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EPISODE 66: Finding Jesus

Former atheist Mason Jones thought Christian belief was an overly simplistic view of life and reality until he began to recognize its depth and complexity, its ability to better explain reality.

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Transcript


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 at www.sidebstories.com. We welcome your comments on these stories on our Side B Stories Facebook page or through emailing us directly at [email protected].

As a reminder, our guests not only tell their stories of moving from disbelief to belief in God and Christianity, at the end of each episode, these former atheists give advice to curious skeptics as to how they too can pursue the truth and reality of God. They also give advice to Christians on how they can best engage with those who don't believe. I hope you're listening in to hear them speak from their wisdom and experience as someone who has once been on both sides. We have so much to learn from them.

Also, please know that many of these former atheists have made themselves available to talk with anyone who has questions about God or faith. If you'd like to connect, please email us at [email protected], and we'll get you connected.

Christianity is often associated with a cross and with Jesus, who died on a cross outside the city in first century Jerusalem. Christians believe that Jesus not only died but rose from the dead and appeared to hundreds of people over 40 days, until He returned to heaven. They believe that these events, among others, confirmed Jesus' claims to be God, to be truth, to be the way to heaven. Christians believe that these were not merely historical events in history but that they take on spiritual significance for those who believe, that it is good news for themselves and for the world.

For those who don't believe, this story can seem like childish superstition, just another myth, wishful thinking, a psychological crutch to give comfort or hope for something better than this world alone can offer. It seems completely out of touch and disconnected with anyone or anything reasonable or rational. It is an overly simplistic understanding of reality, they think. Skeptics believe it is severely out of step with scientific and sober-minded reality. It makes no sense intellectually or morally, until it does.

Former atheist Mason Jones once found himself rejecting the Christian belief he now embraces, and more than that, advocates. For him, the cross of Christ held the key to him making sense of himself, of his own values, and of reality itself. I hope you'll come along to hear his story of moving from disbelief to belief.

Welcome to Side B Stories, Mason. It's so great to have you with me today.

Thanks. I'm glad to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

Wonderful. As we're getting started, so the listeners know a little bit about you, Mason. Tell them perhaps what you're doing now in terms of your ministry and your recent history.

Yeah, so I graduated from Eastern Illinois University back in May 2022, and right now I'm working with a campus ministry called Campus Outreach to plant a new region in Michigan. So right now I'm living in Illinois, learning how all of our financial systems and everything works, so I can then go and build everything basically from the ground up in Michigan, and I'll be moving this summer to go do that, and I'm really pumped about that.

You're in ministry, and that's a long way from being or calling yourself a former atheist, so I'm curious how that happened. Let's get back into your story. Let's start at the very beginning, Mason. Why don't you talk with us a little bit about where you grew up. Tell us about your family life. Was there religion there? Any references of God in your world?

Yeah, so I grew up…. When I was really little, my family probably would have said they were Christians, all of us, just, I think because that was the default assumption. But the God we believed in was pretty superficial, at least for myself. I think I viewed God as kind of a fairy godparent who just existed to basically take care of me, watch out for me, and make sure everything went smoothly. And yeah. I grew up, and my parents, especially my mom, really tried to shelter me from just the messed up stuff in the world, I think like most mothers do. So at least for the first few years of my life, I didn't really have anything to challenge that view of God, and I think my family didn't have a whole lot of that, either.

But when I was about eight years old, some stuff happened in my family that my mom just couldn't shelter me from, just a lot of hard stuff. Family deaths, sickness, broken relationships, just yeah, some hard stuff. Over the span of just two years, one of my grandmothers got breast cancer, my grandpa got lung cancer, one of my uncles died in a motorcycle accident. Actually, a year before that, another grandparent died of a brain aneurysm. Then, like, two weeks or something after my uncle died in a motorcycle accident, my other uncle took his life in our driveway. And really, that event was kind of where it really hit me hard. Like, the questions, “How can a just and loving God be reconciled with a world that seems so devoid of justice and love?” And yeah, I questioned that for a while, just to myself. Oh, sorry.

No, I was just trying to consider, as an eight year old boy, what that must have felt like. Experiencing that kind of loss in such a short period of time and especially so graphically in your own yard. I suppose, like you say, any semblance of faith in a God who exists to protect you would have…. It’s like the rug would have been pulled out from underneath you, I would imagine, sending you reeling in a sense, of where was this good and protective and powerful God? I can't imagine, as a child, really, what you must have undergone, and I'm so sorry.

Thank you. Yeah. It was definitely hard, and I definitely didn't have the resources to understand what was going on.

Did your parents try to help you talk through that, or was that something you were observing and processing on your own?

