By James Bishop| The story of the former French atheist Guillaume Bignon turned Christian apologist is a fairly lengthy testimonial as he himself provides (1). It is also a well documented one I’ve come to learn as featured on Premier Christianity (2), Christianity Today (3), The Blaze (4) as well as on several other widely read outlets.
Thus, what I’ve tried to do here is to summarize his testimony to include the best parts most relevant to his worldview transition. To begin Bignon was taken by surprise that so much interest was generated around his conversion, “A number of people lately have been intrigued to meet a French theologian, and have asked me to tell them the story of how I, a French atheist, became a Christian scholar. Even the theologians and apologists I met recently at the ETS Conference in Baltimore (where by God’s grace I was delivering my first scholarly paper) seemed to care (understandably) more about my conversion from atheism than my immediate theology paper!”
Bignon however says that much of his prior rejection of Christianity, and religion in general, took place in his childhood; he explains that he “grew up in a wonderfully loving family in France, near Paris.” His family “were nominally Roman Catholic, and would regularly attend mass, but this religious expression seemed to be more out of tradition and maybe superstition than a true life conviction.”
In this time his “basically atheistic beliefs and values remained” and all that really changed for him was that at the age of 12 he stopped attending these ceremonies. To him these ceremonies involved nothing more than “going through the motions of religious rituals and meaningless recitations.”
However, even though he was an atheist, Bignon says that he “grew up to be a pretty happy young adult.” His dad was a mathematician and computer scientist and his mom was devoted to the well-being and education of her children which included Bignon and his two siblings. Moreover, after studying at university Bignon landed a job also as a computer scientist for a large investment bank while on the sporting side he also met much success.
He grew to be 6 feet 4 inches and ended up playing volleyball in the national league which had him travel across France every weekend for games, “All in all, I was pretty happy with my life, and in a thoroughly secular culture, the chances of ever hearing (let alone believe) the Gospel were incredibly slim.”
While he was on holiday with a friend on the island of Saint Martin in the Caribbean he met a woman whom lived close to the place in which he rented. He found that she lived in New York and that she believed in God which Bignon felt was “an intellectual suicide” by his standards. Even worse “she accordingly believed that sex belonged only in marriage (an even more problematic belief than theism, if it was at all possible).”
However, they started dating and when the vacation ended she flew back to New York while he returned to Paris. This ended up in a “problematic long-distance relationship” especially as “Her religious beliefs clearly remained the problem, and my new goal in life was essentially to explain to her why all this was untenable, so that she could put this nonsense behind her.” This was an important stepping stone in Bignon’s journey to belief in God since it got him “thinking about the whole thing. What good reason was there to think God exists, and what good reason was there to think atheism was true instead?”
He explains that he just assumed that his “own unbelief was comfortably resting on the fact that (smart) people around me didn’t believe in God either, but it was more a reasonable life assumption than the conclusion of a solid argument… So I started to take the question seriously, to objectively assess its credibility. But of course, if I was going to refute Christianity, I first needed to know what exactly it affirmed… So I picked up a Bible to figure it out. And at the same time, since I’m a scientist, I figured there was at least one experiment that could be carried out to dis-confirm the belief that God exists.”
Bignon then started to pray as an atheist to test God, “If there is a God, then here I am, I’m looking into this, why don’t you go ahead and reveal yourself to me. I’m open.” But, as he recalls, he wasn’t actually open, “I wasn’t, really, but I figured that shouldn’t stop God if He existed. So I read in the gospels about this Jesus of Nazareth.”
The historical Jesus, however, had a massive affect on him. This was because considering Jesus “didn’t exactly feel like what I expected. I was impressed by the authority of that man’s teaching. Sure enough, I didn’t have much room in my worldview for his talks of God and supernatural activity, but I was rather impressed by the way he maneuvered in conversation, and the wisdom of some of his retorts… this man knew what he was doing, he spoke with authority, and it made me somewhat uncomfortable.”
Bignon also believed, even while an atheist not really open to belief in God and the supernatural, “that the person of Jesus of Nazareth was not just a piece of mythology; it seemed clear he was at least a person of history who walked the roads of Palestine in the first century, and apparently his story was compelling enough that these ancient followers of his believed it and even suffered for preaching his death and resurrection.”
The historical Jesus made “it harder to completely throw out the whole thing, and I knew that at some point I would need to give a coherent account of who I thought Jesus in fact was. But all of this was nowhere near changing my view or my life habits. I couldn’t even visit a church had I wanted to, since all my weekends were busy traveling the country to play volleyball.”
