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EPISODE 61: Disproving God - Ben Clifton's Story
Former atheist Ben Clifton thought religious belief was for the weak-minded, for those who didn't believe in science. His caricatures of Christianity began to break down as he encountered authentic, intelligent Christians who challenged him to consider the reality of God.
Hello, and thanks for joining in. I'm Jana Harmon, and you're listening to Side B Stories, where we see how skeptics flip the record of their lives. Each podcast, we listen to someone who has once been an atheist or skeptic, but who became a Christian against all odds. You can hear more of these stories at our Side B Stories website, located at www.sidebstories.com. We welcome your comments on these stories on our Side B Stories Facebook page as well as you listen.
We all seem to possess a deep intuition about what is really right and wrong. There's no question about that. When someone cuts in line in front of you, it feels that it's not fair, that some unspoken rule has been violated, and that someone should do something about it. Why do we feel this way? You may recognize that example as the one given by C.S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity, pointing out the inherent tension we feel when some commonly known and often unspoken standard is broken. We know that it's wrong, but we may not be able to say why it's wrong. We just know that it is. But if you ask the question why, it's a problem, especially if you don't believe in God.
Lewis reminds us that we would not be able to call something wrong or crooked without some sort of standard of knowing what is right, without knowing what was straight to begin with. We would not be able to tell that a wall was not level without a plumb line. So it seems that some sort of standard is necessary for us to call something good or bad, right or wrong, straight or crooked, fair or unfair, of what ought or ought not to be. Without such a standard, there's no way to make a judgment about anything for anyone except for ourselves. Somehow, this deep intuition is an unavoidable pointer to the need for a transcendent standard, for the need for God.
In today's story, former atheist Ben Clifton did not want to want to believe in God, but he felt backed into a corner by this seeming conundrum, convinced that he would eventually be able to explain our real sense of right and wrong without resorting to some transcendent standard, without believing in God. Was he able to do it? This was one of the pieces and parts of his atheism that began to crumble as he began to take a closer look at the reality of his own worldview, the reality of God, and the truth of Christianity. I hope you'll come and listen to his story.
Welcome to the Side B Stories podcast, Ben. It's great to have you with me today.
Great to be here, Jana.
Wonderful. As we're getting started, so the listeners have an idea of a bit of who you are, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Absolutely. So I guess the pertinent thing is that I was an atheist until I was 33 years old, and God performed a miracle in my life and changed my heart and led me on a path of seeking answers for why I should believe this change that happened in me. And so that led me to apologetics. And now I'm here many years later and pretty much full time in apologetics.
Okay. And you have a ministry as well? And what is that?
I do. Yes. It's called Apologetics on Mission. And in a nutshell, we take apologetics, we take these great resources that we have in the west, and we take it to regions in the world that don't have much visibility or access to apologetics, and we train up emerging leaders, so that they can equip their communities with great answers for why Christianity is true.
Okay. Wow. Okay, you’ve come a long way on your journey. Yeah. Let's get started at your childhood, though, because we want to hear the full arc of your story. So take us back to your childhood, your family, where you grew up, whether or not religion or talk of God was any part of that.
Yeah. So I was born in Eugene, Oregon, to parents who were not quite hippies because they were a little bit too old, but they were hippy wannabes. If you know Eugene, Oregon, it was a bastion of everything about the sixties. So they were living there. Both of my parents are teachers, and so we lived in that context until I was seven.
Pardon me. Did your parents believe in God? You said this is kind of the culture of the sixties, which there were a lot of things going on around the sixties.
Absolutely. In short, no. Especially my dad. So my dad was a hardcore English major, and in the sixties, that really embraced a lot of philosophy and had to do with theology. And he was pretty down on the whole Christian story, the whole idea of God the Father sacrificing His Son. It's the typical God is a child abuser, cosmic child abuser. And so he really didn't like that story and remains antagonistic against it. My mom, I think, just culturally went to church a bit in her childhood, so she had some influence there, but none of them practiced any kind of religion. If anything, my mom would embrace kind of a new agey, back to Mother Nature, kind of spiritual aspect to her life, but it really didn't manifest in a way that I saw much of. She was more of a hippie. I guess my dad was pretty well informed religiously, but again rejected particularly the Christian story. If anything, he would embrace a kind of Eastern… he would take a happy Buddha over a suffering Christ any day.
So I take it then, there was no going to church on Sundays or even Christmas or Easter, nothing.
Well, we would culturally celebrate those things, but not in any kind of a religious aspect. I will say—fast forwarding a little bit—later on, again culturally, I did have some exposure, but we'll get to that in a minute.
Okay. So you said you were about to turn the page when you were seven years old.
