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My Conversion Story
From Atheist to Baptist to Catholic


Atheism 101
"Oh wait, there's some even funnier stuff in chapter two."

Bar

When I was a child, my Father taught me the basics about God, and he read to me and my brother from a child's narrative version of the Bible. I loved listening to those stories, and looking at the beautiful illustrations, but somehow, I never really developed much faith in God. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that I thought going to church was deathly boring, or perhaps it had to do with the influence of my mother, who was an agnostic. Although she never overtly discouraged me from believing in God, thanks to her I learned very early in life that some people didn't. And it seemed to me as I got older that it was usually the smartest people who didn't believe in God.

I don't know at what age I finally lost what little faith I had, but by the time I was in high school, I considered myself an atheist. Religion, I thought, was for people who couldn't handle reality, who needed an emotional crutch to lean on, and who were perhaps just a little deficient in the brain-power department. As far as I was concerned, man had created God in his own image many centuries ago in order to explain how the universe worked. But then we developed science, and we started to understand the natural processes that govern the universe. As time progressed, and we made advances such fields as astronomy, physics, and biology, it seemed to me that we had less and less need to appeal to some "God" to explain things. I could forsee the day when we finally understood enough of the mechanics of the material world to do without God entirely. I longed for that day.

But my attitude began to change during the dismal and dreary Winter of 1985. At that time, I discovered something that many atheists eventually discover, namely, that atheism inexorably leads to despair. Atheists act as if life has meaning, but really their philosophy precludes the possibility. I believed that humans were just biological accidents, the result of millions of random forces coming together just right to spontaneously create life. We live, we grow, we die, and then we simply cease to exist. In the end, it's all entirely pointless. We evade the consequences of that philosophy by filling our lives with pleasant distractions: friends, the challenge of work or school, the companionship of the opposite sex. Some pursue money, some power, some both. Yet there is an irresistable law of nature at work in all these things: the more we have, the more we want, and the more we get, the less satisfying it is. Eventually, it is possible to reach the point where nothing satisfies any longer, and that is the point I reached during that Winter.

As the pointlessness of life seemed to close in on me, I sank into despair. At a similar point in his own life, Malcolm Muggeridge tried to drown himself in the ocean. I had no such inclination, and frankly I lacked the courage to do something like that anyway, but I began to fear that I would never again be happy, never again feel fulfilled.

Then one day I found myself sitting in a fast-food restaurant eating a bowl of chili. Suddenly, a single thought flashed through my mind: What about God? I had no idea where that thought came from, but I pondered it seriously for the first time in my life. There was a glimmer of hope in that thought, the first hope I had seen in a long time, and it flashed through my mind like a beacon. It occurred to me that many people found meaning in their lives from a relationship with God, and I was just desperate enough to consider the possibility. Of course, I didn't want to embrace the idea of God just to cheer myself up, but I wondered, what if there's really something to it? What if it's real? I decided right then and there to find out. My roommate was a Christian who attended a small Baptist church just outside of town, and I decided to go with him to church the following Sunday. I imagine that my sudden desire to go to church must have been quite a surprise to him, but he did his best not to show it. I guess he didn't want to scare me off.

When the appointed day arrived, I found myself sitting in the Gateway Baptist Church, listening to a man by the name of Dewey Weaver, who was the living embodiment of every stereotype I ever had of a Southern Baptist preacher. His accent, his hairstyle, and the way he waved his Bible in the air were the very things I used to mock and make fun of. I felt very self-conscious and silly even being there. Oh well, I thought, it was worth a try. But there must have been something attractive in what Pastor Weaver said, because the next week, there I was again. In fact I kept coming back week after week. After awhile I no longer noticed Pastor Weaver's style, and I found that I liked his sense of humor, but more importantly, the message he preached showed me exactly why I was in despair: It was because I was a sinner in desperate need of a savior. And Pastor Weaver introduced me to that savior: Jesus Christ, who loved me so much that he laid down His life in payment for my sins, so that I could be forgiven.

I was thinking about this gospel message one night as I was going to sleep, and for the first time in my life it all made sense. I was struck by the logic of it, and by how well it explained the human condition, including my own. That night I asked Jesus to forgive me for my sins, and I asked Him to come into my heart, just as Pastor Weaver had explained. I pledged to follow the Lord as best I could.

