Ben Clifton grew up in a non-Christian household and didn’t encounter church until his wife’s mental health struggles led her to attend. Here, Jana Harmon tells the remarkable story of Ben’s journey from sceptic to apologist
We all seem to possess a deep intuition about what is right and wrong. There’s no question about that. When someone cuts in line in front of you, it feels that it’s not fair, that some unspoken rule has been violated and that someone should do something about it. Why do we feel this way?
You may recognise that example as the one given by CS Lewis in ‘Mere Christianity’, pointing out the inherent tension we feel when some commonly known and often unspoken standard is broken. We know that it’s wrong, but we may not be able to say why it’s wrong. We just know that it is. But if you ask the question why, it’s a problem, especially if you don’t believe in God.
Lewis reminds us that we would not be able to call something wrong or crooked without some sort of standard of knowing what is right, without knowing what was straight to begin with. We would not be able to tell that a wall was not level without a plumb line. So it seems that some sort of standard is necessary for us to call something good or bad, right or wrong, straight or crooked, fair or unfair, of what ought or ought not to be. Without such a standard, there’s no way to make a judgment about anything for anyone except for ourselves. Somehow, this deep intuition is an unavoidable pointer to the need for a transcendent standard, for the need for God.
Former atheist Ben Clifton did not want to want to believe in God, but he felt backed into a corner by this seeming conundrum, convinced that he would eventually be able to explain our real sense of right and wrong without resorting to some transcendent standard, without believing in God. Was he able to do it? This was one part of his atheism that began to crumble as he began to take a closer look at the reality of his own worldview, the reality of God and the truth of Christianity.
A son of ‘hippies’ in the 1960s, Ben was born into a home whose dad was antagonistic against conservative Christianity, “who would take a happy Buddha over a suffering Christ any day”. His mum embraced new age “back to nature” spirituality. At age 7, he moved from Oregon to Micronesia in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. For the next seven years, he lived in small remote communities, spear fishing in the ocean, building, living in forts, enjoying a simple yet adventurous life. It was a boy’s island paradise.
While there, he was exposed to “a weird combination of Catholicism and island spirituality”. Since everyone on the island attended church on Sunday, he would go too singing songs and hearing short sermons from a travelling priest. His view of Jesus was also shaped by the culturally popular soundtrack of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, Christmas movies and cartoons. So, Ben’s view of God and Christianity became shaped into a “mishmash of false beliefs” through this variety of experiences and exposures. In retrospect, he admittedly “had no idea what true Christianity was all about”.
Science dismisses God
As a teen, Ben’s family returned to the Western US and built their own home in a rural area of Washington state, spurring his own interest in engineering. Through university, his thoughts of spirituality and God became more remote as he embraced a more sober-minded scientific worldview. Religion was for the backward thinking, and he wanted to be part of the more modern, intelligent, scientific camp where truth was.
During this time, once of his college classmates, Carey, became a Christian and asked Ben to attend his baptism. As a self-perceived tolerant person, he went genuinely happy for his friend. When they graduated together, Carey gave Ben a Bible with a simple inscription written inside which said: “I pray that someday you will encounter Christ in the same way that I have, and I’ve found that Jesus has been the thing that has sustained me and given me purpose and meaning in life, and that’s my prayer for you.”
Ben justified to himself that every well-informed person should have a Bible on their bookshelf, and promptly stowed it there to remain unopened.
A stone in his shoe
Two years after graduation, Ben started dating and eventually married a girl who was a committed Christian. He thought he could “free her from her archaic ideas” about Christianity and all would be fine, but it didn’t quite go the way he planned. She held strongly to her faith and gave him two books to read, both influenced or written by the former atheist CS Lewis.
One was ‘A Severe Mercy’ by Sheldon Vanauken, where a married couple move from disbelief to belief. The other was ‘Mere Christianity’, where Lewis’ argument for the objective reality of moral values “painted him into a corner that he didn’t know how to escape”.
Ben explained the moral argument for God presented in the book:
“One of the key arguments that Lewis gives, and it’s a very powerful argument, is the reality that there are these things called morals. There are these things that are truly right and truly wrong. They’re moral duties or moral values. They’re obligations, and we know it, and we can’t escape their reality. So, the question is how do we explain the existence of these moral duties and values? And when you think deeply about it, it is a compelling argument that there must be an authority, there must be a source that grounds, that provides the foundation to make those moral realities true. They are objectively true. And so that, of course, points to a moral law giver, which points to an aspect of who we call God.”