As far as I remember, I don't remember really talking about it very much. I think we tried to avoid the reality of it as much as possible. And to this day, I don't know if my mom knows how much I actually saw, because my parents are divorced, and I was visiting my dad when my uncle took his life and yeah, I just never really talked about it with my mom and didn't really talk about it with my dad, either. That was his brother, and so he was going through his own process of grieving and a whole lot of pain there. So I think our solution a lot of the time was just not to talk about it, but I definitely asked a lot of questions to myself and just didn't verbalize them very much. Just questions like, yeah, how could a loving God let this stuff happen?

At one point, I'd gotten to the point where I think I was asking, “All right, maybe God is good. Maybe I'm just not on His good side. Just the question of, like, “How good do you have to be to be good enough for God?” kind of was replacing the question of, “Is God really good?” And so I was wrestling with that. And that was when I finally did ask my parents. I asked my mom as we were… I still remember it. We were pulling out of a grocery store parking lot, and as we were pulling up to the stop sign, I think I asked my mom, “How good do you have to be to get to heaven?” And she, I guess, at some point herself had become an atheist. I don't think she was before all this stuff happened, but she just turned around and said to me, “Oh. You know none of that stuff's real, right?” And that was first time I had realized my mom didn't believe in God. But at that age, it was still, I think, anything especially my mom said was, “Oh, my mom is where I look to for truth.” And so it was, “Oh!” From that point on, I think I was an atheist and just was like, “Oh, I guess God isn't real.” It was devastating, but it was just kind of, “This is the authority figure in my life. That’s I guess the way things are.”

Wow. And again, that's a pretty sobered view for a young child, really. As you were processing through all of that and walking through all that. I’m also presuming, by your story…. You were surprised at her revelation. I guess that means that you weren't actively going to church or involved in any kind of Christian community at all during any of this period of time.

No. Like I said, all growing up, my understanding of God was really superficial. I didn’t even have really a category for what function church could serve, other than, “Oh, man, you must be really devoted if you go there.” I don't know if we even owned a Bible in our house. So I just really had a truncated, simplistic view of God that was pretty easy to take apart. So it wasn't like…. When my mom told me God didn't exist, it wasn't super hard to reconcile with just the information that I had, because the understanding of God that I had seemed like a contradiction, and it was. Yeah. It was really superficial, which—I was nine years old.

Right. In your world, too, did you have any friends who were Christians or believed in God at all? Or was it a fairly nominal faith or at all in any of your friends that you had association with?

Yeah. I don't know. It's hard, looking back then, because I wasn't even asking questions that would have gotten at the genuineness of someone's faith. But as far as, at least, I can remember, as far as conversations I've had with friends growing up, none of them ever said anything that would indicate a deep, rich understanding of Christianity and the gospel. I think there was a lot of nominal Christianity, which again, we were eight, nine years old. So some of that's just we weren't old enough to really have rich, deep understanding of the gospel. But also, I think, even just growing up after becoming an atheist, that was a common trend, was the religious friends I had seemed to have that truncated view of God that, at that point, had left a bad taste in my mouth. I think I thought little of them for it.

Christianity or God or belief in God left a bad taste in your mouth. There are some people who experience pain and dismiss God and say, “Okay, I guess He’s just not there. He’s not real.” And then there are some who feel it, I guess, a little bit more palpably and can even develop almost a bitterness or a distaste or a contempt for religion, for religious things, for, in an ironic way, the nonexistence of God. Did you feel that sense of contempt in yourself? Or was it just, “Okay, I guess He just doesn't exist. I really don't care. Let’s just move on.”

Yeah, I think I definitely wouldn't have said I had a contempt for Christianity as such. I think I just had a contempt for the simplicity which I did attribute to Christianity. I didn't realize there was a more comprehensive nuanced worldview out there under the banner of Christianity. But I had, again, friends that were professing Christians that… I wouldn't have said that I was hostile to God, that I was angry at God. Although of course, examining myself in the lens of the Bible, of course I was hostile to God. I was alienated from him. But at that time, I wouldn't have presented myself as such. I think I would have at least framed myself as objecting on purely rational grounds and rejecting the idea of God as a contradiction, not as an emotional hostility.

So it was a rational decision, in a sense, that God didn't exist, and I presume that you're saying that it contradicted the idea that He was there, that He was present, that He was protective, those kinds of things. You've couched or used the word simplistic a few times with regard to your understanding of Christianity at that time. Can you flesh that out a little bit more? Because you're contrasting it between a simplistic understanding, but yet you're saying there was a deeper complexity to it that you didn't understand. But just, at that time, what did you think Christianity or belief in God was?

Yeah. I thought the essence of Christianity was, “Believe in God and do enough good things, and you get to heaven,” and that way of ordering the universe and understanding how objective morality and God's goodness and sovereignty, how all that fit together, it seemed like, and I still think today, it is a contradiction. If you come in with the assumption that people are basically good, like I did, and with the right notion that God is both perfectly loving and sovereign over all of the universe, then there is no rational explanation for what goes wrong in the world.

So that's what I mean by simplistic. I had kind of a one plus one equals two understanding of Christianity.