A few days later I descended on the local Christian book store, to get some materials to help me understand this new faith. I liked the idea of Jesus very much, but I still didn't care much for the concept of organized religion. So naturally, the book How to Be a Christian without Being Religious, by Fritz Ridenour, jumped out at me and I snatched it right up. I also bought D. James Kennedy's books, Why I Believe, and Truths that Transform. These, and some others, formed the foundation for my new Christian theology, which naturally enough, resembled the Calvinistic and Evangelical theology of Kennedy, Ridenour, and others whose books I read. I also read many apologetics books, like Josh McDowell's Evidence that Demands a Verdict and Paul Little's Know Why You Believe, books that explained the rational basis for the truth of Christianity. It was important to me to know why I believed what I did, both for my own benefit, and also because I wanted to be able to defend myself against people who would assume, as I once did, that if I were a Christian I must be a touch slow-witted.

Over the next fifteen years I managed to graduate from college, find a job and a wife, and have a wonderful son. I read the Bible, and even learned a little Greek so I could read the New Testament in its original language. But one thing I never could do was find a church with which I was entirely comfortable. By my count, my wife and I visited twelve different churches in the Northern Virginia area. Some were Baptist, some Assemblies of God, some Presbyterian, one was even Messianic Jewish, but most were simply "non-denominational," which generally means quasi-Baptist. I found good things in each of these churches, and good people, but I noticed that every time I went to a new church, I heard a new theology. And sooner or later I would discover something in that theology that conflicted with my own. Perhaps they had what I considered a strange view of the end-times, or they refused to accept the possibility of charismatic gifts (I was not charismatic myself, but I thought it was wrong to reject the idea, since it is so clearly taught in the Bible). We attended a semi-charismatic Episcopal church that we enjoyed very much, until I discovered that they baptized infants. We finally settled on a small "Bible" church. We weren't entirely happy with it, but we were frankly tired of "church shopping."

In all those years, one church I never even remotely considered was the Catholic Church. I wasn't convinced that the pope was the anti-Christ, like some of my friends were, but I did think that Catholicism was chock-full of unbiblical teachings. I suppose I would have conceded that it was a Christian Church, but just barely (and only because I did meet one Catholic who actually had an interest in God). Generally, I thought that anybody who read and believed the Bible would steer clear of Catholicism. I assumed that the millions of people who are Catholic were probably born into it, and were obviously biblically illiterate. I felt sorry for them, and I hoped they would one day sit down and read the Bible for themselves, without the pope's help. If they did, I believed they would quickly become former Catholics.

Unfortunately, though, most of the Catholics I knew were completely disinterested in the Bible, or in Jesus, or in God. They were thoroughly secular in every way, except for their mindless enslavement to the rituals of their church, which even they regarded as a burden. (One of my friends told me that his goal every Sunday was to get in, "put in his hour," and get out). A church that would produce such spiritual lifelessness was not a church I wanted to be any part of.

But one day a friend of mine at work, a very anti-Catholic Christian, showed up at my office with a book in his hand. He said that one of his Catholic friends had given it to him (I was surprised he had any Catholic friends). It was called Catholicism and Fundamentalism, by Karl Keating. It purported to defend Catholicism against the attacks of certain anti-Catholic Fundamentalists, and at the same time to show that the Catholic faith offers a better, more coherent explanation of the Biblical and historical data than does Protestant Fundamentalism. My friend asked me to help him refute Mr. Keating's arguments. Since I considered myself a Fundamentalist, and since I loved apologetics, I gladly agreed to do so. Frankly, I was amused that someone had the guts to even try to defend Catholicism on Biblical grounds. I figured it should be easy to refute Mr. Keating's arguments, since I knew that Catholic theology was blatantly unbiblical.

So I read the book, and I was immediately impressed by Mr. Keating's good humor and charity. His style helped me to read his book more sympathetically than I otherwise might have, and as I learned first-hand about Catholic theology, I began to realize that I had not really understood it correctly before. I was surprised to learn that the Catholic Church did not actually teach the unbiblical things I thought it did, and that the things it did teach actually had a pretty good Biblical basis. I realized that somewhere along the line I had absorbed many misconceptions about Catholicism. The problem, I suppose, was that almost everything I knew about it came from Protestant sources (which is like learning about Israel from only Palestinian sources!). To my surprise, I also discovered that once I did understand the basics of Catholicism, I could not refute it. I wasn't necessarily convinced that it was right, but I couldn't prove that it was wrong either, and that rankled me. If there's one thing I want to be certain of, it's my faith. I want to know what I believe and why I believe it, and I want to know why I'm right and why the other guy is wrong. But now, after reading this book, I got the uneasy feeling deep down that the Catholic interpretation of the Bible actually made more sense than mine did.

