Intellectual Journey Towards God – Philip Vander Elst’s story

Feb 19, 2021

Side B Stories
Side B Stories
Intellectual Journey Towards God - Philip Vander Elst's story
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There is often a presumption that religion is irrational, far from truth and reason. In today’s episode, Philip Vander Elst describes his “journey of discovery” from atheism to an intellectually-grounded Christian belief.

Find out more about Philip and his writings at www.bethinking.org/author/philip-vander-elst

Recommended resources from this podcast include:
  • C.S. Lewis’s books:  Mere Christianity, Miracles 
  • C.S. Lewis essay “On Obstinacy in Belief”
  • N. Geisler and F. Turek: I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist
  • J. Lenox: God’s Undertaker:  Has Science Buried God?
  • L. Strobel:  The Case for Christ (book and film); The Case for a Creator

Episode Transcript

Hello, and thanks for joining in. I’m Jana Harmon, and you’re listening to the Side B Podcast, where we listen to the other side. Each podcast, we listen to both sides of a story, from atheism to Christianity. It’s commonly said that people are religious merely because the people around them are, but what happens when the people you love believe in God and you don’t? You won’t believe in God because you don’t believe it’s true, no matter what they say. At the end of the day, truth and reason are more important than the potential of lost relationships. There were several in my research with former atheists who chose truth over social gain or loss. Today’s story with Philip wrestles with this difficult conundrum. If he remained an atheist, true to his belief in truth and reason, he would lose the one he loved. If he became a Christian, he would compromise his intellectual integrity. Conversion for social or emotional reasons alone was unthinkable. As an intellectual, a thinker, it would be immoral and dishonest. He would be denying his highest value, holding fast to truth. How could this situation be resolved? There is often a presumption that religion is irrational, far from objective truth and reason. For many, the assertion that scientific, philosophical, or historical truth can be found within the Christian worldview is simply nonsensical. Today, through Philip’s story, we’ll explore whether or not rationality and truth can be found, can be grounded in a religious worldview, specifically Christianity, or whether or not religion merely serves a social or emotional purpose. We’ll consider whether or not Christianity is worth believing, especially for the intellectual. Today, we’ll be talking with a true English gentleman and former atheist. Philip Vander Elst is a prolific writer and esteemed lecturer, working in and among forums discussing deep philosophical issues. Welcome to the Side B Podcast, Philip. It’s wonderful to have you.

Well, it’s lovely to be with you, Jana, and I’m looking forward to our discussion.

Terrific! Me too. Before we get to your story, Philip, I’d love to know more about, and for our listeners to know more about, where you live and your academic study and work.

Okay. Well, I live with my lovely wife Rachael. I live in a little village in West Oxfordshire in England, about 22 miles northwest of Oxford, and that was my old university, where I studied politics, philosophy, and economics in the early 1970s. I’m a freelance writer and lecturer, and so I spend my time writing stuff and getting it posted on the internet. I wrote a book on C.S. Lewis some years ago, amongst other things. I give occasional lectures on C.S. Lewis and indeed on Tolkien as well. And most of my professional life has been, since leaving Oxford, has been actually in politics and journalism. So really my world has been the world of ideas, and that’s what I’ve always been most concerned about, which is the battle for truth, the battle of ideas, the battle for hearts and minds, and that’s what makes me get up in the morning and gives purpose to my life. So, yeah. So that’s by way of some intellectual background and what I do, in terms of my work. And I write about politics and political philosophy, and I also write in the area of Christian apologetics. So that more or less sums up what I do.

Fascinating. And so you live, actually, physically close to Oxford? Is that right?

Yes. Yes, that’s right. I’m a life member of the Oxford Union Debating Society, a famous debating society which was set up in 1823, and I’m a former officer of that debating society, and so I have access to their wonderful library. It’s one of the finest private libraries in the world. So yes, I have access to Oxford libraries, which is always a great blessing to a writer and researcher like myself.

Right. Yeah. That’s wonderful. I can’t imagine just being constantly inspired by being in that type of intellectual environment, constantly thinking and discussing. I remember visiting there in Oxford and the lovely bookstore, and I didn’t have access to the library, but it was just such a wonderful, wonderful place just to be. I can’t imagine being an academic there in that environment. What a privilege!

It was lovely being there.

So I know that you were an Oxford man, as it were, and that, during your time at Oxford, you weren’t a Christian.

No, I wasn’t.