Yeah, when we were seven years old, my parents decided, because some of the backdrop is my grandparents on my dad's side were some of the very first Peace Corps volunteers when Kennedy created that program. And so their first assignment was out in Micronesia. And my grandpa was a retired judge from LA County, and he went out to Micronesia to help the judicial system. At the time, Micronesia was a trust territory of the United States.
So that really intrigued particularly my dad, and so they didn't join the Peace Corps, but they applied for jobs just as teachers, and they got accepted. And so when I was seven, we moved out to an island called Yap in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and we were only supposed to be there two years, it ended up being a total of six years, and we lived on progressively smaller islands. We only lived on Yap one year. Then we moved out to what are called the outer islands, and these are little atolls with a population of at most 300 people. We were the only foreigners on the island. And so my childhood from seven to thirteen, right before going into high school, was I was an island boy.
I bet that was an amazing experience in many ways.
It was. In retrospect—and I knew this at the time—it was a boy's paradise. I like to say that when I came back to The States, I discovered that what oftentimes is…. The kids in the US, in my group, we would pretend to do stuff. In Micronesia, we would do it. So we would build a fort, and then we'd live in it. I literally lived in a fort for the last, like, two and a half years when we were out there. We would go fishing for real out in the ocean and catch real fish. I mean, big blue water fish and go spear fishing and just all that kind of stuff.
What an extraordinary experience! And culturally, I imagine, too. Religiously, was there anything?
Yes. So this is where I did have some exposure to church. Throughout the history of Micronesia, there's been various influences, but the Catholic Church, they had a strong influence there, and they actually had planted some Catholic churches on the outer islands, and they would have a priest that would come out about once a month. And it was kind of a weird combination of Catholicism and any kind of traditional spirituality that the islands embraced. And again, they would have services Sunday, but when the priest wasn't there, it would mostly just be singing. And yeah, that was about it that I can remember. That wasn't like sermons delivered. And even when the sermons were delivered when the priest was there, it was always very, very short. So I don't know, honestly, and at that age, I really don't know how many people actually heard the true gospel in that context. But that was my idea of church growing up.
Okay. So you actually attended?
Yeah, we did, because everybody did. I mean, the entire island would just… that's what you did on Sunday.
Okay. All right. So it was just kind of a ritual, in a sense.
It was a ritual, very much so.
A community ritual.
So then you moved back to the States, I guess. Is this when you went to Oregon?
So we moved back to Washington State, and again, my parents were following kind of the no t quite hippy but really back to earth, kind of back to Mother Nature. So we bought some property and ended up building a house, literally with our own hands. We built our house outside of Port Townsend, Washington. And that was a great experience for me because I learned how to do all that stuff. And I think it was formative in setting my path to ultimately engineering,
So you moved to Washington, and you're still in this very, maybe vaguely spiritual, not religious, home?
That's right. Yeah, very vaguely spiritual. At this point, there was no religious activity. I would say the closest we got to it is my parents decided to join a community choir. And so, of course, they would do seasonal things, and they would do… they did The Messiah, so they performed The Messiah. And so I got exposed to that. But until I was a Christian, I never made the connection of what The Messiah, the piece of music. I never made the connection between that and the Christian story, which is like, how did I miss that?
Yeah, and I guess I should clarify. It wasn't a church choir. It was a community choir.
Oh, a community choir.
So it was a secular… but they would perform sacred music like The Messiah. So, again, maybe that's a little bit of a reflection of the way our home was, is that it was completely secular, but culturally, interweaving is hard to avoid. Maybe today it's easier to avoid bringing in that cultural aspect of Christianity. But, long story short, I did not understand. I got to tell you this, too. Where does this start? At some point in my walk—this is before I was a Christian. I think it was even in Micronesia—my mom had a cassette recording of Jesus Christ Superstar. And so it was a big thing to have one of those little cassette recorder things back there, so one of the few things that I was able to play was Jesus Christ Superstar. So I kind of put that together with the Catholic Church island service and listening to this, so a lot of my understanding of… my false understanding of what Christianity was, was that mishmash of Jesus Christ Superstar and island church, and my dad thinks the Christian God is a moral monster, blah, blah, blah. So that was the mix that I was in.
Yeah, that's quite a mix.
Yeah. Ultimately, so as I progressed through high school, it became clear that what I wanted to pursue as a career was engineering, and a lot of that was because I got very fascinated with science and technology, and I liked the image of myself as being this kind of techie science geek kind of guy. So that's what I ended up pursuing.
And during that time, I'm sure the messages for you were a little bit confusing, especially if you have a father who has this antipathy towards Christianity but yet singing sacred songs. What was your idea of what Christianity was? Was it something simply social? Did you have any contempt? Did you carry any of that from your father? Or was it just something that was there?