As I said, I wasn't convinced right away that Catholicism was right, but I knew I wouldn't be able to rest until I settled the question one way or the other. So I started reading everything I could get my hands on. I sought out the best Catholic apologetics I could find, and also the best Protestant apologetics. I read Akin, Armstrong, Hahn, and Shea, among others, on the Catholic side, and Geisler, Kennedy, Ridenour, and Stott, among others, on the Protestant side. In every case I found that the Protestants misrepresented Catholic teaching (unintentionally, I presume). None of them squarely faced Catholic theology as it actually is, and none of them addressed the Catholic arguments against Protestantism. As I began to better understand Catholic theology, I found that I could easily counter the Protestant arguments against it, but I could not counter the Catholic arguments against Protestant theology. Indeed, they seemed to me to be unanswerable.

For the first time I began to seriously question the foundational doctrines of Protestantism: sola fide and sola Scriptura. The Catholics made an excellent case that neither of these is taught in the Bible, and that they are both actually refuted by the Bible. Not only that, but neither of them were believed by essentially anyone before the Reformation. I found the Protestant argument in favor of these doctrines unconvincing, to put it mildly. They appeared to be taking the Bible out of context, and sidestepping verses that weighed against their interpretation. I began to think that these were pretty flimsy reasons to rebel against fifteen-hundred years of Christian teaching.

The more I understood Catholic theology, the more I realized that it was actually more biblical than my own theology. This was very disconcerting, because I had a very high regard for the Bible. I was very proud to be an evangelical Protestant, because we had the reputation of being Biblical literalists, and we were often called "Bible Christians." God said it, I believe it, that settles it. But as I learned the Catholic interpretation of the Bible, I began to realize that it was more true to the plain meaning of the text than my own was. I saw that it was true what Mr. Keating wrote in his book:

"Fundamentalists use the Bible to protect beliefs that are, in fact, antecedent to the Bible, which is interpreted so it justifies what they already hold, although most fundamentalists think what they believe comes straight out of the sacred text and that they are merely acknowledging its plain meaning. . . . They do not hesitate to read between the lines if such reading is needed to preserve their position--a position that precedes their scriptural interpretation."[1]

I discovered that in most cases where Catholics and Protestants disagree over biblical interpretation, it is the Catholics who interpreted the Bible literally, where we Protestants gave it a figurative, allegorical interpretation. A few examples should illustrate this:

CrossWhen Jesus says, "You must be born of water and the Spirit," Catholics interpret this literally: "Water" equals "water," i.e., baptism. But some Protestants say that the water refers to something else, perhaps the preaching of the gospel, or even the amniotic fluid of natural child-birth!

CrossWhen Paul says that Jesus cleanses his church by "the washing with water," Catholics interpret this literally. "Washing with water" equals "washing with water"; another reference to baptism. Some Protestants say it refers to something else, perhaps the Scriptures.

CrossWhen Jesus says, "If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven," Catholics, again, interpret this literally. "If you forgive" equals "if you forgive." But in Protestant hands, this phrase is usually morphed into a reference to preaching the gospel.

CrossAgain, when Jesus says, "This is my body," and "whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life," Catholics interpret this literally. The Eucharist is His body; it is literally His flesh and blood. Most Protestants say that it remains only bread and wine (or grape juice) and that, once again, Jesus spoke figuratively.

CrossWhen James says, "You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone," Catholics interpret this literally. "Not by faith alone" equals "not by faith alone." But Protestants insist that we are, in fact, justified by faith alone. (This is actually one of the core doctrines of Protestantism, sola fide).

Talk about irony! Catholic theology usually allowed the Bible to simply mean what it says, without the complicated exegesis and linguistic gyrations that were sometimes necessary to make it support my beliefs. I got the uncomfortable feeling that many of the "problem" passages in the Bible were only a problem because I was trying to pound a square Protestant peg into a round Biblical hole. The round Catholic peg seemed to fit quite easily.

