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EPISODE 43: Confessions of a French Atheist
Former atheist Guillaume Bignon set out on a quest to disprove Christianity and was surprised by what he found.
- Confessions of a French Atheist: How God Hijacked My Quest to Disprove the Christian Faith by Guillaume Bignon (2022) | Purchase on Amazon
- Website featuring Guillaume’s work: https://www.associationaxiome.com (in French)
- Guillaume’s Twitter: @theoloGUI
- Listen to more stories from skeptics and atheists who investigated Christianity.
Hello, and thanks for joining in. I'm Jana Harmon, and you're listening to, where we see how skeptics flip the record of their lives. Each podcast, we listen to someone who is a former atheist who, against all odds, became a Christian.
Our beliefs, religious or not, are shaped within a context of place and people and events. We tend to believe the ideas of the people we like, that fit in with how people around us view the world. Most beliefs are not tested but rather assumed. Caught, not taught. And then shaped to fit into our individual understanding and experience of the world. According to many in Western culture, belief in God has nothing to do with their lives. More than that, to believe in God is not only irrelevant but embarrassing. It's social or intellectual suicide. The scientifically minded don't believe in God, in the supernatural, in the superstitious. Besides all of that, it constrains your lifestyle.
For the happy atheist, there's no felt need or desire for God. They're just fine navigating life on their own. This begs the question: For someone like that, what would change their mind? Why switch course and change and turn in God's direction? For the former atheist in our story today, life could not be going any better. As a sophisticated thinker, a successful businessman, an esteemed athlete and musician, Guillaume was also an avowed atheist. But he unexpectedly came to believe that God was not only deeply relevant to his life but was the source and center of life itself. In fact, he now holds a doctorate in theological philosophy, discussing issues of reality and of God. How in the world did that happen? I hope you'll come along with me today to listen and to find out.
Welcome to the Side B Podcast, Guillaume. It's so great to have you with me today!
Thanks for having me, Jana. It's a pleasure.
Wonderful. Why don't you give us a sense of who you are right now, where you live, a little bit about your life before we go back into your story?
Yes. So as my accent really betrays, I am French, but I do live in the United States now. That was kind of part of my story of how I went from France to the US, but yes, I grew up in France, near Paris. Today, I am the US. I have lived for many years in New York, or in the New York area, and I have just now recently moved to Virginia with my wife and five young children, so the five young children explain the move away from New York. We are in a little bit more of a peaceful area in Virginia. I am an engineering manager. I work in information technology, and in my spare time, I am a philosopher and apologist, so I engage in topics around the Christian faith, philosophical theology, and all sorts of related matters.
It sounds like you've got a very, very full life. For sure. Five children! My hat's off to you, though. What a blessing that must be! But a busy life, no doubt. So you were telling me, through that self-introduction, that you grew up around the Paris area in France, and I want for you to take us back there to your childhood. Give us a sense of what that looked like growing up. Was there any sense of religious belief in that culture and in the culture of your home and even in your own life?
Yes. So as a young child, I grew up in France near Paris, in the suburbs, in a very loving family. I have an older brother and a younger sister, and the three of us had a wonderful family with our parents, and as far as religious beliefs are concerned, we are at least nominally Roman Catholic. I mean I didn't really get very invested personally in this. It was more of an inconvenience than anything else, something that we just did, maybe out of tradition and maybe a little bit of superstition, but not really a very strong life conviction, at least not for us children. So that was kind of my environment. But that's not something that lasted for very long because, when we grew up and were given a bit more freedom, my parents didn't force us to continue attending church, and we very soon decided that this was not really for us, and so we were able to—I mean I say we because my brother went a couple of years before me, but I followed along, and we simply stopped going to church, and at least my life as an atheist at that point didn't really differ much from what I had always believed or done. It just that I no longer had to go to church on Sunday morning, so that was just an initial inoculation to religion and then the departure and not much of a life radical change as a result.
You fairly quickly said that you just moved into atheism, like it was a default position. And it sounds like you did that as a teenager, I presume, and I wondered: Was that just a presumption that you made? Was there any intellectual thought or investigation towards a naturalistic point of view? How did that happen?
It happened fairly naturally. Again, in France, I think this is a little bit in the air we breathe. It seems like a default position indeed, not believing in religion, and we just... God is not really an entity. It's not even a question. So it's not a topic that we spend too much time thinking about. And so, no. That was just, "Okay. If we are done with religion, then I guess let's live without God, and this is fine." And there wasn't all that many other alternatives or options. I wasn't considering another religion, and so there was just default, and this is how I figured I would live my life.
So did you give naturalism much thought in terms of its implications for your life? Or were you just fine without God, and that was pretty much all you thought about it?
No. I mean I certainly started to believe there was nothing beyond the natural world. Whether there were any important philosophical consequences from that belief is not something that I really asked myself at that time. I simply figured that I didn't need God. I didn't need Him to be happy and to have a good, full life, and so I simply ceased going to church, and I focused on my own projects and trying to live a happy life, and I sought for happiness in a number of avenues that seemed fun and right to me. I was playing volleyball at that time. I was very engaged in sports, so I was having fun and became good after late puberty and ended up growing pretty fast and being big and jumping high, so I ended up having fun playing volleyball, and I ended up playing in the national level, so traveling the country on the weekends to play the games, trying to have fun and just seek for happiness in that area.
