Craig Williams was a tireless and highly successful Christian apologist. He was the superstar on the staff of Campus Christian Crusade. His numerous debates against atheists and skeptics had fortified the faith of many. H e had, for instance, recently kicked Robert Price’s unbelieving butt for all to see. YouTube videos of his lectures and debates were many, with more being added all the time, and they garnered record numbers of views. Dr. Williams spent precious few weekends at home, so few in fact that he hardly thought of his apartment as home, more like a garage with himself as the car. He parked himself there on the rare occasions he was not flying here or there to debate. The wear and tear was nothing to the satisfaction he felt from his work for the Lord Jesus. Not that his work did not present temptations of its own. Who would have guessed that Christian celebrities such as he would attract cute co-ed groupies? But he had politely resisted their advances. The big danger was, of course, that of pride, but he did his best to resist that one, too.
But just now, Williams had a different problem to deal with. He sat, bare-chested, on the tissue-covered examination table, awaiting the doctor’s verdict. It always took longer than they said it would, so he spent the time praying, at least at first. But in a few moments he was dozing.
“Mister Williams? Mister Williams? I hate to disturb you …”
The doctor smiled as Williams rejoined him in the waking world.
“Oh, sorry, Doc! I didn’t mean to …”
“That’s quite all right! In fact, I’d like to see you take more naps! You need more rest than your work seems to allow. Frankly, you’re over-exerting yourself pretty badly, you know.”
Putting his shirt back on, Williams did not know what to say. He knew the doctor was right. And he knew that, as a Christian, he had an obligation to take good care of the body God had given him. Still, had not God blessed him with a dynamic ministry? Surely God would take care of him as long as he pursued his assigned mission. But somehow he didn’t think his reasoning would impress the doctor much, so he kept it to himself.
It wasn’t long before the doctor’s advice proved prophetic. It was right in the middle of a vigorous exchange with Stan Parker, president of the Revenge on Religion Foundation, when Williams began to sputter, then collapsed right on stage. His opponent at once rushed to his side, found him unresponsive, and yelled out: “Somebody call an ambulance for God’s, er, I mean, for Pete’s sake!” The invincible defender of the faith had suffered a massive heart attack.
Death came to him as he lay on the operating table, despite the best efforts of doctors and nurses to bring him out of it. Admitting defeat, the medical team shook their heads in sorrow. Some were familiar with his work; others simply regretted the passing of a man so young and vigorous. “I guess God figured it was his time, huh?”
Williams heard all this as from a distance. What did they mean? Who could they be talking about? All at once he thought of a scene from Roger Corman’s movie The Premature Burial with a paralyzed Ray Milland panicking as the clods of earth piled up on his coffin. As if it were some theological hypothetical, Williams asked himself, “What gives? Am I dead or alive?”
His confusion was only compounded when he felt himself being sucked through some kind of wind tunnel toward a faraway beacon of light. Granted, scripture had little to say of the transition to the afterlife, and it sure didn’t describe anything like this. He thought of the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man. Was he headed for Abraham’s Bosom, the antechamber of heaven? He expected he’d find out in short order. Nor was he disappointed (though he soon would be).
Williams knew he had left his physical form behind; nevertheless, he felt like he was standing on some firm but unseen surface. In a moment the light he had glimpsed flared up before him. Was this an angel? C. S. Lewis had described them rather like this in Out of the Silent Planet. Of course, that wasn’t scripture, though many Christians practically treated Lewis’s books that way. His thoughts were racing, trying to insulate him from a rising fear he knew was incompatible with faith.
The Light was speaking now, whether to his ears or to his mind he did not know.
“Welcome, Craig Williams.”
The voice was deep and soothing, also vibrant and, unless it was his imagination, with a hint of amusement.
“Who are you, Lord? Uh, are you the Lord Jesus … or the Heavenly Father?” Should he have recognized him as one or the other?
“Fear not, Craig Williams,” the Being said. “But I must tell you: things are not quite as you have supposed. I belong to none of your religions. I am not like some sports fan rooting for a favorite team, as you all seem to think. But the Hindus have come the closest. The ones, that is, who believe in the creator Brahma. I rejoice to create and multiply worlds as it pleases me. And they are close to the truth about something else, too. The relation between reality and illusion is not precisely what you may think. They are different only in certain respects.”
Williams was quite familiar with this doctrine. He made it his business to study up on rival faiths in order to better refute them. But he found himself slipping into serious disorientation. Was he failing his Theology final? And what would happen to him when he got that “F”?
Suddenly he had a sobering realization: he was standing at the greatest apologetic opportunity of them all! To persuade “God” himself of the truth of Christianity!