Okay. Okay. I think that that is fair, a fair analysis, I think, in terms of your own, and many, I think, think in those terms. So I appreciate you kind of spelling that out for us. So you're eight, nine years old, and you've decided that God cannot exist rationally with what you're observing and experiencing in the world. So then what happens from there?

Yeah, for the next few years, honestly, I didn't think about it very much. It was just kind of, “Oh, this is the way it is.” At least, I didn't think about God as such that much. I thought about the implications of my atheism pretty often. I remember, as early as fourth or fifth grade, just sitting in the classroom and just having like, existential dread, realizing, “Man, if  something happens and if I die today, then that's just it. There’s nothing!” And being terrified as a grade schooler, and yeah, that wasn't a normal thought for people in my classes.

No! Right, right. That's, again, a fairly mature perspective or understanding as a boy, really, that you understood what you were rejecting, but you also understood what you were embracing, in terms of what it means for there to be no God is that there is no life after death, as it were. That can be pretty frightening for a child, I would imagine.

Yeah. It was definitely a hard time, just because there was, I think, an instinctive fear of death. I think as I got older, it got easier for me to make the—or at least convince myself that, “Oh, it's okay. It’s just like a really long nap, or a forever nap.” But at that age, I think, just instinctively I knew better, that death really is a tragic thing, that it is sad, it's hard, it's devastating. And, yeah, I understood it better than I did, I think, when I got older.

Well, you had been very close to several deaths to people close in your life. So I would imagine it would be a much more palpable reality for you, to consider that you would just watch people that you love die. So of course, there are other implications to a naturalistic or a worldview where God doesn't exist. You had spoken of objective moral values and duties and things, and just knowing things that are absolutely right or wrong. Were those things that you wrestled with as you were trying to come to terms with this godless world?

Yeah. I think I realized pretty quickly, just on an intuitive level, that if—I was a physicalist atheist, so I was the most common, but also the strictest form of atheism there is. It’s there's no phenomena that can't be explained apart from what's physically observable and just the principles of physics that you would learn in science class. So I think pretty early on I realized the implications of that, that if physical phenomena and physical properties are the only properties and phenomena that exist, then there really isn't a place for objective and transcendent moral values, because a physicalist worldview traps you within the immanent. You can't reach out to the transcendent to grab resources.

And I recognized that. And from as early as I can remember, that was hard, because I couldn't live as if that was actually true. Like I, at random points in the day even, would just recognize, “Oh, if God isn't real and what I do doesn't matter, then why would I not cut in line at lunch?” Or, “Why would I care about not skipping school?” But almost invariably, I wouldn't do those things. I would do what was really a contradiction, but what I would say is the moral thing. And that perplexed me. It was confusing. My stated beliefs weren't lining up with my practiced beliefs. And that was causing some tension even from, again, like fourth and fifth grade.

Did you talk with others who shared your worldview, how they seemed to reconcile those moral intuitions, if you will, or things that didn't seem to line up with the atheistic worldview?

Not that I can remember. I don’t know. Maybe part of it was growing up in Texas. Even if you are an atheist, I think a lot of people aren't very vocal about their atheism because it's still at least a very nominally Christian area. But I remember in English class, especially English class, we would read things that just started from, I think…. They weren't atheistic, but they were the same presuppositions that undergirded an atheistic worldview of, morality arises from social constructs, like it is a construct of society to order society. And so I was engaging with those thoughts that… they provided the only alternative to a morality that was based in God that I could think of. But I think even engaging with those, I realized they were kind of shallow. Like if morality was just a construct that just naturally arose from evolutionary processes, there was no reason for me as an individual to follow those restrictions. Those constraints, if they served an evolutionary purpose, which is the hypothesis that people put out, then I should disregard them when my own self interest goes against those constraints, because that would actually be advantageous for myself, which would then pass on those genes to future generations, but I didn't. And so either I was the worst piece of Darwinian machinery on the planet, or something wasn't adding up.

Okay, wow. So something wasn't adding up in your atheistic worldview. Were there any other points of tension that were causing you to step back and consider maybe this isn't…. Just as your belief in God became, in a sense, non-rational or irrational because of what you were observing and experiencing in the world, with the deaths and all of that, it seems to me that the pieces are falling apart a little bit with regard to your atheistic worldview, that there were points of tension that were, again, not adding up, not making sense with regard to the whole of your worldview. Were there any other points of tension? Or was this enough for you to turn and really question what it is you were believing?

There were probably other points of tension, but I don't think—even the points of tension that I felt, I was pretty content in my atheism, as far as, it was like, “All right. Yes, parts of this stink.” Like, “Man, the fact that me dying is just the end, that is not something I'm excited about, but it's just the way it is. It's the best way I can order things that I can think of.” And so I was pretty settled in my atheism. It wasn't like I was reaching out for something else. It was just, “Oh, I've got to find some way to either find meaning and find an orderly account for reality, or I have to just push that problem off to the side, which that ended up being kind of what I did, is I just pushed the whole morality problem off to the side, because I was like, “All right. I don't have the tools to figure this one out right now, so maybe someday, but for right now, I’m just not going to deal with it.”