I was also playing music. I played the piano when I was little and then got into playing the keyboard and started to play in a band and writing my own music, playing in concerts, so I was trying to live the dream of being a rock star in my own world. And I studied math, physics, and engineering, and so I sought to have a solid job and a good income, and I ended up graduating from engineering school and then starting to work as a computer engineer in the financial industry. So I figured this was stability and income, and I had volleyball and music to have a range of enjoyments of this life to seek my own happiness.
So it sounds like you really had life by the tail. It sounds like, from almost every perspective, that you were successful. You were athletic. You were a musician. You were brilliant. You studied and achieved at a level, and that you were working. So it causes one to pause and say, "Wow! If life is going so well, and I'm sitting with you talking about God and your belief in God, how in the world did that happen?" What was the catalyst that turned your head or turned your mind or your heart to become open towards even the possibility of God?
Yeah. Well, besides the volleyball and music, as far as avenues to seek my own fulfillment and happiness, for a young atheist in France of my age, there was one other goal that I very much was running after, and it was women. And so I was very much seeking feminine conquests and trying to have enough material to satisfy the banter of the locker room in the volleyball games, and so I had a pretty rough history of relationships and treating women very much poorly. A lot of cheating and a lot of... just very... lying and deception and simply self-enjoyment and fulfillment.
And that's another area that was instrumental in me being converted by Christianity again because it happened very fortuitously, while on vacation, I was in the Caribbean with my brother. We were visiting my uncle. And there was a very serendipitous meeting, on a day where we were on the distant beach, where we didn't have a car to come back home, and somehow we decided to hitchhike our way back home, and after a few seconds of hitchhiking, there was a small car that stopped with two American women in it. One was from New York. The other one was from Miami. They were both very attractive. One of them was a former model, and the car that stopped didn't stop to pick us up. They stopped to ask for directions. They were lost on their way from the airport to their hotel, but as it so happened their hotel was right next door to the house that we were staying at, so when they told us that, we said, "Well, that's great! We'll tell you where it is if you'll pick us up and drive us there," and they hesitated for a second and then eventually we got in. And we started talking, and I immediately went into seduction mode and trying to connect and trying to see them again, and the French accent kicked in, and the seduction worked out decently, because they gave us their room number again and made plans to see us again while on the island.
And so we did go and see them and showed them a good time on the island, and on the day where we were on the beach, I pretty much made the move, and I was now in a relationship with one of them. And I was fairly hopeful that this would be a bit more serious than just an island romance because it was a very romantic situation. She was really exceptional. And so I... Yeah. Well, I was hopeful it would lead to something more. The problem is that, in conversation with her on the beach, I found out a couple of pretty devastating news. One was that she claimed to believe that God exists. She said she was a Christian. And to me at that point that was clearly an intellectual suicide. I did not have any respect anymore for belief in God. And the other piece that she mentioned was that, alongside her belief in Christianity, that included a belief in abstinence before marriage, and that was really not what I wanted, and so those two things were extremely problematic at the time.
So that was how I got converted by Christianity, by having to say, "If I want this to work with her, I'm going to have to disabuse her of her beliefs about religion first and then about the sexual ethics that come with it, as a very important piece for us to be together." And so I still... With anybody else, those beliefs would have made me run away with no questions asked.
But she was special enough that, when I went back to Paris, and she flew back to New York, I decided to try to work it out as a long-distance relationship and that her religious beliefs would have to take care of themselves, and that we would work it out.
Wow. So you were distanced not only geographically, you were across the world, but you had quite a distance in your beliefs. So that, I would imagine, would cause a lot of problems, but for whatever reason, it opened the door to investigate a little bit more closely what belief in God meant. So what did that look like? Take us on from there.
Sure. So I went back to France, and here I was in this extremely problematic long-distance relationship, and I thought if I'm going to have to convince her to stop religion and to be with me and happy, I would have at least to explain to her, to give her some good reasons, right? To use my common sense and explain to her why this is silly to believe in God, but I realized if I was going to refute her beliefs, I needed to at least understand what she even believed, and I realized I had very little knowledge of what Christianity was even about, so I did pick up a Bible that was left in my closet and dusted it off like Aladdin's lamp, and I started to look at it and see if I could glean some of the very distant memories I had of Christianity, but I very quickly realized that I really had no knowledge at all, and it was something that we would need to figure out together because it was foreign to me. So I figured, "We'll discuss those things when we see each other," and that's something that we organized fairly quickly after the vacation. We did make plans for her to come visit in France, and so she came, and I got to see that religion was going to be clearly the center of the problem, that it was a very real thing for her.
A couple of things really concerned me: One is that apparently her pastor was the one who was dropping her off at the airport and picking her up, and to me, that rang some sort of alarm bells, like, "Oh, what is going on with the pastor there? Is this some sort of a cult like I've seen in documentaries?" And the other is that she apparently had been given the address of a church in Paris to visit, and to me, that seemed completely unnecessary. Could she not skip a few Sundays of not going to church while she's with me in France? So it was problematic. The fact that she had somehow the need to get the address of a church in Paris was concerning to me.
