Throughout the month of February, this column will be featuring stories of noted atheists who experienced dramatic shifts in their views, eventually becoming Christians. The stories will highlight the reasons why they held their atheistic views to begin with, and the reasons they became convinced of the truth of Christianity.
The summer after tenth grade, David Wood knocked on the door of his best friend’s house. He was greeted with the discovery that his friend had died in a parasailing accident. This, he thought, should probably have bothered him, but for some reason it didn’t. Thinking back on his life, he realized that death never had. When he was young, his dog had been run over by a bus. His mother had been devastated, but he couldn’t understand why. He couldn’t understand why anyone cried at death. Was something wrong with them, or was something wrong with him?
Other things never bothered him, either. When his mother’s boyfriend beat her, he never bothered to stop the man. He was able to. He was strong. He had a gun. But he didn’t care, and he was proud of it.
Wood came to the conclusion that he was better – superior – to everyone around him. He was an example of evolution at work, unhindered by the pathetic emotions that weighed down everyone else.
From childhood, Wood decided he was an atheist. He describes his feelings on the matter:
“We’ve got this massive universe, and over here is a tiny little crumb of a galaxy. Out on one of the spiral arms of this galaxy is a thoroughly unremarkable ball of hot gas. Circling this ball of hot gas is a pathetic speck of cosmic dust we call earth, and crawling all over the earth are these feeble, selfish, self-destructive lumps of cells, constantly deluding themselves into thinking what they do is so important! But the universe couldn’t conceivable care less whether you love your neighbor as yourself, or torture them to death for fun. So you might as well do what you feel like doing with the little time you’ve got.”
Wood’s unique outlook led to devious behavior practically from the beginning. He recalls a minor disagreement with a friend which resulted in him smacking his friend in the side of the head with a shovel and then attempting to strangle the boy. He increasingly came to the conclusion that rules did not apply to him. That society was trying to bind him down and enslave him. He describes an instance running from the police when he ducked into someone’s backyard garden:
“I started to walk around the garden, but then stopped to philosophize. I thought, ‘I don’t care about the people in that house! So why am I going out of my way to avoid stepping on their vegetables? Why am I being so courteous?’ Because I’d been brainwashed, that’s why! I’d been breaking the law for years, and yet society had been manipulating my behavior all along. Greatness had been polluted by mediocrity.”
Wood’s desire to escape society’s control manifested itself in lashing out at authority figures. He devoutly denied the existence of any God and he dabbled in bomb-building with the thought of becoming an anarchist – but his real obstacle to autonomy was his closest authority figure: his father.
So at two o’clock one Thanksgiving morning, Wood took a ball-peen hammer into the room of his sleeping father with cold calculation. Wood says that he stood there knowing his father had never done anything to him remotely deserving this response. But this wasn’t about righting wrongs – as if there were such things as “right” and “wrong.” Wood brutally beat his father in the head until he was certain the man was dead. As he drove away from the house, he said his feelings were entirely dead, as well.
Wood was found and arrested for his crime. Wood’s father actually survived the attack with some brain damage. His mother had him committed to a psychiatric hospital, where he was diagnosed with anti-social personality disorder. He was later transferred to prison by the state of Virginia, where he pled guilty for malicious wounding, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Prison didn’t stop Wood’s grand plans for his life. As an atheist, he wanted to live what little life he had in destruction of social conventions and society itself. Rules were a product of religion, and religion a product of rules – and he was there to destroy them both. So he spent his first several years in prison trying to determine how to do these things without getting caught next time; and forming lists of all the people he had known during his life who he was going to murder for trying to control him and conform him to the system. He would think of ways to torture them as he killed them, like taking them out to the woods and flaying the skin from their bodies.
The difficulty Wood describes struggling with, was that these goals he was forming for himself were just as meaningless as the system he was trying to destroy. Whether he conformed to the rules or broke them, there was no prize, no purpose, no framework that gave anything he did any value.
During his time at prison, Wood made friends with a Christian inmate named Randy. As an atheist, Wood would approach Randy with arguments against the Bible and Christianity. Unlike other Christians Wood had met, however, Randy had good responses, and Wood was unable to get around them. Wood became competitive with Randy in everything that he did. When Randy began to fast and pray, Wood began to starve himself in an attempt to out-fast Randy. Due to the tremendous weight loss, the loss of blood pressure, and the vitamin deficiency, the prison thought that Wood was trying to starve himself to death, and put him in an isolated cell under constant surveillance with the threat of tube-feeding.
Here, Wood had nothing to do but read. He determined to read the Bible, the Apologetics books that Randy had given him and Bible Study books from the chaplain in order to find arguments which might destroy Christianity permanently, and finally shut his friend Randy down.
It was here that Wood was impacted by some of the profundity of the actual Bible that he read. More than this, however, he began to wonder how he had blindly accepted on faith that the order and complexity of life and the universe had arisen by chance with no intelligence behind it. Beyond this, he wondered how it was that all of the apostles of Jesus were deluded into thinking that they saw the risen Christ, such that so many of them were willing to be persecuted and killed for their beliefs.
Finally, despite his sense of being superior to everyone on earth, Wood came to the uncomfortable realization that Jesus, as described in the Bible, might actually be a better person than he was.
It was at this point that Wood realized that his belief that he was better than everyone else required a standard, but he didn’t believe in standards. This made his beliefs seem untenable. Wood was struck by the thought that he might just be the worst person in the world, not the best.
It was upon this realization that there might just be something wrong with him, that Wood began to wonder if it could ever be made right? Was he just going to have to live with his various misdeeds and social disorders, or was there some solution to them?
So while in the solitary confinement cell, Wood prayed to God asking him – if God were there at all – to redeem him in the way the Bible suggested.
Wood describes an almost immediate change. That he felt as if he knew truth all along, but had been suppressing it from himself, and for the first time in almost his entire life, he didn’t want to hurt anyone. Wood says that the freedom he was looking for his entire life was not from rules, but from his own irascible nature.
However cliché, after his release from prison, Wood was a changed man. He pursued and received advanced degrees in philosophy and biology. In college, he made friends with a Muslim with whom he had numerous interfaith discussions. His Muslim friend eventually converted to Christianity, aided by their discussions, and together the two of them began a cooperative endeavor to evangelize to Muslims.
Wood eventually obtained a Ph.D. in the philosophy of religion, married, and had four children. Dr. Wood is currently a traveling lecturer and writer who participates in regular public debates with both atheists and Muslims. Wood is founder and director of Acts 17 Ministries, and a respected and sought-after teacher and speaker.