Many Christians appear to hold to the mistaken belief that atheism is a cheap cop-out. Atheists are often viewed as cowards who don’t really believe what they say they believe; it’s merely a position that’s adopted for the sake of being allowed to live a life freed from any moral authority, it’s assumed.
“There is really no such thing as an atheist,” has smugly crossed the lips of more than few of my conversation partners over the years. That accusation was even thrown in my face several times by Christians when I was an atheist. Trust me, that doesn’t encourage atheists to listen to whatever else is said by the Believer, including any gospel presentation that might follow.
By God’s grace, though, I am no longer an atheist, having repented of my sins and placed my faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ over 15 years ago. Because of my past and present (and glorious future), I am frequently asked by those who are praying for atheist friends and family members, “What caused you to stop being an atheist?”
That’s a legitimate question derived from a worthy concern, and it deserves serious consideration. What does cause an atheist to break free from atheism?
The Sunday school (and correct) answer, of course, is the work of the Holy Spirit. All sinners who have ever turned in faith to Jesus have done so because the Spirit has replaced their heart of stone with a heart of flesh; they have been given new life in Christ. But, as true and reassuring as that answer is, that’s not the answer that people who are concerned for their atheist friends and family members want. They are looking for practical things they should be saying and doing as they share the gospel of Jesus Christ with the unbelievers in their life.
Unfortunately, that’s not really a question that can be easily answered with a series of objective truths that are practical in their implementation. My experience of renouncing atheism and turning to Christ is unique, as are the experiences of other atheists. Much of what the Holy Spirit used in my heart is neither repeatable nor advisable, like the time a fortune teller in New Orleans unknowingly took part in the destruction of my atheist worldview.
As a committed skeptic of all things supernatural, I entered the dimly lit parlor that reeked of incense solely to appease my ex who was Wiccan. She had offered to pay for it, after all. To keep her happy, all I had to do was sit there and keep my mocking thoughts to myself.
Settling into the hard chair as the lady turned my hands over, palms up, I knew how the “con” of fortune telling worked. When the fortune teller began by predicting that she could see great artistic success in my future, I knew that was simply a product of having working eyeballs in her head. Anybody with half a brain could’ve realized that I was in the arts in some shape or form by how I presented myself. Except, as she continued, moving past the expected “well, duh” observational based predictions, the fortune teller began to reveal very specific information about my past and present. Information that there would have been no way for her to know unless someone had told her. I hadn’t filled out an information card prior to pushing aside the hanging beads and stepping into the room. No assistant had asked me questions about myself before I sat down. To this day, I don’t know if she was just a good guesser or something demonic was at work. Regardless, I’m thankful that the Holy Spirit used that fortune teller’s insights and words to help shake me loose from my purely materialistic outlook on the world.
However, I would never encourage anyone to take an atheist to a fortune teller. In fact, I would strongly advise against it.
The most valuable words of wisdom I can offer those concerned with the eternal state of an atheist is to be faithful in lovingly sharing the gospel and to pray and then pray some more. And don’t be afraid to say something as simple as “God loves you.” There is no way of knowing how the Holy Spirit is working in your atheist friend or family member’s heart; you have no idea what other things are being used as weapons to break his or her heart of stone. Even a brief word can be used by the Holy Spirit in ways that you could never predict. That’s what happened to me.
A few months before my encounter with the fortune teller, unsettled by the rampant hypocrisy and legalism among the political activists around me, I decided that I needed to renew my passion for progressive causes as well as reconnect with my counterculture forebears. A Jack Kerouac inspired trip, a la On the Road, was needed, I concluded.
Throwing my packed duffle bag onto the books scattered across the back seat of my Pontiac Grand Am, I traced my finger along the route highlighted in my giant atlas and began driving towards San Francisco. I was filled with hope and anticipation for what lay before me.
Like Kerouac, I made several prolonged stops along the way. And, again mimicking Kerouac, one of those stops was in Denver.
The Denver International Youth Hostel was one of the oddest youth hostels that I had ever stayed in. Odd in a creepy way that drove me out of my room as soon as I had chosen a bunk and unpacked.
Located just a mile or so from Denver’s famed 16th Street, I slung my bookbag over my shoulder as I stepped out of the hostel and began the roughly 15-minute walk. At the time, and maybe it still is, 16th Street was filled with chain restaurants and stores; not my usual scene, in other words. However, since I was hungry, I popped into a well-known casual dining chain restaurant and headed to the bar without even pausing at the hostess stand. I was hungry, irritable, and wanted to get out of there with as little human interaction as possible.
