Sep 18, 2014

How God turns a French atheist into a Christian theologian - My conversion story

[I am re-posting this piece here, as the forum on which it was formerly posted is being decommissioned]

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!)

I grew up in a wonderfully loving family in France, near Paris. I was the second of 3 children. We were nominally Roman Catholic, and would regularly attend mass, but this religious expression seemed to be more out of tradition and maybe superstition than a true life conviction. I certainly didn’t believe any of this was true myself, nor did I sense that people around me took it all that seriously either, though it was an important part of their lives. As soon as I was old enough (13 or so) to tell my parents that I didn’t care for any of it, I stopped going to mass on Sundays, and my life as an atheist was hardly different. My basically atheistic beliefs and values remained, and all that changed was that I was no longer required to fight boredom for an hour or so on Sunday morning while going through the motions of religious rituals and meaningless recitations. Meanwhile I grew up to be a pretty happy young adult. My dad was a mathematician and computer scientist, and my mom “religiously” devoted herself to the well-being and education of her children, from which I benefited greatly on all fronts. It allowed me to do very well at school, learn to play the piano, and get involved in all sorts of sports. I ended up studying math, physics and engineering in college, graduated from a rather respected private engineering school, which landed me a job as a computer scientist for a large investment bank.
My piano learning led me to play keyboard in an amateur rock band, and on
the sports front, after I grew to be 6 feet 4 inches tall and discovered I could jump 3 feet high, I ended up playing volleyball in national league, travelling the country every weekend for the games. An important part of young male French atheist ideals also consisted in female conquests, at which I was starting to have enough success to satisfy the raunchy standards of the volleyball locker room. All in all, I was pretty happy with my life, and in a thoroughly secular culture, the chances of ever hearing (let alone believe) the Gospel were incredibly slim.
Here is how it went down anyway.

I was in my mid-twenties when my brother and I traveled across the globe to go on vacation to the island of Saint Martin in the Caribbean. Tropical weather, white sand beaches, turquoise water, and the occasional game of beach volleyball: what’s not to like? One day, after we had spent the afternoon on a more distant beach on the island, and for the very first time in my entire life, we decided to hitchhike our way home. In a matter of minutes, a car pulled over for us. Two young women, tourists from the US (one from Miami, the other one from New York) had stopped to ask us for directions to their hotel, as they were lost on their way from the airport (the beach was nowhere near the airport or their hotel!) Incidentally, their hotel was right next door to our house. We jumped in and started talking on the way back. They were attractive enough that the radar went up immediately, and we started the smooth-talk to make sure we would see them again during their stay on the island. We did. The one I was interested in lived in New York, and she happened to mention she believed in God (an intellectual suicide by my standards), but worst of all, she accordingly believed that sex belonged only in marriage (an even more problematic belief than theism, if it was at all possible). Nevertheless, we started dating. Spoiler alert: this is not the woman I eventually married.
Vacation ended, she flew back to New York, I flew back to Paris, and there we were, now involved in a problematic long-distance relationship.

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.” Well, I wasn’t, really, but I figured that shouldn’t stop God if He existed. 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; it seemed clear he was at least a person of history who walked the roads of Palestine in the first century, and apparently his story was compelling enough that these ancient followers of his believed it and even suffered for preaching his death and resurrection. These considerations were making it harder to completely throw out the whole thing, and I knew that at some point I would need to give a coherent account of who I thought Jesus in fact was. But all of this was nowhere near changing my view or my life habits. I couldn’t even visit a church had I wanted to, since all my weekends were busy traveling the country to play volleyball.