However, just two weeks later Bignon’s basketball career ended up on the back seat as “out of the blue, my spiking shoulder started to fail me. For no apparent reason, without any accident or any evident injury, my shoulder would start to burn out 10 minutes into every volleyball practice. With that inflamed shoulder, I just couldn’t spike. The doctor couldn’t see anything wrong, the physical therapist’s best efforts didn’t help, and I was basically told: “look, you probably just need to rest your shoulder. You need to stop volleyball for a couple of weeks.”
Reluctantly he had not choice but to accept this and thus would find some time to look into Christianity, “Well, since I had been investigating this Christianity thing, I decided I would try and visit a church, to see what those Christians do when they get together… Frankly, I went to that church like I would go to the zoo: to see some weird exotic animals that I had read about in books, but had never seen in real life… I remember thinking that if any of my friends or family could see me there in the building (a church!) I would die of shame.”
At the end of the service Bignon decided to speak to the pastor and this opened up a series of dialogues between the two, “We spoke for hours, and didn’t come close to exhausting all my questions. So over the course of the next few weeks, I repeatedly met with him like that, and we discussed. I would ask a lot of questions, and he would provide biblical answers. Here was an obviously educated man, who believed these incredible things about God and Jesus, and I progressively started to consider that all of this could possibly be true…
He gave me a study guide he had written, which essentially laid out the basics of the Christian faith… I went through this thoroughly at home, and scribbled down pages and pages of handwritten notes.” But although Christianity began to make sense to him he still questioned why Jesus had to die, “I still have these pages of notes written in French at home, and the question can be read on every other page: “why did Jesus have to die?””
Although Bignon prayed for God to do something truly remarkable, “What He did instead was less theatrical, but much more brutal: He reactivated my conscience. That was not a pleasant experience. I suddenly realized a truth I knew but had worked very hard to suppress… I still remember lying there in pain in my apartment near Paris, when all of a sudden the quarter dropped; it made sense:
“That” is why Jesus had to die:…me… He took upon himself the penalty that I deserved, so that in God’s justice, my sins would be forgiven freely, by grace as a gift, rather than by my righteous deeds or religious rituals… So I accepted the whole thing: I placed my trust in Jesus, and asked Him to forgive me in the way the New Testament promised He would.”
This massive step had a significant impact on his life, “I experienced a sort of spiritual renewal: the guilt was gone, and I received the freedom and forgiveness Jesus promised.” So, Bignon continued reading the Bible of which he soon discovered became a passion, “this whole story of mine started to make sense and exhibit purpose: I had experienced the living God, who revealed Himself to me in the person of Jesus Christ, who according to the Gospel died to pay the price for my sin, so that I might be saved, by faith alone in Jesus alone and not by works of the law. I was all in.”
Bignon then soon “landed a job on Wall Street,” but working in New York meant that he had to leave many important people behind including his family and friends. His basketball career was also over for due to a visible hole in his shoulder that ruled him out. The relationship with the girl he had met while on holiday at Saint Martin also had come to an end.
However, in the midst of all these changes apologetics became a big thing for him since he had some time to spend on “lectures, formal debates, the arguments for the existence of God, atheistic arguments and their responses, the reliability of scripture, all the panoply of Christian apologetics: theology, history, analytic philosophy… After a couple of months of this regimen, I thought “if I’m going to spend all of my time and money studying these things, I might as well get a degree out of it”. And so I signed up for seminary in New York City, for a Masters in New Testament studies.”
Great things happened to Bignon during this time as not only did he begin his doctoral work for a PhD in systematic and philosophical theology but he also got married, and now has children. He is humbled to be able to share his testimony with others who may be considering belief in God and therefore wishes to leave us with the following thought,
“I was not looking for God; I did not seek Him, and I didn’t want Him. He reached out to me, loved me while I was still a sinner, broke my defenses, and decided to pour out His undeserved grace, that His Son might be glorified, and that, from my sin I may be saved by grace through faith, and not by works; it is the gift of God, so that no one may boast (Eph. 2:8-9). That’s the Gospel, and it’s good news worth-believing.”
1. Bignon, G. My conversion story. Available.
2. Premier Christianity. Guillaume Bignon: From staunch atheist to Christian theologian.Available.
3. Bignon, G. 2014. How a French Atheist Becomes a Theologian. Available.
4. Hallowell, B. 2015. French Atheist-Turned-Theologian Unveils What He Believes Every ‘Consistent Atheist’ Must Affirm About the ‘Islamic Terrorists in Paris.’ Available.