Yeah. I wouldn't say I carried contempt. Maybe part of what I wanted to be is very tolerant, so I wanted to be like this techie…. So in retrospect, it was a lot of arrogance. So it was like, “Oh, well, I'll tolerate these backward thinking people, but I know the truth.” But it's like, “I want to be a nice guy, and I want to be very accommodating. And that's wonderful for you. I'm so glad.” But honestly, Jana. I had no idea. You can live a long time of your life, even in the United States, and have no idea really what the Christian story is really about. You get a lot of cues from culture, like I said, Jesus Christ Superstar. You see Christmas movies or whatever, Charlie Brown Christmas. So you get all this kind of influence. But if you don't go to a good church and if you don't go frequently and hear it over and over again and start putting the truth together, you can come away with really ignorant views of what the Christian story and Christian truth is really all about. And that's honestly where I was. What I was dismissing was not true Christianity because I had no idea what that was.
So there were no what you would consider to be authentic Christians or references to Christianity in your world growing up?
No. And if there was somebody who was Christian, in the circles, because of my parents, they would have been most likely very liberal, borderline, not even know if they would really be Christian. So if there were any of those that I can't remember, that's the flavor I would have gotten.
Yeah. So it just wasn't on your radar at all growing up and through high school.
So you said you became interested in engineering, and I suppose you went on to college from here.
I did. So I went to Washington State University and went through a four-year program there, which was great. I loved it. And came out of that and got a job in central Oregon right out of college, and couple of years later met my my future wife. So that's where my story takes another turn.
So at this point, after college, did you even identify yourself in any way, like, “I'm agnostic,” “I'm atheistic.” Did you…?
Yeah. I started thinking about spirituality things, and I got enamored a little bit with some bizarre stuff, like, I don't know if you remember Carlos Castaneda. I think it is, A Separate Reality?
Okay. Well, for a time, he was a popular author, and his thing was kind of ancient Aztec or something, and it involved taking peyote, which is a hallucinogenic drug. And so it's a very Native American kind of religion. And so this guy wrote a bunch of books about his experiences. It turns out later they were all fiction, but it was presented as nonfiction. And I kind of got enamored with that idea. Not that I was a drug taker or anything like that, but that idea of spirituality kind of intrigued me. Again, it was very like Southwest Native American kind of indigenous religion. That was about as close as I got.
So you were not totally dismissive of the possibility of something spiritual in nature in terms of reality?
Yeah. I wasn't totally dismissive of the possibility, but I definitely thought that the Christian story, what I understood of it, especially as it intersected with science, I thought was totally bunk and did not jive with reality. So, on that basis, the whole thing must be false.
And I think I probably just, osmosis wise, absorbed some of my dad's attitude towards it and thought that it belonged in the realm of backwards thinking, and I didn't want to be in that camp. I wanted to be in the modern, science has truth, and that's where I wanted to be. And before I leave college entirely, there was an experience there that impacted me only years later. So one of my good classmates became a Christian during his college experience.
And his story involves a lot of struggle, so he struggled through college but turned to Christ for comfort during those times. And so he invited me to his baptism, and so I went, and I got to witness his baptism. And again, I had that attitude of, “I'm a really tolerant, understanding person, so you do your thing, Carey, and I'm applauding what you're doing. I'm happy for you. I know it's not true, but I'm happy for you anyway.” So, Carey, when we graduated and parted ways, he gave me a Bible, and he wrote a little inscription in it, and it was fairly simple. He said, “I pray that someday you will encounter Christ in the same way that I have, and I've found that Jesus has been the thing that has sustained me and given me purpose and meaning in life, and that's my prayer for you.” So I squirreled that away, and every well informed person on their bookshelf should have a Bible, right? So that was my Bible.
Okay, so now I'm a couple of years out of college, and I meet this wonderful lady that was to become my wife. And so I discovered fairly soon that she was a Christian. At the time, she wasn't really walking in the Christian life, but she was definitely a committed… I mean, she was a believer. And I thought, “Well, this is kind of awkward, but I really like her. And it should be no problem to free her from these archaic ideas once we spend some time together. We’ll have the conversation, and I'll straighten her out, she'll abandon those ideas, and then things will be fine.”