In my research, I also read some of the writings of the earliest Christians, men who learned the Gospel from the Apostles themselves, or from their immediate successors. As a Protestant I had never heard of these men. I had never heard of John's disciples Ignatius and Polycarp. I had never heard of Irenaeus or Justin Martyr either. I had, of course, heard of Clement and Barnabas, because they are mentioned in the Bible, but I had no idea that these men, and others, left behind writings that might shed some light on the faith of the early Church. In my fifteen years as a Protestant no one ever told me that the Apostles' own disciples left us writings witnessing to the true apostolic faith. Isn't that strange? Here we had, essentially, a second-century Bible commentary, written, in some cases, by men who knew the Bible's human authors personally. Why would we ignore such an incredible resource? We Protestants believed that the Holy Spirit spoke to us, so wouldn't it be worth seeing what He said to the apostles' own disciples, many of whom laid down their lives rather than compromise the faith?

Well, I for one wanted to see what they had to say. These guys knew the Apostles, lived in their culture, spoke their language, and in all likelihood, read the original copies of the New Testament books (in their own native language, no less). If anybody knew the correct Bible interpretation, I figured it would be them! So I read all of the epistles of Ignatius and Polycarp, both of whom were disciples of John. I read Irenaeus, who was a disciple of Polycarp. I read the epistle to the Corinthians that was written by Paul's disciple Clement, and the epistle written by Paul's traveling companion Barnabas. I also read Justin Martyr's letter to the Roman emperor, Antonius Pius, written within living memory of the apostles, and which attempted to explain the Christian faith to an outsider. I also read the Didache and The Shepherd, two very influential early Christian writings.

Now that I've read these writings, I know exactly why Protestants close their eyes and turn away from these ancient witnesses to the apostolic faith: it's because these guys were undeniably Catholic! John's disciple Ignatius even referred to the Church as the "Catholic Church." This blew my preconceived ideas about the early Church right out of the water. I had always assumed that the early Church was essentially Protestant in its doctrines and that the distinctively Catholic doctrines were later corruptions that infected the faith sometime around the fifth century. But when I read about the early Church from those who were actually in the early Church, I found that these guys believed and taught all of the distinctively Catholic doctrines that today only Catholics still believe and teach. There was not a trace of Protestant doctrine or thought in the early Church, and indeed some Protestant doctrines (such as sola fide) can't be found anywhere before the sixteenth century! This was overwhelming to me, and I found that it was true what that famous Anglican convert, John Henry Newman, discovered: "To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant."

This was all very unsettling, to put it mildly, but at this point I tried to look at the situation objectively. I think I have an advantage here, because I came to the faith as an adult. Since I didn't grow up in a Baptist-type faith, it was not inconceivable to me that it could be wrong. After all, someone had to be wrong here, and it just might be me! So I stepped out of the fishbowl, as it where, and tried to look at my own denomination and my own theology as objectively as possible. I was surprised to learn that my evangelical theology was mainly an American phenomenon that didn't go back more than a hundred and fifty years, much less back to the time of the apostles. Having read the writings of the early Christians, I knew for a fact that I did not believe what they did, and they did not believe what I did. I knew that they would have rejected my theology as "another gospel." (see Gal. 1:6-8)

Given all that I had learned, I had to admit that the Catholic explanation of Scripture and history was much more likely to be correct than my denomination's explanation, and I realized that if I wanted to go on being a "Bible-believing Christian," I would have to become Catholic. As far as I could tell, the Catholic explanation of Christianity was completely consistent with the plain meaning of the Bible, and it was completely consistent with what Christians believed from the apostolic era right up to the Reformation.

I saw that Protestantism, on the other hand, was mainly based on two doctrines that are absent from the Bible (and from Church history), and that many of its other doctrines require a figurative interpretation of the Bible that often does violence to the literal meaning. Moreover, I saw that Protestantism represents a radical break with the beliefs of the first fifteen centuries of Christianity. I realized that Protestantism was not a return to the purity of the early Church, as I had been taught, because the early Church was Catholic. Therefore, I concluded, somewhat sadly, that Protestantism was not a "reformation" of the faith at all, but a corruption of it. This is especially sad because Protestants are some of the best, most devoted, Christians in the world. And that's why I created my website (link below), to help them to become some of the best, most devoted, Catholics in the world!


Bar


End Notes

  1. Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 26.



Gary is one of our volunteer correspondents, who helps us answer visitor's e-mail questions. Kindly thank Gary Hoge for sharing this story with us on our pages!

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