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How a French Atheist Became a Christian Theologian

April 28, 2014     Time: 17:19
How a French Atheist Became a Christian Theologian


What changed the mind of an ardent atheist? In one way, this story resembles Dr. Craig's own testimony!

Transcript How a French Atheist Became a Christian Theologian


Kevin Harris: “How God turns a French atheist into a Christian theologian.” You are about to hear about it. I am Kevin Harris. This is Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. Dr. Craig, you are fluent in French, so how do you say his name?

Dr. Craig: Guillaume Bignon.

Kevin Harris: Guillaume Bignon. Let me just start with what he writes here, Bill.[1] He says,

A number of people lately have been intrigued to meet a French theologian, and have asked me to tell them the story of how I, a French atheist, became a Christian scholar. Even the theologians and apologists I met recently at the ETS Conference in Baltimore (where by God’s grace I was delivering my first scholarly paper) seemed to care (understandably) more about my conversion from atheism than my immediate theology paper! Therefore, it seemed fitting to type it up properly, to have a clean telling of that story of God breaking into my life, ready to be shared with people who ask. So here it is (and please let me know if you spot spelling mistakes or awkward sentences, I’m still French after all!)

Well, I tell you, Bill, he has written beautifully. This is an amazing story. Just reading it has moved you, hasn't it?

Dr. Craig: Oh, it is a wonderful story, especially for someone from France as Guillaume is. It is so thrilling to hear of his journey to faith.

Kevin Harris: I am going to skip ahead in his story. He met a woman and she was a theist. So he decided if he was going to be with her he needed to talk her out of this. He says,

Her religious beliefs clearly remained the problem, and my new goal in life was essentially to explain to her why all this was untenable, so that she could put this nonsense behind her, and we could be together without her misconceptions standing in the way. So I started thinking about the whole thing. What good reason was there to think God exists, and what good reason was there to think atheism was true instead?

This step was important, because my own unbelief was comfortably resting on the fact that (smart) people around me didn’t believe in God either, but it was more a reasonable life assumption than the conclusion of a solid argument. So I started to take the question seriously, to objectively assess its credibility. But of course, if I was going to refute Christianity, I first needed to know what exactly it affirmed. So I picked up a Bible to figure it out. And at the same time, since I’m a scientist, I figured there was at least one experiment that could be carried out to dis-confirm the belief that God exists: I thought “if any of this is true, then there is a God who exists right now and presumably cares greatly about this project of mine”, so I started to pray in the air as an atheist “If there is a God, then here I am, I’m looking into this, why don’t you go ahead and reveal yourself to me. I’m open.”

Dr. Craig: That was his fatal misstep as an unbeliever [laughter] – turning to God and praying that prayer!

Kevin Harris: So he says,

So I read in the gospels about this Jesus of Nazareth. And there, it didn’t exactly feel like what I expected. I was impressed by the authority of that man’s teaching. Sure enough, I didn’t have much room in my worldview for his talks of God and supernatural activity, but I was rather impressed by the way he maneuvered in conversation, and the wisdom of some of his retorts. I could say what I want, this man knew what he was doing, he spoke with authority, and it made me somewhat uncomfortable. Additionally, even as an atheist, I knew that the person of Jesus of Nazareth was not just a piece of mythology.

Bill, similar to you in the sense . . .

Dr. Craig: Oh, I really resonated with this. I remember when I first read the Gospels as an unbeliever I was so impressed with Jesus. He was so masterful in dialectic – as the way he says, “he maneuvered in conversation” or cut the ground from beneath his accusers by his skill in argument. I totally agree with what he says about Jesus' authority and intelligence.

Kevin Harris: He goes on,

Well, since I had been investigating this Christianity thing, I decided I would try and visit a church, to see what those Christians do when they get together.

