James Bishop resides in South Africa. He is graduate in brand marketing and multimedia design (2014) and is currently enrolled in theology & philosophy specializing in psychology. Having achieved TESOL (2017) he also has dreams to teach language overseas at some point in the future. James is currently involved with Ratio Christi in Stellenbosch, a university apologetics organization that seeks to provide scientific, philosophical, and historical evidence for belief in God. He has also written for a number of apologetic organizations over the years. James identifies as a theological rationalist, a theological and philosophical stance that emphasizes the use of reason and evidence in forming theological beliefs. His primary interests encompass theology, philosophy of religion, and the philosophy of science.
I have recounted to few people my testimony of how I came to believe in God. One reason I haven’t is because it is quite personal, and obviously most people don’t share personal stuff with many people. Moreover, when it comes to experiencing God, which weighs heavily in my conversion, many immediately adopt a disposition of suspicion. I expect this. It is quite understandable given that so many people have alleged God to have appeared to them, or spoken to them, or done something with them. Many of these stories have been for an individual’s personal gain, or is explainable by someone just being mentally ill. Thus, I am quite aware, and even expecting, that many readers will disagree with my “God experience” described below, and some will no doubt think that I am probably a bit mad. That’s okay; my readers are more than welcome to make of my story what they may. Other readers, however, might take hope from my story; I hope this is the case for some. Everything described in this testimony is exactly how it happened.
I am almost 25 now, but five years ago I was in the spiritual wilderness; remembering back to that time takes me to a dark place. I had given up belief in Christian theism when I was just 12. For the following eight years I lived in spiritual apathy that often verged on an inner hatred towards religion (“religion” being Christianity, and a bit of Islam, since that was all that I was familiar with). I remember my mom saying to me one day, “What would God think of that?” after she had heard me cursing and swearing. Having heard that for some time, that was the last straw as I yelled at her comparing her stupid god and stupid Jesus to Father Christmas. This is a fact my mom has always remembered, and she likes to remind me of it today when I tell her of my progress.
My school career has always had a place within my story. School was particularly hard for me though much of junior school, especially grade 7, was fantastic. I had many friends, and, as odd as it might sound looking back at the general struggle that characterizes my school career, I had the respect of many fellow peers too. We’d often play physical games, like rugby and so on, and I’d be first choice, team leader, or whatever because the others knew I was talented at those things. However, the train derailed in high school. Many of my friends left for overseas and other far away schools, and I never heard from them again. Those that did go to the same high school that I went to also tended to go their own separate ways as they made new friends. I wasn’t prepared for this and so I was kind of forced to make new friends, and often not such good ones. This latter fact led to many break time fights, an unfortunately common occurrence at all boy schools. One particularly bad fight had my head slammed into a gate in a hallway and punched five times by someone bigger than me (which was pretty big because I have always been bigger than average, at least back then at school). The teachers obviously noticed and the conflict was resolved pretty quickly. That was just one of about a dozen physical fights I can remember getting into at school.
Bear in mind that I am, and always have been, a sensitive person, so this was nothing but a facade of physical toughness that was never really me. This physical confrontation ate away at me hence why I nearly failed grade 8. I soon moved schools and found myself much happier in a co-ed school where boys and girls mixed. I still struggled in ways like many others do, but it was a much more fulfilling and nurturing experience. It was also in this context that I had my first heartbreak after I was rejected by a girl in my class whom I think must have been my first real love. Much loneliness and pain followed that. However, I graduated with decent marks and was subsequently admitted to university soon after.
But I was yet still firmly placed within the spiritual wilderness, and this continued into my time at my first university. Then I was studying marketing and multimedia design at a secular institution; I later graduated in 2014. It was in January of 2012 that I had my first real deep existential contemplation of existence. It hit me like a bombshell out of nowhere, but for some reason I realized then-and-there that if God did not exist then life is ultimately futile; a realization that blindsided me one Saturday night while I was hosting friends at my home. Only later could I philosophically understand the depths of this realization though I do think most people, independent of how philosophical they are, know that life is ultimately meaningless, objectively, if God does not exist. Many just don’t think that deeply about it, and they go about life pursuing illusions of meaning in the form of finances, experiences and thrills, and so on. These, I have found in my own short existence, lead to nothing but temporary fulfillment, and often just disappoint in the end. Even some leading thinkers who openly admit that God doesn’t exist, many of whom I came to know in much more detail within the following years, accept this and argue that we need to “create” meaning for ourselves given that we can’t ground meaning in God since God does not exist. I realized then that if the universe just existed pointlessly and for no ultimately reason and purpose, then there is absolutely no reason to suppose that us human beings existing within it have any ultimate purpose and meaning beyond the subjective ones we give ourselves. This crushed me, as it has crushed many others.