So let’s take this way back to when your life started, as there are many things that influence atheism, of them being your family and your culture and the place where you grew up. So why don’t you take us back there to the beginning of your journey towards atheism and talk to us about how your life began, your early concepts of God, how your parents spoke into your life.

Well, I grew up… I had a wonderful father and mother who were highly educated professionals. My mother had grown up and had her education in Germany before the war and in Switzerland during the war and was very proficient in modern languages. She became an interpreter and was the youngest interpreter at the Nuremberg war crimes trials in 1946. My father was Belgian and was trained as a civil engineer and physicist in the 1930s, University Libre de Bruxelles, which was the secular university in Brussels. There was a Catholic one as well. And he was a brilliant scientist, and so my parental background was I’ve got these highly educated parents, English on my mother’s side, Belgian on my father’s side, but neither of them, although they were upright people with a strong sense of morality and belief in excellence and truth and very impressive human beings, they weren’t Christians. They didn’t believe in God. And one of the reasons for that was that they’d been put off religion and belief in God by their experience of Catholicism or the Catholic Church, and here, Americans need to understand something about European history, that on the mainland of continental Europe, particularly the Latin countries, like France, Belgium, Spain, and so on, the main Christian witness was the Catholic Church, and the Catholic Church had been a persecuting church for much of its history, and so I grew in a mental universe where on one side you had reason and liberty and science and progress and on the other religion, authoritarianism, a persecuting church, and a generally obscurantist attitude to life, and so that was the kind of mentality that I grew up surrounded by, and in continental Latin countries, there has been this cleavage of kind of the intellectuals against the church sort of thing which you haven’t had in the same in the English-speaking world. And they personally, my father and mother, had personally bad experiences with Catholic priests. When my father’s father had died, the local priest had bought up lots of the books that he had that my grandmother sold, and the local priest burnt them because they were on Papal Index as forbidden literature, so these kinds of experience had put off my parents, off religion and so on. I do remember asking questions like, “Well, where does the universe come from?” and I think my father said that the universe had always been there, so it didn’t need any particular explanation. And that was, of course, the view of many intellectuals who didn’t believe in God, that the universe had always been there, so it didn’t need any particular explanation. And then, well, I didn’t come across any Christian stories. I didn’t come across the gospel or anything like that until I was at my first boarding school when I was eight years old, and then I came across all the scripture stories, David and Goliath and Abraham and Isaac, all those great stories from the Old Testament and of course some of the stories of the Gospels, and I was always top in scripture at school, so I liked the stories, and I remembered them, but I didn’t engage. I didn’t come across any intellectual arguments for Christianity and for God until I was at my second school, my second boarding school, which would be the equivalent of your high schools in America, and that was when my father died unexpectedly when I was only 17, and that was a great shock to my system, and so I was grief stricken and I suppose looking for meaning and comfort in life, and I dipped into C.S. Lewis, into his book Mere Christianity, his famous wartime broadcasts, and for a while, they held my attention, and I began to have contact with an intellectual argument for Christianity which was beginning to make some sense, but I was interested in politics at that time, and when you’re young, even when you suffer great grief, if you’re in a nice school, if you’ve got good friends, you’re young, you’re resilient. The grief gets submerged underneath other things. You’re thinking about life and what you’re going to go and do in the future and so on, and I started reading Bertrand Russell and Ayn Rand and anti-Christian writers, so my interest in Lewis sort of died, and I stopped reading Mere Christianity and drifted away from thoughts about God, so when I get to Oxford, I don’t believe in God. I’m not interested in religion. I’m only interested in politics and political philosophy and having a career in politics and journalism afterwards. So that’s where I was by the time I met my wife, Rachael, since we were both involved in conservative politics a few years after leaving Oxford. So that’s a kind of gallop through my past.

So, Philip, you have quite a… It sounds like a very strong intellectual history, and there was a very clear understanding of what the church was to you in terms of perhaps some of the negative aspects of it. You heard some good stories, but you were more interested in truth and reason, and that, I think… where those stories that you read in the Bible were just merely stories, right? What did you perceive God and Christianity and Christians and those stories to be? Was it mythological? Was it social construction? What was your thought about what religion was at that time?