It seemed like within my framework, I didn't have the resources to deal with it. But the only other option seemed so implausible that it just wasn't even worth considering. And again, it was fundamentally because I had misrepresented Christianity, not because of any flaw in Christianity itself. And I would have said, again, my objections to Christianity were rational, but it was, on a deeper level, much more pre-rational, having to do with the basic assumptions about life. Again, starting from the assumption that people are basically good, that was the unstated assumption that led to all the conflict and tension in what I perceived was the Christian worldview.

So you're in this sober minded, more rational understanding of reality, or so you think, within your atheism, and you're going along, you were not completely satisfied with it, but it's the best of all possible options on the table for you, or so you think, again, at the moment. So walk us along. What begins to happen or change?

Yeah. So when I was 15, about to go into my sophomore year of high school, my mom—she was in the military. She was a cardiologist in the military. She got re-stationed in Augusta, Georgia. And when she moved from San Antonio to Augusta, I moved in with my dad in Illinois. And my dad had just relatively recently started going to church, and when I moved in with him, he started taking me with him.

Interesting. I wonder what had caused your father to go to church.

I'm not entirely sure. I think part of it was he, unlike my mom, had never stopped believing in the Christian God. He always would have called himself a Christian. We have actually talked since, and we, I think, both kind of agree he probably didn't really understand the gospel and become a Christian until around the same time that I did. But he felt, just kind of on a deep level, just from his upbringing, that like, “Church is something that we should do,” and he had not been going for a long time, but just hard stuff happened. And whereas my mom's response and my response, both of us was to pull away, his response was to lean in a little bit, and it was a bit of a delayed response, honestly, but eventually it happened, and I'm really thankful, because otherwise I would have never heard the gospel. So I went to church-

So he had you go to church. Did you resist that at all, as a professed atheist? Did he know that you were an atheist, as he was trying to bring you to church?

I don't think he did. Again, my family, we just never really talked about that stuff. I think because we know crossing that line hurts, that it brings up all the pain of that stuff, and so our default was just, “All right. Let’s just operate as best we can without dealing with that stuff, crossing that line,” so I don't think he knew I was an atheist, but also I wasn't… because, again, in my mind, it wasn't that I just was super angry or anything. It was more so like, “As an atheist, it's illogical to be angry at God,” and that was my thought, was, “Why would I be angry at something that didn't exist?”

Right.

So I was like, “Oh, I love my dad. This is an hour a week. I can do it.”

So I'm curious, what were your first impressions of going into a church? You really hadn't been much of a church goer, so I'm curious, as a self-perceived atheist, what you thought of the service and the people.

I honestly think the first time I just fell asleep and didn't think much about it.

Okay. Yeah. That’s honest. Yeah.

But I think gradually it kind of was…. I think the biggest thing was running into other people my age who were going to church, and the biggest thing, the single biggest thing that happened was…. It was probably the second time I went to church because again, the first time, I fell asleep. The second time, I actually do remember. I just actually heard the gospel. And I heard that the world was made good and was a reflection of God's goodness and His perfect sovereignty over that creation, and that He made man in His image to enjoy that creation and to in that creation enjoy Himself. And that was the first time I heard that purpose statement for creation. But then it was also the first time I had heard an explanation, a consistent explanation, for what's wrong with creation, that we messed it up, that it was our own free choice that brought the curse of sin on creation, that we’d chosen finite, broken things instead of the infinite, eternal God to try to satisfy us. And that was the first time there was even a category given for what's wrong with the world, other than God has to be what's wrong with the world. Instead it was, “Oh, what if we're what's wrong with the world?”

And then the gospel was the good news, that's what euangelion means is the good news, that God was committed to redeeming His people, that He was committed to pursuing them, and so He sent His own Son, again eternal, infinite, perfect, and all His attributes, and He suffered the full weight of the curse that we had subjected creation to. And so I heard basically that the world is far more messed up than I had ever thought and that I even had the categories to think of, because as an atheist I only have whatever categories fit within the immanent frame. But I also heard that there is a God who is far more committed to restoring and redeeming that universe than I had ever thought to imagine. And so again…. Or not again. This is the first time I'm saying it, but I wasn't immediately converted right then on the spot. But I did realize at that moment that I had really oversimplified Christianity and that I at least really needed to engage with its claims more seriously.

So it caused you to take a step back and take another look. How did you engage the claims more seriously? What did that look like?

