This is the seventh part of my multi-part story of how, as a non-believer, I still spent years in my teens and twenties looking at all the evidence for and against Christianity as fairly as I could before concluding it wasn’t true. The introduction is here, and I’ll link all the parts back there as I write them.
One of the key beliefs of Christian apologists is that God will make himself known to anyone who asks him with an open heart. As I mentioned in Part 4, I did plenty of asking during those years, and did my best to keep an open heart despite the difficulties of having a truly open heart towards a being that is supposedly that cavalier about abandoning millions to eternal torture. In response, I got… various stray thoughts that didn’t feel particularly distinguishable from my imagination, and a sense of being vaguely disapproved at for insufficiency, which also might or might not have been my imagination. But there were two occasions when I got something more specific, something I really felt might have been an actual response. So those are the topic of this post.
At this point, it’s worth taking a minute to answer the oft-asked question ‘So what would it take to get you to believe in God?’ At the time I didn’t have a specific answer, and that was entirely deliberate; I didn’t want to lay down narrow conditions for God to fulfil. After all, if – let’s say – I declared I wanted to see a miraculously burning bush before I’d believe in God and instead He decided to materialise in my bedroom to make himself known, what was I going to do; tell him it was the wrong miracle and I wasn’t interested? As far as I was concerned, if I got any sort of sign that couldn’t be plausibly explained as coincidence, natural causes, or imagination then that would be good enough.
I never did. Both of the two occasions I just mentioned were plausibly within the realm of coincidence. But they were the times when I came closest to feeling that I’d had an answer from Someone Out There directing my path. So, for any Christians who are thinking that I should have just prayed and I would have got an answer… here’s what happened, and make of it what you will.
The first one (Or it might have been the second one, for all I know; I remember it clearly, but don’t remember when it happened in relation to anything else.)
I’d read some stories of faithful Christians who sought guidance/answers in times of uncertainty by opening the Bible at random and finding a verse that exactly answered their question. While the stories didn’t quite fit the “can’t be plausibly explained as coincidence” criterion, they did include some pretty cool examples, and I decided it was worth trying.
My brain circling as always with the ‘Is it all true? Do non-Christians really burn in hell? Would you really do that to my father and everyone else like him?’ questions, I asked God if he could try that method of communication with me. I’d make it easier for him by reading the whole of the double page at which it fell open, thus giving him more of a chance to present me with a meaningful verse. (This would also, of course, give coincidence more chance to work, but I figured that if God was actually listening then He would just have to sort that problem out Himself.)
So I opened the Bible, which, this time, was my parents’ copy of the New English Bible with Apocrypha. It opened in the middle of Jeremiah, and at the bottom of the right-hand page was Jeremiah 22:15, which, in this translation, reads thus:
Think of your father; he ate and drank,
dealt justly and fairly; all went well with him.
He dispensed justice to the lowly and poor;
did not this show he knew me? says the LORD.
And so there you have it. Desperately seeking an answer to my worries about nonbelievers being destined for hellfire, I found a verse that took the specific example of the nonbeliever I knew and loved best and assured me that his fair and just way of living his life was good enough to prove he was all right with God. In other words, I didn’t have to worry that good non-Christians would be condemned just for not being Christian.
I was aware it might be a coincidence, but it was a bloody good one. If there actually was a divine being answering our questions about him by means of flipping a Bible open at the correct page, seemed like He’d done about as clear a job as was possible with this method of communication. I didn’t feel I could quite rely on this to dismiss Christianity, since, logically, it was still possible that God had simply ignored my request and I’d coincidentally got lucky with the quote but in fact Christianity was still true. But this was definitely comforting.
The second one. (Or possibly the first. You get the idea.)
Just for once, I’ve been able to track down exactly when this one was, for reasons which will shortly become clear; April 21st, 1990, when I was almost 21 and in my second year at medical school. But let me backtrack a minute.
At the beginning of that university year, I moved into a house where a pre-existing group of three people already lived, and discovered they were Fundamentalist Christians. You might well be wondering how that houseshare worked out, and the answer is that it was great fun and I had a very good couple of years there. As far as the religious side of it went… well, we got into a lengthy discussion about the topic at an early stage. I can’t remember how, but I’m pretty sure they weren’t trying to convert me, and also pretty sure that I wasn’t trying to convert them, since that’s always been against my principles. I think it just came up in conversation. Unfortunately, I also can’t really remember much about the conversation, except for them telling me uncertainly that they were sure there must be an explanation for the point/question/contradiction I’d just raised but they unfortunately weren’t sure what it could be. I do remember that line because we seemed to get back to it rather often.
(In addition to all the other reading I’d been doing about the topic, I’d just got back from a stay on a kibbutz, in which my room had a copy of the Tanakh (the Jewish scriptures; basically, the Old Testament with the books in a slightly different order from the one Christianity uses, but for obvious reasons not called the Old Testament within Judaism) and in which there wasn’t actually a whole lot else to do once work was finished for the day, so I spent hours reading the earlier books of the Tanakh for want of anything better to do, and hence noticing a whole bunch of contradictions and queries that had escaped either my notice or my memory on previous reads. So, when it came to a conversation with Christians about Christianity and the Bible… yeah, I was on form.)
Anyway, the whole discussion stayed very civil and we ended up on an agree-to-disagree note, but they did noticeably avoid bringing the subject up around me again after that.
However, to get back to the point of this story, on that day I did end up going to church with them. I forget how, but I assume some sort of ‘want to try it just to see?’ invitation must have been involved. (I do remember one time when one of them stammered out “Justwantedtoletyouknowthatthere’sasermonatchurchthisSundayfornonChristianswhowanttocomealongandofcourseifyoudon’twanttoit’s finebutIjustthoughtI’daskyousorry”; poor chap, it was obvious even to someone as clueless as me that he’d been put through some sort of ‘are you not giving your friends the opportunity to participate in eternal life and be Saved?’ guilt trip. But I think that was a different time.)
Anyway, however it happened, there I was at a fundagelical church sermon… with the pastor going full throttle about how unbelievers were doomed to burn in hell. And it was terrifying. I mean, one part of my mind understood perfectly well that it probably wasn’t true and that, of course, he was supposed to say all this stuff and make it convincing… but it really did bring all my ‘What if it’s all true?’ fears to the fore. So, when we got home that evening, I was in a bit of a state over it all.
I was in the living room, still fretting and worrying over it, and somebody had ‘Spitting Image’ on. And it was the episode that ends with God singing this song.
I dearly wish I’d been able to find a video of it online, but apparently ITV blocked it for copyright reasons, which I suppose is fair enough. But you can get the general idea from the lyrics at that link, and actually watching it was even better. I cracked up. I laughed the laugh of someone who’s been desperately stressed over an issue only to be suddenly presented with a genuinely funny twist on it. I felt vastly better. And I concluded that, if God was trying to give me a message, it was clearly “Don’t take it too seriously.”
So, where did this leave me?
Not particularly any further forward, since, after all, it was quite possible that both these events had been complete coincidences. But it was at least comforting to know that a) I’d done my best to ask God open-heartedly for an answer the way I was supposed to and b) if any god out there was trying to give me an answer on the subject, it seemed pretty clearly to be that I didn’t need to be too worried about all this Christianity stuff.
Next up: I finally reach a conclusion.