I didn’t really think very deeply about the stories. I suppose I regarded them on the same level as The Twelve Labours of Hercules, stories from Greek mythology which I enjoyed. Like the story of Odysseus and the War of Troy and so on. So I didn’t really think about them very much. I did wonder whether there was a God because of this question of where does the universe come from, but I found it difficult to believe in God because, if God is good and our Creator, why is there evil and suffering in the world? Why is there so much cruelty and suffering and disease and so forth, so I couldn’t… Although I was aware of the argument for God from intelligent design, it seemed to me that argument was canceled out by the existence of evil and suffering, and I remember… It was the argument of Bertrand Russell. And Ayn Rand, reading Ayn Rand, as well as Bertrand Russell, made me think that worshiping God was really a kind of form of worshiping power. You worship God because he’s all powerful. And also the story of the fall in the Garden of Eden, you know, “You mustn’t eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil,” seemed to be to present a view of life where God is this omnipotent power that doesn’t want human beings to think for themselves but just to submit to him, so it was kind of a form of self abasement which was not worthy of human dignity and anyone who cared about liberty. So that was a very jaundiced, prejudiced, shallow view I had of God, derived from reading Bertrand Russell and Ayn Rand, and not really encountering Christians who could feed my intellect, apart from having dipped for a short while into C.S. Lewis, so then when I met my wife, Rachael, who was highly intelligent, and her Christian friends were also highly intelligent and lovely people, then I began to think… This began to challenge my prejudices and then made me think, “Well, perhaps I ought to go on a journey of discovery to see whether there is any good evidence for the existence of God and the truthfulness of Christianity and the truth of the gospel.

So were you surprised to meet Christians who you thought were deemed intelligent in your mind?

Well, yes. It’s funny how inconsistent people can be, because I had… There was an intelligent Christian chaplain who was called Dr. Pugh at my school, my independent boarding school which I attended before doing to university, and I remember some interesting conversations. I remember a conversation with him when I said to him, “Why it is important whether there is a God or not?” and he said to me, and his answer remained in my mind, “Well, because without God human beings have no value. Life has no value.” And I didn’t believe him at the time. I thought, well, we can just make it valuable, create value for ourselves, but nevertheless his answer, his question, his comment remained in my memory, so I had come across intelligent Christians, and my tutor at school—I had this wonderful tutor who was a history master, and he was a lovely, lovely man. He loved C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books and The Lord of the Rings, and we used to discuss how much we shared our love for these particular books over a cup of tea before a roaring log fire in his book-lined study at school once a week. So he was a lovely Christian and a highly intelligent, scholarly man, so it wasn’t that I said to myself rationally, “All Christians are idiots,” but I just hadn’t spent enough time, I suppose, with Christians and been interested enough to get them to talk about the reasons they believed in God and the truthfulness of the Bible and therefore I hadn’t encountered the arguments, as I say apart from this brief dip, which meant a lot at the time, into Mere Christianity after my father died.

So you perhaps hadn’t, except for that dip, really appreciated the rationality of Christianity. I’m wondering… It was brought to your attention that… The gentleman said that you wouldn’t have human value without God. I wonder if you actually looked fully at the implications of the atheism that you were embracing or that you did embrace.

No, I hadn’t. You see, that was the point. I hadn’t understood that, if atheism is true, if we are only the accidental byproducts of a meaningless and accidental universe, I hadn’t appreciated the argument that Lewis developed against atheism, which is that, if atheism is true, that means all our thinking processes are simply the inevitable, unplanned result of a long chain of non-rational biochemical causes at work in our brains and therefore how can we attach any truth or significance to our thoughts? We’re simply bound to think them because of what’s going on in our cerebral biochemistry, which discredits all thinking, including the arguments for atheism. And also if we are simply the accidental byproducts of a meaningless universe, then we’ve got no grounds for moral value. We can say, “Well, we choose to value life, and therefore anything that enhances life is good and anything that destroys life is evil,” but that conviction is, in itself, a moral axiom which needs justification, and unless our moral values, that moral law written in our hearts, is rooted in God, in a reality outside the chain of physical causation, of material being, we have no objective ground for this conviction that good is somehow an objective category. I suppose I’m jumping ahead, really, to the arguments which started making me doubt the truthfulness of atheism, but I just hadn’t understood this basic point, that atheism discredits our thinking processes, cuts its own throat philosophically as a result, and deprives any belief in moral obligation and the objectivity of moral values of any proper metaphysical foundation. Because somehow what’s interesting about the belief that raping a woman or torturing a child or telling lies is wrong is that these truths are somehow transcendent. I mean they remain through whether we live or die, whatever culture we’re part of, whatever time we’re born in. They remain eternally true, whether we acknowledge that truth or not, whether we die or not, they still remain true. As Plato believed, there are eternal categories, and yet how can such categories exist except outside time and outside the material universe, which therefore leads us to God, to a being or a power or a reality that is outside the physical universe. So that becomes a complicated philosophical argument, but it’s a true one, and I hadn’t understood it. I hadn’t even thought about it when I was an atheist. I had to read C.S. Lewis to come to that realization and understanding.