Well, that didn't quite go that way, and she held pretty strong to her faith, and in fact, she was pretty conflicted with the way we were with our relationship and her relationship with Christ. But we were in love, and she really felt like I was the guy. So she made some fairly timid attempts. She gave me a couple of books. One was Mere Christianity, and the other one was a book called A Severe Mercy. And I don't know if you… it's not a super common book, but it's the story of a couple who go through a lot of grief, and C.S. Lewis happens to walk them through that and was very influential. So I got to say, this is probably something you hear a lot, but Mere Christianity, I actually read it, and as Greg Koukl likes to say, boy, did that book put a stone in my shoe that I didn't want. So his argument from the reality of morals, so his version of the moral argument totally painted me into a corner that I didn't know how to escape. As I’m reading, so I can remember reading he predicted all of my, “Yeah, buts,” and got to the end, and I ran out of, “Yeah, buts,” and he nailed every one of them. And I was like, “Ooh, I'm going to put this book away.”
Ben, for those who are listening here who are not familiar with Mere Christianity or the moral argument that C.S. Lewis makes, can you give us an abbreviated version?
Yeah. Sure. So Mere Christianity is by C.S. Lewis. Aside from his fiction, it's probably the most well known of his writings, and it's been influential to so many people like myself, because it's basically arguments for the existence of God, arguments for Christianity kind of distilled to the most basic elements. But one of the key arguments that he gives, and it's a very powerful argument, is the reality that there are these things called morals. There are these things that are truly right and truly wrong. They're moral duties or moral values. They're obligations, and we know it, and we can't escape their reality. So the question is how do we explain the existence of these moral duties and values? And when you think deeply about it, it is a compelling argument that there must be an authority, there must be a source that grounds, that provides the foundation to make those moral realities true. They are objectively true. And so that, of course, points to a moral law giver, which points to an aspect of Who we call God.
So there’s many formulations of that. William Lane Craig does a great job. He always incorporates the moral argument in his list of arguments for God's existence. But the way C.S. Lewis formulates it, and I probably couldn't recite it again, but the way he presents it is just wonderful, because, like I say, it predicts everybody's objection, like myself as an atheist, and answers it before you raise it, and lands you. My best description is like, I'm going along and then I look and I'm painted into a corner. He's trapped me, and there's no place I can turn.
So how did that make you feel, when you felt like you were trapped in a corner? It's hard to dismiss the moral argument there.
Yeah. It made me feel like, “Ooh, this is uncomfortable because it's rocking my worldview.” And whenever our worldview is challenged, that makes us feel uncomfortable. But I had faith that I'd figure it out. It's kind of like one of those puzzles, like, “Oh, that seems like a contradiction, but it's really a paradox, and I'll figure it out. I'll solve this someday. But today is not the day,” so I kind of just ignored it. But again, that's why I love the description of it's a stone in your shoe, and you feel it whenever the topic comes up. So whenever the topic of anything spiritual came up to me, it's like, “Oh! I feel that stone.” My attention was just drawn directly to that argument, and it kept bugging me that I still haven't solved this problem, and someday I’ve got to solve it.
So she was allowing you some space to read and to process and not to push, I presume, but you were open or willing in some regard to actually receive and like you say, process the information, with the confidence that you would defeat it in some way. But that wasn't-
Yeah. Interestingly, my reaction was, not to her, but to myself, to go on the defensive. So I started reading more and more to affirm my atheistic worldview. I wanted to know all about evolution, and I wanted to understand better maybe what the Christian perspective was, so I could go and defeat their arguments.
So I was kind of like…. This was all for my own personal comfort because I didn't like that C.S. Lewis argument, so I was going all around, trying to fortify my own worldview against that, with the hopes that at some point I'd land on the perfect counterargument that would free me from C.S. Lewis’s argument. So that was all happening. And then we had kids… We got married, we had kids.
And then my wife suffers from clinical depression, which thankfully, she's pretty much been cured of.
But for many years she went through some tough times, So she started going to church, and to make her happy, I would come with her. So I would accompany her and went fairly faithfully to a medium-sized church. And what I discovered there is that, number one, the senior pastor there was like super people person, very loving. His people ness just infused the whole congregation. So they were very loving and receptive of me. They knew that I wasn't a believer, but they still… I mean, they didn't care. I mean, they did care, but it wasn't like, “Oh, well, come back when you have cleaned up your act.” It was very welcoming.
And the teaching pastor, and then the subsequent pastor after that, these were actually—it sounds terrible now, but they were pretty smart men, and they rocked my… I had had the intelligence of C.S. Lewis, but I hadn't intentionally known people who were in leadership and were expressing intellectually really challenging stuff. And I was like, “Wow, these guys are like my professors at university!” And I didn't know Christians were like that. And so it started changing my attitude a little bit, like, “Okay, well, they're not all idiots. These guys seem pretty smart.” And of course I got the gospel message preached all the time.