So he went to church and he says[2],

I don’t remember a word that the preacher said on that day. He finished his sermon, and I thought, “I have heard enough, I saw what I needed to see, now let me get out of here”. I jumped on my feet, and started quickly walking down the aisle toward the large exit door at the back of the church, very carefully avoiding making eye contact with anybody, so that I wouldn’t have to introduce myself to any of these people. I reached the back door, opened it, and I literally had one foot out the door, when I was suddenly stopped in my tracks, as a strong chilling blast in my chest went up from my stomach all the way to my throat. I stopped there, frozen on the spot with goose bumps all over, and heard myself saying: “this is ridiculous, I have to figure this out”. So I put my foot back in, closed the door in front of me, turned around, and went straight to the head pastor. “So, you believe in God, ugh?” - yes, he responded with a smile. "So how does that work out?” I asked. “We can talk about it”, he said. And after people left, we went to his office. He briefly prayed for me, which I obviously felt a bit awkward about, but at least it was reassuringly consistent: he really believed in it. And we started to talk.

Well, they spoke for hours, Bill.

Dr. Craig: And this was an evangelical church in Paris, he says. He doesn't name it but it is intriguing that he found his way into an evangelical church.

Kevin Harris: He says,

Here was an obviously educated man, who believed these incredible things about God and Jesus, and I progressively started to consider that all of this could possibly be true. He didn’t necessarily present an apologetic case (France doesn’t have a William Lane Craig or an Alvin Plantinga to provide a devastating logical critique of atheism/naturalism) . . .

Pretty good compliment there!

Dr. Craig: That's very nice, though I have to say, Kevin, that this last year Reasonable Faith has finally been translated into French and is now available in France and goes under the title Foi Raisonnable.[3] So if any of our French listeners want to get this material in their native tongue, Foi Raisonnable is available in French now I'm pleased to say.

Kevin Harris:

[The pastor] gave me a study guide he had written, which essentially laid out the basics of the Christian faith, by asking a question and giving the reader a scripture reference to go and look-up the answer. I went through this thoroughly at home, and scribbled down pages and pages of handwritten notes and questions to ask that pastor during our next meeting. Many of the Christian beliefs were starting to make sense to me, but one of them just didn’t register. I had to repeat a question many times over on those pages: “Why did Jesus have to die?” I still have these pages of notes written in French at home, and the question can be read on every other page: “why did Jesus have to die?”

The answer would soon come, but not in the way I had hoped. At that point, I had come to more seriously think this all could be true, and if that was the case, then the ground was shifting below me, and God would need to catch me. My attempts at praying had turned into “God, if you are there, I’m now going to need you to make it plain for me”. And I started to hope He would just open the sky, send down the light, and say, “welcome son”. What He did instead was less theatrical, but much more brutal: He reactivated my conscience. That was not a pleasant experience. I suddenly realized a truth I knew but had worked very hard to suppress: at the same time I had started my investigations, I had also come to commit a particularly sinister misdeed, even by my own atheistic standards. I need not provide here the sordid details of what that thing was, but it was rather extreme in its wickedness, and I had had to cover it up, by piling up many lies on top of it. And though I knew exactly I had done it, I had just suppressed it and shoved it down inside as if it had never happened. Well, God shone the light and brought it back in full force right to my face, and I finally saw it for what it was. I was struck with an intense guilt, physically crippled with pain in my chest and disgusted at the thought of that thing I had done and the lies I had covered it with. There was no going back. I had done it, and there was nothing I could do to change that. I still remember lying there in pain in my apartment near Paris, when all of a sudden the quarter dropped; it made sense: “That” is why Jesus had to die:…me. He who knew no sin became sin on my behalf, so that in Him I might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). He took upon himself the penalty that I deserved, so that in God’s justice, my sins would be forgiven freely, by grace as a gift, rather than by my righteous deeds or religious rituals. He died so that I may live. So I accepted the whole thing: I placed my trust in Jesus, and asked Him to forgive me in the way the New Testament promised He would.[4]

As I took those steps, the feelings of guilt just evaporated. I experienced a sort of spiritual renewal: the guilt was gone, and I received the freedom and forgiveness Jesus promised. I continued reading the Bible with growing passion, and this whole story of mine started to make sense and exhibit purpose: I had experienced the living God, who revealed Himself to me in the person of Jesus Christ, who according to the Gospel died to pay the price for my sin, so that I might be saved, by faith alone in Jesus alone and not by works of the law. I was all in.