So there was a strong what you felt rational presumption for the truth of atheism, but you said that you came to a point in your life where you actually met some Christians, particularly your wife, that caused you to step back and rethink your atheism and perhaps think a little bit more about Christianity. Talk with me about that.

Okay. Well, I met Rachael, and I fell in love with her very quickly. We more or less got unofficially engaged after about the fifth date. So it was very swift. She hardly had time to say she was a Christian. Anyway, she had Christian friends who were praying for me, who started praying for me, and she, of course, was praying for me, so there was that going on spiritually, but I said to her, “Look, I’m not going to become a Christian just because you’re a Christian, but I will go on a journey of intellectual discovery. I want to see whether I can find answers to my questions, like what is the evidence for God? What is the evidence for the truthfulness of Christianity?” So I read C.S. Lewis books, C.S. Lewis’s book Miracles. Oh yes, actually I ought to say, before I did that, I read a paper he wrote for the Oxford Socratic Club, which was a debating club to discuss God and religion and so on. It was a debating forum that was set up during the war in Oxford to bring Christians and atheists together in intellectual debate and argument, and Lewis was the president of the Oxford Socratic Club, and he often gave papers or talks to that club, which were then answered by atheist philosophers the next week, and then he replied to them and so on. And one of these papers was called, “On Obstinacy and Belief,” where he discusses the issue of faith. When Christians say you ought to have faith, what do they mean? And he said it does not mean that you ought to believe in God without any evidence. He argued that if you genuinely thought there was no evidence for God, no good arguments for God, philosophical or historical, then it was perfectly correct for you to seek out those arguments, to try and find out whether Christianity and belief in God could withstand forensic intellectual examination, historical evidence, logical arguments, and so on. When Christians, when the Bible talked about you need to have faith, that’s a commandment aimed at people who already knew that there was a God and were being asked to believe God, were challenged to have faith in God, when it involved believing some commandment or promise of His that seemed impossible of fulfillment, the famous example, of course, being when the Lord says to Abraham and Sarah, “You’re going to have a child in old age,” and they find that hard to believe. But faith involves a personal relationship with a God you already believe in. But if you don’t believe in God at all in the first place, then it’s okay to search for the evidence. So because I knew that this was Lewis’s attitude and that Lewis himself had been an atheist, I thought, “This is a guy in whose footsteps I can walk because he’s somebody who’s honest, who cares about truth, who understands why people are atheists, and so I can confidence that, if I read his books, I might actually find answers to my questions. So I started reading Miracles, where, the first three chapters, he proves the existence of God philosophically, and to come back to this argument that I was referring to earlier, where he says that the problem with atheism is, if we’re only physical beings, unplanned physical beings, the accidental byproducts of a purely physical universe, then all our thinking is simply the unintended and unplanned end result of the mindless movement of atoms in our brain, which is just as likely to produce falsehood as truth, and therefore we have no reason for believing in the truth of any of our conclusions. So in other words, atheism discredits thinking, because it makes all our thoughts the inevitable result of our cerebral biochemistry, of non-rational physical events, and as Lewis said, we don’t accept the truthfulness of any conclusion if it can be shown to be purely the result of non-rational causes, but that’s exactly what atheism essentially implies for all our thinking processes. So atheists cut their own throat philosophically. And then the other great argument of Lewis’s that influenced me was the argument he uses when dealing with the problem of evil, which is that we can only complain about evil if we already have a prior sense of good, just as you can only tell a line is crooked because it’s a deviation from a straight line, and you already have the idea of a straight line in your mind, so we can only complain about evil if we have a standard of good in our minds, of objective goodness, and therefore the question then becomes, “Well, where does our standard of good come from?” And you can’t explain the existence of this objective eternal standard of good written on our hearts without introducing God into the picture, because again, if atheism is true, all our thinking processes, including our moral judgments, are simply an accidental byproduct of non-rational physical and chemical events, to which we can attach no ultimate significance. So these were the great arguments that destroyed my atheism, more or less in three chapters in Miracles, and then he goes on to argue that, well if God exists and is the creator of the universe, then clearly He can suspend the laws of nature that are His creation in the first place, just as an author, and introduce miracles, just as an author can change the ending of a book and a composer can change a note in a symphony, so if one should acknowledge the existence of God, all my objections to miracles and the supernatural collapsed, and then I could begin to look at the gospel stories and the story of Jesus with an open mind and not simply rejecting it because it introduced the miraculous. So those were some of the arguments that really put me on the road to Christ.