So I sat there with my wife for like four years, I think, and it was a Foursquare church. And part of their tradition is, at the end of every service, pretty much, they would have an invitation to receive Christ. And I would always kind of have an attitude of I'd peek a little bit to see who raised their hand. If somebody did raise their hand, I'd have an attitude internally of like, “Well, there goes another sucker.” And I know it's terrible. Now that I think about it, I was really terrible. I was such a nice guy, but inside, ooh, I had a really nasty attitude that I'm embarrassed about. Well, so one Sunday morning, there I am sitting in church, and there's the altar call, and it's not an audible voice from God, but it's an understanding in my soul that God is saying, “Hey, Ben. This is your day. You got to decide. I am talking to you.” And I'm sitting there feeling like… I just felt this weight of, “Today is your day of decision.” And so I raised my hand, and it was like, “What? Whose hand is that? Is that really connected to my body?”
And people around me were kind of surprised, too. It was like, “Whoa! Did Ben raise his hand?” So anyway, a very nice gentleman came and prayed with me, and that was my transformation.
Wow! Okay, so just backing up for a moment here, because the last I knew, you were trying to disprove Christianity by reading atheistic books, but yet you're sitting in this service for four years, and I guess by osmosis, and I'm sure you were listening and thinking. Were you being intellectually convinced of Christianity at all through this period? Or no?
You know, Jana. Yeah. I wish I could say that, yeah, some great apologist came and gave me all these arguments, and I finally put it all together and, like, ding, I figured it out, and then I made this decision, and it was a very rational decision. I'm an apologist. That's kind of the story I like. It wasn't that way for me. And theologically, the reality of it is that God took my heart of stone and gave me a heart of flesh just sitting there. And I can't explain how it all happened, but that experience was the thing that then my soul cried out for God, and my hand was raised because of that. And so my journey from then on was trying to make that connection between what I knew happened in my heart and the intellectual basis for that.
Absolutely. And you had mentioned the word gospel earlier, and just because something isn't a syllogism, a rational truth, doesn't mean that there's not truth in the gospel, which at its basis talks about who God is, who we are, and how we can reconcile with God. You're an apologist on a mission, and I just wondered if for a moment, if someone has not heard the gospel, could you just tell them maybe what you had heard over those past four years that also helped persuade you that this is true, that God is real?
So the intellectual assent to the truth of Christianity came afterwards. And I know that there are people for whom their experience has been different. It's like they've really had somebody work with them on the intellectual side for a long time, and then that is the mode that the Holy Spirit works in that person's life. For me, it was kind of the reverse. And I should add, too, that, in retrospect, I do believe that the challenges that my wife faced with depression often put me in a position of helplessness. One of the experiences of people who are caring for people who are suffering from depression is helplessness. There's nothing you can do. As an engineer, I'm like, “Okay, what's the problem? Let's design a solution. Let's fix this thing,” right? And I can't. There's no way. And so I think, again in retrospect, that put in me a realization of, like, there are some things that I am helpless against. And the way people are built is that, through that, we cry out to God. And so my soul was crying out to God even if my head wasn't letting that happen, because I was like, “Intellectually, that's crazy. Don't do that. Don't give in!” I think.
And so yeah. Back to your question, the gospel. So the gospel is actually really simple. It's the most complex thing in the world, but it's also the most simple. And that is simply that we as human beings are helpless to really do what we're called to do, what we're supposed to do. And we feel the weight of the guilt of our failures, and we try to make that up by doing this and that good thing to try and atone for the things that we've done that are wrong. And we can never do it. We can never get there. We can never earn our way back from the things that we've done. And so we're hopeless. In ourselves, we’re hopeless. But the good news, the gospel, is that, unlike us, Jesus is God. He came in the flesh. He became a human being, and He, unlike us, did live a perfect life, and He took what we deserved. That is death, eternal death. And He made a great trade. He said, “I will trade My perfection for your imperfection. All you have to do is say yes, and I'm going to go to the cross. I'm going to die on your behalf. I'm going to take the penalty that is really supposed to be yours, and I'm going to take it on Myself. I'm going to give Myself up for you, Ben, for you, Jana, for anybody who places their faith in this reality,” and it's free. It's a gift. You don't have to do anything. In fact, that's the whole point. You can't do anything. The only thing you can do is say, “Yep, I can't do it. And Jesus, You did.” And my goodness, it's like it's the best deal ever. Why would anybody say no to that? And the reason we say no to it is because we want to be in control. We want to say, “Actually, I am good enough. I can do this.” And that's pride, and that's the root of all sin. But the good news is that Jesus took on what we couldn't take on and gives us eternal life, which is just unbelievable. It starts here, but goes on for eternity.
