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I Studied Christianity with the Hope of Debunking… – ChristianityToday.com

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My upbringing and education were secular, with no serious consideration of religion. Although my family was nominally Anglican and my parents felt obliged to take us to Sunday school and have us christened, my mother told us she did not believe in God’s existence. Stories about arks and miracles seemed like fables for children.
As a teenager with a minimal understanding of Scripture, I decided that Christianity was a superstitious and limited worldview, and that a miracle-working god-man could only be nonsense. (It is easy to reject teachings when you know them only at a trivial, superficial level.)
As a young adult, I became interested in philosophies like existentialism, Stoicism, and nihilism, viewing them as possible avenues of finding meaning in life. I was driven to answer the fundamental question of whether our lives have meaning, as opposed to being merely random events that end in death. And for roughly 10 years, I searched for answers in the findings of modern science as well as in a wide range of humankind’s belief systems, both philosophical and religious. Both paths would ultimately converge, leading me to an unlikely faith in Christ.
My study of religious traditions brought me into contact with Daoism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, forms of mysticism and meditation, and various Eastern gurus. Each system offered glimmers of insight, but none felt intellectually satisfying. I wondered whether I would ever find one unified truth about life and the cosmos.
At various points in my research, I encountered references to the “cosmic Christ.” And I decided that a truly objective study would involve familiarizing myself with Christian Scripture, just as I’d done with texts like the Quran. While commuting to teach mathematics at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, I would listen to recordings of the New Testament, hoping they would validate my quest to discredit the Christian message.
The outcome, however, was rather different. Through the four Gospels, I encountered a voice that was strikingly different from anything I had read before. In Jesus’ debates with the Jewish leaders of his time, I saw a credible and incisive intellect. His parables and metaphors struck me as cleverly constructed and consistent in revealing that Jesus is God’s only Son and the true Shepherd of his people. He claimed to speak with absolute authority and embody the fulfillment of ancient prophecies, but he also wept with compassion, expressed frustration at his disciples, and otherwise manifested a range of regular human emotions.
I had expected to find a simplistic hero figure spouting empty spiritual platitudes, but instead I found a realistic, coherent, and inspiring portrayal that didn’t come across like a random fabrication. And I found myself nodding along with Albert Einstein’s remark in a 1929 interview with The Saturday Evening Post: “No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.”
For the next few years, I undertook extensive research into Christianity. I studied the Old and New Testaments. I read theological views and rabbinic writings about messianic prophecy. I searched for references to Jesus in nonbiblical sources. And I explored the history of the early church as it interacted with first-century Judaism.
Over time, I came to distrust the popular atheist claim of a Jesus mythology that had spiraled out of control. In part, this was because I could appreciate the links and consistencies between the Old and New Testaments, which are extensive and truly remarkable. Reading from Genesis through Revelation, we see Jesus’ life and death as part of a holistic picture of God’s promises being fulfilled. If Jesus never said or did the bulk of what is recorded in the New Testament, then the biblical writers would have had to invent a vast amount of detail that somehow harmonizes with various Old Testament images, themes, prophecies, festival dates, and rituals. This would have been the most sophisticated fraud ever perpetrated.
The claims of the Bible were more trustworthy than I had supposed. They were also surprisingly compelling. I found the core Christian message of sin, atonement, and redemption to be increasingly coherent and persuasive. Modern minds usually reject notions of innate sinfulness, but for me, they made sense of the world’s most intractable problems.
Alongside investigating world religions, I was researching what science says about the development of our universe and conscious life. Could purely materialistic processes account for the world we know? I read widely in the areas of cosmology, quantum physics, relativity, abiogenesis, and evolution. I discovered that many highly regarded scientists believe some form of guiding intelligence is necessary to explain a universe capable of sustaining human life. “It seems as though somebody has fine-tuned nature’s numbers to make the universe work properly,” physicist Paul Davies said. “The impression of design is overwhelming.” An award-winning chemist, Marcos Eberlin, has concluded that the available evidence “seems to point beyond any blind evolutionary process to the workings of an attribute unique to minds—foresight.”
These are not simply “God of the gaps” arguments, which replace our ignorance with some imagined creator. These are informed, professional evaluations of statistical and scientific evidence. Simply put, many scientists are proposing that there is more to our universe than materialistic processes can explain.
Top: Julie Hannah’s personal Bible. Bottom: Hannah’s church in Johannesburg.
While God was working on my mind, I believe the Holy Spirit was also working on my heart. There were moments in my rational journey toward faith in Christ where I sensed a higher guiding presence in my life. At one point quite early in my investigation, when I was still unconvinced by Christian teachings, I was immersing myself in Sufism, which is known for being peaceful and contemplative. I earnestly tried living by its precepts, which included developing patience and love toward others, but this did not come easily.
One day I lost my temper with a neighbor over her screaming children. After a heated confrontation, I stormed back into my house, fuming with frustration at my failure to master my emotions. Throwing my hands up in exhaustion, I said aloud, “I give up! I can’t do it.” At which point, a clear voice in my consciousness, quite distinct from my own thoughts, said quietly, Of course you can’t.
It’s difficult to describe the profound effect of those surprising words. Laughing, I felt an instantaneous and joyous sense of release from a burden. I realized with absolute clarity that I didn’t have to strive to perfect myself. I knew there must be some other way to live a better life, even if I couldn’t yet identify the alternative.
Much later in my investigation, when I was seriously pondering the Christian concept of sin, I experienced a stark, painful realization of my own sinfulness. It wasn’t any one moral failing that awakened this voice of conscience—only a broad awareness that all my plans and actions had been aimed primarily at satisfying my own needs. Suddenly, biblical claims that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory were more than intellectual abstractions. Sobbing, I fell to my knees in shame.
But mercifully, my despair didn’t last for long. I confessed wholeheartedly that I was indeed sinful in nature, and I asked for God’s forgiveness. Immediately, I was blessed with a profound sense of peace. After years of denial and deep reluctance, I was finally ready to submit to the truth of the Christian message. In due course, I would commit myself to Christ and be baptized into the church.
In John’s gospel, Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them” (6:44). Every day, I thank God for his grace in drawing this arrogant skeptic to him.
Julie Hannah is a mathematics lecturer and the author of A Skeptic’s Investigation into Jesus.
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