But I think God saved me, “personally.” The quotations are deliberate as I had become increasingly hesitant to affirm that God tends to people on a personal level, perhaps due to a slight Aristotelian influence on my concept of God that I hold to among other theological reflections. Much, not all, of how I see God matches with how Christian theists traditionally understand God to be. By this I believe God is totally transcendent over and above his creation. God probably exists atemporally in a timeless state given that time came into existence at the universes’s creation, or first event. God must also exist temporally within time given his omnipresence. If God is what we’d speculate as being the greatest conceivable being, then he must exists in all possible worlds, including one in which time exists and in which beings, like us, exist within time. Thus, I believe God exists both temporally and atemporally. God is also spirit which to me makes total sense given that God exists necessarily by virtue of his nature prior to the creation of the universe. If physical matter came into being at the creation of the universe then God cannot be physical. Whatever God is, he must be timeless, spaceless and immaterial. I say all this humbly and reservedly given that we can’t, and shouldn’t, confine God to a box, though I believe that this does, in some way, describe the God that exists.
This seems logical to me, but it also presents to me a God who is very “other,” by which I mean there to be a massive chasm between God, creation, and us. To me, this chasm is physical in nature though, of course, Christians also believe that a sort of chasm, specifically spiritual one, exists as a result of man’s alienation from God due to sin. Christians believe that God is not powerless to cross it, as he so did in Christ’s triumphant sacrifice on the cross. Thus, my coming to faith in God is shrouded in much confusion perhaps because it was so overwhelming personal (how, after all, was I to make sense of such a personal experience, as I will describe, from a being I deemed to be so “other” to creation and to myself?).
I was praying one night laying out to God my pains and struggles, pains that had been with me for many years as a result of my school experience, and that still exist within me today though I’ve learnt to accept and work with them far more constructively as I’ve grown up. It is quite true that having faith in God is not a magic fix to life’s issues; far from it. Spiritual formation, the process of building a relationship with God, is full of trials to be endured.
Nonetheless, I was praying about my fears I had come to associate with certain things, two of which were people, or certain types of people (especially the nasty sort I experienced at school), and death (especially given that death signified my apparent meaninglessness in life). It was in that exact moment that out of the depths of my bedroom I heard something or “someone” ask me a question, “Why,” begun this voice, “do you fear others yet you do not fear me?” Just like that it was said.
I nearly tumbled over at this, and to say that I was perplexed would be a massive understatement. “What on Earth was that?” and “Who just spoke to me?” were some of the immediate questions that hit me. Thus, I hope one can understand why I’ve never actually told anyone, minus one or two, about this encounter. I was aware that I was very much alone in my bedroom with no-one around me, so that couldn’t have been the source. I have thought about this experience to no end. I have sought after several avenues to explain it, and sometimes to explain it away altogether. Was it my imagination? Was I going mad? But I couldn’t explain it any other way other than a genuine experience, no less genuine than the voices one hears in, say, a classroom or in a restaurant (though the voice in my case was singular). Besides, never has something spoken to me in such a way, and neither do I have dispositions to hear voices in my head. It is also hard to define “voice” in this context. What, after all, is it like to “hear” such a thing?
The story surrounding this voice got even more amazing. At that time I was searching spiritually, praying to the “Christian God,” and knew next to nothing about the Bible or Christian spirituality and theology. It would be roughly a month later that I would pick up a copy of a Bible and begin reading it. I got to Matthew 10:28 that said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
At that moment the penny dropped. That is exactly what I was fearing, people who could harm me. But, so I think God, or whatever that voice was, was asking me, was why I fear people more than I fear God? God is the one of whom we will be accountable to, who will decide our eternal destinies, and who we will all see after we die. Why worry what others think about me, or what they can do to me in this life? The confirmation was nonetheless staggering. How, I thought, could this voice that I undeniably heard some weeks earlier confirm itself in a book, the Bible, that I had hardly ever read?
Following that experience, perhaps no more than five days later, I was at a large mall with my sister. We were having lunch there, and once we were done we made off, and out of the blue a stranger came up to me. He introduced himself, and, naturally curious, I was wondering why he was speaking to me. He then grabbed my hand, recounted to me the parable of the mustard seed, and declared that God loves me. Somewhat awkwardly, he proceeded to walk with me holding my hand, what a sight that must have been. I am uneasy about this experience, I don’t know what to make of it, but I am just stating what really happened. It was an unusual encounter to say the least. Providence, chance, or hoax? I cannot say.