Right. You know, it's funny, your story is reminding me a little bit of, is it Carey? Is that the name of your college friend?
Who went in a moment of felt need and found the Person of Christ and the sustainability of Christ. But for you it seems like that, in a way, is a parallel kind of action of feeling hopeless and helpless and yet finding Christ. Now, at the time that you left, and he gave you a Bible, did you ever, through that four-year journey, were you curious enough to open the Bible and read it for yourself?
Okay, so there's a good story with this whole thing. So my wife did. So my wife would say, “Hey, this is your Bible! Hey, wow! Who's Carey?” And so there was some conversation around that, and my wife Joey said, “You know, you should read this, maybe.” “Someday. Yeah, it's on my shelf. I'll get to it someday.” Anyway, so years after I became a Christian, I ended up, thanks to Facebook I think, thanks to Facebook. It has some redeeming qualities. I I found my friend Carey, and this was probably maybe 15, maybe 20 years after college. I connected with him and I said, “Hey, Carey, you won't believe this. I'm a Christian now.” And so that little prayer, I sent him a picture of the little prayer. He said, “Well, God answered that prayer.”
And I still have that Bible.
That's wonderful. And I'm sure you read it now.
So then you became a Christian, and you accepted Christ. And then you say, in order of events, which is true for many of us, is that you come to find that it's not just an uninformed belief, but that it actually becomes a worldview that is the best explanation for reality, as compared to other world views, when you actually start looking at it. But why did you and how did you pursue this intellectual aspect of your faith? And how is it that… I'm hearing skeptics saying, “You know, you just believed it, so you wanted it to be true, and then you found arguments to sustain your your so-called faith.” How would you respond to someone like that?
Well, so again, my experience was a transformation of my heart, my soul, and then it was truly faith seeking understanding. And I didn't know really what any of this looked like. So I said, “Well, I'm going to go into a Christian bookstore, now that I'm a Christian. I’m going to start learning about this thing,” and some of my biggest intellectual hangups remained in the area of the sciences. Like, how do I integrate this understanding I have of the universe and Big Bang and evolution and all this stuff with what I've just embraced?
So I went to this local bookstore, and there on the bottom shelf, there was a book that, in retrospect probably shouldn't have been in that bookstore. And it was called The Fingerprint of God, which is by Hugh Ross from an organization called Reasons to Believe. And so I open this book, and I start reading it, and it's like, “Wow, this is by, oh, an astrophysicist? Wow!” At the time, he was still, I think, a practicing astrophysicist. He's got a PhD. And I started reading about cosmology, and I go, “What’s this doing in a Christian bookstore? And how is this related to Christ?” So I started reading it. It turns out I had a business trip to Asia. It was like a two week long business trip. So you got a long flight. So I get this book, and I know God providentially put that copy of that book there in that bookstore for me. And so there's another miracle. So I'm reading this book on the plane, and I'm just like, every page, my jaw is dropping. And I'm like, “Oh, my gosh! He's addressing all the issues that I had,” and not only addressing them, but now taking all of the stuff that I had used to disprove Christianity. He's turning it around on my face and he's saying, “Oh, this actually points to God.” And I'm like, you've got to be kidding, right? And I'm just loving this stuff. It was the very, very early days of the internet, and they just had got their website. So through that, that was the first crack in the door of discovering the life of the mind as a Christian, but particularly apologetics. I didn't know what apologetics was.
So once that happened, and I started becoming aware that there's this entire world of not only good answers to the challenges that Christianity is confronted with, but there's this immense domain of intellectual pursuit of this Christian worldview. And so I started taking classes at a little Bible college that were part of our church. Again, it just happened that Bible college started up right when I became a Christian. The timing was such that I could go and take the 8:00 in the morning class before I got to work. And my first class was a survey of the Old Testament which started with Genesis. And so I'm reading Hugh Ross and reading Genesis and in this class, so I got super stoked to discover that this is an amazing area of the life of the mind and applying so much of my previous life, my previous objections, but now seeing it in a completely different light. And so that sent me off on a trajectory of apologetics. I started with science apologetics. I became an RTB apologist. I took their little course. I still have the cassette tapes from that. And joined with the team, ended up being the chapter leader here.
So now I'm going to fast forward up to the present. And I continued to take classes at Canby Bible College, had opportunities beyond my qualifications to speak, to debate, to engage at a ministry level, so in 2008 I had the opportunity to fulfill what was a growing dream, which was to go to Biola and get my Masters in Apologetics. So I did that. It took me about three and a half years. Awesome experience. Anybody listening, if you have the opportunity to go to Biola through that program, it's really life changing. So I graduated from that in 2012 and all this time I'm working as an engineer, doing startup businesses and having a great time doing that as well, but growing in my faith and equipping myself with apologetics.
