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The Atheist Who Pointed Me Toward Hope

This month marks the 50th Anniversary of the first landing of human beings on the moon. In an era of primitive computers, it was a stupendous achievement. Some years earlier I started my college career at the University of Minnesota pursuing studies in physics and aeronautical engineering. My first two quarters (trimesters) were a marathon of studying seven days a week, twelve hours a day. We calculated satellite orbits plus all sorts of things that could be measured and weighed. My grades were good, but something was missing in my life.

I had been concerned with the possibility that the world was going to end soon. The “cold war” was very real. Bomb shelter signs were prominently displayed in many places on campus, with the implication that you could survive an atomic attack. Besides that, I had been reading a magazine for over a year called The Plain Truth. It came from The Worldwide Church of God, based in California, whose leader claimed the world would be ending in 1975. He also headed up their own college, Ambassador College, in Pasadena. Besides that, he said all the other Christian churches were wrong about almost everything. His writing was bold, direct, confident. This reading stirred up my insecurities and concerns that studying physics was not able to satisfy.

I came to the decision that I would leave the University and seek an education where the Bible was the central source, and God the object of attention. Ambassador College seemed to be that place. During my last month in the dormitory at the University, I shared my plans with a man I had come to admire. John Howell was in his fifth year completing the engineering degree I had intended for myself. His room was just down the hall and he welcomed my occasional visits. He was about 23 years old, and I was just approaching my 19th birthday, so he seemed like a wise older man. Besides that, he was from California, an exotic place far, far away.

I told John that I thought I should take a year off to earn some money and then go out to California to attend Ambassador College. I explained that I wanted to go somewhere where I could take courses for in-depth Bible study. John listened to my disillusionment with engineering, my concerns and my reasoning for this plan. Then, after a while, he said “Well, Stan, I want you to know that I am an atheist. So I don’t have much interest in the kind of thing you are talking about studying. But I want you to know, there are a lot of nuts in California, and I wouldn’t go there if I were you.”

Seeing my look of puzzlement, he went on, “I think you should go back home and find out where you family’s church has a college you could attend. Most likely they have a college or two where you could study the Bible and get yourself grounded firmly in that way. Then, if you still want to do it, you can always go out to California and that Ambassador College later. I just don’t think it’s a good idea to go there until you have that foundation from your own church.”

A year later, I was attending Hope College. I absorbed all the Bible classes I wanted. I made friends with some guys heading toward seminary, and I was influenced to follow that track myself. I never regretted taking John Howell’s advice. I never saw him again after I left the University of Minnesota. But I sure wish I could thank that atheist who pointed me toward Hope.

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