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How an Atheist Opened My Eyes

September 21, 2019

I keep thinking about this and I’m confident that it will change the course of my life.

[Update 2/6/2021: Looking back, it’s true: this story changed my life.]

There’s a widely reported story of an outspoken atheist, Penn Jillette [Image credit: Andy Kropal/AP], and his encounter with a bold Christian man who surprised him. After one of Penn & Teller’s Las Vegas magic shows, this is what happened, in his own words (slightly condensed):

“A guy about my age had participated in one of my acts as an audience member. He complimented me on the show, and then said, ‘I brought this for you.’ He held up a small book. It was a New Testament with the Psalms, something that could fit in a person’s pocket.

“’I wrote in the front of it,’” the man said, ‘and I wanted you to have this.’ He said he was a businessman and not crazy. He was kind, and nice, and sane, and looked me in the eyes, and talked to me, and then gave me this Bible.

“I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe there is a heaven and hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward. . .

“How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate someone to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?

“I mean, if I believed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe it, that that truck was bearing down on you, there’s a certain point that I tackle you, and this is more important than that.

“This guy was a really good guy. He was polite, honest, and sane, and he cared enough about me to proselytize and give me a Bible. . . He was a very, very, very good man and that’s important.”

You can view the short YouTube video of Penn’s full 2009 account here. I respect his message because it encourages respectful, good-hearted dialogue where Christians testify of spiritual truths.

This story recently made the headlines again when the name of this Christian “mystery man” was revealed. You can read about that here, including the Christian movie that was made involving Penn Jillette.

The Permanence of Eternity

I gotta tell you, this story has really affected me. I fell into deep, sober reflection:

“Do I really believe what my faith tells me about the afterlife or not? [I do!]

“So, why don’t I do more to help others understand? How can I be so uncaring to not say anything?”

If a person has ignored God in this life, can we imagine the dread of them standing before God, unprepared and horrified at what they have done?

On a tiny scale, all of us can relate to making bad choices and being stuck with painful consequences. Imagine these:

  • You booked a cruise as your honeymoon getaway. In all the excitement, you forgot your required paperwork and passport and you are unable to board the ship (but your spouse didn’t forget hers).  This once of a lifetime experience is lost to you and your spouse forever. Your new spouse is sobbing and devastated.
  • You know drinking and driving is wrong but you do it anyway. You get into an accident driving home and it is clearly your fault. You seriously injured another person and now you face months of seriously unpleasant consequences as a result of your knowing disregard for the law and others’ safety.

Those scenarios are sad, but when it comes to rejecting Christ, eternity is at stake! What an awful thing to know that someone wasted their life and there’s no fixing it. It’s too late. The opportunity is gone.

I usually focus on the positive aspects of the gospel, but there’s a vital flipside to the gospel message: the reality of eternal punishment and hell.

After reading Penn Jillette’s story above, I realized that I hadn’t followed Jesus’s example in warning others about the dreadful consequences of apathy and rejecting Christ.

Warnings about “Bad Stuff” in the Afterlife

Jesus provided more information about the afterlife than anyone in all of scripture, particularly”hell” and “damnation,” like this:

The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear. (Matthew 13:41-43)

There’s uncertainty about the nature of hell (a literal burning versus a figure of speech) but nobody can read all that Jesus said about hell without realizing that it must be really, REALLY awful.  (Read more examples and commentary here at Crossway.org, TheGospelCoalition.org, and Christianity.com.)

I don’t believe in a puerile God who feels insulted and therefore inflicts pain on anyone who didn’t obey Him. That’s nonsense. Rather, there are eternal, spiritual laws of behavior and consequence that simply exist.

When we violate those laws and live contrary to God’s light, we must pay the required and inescapable penalty (unless we are saved through Jesus Christ, who pays the price of our penalties if we accept and follow Him—which is the good news we usually talk about.)

But ignoring the afterlife and thinking,”Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” comes at a terrible price. (See Isaiah 22:13Ecclesiastes 8:151 Corinthians 15:32, and Luke 12:19)

Being “Saved” from “Destruction”

I think a lot of non-Christians find the term “saved” to be kind of weird. I can see why, to be honsest.

“Saved from what?” is the natural question. But given what we just read above, that should be pretty clear now. Being “saved” means being rescued from the horrible, eternal consequences of sin.

The Greek word sometimes translated as “damned” is “apolleia,” which means “destruction” or “waste.” I think this clarifies what the scriptures mean by damnation. It means we’re a waste.

To help us understand, God often compares His children to trees or vineyards with fruit. (See Isaiah 5.)

God compares good fruit to a human life that’s full of good works. Nasty-looking fruit represents a life that is full of evil deeds.

Because humankind lives in a fallen world, however, the trees in God’s orchard bear ugly fruit by default, like the apples pictured below. By nature, we tend to act in negative, shameful ways such as dishonesty, pridefulness, selfishness, laziness, unkindness, lack of mercy, biting criticisms, lust, sexual immorality, greed, addictions, fighting, violence, and more.

Do you happen to have any overgrown apple trees near you? As you drive by such orchards in the fall of the year, have you ever noticed those ugly, misshapen, wormy, half-rotten apples?

two ugly, rotting apples on tree
Photo by Honzakov on Flickr

In scripture, God commands his servants to cut such trees down and burn them. They’re a “waste” so they get destroyed. In other words, they’re damned. They’re a waste because they did respond to their creator and rise to fulfill the purpose of their creation.

The glorious news of the gospel is that the ugly fruit can be transformed—SAVED from this wasted state—both in this life and the next. But how are we transformed? Jesus taught,

Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:16, NIV)

When we take the step to believe in Christ and be baptized and then press forward in the “strait and narrow path,” this results in the Lord saying, in effect, “Don’t cut that tree down. I’ll save it.” (See Matthew 7:13-14.)