So your perceived foundation in atheism, it sounds like, was crumbling, one argument at a time, so these obstacles were being brought down, so that it gave you an openness to pursue whatever Christianity was. So how did you pursue what that was? Did you read the Bible? How did you kind of figure that out?

Well, I didn’t read the Bible. I mean I was familiar with the basic story of Jesus. Well, and of course Lewis talks a lot about a lot of the truths, the stories, the claims made in the Gospels about Jesus and His divinity were discussed by Lewis in his book Miracles. So for example he says that the idea that you can’t trust the gospel writers because they were ignorant of the laws of nature, and so they believed in things like a virgin birth. And he knocked that argument on the head by saying they might not understand modern physics and chemistry, but they knew perfectly well that babies aren’t born unless a husband and a wife come together sexually, and Joseph knew that as well as we do, which is why he was minded to put Mary away when he discovered that she was pregnant with Jesus. So a lot of the arguments that people have about the truthfulness of the gospel stories in the New Testament were already being discussed by Lewis in Miracles, so I didn’t need to read the Bible, but I did read… I was interested in the whole issue about what evidence was there for the resurrection of Jesus, and so I read a book called Who Moved the Stone?, a famous classic I’m sure that you’ve heard of, Americans have heard of, Who Moved the Stone?, which discusses—which was published in the 1930s, I think—where the argument of that author. I can’t remember the name of the author for the moment, but anyway, the great argument, of course, of the empty tomb. Jesus is crucified, he’s put into the tomb, a guard of soldiers is put on that tomb, and then a few days later, there’s no body in the tomb. And how do you explain that, other than by the resurrection. And so, you know, if the Jewish leaders and Pilate and the Roman leaders had wanted to discredit Christianity, as they had every reason for wanting to do, politically and religiously, all they had to do was to point to the body of Jesus in the tomb, but they couldn’t do that. And why couldn’t they do that? And how is it that Christianity takes off in a big way in Jerusalem 40 days or so after the crucifixion, with 3,000 people coming to Christ as a result of Peter’s first great sermon that we read about in the book of Acts. How could that happen in the city where He was crucified, where thousands of people knew exactly what had happened to Jesus, if the tomb wasn’t empty and there wasn’t good evidence for the existence of the risen Christ? So as I started to look at the historical evidence for the existence and the claims of Jesus and the truthfulness of the gospel writers and of the early disciples, I began to see that the evidence for the truthfulness of Christianity was overwhelming, not least the evidence that we have from St. Paul. I mean here is a man who is persecuting the early church, convinced that they’re liars, that Jesus is not God, and then he has this famous experience of seeing Jesus on the road to Damascus, and he turns over 180 degrees and becomes the greatest preacher of the early church, and both he and the other apostles were prepared to lead lives that involved suffering and ended in martyrdom, and would they have done that for something that they knew to be a lie? What was it that explained the total transformation and the character of the disciples, who went from being terrified of the Roman and Jewish authorities to being heroic missionaries for the Christian faith, and likewise how do you explain the conversion of St. Paul. And then, of course, later on I read in the book of Acts and in the epistles that Paul refers to 500 witnesses to the risen Christ, and some of these people are still alive if you want to check my story with them. So when I began to look at the evidence, the historical evidence for the truthfulness of Christianity, I was overwhelmed.

That’s quite a paradigm shift. So you were moving through this evidence, and during this time obviously you were still dating Rachael and trying to figure out things relationally. Do you… I can see a skeptic saying your emotional involvement with a girl that you loved was skewing your perspective on how you were viewing the evidence. If someone accused you of that, how would you respond?

