“From stone to flesh”: How an intellectual agnostic met Jesus

This month we’re sharing stories of lives changed through the Gospel. Last week we met Joy, a woman who initially attended a CE course to learn how to be stronger in her opposition to Christianity. This week, meet Dan, an intellectual agnostic whose only reason for coming to a Christianity Explored course was to keep a friend company. Below is our conversation with Dan where he shares how God met both his mind and heart through the Gospel.

How did you first hear about Christianity Explored? 

So to start, I’m divorced and remarried now. I went to CE the first time in my prior marriage. My ex had already taken the course and afterwards, her best friend, who wasn’t a believer either, wanted to take CE as well. My ex didn’t want to take it again, so I went with her friend. It wasn’t really for me at all. I went just so her friend would have someone to go with. The course was being held at a local YMCA.

I grew up Catholic and hadn’t studied Christianity much. Reading the Bible was for the priest to do. So other than a passing societal familiarity with the Bible, I didn’t have any real understanding of it. In my mind, I had many challenges to the Bible and Christianity. I was agnostic at that point in my life. I thought there was something. But I certainly didn’t believe in a Christian God, at least not the way it had been presented to me growing up.

What would you say your emotions or feelings were towards the church at that time?

I don’t know that I really had any emotional feelings towards the church. I was very pragmatic about religion. I was convinced that if someone could ever convert me to a religion, it would be because I understood every aspect of it and became logically convinced that this was the right thing. It had nothing to do with any kind of faith. It was 100% intellectual.

So when you started CE, what were your first impressions as you went through the course?

My table leader was a man who’d grown up Jewish and is now Christian. He was able to give me a lot of good connections between the Old Testament and New Testament. I really needed that. This was my first time reading a book of the Bible and in my mind, there was a disconnect between Old Testament and New Testament, whereas the Old Testament God was judgmental and vindictive. Then, along comes Jesus and now everything is love and forgiveness? To me, that was a challenge. But I was impressed by how really anything I could throw at Christianity or the Gospel, my table leader seemed to have an answer for.

Christianity Explored goes through the Gospel of Mark. Were you reading along in Mark as you went?

Yes, I took the homework seriously. I cross referenced where I could, read the Old Testament for references, anything I could find. But I didn’t have a heart or eyes for it. I certainly didn’t understand Mark’s Gospel the way I needed to. To me, the power of Christianity Explored was that it was a nonthreatening, open setting where I could ask questions and challenge things. I could have my questions answered while not being pushed to convert. I didn’t feel like, “I have to walk away from this being a Christian.”

I’m gathering you went through the course more than once. What happened during and after your first time through the course?

So I walked away from our last meeting saying, “I’m gonna go see what the Mormons have.” Literally. That’s what I told my table leaders! 

I didn’t have faith and even if I could be convinced intellectually that the evidence I’d been presented so far [for Christianity] was solid, understand that I hadn’t looked at Mormonism yet. So if Christianity is the unfinished story of Judaism and Mormonism bills themselves as the unfinished story of Christianity, I thought, “Well, I should look into it too.”

There wasn’t anything there. I talked with a Mormon neighbor some, but he didn’t feel comfortable evangelizing. So I did most of my research online. Whereas Christianity can stand up to a lot of scrutiny, Mormonism can’t. But that’s the power of Christianity Explored. It just puts itself completely out there. It lays everything out and allows you to challenge it. I liked that.

What happened after your exploration into Mormonism?

I still went to church here and there, even prior to becoming Christian. I had a son and I liked the church and the community there. But I didn’t believe. I remember I would sit in church, and they’d say prayers and end with “In Jesus’ name we pray…” I’d think to myself,  “Not me. Count me out of that, God.” 

But then I ended up going through a divorce. That was my big change. During that time, I was very low. I was struggling a lot. One day, I was driving in my car and I did something I’d never done before. I prayed. Occasionally, my ex would ask me to pray for her, but it was never really heartfelt. Anytime I did “pray” it was for someone else. 

But that day, I prayed for God’s help. I felt separated from him. There was nothing I could do to fix it. Somehow in that act of saying, “I don’t know how to fix this, I don’t know how to repair my relationship with you, God,” the answer I got… and I don’t want to sound ridiculous when I say, “I heard God speak to me.” But the voice in my head said clearly, “That’s why I sent my son.” 

That was the first time that I cried in over twenty years. I was undone at that point. Completely undone. 

Everything for me was different after that. When I would go to church, the music would make me break down. I’d never seen a point to worship, I’d even found it offensive. I thought, if there’s an all powerful God, what possible purpose could there be to worship him? He can’t get anything from it! Very shortly after becoming a Christian I came to the realization that worship isn’t for God; worship is for us. It puts us in the right place in our relationship with God.

It sounds like you had viewed Christianity as very intellectual and in your head. But in that moment, God bypassed all of that and went straight to your heart, because that’s what really needed to be touched in this moment.

Dan: Yes, and that was very frustrating! Because at that moment, I knew I was Christian and it was so frustrating! Because I had decided I was going to know everything before becoming part of any religion. So I started hitting the books. I started watching videos and learning apologetics. Everything. And I took Christianity Explored again.

Why?

The first time I took CE, my heart and eyes were closed. I wasn’t there for myself at all. Going through the first time was a chance to get some barriers taken down and challenges out of the way, which was really important. I think that opened me up. But the second time, I went through it because I wanted to see it through the eyes of a believer. I wanted to understand with new eyes and a new heart. 

Did you notice a difference?

Yes! Because at that point, I believed. This time I was much more interested in learning and less interested in challenging.

After my second time through, I took Discipleship Explored and my course leader asked me to co-lead a Christianity Explored course. Since then, I’ve co-lead and solo lead many Christianity Explored and Discipleship Explored courses.

What’s your experience now as a leader going through CE? Have you come across people who came to a course in a similar state you did?

I have primarily had Christians in my courses. I haven’t met anyone full-on agnostic. Most of the time, the people on my courses were Christians, but Christians who’ve never really delved into their own faith.

What is like leading them through CE? How do you see them grow?

I see a lot of realization of truths that they had accepted but never really delved into. I see people confront ideas they’ve never thought about. It’s like they were on the surface, but Christianity Explored starts fleshing things out and giving them a realization of the depth of Christianity that they hadn’t seen before.

I think Christianity Explored is good for the people in the church to go through because it gives them a familiarity with it and a better comfort in asking their non-Christian friends to go through it with them.

Anything final to add?

You asked me earlier what my emotions were towards Christianity. I said I didn’t have any emotions towards Christianity, but really that was because I didn’t have many emotions towards anything, at all, at that point in my life. God changed that for me. There’s this verse that talks about God removing our hearts of stone and giving us hearts of flesh. That verse is so important to me. That was me. I can’t say strongly enough how God changed my heart in that way, removing stone and giving me flesh. Now I have emotions and joy that I hadn’t before. I think that was the biggest change in me.


Dan Ellis is a Christianity Explored and Discipleship Explored table leader at Countryside Community Church in Sherwood, Oregon. He has been an IT manager at a regional landscape company for 24 years. He enjoys reading nonfiction, playing video games, and spending time with his wife and son.

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