I love to read encouraging stories, especially redemption stories. One of the most compelling stories I have read recently is from WORLD magazine’s “WORLD on Campus” website. If you are ever tempted to believe that someone can be beyond the reach of God’s grace in Christ, the story of Rich Suplita is a good message to hear. I hope his story is as encouraging for you as it is for me.
Ask a (Former) Atheist
by Kelsey Deans
Psychology professor Rich Suplita used to sit in the University of Georgia’s Tate Plaza holding a handmade sign that read “Ask an atheist” any time a preacher came to campus to share the gospel. As the faculty sponsor of the school’s atheist club, he was adept at explaining how to tackle the issues of life without God.
“Essentially what I was trying to do was offer an atheistic apologetic of how you can explain whatever happens to be true through the lens of atheism, and I think I was pretty good at that,” Suplita said during a recent interview. He was so good, he almost convinced himself. But after six years denying God’s existence, Suplita had a dramatic change of heart. When he visits Tate Plaza now, he’s the one sharing the gospel.
Suplita grew up in a legalistic Christian denomination, which he declined to name, that equated salvation with good works. As he got older, Suplita could not reconcile what he saw as a contradiction in his church’s teaching that a person is freely granted salvation through the grace of God but then has to work to maintain that salvation. He said he could not believe in a God who would give salvation freely at first but make the assurance of that salvation contingent on a person’s ability to stop sinning.
Unable to believe in God, Suplita embraced the ideas of atheistic humanism. He went to graduate school at the University of Georgia and earned his doctorate in psychology in 2005. By the fall of 2010 he was teaching everything from introduction to psychology to pharmacology and neuroscience and had become the school’s best-known atheist. His ability to present atheistic apologetics made him popular with the 50-member UGAtheist club, which he sponsored.
Suplita said he believed the God of the Bible was unjust in many of the judgments that he carried out, and that a good God who allows evil to happen in the world could not exist. He often quoted 1 Samuel 15:3, in which God commands the Israelites to go to war with the Amalekites and to destroy them.
“It actually lists to put to death the men, women, children, infants, cattle and sheep, basically, to wipe them out entirely,” he said. “And that whole idea of God commanding His army to kill babies, if you just extract that from everything else there is about God, then it seems so atrocious that the conclusion is, ‘Well, a monster like that must not exist.’ That was my point at the time.”
If someone had asked him last fall if he believed in God, he would have said definitely not. But now, Suplita says he is unsure whether he ever really believed that in his heart. He could give a whole list of reasons why he thought it was ridiculous to believe in God, but he now wonders whether he really believed what he was saying.
“It was more like I was trying to convince myself,” he said.Suplita always struggled with the atheist worldview’s
existential crisis – the idea that if atheism is true, life is ultimately meaningless and not worth living. Suplita realized that the existential crisis extended far beyond the parameters of his own life. If it were true, it would mean the same thing for the lives of his daughters, aged 10, 7 and 4.
Suplita said that while he could spend his time on campus telling his students that there was no God, he could not bring himself to tell that to his own children. He could not justify teaching them that their lives were meaningless and that there was no God to glorify.
Last spring, near Easter, Suplita went to an event at Tate Plaza that was sponsored by Watkinsville First Baptist Church. He listened to the preacher and talked with some of the church’s members. They encouraged him to re-read the gospel of John and to reconsider the truth of biblical Christianity. A few weeks later, Suplita prayed to receive Christ as his savior.
He still believes the existential crisis is real, but he now understands its purpose is to point people to God.
“Only when you postulate an eternal God that you can actually have some sort of meaningful relationship with can you get around that existential crisis,” he said.
Belief in the existence of God, the invitation to have a personal relationship with Him and the opportunity to live to bring Him glory were the answers to the meaning of life that he was looking for, Suplita said. Only when he saw that there was life after death and a purpose for life here today did he have hope, security and a reason for getting up in the morning, he said.
Suplita’s decision to embrace Christianity got him kicked out of the atheist’s club, even though he offered to stay on as its sponsor. But the reactions of his former friends, who decided he must have gone “off the deep end,” hasn’t deterred him from his new faith.
“It’s helped give me peace in that sense, in that my life’s about something and the lives of my daughters are about something that is lasting and enduring and can never fade away,” he said. “And there is intrinsic hope in that.”