Well, I would respond that, on the contrary, the fact that I was in love with a Christian girl simply counterbalanced, in equal measure, all the emotional prejudices I had against Christianity. And one powerful force that was hindering my open-mindedness and, as it were, countering my progress along the road to Christ, was the worry of what would my family and what would non-Christian friends of mine think of me if I embraced Christianity? I was embarrassed and anxious about how other people would think of me because I still had this feeling, this purely emotional prejudice from the past that it wasn’t cool to be a Christian. It would make people think you were intellectually second rate. And it was just embarrassing. It took me a long time to admit to my mother that I was a Christian. So really my love for Rachael simply counterbalanced, in more or less equal measure, the other reasons, other emotional influences on me not to accept Christianity. Also, I have to say Rachael took me to an Anglican service, communion service, in her local church, and we were both living in London, at opposite ends of London, and she took me to one of the services, and it was a communion service, and I’d never had communion. I’d never been to a communion service, and I was shocked by the liturgy. You know, “This is My body, broken for you. Take, eat. This is my blood. Drink it.” And I thought, “This is cannibalism.” I was really, really shocked by the liturgy of communion. And the other thing I didn’t like about that particular church service—and what I didn’t like about liturgy. It was the sense that I thought it was a bit like the Moonies, with chanting stuff, which is kind of a form of brainwashing. So I didn’t like going to church, and I didn’t like the idea of reading your Bible every day. I thought that was a kind of irksome and rather embarrassing habit. So I had plenty of emotional reasons influencing my approach, my journey, so really it was a kind of… By God’s grace, if you like, the fact that Rachael was in my life simply created the opportunity… made me set out on a journey of discovery, of exploration, which I would never otherwise have done. And it just counterbalanced, in equal measure, all the influences on me not to do that, so I was kind of caught between two equal and opposite forces, which is where the prayer comes in that people were praying for me. Because as we know, those of us who’ve made the journey and come to discover God and become Christians, there’s a spiritual battle. There is a supernatural force of evil. There is such a thing as Satan, who tries to stop people coming to the God he hates. So that would be my answer, really. And also I would challenge… I’d say, “Look, forget about what you think are the reasons… what you think about my emotions or not. Look at the evidence for yourself.” I would challenge them to look at the evidence. There’s good historical evidence for the existence of Jesus from non-Christian sources like the Roman historians, Tacitus and Suetonius, and a Jewish historian, Josephus, so no serious historian doubts the existence of Jesus or that He was crucified under Pontius Pilate. So how do you explain the growth of the church? Why should the church spring up led by people who made this extraordinary claim that their God was somebody who hung on a Roman cross and then was resurrected? I mean it’s the most amazing statement for anyone to have ever made in the history of the world. How could they possibly have got away with it if it wasn’t true? So I would just try and turn the tables and challenge them about their assumptions and about their emotional hangups about God which might obscure their ability to recognize rational evidence. So I’d kind of take the fight back to them, hopefully in a sympathetic way.

Yes. Wow.

You were becoming intellectually convinced. You were somewhat conflicted emotionally, but you were becoming intellectually convinced, but I know Christianity and accepting Christianity as true doesn’t necessarily make you a Christian or even want to be a Christian. So what was it that was next in your journey?

I hadn’t prayed to God beforehand, and I just prayed to Jesus, and I said, “If you’re real, come into my life and sort out this mess,” this inner conflict, which, at a key moment, I couldn’t resolve, and I had perfect peace about it somehow after that time of prayer, and then I was with a Christian friend afterwards, and I explained I had a bit of a hangup about the cross. I wasn’t quite sure. There were moments when I understood what the cross was about and the atonement, and then there were moments when it seemed a veil came in front of my eyes and I couldn’t quite grasp it anymore, and so I was kind of blocked, and anyway, he started talking to me about the veil in the temple of the high priest being torn in two when Jesus died on the cross, giving access to God, and as he said that, a kind of understanding of what the atonement and the cross was about just fell into my head. “Oh, yes,” I said. “What you find on the cross is the reconciliation of God’s justice with His mercy because sin separates us from God and therefore has to be… The penalty of sin has to be paid. God pays it through Christ in our stead and enables us to then have a new relationship with God,” so the penalty, the justice, God’s justice is satisfied by Jesus’s death on the cross as a representative of the human race, but at the same time, because He’s God and can conquer death, His mercy is released into our lives, and we are able to have a relationship with God, and that’s, of course, what the resurrection is all about, that Jesus conquers death on our behalf, pays the penalty of sin and conquers death, so I understood all that, certainly, in a way which, funnily enough, didn’t involve quite the same sort of reasoning that my friend was using at that time. It was a kind of separate, alternative explanation, parallel explanation to the one he was giving, but it just kind of literally fell into my head, and then I just had this experience of… It was like falling in love again but much more powerfully, and so I caught a taxi home in a sort of daze, realizing I had now become a Christian. So there was this kind of spiritual struggle, and I’m sure the prayers of Rachael and her friends made a difference. So there were two things. There was a spiritual struggling on for my will and my understanding and this intellectual journey through following the footsteps of C.S. Lewis. So the two kind of came together at that moment, and there I was, becoming a Christian in last days of summer of 1976.

And you received a sense of peace.

Yes. Total peace.

And I presume that peace has remained, in a sense, and that the pieces came together, that everything started to make sense to you, intellectually, spiritually, emotionally things were resolving.