So she came to Paris, and this is where we started to talk a little bit about our potential future, and I asked her if her religion could be... I was trying to take it slowly and to ask her, before I tried to convince her to stop religion altogether, I figured, "Well, I'll at least start with a degree of openness," and I said, "Well, if I never change my mind, would you be okay to be married with an atheist?" I thought it would be a bit of a longer conversation, but she very casually almost said, "Oh, no! Absolutely not. That wouldn't work out." And I was shocked. Like what kind of intolerant belief that here I was almost ready to make a concession that she could be a religious person and she was not ready for me to be an atheist. So I said, "Well, this is nonsense. That means it's not going to work," and it was kind of a tense evening. And then she was really upset that I was this close minded, and she said, "Well, why won't you even hear any of what I have to say? Some of my reasons. Why are you so closed minded?" And I realized I was really not open to that, and so that launched me into a little bit more of a thinking about, "Okay, let me hear the other side. Let me understand what you're believing and then think about it for myself, so that I can actually see what we're dealing with and I can refute it on solid grounds," but not just on a whim or ignorant of what she actually believed. That's kind of the turning point there in terms of my getting ready to investigate those things seriously.
So when you were investigating, then, or when you started the process, it sounds like you wanted to take down her beliefs. I'm curious, even just getting started with the investigation, you tried to move to a little bit more openness to respect her and her beliefs and try to figure those out. Would you see it as a movement towards disproving, rather than true investigation? In terms of a neutral perspective. I know none of us are neutral. We all have biases, but how would you judge your own motives and perspective at that time?
Yeah. I mean, I think it was a progressive change in terms of openness. I certainly started as a very negative project because I just wanted to remove that barrier between unsuccessful, and I couldn't stand the idea of religion. I felt I had wasted enough time in my childhood with this nonsense, and I had no intention of really giving much more time to that activity. So I was certainly not willing, but I was also trying to be fair to whatever it is that she believed, so that I could give it a fair hearing and actually use my common sense to refute it, but at least refute something accurately.
And then, at the same time, there was also a part inside of me that thought, "Look, if I'm going to take this seriously, if I'm going to investigate and actually think about it somewhat objectively, then I need to force myself to be a bit open," and I also didn't want any of my desires to influence this reflection one way or the other, because yes, I didn't want religion at all, and so that could force me to just refute it even if I don't have a good case against it, but there was also the real possibility that, if she was not open to changing her mind, that maybe I could be motivated because of her to now, all of a sudden, say, "Oh, yeah, yeah, sure. That's true," but that's going to be just to make it work with her. And it was very clear to me that neither of those scenarios was positive, was desirable. If I were to believe all these beliefs, it would have to be based on the truth, not be based on my desires to be with her or not.
So there was kind of that approach to objectivity, trying to force myself to be somewhat neutral, even though I was aware there were influences on both sides that would be irrelevant and that needed to be kept outside of my reasoning.
So you were, as best you could, pursuing truth as the most important thing?
I think yes, as best I could. None of us is fully objective, but I think this was a concern, to think about this properly and figure it out.
Yeah, yeah. So walk us through that. How did you start to begin this process?
Yes. So the first thing I did is that I actually opened that Bible and started to read the New Testament for myself to get an idea, finally, as a young adult of what it actually says. Because I had memories of my childhood, time spent in the church pews, bored every Sunday morning, and when I took the Bible, I expected to find in there some of the boring platitudes that I remembered from my childhood. And here, it was a very different experience, reading the New Testament, reading the gospels for myself, this description of the life and ministry of Jesus. The Person of Jesus, when I started reading about Him as a young adult, was very captivating. I thought I was confronted with a very compelling character, a very smart teacher, a master with words who navigated masterfully through conversations, who was constantly winning the exchanges when people came to try to entrap Him and to catch Him in his words, and He would always masterfully navigate those conversations. He was teaching with a sense of authority, saying that the kingdom of God had come in His ministry and that he was the Son of God. He claimed all sorts of big things and was just a very compelling character. So it tasted nothing like I remembered from my childhood, and it made me a little bit uncomfortable. I wasn't too sure what to make with that Jesus. And who was also morally impressive, that he was able to humble Himself and wash the feet of His disciples and just present a compelling picture, so I was very captivated by the person of Jesus I was reading in the New Testament.
Yeah, I think it's often surprising. Someone has an idea of who they think Jesus is from some cultural reference or from a picture or a painting they saw as a child or whatever, and then once they started reading themselves, the scripture, what they find is something so much more robust or impressive or intelligent or stronger than they had thought in their own mind, and it sounds like you were very surprised and, like you say, captivated by the person of Jesus.