What a remarkable thing! The first step of looking to Christ and believing brings instant salvation. It’s not the only thing we must do, but it’s the main thing we must do to enter the path away from waste and escape inevitable, horrible suffering.

Now imagine driving by that same orchard and seeing the same tree covered with grocery story-perfect apples—the same tree that produced pocked, gnarly apples just months ago!

Beautiful apples
Photo by Marina Khrapova on Unsplash

So, What to Do?

If you, like me, feel “pricked in your heart” to take action, here’s what I’m thinking. I’d love to hear thoughts in the comments below or the Contact form.

  • I plan to be more direct in conversation and writing. I believe it’s possible to be just as courteous and respectful as ever, but why not get right to the point, like the guy who gave Penn Jillette the Bible?
  • I plan to pray more for opportunities to talk with non-believers and seek inspiration of what to say and how to invite people to act so they don’t miss out.
  • I’m also going to remember something I heard on Moody radio this week, on the Janet Parshall show when she interviewed David Robertson. He said something to the effect,

When we talk to people about the gospel, we’re not approaching them like a blank slate.We’re not the first. God has already been working on them. He’s working on everybody. Everyone around us is a work in progress, whether they know God is working within their lives or not. When you evangelize, you’re just a tiny part of the grand process.

  • I’ve already asked God to shape me and help me understand how I can be the person He created me to be to do His work in the fullest way possible.

What else comes close to being this important, where eternity is at stake for everyone around us? Our neighbors, our friends, our colleagues, our family. Everyone!

Extra Credit Reading 🙂

While researching for this post, I came across this fascinating story about one of America’s most famous theologians, Charles Spurgeon.

I love this story. It’s touching, kind of comical, and illustrates a critical principle. God uses a simple, rural, uneducated man to reach a boy who would end up evangelizing to tens of thousands throughout the world through his masterful writings.

This story demonstrates the first step to “being saved” and avoiding the horrors that Christ described.  It’s similar to my own conversion story. (And contact me please if you would like to discuss this. My Contact Form on the website will work.)

The day was January 6, 1850. Spurgeon was not quite sixteen years old:

I sometimes think I might have been in darkness and despair until now had it not been for the goodness of God in sending a snowstorm, one Sunday morning, while I was going to a certain place of worship. When I could go no further, I turned down a side street, and came to a little Primitive Methodist chapel. In that chapel there may have been a dozen or fifteen people. . . . The minister did not come that morning; he was snowed up, I suppose. At last, a very thin-looking man, a shoemaker, or tailor, or something of that sort, went up into the pulpit to preach. . . . He was obliged to stick to his text, for the simple reason that he had little else to say. The text was “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth [Isaiah 45:22].”

He did not even pronounce the words rightly, but that did not matter. There was, I thought, a glimpse of hope for me in that text. The preacher began thus: “My dear friends, this is a very simple text indeed. It says, ‘Look.’ Now lookin’ don’t take a deal of pain. It ain’t liftin’ your foot or your finger; it is just, ‘Look.’ Well, a man needn’t go to college to learn to look. You may be the biggest fool, and yet you can look. A man needn’t be worth a thousand a year to be able to look. Anyone can look; even a child can look.

“But then the text says, ‘Look unto Me’. . . . Many of ye are lookin’ to yourselves, but it’s no use lookin’ there. Ye will never find any comfort in yourselves. Some look to God the Father. No, look to him by-and-by. Jesus Christ says, ‘Look unto Me.’ Some of ye say, ‘We must wait for the Spirit’s workin’.’ You have no business with that just now. Look to Christ. The text says, ‘Look unto Me.’”

Then the good man followed up his text in this way: “Look unto Me; I am sweatin’ and great drops of blood. Look unto Me; I am hangin’ on the cross. Look unto Me; I am dead and buried. Look unto Me; I rise again. Look unto Me; I ascend to heaven. Look unto Me; I am sittin’ at the Father’s right hand. O poor sinner, look unto Me! Look unto Me!”

When he had gone to about that length, and managed to spin out ten minutes or so he was at the end of his tether. Then he looked at me under the gallery, and I dare say, with so few present he knew me to be a stranger. Just fixing his eyes on me, as if he knew all my heart he said, “Young man, you look very miserable.” Well, I did, but I had not been accustomed to have remarks made from the pulpit on my personal appearance before. However, it was a good blow, struck right home. He continued, “and you always will be miserable — miserable in life, and miserable in death — if you don’t obey my text; but if you obey now, this moment, you will be saved.”

Then lifting up his hands, he shouted, as only a primitive Methodists could do, “Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothing to do but to look and live.”

I saw at once the way of salvation. I know not what else he said — I did not take much notice of it — I was so possessed with that one thought. Like as when the brazen serpent was lifted up, the people only looked and were healed, so it was with me. I had been waiting to do fifty things, but when I heard that word, “Look!” What a charming word it seemed to me! Oh! I looked until I could have almost looked my eyes away.

There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun; and I could have risen that instant, and sung with the most enthusiastic of them, of the precious blood of Christ, and the simple faith which looks alone to him. . . . And now I can say —

E’er since by faith I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme,
And Shall be till I die.

(C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography: The Early Years1, 87–88, cited by John Piper at The Son of Man Must Be Lifted Up Like the Serpent)

Note: This is not an endorsement of any particular Christian denomination. I share this to illustrate a true principle, namely the simplicity of initiating the journey of salvation. Once we look to Jesus like that, each of us must seek out a church family and ask God to lead us in the right path to Him.

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