Yes. That’s quite right, Jana, and then, of course, I began to read the Bible properly for the first time, really seriously, and that began to make sense. And yes, I mean I’ve had lots of ups and downs in life since becoming a Christian, as we all do, but I’ve never for one moment doubted the existence and goodness of God. I mean I get angry with God sometimes when things don’t work out the way I’d like and when there are unexplained trials and sufferings or friends I love die seemingly prematurely and for no good reason, so one goes on… I think as a Christian, you go on wrestling with God, but once you have met Him, once you’ve had an encounter with Him and you know that He’s real, you know then that… Life then moves on to a different level. You’ve now got a personal relationship with your Creator and Savior, and you know you’re challenged to trust the one who created you and who died for you and who, because He knows the end from the beginning and created our very ability to think and reason, must always know better than we do, and so we must trust him, even when we’re sort of in the dark and we don’t understand why certain things are happening in our lives. We need to trust His sovereignty and His goodness. That’s where faith comes in. That’s what faith is about. It never involves a leap in the dark with evidence. Once you know that God is real and you have a personal relationship with Him, then you have to learn to trust Him. And that’s what life’s about, really.

Wow, that’s really quite beautiful. Such a transformation from where you began. I’m curious. You were concerned about the perception of your family and friends after you became a Christian. How did that resolve?

Well, my mother… I gave her a copy of my book on Lewis, which is a very evangelistic book. I sent her essays and lectures that Lewis had given. And so I did witness to her. We did witness to her, including the evidence for the resurrection. And I think the situation we got to was… And also she met some of our Christian friends, some of whom are very impressive. Well, they’re all impressive, but one in particular made an impact on her. And I think she certainly respected our faith. She said to me early on, “You must think for yourself and follow what you think is true, and I respect that.” And I think we’d got to the position not long before she passed away that she, I think in her heart of hearts, was beginning to realize that actually all this stuff is true, but she wasn’t going to admit it, but I believe that, before she passed away, she did, in her heart of hearts, believe in God. I just have reasons for believing that which… It’s too personal. I can’t really share it. But I’m quite sure she’s with God. Well, my father had passed long, long before, when I was 17. Other family members are not Christians, and I go on praying for them. Yeah. So I’m encouraged by the fact that Jesus had problems with His human family, and a lot of Christians are in that position, aren’t we? We have relatives we love and value who haven’t yet made the journey we’ve made, so we keep praying for them. So I would say to any Christians who have unbelieving relatives, “Just keep praying for them. Keep loving them and keep praying for them. And believe in the power of prayer.” So yeah. So that’s where I am, really.

And so if there are those, Philip, who are listening today who might be curious. They’ve been inspired or challenged by your own story of atheism, especially as an extremely brilliant man. It does challenge the stereotypes of Christians as nonintellectual or anti-intellectual kinds of people. I wonder what you might say to them.

Well, I’d say to any atheist, any unbeliever, I’d say, “Look, do you care about truth? Are you willing to ask yourself, ‘Is there good evidence—philosophical arguments, historical arguments, scientific arguments—for the existence of an intelligent and rational and good Creator God? And is there historical evidence for the existence of Jesus and the truthfulness of the Gospels and the stories they tell about Jesus? And is there good evidence for the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus that suggests that actually He is divine?'” So I would say to them, “If you care about truth, then why not go on a journey of discovery? Why not try to find out whether there is any evidence for the beliefs that I hold and other Christians hold?” And I would say to them, “It’s a big question, isn’t it? Whether we’re just accidental byproducts of an ultimately meaningless universe, and all we have to look forward to are our years in this life, followed by death and oblivion, or whether there actually is a creator and there is such a thing as the supernatural and there is such a thing as eternity and are we going to be with God in eternity or are we going to be eternally separated from the source of all life and truth and goodness and beauty and so forth? It’s a really important issue.” And I would suggest that they might try reading C.S. Lewis, try reading Mere Christianity, which is his radio broadcasts, which were addressed to a general audience during the Second World War, and starts off with, “What is the evidence for the existence of God?” I would suggest that they read C.S. Lewis if he might be a thinker who could help them. And I would recommend other books. There’s a book called, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist by Norman Geisler and Frank Turek. That’s quite a good book to read, where these are two Christian philosophers and scientists and theologians who set forth the arguments and the evidence for the existence of God and the truthfulness of the gospels, and there are lots of other books along the same lines. There’s another book by a British scientist and mathematician called Dr. John Lennox called God’s Undertaker, where he looks at the scientific evidence for the existence of God. So I would just challenge them to do that and to visit websites like bethinking.org, the website of the Oxford-based universities and colleges Christians fellowship, based in Oxford, where there’s lots of material on these issues and equivalents in America. Well, I would just challenge them to go on a journey of discovery. “And if you don’t find the arguments and the evidence convincing, okay, that’s fine. At least you made the effort to try and see what is the truth.” So that’s what I would say to them. Go on a journey. Oh, and the other thing I’d mention is the example of Lee Strobel. Lee Strobel used to be… I think he was the law editor or law correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and an investigative journalist with an excellent mind. I think he got a law degree from Yale, and he didn’t believe in God until his wife had a conversion experience and became a Christian, and so he set out on a journey of discovery and has produced these books, The Case for the Creator, The Case for Christ, where he describes all the interviews he had with theologians and scientists and philosophers when he was making his journey of discovery, and he became a Christian. And in fact there’s been a film that’s been made about his life, his journey to Christianity, so there’s lots of material out there for those who care about the search for truth and are willing to embark on it, so that would be my challenge. If you believe in truth, put it to the test. Put Christianity and belief in God to the test, and with an open mind, try and see whether there’s any good evidence. That would be my invitation and my challenge.