Yep. So that was one piece here in my investigation, to be confronted with the real Jesus of the New Testament and to find Him really compelling. Another piece is that I tried to be somewhat open and did something that, in retrospect, was probably mistake number one, or mistake number two, but I thought, "Look, if any of this is true and I'm going to give it a fair hearing, then that means that there's a God who would be looking at me doing this right now and would probably be interested in the fact that I'm looking into it," so I started to pray as an unbeliever, just somewhat... I mean I saw this as an experiment. I was a scientist, and I was an engineer, so I figured, "Let me do the experiment, and say, 'Okay, I don't believe there's a God, but if there is one, go ahead and reveal Yourself to me. I'm open.'" And so that was kind of the next move, unbelieving prayer, which, in retrospect, as a Christian now, I very much say, "Well, this was clearly not a lost prayer," but it's just a move that I did, and that's just about all I had for that investigation just on the moment. I couldn't really end up in church even if I wanted to because, at that time, I was playing volleyball in the national league, and every weekend, I was traveling around the country to play the games, and it's just that, shortly after I prayed that unbelieving prayer, there's something that happened out of the blue is that I developed an injury on my right shoulder.
And it's not something that came from an accident or anything very explainable, just out of the blue it started to hurt. The shoulder would be inflamed, and in ten, fifteen minutes after the beginning of each practice, I just couldn't spike anymore, and I was just unable to play, and the doctor really couldn't see what was going on. The physical therapist tried to help, and that didn't really do it. And they were basically saying, "Look, we don't really know, but you're going to need to rest that shoulder, so you need to stop volleyball for a few weeks, and we'll reconvene." And so, against my will, I was now off of volleyball courts for a number of weeks, and so I figured, since I've been reflecting on this Christianity thing and trying to figure out what she was about, what I did is I went on my computer, and I recollected the address of the church that she had been given when she visited me. She had opened it on my computer, so I was able to go and get the address again without telling her, and I figured, "I'm going to go and see what those Christians do when they get together, just to get an idea," and so I picked up that address, and I drove to that church in Paris, and once again, it was shortly after I got my own apartment, thankfully, because clearly if I had still been with my family, I could never have justified my going to church, but now I was isolated, by myself, off of volleyball courts, and I had the address, so I went.
And I drove to that church in Paris, and the way I would describe it is that I went there like I would go to the zoo, to see some weird, exotic animals I had heard of but never seen in real life. And so I walked into that church, and it was very awkward because I was constantly thinking that this was already an offense against my intellect to be even present in the building, and that if any of my family or friends could see me there I would die of shame. But nevertheless, I walked into the church and observed some of the differences between that church and the Catholic church of my childhood. But I was touched by some of the genuineness of the people. Again, all of this was very awkward and felt strange to me, but some of them were praying, and it really looked like they were actually talking to a God who they thought was there. It wasn't rehearsed or recited prayers, like I was used to. And they genuinely believed that stuff. And so I sat down, and I just watched the service. The music was modern, and as a musician, I was interested in the talent of the musicians but clearly couldn't sing the lyrics with their religious nature. And the sermon was an interesting piece. I don't remember a word that the preacher said on that Sunday morning. Maybe I was just too focused on my feeling of being ashamed of being in the building and what would happen if anyone saw me there, but I don't remember what he said. But the sermon ended, and I thought, "I've seen enough. I've got what I came to see, let me escape now so that I don't have to introduce myself to anybody and don't have to connect," so I don't make eye contact with anyone, and I just jump on my feet and walked to the back of the church to escape.
And this is when I opened the door to leave, and I literally had one foot out the door, and there's a big blast of chills that just started in my stomach and went up in my chest and grabbed me by the throat, and I was frozen on the doorstep. With goosebumps. And I heard myself thinking, "This is ridiculous. I have to figure it out." And so I completely turned around. I closed the door, and I walked straight to the head pastor, and I introduced myself. And I said, "So you believe in God, huh?" "Well, yes." And I said, "Well, how does that work?" and he offered that we should talk about it if I was willing to make an appointment with him. And so I did. And years later he told me that he didn't really believe that I would actually come, but I said, "All right. Fine. I'll be there, and I'll come, and we'll chat." And this is how a long series of conversations started with this pastor in France. His name was Robert. He was American, but he had been a missionary in France for many years. And I showed up to his office on that day and started to unpack my questions. I told him about my situation, what I was looking into, and we started talking about Christianity.
Were you letting your girlfriend know? You said you kind of went there without her knowledge for the first time, but were you communicating with her about what you were reading in the Bible? What you were experienced? What you experienced that day at the church?
Yeah. A little bit of that. It seems fuzzy. I mean it's many years ago, so I'm not super clear on the details of what transpired. After a while, I did tell her that I did go to that church and then there was this conversation, but somehow I kept things very separate in my mind. It was really all about my thinking and investigation of those things, and she was somewhat out of that. I started the conversation with that pastor, Robert, in France, and it started to be more about our exchange together than really anything that I would do with or without my girlfriend at the time.
So it was really just an independent investigation, it sounds like, you and the pastor.
Yeah. That's how I recall it. Yeah.
