By Stephen W. Hiemstra
The history of conversions to Christianity has a surprising number of staunch critics of the Gospel that after examining the biblical evidence (sometimes without any witness other than the Gospel itself) admit their own errors and profess faith in Christ.
Even though the final stages of their decision process is often idiosyncratic, many go through a period of deliberation extending over years, suggesting that coming to faith has emergent properties (the product of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts) that are not easily explained.
If the criteria for accepting evidence in the postmodern era focuses on who tells the better story, then these conversion stories provide substantive evidence that the Gospel is indeed one of the best stories around.
The Apostle Paul
The pattern set by the Apostle Paul is emblematic. The Book of Acts introduces Paul, formerly a devout and highly educated Jew known as Saul, as a key instigator in the stoning death of Stephen (Acts 7:58). As a prosecutor of Christian converts from Judaism, we can surmise that Saul’s only evangelists were Christians being dragged off to prison and, likely, killed (Acts 8:3). And Saul was not just another prosecutor, he was infamous among disciples, as we read:
“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” (Acts 9:1-2)
But even this prosecutor was not beyond salvation. On the road to Damascus Saul met the risen Christ and was blinded by the experience. He was then led by hand to Damascus where he refused to eat or drink anything for three days. On the third day, God appeared to a disciple named Ananias instructing him to visit Saul. Knowing Saul’s reputation, Ananias objected. Nevertheless, Ananias visited Saul, healed his blindness, and baptized him. Within days, Paul began preaching that Jesus is the son of God in the synagogues and learned that his former colleagues among the Jews were plotting to kill him. Paul escaped Damascus by being lowered at night over the city walls in a basket (Acts 9:3-24).
Paul’s conversion changed his life from chief prosecutor to Christian evangelist (that is, wanted criminal) within no more than a couple weeks. Paul’s conversion story made a big impression on the church, which we know because the author of the Book of Acts, Luke, repeated the story three times (Acts 9, 22, 26) and because many Christians never got over their fear of Paul because of his role in persecuting the church (Acts 9:26).
Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 AD) began life as a wealthy pagan son of a Christian mother who as a young man had a son by a concubine. Fond of partying, sexual immorality, and keeping questionable company, he confessed of robbing a neighbor’s orchard just for kicks and giggles. When at age 32 Augustine finally came to his senses, he confessed his sin to God in private, as he reported:
“Such things I said, weeping in the most bitter sorrow of my heart. And suddenly I hear a voice from some nearby house, a boy’s voice or a girl’s voice, I do not know, but it was a sort of sing-song, repeated again and again, Take and read, take and read.” (Foley 2006, 169)
Augustine borrowed a book of scriptures from his friend, Alypius, and opened it randomly coming to this verse:
“Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.” (Rom 13:13)
Convicted immediately of his sexual sin, he took this passage as a word from God to him personally and went to his mother to announce that he was a Christian (Foley 2006, 160).
Hounds of Heaven
Having lost his mother at an early age and being dispatched to various, questionable boarding schools thereafter by his father, C.S. Lewis became a bitter young, philosophical atheist. Nevertheless, Lewis writes using different metaphors about God’s pursuit of his soul. For example, he writes:
“But, of course, what mattered most of all was my deep-seated hatred of authority, my monstrous individualism, my lawlessness. No word in my vocabulary expressed deeper hatred than the word Interference. But Christianity placed at the center what then seem to me a transcendental Interference. This is my business and mine only.”(Lewis 1955, 172)
“And so the great Angler played His fish and I never dreamed that the hook was in my tongue.”(Lewis 1955, 211)
But for Lewis the metaphor that he highlights most obviously is that of a divine Chess master in two separate chapter titles: check and checkmate (Lewis 1955, 165, 212). What metaphor would appeal to a scholar and intellectual? Lewis writes of returning to faith in 1929, when he was 31 years old (Lewis 1955, 228).
Other stories of conversion abound. Among the most dramatic stories are those of Muslim converts who have grown up knowing really no Christians at all, but drawn for some reason into studying the Bible and becoming believers. Or consider the story of atheist and journalist with the Chicago Tribune, Lee Strobel (2016), who, after learning that his wife had become a Christian, sets out to prove Christianity is a hoax and ends up becoming not only a believer, but also an evangelist and pastor. Or how about Rosaria Butterfield (2012), who, as a leader among lesbian feminists, set off to write a research paper on the Christian Right only to come to faith and become a pastor’s wife.
The template for these conversions is often hostility to the Gospel, deep study of it, and a final ah-ha moment—often unexpected—when the decision for faith takes place. This template suggests that the Gospel story is compelling, but it requires serious reflection and the journey of faith is unique to the individual.
Butterfield, Rosaria Champagne. 2012. The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith. Pittsburgh: Crown & Covenant Publications.
Foley, Michael P. [editor] 2006. Augustine Confessions (Orig Pub 397 AD). 2nd Edition. Translated by F. J. Sheed (1942). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.
Lewis, C.S. 1955. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. New York: Harcourt Book.
Strobel, Lee. 2016. The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus (Orig Pub 1998). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Resilience of the Gospel
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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.