That’s excellent. And as far as Christians, if you had a word to say for them or to them, I know you mentioned to keep praying and to keep loving, and I also am reminded of what you thought when you saw those Christians in the coffeehouse. You described them as being rather lovely and that there was a beauty to them. I wondered if you could speak to the Christian.

Well, yes. I would say, “Dear brother and sister, first of all, don’t despair. The Word of God says that the prayer of a righteous man or woman has great power and achieves wonderful results, so that’s a promise, and we’re righteous through the blood of Jesus, so that’s a promise that you can stand upon in prayer. So pray. Just pray by name for your loved ones.” I also include them when I pray The Lord’s Prayer. You know, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Well, I often pray, “Well, Lord, Your kingdom come, Your will be done in the lives of those I love and care about who don’t yet know you.” That’s a powerful prayer because it’s part of The Lord’s Prayer and that the prayer of Jesus, the prayer of God the Son Incarnate, so that prayer, the whole of The Lord’s Prayer has great power, so the first and most important thing I would say to my fellow Christians, to my fellow believers, is to believe in the power of prayer. It’s an incredible weapon of warfare, of spiritual warfare, that God has given us, that the enemy does everything in his power to make us disbelieve in. And he wouldn’t do that if he didn’t recognize the power of prayer, so I give you that thought. So pray, pray, pray. Every day, pray for those you love who don’t yet know the Lord. Just pray for each one of them by name and claim their salvation. Jesus has paid the ransom price for them, so claim them. And never despair. And be good at listening. Listen. Try and find out what makes them tick and why they have the views that they have. And then pray into that. You won’t necessarily achieve a great deal by arguing with them. I find arguing with relatives is not an easy thing to do. But don’t be discouraged if you find that arguing with them doesn’t seem to get anywhere but pray for them and pray that God would bring other people into their lives, experiences into their lives, books, whatever, that might speak to them. And the Holy Spirit knows them and loves them and knows how to reach them. God knows how to reach them. So just pray. Listen, love, and pray. And obviously, if you do have relatives or friends or loved ones who are open-minded and prepared to engage or to listen to arguments and read books and so on, well then lend them books and send them tapes or links to good websites where there are other testimonies. So I think actually sending people links to good testimonies that might influence them is another good thing to do. So there it is. That’s just a few thoughts that I would share.

That’s wonderful. And hopefully this podcast will be a good resource for those stories, those testimonies, yours being a beautiful one. And if I could co-opt the English word, your testimony is just quite lovely. But yet incredibly profound and very, very substantive. So, Philip, I appreciate so much your being on the podcast today and taking us on your investigative journey, your journey of discovery to the one who made you. It’s obviously made a big difference in your life, and I do pray that it will make a difference in the lives of those who are actually listening. So thank you so much for coming on.

Well, thank you for having me, Jana.

Thanks for tuning in to the Side B Podcast to hear Philip’s story. You can find out more about Philip by visiting his website at bethinking.org. I’ve included that in the episode notes for your reference. For questions and feedback about this episode, you can reach me by email at thesidebpodcast@cslewisinstitute.org. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. If so, subscribe and share this new podcast with your friends and social network. In the meantime, I’ll be looking forward to seeing you next time, where we’ll be listening to the other side.

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