Yeah, so we started talking, and I asked some of my previous questions, and he would not necessarily engage in what we would call apologetics, and I don't know that he offered really positive arguments in favor of Christianity, but he was explaining, at least within his own worldview, the coherence of his beliefs, and that was impressive enough already for me at the time, that there was somebody who was actually willing to answer questions and explain his beliefs about God. And he seemed to really believe it, I guess. There was no doubt. This was not a facade. He really believed this stuff. He gave me one little booklet that was very interesting of him. He gave me a little booklet that he had written with a number of questions and then the Bible references for me to go and find out the answer for myself. So that was kind of an introduction to some of his Christian beliefs, and I did this, so I took that little booklet of his and went home, started to open the Bible and go and get those answers and write them down, and then every answer led to more questions on my side, so I wrote all of my questions on those papers, and this would fuel the next conversation when I went to see him again and could ask those questions, which led to more questions, so it quickly turned into a pile of paper with lots of questions, and this is what drove our exchange. And through these conversations and my own reading of the Bible and my own thinking, there's a number of areas, a number of topics, on which I came to simply realize I was mistaken and to quite significantly change my mind, and... yeah.
So some of those topics were my view of the supernatural, miracles, and whether it was intellectual suicide to believe that there was something beyond the natural world. Another one was my view of science and the role that science needs to play in our beliefs and justifying our beliefs and our knowledge of the world. Another one was my view of sex and Christian ethics around relationships and marriage. And another one was my view of knowledge and what it takes to know something. And then my view of salvation. So that's five areas in which I really had a significant shift, that's supernatural, science, sex, knowledge, and salvation.
Those are quite big areas. Especially for someone who was an atheist, an avowed atheist, all of your life. Especially, like you say, the very first one, just the reality of the supernatural. That's a really tremendously big issue. Either the natural world is all that exists or there's something more than the natural world. How did you come to believe or accept that there was something more than the natural world? Did it come through reading the Bible? Or was it more, like you say, apologetics-related things? What convinced you there?
Yeah. So here, the shift wasn't immediately that I believed that something beyond nature existed. My shift... I was starting from a bit farther down. My shift was to simply accept that one could believe that and not be stupid. That was a little bit of a shift, but that was something that I was confronted by Robert, that in front of me was this guy who was clearly educated, who was smart, who was not emotionally unstable, wasn't trying to use religion to compensate for some weakness, and he genuinely believes that there's a God and that Jesus was raised from the dead and that miracles are actually possible and happening. So the beginning of the shift here was to simply say, "Okay, what's going on with that?" that somebody could not commit intellectual suicide but actually believe those things. So I was confronted by Robert's existence, and then I also realized there's actually lots of smart people who believe that there's more to the world than just nature in motion. So it wasn't that I embraced the supernatural just quite yet, but I placed it on the map by realizing some people can actually affirm it, and it's not like I had a solid argument for why that couldn't be, right? So I figured this was just a possibility and started to respect that a bit. So that was my shift on the supernatural at that point.
The shift on science was simply realizing that I had somewhat assumed that science would be at the center of all this, and I was a scientist myself. I studied physics, engineering, science, and biology, and I figured science is how you know things about the world. And then I reflected and tried to see, "Well, what have I learned in all of my engineering studies of science? What do I know that actually conflicts with the existence of God?" And it was an important step because I hadn't really sat down and actually given much thought as to what counts for or against God's existence, and for the first time, I realized that, for all of my scientific pretensions, little of my scientific knowledge was even relevant to the question. Certainly none of what I had learned or knew about science was a refutation of the existence of God. So that shift on science simply said, "Well, probably this is probably not the most relevant consideration," and I realized that there's plenty of things that we know in life that are just not based on science. That's just not how we know things. And I figured that maybe God's existence and the truth of Christianity would be in that category of things that we can possibly know, but it's not going to be based on science itself.
And now today, as a philosopher, I realize that this is absolutely basic, right? The idea that science is the only way to know things is very sophomoric. It's really a bad idea. And these tons of counter examples, and it's even self-refuting. So that's really not a good philosophical view, but that's one that I came to surrender in my own thinking about those matters.
So if I am working down through that list again of topics, the next one, I suppose, was sex and the Christian ethics around that. And here, that was a minefield because I was clearly bent on not accepting the idea that abstinence was a good idea before marriage. And here the progressive shift that happened is that Robert was able to paint a picture that was more attractive, that there was something genuine about his understanding, so he was able to defend the Christian view as one where God is designing marriage. He's the Creator of the world, and He's in a good position to tell us some of the good conditions for us to engage in sex. And surely I didn't like that picture myself, and this is not what I was planning, but there was an internal consistency once again, and there was also some degree of appeal from a more traditional and more conservative view of relationships and sexuality. I myself had this long past and long history of terrible treatment of women and cheating and lies, and this was not good, and so there was a part of me that was ready to contemplate that maybe the more conservative ethic on that front would be actually refreshing. But not all the way to that Christian belief. So there was a bit of back and forth there.
And one piece that he was very helpful at was that I was also concerned that the Christian view of relationships like that had also some intolerant aspect to it, which was, "You should not marry a non-Christian," right? To me, that seemed intolerant. And that Robert was very helpful in clarifying. Look, there's actually plenty of good wisdom in that. If belief in God and Christianity is very central, which it should be for a Christian, then this makes good sense to say that your spouse, who is going to be the most important person in your life on this planet, shares the most fundamental beliefs about life. Otherwise, your marriage just doesn't stand a chance. So that, I understood, was no longer intolerant. It made good sense. And he was able to defuse that.
