The Early Years
I was raised in a Christian home, attended Christian schools through ninth grade, and was confirmed in the Lutheran Church. My parents were wonderful examples of living by Christian values, but we never had family devotions and rarely discussed issues of faith. I knew bits and pieces of what was in the Bible, but had never read a single book of the Bible all the way through. I had a somewhat confused view of the Trinity. I knew more or less what I believed, but not why I believed it.
Brigham Young University
In 1972, I graduated from high school and chose to attend Brigham Young University in Utah. I knew BYU was a Mormon school, and I knew Mormons held some beliefs that were different than those I’d been taught, but a young lady I was infatuated with was going there, and I thought it sounded like a good idea at the time.
Once at BYU, I quickly learned just how different the LDS doctrines were than those I’d been raised with, but I was woefully unprepared in late night dorm room discussions to adequately explain or defend my faith. I was impressed with the students I met. They were, for the most part, sincere in their faith and were trying to live their lives according to their beliefs as fervently as – or even more than – those in my church back home.
One day, two guys I thought were students came to my door. They introduced themselves as Mormon missionaries and offered to discuss their beliefs with me over the course of several weeks. I agreed to take their lessons, but cautioned them that they would have to present the Biblical basis for their doctrines.
As the missionaries went through their lessons, I was struck again by the extreme differences between their faith and orthodox Christianity. I was impressed with their sincerity, and with the coherence of their theological system, but every time they tried to demonstrate the Biblical basis of their beliefs, I could see that their interpretation of the Bible was flawed.
Towards the end of the lessons, the missionaries asked me to read the Book of Mormon and begin praying that God would reveal to me that it, like the Bible, was His word. I agreed, largely because I was required to take a Book of Mormon class and was reading it anyway, and because I was genuinely curious what God might have to say about this odd book that claimed to be “another revelation of Jesus Christ.”
After several weeks of reading and praying, the missionaries concluded their lessons and asked me to fast and pray for a testimony that the Book of Mormon was God’s Word, that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, and that the LDS Church was God’s one and only True Church. Again, I agreed.
The next Saturday, I fasted and prayed. I attended LDS services on Sunday morning, praying that God would touch my heart if I were really sitting in His Church. I then drove up to the LDS Temple in Provo. I sat in my car, the Book of Mormon in one hand and the Bible in the other. I prayed for several hours, reflecting on all the Missionaries had said, all I had read in both the Bible and the Book of Mormon, and asked God if it were possible that what all these sincere, kind people believed was true. I kept looking at the Bible in one hand and the Book of Mormon in the other. I opened the Bible and reviewed the passages the missionaries had used to justify their doctrines to me – the two sticks in Ezekiel, the bodies terrestrial and celestial in First Corinthians, the sealed book in Revelation. In each case, I simply couldn’t get past the fact that the LDS interpretation of these verses was wrong.
I didn’t know the Bible that well. I didn’t know in detail why I believed what I believed, but I knew that if God really inspired both books, they would not contradict each other, and the verses the missionaries cited would support their beliefs completely.
Ultimately, I determined that by not giving me a testimony, God was telling me, “No, this is not my Word, Joseph Smith was not my prophet, and the LDS Church is not my True Church.” His did this through my assurance that the Bible was His Word, and everything must be measured against that standard of truth.
College and Graduate School
After rejecting the LDS Church and falling out of infatuation with my lady friend, I found little reason to return to BYU the next fall. I enrolled in a local state university and then went on to graduate school at the University of Southern California. I was an English Literature major, and most of my professors were liberal politically, socially, and theologically. They openly ridiculed Christianity.
Though I was convinced that the LDS theology was not true, I was still unprepared to say why I thought mine was. I still didn’t know why I believe what I believed. Doctrines that contradicted the Bible, while asserting that they were based in the Bible, these I could prayerfully reject. But an all-out assault against the Bible and belief in God devastated me. Though I never fully rejected the Bible and my faith in God, I wandered far from the faith of my youth. I grew skeptical and cynical. I wasn’t happy. For a time, I characterized myself as a “Christian Existentialist” – I thought there was probably a God, but that we could never really know Him. Later I termed myself a “hopeful agnostic.” I couldn’t prove God existed, but I hoped He did.
