Philip Vander Elst, a former atheist, is a freelance writer and lecturer. He graduated from Oxford in 1973 with a degree in politics and philosophy, and has since spent most of his professional life in politics and journalism. He says that he loves “the world of books, ideas and debate,” and that two questions have always interested him, “Is there a God? And, if there is, what is the connection between God and freedom?” Vander Elst now works at Areopagus Ministries.
Vander Elst grew up in a non-Christian family with intellectually gifted but unbelieving parents, “I used to think that belief in God and the supernatural had been discredited by the advance of science, and was incompatible with liberty. Religious faith seemed to me to involve the blind worship of a cosmic dictator, and the abandonment of reason in favour of ‘revelation’. Why, in any case, should I take religion seriously, I thought, when the existence of evil and suffering clearly discredited the Christian claim that our world owed its existence to a benevolent Creator?”
In fact, he was quite hostile towards Christianity explaining that his skepticism and hostility were already developing during his teen years “under the influence of thinkers like Ayn Rand and Bertrand Russell.” His skepticism grew stronger while attending courses at Oxford University. A few years later, at the age of 24, Vander Elst would meet his future wife who turned out to be a Christian. Admittedly, this shocked him because “this highly intelligent and beautiful woman was ‘one of them.’” This, he explains, was the push he needed, and he thus became determined to find out whether there was any good evidence for the existence of God and the truthfulness of Christianity. However, he was not prepared to become a believer just to cement their relationship, or because his future wife was herself a Christian.
This journey took him to C.S. Lewis. He read Lewis for three reasons, “First because he had himself been an atheist, and might therefore be able to answer my many questions and objections. Secondly, because I respected his intellect. Here was a man who had graduated from Oxford with Triple First Class Honours in Classics, Philosophy and English, and had then become one of the greatest British academics of his generation. If he could have made the journey from atheism to Christianity, perhaps I was mistaken in thinking that you had to bury your brain in order to believe in God.”
The third reason was because of Lewis’ familiarity with suffering, “you couldn’t accuse C.S. Lewis of being glib or shallow about suffering. Having lost his mother at the age of 10, been unhappy at school, and then gone on to experience the horrors of trench warfare during the First World War, he was obviously only too aware of the problem of evil. His discussion of these issues would surely, I thought, be illuminating.” One might also add that Lewis lost his wife to cancer as he described in his book, A Grief Observed, just before he himself died. These three reasons had led Vander Elst to engage some of Lewis’ most important books, Mere Christianity, Miracles and The Problem of Pain, “I found myself not only following in the footsteps of a person who had wrestled with all the issues that were troubling me; I was also discovering intelligent and convincing answers to all my doubts.”
What was particularly striking for Vander Elst was Lewis’ case for an objective and transcendent moral law that pointed towards God’s existence instead of away from it, “Since my own father had died when I was only 17, I found what Lewis had to say about the problem of evil particularly pertinent. As he rightly points out, we cannot complain about the existence of evil and suffering, and use that as an argument against the existence and goodness of God, unless we first believe that the standard of right and wrong by which we judge and condemn our world is an objective one. Our sense of justice and fairness has to be a true insight into reality, before we can we be justified in getting angry and indignant about all the pain and injustice we see around us. But if this is the case, what explains the existence within us of this inner moral code or compass? According to atheism, human beings and all their thinking processes are simply the accidental by-products of the mindless movement of atoms within an undesigned, random, and purposeless universe. How then can we attach any ultimate meaning or truth to our thoughts and feelings, including our sense of justice? They have, on this view, no more validity or significance than the sound of the wind in the trees.”
Vander Elst goes on stating that if we accept the conclusion that it really is always objectively good to love your neighbour and objectively evil to torture children then we are led away from atheism, “The presence within us of an objective moral law ‘written on our hearts’ points instead to the existence of an eternal Goodness and Intelligence which created us and our universe, enables us to think, and is the eternal source of our best and deepest values. In other words, Lewis argues, atheism cuts its own throat philosophically, because it discredits all human reasoning, including the arguments for atheism.”
Biblically speaking, and independent of what theory one might accept when it comes to The Fall as outlined in Genesis, Vander Elst has “no doubt that the ‘Fall of Man’ was a real historical event, but what gives the whole story its ‘ring of truth’ is its totally convincing picture of the disastrous consequences of turning away from God… But whatever you may think about all this, one thing seems crystal clear and made perfect sense to me: separation from our Creator is inevitably self-destructive.” Thus, if we do away with a moral law “We lose our sense of accountability and belief in moral absolutes because we no longer believe that there is a Divine Judge to whom we are ultimately responsible. That is one of the reasons why militantly atheistic socialist regimes have produced the bloodiest tyrannies in history, slaughtering 100 million people in internal repression during the 20th century. It also helps to explain the growth of crime, delinquency and sexual immorality in post-Christian secularised Western societies.”
