Interview With A Former Skeptic: 3 Important Lessons

A few years ago my family befriended another young family in our neighborhood. Our kids were the same ages, and we all had a lot in common, so it was a natural and enjoyable friendship. There was one big difference though—we were Christians and they were skeptics. While I had many friendly apologetics conversations with Gavin, the father, he seemed to always have some good reason for doubt. When they finally moved away from our neighborhood in southern California, I remember thinking that he would never come to belief.

Well, I could not have been more wrong! Gavin ended up becoming a believer, and I had the amazing privilege of baptizing him last summer (this brief video has the story and baptism). He is now a National Certified Counselor and lives with his wife and three kids in Bend, Oregon.

When I wrote the book A New Kind of Apologist, I included interviews with apologists, atheists, and some others who have important insights for how to do evangelism and apologetics today. My friend Gavin was kind enough to answer some of my questions. As a former skeptic, his experience and insights are unique and very important for Christians today. Enjoy his brief interview from the book!

SEAN MCDOWELL: What role did apologetics play in your conversion to Christianity?

GAVIN MACFARLAND: There was a time a few years ago when I told my wife that I didn’t think the God the Bible existed. In fact, I was 99.9% sure that I could not be convinced otherwise. I spent a lot of time reading books, discussing theology with friends, and even allowing a group of high school students to ask me questions about my beliefs. I was confident that I had been intellectually honest with my dismissal of Christianity.

Looking back, I think that I always knew, deep down, that my belief system stood on shaky ground. I had attended a debate between Christopher Hitchens and William Lane Craig, and came away certain the Craig had the stronger argument(s). Yet I was still unwilling to fully accept the implications of what he had said.

I started to revisit old “debates” with some longtime friends, and their arguments took on a new sense of clarity. However, it was not until my personal life hit rock bottom that I fully opened my heart to God and the Bible. Last year I did a Bible study through our church, and I opened up about being a new believer. I told them my story of packing up my family and moving to Bend, Oregon with no jobs and no real plan. My son’s teacher attends our church and our next-door neighbors do as well. Perhaps it was a divine plan?

What I learned as I reflect on the past two years is that the intellectual arguments for God needed to come at a time when I was spiritually ready for them. If my life had not taken the negative turn that it did, I do not know if I would be here today as a believer. I re-read “Mere Christianity,” and the arguments made so much sense that I could not understand how I had dismissed them before.

MCDOWELL: What were the big questions that kept you from becoming a Christian?

MACFARLAND: Currently, I am most convinced by the Kalam Cosmological Argument as well as the idea of objective moral truth. My Christian friends have debated with me for (literally) 20 years about these ideas, and even though there have been some contentious interactions, I have always known that there was never malice behind any of their words.

Not long ago, I was reading an old email exchange between you and my dad where you guys were discussing some theology and philosophy. In one of my dad’s posts, he mentions the idea of trusting his intuition. It sounds reasonable. However, when I think about this more critically, I have to ask if it is, in fact, reasonable to trust our intuitions. I am skeptical that an evolutionary model of thinking can lead us to the conclusion that our intuitions are true. I do not believe naturalism can make any legitimate claims to truth.

MCDOWELL: What are some helpful things, and unhelpful things, Christians did during your journey?

MACFARLAND: Pastor Eugene Cho came to our church several months and he talked about the need for Christians to focus on building relationships first and foremost before moving too quickly to evangelism. Too often, I believe, in the excitement and/or challenge of discussing our faith with non-believers, this step is overlooked.

The tricky thing about relationships is that they don’t always look or feel the same to the participants. Personally, I often felt that many of my Christian friends were more motivated to convert me than they were to get to know me. I don’t know if that is accurate, but that’s how it felt at the time.

Similarly, I don’t know that Christians are always aware of how they are perceived by their non-Christian friends (not that this is unique to Christians). One example of this that I often see today is a comment that goes something like this: “Wow, you should feel really good about XYZ school because a lot of strong Christians work there.” The not-so-subtle message is that students are safer and teachers are better than if the teachers were not Christians.

So, in sum, my suggestion is for apologists to build genuine relationships with people and to care for them as human beings, whether or not they ever convert to Christianity. If you truly love people for who they are, have an open-mind to learn from non-believers, look for natural opportunities to talk about spiritual things, and have a long-term view, you might be amazed at how God can use you to be a part of someone’s life transformation. I am living proof of this.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 15 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog:

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8 replies
  1. Andy Ryan says:

    “If my life had not taken the negative turn that it did, I do not know if I would be here today as a believer.”

    Sounds to me like an admission that he changed his mind just because things were going badly for him. I can see that previously the guy was a non-believer but it doesn’t sound like he was ever actually a sceptic. Certainly the arguments he claims changed his mind are particularly poor ones.

    • Ryan says:

      Yep, dismiss him as a liar/exaggerator because he accepts arguments that you don’t, arguments that changed the minds of people like anthony flew. If he agreed with you, you wouldn’t even think of questioning his character.

      • Andy Ryan says:

        I didn’t question his character, or call him a liar or an exaggerator. Perhaps you replied to the wrong person’s post?

        And regarding your second sentence, I often call out atheists for believing or not believing things for bad reasons.

      • toby says:

        It’s a mistake for christian apologists to trot out Flew. He was a deist and didn’t believe in a revealed god of any sort. The only thing that had seemed to move him to deism was intelligent design and lack of explanation of how DNA originated. It was kind of unclear. He didn’t believe in an intervening god, but somehow was taken in by intelligent design.

        • Andy Ryan says:

          Quite so, Toby. Plus there’s a fair amount of controversy over Flew’s apparent conversion:

          “In 2007, Flew published a book titled There is a God, which was listed as having Roy Abraham Varghese as its co-author. Shortly after the book was released, the New York Times published an article by religious historian Mark Oppenheimer, who stated that Varghese had been almost entirely responsible for writing the book, and that Flew was in a serious state of mental decline, having great difficulty remembering key figures, ideas, and events relating to the debate covered in the book. His book praises several philosophers (like Brian Leftow, John Leslie and Paul Davies), but Flew failed to remember their work during Oppenheimer’s interview.”

    • David says:

      ” when the student is ready, the teacher appears”. Same meaning without implication of being taken advantage of in a weak moment

  2. Marilyn Bennett says:

    I want to thank Gavin for his honest and humble explanation as to why he became a Christian. The genuineness of his conversion was believable because of his openness to learn. I find this missing in Athiests I have heard. Excellent advice, Gavin: be a friend. Let God do the saving!

  3. Bryan says:

    Question: Gavin said the Kalām cosmological argument was one of the main arguments that swayed him. How is this argument not special pleadings? Everything has to have a creator BUT the creator?


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