Interview with Former Atheist Mary Jo Sharp, Author of “Why I Still Believe”
INTERVIEW BY DIANNE JAGO
Mary Jo Sharp is a woman who wears many hats. Not only is she a wife and mom, but she teaches, authors books and curriculum, and also runs the Confident Christianity Apologetics Ministry. Her ministry not only aids the non-believer who may be wrestling with legitimate questions about God but also strengthens the walk of Believers who may doubt their faith. I had the honor of meeting her at our 2016 Deeply Rooted Retreat and she was a great encouragement to me. Not only is she intelligent, but she is such a fun-loving, down to earth person. Mary Jo just released her latest book titled “Why I Still Believe: A Former Atheist’s Reckoning with the Bad Reputation Christians Give a Good God” and we had the opportunity to ask her a few questions about it.
Tell us about yourself.
I am a big goofball who thrives on comedy, fantasy fiction, and on the writings of some 19th-century authors like Jane Austen. I am also an assistant professor of apologetics at Houston Baptist University as well as the founder of Confident Christianity Apologetics Ministry. I’ve written a few Bible studies, including, “Why Do You Believe That?” and “Living In Truth.” Plus, I’m a contributing author to several apologetics books as well as the Worldview Study Bible. I get to be the wife of an awesome and funny guy, Roger, and the mom of an incredible human being, Emily.
You were once a former atheist. What changed?
I wasn’t raised in the church and grew up in a part of the country that has been culturally post-Christian for some years. So, I didn’t know much about Christianity nor the Bible. However, I was attracted to the great natural beauty in the Pacific Northwest, to the beauty I found in the performing arts, and to the mysteries of science. These things made me wonder if there was anything more to the universe than just the physical aspects of existence. Why are we here? What is all this beauty and wonder for? Do we live and die and that’s all there is? At the time when I began to have these thoughts, my high school band director (music teacher), became burdened for me. He was a Christian who had never shared his faith. In my senior year of high school, he gave me a Bible and said, “When you go off to college, you’re going to have hard questions. I hope you’ll turn to this.” I began to read that Bible and it brought me to the point of needing to do further investigation. In college, I started going to church on my own for the first time. I eventually found a church in which a clear Gospel message was given, to which I responded by trusting Jesus for my salvation.
Tell us about your new book, Why I Still Believe: A Former Atheist’s Reckoning with the Bad Reputation Christians Give a Good God. What led you to write it?
I was approached by an editor to write a more narrative style apologetic book. At first, I did not want to do the book because I feared it was too personal. As an apologist, I preferred to focus on the arguments and keep the inner workings of my personal life out of my material. Yet, I saw that there was a unique opportunity to show how the apologetic arguments were utilized in my daily living (moving from theory to praxis). I also noticed the pervasive influence of the deconversion story in which a high-profile Christian becomes disillusioned with Christianity and their questioning leads them away from God. I had a different experience. The deconstruction of my faith and the consideration of a universe void of God brought me to a point at which I could not deny the existence of God…no matter how much pain and hurt I experienced in the church. I hoped that by letting people into my struggle with the church and the arguments, others could relate and maybe find some solace.
A common reason many people reject Christianity is that they do not believe a good God would allow pain and suffering. Do you believe there is too much pain and suffering in this world to believe in a good God?
I have been asked many questions about this subject by people who are currently suffering the unfathomable loss of a loved one, the devastation of prolonged disease, or the despair of a painful injustice. In situations in which people are currently suffering, it is quite difficult to offer any theological or philosophical justification for the suffering we experience. So, in answering this question, I do so with the caveat that some readers are currently suffering, and a straight-up answer may come across as cold or trite.
The question of pain and suffering takes us into the question of evil. Why is there evil in the world if God exists? Some people will argue that the existence of evil disproves the existence of God. This argument has a fundamental problem from the very start. In order to describe something as evil, one must have a way to define evil. The person arguing from evil assumes that there is something called evil in this world and it is real. So evil needs a grounding source. Yet how does a person know what is evil if they do not know what is good? Evil is the lack or privation of some good thing that should be there (and here we have a definition). But now, we need to know what is good. So good needs a grounding source as well; a source that is the standard by which we know what is good at all.
Where do humans find something that is a standard of goodness?
In Christianity, God is the standard because of his perfect nature. This is why Christians say God is good. Jesus described, “No one is good except God alone” (Luke 18:19). We compare all things to God’s goodness and those things that fall short of His goodness, we call “evil” or a “lack of good.” In atheism, there is no standard for establishing good and evil. As a famous, atheist biologist Richard Dawkins has stated, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” There is no way in atheism to establish that the suffering we experience is somehow not good, since there are ultimately no such things as good or evil.
So, I do not believe there is too much pain and suffering in the world to believe in God. Rather, I see the pain and suffering as part of a world full of billions of humans rebelling against God and against the created order. Though I do not know why any individual suffers, I do know that we will all suffer because of our own rebellion and because of the evil committed by all humans, throughout time and history.
Another common objection from non-believers is that Christians are hypocrites. Unfortunately, many have faced painful experiences from professing Christians. What is your response to someone who rejects the truth of Scripture because they have been “hurt by the church”?
One of the main problems for Christians regarding this question is that Christians themselves, along with their great love for one another, are supposed to be testimonies to the truthfulness of Jesus as God’s Son and Savior for humankind (John 17:20-23). So when Christians fail to demonstrate an authentic, committed belief to the truth they profess, it damages their witness to the world.