Yeah. So your girlfriend's statements about not being willing to marry an atheist, I guess, was making more sense to you at that point? Yeah.
So you said also the issue of knowledge was something that you had to work out?
Yeah. And so this was a bit later on, and this is a piece that was really a turning point there. When I started to realize that the Christian view was making much more sense than I had hoped it would and that I was starting to suspect this actually... I don't really have much of a case against it. And I was starting to wonder, "What do I make of this Jesus character as well?" At least I never really bought the idea that Jesus was a fictional character. It seemed clear to me that He was a person steeped in history, that minimally He was this teacher in Palestine in the first century who gathered lots of people and clearly had an impact such that the world is still very much at least influenced by His teachings and lots of His followers. So I was really unclear, and I was starting to wonder what would happen if this would actually be true and if my life should have to confront a change, a radical change, in beliefs. And I continued to have those unbelieving prayers and trying to see, "Okay. Well, I'm starting to see that there's room for Christianity to be true. I'm curious if God really is there, could He reveal this more powerfully to me, in ways that would really convince me, would make me certain." Because if there's one thing that I didn't want to do it was I didn't want to just believe, have blind faith. I really wanted to be quite confident that what I embraced or what I concluded would be the truth, and this is one piece where I realized my view of knowledge and the expectations that I had in terms of certainty were also misguided.
So what I really hoped for was that I would have absolute certainty, that there would be really strong grounds for an irrefutable belief in God if that were where I landed, and I realized that this was a very unrealistic expectation, that there's lots of things that we know in life that we don't have absolute certainty for, but there's one category of knowledge that's very respectable and very important to us, and it's simply testimony, that we could be knowing things simply on the basis that somebody else who knows it told us. And it sounds a bit silly, but there's tons of very important things that we know like that. I know my name. I know my date of birth. I know what happened on the day I was born. I know lots of things, not because I have proof or certainty of any sort, simply because somebody who knew told me this was true.
And so that was an important intellectual shift when I started to contemplate Christianity and it started to make sense, and I was starting to suspect this might actually be true and it would be a huge deal. I realized that my expectations in terms of knowledge were unreasonable, and I realized there's lots of things that we know simply on the basis of a testimony, and I started to see the gospels that I was reading as pretty much satisfying that criteria, of testimony, realizing this is actually comparable to a testimony of people who were there, who said, "This is what we've seen. We've spent this time with this Jesus. Here's what He said. Here's what He's done." And obviously the story of His being crucified and His allegedly raising from the dead. So obviously there's the supernatural aspect in there, and then there's the question of whether or not that testimony is reliable, but I came to see that this was similar to the claim that somebody has seen something, they tell me, and now I know. So I came to appreciate the reliability of that testimony to come to the knowledge of what happened to Jesus, of who He was, and what He did, allegedly rose from the dead.
And obviously, we don't want this... You know, it shouldn't be simplistic, like somebody says something, and now we just believe it, and we're gullible because we just take everything. No. You don't get knowledge just because somebody says it. It has to be a reliable source. And so that question is whether or not the gospels are reliable as a testimony to what Jesus said and did, and the important point here again, when we look at what I was considering at the time, is that I wasn't aware of all the scholarly debates around the reliability of the scriptures like I am now, because it's my interest, but at that time, I was still convinced that I didn't need to know all of those objections in order to form a justified knowledge about what Jesus said and did.
So at the time, this is pretty much where I landed. I saw the testimony of the gospels as reliable, as telling me what happened, and intellectually, it seemed like, yes, that made sense, and I could trust that this was the truth about what happened in history. So that was the last very strong intellectual shift where I changed my mind in terms of the truth of this happening. But that doesn't make me a Christian quite yet, because there's the final shift that needed to happen, and it's the shift of heart more than the shift of mind. And that's the part where I came to understand the message of salvation.
And so this is another piece that happened concurrently to all of my reflections, is that, through all of this study and my prayers started to become like, "God, again, if You're there, really show Yourself powerfully," and I was hoping for God to just open the heavens and shine the light and say [CROSSTALK 49:01]. But what he did was very different, but it was very powerful, too, is that he reactivated my conscience, and it was very unpleasant because what happened is that I had come to commit some really nasty stuff. I had essentially cheated on my girlfriend multiple times and in aggravating circumstances, and so I'll spare you the details, but basically I had done all of this stuff, and I had obviously covered it with lots of lies, and I was lying to myself as well, and in my experience of asking God to reveal Himself to me, He simply just took that and shoved it in my face, and I was just afflicted with guilt. I could only see what I had done, my own sins, and it was very crippling. And it's in the midst of this pain that the message that I had been reading all along, the message that I had actually had a very hard time understanding intellectually, finally clicked. I had been reading, that Jesus died on the cross for us, but I hadn't really made the connection. I couldn't see, like, "What's the connection between Jesus dying on the cross and me, my life as a Christian if I were to become one?" And it's in that area of pain when my conscience was reactivated that I realized, "Yes. This is why Jesus had to die. Me. He paid the penalty for my sins. Those very ones here that I can't stop seeing, that I'm crippled with guilt about," and I realized this is now the good news that this text has been proclaiming, that I can repent of my sins and simply trust in Jesus, and because of His sacrifice on the cross, He can forgive me freely, and I would have eternal life freely on the basis of my faith in Him and not on the basis of my righteousness.