Bill, from here on he talks about how 1 Peter 3:15 has motivated him – always be prepared to give a defense for why you believe. He says as it turns out he began to study and became very eager to explain to his family and friends why he thought Christianity was actually true and made sense. So he dove into books and he started ordering these DVDs, Christian apologetics, theology, history, analytic philosophy, and just absorbed them constantly. He says he just couldn't stop. He says, “if I’m going to spend all of my time and money studying these things, I might as well get a degree out of it”. And so he signed up for a seminary in New York City for a Masters in New Testament studies. He graduated from the seminary with a Masters degree and he,

started doing exciting doctoral work for a PhD in systematic and philosophical theology, studying under the supervision of a very respected theologian, developing my expertise in the field, and slowly becoming a Christian Scholar and apologist.

So he says that is “how God takes a French atheist who hates religion and makes a Christian theologian and apologist out of him.” He says, “That's the Gospel, and it's good news worth believing.” Isn't that something?

Dr. Craig: Amen.

Kevin Harris: Wow! What can you add? There were various circumstances that just kind of began to happen to him. Like an injury – he was a volleyball player. He was an athlete. All these things now he can see God's hand.

Dr. Craig: He says in the testimony that he was not someone who was genuinely seeking for God but God was seeking him. It reminded me of the poem, “Hound of Heaven.” How God pursued him relentlessly and finally brought him to himself. It is a wonderful story.

Kevin Harris: One more thing. We got an email at Reasonable Faith, and I believe, Bill, this is the first time we ever heard someone being so influenced by proper basicality. Let me read this to you.

I just want to thank Bill and the rest of Reasonable Faith for bringing me back to the faith. I was deeply enslaved to only valuing my reason and evidence that I eventually became an atheist. But it only lasted about seven months. Thank you for bringing me back. You uncut my foundations of relying solely on reason and evidence. The work that helped me was you and Plantinga's work on properly basic beliefs. Therefore, I've given up evidentialism and classical foundationalism and I've come back to knowing God through the work of the Holy Spirit by personal conviction and assurance of his existence. Now I am ready to be in regular relationship with him again with the understanding that evidence isn't bad but that I can be assured without evidence that Christianity is true and how life-changing Christianity is.

All right. This reminds me of several podcasts that we've done here talking about this very thing.

Dr. Craig: Right. It is interesting that for this fellow it wasn't the debates and the arguments that helped him to come back to faith. It was realizing that he can know that God exists, that Christ is his Son, in a properly basic way. I think that is wonderful that he has come to appreciate the nuances of Plantinga's reformed epistemology in that way. It is not inimical to evidence that helps to support faith, but this fellow has come to see that it is not the basis of faith.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, it really ties a good neat, quite beautiful, bow on it at the end when he says, “Now I am ready to be in a regular relationship with him again with the understanding that evidence and argument isn't bad” but then goes to proper basicality.

Dr. Craig: What is nice about this testimony is what it leads to. As he says, it is a relationship with God and not just the propositional belief “Therefore God exists” which is what argument and evidence would lead you to. The grasping of the proper basicality of belief in God has brought him into real relationship with God, which I think is wonderful.[5]

Kevin Harris: I do wonder, Bill, what kind of emotional gymnastics he was probably experiencing with this line that he says, “I was deeply enslaved to only valuing my reason and evidence that I eventually became an atheist.” A lot of our atheist friends will say, “See there? If you value reason and evidence, you'll become an atheist. That is where it'll lead.”

Dr. Craig: Yeah, I think that that is posturing.

Kevin Harris: We would say, “No, it would lead you to theism – reason and evidence.”

Dr. Craig: Yes.

Kevin Harris: But he says he was enslaved to it to an extent that it backfired. It was counterproductive to him on some kind of a level.

Dr. Craig: At least he came to see the fallacies of such a naturalistic epistemology. I think that is part of the strength of Plantinga's religious epistemology. It doesn't consist simply in positively showing how belief in God can be properly basic, but it really explodes in a very effective way this sort of naturalized view of epistemology that we should only accept the deliverances of the natural sciences and that to believe anything except on that basis is irrational. Plantinga shows how that is ultimately too narrow a criterion for rationality and is finally self-refuting.[6]