Feeling trapped without a substantive response, Ben put the book down. His worldview challenged, Ben felt uncomfortable but thought he would figure out this puzzle in time, so he ignored it. But this conundrum had placed a stone in his shoe as something that bothered him even though he tried to dismiss the problem. He would solve it one day, he thought.
This unresolved issue prompted him to begin reading more in order to justify his own atheism and to defeat any argument for theism.
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Surprised by Christians
Ben’s wife dealt with depression on and off for many years and began going to church to find happiness. As a supportive husband, he went with her. Much to his surprise, he found the people there to be very loving and receptive of him even knowing he was an atheist. He also discovered that his negative stereotypes of Christians as uneducated people was misinformed, recalling:
“The teaching pastor and then the subsequent pastor after that were actually—it sounds terrible now, but they were pretty smart men. I appreciated the intelligence of CS Lewis, but I hadn’t intentionally known people who were in leadership and were expressing intellectually really challenging stuff. And I thought, ‘Wow, these guys are like my professors at university!’ And I didn’t know Christians were like that. And so, it started changing my attitude a little bit, like, ‘OK, well, they’re not all idiots. These guys seem pretty smart.’”
Through four years of attending church services with his wife, Ben also heard the good news of what Jesus Christ had done for him, his soul “cried out for God” who “turned his heart of stone into a heart of flesh”.
Ben had sensed his own helplessness to save his wife from her depression and through that experience felt his own sense of helplessness to save himself from his own sin and guilt. He then explained the gospel, or ‘good news,’ that he accepted for himself:
“The gospel is the most complex thing in the world, but it’s also the most simple. We, as human beings, are helpless to do what we’re supposed to do, and we feel the weight of the guilt of our failures. And we try to make that up by doing this and that good thing to try and atone for the things that we’ve done that are wrong. And we can never do it. We can never get there. We can never earn our way back from the things that we’ve done. And so, we’re hopeless. In ourselves, we’re hopeless. But the good news, the gospel, is that, unlike us, Jesus is God. He came in the flesh. He became a human being, and he, unlike us, did live a perfect life, and he took what we deserved.
That is death, eternal death. And he made a great trade. He said, ‘I will trade my perfection for your imperfection. All you have to do is say yes, and I’m going to go to the cross. I’m going to die on your behalf. I’m going to take the penalty that is really supposed to be yours, and I’m going to take it on myself. I’m going to give myself up for you, for anybody who places their faith in this reality.’ And it’s free. It’s a gift. You don’t have to do anything. In fact, that’s the whole point. You can’t do anything. The only thing you can do is say, ‘I can’t do it. And Jesus, you did.’ And my goodness, it’s like it’s the best deal ever. Why would anybody say no to that? And the reason we say no to it is because we want to be in control. We want to say, ‘I am good enough. I can do this.’ And that’s pride, and that’s the root of all sin. But the good news is that Jesus took on what we couldn’t take on and gives us eternal life, which is just unbelievable. It starts here but goes on for eternity.
Faith seeking understanding
Ben’s heart and soul had experienced a felt transformation, but as an engineer, he pursued intellectual understanding to put the pieces together especially related to science and faith. The first book he found in his local bookstore was ‘The Fingerprint of God’ by astrophysicist Dr Hugh Ross. Stunned by what he was reading, Dr Ross was not only answering questions and issues he had regarding science and belief in God, he was taking what Ben had once used to disprove Christianity and showing how they actually point to the existence of God.
This was “the first crack in the door of discovering the life of the mind as a Christian”. He started becoming aware of “this entire world of not only good answers to the challenges that Christianity is confronted with, but there’s this immense domain of intellectual pursuit of this Christian worldview”. He began taking coursework at a Bible college, then completed a master’s degree in Christian apologetics (a study of the rational defence of Christianity), and is now leading an apologetics ministry, Apologetics on Mission. Ben is no longer painted into a corner but is going to different parts of the world providing answers to the hard questions that once evaded him.
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.