The christian religion has lost numbers in most western countries over the past half century, but there are still people becoming christians too. But what leads them to believe in Jesus?
Do they just believe what they were brought up to believe? Do they sift the evidence? Or do they experience God in some way?
Sceptics sometimes say that christians believe without evidence, or even against the evidence. Does this claim measure up?
A small sample
I recently read the stories of more than a dozen mostly well-known Australian christians, in Bright Lights, Dark Nights (2008) by Simon Smart. To this list I added another dozen or so christian converts who I have written up in the True life stories section of this website.
This is too small a sample (25) to draw general conclusions. But it was nevertheless an interesting exercise.
The stories surprised me
It turned out that about 1 in 6 people appeared to be christians because that was how they were raised. They had been believers since childhood, and while they had doubts and questions, they continued to believe.
Another 1 in 6 searched out evidence and arguments, via philosophy, science and history, and, finding satisfactory answers, chose to believe in christianity.
The remainder (about two thirds) believed they experienced God in their life in some way, and it made most sense to them to accept that experience and change their life and beliefs accordingly.
This experience of God came about in several different ways (for some, it was in more than one of these ways).
More than a coincidence?
Several people experienced something remarkable, unusual events that they felt were more than a coincidence. these included:
- One had a dream where he received a sense of overwhelming love from a person he thought was Jesus. (I have written up a number of stories of people who had visions of Jesus, which I didn’t include here because they would have made this assessment less representative.)
- Two people ‘heard’ an “inner voice”, one associated with a vision and one after also having a pastor speak to him about things he couldn’t have naturally known and then an experience of being “knocked out” by an invisible force.
- One person saw God’s hand in a remarkable coincidence that saved his marriage – see A life-changing coincidence.
Solutions to problems
Many people found that when they turned to God in times of difficulty, they received answers. These answers included:
- comfort and help after the loss of a dear friend or of a parent while still young,
- healing from ill health or drug addiction,
- emotional healing and rescue from a life of abuse and despair, or depression and suicidal thoughts,
- an amazing sense of peace in the midst of a difficult situation,
- a sense of purpose while serving time in gaol,
- comfort and practical help after a marriage break-up.
Some of these solutions and help could be classed as ‘ordinary’, but some were quite remarkable. As a whole they tell us a lot about either the power of God to heal and make right (if we believe in God) or the remarkable power of the christian religion to help people (if we don’t believe in God).
One of the tests of any approach to life and any belief is how it works out in everyday life. Many of these people report that observing how christian faith worked in the lives of friends or relatives was a significant factor in their original belief, and then finding that it worked in their own lives strengthened that belief.
Observations from these stories
Like I said, this is a small sample and not representative – for a start, many of these stories were probably selected for the book or my website because they were in some ways different or noteworthy. Nevertheless they lead me into two thoughts.
People seem to experience God
A lot of people experience God’s work in their lives in tangible ways. This has rarely been my experience, and certainly wasn’t a factor in my original belief, but it is very significant for many – more than I expected before I wrote this post.
Of course this raises the question – if God did it for these people, why not for others? Some readers may be saying:
Why not for me?. I don’t have an answer to that. Some prayers seem to be answered, some are not. But the fact that some people don’t seem to receive the help they need doesn’t take away from the fact that some do.
Reason to believe?
So, are these experiences really enough to justify lifelong belief?
Sceptics will say that they aren’t, that people are easily fooled and we easily see the hand of God in events because humans see patterns in all sorts of things. We need more rigorous evidence, they say, for we can’t trust personal experience.
But almost everything we experience, including science, comes through our senses and into our minds. Very little of life is rigorous and able to be tested repeatably. If we can’t trust our experience ever, then how can we know anything?
I can’t help feeling that anyone having these sorts of experiences is quite justified in concluding God has been at work, and building their life on that confidence. To do anything else would be refusing a gift when it is given. And the sheer number of such experiences given to so many people (of which these are just a small subset) provides powerful cumulative evidence for those willing to question their scepticism.
None of this is certain and provable but I believe how we respond may be some sort of a litmus test.
What about you?
Have you ever had experiences that seem to point to the action of God? If you did, would that be enough to lead you towards belief in God?
- A young lawyer’s marriage is saved by a remarkable coincidence (taken from the book Bright Lights, Dark Nights).
- Four stories of remarkable conversions.
- Jordan, Laura and Alison experience God’s hope in a crisis.
- Winson, drug addict and triad gang member, is healed instantly of his addiction.
- People around the world see visions of Jesus which change their lives.
- People all over the world receive divine healing.
Photo Credit: miss pupik via Compfight cc, d_t_vos via Compfight cc and MorgueFile. None of these are the people in the stories.
I think that we (or maybe just me) run the risk of going ‘well that was interesting but not quite enough evidence’ and then setting the line of proof further and further away.
I’m interested in understanding more of what you mean by ‘how we respond may be some sort of a litmus test.’ ?
Hi Eva, yes I wondered myself if I had explained the litmus comment enough. My thinking is this.
We may like to think that we make decisions based on clear evidence and logical thinking, and it is only others who make decisions for all the wrong reasons. But surely all of us make all sorts of decisions with less logic and evidence and lots of other factors – choosing courses of study and accepting job offers, choosing friends and partners, choosing to have children or not, choosing where to live, etc. Who says what is the best way to make a choice?
I reckon it is the same with religious belief. We all think about truth and evidence I guess, but we also have preconceived opinions, wishes, fears and what grandma taught us, etc. So is that a bad thing?
I sometimes like to look at it from God’s viewpoint. If we all made our decisions on logic and evidence, the people with the best brains, the best research skills and the most time would have an advantage – children, mentally disabled, busy, sick etc people wouldn’t have much chance. So I think God would likely want to give all those people a chance as well.
So I think a lot depends on what we want to be true as well as what we think the evidence points to, and that is fine because God is looking for those who seek him. So I feel that while the evidence (both for and against God) is there, some people accept one side easily but put all sorts of barriers in the way of the evidence for the other side.
Miracles and personal experience may be in that category. To me these stories (and the others like them that I have on this site) a strong evidence for God – that’s why I devote so much time to them. But many sceptics say that they count for very little. So we may justify to some degree what we want to believe, and so these stories may be a test of our real wishes.
Just a tentative thought, but based on a lot of conversations on the web. (Note that a believe and an unbeliever could equally think this, they would just think it applies most to the other person!)
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