In God’s Not Dead, atheist Jeffrey notes the staunchest atheists are former Christians whose faith let them down. Insofar as atheism is a decision informed by a strong emotional reaction to life experiences, he’s right.
But it works in the opposite direction. “There is no God” is as much a faith-based statement as its opposite. Some of the most effectively evangelical Christians are former atheists whose trust in something other than God let them down. (Indeed, atheism addresses the problem of suffering so inadequately, cornering the unbeliever into the dark, lonely pit of nihilism, that it is a reliable back door to belief.)
There were no atheists in Jesus’ days on Earth, but groups opposed to Him like the Pharisees superseded modern atheists’ rationalizations and vigor. The Apostle Paul was a Pharisee of Pharisees. He persecuted early Christians in the name of the law until he encountered God on the road to Damascus. From then on he was a tireless warrior for the cause theretofore he had opposed all his life.
Luke tells the parable of the two debtors:
“Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him 500 denarii, and the other 50. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.” “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
Paul had quite a large debt. He hunted disciples and struck fear into would-be converts. No doubt people turned away from salvation in Jesus because of the stumbling block of torment and persecution he put in their path.
The zeal with which Paul witnessed to the truth was forged in these former years. As much as the law defined him before his trip to Damascus, the gospel of Jesus defined him even more afterwards. The experience moved his heart. It proved the utter falseness of the law, demanding vigorous devotion to correct the sin and the lie that, without God’s grace, would have consumed him. Proven the paucity of the law, one of antiquity’s most rabid persecutors of Christians became the richest in love and unity in the body of Christ.