“I hated the idea of God and religion”
How a series of 'improbable events' led a French atheist to Jesus.
Guillaume Bignon was a committed atheist in France before a series of unexpected events ended up leading him to God.
Sean McDowell interviewed him to find out more about his story.
How did you, as a French atheist, become a Christian?
I was in my mid-twenties, working near Paris as a computer scientist in finance, playing volleyball in national league and keyboard in a rock band, and hated the idea of God and religion.
It took quite a conspiracy of many improbable events for me to even hear the Gospel in such a secular culture as that of France...
I met an American Christian on a random hitch-hike halfway around the world, we started dating and I read the Bible to disprove her silly beliefs.
I was intrigued by the person of Jesus, then a timely and unexplained shoulder injury forced me off volleyball courts on Sundays, which allowed me to visit an evangelical Church in Paris (like I would visit a zoo to see weird animals). When I tried to escape without speaking to anyone at the end of the service, I was struck at the door by a blast of chills in my stomach, leading me to turn around and walk straight to the head pastor.
He and I met and talked regularly for hours at a time, wrestling through my questions, discovering that thoughtful Christians even existed, realizing the Bible was historically reliable, and starting to think the whole thing could be true.
At the same time, I came to commit some particularly immoral atrocity, was rather brutally struck with guilt, and got to finally understand the Gospel: Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for my own sin; mine; the very thing that was killing me inside.
The Bible was teaching that Jesus took the penalty upon Himself, so that I might be forgiven for free, not by my good works, not by my religious rituals, but simply by receiving Him, placing my faith in Him for the forgiveness of sin. Amazing!
I did exactly that, experienced a spiritual rebirth, every trace of guilt departed, and I have lived with that freeing reality ever since. I then ended up moving to New York, studying in seminary for a Masters in New Testament studies, and eventually a PhD in philosophical theology. This is the very brief story of how God takes a French atheist who hates religion, breaks all his defenses, and turns him into a Christian theologian.
Did you find any particular facts or evidences compelling?
An important piece I came to understand prior to my conversion was that my standard of proof was completely unrealistic.
I wanted airtight proof before I could believe in God, and I came to realize almost none of the things I knew in life enjoyed this kind of support: my name, my date of birth, the reality of the outside world, the existence of other people, and a multitude of other things I was yet fully rational in believing.
Prior to my conversion, I also came to realize the existence of God wasn’t so conflicting with science as I had presupposed, and through my experience of immorality and guilt, I came to suspect an atheist worldview didn’t fit right with objective good and evil (I only later on came to learn this was called the moral argument for the existence of God).
How was your life different after becoming a believer?
The Gospel meant that my guilt was gone. I felt a real freedom, a liberating joy of knowing that my past wrongdoing wouldn’t be held against me, and that the God who created the universe had revealed Himself to me, loved me while I was still a sinner, and saved me in spite of me. That was and still is amazing.
I also came to have an objective purpose in life. I knew I was called to share this good news with folks who, like I did before, have never heard it, or think this is intellectual suicide. I have seen God equip me to provide thoughtful answers.
That is also another strange thing that happened: I used to hate reading. I never read a book in my life that wasn’t mandatory for school. And after my conversion, I couldn’t stop, and read all I could get my hands on, to learn about the faith, the Bible, philosophy, logic, history, anything related to questions or objections about God, and I was hooked.
Finally, of course, my view of morality changed on several important points, particularly about women, where I came to understand God’s purpose in marriage. That girl I had met turned out not to be meant for me, we broke up shortly after I moved to New York, and I eventually met a wonderful American Christian woman named Katherine, a multitalented fashion designer who had lived a year in France and met there while visiting my Pastor friend. We got married in 2010 and have now 3 babies aged 3, 1.5, and 3 month old. Life is busy but so good.
What advice do you have for Christians to better engage their atheist or non-christian friends?
There are too many things to say to be exhaustive, but let me give one tip: never assume that your hearer knows the Gospel. Between my French family and friends, and my work on Wall Street, I meet tons of people, grown ups, who have a surface level understanding of religions, but are absolutely clueless about what the Bible teaches in answer to the question “what must a sinner do to be saved?”
I myself lived through age 25 without ever having heard that the Bible teaches sinners are saved by faith and not by works. I was stunned, and it took me a while to even process it: Heaven is for free? Given as a gift to those who would just repent of their sins and place their faith in Jesus? Amazing.
So here is my tip: early on in your conversations, make sure you say something like this: “let’s leave aside the arguments and reasons to think it’s true, I’m not yet trying to convince you that it’s a correct teaching, but let me explain to you very briefly what Christianity even teaches, what the Christian view is.” And proceed to tell them the Gospel (of course you need to be able to do just that, so prepare yourself to explain it clearly and Biblically).
I have done this over and over again, and have surprised more than a few listeners. And how do I know they get it? Because without fail, the first thing out of their mouth is Paul’s very anticipated objection straight out of Romans: “if salvation is by faith, why not go on sinning?” Proceed to answer that too, but rest assured that now, they get it; they get just how shocking the Gospel is, and you’re prepared to discuss its merits.
Sean McDowell is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University.