Then, in 2015, my wife and I decided it was a time for a change of churches, and we joined this little startup church called Missio Dei that turned out to be… had been birthed out of a ministry called Eternal Impact. So I started getting engaged with Eternal Impact. Turns out that Eternal Impact would take small missionary teams to East Africa. So after I was engaged with them for a while, I said, “I better go on one of these to see what it's like.” So I go, had no idea, no thought at all about apologetics being connected to that, and the ministry is not an apologetics ministry, is more of a leadership development ministry. So I go there, and I share my testimony out in the middle of “nowhere” in western Uganda. Part of it is a little bit of what I've said about my conversion story and how apologetics really played a role. And after the service, after my testimony, this young lady comes up to me and said, “Hey, Ben, what you were talking about apologetics and especially your degree, I'm really interested in that. Someday I would like to pursue such a program. Right now I'm kind of busy. I'm completing my PhD in molecular biology, but later I would like to pursue a degree like yours.” And I'm going, “What?”
This is bad, but that was my reaction. It's like, “How are you getting a PhD in molecular biology out here in the middle of nowhere?” It turns out that she actually was, and her name is Monica. She features prominently where I was awakened to like, “Oh, my gosh! These people, they might be interested in apologetics, too.” And so then, from her prompting, we got some students together. We talked a bit, and it's like, yeah, they were all for it. I said, “Wow, this is cool! I wonder what's going on.” So, long story short, I went back the next year and did a series of four apologetics conferences in Rwanda and Uganda, in different parts of Uganda, in churches and on campuses, and I was like, “Oh, my gosh! This is awesome! I got to do this more.”
So then I went back in 2019. This time I got to partner with Greg Koukl, so he and I went to the very place, western Uganda, and they got to hear the Colombo Tactic from Greg Koukl and a little bit of a translation, cultural context translation, because they don't know who Columbo is. But anyway, that was great. COVID hit. It gave me the opportunity to…. By the way, I had moved from student at Canby Bible College to professor, so I was teaching apologetics there now and honing my skills there. One of the things they let me do was to include about ten Ugandan students, by Skype at the time, into our apologetics class. So that was great. Then 2021, I went back, did more work, and at the end of 2021, Eternal Impact, the ministry that I was involved with, said, “You know what? We’re going to commission you. You're going to start a ministry dedicated to taking apologetics on mission to places where it doesn't exist hardly at all.”
So that was the formation. We started as Adventurous Apologetics. After about six months, we discovered, boy, we really need to be Apologetics on Mission. So that's who we are now. We're a small, growing ministry with way more opportunities than we can possibly deal with. So we’ve already taken a total of four missionary trips, both to Africa and Latin America. We're going to be going to Brazil here at the end of this month, and that looks really exciting.
We're going to be going back to east Africa in May and hoping to start some activity in west Africa, primarily in Nigeria, in the latter part of this year.
So that’s what we're doing.
That's fantastic. And we will put a link to your ministry and any contact information you might have. We'll include those all in the episode notes.
Yeah. So thank you for sharing that. That's very exciting, very, very exciting. As we're closing, Ben, thinking about yourself in younger years, when you were agnostic, atheistic, not believing that Christianity was true. Now you're one of its biggest advocates. What would you say to your younger self? Or to perhaps a skeptic who is curious enough to maybe open Mere Christianity, like you were willing, or something. How would you commend someone who is willing to take a closer look at God?
Yeah. Well, I guess the first thing I would say is don't be overly confident that you understand the Christian story, because if you're not a believer, you probably don't really understand it very well. So work on that. It's a different era that we live in now because there are so many resources that you can access, good resources. So I would say listen to, A, what the Christian story is, B, listen to I mean spend 20 minutes listening to, say, William Lane Craig in one of his debates. His twenty minute preamble. He’ll give you five super solid arguments for the existence of the Christian God right there. Spend 20 minutes. As my younger self, I had no exposure to that. I had no idea, and in retrospect, I had no idea what I was saying no to. And so that would be my advice, is like, get off your high horse. Don't think you understand this idea, and make sure you understand what it is you're saying no to first. And there's no excuse for not doing that, because there's great resources. Listen to the stories of other atheists. Listen to Side B, listen to Jana’s other interviews of similar stories, and you'll hear probably a real consistent theme there.
So know what you're saying no to, and then just trust from many voices that the Christian worldview is the most intellectually robust worldview out there, bar none. And so if you're like me and you like engineering, you like things that all fit together, then go for Christianity. And you'll find, compared to any other worldview, especially atheism—atheism is the most—at root, it is the most incoherent worldview out there.
