If you are a Christian, how old were you when you came to faith?
If you became a Christian as a child then you are in the majority. A recent Barna study in America showed that 64% of born again Christians came to faith before they were 18. Half of those who came to faith did so through the witness of parents. Only 23% of born again Christians come to faith after the age of 21. The figures are probably similar in the UK. The older we get the more resistant to conversion we become.
Older and harder?
This is why apologetics, the defence and commendation of the faith, matters so much in Christian evangelism. Of course, evangelism requires love, prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit, but to reach adults we also need to present persuasive arguments and reliable evidence. As the years pass by, our friends’ hearts are in danger of becoming hard and obstinate. Habits form slowly but surely, so that what may have once been a free choice can become a steel chain. Whether it’s smoking, gambling or resisting the gospel, the more we do it, the easier it gets. Our explanations and evidences can fall on deaf ears.
Such conditions are illustrated clearly in the lives of two of the 20th-century’s greatest atheists. A. J. Ayer (1910-1989), Oxford University philosopher, was pronounced clinically dead for a few minutes in 1988. While recuperating, he wrote an article about it under the title ‘What I saw when I was dead’. He had experienced a bright light, which he believed to be the creator of the universe. The doctor on duty said that on his recovery, Ayer had told him, ‘I saw a Divine being. I’m afraid I’m going to have to revise all my books and opinions’.
After the article was published, Ayer received a barrage of hostile reactions from his intellectual colleagues. Instead of revising his former books, he revised the article and diluted its content. Ayer reconfirmed that he was still an atheist, despite his experience, only conceding that he had reason to believe that death might not be the end. Even this remarkable experience could not change Ayer’s mind.
Another great atheist of the 20th century was Anthony Flew (1923–2010). Flew had debated with a number of Christians over the years. In a 2004 dialogue with Gary Habermas, he declared: ‘The evidence for the resurrection is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion. It’s outstandingly different in quality and quantity’. Flew’s belief gradually changed from atheist to theist. We do not know if he finally came to believe in Jesus Christ as his Saviour. However, Flew did change his mind. He demonstrated that he could go wherever the evidence led him. We know it led him to believe in the existence of God.
A.J. Ayer and Anthony Flew responded to the evidence they encountered in different ways. While we may feel depressed when someone stubbornly resists the gospel, there is always hope that a mind can change. The opportunity for conversion does not cease at age 21! C. S. Lewis became a Christian at the age of 32. Charles Colson, author of the best-selling Born-Again, was 42. C. E. M. Joad, agnostic philosopher and Labour parliamentary candidate, became a Christian during a time of ill health at the end of his life. Having written over 100 books from an agnostic perspective, his final work, published in the year before he died, was The Recovery of Belief – A Restatement of Christian Philosophy. Bob Marley, having been an unofficial representative for Rastafarianism all his life, was baptised a Christian the year before his death in 1981.
For many, a life of stubborn resistance may remain so to the end. But there is always hope (Luke 23.43). We should continue to persuade and present the evidence to all ages. Rather than seeing ever more apologetic material oriented to student ministry, we should have confidence that it is relevant to all ages. Every middle-aged adult, every elderly man and woman, has the same opportunity for repentance and faith as any child or teenager. Even the most stubborn heart can change.
Chris is lecturer at Moorlands College and pastor of Alderholt Chapel. His books include Confident Christianity and Time Travel to the Old Testament published by IVP.