And that message hit me like a ton of brick. And so this is really the shift that happened in the heart, as much as in the mind, where I was willing, and I said, "Yes. That's the one. Okay. Lord, You're real. This has happened. Take my life and save me," and there was a very strong spiritual renewal. My guilt evaporated. I was literally born again, quite literally. It was a very significant change emotionally, spiritually about that. I felt like I had encountered the living God and that my sins, that had become very real to me, were now forgiven because of what Jesus had done.
Wow! That's quite something. It sounds like, although you began this search, obviously, to see if it was true, but you not only found that it was not only true but real and real, not only intellectually but real for your life, for your person, for your soul. And I can't imagine the shift, the juxtaposition that you must have experienced. How long was this process? How long did this take you? It sounded like you were quite on an intentional journey.
From the time that I met Robert on that infamous Sunday morning to the time that I actually embrace the good news, it was a number of months. It was probably less than six months. But yes, several months, and the final piece is that, when I finally was convicted and realized this was the real deal, it was just at the right time that I was planning to go, for the first time, to visit my girlfriend in New York. And so this was an extremely conflicting moment, because I felt like I had believed that this was the truth, but now I needed to confess my own sins to her.
And I figured that... I was extremely conflicted because all the advice that I had been given was, "You don't need to mention any of this. It's done, so just be happy with her." That was not the advice that Robert gave me, obviously, because I didn't tell him any of this before I went to New York, but my friends had given me this advice, to simply not say anything, and inside of me, my conscience was very activated, and I thought, "There's no way I can build a relationship with a lie," so I was confused. I went there, and I discovered New York. We had a very intense week, and towards the end, I finally caved in, and I did confess all of my sins and figured, like, "This is going to break us up, and this is going to be over, but at least I will live in the light, and I will be able to walk according to my conscience."
So this was extremely painful. She took it very negatively, and that was just before I was leaving, so I flew back to Paris, and I thought we were done for. Well, I knew, except that when I walked out of the airport in Paris, there was a message on my phone that she still wanted to try and forgive me and to make it work. And so at that point started a period of me trying to make it work with her. And I had thought, "God has been using all of this to bring me to faith," so I was ready to make the jump, and what I did is that I took steps to basically turn my life around. I left everything in France, and so I quit my volleyball team. I quit my band. I quit my job. I found a job in Wall Street because I was working in finance, so that worked out quite well. And then I moved to the US to be with her and to just have this new life.
And so I was full of hope and emotions, and then I arrived, and then this is where the story takes another turn, which is that our relationship turned out to be really bad. We were not meant for each other at all, and it took me a number of months to accept that truth, but all of this was not for us to be together, and so we actually broke up after that.
And this is the place where I was starting to wonder, "Well, okay, God. What are You up to? This is what I get when I turn my life around?" And so I was in New York with very few social connections and no volleyball team, no band, just my job, and all of my evenings and weekends were just free, and this is just about the time that I started to have to answer questions from my family and friends in France about my newfound faith, trying to convince them that I hadn't lost my mind, so this is what started conversations where I started to engage intellectually and tell them, "Look, these are some of the reasons that I've come to believe," and then I was curious and started to study and understand, "Oh, yeah, there's other good reasons to believe this is true," and so I shared those, and I enjoyed the exercise of sharing that, and the next thing you know, I was spending all of my evenings and all of my weekends just thinking and researching those things, watching debates and documentaries and reading books and following the footnotes and really enjoying this, and after a few months of doing this all the time, I figured, "If I'm going to be spending all of my time and all of my resources doing this, then I might as well get a degree out of it," and so this is how I applied to seminary, and I, a few years later, graduated with a Masters in Biblical Literature with an emphasis on the New Testament, and then after that, I pursued my studies with another degree. I got a PhD in Philosophical Theology.
So this is how, after the move and after my conversion, I ended up walking through the small door and into the world of Christian scholarship, without planning any of it, but I ended up being active and writing and researching and speaking, and what's fun is that some of the folks that I studied initially turned out to be colleagues and friends, and the whole thing feels a bit surreal, but this is where I am now.
You've coursed a long journey, from unbelief to not only just Christian belief but compelling, deep, scholarly Christian belief and debate, and that you are now one of the voices that people look to and listen to on very deep theological and philosophical areas, it's really quite impressive. It sounds like, for someone who held truth to be supreme, that you still hold truth to be, in the person of Christ, to be incredibly supreme, not only in your life personally but contending for that in terms of the Christian worldview and even, like I say, at a deep and a scholarly level.