As far as what I did intentionally, I think I realized pretty quickly that ground zero for this was the resurrection, because it was the claim that the entire…. Every doctrine within Christianity and the whole of Christianity hinged itself upon the reality of this man, Jesus of Nazareth, rising from the dead 2000 years ago. And so I realized, “All right, if that's true, Christianity is true. If it's false, Christianity is false.” But also it was something that no other religion has. It's a falsifiable historical claim. Every other religion makes claims and builds its foundation on abstract principles, things that you can debate, you can argue about, but you can't falsify them. You can’t ultimately disprove them if they're wrong.

And so I was not a full-on, full-blown logical positivist, which is basically—I guess I’ve got to rewind now. Logical positivism. I’m sure you're familiar with it, but for those of you who may be listening that aren't, it's basically the idea that the only statements that even have meaning are those that are empirically verifiable or analytically true. That's true in and of themselves. And here was an empirically verifiable claim. And that was, for an atheist, an atheistic physicalist even, like me, that was gold. It was like, “Oh, I can engage with this!”

But I think also through that, through engaging with the historical data, I realized, on a much deeper level, there needed to be some deep challenging of the fundamental assumptions that I brought into my reasoning about the world. Because I realized my worldview, the basic assumptions I had, the presuppositions that inform how I think about everything, they precluded the very idea of a resurrection, because that's necessarily a supernatural imposition on the natural order. And if I'm a physicalist, I don't have a concept for that.

Right.

And so if that's just a claim that I believe, then that's fine, but it has to be something that can be broken down and falsified. You have to be able to prove me wrong, that physical phenomena is all there is. And that wasn't the case. Instead, it was a presupposition. It was something that was baseline taken for granted, taken as just an axiom, and it was what informed all of my reasoning. And so it was an invitation into the worldview of the gospel, which is where my friends were super helpful, because I, if just left my own devices, would have been trapped with the basic assumptions and the way of thinking that I had always held.

But through engaging with my friends, I for the first time really saw people who actually believed the gospel. And so they had fundamentally different baseline assumptions about the world around them. Instead of doing things to get something or just as a functional process of, “Oh, this will give me this good,” there was something that instead, on the front end, drove their decisions. And that was that they were justified by the grace of God alone, through faith in Jesus Christ alone. And it actually produced real change in their lives. It affected and informed all of their decisions. Because, like I said, I had met at least nominal Christians beforehand, but I hadn't seen that before. And so, through my friends being able to actually imagine a different worldview and see how those assumptions would just fundamentally change everything, that was a huge part in how I became a Christian.

So it sounds like it was a combination of, not only as an empiricist, at the time of your research, just looking for the evidence for a falsifiable claim of Jesus's resurrection, and then adding to that an embodied view of Christianity that was not only attractive, but it also had, like you say, completely presuppositions about the world and how you see it and how it drives your life. And you could sense a palpable change.

So I'm just curious, for those who are listening who are saying, “I can't go there with the resurrection,” but how did you study? Did you have particular books or authors or claims that you investigated? And how did you pursue that?

Yeah, I think my starting point was Google, and I just looked up Jesus’ resurrection, historical facts, case for, case against the resurrection. And I realized there were good and bad arguments on either side. But especially the arguments against the resurrection only worked if you started with assumptions that disproved the possibility of the resurrection. And so that's where I realized, like, “All right. That only helps you get from point A to Z if point A is point Z. If you start with, ‘The resurrection is false,’ you can end up back at, ‘The resurrection is false,’” but I wanted to see, like, “All right, if I was a Christian, could you actually convince me that the resurrection wasn't real?” If I was a thoughtful, informed Christian, if I believed that the supernatural can impose itself on the natural order, is there anything about the resurrection that's inconsistent? Is there any conflicting data? Is there any of the earliest eyewitness or historical documents that would go against this? And the answer was no.

Basically the best argument people could give for why we shouldn't trust the biblical documents, which are eyewitness documents, was that because they validate Jesus’ resurrection. It’s like, “Ah! We know that can't be true.” And I was like, “That doesn't make sense.” I actually gave a talk on the resurrection one time, and at the start, I was like… I basically gave an example, like, if I was talking with my friend Brock, and I said, “Man, what would happen if I dropped this mic right now?” And he told me, like, “Oh! It’d fall to the ground.” And I said, “Yeah, well, that's only because you believe in gravity.” You'd be like, “Yes, but the question is, do I have a good reason for believing that?” And so if all the eyewitness documents were saying that Jesus rose from the dead, in my mind it was, “All right, there has to be a pretty high burden of proof to the contrary to show that every single eyewitness is false, rather than they're actually reliable.

That's pretty impressive, I would say. As someone who really wanted to investigate what you believed… as someone who held rationality and evidence in high regard, that you were willing to take a look at evidence that perhaps went beyond your presumptions that only the natural world exists, that there is no supernatural. I'm just so impressed that you were willing to take another perspective, the Christian perspective, to grant the possibility, “What if?” and then look at the data. And obviously you were convinced by it. You're sitting here as a Christian. I presume that you believe that the resurrection occurred, that Jesus, because of the resurrection, it verified His claims to be God and His claims towards redemption, that all those things you talked about at the beginning, that God, or even through the gospel rather, that God really wants to redeem not only the world, but His people and all the brokenness in everyone, and that He does that through Christ on the cross, and then verified those claims through the resurrection.

