*Like they say on the TV, this is a true story.*
*Name and details have been changed to protect the agnostic.*
Wendell grew up in a nominally Christian home. He was baptized as an infant in 1929. His parents took him to church most Sundays. He believed the Bible just as most of his friends did. He believed in a Christian work ethic and was pretty sure there was a passage in the Bible somewhere that said something about God helping those who help themselves. He believed that if he worked hard and did what was right, God would help him and give him what he wanted. With the rest of his Sunday School class, Wendell memorized Matthew 7:7, “Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you”.
Wendell’s birthday was fast approaching. He had been a well-behaved, respectful young man and so believed that if he prayed really hard, God would make sure he received a Hubley 7” cast iron race car as a gift, which he had wanted for almost an entire year. So, Wendell prayed. He had also memorized 1 Thessalonians 5:17 “Pray without ceasing”, so he prayed a lot: at school, at home, at the dinner table, while playing, and before going to sleep. Every available moment he had during the month before his birthday, he prayed for that car. He was certain that God would reward his good work and give him what he asked for.
Sadly, his birthday came and there was no Hubley 7” cast iron race car for Wendell. His mother baked a cake and he was given a present, but it was not what he had been asking God for. Instead of the race car, he received four toy soldiers. He hadn’t prayed for or wanted toy soldiers, but that was what God had given him. It wasn’t fair in Wendell’s mind. He had done his part by obeying his parents and teachers. He had even prayed! He had prayed for a whole month! Why hadn’t God answered him? Perhaps, God didn’t answer because He isn’t there. The first seeds of doubt were sown in Wendell’s mind. God didn’t give him what he wanted, so maybe God doesn’t exist.
Wendell continued going to church with his family. He went to Sunday School and learned more about God but was always carrying the nagging uncertainty whether God was real.
In time, Wendell grew up and left home. He married and his wife became pregnant. She went into labor too early in the pregnancy and the baby boy died. Wendell had prayed for that baby too, but God had let him down again. God hadn’t protected Wendell’s family. He had brought the family grief. Wendell’s wife was unable to become pregnant again and died childless, leaving Wendell all alone. Now, Wendell had more doubts about the existence of God. If God did exist, it seemed that He hated Wendell. This was too much to bear for Wendell had always tried to follow God’s will for his life. God had no reason to be so angry with Wendell. The only answer that made sense was that there was no God. Wendell’s parents had been suckers to spend so much time and money in church. There was no God. They were fooling themselves.
Wendell retired and met another retiree in his neighborhood who was a member of the local Lutheran church. They would talk about religion and this Lutheran tried and tried to convince Wendell that God did exist, despite the hardships that Wendell had endured, and that God was merciful and loving. Wendell didn’t buy it but was lonely and liked the company, so he kept up the conversation. Eventually, the Lutheran invited Wendell to attend a church service with him. Wendell declined. Wendell continued to decline for several months. Then, the Lutheran invited Wendell to attend Bible class held after the church service. Wendell accepted. He saw this as an opportunity to save those dopes some time and cash by showing them that God is not real. He hoped to trip up the pastor leading the class and show him for the charlatan he must be.
Wendell’s friend brought him to Bible class every week. Wendell asked questions but none of the church members seemed able to see the inconsistencies and logical fallacies inherent in Christianity. Wendell was undeterred and had nothing better to do, so he kept coming to the class for years. In that time, the church changed. When Wendell had started coming, there had been a “praise service” advertised. Wendell had no interest in seeing popular music, which he didn’t enjoy, modified to Christian lyrics, and he didn’t believe there was any God to praise anyway, and if there were a God, a God who allows such suffering on Earth, why in the world would we want to sing Him love songs?
Eventually, a new pastor came. This pastor was convinced that the Bible could be proven to be true using science. Wendell was curious, and still had nothing better to do, so he kept attending the Bible class, but not the church service, which was now only from the hymnal all the time, though no one could explain to Wendell why that change was made. The pastor made his case for creation using science, but his conclusions could not be proven absolutely, so Wendell continued to doubt and loudly question.
In time, that pastor retired and a new pastor came. This pastor taught the people why they prayed the historic liturgy every Sunday. Wendell didn’t really care. This pastor also related everything to Christ in Bible class. This was mildly annoying to Wendell, but he kept attending and bringing his questions to the pastor and the group of duped church members. They studied parts of the Bible that warned against hardening your heart (Psalm 95). They studied the Gospels and Christ’s atonement for all sins of all people. They learned of the promises of Christ, not to give Christians whatever they want, but to provide for what all need and that bearing the cross in a fallen world is painful and difficult but is always for our good.
The pastor met with Wendell privately and with a trusted group of Wendell’s friends and warned him that he was in danger of eternal punishment in hell and told Wendell that he was praying and would continue to pray for Wendell. Wendell told the pastor that he didn’t believe in hell and that the pastor could keep praying if he wanted to but it made no difference because God probably wasn’t real. Besides, Wendell didn’t believe that he sinned. He had found a nice lady TV preacher, and though she was kind of shrill and obnoxious, he did agree with her that he too was not a sinner.
For the time being, this is the end of Wendell’s story. He continues to come regularly to Bible class, not believing what is taught. He still asks questions to try to trip up the Christians but has never succeeded in turning any away from their confession of faith. Wendell’s Lutheran acquaintances continue to pray for his conversion and probably will until his time on earth is ended, but they are not so naïve as to think that perhaps some different method would have a more favorable effect. The method of evangelism is not the issue. Hardness of heart is. We do not overcome another’s hardening of his or her own heart by our cleverness or novelty. Only the Holy Spirit overcomes hardness of heart (“so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” Isaiah 55:11)
The story of this real person and of all those who have hardened their hearts is sad, profoundly sad. How difficult it is to sit next to someone, in a Bible class no less, who has chosen to reject Christ. Yet, this person will continue to be welcome in the congregation and will be taught and remembered in prayer and kindly spoken with by the pastor and the members always in the hope of a blessed eternity with our Savior.