I became an ardent evolutionist. I was fascinated with human origins, and read all I could find about the latest discoveries in paleo-anthropology: Skull 1470, Lucy, the Laetoli footprints. I thought God might be behind all this, but I knew according to the real tenets of evolution, He didn’t have to be. My Bible gathered dust on my shelf. I only prayed when heading for the hospital with my heart palpitating in my chest, an irregular heartbeat becoming a physical metaphor of my irregular faith.
In my late 20s and early 30s, I found myself, occasionally, wondering about God. Though I would tell people I was an agnostic, I still wondered if God wasn’t out there, somewhere, and if He was, I wanted to find Him.
It occurred to me that perhaps other faiths might hold the answer. I explored eastern religions for a time. I tried Buddhism, but found it cold comfort. I looked into some new age religions. Not the Shirley MacLaine variety, but by way of Joseph Campbell. The emphasis on myth, ancient literature, and the syncretistic elements of Campbell’s writing appealed to me. It allowed me to utilized elements of my Christian upbringing without having to deal with the more difficult areas, like obedience and submission. It allowed me to utilize elements of Buddhism I liked, without pondering why I found them so unsatisfying. On the one hand, I felt intellectually alive during this time; but spiritually, I was still dead, and I knew it.
A Grief Considered
In 1989, I met Shirley, the woman who would become my wife several years later. Prior to our marriage, we lived together. Early one Easter Sunday morning, the phone rang. It was my future father-in-law. Shirley’s mother had collapsed and was being rushed to the hospital. As Shirley and I drove to the hospital, Shirley talked about staying with her dad for a few days, while her mother recuperated. A cold chill gripped me. I didn’t think we’d ever see her mom alive again.
Unfortunately, my thoughts proved correct. When we got to the hospital, they took us to a little room, and the doctor came to tell us Shirley’s mom had died. The doctor asked if we had any spiritual counselor. My father-in-law answered, “What we have is right here.” I’d noticed a man sitting in the corner of the room when we’d walked in, his face buried in his hands. Now he was standing beside us. “I’m Ken Keene,” he said. “I’m the pastor of Ojai Christian Church.”
Ken was truly a God-send. He knew Shirley’s parents, as they had been attending his church for several months. He was kind and sympathetic. He conducted a beautiful funeral and was there for us when we needed him. He never pushed his faith on us, but it was clear where he was coming from. I was confronted for the first time with true grief – my own to some extent, but the awful fullness of my wife’s and my father-in-law’s. Though Ken had spoken words of comfort, of a future reunion with Shirley’s mother, it was obvious to me that lacking faith myself, I had no such assurance.
A Child Shall Lead Them
When Shirley and I got married, we asked Pastor Ken to marry us. A year and a half later, Shirley and I had our first child, our daughter Caelin. When Caelin was about a year old, Shirley mentioned over dinner one night that we should consider going to church. She said it would be good for Caelin to learn about God. Shirley was not a believer at the time, nor was I. Yet, it sounded like a good idea to me. I’d learned good values when I was going to church as a child. I wanted the same for Caelin.
We found that Ken was pastoring a church near our home. We attended one Sunday, and found that his church mirrored his personality – warm, friendly, non-threatening. As we sat there one Sunday morning, Pastor Ken passed out a little form and asked us to fill it out. The first question was: “If you could be assured of success, what would you like to accomplish by attending this church.” I pondered the question, running through my mind a number of issues that I’d been reflecting on recently. I wrote: “I want to be a better husband and father, and I think I need help to do this.”
The following Sunday, Pastor Ken announced, “Any of you men who’d like to step up and be better husbands and fathers, plan to join us at the upcoming Promise Keepers event in May.” I’d just heard about Promise Keepers from a friend at work, and I was a bit stunned to have my request seemingly being answered in this way. I leaned over to Shirley and told her I thought I should attend the event.
