I grew up as a Southern Baptist, which is a conservative evangelical tradition in the United States. I was saved when I was 7 years old and baptised that year. I was a nerd, a really unpopular kid at school, and my faith offered me a sense of meaning, purpose and belonging.
I was 30 years old when my dad, who was a music minister at our church, had an affair and decided he was going to leave my mum. I wanted to help Dad be reconciled back to a proper relationship with Christ. Since I’m a nerd, we try to win the day with superior information, so I read the Bible cover to cover four times that year.
I’d never read the Bible with such a high level of scrutiny. I found the morality of God troubling when I read about what appeared to be genocide that was God-ordained in the Old Testament. Because I was using Google as a research tool, I was also reading what sceptics and atheists had to say. I found their arguments increasingly compelling. By the end of the process, I was an atheist.
Pretending to believe
My atheism was a secret. I couldn’t tell anybody that a Southern Baptist deacon didn’t believe in God. So for two full years I pretended to be a Christian, which was alienating, isolating, and a bit depressing. I was basically an ethical nihilist. So whatever would let me be most comfortable and avoid pain seemed right to me. I was comfortable, but lonely.
One night, my wife and I were sitting on the couch. She looked at me very intently. She said, “Is there anything wrong with you?” And I said, “No.” She said, “Is it me?” And her eyes welled up with tears. I said, “Oh gosh, no, it’s not you!” She said, “Well, it’s something, right?” So she kind of put me in a wife-trap! I said, “It’s no big deal, I just don’t believe in God anymore.”
I couldn’t have said anything more shocking to her. She started to take me through the Roman Road, which is a means of evangelism – the necessity of salvation as presented by the book of Romans. She finished her speech and she said, “Do you believe in God again?” I said, “No, not at all.”
The next day she said, “I don’t know if we can be married.” It felt such a betrayal to her. I told her I loved her more than ever. I said, “I can pretend to be a Christian for the rest of my life. I can carry on teaching Sunday school. No one ever has to know that this is going on. You don’t have to worry about our marriage falling apart.”
I think that was a melancholy comfort for her – it’s not what she wanted, but she didn’t know what else to do. Outwardly, I was more devout than I’d ever been; my Sunday school lessons were more powerful and more persuasive than ever.
The turning point
I went to a conference on creativity led by an American pastor named Rob Bell. I was working in advertising, and I thought, “If I could steal his recipe for consistent creativity, it would make it easier to feed my family.”
I told them i was a southern Baptist atheist, and they had a lot of things wrong!
It was an incredibly insightful time, until they started to discuss atheism. I stood up and confronted them. I told them I was a Southern Baptist atheist, and they had a lot of things wrong! They were incredibly gracious, Rob especially. He challenged me to look at some of my assumptions and addressed the longing I obviously felt for something bigger than what we understood through physics.
They were going to take the Eucharist, but I didn’t want to. Rob held out the piece of bread, but I didn’t want to take it. I turned to walk away, and heard an audible voice that said, “I was there when you were 8, and I’m here now.” I thought about being a bullied kid, and praying every day, and how when all the kids wanted to beat me up, Jesus always listened. I was overwhelmed. I took the Eucharist and ran out of the room sobbing.
A few hours later I was standing on the beach at 3am. I told God that if God exists, God’s a logical contradiction. I was very upset and angry, and I told God I missed talking with God. But I said, “No matter what happens, I feel like I met Jesus again tonight.”
As I said that, a wave came up the beach, and washed my feet. I was reminded of an image that Rob had used where he said, “The final act of Christ before the crucifixion was to wash the feet of his followers.” I felt in that wave that I was marked as a follower again. Then I had an intense mystical experience. Time stopped and I was in this light shining through reality – it enveloped me and surrounded me. I felt warmth, and I felt God’s love for me.
The experience was not something I was ready for. I actually got a CAT scan later, because I was so worried there was something wrong with my brain! And when there wasn’t, that’s when I started to figure out what that light was.
A new faith
That moment was so powerful. It changed the way I see the world. I see God’s reflection in all of humanity. I experience a profound sense of gratitude for every moment that I get to live.
My Baptist faith was about a theological mastery in detail and with certainty. Today my faith is much more humble and trusting. I never feel like I have God figured out. I never feel like I’m the expert on God’s ideas or plan for the world.
Ultimately the most comforting thing about my return to faith is, my need for God is no longer at odds with the way I view the world scientifically. That allows me to be a person who’s much more at peace, and therefore a person who’s much more able to live out the gospel.
MIKE McHARGUE was speaking to Sam Hailes. To hear the full interview, listen to Premier Christian Radio at 4pm on 15th July or listen again at premierchristianradio.com/theprofile
Mike's book Finding God in the waves (Convergent books) is out now