“Behold, I have taken it upon myself to speak to the Almighty!”
He hesitated, waiting for any reaction. There was none, and Williams took this as tacit permission to proceed. He went into default mode, condensing a spiel he had presented hundreds of times. He covered the proofs from prophecy and miracle, the need for God as the basis for morality, the eyewitness testimony of the gospels, and the futility of naturalistic alternatives to the resurrection. There was little sense of time here, and he hoped he was not trying the Being’s patience. At length he rested his case. The featureless entity somehow conveyed the impression of listening with polite interest.
“Your knowledge and your zeal are remarkable! I must disappoint you, however. None of that is true. There was no Jesus. There were no apostles, no miracles, except in ancient dreams. You must forgive me.”
Williams felt a gathering storm cloud of dread and panic. He muttered, to himself, “If Christ be not raised, our faith is in vain and our preaching is in vain.” He had to think fast.
“But … it should be true! Without the gospel, what hope is there? Er, but you can make it true, can’t you, whoever you are?”
There was silence in heaven for the space of half an hour. Then the voice emerged again from the Light. “In fact, I can. Time is part of the illusion, and I am able to manipulate it. I am intrigued by your suggestion! It is in many ways a grand story. Perhaps you are right. Perhaps it ought to be true. All right, let it be true! Behold!”
Dreams are supposed to elapse in a moment while seeming to the dreamer to last for hours. The dying are said to see their whole lives flash before their mind’s eye. In some such way, Williams now witnessed a panorama of gospel scenes—not in real time, but as if remembering things once seen—in rapid succession. He saw shepherds and three kings flanking the Bethlehem manger. The boy Jesus working in Joseph’s carpenter shop. His baptism, a dove descending onto his shoulder. A voice, similar to that of the Light Being, saying first, “Thou art my beloved Son” and, immediately thereafter, “This is my beloved Son.”
Retreating into the Judean desert, Jesus met the Tempter, who, Williams was surprised to see, tempted Jesus four times, suggesting he transform stones into bread, offering him the kingdoms of the world, telling him to jump from the temple rooftop, then repeating the offer of the kingdoms. It made sense now! At Cana, he turned the water into grape juice. Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem and ejected the money-changers and livestock. He gave the Sermon on the Mount, then, soon after, the similar Sermon on the Plain. Jesus healed one blind man as he entered the town of Jericho and another on his way out. Williams was amazed to see his Lord restoring missing limbs, resurrecting rotting corpses. He heard Jesus say to the crowds, “I am God incarnate. Who else could do such deeds?”
Nicodemus approached by night, and Jesus answered him, “Unless a man is born again and accepts me as his personal savior, he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” When a scribe asked Jesus about the greatest commandment, he replied, “Thou shalt invite me into thy heart as personal Lord and Savior. Why not pray with me right now?” The rich young ruler addressed Jesus as “Good teacher,” and Jesus replied, “Think about what you’re saying! Only God is good, no? So what does that make me?” The man bowed and exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” Something about all this struck Williams as wrong but also as entirely right.
Jesus entered Jerusalem again, this time precariously balanced on the backs of two donkeys, one smaller than the other. He cleansed the temple again. At the Last Supper he gave the disciples a cup, the bread, and a second cup, saying “This cup of grape juice figuratively symbolizes my blood,” etc. He predicted that Peter would deny him at least three times that very night. Before the Sanhedrin, when asked if he was the Christ, he replied, “I Am That I Am!” Peter denied him six times, speaking to a series of several individuals.
On the way to Golgotha, Jesus began carrying his cross, then stumbled under its weight, whereupon a soldier grabbed a bystander by the collar and ordered him to carry the heavy beam the rest of the way. Jesus was crucified at six a.m., then taken down to be crucified again at nine. Despite his suffering, Jesus made a series of seven different statements from the cross.
For the first time Williams got a clear look at Jesus’s face—and Jesus looked just like him!
Easter morning rolled around, and the scene was surprisingly confusing, with Jesus appearing and disappearing, two angels morphing into one, then splitting apart again. Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John performed an elaborate dance of sorts, arriving and departing and returning in various combinations.
“>Look, why don’t we give it one more try?” This time the medical team managed to resuscitate him. His heart began to beat again, timidly at first, then more steadily. He was not yet conscious, but there was clearly brain activity. “That was a close one!”
Williams finally woke up later that evening in a hospital bed. Smiling faces of friends and colleagues greeted him. But all he could think of was his Near Death Experience (NDE). He asked himself the same question all who had the experience asked: Was it all a dream? He resolved at once not to share the story with anyone until he could determine the reality of the matter.