This all so captured me, and soon I found that a local youthful church, with congregants mostly from the university on a mountain less than two kilometers away, hosting an “Alpha Course.” This course was designed to introduce seekers to the Gospel, to God, Jesus, and so on. So I attended, and listened to what they had to say. There must have been a few hundred people attending this event. Attendees were broken into groups, and leaders were assigned to each group. My leader, Steve, was around the age of 40 and he was particularly smart. He is a scientist at a large hospital where he conducts disease research, with special attention on the HIV virus. We struck a rapport and met many times during the Alpha Course which lasted a few weeks, as well as afterwards. I presented him with my innocent, genuine questions. One of these questions concerned the voice I heard. Steve and a pastor at the church dialogued with me over it, and they presented a way to test the genuineness of the experience:
1. Is it consistent with scripture?
2. Is it consistent with God’s nature as presented in scripture?
3. What do other mature leaders within the church make of it?
To my surprise, Steve and the pastor, agreed that the experience, in all likelihood, was genuine given it passed this vetting process. The process definitely ruled out the possibility of someone claiming to hear God when it actually wasn’t God in the first place, or falsely and deliberately claiming that they had heard from God. So, I was struck by this. Was this really God who spoke to me? Did this thing so “other,” and so transcendent somehow cross the chasm to reach me?
But, supposing that this was really God who reached out to me, do I see myself in any way as being special because of it? Far from it.
The experience, as I’ve explained, has been the root of much confusion as it challenged, and still challenges, how I see God. It is also often accompanied by pain. If it was God, then why me, and not others? Many people have never had such an experience. How is it then fair on them? Alternatively, I could conceive of myself being the other person and wondering why God would make himself known directly to them and not me. And why did God choose to make himself directly known at an isolated point in my life? Do I also not suffer now too? If God can so easily speak, then what stops him from doing so when his human creatures, whom he claims to love so much, cry out in pain and confusion? I have no sure answer though I think it could be the case that God cares more about our eternal destinies and the decisions we will make in determining where we will spend it than he does about our temporary afflictions and circumstances. Sure, he cares for us and our lives, but he wants us to place our faith in him. That is what matters. Where we will spend eternity is what matters.
I have grappled with this experience so much over the last five years, all in the hope to deduce what the experience really meant (I sometimes think to myself, tongue-in-cheek, that if God knew I’d grapple with as little as a simple sentence he would have had second thoughts about ever speaking to me in the first place!). I have realized a few things. First, whatever this voice was, I shall just call it God, knew my painful situation. What I remember very clearly was that God seemed to wait for me conclude my prayer before speaking. It was just after me mouthing “Amen” that it spoke. In other words, it patiently waited, listening to all that I wanted to say. It was also direct. God didn’t seek to prove to me what, or who, he was. God, in no uncertain terms, stated his authority (“fear me” he said, “do not fear others”). But ultimately the voice was gentle. God was soft, and he wanted me to know that he was there, and that he wasn’t indifferent to my pain. Even more so, in a single, simple sentence, God brought low my concept of him as totally being “other,” and indifferent. This experience has also held me tight in moments of doubt, especially doubts relating to the Bible and Christianity itself (the big questions of inerrancy and the nature of biblical inspiration), as well as experientially (the problem of pain and evil). No matter what trial I face I can know that God exists.
And so marked the beginning of my apologetic career. I was introduced to apologetics by Sean and Josh Macdowell’s ‘Evidence for the resurrection.’ I was surprised that this God I once chastised as being little more than Father Christmas actually had, judging by historical evidence and arguments, intervened in history through Christ’s deity, ministry and resurrection. In this way apologetics proved to be supplementary; it tended to affirm my belief. I was so convinced, that I started this website some six months after my conversion. The journey from then has been unbelievable as well as challenging. I soon started making connections with some big apologetic organizations, many of whom have shared my work, and also want me to be involved in their projects. Other times it is the little personal engagements I have had with people, people who I don’t really know, who tell me that they’ve read my work; one memorable case being my very own lecturer in New Testament Studies, as well as several fellow students, and so on. To be appreciated for one’s effort is an amazing reward as I am sure just about anyone would think.
I really hope that my story can resonate with my readers in at least some ways, whether that be in moments of struggle, in relationship with God, doubt, or anything else pertinent to my testimony. Maybe this story can resonate simply because it is a very human one. As people, believers and unbelievers alike, we all suffer in our own (sometimes shared) ways. We also experience times of happiness and success; we ought to cherish such moments.
May God continue to reveal himself to us all.
How sweet is thy voice.