For the skeptic who might be listening in, someone who thought they would never believe in God or never even think about investigating God, when I look at your life and listen to you, you are someone who obviously, again, is a brilliant thinker and someone worth looking to and hearing your wisdom. What would you say to someone who might be curious, at least, to investigate like you did?
Yeah. So I don't know that I'm necessarily in an awesome position to give them advice and tell them what to do, but here's a couple of pieces that I will mention. The first is that, if they are intellectually curious, they should definitely consult some of the material that is discussed, controversial material, right? The debate material on the truth of Christianity, that there is some really good thinking happening and that there are some really good reasons to believe that God exists and that the Bible is actually reliable and that we get a good account of what happened to Jesus. So considering the intellectual case is one advice, and some of them have, some of them have never done that. I would recommend that you look into that, actually.
And the other is a little bit more personal and dear to my heart, but it's also the encouragement to not assume that you know who Jesus is, that you know because we've heard about Jesus and maybe you've attended church and you've heard a million stories, but I would recommend that you try the same experience as I did, which was to say, "Let's forget about everything I've heard. Let's pick up the sources and see what people actually saw and the kind of character that He was," and I trust that this can be extremely transformative, to be put face to face with the real Jesus and not the one that we think we know.
That's good advice. And for the Christians who are listening in who, especially they may know someone in their life who's not a Christian, but they want them to know. And you encountered Robert, for one, who is an intelligent Christian who sat down with you and answered questions in a thoughtful way, was patient with you in moving through this intellectual and spiritual and very personal material in different ways it affected your life. How would you advise Christians to engage with those who are skeptical or even searching?
Yeah. So there's a couple of pieces of advice that I like to give Christians while engaged in conversations with what could be old atheist self, right? So some of the things that I think worked quite well and that are a really good idea and encouragement. One would be to never assume that the person that you're speaking with actually knows the Jesus of the Bible, so the same piece of advice applies here. Try to point them to the scriptures. First of all, as Christians, we're convinced that the scriptures are alive, so there's actually a spiritual benefit in reading the text. But just to point them to make for themselves a good opinion of what Jesus actually said and did, so to encourage them to learn, just on the historical realm.
And the second is to not assume that they've heard the gospel, so as evangelical Christians, we like to think that this message is obviously the constantly proclaimed truth of the scriptures, that everyone has obviously heard that we are saved by faith in Jesus, that eternal life is not based on our own righteousness, but it's purely by faith in Christ because He died on the cross to pay the penalty in our place. That message that I came to understand and accept as part of my conversion was radically new to me. I had never heard anything like that in over 25 years, and so I don't want Christians to assume that this message is understood and known by everybody, and there's very much a place in the conversation with an atheist to say, "Let's forget a second whether or not it's true. I'm not trying to yet convince you that any of this is true. But do you even know Christianity affirms? What is the message? And I'd be happy to tell you what it says before we can come to discuss whether that's actually true," and to explain that gospel succinctly, and I've done that with a number of folks, and I found there's plenty of value in simply laying out the account on the table directly to say, "This is the message," and to try to see if they actually understand this. And one test of whether they understand it, I have found, is that very often, right after I've explained this, the first thing that comes out of their mouth is the objection that Paul himself anticipated in Romans when he lays out the gospel. He anticipates somebody's going to say, "Well, if we're saved by faith. If our good works don't do anything, then why not go on sinning just so that we can enjoy this and that grace may abound?" So Paul anticipates this, and I'm hearing this very often when I present this message, which tells me, "Yes. Now they get it." So that's a check where we understand. Now, the message is understood and correctly evaluated. It's a very positive place to take the listener, and then we can discuss the merits of the message, obviously. But I think this is a helpful piece to do.
Yes. Very, very helpful. As you say, I think oftentimes we're coming from our own perspective and presuming what the other person knows and oftentimes, we're very, very mistaken on that, and the gospel, I think is the most important thing, right? It's why Jesus came. It's the big question you had, "Why did He have to die?" And that is the most important question of all. Thank you for bringing that to the fore. And for those who are listening, I also want to let everyone know that Guillaume has put all of his story down in writing in a new book that he is publishing and releasing called Confessions of a French Atheist,
Thank you so much, Guillaume, for coming on and telling your story. You're just incredibly articulate, and we are all blessed by seeing what your journey was and just are so encouraged. You know, sometimes I think we look at someone and think they would never become a Christian, wouldn't even think about becoming a Christian, but we look at you and see that God can reach down in extraordinary and very personal and powerful ways. And even gives you chills and goosebumps. Something extraordinary happened for you to stop in your tracks and just say, "No, I actually am going to investigate this." It's just amazing to me, story after story that I hear, where God reaches people and, like you say, in serendipitous ways almost, and circumstances, and He does that for us all, to be honest. Sometimes we don't recognize that, but He's a personal God who reaches us in personal ways.
So thank you for coming on to share your story with us today.
It was really my pleasure. Thanks for having me, Jana.
Oh, you're so welcome.
Thanks for tuning in to today to hear Guillaume's story. You can find out more about his book, Confessions of a French Atheist, and how to follow him on Twitter in 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 that you would follow and share this podcast with your friends and social network and that you'll rate and review it as well. 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.