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I often find it helpful to illustrate my point with extreme cases. Let's examine some well-known examples of unbelievers: Graham Oppy, a distinguished atheist philosopher specializing in philosophy of religion; Peter Atkins, an atheist scientist highly proficient in Chemistry; Stephen Hawking, a globally recognized atheist theoretical physicist and cosmologist; and Carl Sagan, a renowned astronomer and science communicator who identified as an agnostic.

For example, on the question of whether God exists, Carl Sagan once said:

An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed. (source)

Graham Oppy was asked the question of what it would take to convince him to believe in God during an interview on Premier Unbelievable?. He essentially expressed uncertainty, leaning towards skepticism that a new philosophical argument for God's existence would be persuasive to him, given the countless arguments for God he had already studied. Similarly, when Peter Atkins was asked on a different occasion, "Could anything convince you God exists?" he responded by stating that he couldn't think of any convincing factor, given his unwavering commitment to naturalism.

In light of individuals with such backgrounds—who genuinely grapple with the inability to conceive of anything convincing—I find it challenging to reconcile this reality with the notion that the gift of saving faith in Christ is universally accessible. It's difficult for me to envision someone like Graham Oppy simply "choosing" to embrace and exercise the gift of saving faith in Christ supposedly available to him, or simply "choosing" to become born again. Absent a miracle, direct revelation, or an encounter akin to Acts 9, I genuinely struggle to see how this could plausibly unfold.

If the offer of saving faith in Christ is a universal gift from God, does this extend to unbelievers like those mentioned earlier? If the opportunity for saving faith is accessible to all, can committed unbelievers such as Carl Sagan or Graham Oppy also avail themselves of this gift?

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    Well this is why a lot of Christians believe that it is God who overcomes everyone's disbelief. Ephesians 2 says we're dead in sin, and dead people can't make themselves alive. It is God who brings life to the dead, overcoming death, so that those he breathes life into can no longer help but live! If that's the case then it is precisely as difficult for the staunch atheist to become a Christian as it is for the apatheist, or even the person who's attended church all their life but never actually followed God.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Jan 12 at 0:52
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    Also there's the well-known phrase "the mind justifies what the will chooses what the heart desires." We like to think we're rational first, which leads to our choices and desires, but it's often actually the other way round. So usually the first step is for God to open our eyes to see that he is beautiful, true, and just. Our wills and minds will follow once we desire God.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Jan 12 at 0:54
  • I don't know why this question is so popular. Is it on the basis of "If you believe, then you're saved!"? Believers who sin are not better off than atheists in the long run. (Psalm 14, Psalm 53, 1 Timothy 5:3) An intellectual assent to a set of minimum facts will not take you far.
    – Fomalhaut
    Commented Jan 12 at 9:38
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    @Fomalhaut My question is about saving faith, not mere intellectual assent.
    – Mark
    Commented Jan 12 at 11:33
  • @Mark saving faith = good behavior + intellectual assent
    – Fomalhaut
    Commented Jan 12 at 18:39

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Here are two of many examples of intellectually confirmed atheists who converted to Christianity without what I would call a miraculous intervention:

  • Joy Davidman was and American poet and writer. A confirmed atheist and member of the Communist Party she wrote a notable book of poems, Letter to a Comrade, which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition in 1938 and the Russell Loines Award for Poetry in 1939. After a crisis in her first marriage she suffered from extreme depression and: "for the first time my pride was forced to admit that I was not, after all, 'the master of my fate.' She opened herself to God. She studied Judaism and L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics but eventually converted to Christianity after many discussions with C.S. Lewis, whom she later married.

  • C.S. Lewis abandoned Christianity and became an atheist while a student at preparatory school as a teenager. He developed a fascination with mythology. Later, he returned to Christianity after being influenced by the arguments of his friend J. R. R. Tolkien, a colleague at Oxford college. Lewis went on to write some of the world's most influential Christian literature.

Many similar conversions are listed with links to relevant biographies here. Many of them involve moving from confirmed atheism to Christianity with no apparent miraculous intervention other than intellectual discussion or general life experience.

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  • I recently read Joy Davidman Lewis's first biography (written in 2015). Quite a story and love letters to C.S. Lewis (it's clear that she pursued C.S. Lewis)! Yes, she was at one point big on Dianetics, a middle point to her journey toward Christianity after the communism stage. At the end, it was she who influenced C.S. Lewis on his later books, esp. The Four Loves and other books published post 1955. Commented Jan 15 at 18:53
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But avoid foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and vain.

A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject; Knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself.

Titus 3:9-11 KJV

Paul discourages unprofitable argument with those who ask ignorant, unresearched, untutored questions which draw debate and unnecessary strife.