The Promise Keepers event was a very emotional experience. It was exhilarating, being with all those men, realizing that each, in his own way, was trying to do the right thing in their families, churches, and jobs. The speakers were inspiring. I still wasn’t ready to go forward at the “altar call.” I was a bit suspicious of the emotionalism of the event. I was intellectually unsure about the fundamental claims of Christianity, but I took the little NIV New Testament I’d gotten in my package and determined to read it.
Reasons to Believe
The following Sunday morning, sitting in church, I was struggling. I saw so many good things in Christianity. I’d found some concrete ways I could become a better husband and father. Yet, the doubts of all my years as a skeptic and “hopeful agnostic” were still there – indeed, seemed to have become more ferocious in their intensity. “How can I believe this stuff?”
As I sat there, it came me that I needed to put Christianity to the test, once and for all. I fully expected to find the “emperor had no clothes,” so to speak. But, if it was all a myth, it was better to know it now than continue the charade any longer. I knew that Christianity stood or fell on the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and the historicity of the New Testament record. That was where I determined to put my efforts.
I was something of a history buff, so I felt equipped to undertake a reasonable assessment of the Resurrection claims. I also had taken Textual Criticism while at U.S.C., so I also felt I could handle an examination of the manuscript evidence for the New Testament record.
So began a wonderful season of research. I guess I’m just an old graduate student at heart, because I genuinely enjoy digging through library catalogs and Internet search engines, looking for evidence to support or overturn some claim or other. Probably not a big shock that I now enjoy apologetics so much!
I read a variety of scholars and apologists. I investigated the secular explanations of the Resurrection. I read what the Jesus Seminar had to say. I read the polemics against the New Testament record. On the Christian side, I read folks like William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, Craig Blomberg, N.T. Wright, J.P. Moreland, and Gregory Boyd. On the textual evidence, I read Phillip Comfort, Bruce Metzger, and F.F. Bruce.
As I was reading this material, I became more and more persuaded that the Resurrection was more likely to have occurred as reported in the Gospels than any other explanation that had been offered. I discovered the wealth of manuscript evidence behind the New Testament, some of the fragmentary evidence dating to early in the 2nd Century and perhaps even earlier. There simply wasn’t time for legends to have developed in that timeframe, let alone a full-blown mythology. I began to think that the New Testament might actually contain a valid historical record of what Jesus taught, of the Resurrection, and what the earliest believers believed.
At the same time, I was reading through the little NIV New Testament I’d gotten at Promise Keepers. As I was reading the Gospel of Mark, I was struck by the immediacy and bluntness of the prose. It read like history, not at all like the mythologies I’d read so many times in my Joseph Campbell days. I was struck by passages that did not present Jesus in comforting ways (the cursing of the fig tree and the hiding of the Gospel message in parables). I marveled at the straightforward presentation of the empty tomb account.
As my heart opened to the possibility that what I was reading just might be true, the truth of the Word leapt from every page. I raced through the other Gospels, then Acts, the Epistles, and Revelation. Somewhere, I crossed over the boundary between unbelief and belief. I see now that reading the Scriptures with a mind open to the possibility that they might be true allowed the Holy Spirit to convict me of the Truth.
I was filled with an immense joy. I told everyone I knew, and many I didn’t. Pastor Ken baptized me in June, 1996, and I thought my joy was complete. Of course, in many ways, it was. But as I’ve matured in my faith, there have certainly been many struggles. Accepting the truth of the Gospel means also accepting the truth about one's sin. Being a disciple of Christ calls us to carry our crosses, and that doesn't mean the gold kind we wear around our necks. As a father, I can see how growing up is sometimes a painful process for my children, and it is no less difficult for all of us as children of God. Even my path back to God led through the dark valley of the death of my future mother-in-law, an amazing example of the principle proclaimed in Romans 8:28:
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.
But, as I’ve grown in sometimes agonizingly slow steps, I know that God is completing the work he began in me (Phil 1:6). He is conforming me to the image of His Son (Rom. 8:29), slowly but surely. I am a better husband, father, and man today than I was yesterday. But more than that, I am a child of God, and I am learning that my sole purpose is to glorify Him and enjoy Him forever. And this knowledge, indeed, makes my joy complete.
To His glory,
Woodland Hills, 2001