There was no question now whether to take his doctor’s warnings seriously. Williams had his secretary cancel his upcoming appearances and convey his apologies. He was itching to get back in the saddle, but for now he must rest and recuperate. He decided to use the time to study, especially on NDEs. But that didn’t last long. Everyone who sojourns on the internet finds himself quickly distracted by the siren song of click-bait. Even so, Williams found himself straying from the path as soon as something shiny grabbed his attention. And the result was some big surprises.
For one thing, the scientific community was in an uproar over the announcement of new genetic research that rendered the theory of evolution obsolete and untenable. Mainstream scientists admitted it was time for a major paradigm shift and suggested Darwinism be given a respectful funeral. The new research had suddenly revived the fortunes of the once-discredited Intelligent Design theory. It was a game-changing event on the level with the dawn of quantum physics, and the larger implications had yet to be worked out. But one thing was clear: evolutionism could no longer be wielded like a club over the head of the Christian faith! Williams felt a thrill of long-delayed vindication. It was much like the sense of relief Americans felt with the end of the Cold War. He whispered a brief prayer of thanks. But a moment later it occurred to him to wonder exactly whom he was thanking.
Only days later, even more stunning news awaited him. He saw the report, typically dumbed-down, first on cable news, then he went online to find more detailed coverage. It seemed that new manuscript discoveries in the Judean Desert provided solid evidence for Jesus’s resurrection! Papyrologists and archaeologists, usually very cautious in issuing such news, were agreed that the cache of early Christian letters dated from the first third of the first century AD, and that the eye-witness descriptions of Easter encounters contained in them appeared genuine, bearing none of the usual marks of apocryphal forgery. He sank back into his desk chair stricken with wonder. Apologetics such as he practiced would now be much easier, if not actually obsolete. If so, he would be the first to rejoice. It had all been but a means to save souls, and if it should no longer be necessary, all the better!
But the news imparted by a stream of visitors was even more astounding. A few were ex-students of his, apprentice apologists. Others were colleagues at Campus Christian Crusade. Every one of them was bursting with exciting reports of city-wide revivals, once-staid churches now bursting at the seams with newly rededicated backsliders and new converts alike.
“Craig, I swear it’s like the days of Charles Finney, Dwight Moody!”
Others shared with him testimonies of strikingly answered prayers for the conversion of hitherto-stubborn relatives and even dramatic spontaneous remissions of deadly diseases! They were starry-eyed, almost as if they had just fallen in love. Clearly, a great movement of the Holy Spirit was underway.
But for Craig Williams, there was a fly, perhaps even a horsefly, mired in the ointment, tainting what should have been unalloyed joy. None of his excited informants was inclined to look a gift horse in the mouth. No one ventured to ask just why this Holy Spirit renaissance had dawned all at once at this particular time. Though these developments occurred more or less at the same time as the news concerning evolution and the manuscript discoveries, Williams knew there could be no direct connection. Most lay people, whether Christian or non-Christian, were not engaged with issues such as these. They were mainly of concern to “professionals” like him and his debate opponents, a tiny subgroup of the population.
This became even clearer once Williams’s closest Christian friends began to confide in him. They told him of real progress in personal sanctification. Nor did he have to take their word for it; subtle but real changes in demeanor, increased serenity and unselfconscious holiness, spoke for themselves. Neither they nor he said it, but Williams and his friends seemed to share the recognition that the formulaic promises of evangelical rhetoric were finally being fulfilled. What a frustrating sham it had been up till now! These sentiments were typical: “I’m telling you, Craig, for the first time in my Christian life, I am actually hearing the inner voice of Jesus in dialogue with me! I’m actually having a relationship with Jesus Christ!” Williams truly rejoiced in these confessions, though he was noncommittal about his own spirituality.
And he certainly felt disinclined to share his now-solidified explanation for the new spiritual climate, for he had become convinced that his Near Death Experience was, to use his apologist jargon, “veridical.” In other words, it had been real. It had been a real encounter, not just in his head. Christianity had become true—and in his image! Christianity according to Craig Williams!
Instead of rejoicing, Williams found himself increasingly worried. At first he could not pinpoint the reason for his anxiety. But he knew one thing: he had to abandon apologetics, once pretty much his main reason for living. As he explained to so many who were distressed at his announcement and his immediate resignation from Campus Christian Crusade, he felt his efforts were no longer useful. The war had been, for all intents and purposes, won.
“But Dr. Williams, what about straight evangelistic preaching? You’re such a gifted speaker!”
“That’s still needful, of course, but I’m afraid it’s just not my corner of the vineyard. From now on, I’m planning to hunker down and do something I’ve been missing for a long time: writing in depth on biblical exegesis and theology.” As soon as these comments appeared in Evangelicalism Today, publishers including Eerdmans and Inter-Varsity hastened to offer him book contracts. But his efforts soon flagged, along with his interest in the once-favored subjects. These things, too, Williams set aside, refunding the sizeable advances he had received.