I take that as almost a challenge for someone who might listen to that statement and look at things more closely and scrutinize-
All the atheist has to do is say that Christianity is bad. And boom. I mean, when you dig into that, it's like, “Well, what is bad?”
And again, you're right into C.S. Lewis’s moral argument.
And you'll find yourself, if you actually embrace intellectual, be honest about it, you'll find yourself in the same corner that I was painted into however many years ago.
Nice. Full circle. Nice. So when I'm thinking about your story, Ben, and I think about the Christians who influenced you or in some way or another, beginning with Carey and then, of course, your wife, who you said was solid and did not compromise despite her relationship and her love for you. She didn't just compromise on her faith. Or when you went to the church, you found embodied Christians who were intellectual and could communicate ideas in a robust way that was so surprising to you. And I think of the church, too, that was so loving and welcoming to you and did not put you off even before they gave you a chance to even hear what the gospel was. How would you commend the Christians who are listening to engage others for the sake of Christ?
Well, yeah, of course I'm biased, but my one complaint is that, in general, I wish our churches embraced apologetics more. And that put it, you know, put it in my face. Why wasn't there somebody at the church that I was sitting at for four years saying, “Hey, do you have doubts about Christianity? We have a blah, blah, blah program. Come and we'll answer all your questions.” I discover in the developing world there is a lack of awareness and lack of accessibility of apologetic stuff. But I’ve got to say, even here, there's no lack of accessibility. It's everywhere. But the awareness, particularly within the church, is not nearly where it should be, in my opinion. And I would encourage our churches and our church leaders to embrace apologetics as part of our responsibility as shepherds of the flock and shepherds of those who are not yet of the flock. Give the person like I was a forum to go in and ask those tough questions.
I know it's challenging because it means that we’ve got to be equipped. But to the church leaders there that are overwhelmed and thinking, “Well, I'd love to do that, Ben, but I can't.” Well, you personally don't have to do it. Find people in the community that, for them, doing that is like their heart's desire. They would like nothing more than for a pastor to invite them to the church to do an eight-week thing on apologetics. There's lots of people that are well equipped out there to do that. Be discerning, but yeah, I'd love to see more of that. More apologetics in the church.
Yes. Even great resources these days, too.
That are in book or in DVD form or that are wonderful for using as teaching tools. And thank you for that really exhortation, because I think we all need to appreciate those who come to church who are actually looking for answers and not finding it. I would imagine that four year period might have been a little shorter had you been engaged in that kind of way. So thank you for that.
Yeah. Just because you graciously plugged my ministry, I'm going to plug both your ministry but also another ministry that I'm really excited about and I know you're involved in. And it's a great example of what you're saying is that we have an embarrassment of riches in apologetics resources. Women in Apologetics. My goodness, I don't know how old that is, but it's like five years old. And you guys, those ladies are going gangbusters. And that's just a wonderful example of like, boy, there's no excuse to not get informed on the Christian worldview, to get informed on the answers to the challenges. And so, yeah, everywhere we turn, we've got great resources to grow from.
Right. And we'll include, again, all of the things that you've mentioned and maybe even more so in our episode notes, too. Well, Ben, this has been a very rich and full story and episode, just filled with twists and turns, and I think it's always wonderful to look back in someone's life, and you can see the way that God orchestrated your path, despite kind of the nebulous upbringing, how yet He brought you to Himself through very strategic ways. And I'm always encouraged to see that. Plus, your life transformation is amazing. And the way, obviously, Christianity is not just checking a box. This is something that has become your full heart and life and that Christ is the center. And you found something so rich, you're willing to travel to other parts of the world to demonstrate the truth of Christ and this worldview. So it's such a privilege to have you on, and I know that everyone listening is going to be so encouraged by hearing your story. So thanks for coming.
Well, thank you, Jana. It's been great. And it's fun to get the opportunities to recount. I think you said it well. God really…. He's telling his story, yes, through people, like me, like you. And so I just… sometimes it's good to step back and like, look at it and say, “Wow, what a miracle!”
God is still doing miracles.
He still is. He's in the miracle working business for sure. Well, thank you again, Ben, and I just so appreciate your coming.
Thank you again.
Thanks for tuning in to Side B Stories to hear Ben Clifton's story. You can find more about Ben, his ministry Apologetics on Mission, and the resources he recommended in this episode in the episode notes. For questions and feedback about this episode, you can contact me through our website at www.sidebstories.com. Also, if you're a skeptic or atheist who would like to connect with a former atheist with questions, please contact us on our Side B Stories website, and we'll get you connected. I hope you enjoyed it, that you'll follow, rate, review, 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 another skeptic flips the record of their life.