And then, again, you say you saw your friends who lived in an embodied way, with a different set of presuppositions, that God exists and that He actually accomplished the gospel through Christ and that He produces redeemed lives. And you saw that palpably in the lives of your friends. So I presume all of that came together and that you were able to move beyond your prior presuppositions to embrace this new view of reality and that it was applied to you yourself, that you personally took on that redemption that Christ accomplished on the cross, that the gospel was made true in your life.

Yeah.

How did that happen?

Well, I think, just fundamentally, in order to actually believe the gospel and to be able to make that shift from atheistic physicalistic assumptions, presuppositions, to Christian presuppositions, there had to genuinely be a heart desire change. And I think, even up until recently, I would have recoiled from that, because I've just by default, and I think probably a lot of people listening can relate, just think of myself as a rational, intellectual being. The Descartes, “I think. Therefore, I am.” Not realizing that, fundamentally, at least if, as Christians, we listen to the Bible, and even if you're a postmodern listening to this, you listen to your own philosophy. We are teleological beings drawn to an end, one end or the other, and so my telos had to be at least shaken up and then progressively changed for me to even have the option to consider different presuppositions. There was a movement from the baseline heart level of where my worship was, up through the pre-intellectual level of the baseline assumptions that inform how I think about the world, through the intellectual level.

And so, before the gospel could be intellectually viable, it had to be intellectually, and more than intellectually, actually just practically appealing. That's why, in showing a different way to live out reality and to understand reality and to do so in a consistent way, my friends didn't just stir up my mind to think about it but my heart to genuinely desire it. And an objection that someone might raise is like, “Oh, so you're just a Christian because that is what you want to believe.” In a sense, I'd say, “Yeah. No one ever believes anything they don't want to believe.” But the question is, is that correct? Is that right? I think, just on a fundamental level, I don't want to believe anything that's a contradiction. But also, reality, from a Christian worldview, can't just be an abstract set of propositions. It has to be something that's lived, that's glorious, that's beautiful. And so, as Christians, yeah, we need to reclaim the aesthetic, the beautiful, the joyful, because that's what made me a Christian, was the beauty of the gospel, not just the rationality of it.

And the rationality is part of the aesthetic appeal. It's part of the beauty. It's part of the joy of the gospel. But if we reduce it to just the intellectual, then we miss out on entire dimensions of the gospel. Sorry, I don't know if I answered your question, but-

No. No, no, no. I think that's really quite beautiful, and I love that you're saying that, because we are not just parts and pieces in our humanity. And I think it's interesting, too. Part of the reason why you rejected Christianity and God was because it was too simplistic and it didn't seem to fit or match with the reality that you were experiencing at that time. And you were experiencing something very deep, and it was more than rational. And I think we're all looking to make sense of our lives and what we think. And I think that, if you can find a worldview that's, like you say, not just superficially simplistic, but deep and complex and beautiful—it's good and it's true—that it is a good place to land. And it seems to me—and maybe you could talk a little bit about how you have been transformed in your ways of thinking and living since you found Jesus and the gospel applied to your life and that you believe that it is true and for good reason. All of those things together, that, once you find that, that it is transforming, like you observed in the lives of your friends. You're sitting there as someone who is a campus minister wanting others to know Christ. Obviously, your life has been fully transformed. Well, not perfectly, right? But in a grand way. Why don't you talk with us a little bit about how your life has changed since you took on Christ, as it were, as your Savior?

Yeah. I think again, because I recognized, even before coming a Christian, pretty early on, wrestling with the claims of Christianity, that if Jesus Christ really did die and rise from the dead, that I realized that that demanded every ounce of my being, that that demanded to redirect my thoughts, my affections, everything that I was pointed towards and the end for which I lived my life, had to be captivated by that. And so, once I became a Christian, I didn't really know what that would look like, but I knew, “All right. If I ever come to the realization that there's a claim that Christ could make on my life that I am not living in light of, then I need to drop everything and follow that claim that Christ demands of me.”

So for me, my freshman year of college, that meant dropping my dream of becoming a software developer and instead just devoting myself to ministry. That doesn't mean that for everyone, but for me, I realized both that I had a passion for teaching the word of God, for evangelizing and for discipling people in their faith, and raising them up as laborers to go evangelize and disciple and then mobilize other people. I realized I had a passion for that. And then I also realized that that's probably like the single biggest need that the world has right now, is not enough laborers in the harvest. And I could have done that within computer science. I could have, in a workplace, shared the gospel with a ton of people, honestly, especially with the high turnover in the technology industry, just could have made a lifetime of faithful witness. But I think, with campus ministry, and especially eventually I want to go into church planting, I realized there was a unique opportunity to not only share the gospel with many people but build people up in their faith through just a life long of intentional discipleship, which is my full-time job. Like, I don't have other stuff to do.