Several of his friends, marking these dramatic changes, urged him to get counseling. “You sound like you might be clinically depressed. This sudden loss of interest—it’s one of the classic signs. There are a number of excellent Christian psychologists I could put you in touch with. Would you like some phone numbers?”
Williams replied noncommittally, implicitly discouraging further contact. In reality he was quarantining himself. “If I had spoken thus, I should have betrayed the generation of thy children.” Having suffered the loss, one by one, of every comforting, evasive rationalization, Williams had finally been left alone with the truth he had been hiding from himself.
If Christianity was not true in and of itself but was artificially made true, then was it really true at all and not a simulation? Couldn’t the playful deity change his mind and decide to make Buddhism or, for that matter, the Aztec religion of human sacrifice “true”? In establishing his faith, Craig Williams had, ironically, destroyed it.
He began to receive calls, e-mails, and even personal visits from a whole different quarter: the atheists and skeptics he had once avidly debated. They had surmised he must have become disillusioned with his faith. What a coup it would be if they could enlist him to their cause! Dave Goldman, head of the Westboro Atheist Association, was typical: “Imagine the star apologist publicly recanting! Heh-heh, it’d be like Paul on the road to Damascus, only in reverse!”
“I’m afraid you’ve got me wrong, Dave. I don’t want to switch teams; I just want to quit the damn game and be done with it. But you’re kind to think of me.”
Besides, though no longer a Christian (as he had to admit), neither was Williams an atheist. He had, after all, encountered some sort of deity.
He knew he had no chance of escaping the spotlight if he stayed where he was. So he began the process of legally changing his name, pulling up stakes, and moving to another state. He quietly sold his extensive theological library to one of the huge dealers in secondhand religious books. He told no one where, or even that, he was going. Once relocated, he decided to roll up his sleeves and volunteer for local relief work among the homeless and drug-addicted. In this he found a degree of satisfaction. With the obscuring veil of theology lifted, it now seemed plain to him that the fundamental thing was to pitch in and alleviate human suffering.
He spent many months thus engaged, living modestly on the money he had made during his years of speaking and writing. His mood and outlook did not much improve. He felt strangely unmoored from the world, every belief stripped from him, unsure even of the fabric of reality. But he was mostly able to set this confusion aside in his service to others. His coworkers at the shelter were drawn to him, admiring his compassion and dedication, but they could not help noticing his glum demeanor.
“Bill, you seem so, I don’t know … introspective, I guess. Is anything wrong? I know it’s none of my business, but …”
“I appreciate your concern, Evelyn, but it’s nothing I could explain very easily.” He forced a smile and walked away.
So it went until the day something dawned on Williams. He had dedicated himself to mitigating human suffering, never thinking that he himself, the one-time champion of Christianity, was single-handedly responsible for unthinkable torment, compared with which the trials of his precious street people were the ecstasies of Paradise. While the Christian belief was still no more than a creation of the human imagination, there was neither a biblical heaven—nor a hell. But now there was. Now the “unsaved” were writhing in unquenchable flames and covered with worms that would never die, and it was his doing!
This he could not live with.
The next afternoon, Evelyn and another coworker, dropping by to give him a ride to the shelter, discovered “Bill’s” corpse hanging by a belt from a rafter in his apartment.
Standing again before the Being of Light, Williams fairly groveled in self-reproach. The Being knew what was on his mind. But he waited for Williams to say it.
“Can we change it again? Get rid of hell? Have everybody go to heaven?”
“I’m afraid not, Craig Williams. And I think you know why. It is all interconnected. If there is nothing to be saved from, where is the need for a savior?”
“Is there no way to undo what I have done?”
“There is indeed! And you know what that is, don’t you, Craig Williams?”
“Make Christianity false again?”
“Correct. Are you sure you want that?”
Eyes shut tight, Williams muttered, “Hell is too high a price to pay for Christianity to be true …”
“It is done. Now you may consider yourself the savior, as you have quenched the flames of perdition. Come, sit at my right hand, good and faithful servant.”
Back in the world of the living, things changed quickly. The papyri authenticating the resurrection were debunked by new Carbon-14 dating. And the genetic research turned out to have been based on flawed methodology. There was plenty of embarrassment to go around. Undaunted, new apologists entered the lists, well-trained in the traditional arguments that the mysteriously absent Craig Williams once employed so expertly. Christians entered a collective Dark Night of the Soul, newly bereft of their temporary revitalization. They buckled down and soldiered on.