That barrier didn’t last long. A week or two after I started my investigations into Christianity and prayed that unbelieving prayer, out of the blue, my spiking shoulder started to fail me. For no apparent reason, without any accident or any evident injury, my shoulder would start to burn out 10 minutes into every volleyball practice. With that inflamed shoulder, I just couldn’t spike. The doctor couldn’t see anything wrong, the physical therapist’s best efforts didn’t help, and I was basically told: “look, you probably just need to rest your shoulder. You need to stop volleyball for a couple of weeks.” So against my will, I was now off of volleyball courts for a couple of weeks.
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. The girl I met in Saint Martin, as she visited me once afterwards, had been given the name and address of an evangelical church in Paris for her to visit. She eventually didn’t get to go herself while visiting me, but she had forgotten to delete the info on the desktop of my computer. So I picked it up, and drove there on that first Sunday morning. Frankly, I went to that church like I would go to the zoo: to see some weird exotic animals that I had read about in books, but had never seen in real life. Only at the zoo, there are bars to separate you from the animals. Not so with church. So the whole experience was very awkward. I remember thinking that if any of my friends or family could see me there in the building (a church!) I would die of shame. I also remember finding it troubling to see that these people seemed to actually believe what they practiced. They genuinely thought their prayers were being heard by God, and I thought it was awkward. I sat down by myself and listened to the preacher, still mostly thinking of the shame I would feel if anyone could see me there.

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.

We spoke for hours, and didn’t come close to exhausting all my questions. So over the course of the next few weeks, I repeatedly met with him like that, and we discussed. I would ask a lot of questions, and he would provide biblical answers. 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), but at least his answers were internally coherent, and that was impressive in its own right. He 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.

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.

After all this happened to me, I reasonably but mistakenly thought God meant for me to be with that girl I had met, so I looked for a job in New York. Here again, providence would have it that my training as a financial software developer was particularly fit for the task, and I landed a job on Wall Street. So I stepped out in faith, and left everything behind to move to New York: my family and friends, my job, my band, and my volleyball team. (As it turns out, I couldn’t have kept playing volleyball anyway, because the doctors eventually figured out what happened to my shoulder: the muscle in charge of the rotation movement had atrophied plain and simple. There is now a visible hole in the back of my shoulder blade, and I can’t play volleyball anymore). A few months after I arrived in New York, it became obvious that this girl was not the person for me; our relationship was horrendous, and by God’s grace we ended up breaking up rather than getting married. And so here I was, now alone in New York, with all this time on my hands, and no social commitments of any sort, clearly confused and wondering what God’s purpose in uprooting me like this could have been.

I quickly became eager to explain to my family and friends why I hadn’t lost my mind: why I thought Christianity was actually true and made sense. So I dove into books and started ordering every DVD I could find: lectures, formal debates, the arguments for the existence of God, atheistic arguments and their responses, the reliability of scripture, all the panoply of Christian apologetics: theology, history, analytic philosophy, and pretty much anything that was remotely relevant to my new-found faith. Over the course of the next several months I would spend all my free time out of the office (every night and week end, basically) just pouring over this material, absorbing all this information, and enjoying every second of it. It’s all the more ironic that before my conversion I hated books and had practically never read one of my own will that wasn’t required for school. Now I just couldn’t stop.
After a couple of months of this regimen, I thought “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 I signed up for seminary in New York City, for a Masters in New Testament studies.

I was initially unsure how well I would do given that I was just a very recently converted atheist, but as it turned out, my radical binge studying had equipped me in ways life-long Christians never are because apologetics is just not really on their radar. So I ended up doing very well, and started to see God’s exciting plan unfold once again.  Shortly after, in God’s wonderful providence I met the amazing American Christian woman that was actually meant for me this time, and we got married and started a family. After I graduated from seminary with the Masters degree, one thing led to another, and I 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 this is the broad story of how God takes a French atheist who hates religion and makes a Christian theologian and apologist out of him. Now a number of things could be said about the whole thing, but if there is one thing to appreciate about this conversion story, it is this: I didn’t bring any of it upon myself. I was not looking for God; I did not seek Him, and I didn’t want Him. He reached out to me, loved me while I was still a sinner, broke my defenses, and decided to pour out His undeserved grace, that His Son might be glorified, and that, from my sin I may be saved by grace through faith, and not by works; it is the gift of God, so that no one may boast (Eph. 2:8-9).
That’s the Gospel, and it’s good news worth-believing.

Guillaume Bignon
December 2013