There's unique sacrifices that go into a job like this. I don't have a steady salary. I support raise for my salary. So if people drop off my support team when COVID hits, then I'm in trouble. But there's also unique opportunities that, man, I have no other job than to pour into these Christian brothers and sisters and to equip our staff. I'm in the primarily administrative role, so I also get to really just do everything that our staff need to be able to do their own ministry. And so I'm ministering to both staff and students, and I just have a unique opportunity to pour my life out for the gospel without any other obligations. And honestly, I got the easy way out. It's, I think, a lot harder and takes a lot more intentionality to devote your life to serving Christ in a secular workplace than it is in a Christian workplace.

Yeah, that sounds very full. And, in thinking back in your story, too, in terms of the desire to make sense of some of these big issues in life, whether it be objective moral values and duties, knowing that something is right and wrong and that there's a transcendent source for that, or that there is something after death, that there is purpose in living all of the things that might not have perhaps made sense as an atheist. Within the Christian worldview, this complex and deep worldview, do those things seem to come into alignment, that there's more sense making, I guess you could say, as well as meaning making within the Christian worldview, that you're not at those points of tension that you're trying to wrestle. I mean, we’re all wrestling, especially when bad things happen, right? When there's pain and suffering in the world and someone close to you dies, there's a problem. How do you reconcile that within your own worldview? And I would imagine as a Christian now, reconciling those issues, issues of death and pain and suffering, are a little bit different than where you were as a child, understanding it from a godless point of view.

Yeah, actually a really hard but powerful example is my grandpa that got lung cancer when I was younger. He actually just passed away this past year, and it was painful. It was really hard. But when I was an atheist, there was no outlet for that pain. There wasn't any solution to it, other than, “There is no meaning to this. This is meaningless, senseless, chaotic suffering,”  and there was no firm basis for grief. But under the Christian worldview, there is. In the same foundation in which we find hope in grief, there's also the foundation that gives the basis for grief. And that's that the world's not made to be this way. There is a good God Who has made us in His image and cares deeply about all forms of suffering and is committed to redeeming and restoring it. And so there's a place for sorrow. There’s a place for wrestling with the pain of a world that's not the way it should be, and at the end of all that wrestling, it should lead us to a deeper and more full hope in the God Who has promised to redeem this world.

Because it's not that God is cold and distant from the suffering. That’s the reason why it still exists, because God Himself took on flesh and entered into that suffering. Jesus Himself bore all the burdens of this world. Isaiah says that He was despised and rejected by men. He has borne our sorrows and carried our griefs. He's walked in every kind of suffering that we've known. He had every form of pain. He faced sickness. He faced sorrow at the loss of others. He wept at Lazarus's tomb, and He walked through death Himself. He walked through the curse of sin, all the brokenness in the world, taking it on Himself on the cross and in His death. And then He conquered it. It's not just that, “Oh, God understands. He knows how you feel.” But no, He walks through that for a purpose, and that was to redeem it and to give victory over it. And so, if the gospel was just, “Oh, Christ died for us,” then maybe there'd be comfort in that. Like, “Oh, whoever is running things, He’s been here.” It's like having a boss that has also worked your same job. It's like, “Oh, He knows what's going on.”

But we have far more than that. We have the promise that God not only walked through death, but He came out the other side, that Jesus rose from the dead and conquered it and reigns at the right hand of God the Father. And so there's the resources to more fully deal with the tension and the pain and the sting of death and grief.

Yeah. Well, what a change you have made. What a change God has made in you. It really is palpable. And I'm considering those who might be listening, Mason, who… they can feel that things aren't quite right in the world, quite right with themselves. They're feeling a little bit broken, maybe curious that there might be something more than what they're experiencing and what they know. And I'm wondering what you would say to someone who's curious, who might actually, like you, be willing to take another look, open their mind and their potential horizons to something different, consider other presuppositions. How would you advise someone who might be open to the possibility of looking closer at God and Christianity?

Yeah. I think step one is engage with the claims of Christ, engage with eyewitness accounts of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. A great place to start for just who Jesus is, a historical compilation of eyewitness accounts, is Matthew. He's a meticulous collector of historical accounts, and he's super committed to taking detail because he knows that people he's writing to are going to want to fact check him. So he's very careful in how he writes, but he also writes with a warmth and a joy in knowing Jesus personally that just shines through. So it's not just a mere academic… he's not just writing a paper that's seeking to make a point. He's writing a genuine account of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that is thematic and carries the weight of what Jesus has done, not just as historical realities, but deep and transformative truth that this is what Jesus has done, and this is what that means, this is what that offers you. And so you get both at the claims of Christ and you can compare those with people like Pliny, Tacitus, other first century, second century historians, in the case of, say, Tacitus, and other influential people at the time of Jesus's resurrection, in the early Christian movement. And you can compare them to Matthew.

