Apologist Jana Harmon shares the story of Neil Placer, who discovered the Christian faith via years of atheism
If there is something common to us all, it’s that we want a life of meaning and purpose, to know and be known, to love and be loved. We want a life that feels important because it is important. It is valuable.
The inevitable question before us though is how do we find that kind of love, that kind of life, that kind of meaning and value? Can it be found on our own in a world without God? Or do we need to look beyond ourselves to find what our hearts truly long for?
CS Lewis is a former atheist who recognised the important difference that it makes to live with and without God. He knew that if God was real and Christianity was true, there was nothing more important, saying: “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”
In other words, God makes all the difference in the way that we can and do experience and see life. For those who believe, it should mean everything. For former atheist Neil Placer, the question of God once held no importance in his life. But now he believes Christianity is of infinite importance.
No need for God
Neil was born into a Catholic family who “showed up for the major events” of Christmas and Easter, but not much more than that. He had everything he wanted or needed in life, so he didn’t feel a need for God. He didn’t care. He wasn’t against religion, he just didn’t see a reason for it until his senior year of high school when, out of intellectual curiosity, he decided to explore what Catholicism was all about.
After a “shallow search”, he decided that religion “wasn’t for him” and set it aside again. It was for people who were going through the motions, making themselves feel good. Becoming an atheist was his natural response.
At university, Neil studied engineering, played soccer and enjoyed an active party life. Over time, he began to struggle academically, athletically and socially. The party scene became empty and old. He began thinking and wrestling with life’s deeper questions asking himself: “What am I doing? What am I here for? What’s the point?”
As an introvert, he decided he needed some time to reconsider his life and what was important. After some consideration, he decided that all of life must be about love and that everything else was merely superficial. In the context of no God, that means a human relationship must be the pinnacle of love and life. But over time, he found that human relationships were inevitably disappointing. By the time he graduated from university, he decided: “Okay, relationships don’t work either.”
Looking for more
Lost and unsure of life’s purpose or meaning within a godless view of the world, he reached a place where he was hopeless. He began to wonder if there was something more than the natural world alone had to offer:
“It really was like a godless picture. It was more like a naturalistic viewpoint, within the confines of living without a larger beam or some form of spirituality. How can you make that work? And it didn’t work, right? Because the highest object then is people. We’re the best thing so that must be the answer. But that’s where I began to wonder if there is something bigger to consider.”
A good friend of his, Trinity, also didn’t believe in God. Ironically, they both became interested to see if there was something they had not seen or considered. Once they were having a conversation about faith and religion and she suggested that they should read the Bible to see what was in it. Neil immediately rebuffed her, telling her he didn’t have time for that.
However, Trinity challenged him saying: “Well, if you think about it, if God is true then there’s nothing more important than knowing about him and you do that by reading this book like nothing else matters. What else is worth as much devotion of your time?” Neil hesitantly admitted that she was right, so they started to go to church together to see what was there that he might have missed earlier.
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A joyful life
Neil had another friend, Kara, who had a deep faith in God. He noticed there was something palpably different about her, about her life. She radiated a joy that came from a deep place. Her work ethic on the soccer field was stronger than her peers. It made him wonder if her belief in God made the difference.
After one church service, Kara leaned over to Neil and asked what he thought of the message. The pastor had given a “clear gospel message” that left him interested but confused. He recalled:
“Imagine there’s two big cliffs. Our sin separates us from God, and we can’t ever cross that chasm. There’s nothing we can do in our own power, but there’s a clear separation. The only thing that can fill that divide is the cross of Christ. It’s not about the cross itself. It’s the fact that Jesus paid the cost for our sins and became a mediator for us to God the father, who is going to judge us for our sins. The cross allows you that pathway. You need Jesus to become your Lord and saviour, and he is the way to get there.”
Although Neil heard “the good news” about Jesus’ offer to forgive him and give him the life he’d always wanted, he wasn’t ready to believe. He still didn’t think that was what he needed.
In exam week, Neil was busy preparing for his final exams. Kara and Trinity were going to a Christian retreat with some other college students and asked him to come along. Although he first refused, after his last exam he decided to go with them instead of spending a week of partying.
He was ready for a new experience, but as someone who didn’t believe in God, he felt like a foreigner among this group of Christians. As an outsider, Neil had no idea what they were talking about and didn’t have much to add their discussions about the Bible. But he was observing and listening, amazed to see something different, that people were living for something purposeful.
At the end of the weekend, there was an invitation for those who were there to give their lives to Christ. Neil remembers his internal struggle at that moment:
“I remember that moment, that there was this war inside me like: ‘No! You can’t do this. You can’t do this. You’re going to give up all the things you like.’ But in the end, I really did give my life to Christ. I think God has this kind of cool, humorous, awesome way of working. That was Valentine’s Day weekend, so my search for love, right? He gave me love on Valentine’s Day weekend.”
Heart and head
After his decision to become a Christian, he experienced an undeniable change in his life. Others noticed too, saying things like: “You literally look different. Instead of a grimace of weight, you have a smile.” As an engineer, Neil is an analytical person. He knows that life brings struggle and that his faith needed to be grounded on more than experience in order to sustain. He came to see that his faith was built upon a firm foundation of who Christ is and what he has done.
For Neil, Christian belief cannot just be about the experience, but is based upon historical and logical truth:
“Christianity is not just experiential, but there’s historical validity and logical validity. That rock matters for me to stand on, to have that foundation…God created our hearts, so the experience and the emotion matters. But God also gave us brains to think…Look around you, look at creation, look at the human body. To think that that all of that just came out of nothing is illogical. It doesn’t make sense. We are without excuse in just seeing creation.
The historical validity of the Bible is unquestioned compared to other historical texts. The fact that Christ came, was a man, did miracles, died, was resurrected, is all historically validated more than any other source. And the connection of all that, the history, what we see now, what I experience, it all makes sense and logically touches all of the pieces of what we experience as human beings. The more you deeply dive into it, you realise: ‘Wow! It’s amazing.’ And none of us fully get the full wonder of it.”
It is obvious that Neil’s life has changed. When asked how his new life compares to where he was before becoming a Christian he said: “That chaos is really scary and really sad and empty, and I would never want to return there again.” Neil has moved from apathy on the question of God to becoming a passionate ambassador for Christ. He now hopes to help others find the full, meaningful, joy-filled life that he has found.
If you’d like to listen to Neil Placer tell his full story, tune into the Side B Stories Episode #71. You can find it on the Side B Stories website www.sidebstories.com.
Jana Harmon hosts the Side B Stories podcast where former atheists and sceptics talk about their turn from disbelief to belief in God and Christianity. She is a teaching fellow for the CS Lewis Institute of Atlanta and former adjunct professor in cultural apologetics at Biola University where she received an MA in Christian apologetics. Jana also holds a PhD in religion and theology from the University of Birmingham in England. Her research focused on religious conversion of atheists to Christianity and related book is entitled Atheists Finding God: Unlikely Stories of Conversions to Christianity in the Contemporary West.