However, I cannot grant the abuse of a belief system is the litmus test for the truth or falsity of that system of thought. I know that though people say they believe in God, they don’t always act like that profession is true. Further, most people will make choices directly opposed to the teachings of their own religion. Some will go so far as living in rebellion to their own beliefs. But these things do not eradicate the truth of the Scripture.
So, what do I do about it? Well, first I would agree with the person who is repelled by the hypocrisy of individuals in the church. People come to church seeking authentic community and love, yet they end up getting judged, marginalized, and ostracized. It’s gross. Second, I would say that these are the problems of being human. All of these same issues exist outside of the Christian faith. Leaving the church community altogether doesn’t solve the problem of judgment, marginalization, or ostracization. Finally, I would invite the person to consider a more comprehensive consideration of the atheist worldview. I have seen people leave Christianity by profession of losing faith, but then retain the Christian philosophical framework for things such as the value and dignity of human life. If one steps away from Christianity, one steps away from the Christian worldview.
What would you say to a Christian who might confess to having doubts about God?
I would want to say, “Welcome to the party.” Ha! Seriously, I would want this person to know that she is accepted and loved even if she has doubts. She needs to hear that doubts do not mean that one is unfaithful to God. Every human being has been given the gift of rationality, or the ability to gain knowledge. Yet, no human being will ever have God’s perfect knowledge. So, humans have imperfect knowledge, and many times, that causes us to have questions about what we know. God is not caught off guard by our doubts. Also, doubts are common amongst us humans. We see stories of doubting by great biblical heroes such as John the Baptist, the messenger of the Messiah, and even Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph. But doubt doesn’t just have to be extraordinary situations, it can be a part of our shedding of our young faith and growing into a more mature faith. As our thinking matures, it is a natural process to begin questioning what we think we know, and why we trust in certain authorities. It’s a process of self-reflection on our own beliefs. However, it is often given a negative connotation. But we should be patient with and “have mercy on those who doubt” (Jude 1:22).
Can you please define what a de-conversion story is? Why do you think this appears to be occurring more frequently?
A deconversion story is a person’s journey about losing faith in God. It is like a mirror opposite of the traditional testimony, the story follows a person’s life in Christ and/or the church, then moves to their time of questioning their faith, resulting in a climactic loss of faith, and then the ensuing life after Christianity. Many times, people will even say that they have been “set free” or “liberated” by leaving their faith.
The popularity of the deconversion story has many reasons, but I’ll attempt to share just one. As the cultural landscape of our society changes from its Judeo-Christian background to a more secular zeitgeist, we will continue to see more and more of these kinds of stories rise up and capture our imagination. We are constantly bombarded with an atheistic perspective of the world through our celebrity culture that is rife with atheism, not to mention our universities. As people are consistently confronted with the idea that atheism is a smarter and more compassionate view of life, and that Christianity is an unintelligent and callous view of life, we will see more and more people leave the faith.
You mention in your book that the Church “often inadvertently produces atheists despite its life-giving message.” How can churches better equip their members to prevent this?
The first thing to do is to recognize how we might be engaged in attitudes and behaviors that send a wrong message. Be bold with our congregations in making them aware that excusing ourselves from the sanctification process most likely communicates a lack of seriousness about belief in a real God. So many times, I’ve heard church members say, “Me and Jesus are good,” in order to justify a lack of growth both emotionally and intellectually in the faith. Hit the problem straight on the head: no one likes to mature in Christ because it takes sacrifice, but it’s something we are commanded to do as disciples of Jesus (Eph. 4:14-15)
A second thing we can do is to offer better Christian discipleship in the church.
Our members need to know the basics, like essential Christian doctrine, and the overarching Biblical narrative of creation-fall-redemption, and understanding the Gospel.
Further, they need to go a bit deeper and be challenged by the questions that have confronted mankind for ages: such as how do I know what is good, can God be good if there is evil in the world, how do I know God exists, and more.
In participating in even these two basic efforts, we communicate to others that we take Christianity seriously, which will help combat the growing accusation that Christians are hypocrites who are inauthentic in their belief and practice.
What should new believers keep in mind as they join a church and get involved in ministry? What are some helpful expectations to consider?
Hey new believers, please keep in mind that you are entering into fellowship with a group of fallen human beings. They have all the same problems as everybody else. They struggle with lying, cheating, selfishness, pride, envy, stinginess, lust, gluttony, insecurity, judgmentalism, etcetera. This new fellowship will hurt you. How are you going to exist in this group of fallen humans? Keep in mind that you are no better than any of them, and yet you will still experience pain and suffering from their words and deeds.
When everyone lets you down, including yourself, I recommend a teaching from Jesus in which he stated, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them” (Luke 6:27-28, 31). I cannot change other people, but I can change myself. Therefore, I treat others in the manner I would want to be treated. I’ve thought about how people who love me have responded to me in patience and kindness when I was being vile and wicked. I try to do that now for others. Expect to do this more often for others than others will do so for you.
What can we do to strengthen our own confidence in the Gospel in a culture that has increasingly become hostile to the Gospel?
We can disciple our people well in building a case for why we believe in God. Study the traditional arguments that have been given over the last 2,000 years of Christianity history all the way up to the current case-makers’ arguments today. As the apostle Peter once said, “Always be prepared to offer a defense of the reason of your hope” (1 Pet. 3:15). We should be ready to share why we think Christ historically rose from the dead and what that means for humanity. On the flip side, we can engage the current objections to belief in God. From the pulpit to the small groups, we can discuss the relevant arguments that affect our society today. Not only does this help build confidence in our beliefs by providing answers to these objections, but it also helps Christians boldly interact with those who oppose our views.
Where can we find you?
Facebook: Confident Christianity
 Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 133.