But I think maybe even more important than that is just find some Christians who actually genuinely believe the gospel, who believe that the Bible is actually real. They believe that Jesus did rise from the dead. And not just who say that but who actually live as if that's the case. And make friends with them. You don't have to commit to, you know, “These people are my life,” because obviously, if you're skeptical about Christianity, you probably don't want to do that, but commit to inhabiting their worldview for a little bit. And invite them to inhabit yours. Let there be a healthy dialogue there. And I think just be patient with them, because I sure found this out, hanging out with a bunch of teenage, college-age Christians, you’re probably going to find a lot of inconsistencies in their faith. There's a lot that was inconsistent about my life, even when I was an atheist. It's just we often don't live consistently with our values. But I think if you're patient and you let them really show by their actions what they fundamentally most treasure, what they believe, and what commands their hearts, I think that'll be a really powerful testimony alongside the Bible of the gospel's truthfulness.

That's good advice. And I'm aware of also the reality that atheists and Christians don't often socialize. They're often not in the same space. And it may be, I wonder, a little bit hard for an atheist to find one of those genuine authentic Christians that you're talking about, just because they don't run in the same world. But to that end, I wondered how you would commend a Christian to engage with skeptics, to engage with atheists. How can they be in relationship? How can they get to know atheists? How can they best interact and share Jesus?

I would say just actually spend time with non-Christians outside of a church context. It sounds really simple. And you might ask like, “Well, how do I do that?” But reality is there are plenty of ways. We are social creatures, we will spend time with people, and it's good to spend time with other Christians, but if our view of the Christian walk is just gathering up in a holy huddle and singing worship songs to Jesus all the time, then I think we're missing an entire dimension of the gospel, and that's that it's fundamentally outward focused, that Jesus's prayer, when He sees the brokenness in the world, is, “Lord, raise up laborers to go into the harvest, because the harvest is plentiful, the laborers are few.” And I think that'll always be true in a sense. Even if every Christian was committed to sharing their faith, there would still be just a lot of work to do, just because there are a lot of people in the world.

But I think just, for example, on Saturdays, I'm joining a run club here in Peoria, and I'm just doing that because I work in a church office right now. I live with Christians. I'm still working on getting everything set up for a Michigan region, so I'm not spending a bunch of time on campus to spend with non-Christians. So this is just a chance for me to just actually, on a regular basis, be around non-Christians and have conversations. I think it's so easy for Christians to get caught up in all the other things we do that are part of just the spiritual disciplines, of growing in Christ, of reading the Bible, praying, spending time with other Christians, going to church, that we forget that, if we're really believing the gospel, it should have also an outward dimension to it, too, that evangelism is as much a spiritual discipline as any of those other things, that it's good for our souls to really live as if the gospel is true, and that people around us really do face the reality of hell apart from God's grace and the Person of His Son, and that God really is committed to saving people. And that, if we have those conversations with people, if we really commit ourselves to just laying down our lives for the kingdom of Christ, then God will do stuff, that God is more committed to evangelism than we are.

That's a good word for all of us, Mason. I am so appreciative of everything that you've said today, all that you've brought to the table. Is there anything else you'd like to add before we wrap up? Or do you think we've covered everything?

I would just say, hey, if you're listening to this and you haven't shared your faith in a long time, then I think the thing you most need to hear is not, “Go get out there,” but Jesus came, lived a perfect life on your behalf, died a sacrificial death on your behalf, and has called you to Himself, is committed to sanctifying you, and is now sending you out to be a part of the work He’s doing in building this new creation, as a gift, not as an obligation. So embrace the reality of the gospel.

I love that. I think you are such a beautiful example, Mason, of having embraced the gospel, and again, the gospel has embraced you. And that it's obvious to me that this is something that you didn't have, that you didn't understand, that you didn't know in its fullness, and that you lived without, but yet you found it, and Christ found you, and yours is a life change, that you are passionate now towards others finding what you found. And I think we can all grab a glimpse of that and be inspired by that and are just so thankful for the work that He’s done in you, because we know that He is working so much good through your life and through your ministry and your obvious heart that has been surrendered to that kingdom purpose, towards bringing others to know what you've known, to know what you know. So thank you for coming on today, for sharing your story, for really sharing your life and your heart and your mind for all of us today.

Thank you. I really enjoyed it. It was a great time. Just sweet to talk about this stuff, how God's just been really faithful in working to save me and to just work on my life since saving me. I hope the gospel gets ever sweeter and hope the same for everyone listening.

I'm sure it will be. So thank you so much. Thank you so much, Mason.

Thanks for tuning into Side B Stories to hear Mason Jones's story. You can find out more about Mason and his ministry with Campus Outreach in the episode notes. For questions and feedback about this episode, you can contact me through our website at www.sidebstories.com or through our email at [email protected]. I hope you enjoyed it and that you'll 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.


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