she could not square evolution with Christianity. And that's so profoundly sad.
And I know that her parents are distraught about this.
And this is what's at stake here. So those are the things I would say.
Those are excellent. Again, Peter-
We have been the recipients of a rich not only story but also wisdom based upon your years of deep consideration and living and thinking and really working out what is true, what is meaningful, what is real. And so I just want to express deep appreciation to you for your very thoughtful and articulate story, as well as all of the wisdom that you've given to us today.
Thank you. Thank you for the opportunity to speak. That's much appreciated. Thank you.
Well, I know that many will be blessed by listening to this, so again, thank you.
Good. Good. Thank you.
Thanks for tuning in to the Side B Podcast to hear Peter's story. You can find out more about Peter and locate his writings by looking more closely at the episode notes. For questions and feedback about this episode, you can reach me by email at [email protected]. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, subscribe, rate, and share this podcast with your friends and social network. In the meantime, I'll be looking forward to seeing you next time, where we'll see how someone else flips the record of their life.