Diving deeper into what the Bible says, “the third chapter of Genesis describes God’s rescue plan. And at the heart of that rescue plan is the greatest and most extraordinary event in history: the incredible but true story of God coming down into our world to live and walk among us as a human being – as a first century Jewish carpenter from Nazareth, called Jesus.”
However, prior to discovering the works of C.S. Lewis, Vander Elst “dismissed this whole idea as an absurd fable. Even if Jesus had really existed, how could one believe that he had performed all those miracles recorded of Him in the New Testament? Hadn’t the advance of science revealed that our universe is a beautifully ordered cosmos governed by physical laws which cannot be broken, but which can be described in the precise language of mathematics?… You could only believe such stories, I thought, if you were scientifically illiterate, as everyone clearly was in ancient times. Furthermore, I asked myself, how on earth could Jesus’ death on a Roman cross ‘save’ us from our sins and reconcile us to God? No-one had ever explained this mystery to me!”
However, as Lewis pointed out in his book, Miracles, you cannot rule out the supernatural on scientific grounds without first begging the question of God’s existence, “Atheism denies the supernatural by definition, but if atheism is false and God exists, who is to say that God is not able to intervene in His creation? If a human author can change the ending of one of her plays or novels at the stroke of a keyboard, then surely the Creator in whose image we are made can alter the natural environment, reverse the progression of a disease, or conquer death in ways we consider ‘miraculous.’”
He then considered the evidence for New Testament historicity. What evidence, for instance, was there to really suggest that Jesus really did rise from the dead, or that he really did do the miracles he was said to have done? “I then examined the evidence for the historical truthfulness of the Gospel records in the New Testament… The first thing I noticed was the internal evidence for the truthfulness of the Gospel accounts.” Vander Elst rightfully notices the embarrassing details recorded by the gospel authors. This is one line of evidence that historians search for when looking to give probability to historical events, namely the criterion of embarrassment under the larger framework of the Criterion of Authenticity. Basically, what this tells us is that there is no reason, or that it is very unlikely, that an author would make up an embarrassing event if it never actually happened. There are many of these in the gospels and each one gives that ring of truth to the text. Most notably in favour of the resurrection, explains Vander Elst, is the surprise of the disciples, the fact of Jesus’ empty tomb, his resurrection appearances to his earliest followers, and that Jesus’ earliest followers proclaimed the resurrection in the midst of persecution and struggle.
“Even more significantly, all the disciples are taken by surprise by the Resurrection, despite having been told in advance by Jesus, before His arrest, that He would come back from the dead. Indeed, this very fact, mirrored in their slowness to accept the testimony of their women and the evidence of their own eyes, offers powerful support both for the truthfulness and reliability of the Gospels as a whole, and for the reality of the Resurrection. And this brings me, finally, to the two most compelling and convincing reasons for believing in the truth of the Christian message and the story on which it is based: the undeniable fact of the Empty Tomb, and the subsequent careers and martyrdoms of Jesus’ closest followers.”
However, like has been the case with skeptics before Vander Elst, it was the testimony of the Apostle Paul which proved to be the real clincher, “My former scepticism about the Resurrection was further challenged by the undeniable and highly significant fact that St. Paul, the great ‘Apostle to the Gentiles’, had originally been the fiercest opponent and persecutor of the Early Church. Here was a man who had been passionately convinced that the Christian claims about Jesus were dangerous blasphemy, and that those who believed them deserved imprisonment, beatings and death. Then, suddenly, this same man changed a hundred and eighty degrees and became the greatest and most widely travelled evangelist of the fledgling Christian Church, a transformation, moreover, which began during an anti-Christian heresy-hunting missionary journey!”
“What else,” Vander Elst rightly asks, “other than his encounter with the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, could possibly explain Paul’s dramatic conversion? This conclusion is further reinforced by the telling references in one of Paul’s pastoral letters to the many different witnesses to whom Jesus appeared after His resurrection, most of whom, Paul declared, were still alive at the time he was writing (see 1 Corinthians 15:3-10). Would he have dared to say all this, implicitly challenging sceptics to interrogate these living witnesses, if Jesus had not risen from the dead? And would he, like the other apostles, have endured beatings, imprisonment, stoning by hostile crowds and eventual beheading, for a message he knew to be false?”
So, confronted by all these facts and arguments from philosophy, science and history, Vander Elst surrendered his “sword of unbelief to God, and asked Jesus to forgive my sins and come into my life during the hot, dry summer of 1976. I have never regretted that decision, despite many ups and downs and trials of my faith. Through prayer, worship, and the company of other Christians, I feel I have begun to know Jesus personally and to understand something of the breadth and height and depth of His love for me and for all His creation. If, therefore, my journey from atheism to faith has helped in any way to persuade you of the truth of Christianity, I can only hope and pray that you too will experience the joy of reconnecting with your Creator by asking Jesus to forgive your sins and come into your own life. He longs for you and is only waiting for you to make the first move.”
1. Vander Elst, P. From Atheism to Christianity: a Personal Journey. Available.