He stresses that a heretic, after being twice admonished as to their false views, is to be rejected and no further argued with since such a person, stout in their heresy, undermines the foundation of their own existence - being 'subverted' - and not only so, but also sins since they, their own selves, condemn their own existence and their own folly.

So, no, those who are intellectually set against the Christian faith and have remained so despite instruction otherwise, are not to imagine themselves, nor is anyone else to imagine, that their state is retrievable.

We only have one life to live. This is not a rehearsal. We must 'lay hold of eternal life' ; we must 'strive to enter in the strait gate'. There is only so much time allotted to us to find God who made us.

Of some, it can be said that 'we are not of them that draw back unto perdition, but believe to the saving of our souls', Hebrews 10:39. But as to the rest, their perdition is certain.

And it is so that, with increasing age, after maturity, the faculties begin to deteriorate and many who thought to wait until old age, and possibly even retirement, putting off seeking God with all the heart and all the mind, discover that, later, their senses are dimmed and dulled. Eventually (if the mind has not been properly exercised during formative years) they actually become physically incapable of the necessary ability required to effectively engage in spiritual matters.

'Seek ye the Lord while he may be found.'

As also, those who believe a time then fall away ; they cannot be recovered :

For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.

Hebrews 6:4-6 KJV

In context, this 'falling away' is intellectual ; it is the rejection, intellectually, of that which was, once and for a time, received into the mind. Once rejected, it cannot be recovered.

It is impossible.

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Such miraculous conversions have happened before, including people who have maintained prominently entrenched positions of skepticism:

Robert Blatchford, in his book God and My Neighbor, attacked with vigor accepted Christian beliefs, such as God, Christ, prayer, and immortality. He boldly asserted, “I claim to have proved everything I set out to prove so fully and decisively that no Christian, however great or able he may be, can answer my arguments or shake my case.” He surrounded himself with a wall of skepticism. Then a surprising thing happened. His wall suddenly crumbled to dust. He was left exposed and undefended. Slowly he began to feel his way back to the faith he had scorned and ridiculed. What had caused this profound change in his outlook? His wife died. With a broken heart, he went into the room where lay all that was mortal of her. He looked again at the face he loved so well. Coming out, he said to a friend: “It is she, and yet it is not she. Everything is changed. Something that was there before is taken away. She is not the same. What can be gone if it be not the soul?”

Later he wrote: “Death is not what some people imagine. It is only like going into another room. In that other room we shall find … the dear women and men and the sweet children we have loved and lost.” I Know that My Redeemer Lives!

The legendary missionary Paul (formerly Saul) is an example of conversion from being a rigid Pharisee who actively persecuted Christians to becoming a believer in Christ, and gave his life testifying of his conversion to all he could reach.

Examples from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Another is Zeezrom, a very prominent lawyer in a wicked city, the foremost to accuse two witnesses of Christ. He began to ask them questions about God and their faith in Christ in an attempt to get them to perjure themselves, or to make it appear as though they had said something wrong so that he could charge them with crimes. In that process, their testimony of God and of the reality of the resurrection caused him to be overcome with fear, and tremble, until he began to repent and say to the people that they should not harm these prophets, because they had told the truth. He repented, was baptized, and went forth to preach to the people. (see Alma 9-14)

Another is William W. Phelps, who betrayed and persecuted Joseph Smith and the saints, heaping difficulties on them. Later he wrote a letter to Joseph, expressing sorrow for his sins and his repentance. In response Joseph wrote,

… Believing your confession to be real, and your repentance genuine, I shall be happy to give you the right hand of fellowship, and rejoice over the returning prodigal. … ‘Come on, dear brother, since the war is past, For friends at first, are friends again at last.’ Friends Again at Last

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If you are asking whether someone can come to saving faith in Christ and still remain a staunch atheist or agnostic, the answer is no. Jesus calls people to leave all of their former beliefs and follow Him.

Matt. 16:24:  Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.

Jesus told him, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." (Luke 9:62)

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  • If you are asking whether someone can come to saving faith in Christ and still remain a staunch atheist or agnostic, the answer is no No, I'm not asking that. Of course they would cease to be unbelievers if they become believers, by definition.
    – Mark
    Commented Jan 12 at 4:24
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    Okay, then the answer to your question is Paul's conversion in Acts 9. It doesn't need a miraculous outward experience. Another example is a book I read a long time ago called "Evidence that Demands a Verdict," by Josh McDowell. He did research to write a book that completely discredited Christianity and was so overwhelmed with the evidence that he became a believer. That wasn't an outward miracle; it was an inward miracle of the heart and soul. Commented Jan 12 at 4:38

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