While placing my order, I barely noticed the man sitting two stools away. When he attempted to strike up a conversation, I was less than thrilled, wanting to read The Trial in peace while I waited for my black bean burger. He was persistent, though, and gregarious, so I grudgingly engaged him.
He asked me what I was doing and seemed curiously amused by my Kerouacian journey. During the conversation, I managed to let slip that I had grown up a preacher’s kid. He made some vague religious comments that I wasn’t really listening to, replying that I was an atheist. And that was that. Or, so I thought.
Paying my bill, I gave no thought to my unwelcome dinner conversation partner who had left a few minutes before me. My only goal was to walk back to my hostel so that I could get some rest before driving to the Garden of the Gods the next day.
It was late as I stepped onto the sidewalk. Turning in the direction of my hostel, I felt a hand on my bookbag. Assuming I was in the process of being mugged, I angrily wheeled around, ready to swing.
The man from the bar sheepishly stepped back, grinned awkwardly, and said, “Sorry, I was waiting to talk to you.”
He then asked if I minded if he walked with me. The whole thing felt weird to me, but since I didn’t own the sidewalk, I shrugged and replied, “I’m headed back to my hostel, man. Walk with me if you want.”
After a brief, awkward few steps, my unwanted travel companion stopped, looked at me, and bluntly said, “I want to tell you that God loves you.”
I was stunned. Out of all the possible things I was expecting to hear in the middle of the night in downtown Denver, that was not it. He continued.
“Look, I don’t want to argue with you. I get the impression that you know more about the Bible than I do, but I felt compelled to wait for you to tell you that God loves you and someone is praying for you.”
With that, he turned and walked away.
Stunned, I stood there with tears beginning to stream down my face. In that moment, all I could think of was my mom on her knees praying for me.
I was also angry. Angry at that man. Angry at my mom. Angry at myself. Angry because those words were too specifically poignant to be a coincidence. Prior to that night in Denver, my atheism had been unassailable. But it felt like an unseen hand has just taken a tire iron to my worldview.
The thing that angered me the most, and speaking from my own experience, atheism was not something that I had arrived at lightly nor easily. Regardless of what some misguided Christians believe, turning my back on Christianity was not easy. It had cost me something.
My early childhood, when I huddled in my bed at night afraid because I thought that since I didn’t believe in God I was going to go to hell, cost me. My youth, when I worked hard to suppress questions and doubts because doing so made it easier for me to find an equilibrium that helped me navigate the strict rules of Christian fundamentalism. My turbulent years at Bob Jones University. All of it had been hard and painful at times. I didn’t become an atheist because it was easy. I became an atheist because I had looked at all the evidence and concluded that God did not exist. I did so only after fighting the “truth” I had been taught my entire life. Worse, emptying myself of the thing – Christianity – that had controlled and defined my entire childhood and my family meant that I had willfully placed a wedge between myself and many of those whom I loved. To be sure, my parents, family, and friends still loved me, but, whenever we were together, it was obvious that I didn’t really belong with them. That hurt, but it was a consequence of being honest, I thought
I didn’t become an atheist because that’s what I wanted; I became an atheist because I believed it was the truth.
So, standing on that sidewalk while trying not to think about my mom praying for me, I cursed a God I didn’t even believe existed. That late-summer night in 2003 was the beginning of a nearly year-long fighting and cursing of God. That moment when that man told me that God loves me was the first cognizant moment for me that something was happening. Looking back over my life, that was the moment when the Holy Spirit began to reveal His work in my heart. The moment that signaled that God was initiating the downward slide that terminated in the end of myself and my finally turning to Him through repentance and faith in Christ.
So, yeah, to those who wonder what it was that caused me to turn my back on atheism, it wasn’t one thing. It was, first and foremost, the work of the Holy Spirit. It was the love of my parents who cared enough about me to share the gospel with me and pray for me without ceasing. It was the small word of a stranger in Denver.
Say something, anything, to your atheist friends and family members. Tell them that God loves them and that you’re praying for them if that’s all the time and courage you have. Share the gospel with them. Pray for them. Pray for them some more. But say something. You have no way of knowing how the Holy Spirit might use even the smallest act of love to break a sinner’s heart and bring them to repentance and faith.
John Ellis currently lives in Orlando, FL with his wife of fourteen years and their two children. Prior to their recent move, John was privileged to serve as a pastor in their church in Arlington, VA. He now works as a writer as well as conducting apologetics seminars for Christian schools and churches.