Is there a God and does he care about me? The Testimony of BioLogos Founder Francis Collins
Adapted from talks at the BioLogos 2019 Conference, Dr. Francis Collins tells the story of leaving atheism and giving his life to Jesus, as well as some other ways he sees the glory of God in God's Two Books.
This article has been adapted from Dr. Francis Collins’ talks at the BioLogos 2019 Conference (which you can watch here and here). In this adapted excerpt, Dr. Francis Collins tells the story of leaving atheism and giving his life to Jesus, some pointers to a Creator that he sees from science, and the Moral Law. He also describes leading the Human Genome Project and how he sees beauty and grandeur in DNA. Collins concludes by talking about God’s Two Books and the deep complementarity he sees between Scripture and nature.
I decided to apply to medical school. The University of North Carolina decided to admit me, and I was off. I went to learn about the science of the human body, and I loved it—I immediately loved the science of genetics because it satisfied the digital, rational part of me that had been honed in chemistry and physics. But now it applied to life, particularly human life. I maintained my atheism, and there were occasional Christian medical students who would invite me to come and sit with them at lunch. I would avoid it like crazy, because I knew I was not going to enjoy the experience! I’m sure they were wonderful people, but I thought they were pretty weird.
But then the experiences began to change. It was no longer an intellectual exercise to think about life and death. As a third-year medical student, one is put out into the clinical experience of sitting at the bedside of people who have terrible diseases, most of which we really didn’t have answers to, or our answers were incomplete. That began to trouble me, because I saw in their eyes, what might someday be my circumstance. If that was me lying in that bed with a terminal diagnosis, how would I handle that? I watched how they handled it, these good North Carolina people, and many of them seemed quite at peace. They talked about their faith and I thought, “Why aren’t you angry at God? Why aren’t you shaking your fist at what God has done to you?”
But that’s not what happened. They were at peace. They felt like God had been good to them. They had been blessed, and they looked forward to what came after. I was not going to look forward to what came after, from my perspective. So I was a little troubled by that. There was a single [pivotal] moment, where I sat at the bed of an elderly woman who much reminded me of my grandmother. She was afflicted with a particularly advanced case of cardiac disease which caused her to be stricken with really awful chest pain on a regular basis. Our medicines were not working. And during those episodes, she would pray with the greatest earnestness I’d ever seen. And then she would come through it, and would still seem at peace.
Yes, God was there with me, and as she shared her faith with me day after day, I was uncomfortable. But one day after sharing, she made me really uncomfortable because she turned to me and said, “Doctor, I’ve shared my faith with you, and you seem to be somebody who cares for me. What do you believe?” What do you believe, Doctor? I don’t think anybody in an honest, open way had ever asked me that question. And I realized I was utterly lacking in a response. I stammered something. “Well, I don’t think I really know,” and the surprise in her eyes cut through me. I realized I’d really neglected the most important question that any of us ever asks: Is there a God, and does that God care about me?
For me, at 26 years old, I had managed to set it aside in the pursuit of other issues. Yet I was supposed to be a scientist who was interested in finding answers and collecting evidence to see what those answers should be! I had never spent more than five minutes thinking about this particular question or what the answer might be! And that really bothered me. In an effort to try to shore up my atheism—because I was pretty sure I was right about that—I figured I’d better find out why is it that believers believe, because there were some around me and they puzzled me. [There were] even professors who obviously knew a lot about science but still seem to be believers in God. I assumed they must have been brainwashed as children and were never quite able to get over it. But when I talked to them, they actually made a fair amount of sense in a certain way, although I didn’t fully understand it.
I then met with a Methodist pastor who lived on my street, who seemed like a reasonable guy, and he agreed to listen to my blasphemous questions and sought to provide some answers. He took a little book off his shelf and said, “I think you should read this, because it was written by somebody who had a lot of the same questions.” The book was Mere Christianity. The author was C.S. Lewis, the Oxford scholar, who had asked those questions—who had traveled to same path from atheism to belief, kicking and screaming the whole way. As I turned the pages of that book and realized that my arguments against faith were those of a schoolboy, I realized I had a lot of work to do to try to come to grips with the answer to that question that I had most feared: Is there a God and does he care about me?
There may be people who would come to saving grace and faith in God and belief in Jesus in the next 48 hours. That was not me. It was more like two years. And every bit of that was a struggle. I tried to understand the basic texts of the world’s religions, and I got totally confused. I read the Cliffs Notes. They didn’t make a lot of sense either! But ultimately, by meeting with other Christians whose depth of understanding was much better, and also people of other faiths, I began to make some sense of what this was all about. But I had this incredibly uneasy feeling…there were too many religions. They had things in common, but there were also things that were different. How could I possibly land on one? And doggone it, here I was in the United States of America. It better not be Christianity, ‘cause that would be so obvious!
I kind of resisted that explicitly. But I also began to appreciate that even from the area of science that I most was comfortable with, there were a lot of pointers to God. There was the fact that there’s something instead of nothing…The fact that the universe seems to be fine-tuned to make complexity possible and therefore life, possible. That nature follows elegant mathematical rules—those second-order differential equations I had so loved. Why should that be? Why should nature be like this? It seems like there must be a mathematician and a physicist behind all this. Oh my gosh, that sounds like God. It would have to be someone who was not limited in time and space, or you haven’t solved the problem of how it all began.
Wait a minute, is this a God who cares about us? Is this a God with interests in human beings? I went back to Lewis. There in that very first book (section) of Mere Christianity was “right and wrong as a clue to the meaning of the universe.” I’d never really given that serious thought. And suddenly, it struck me as profound that we—all of us—inherently down through history, in every culture, have this sense that there’s good and there’s evil and that we should strive to be good. I know as a geneticist and somebody who studies evolution, that there are times where we’re called to do things that aren’t really good for our reproductive fitness, yet we know that they’re good. And that seems to say there’s something deeper here than just some evolutionary constraint. (I don’t want to go too far down that path, because evolutionary constraints are certainly interesting in that space!)
But it forced me to really consider the idea, that the notion of God as a deist-kind of God wasn’t going to do it. And that was really much more here. Did I come to the point of being convinced by scientific proof that God was real and that Jesus was the Son of God? No. I don’t know people who have come to that by scientific proof. But I did realize, for me, this incredible hunger for not just knowing that God was there, but having a relationship with God. I also realized I could not do that in my own power because of my own inherent weaknesses and my own sinfulness. If there was any opportunity to have a relationship with God, it had to be offered up by some kind of a bridge. Finally, I understood what Jesus was all about, what the cross was all about, and what it meant when I had heard those people say to me, “Christ died for your sins.” I never got that. And all of a sudden, I did. So on a wonderful summer morning, in the dewy grass of the Cascade Mountains in the Northwest on a hike, I fell on my knees and I said, “I get it. I’m yours. I want to be your follower from now until eternity.” And that’s never changed since that day 41 years ago.
I’ve certainly had opportunities through science to show how the pointers that I discovered in my own search point in the direction of a creator, or even a creator who cares about us. Not a proof, of course. But things such as: there’s something instead of nothing, the fact that the universe had an origin (which cries out for an explanation of what could possibly account for that), and the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” (Eugene Wigner’s term), why is it that matter and energy behave in such orderly ways, following equations that for a mathematician or a physicist are quite literally beautiful? And the precise tuning of physical constants in the universe to make anything interesting possible by having within incredibly tight precision, exactly the values that they have to, in order for anything like us to exist. And then the moral law, which certainly got my attention early on reading C.S. Lewis. It has my attention even today. We could have many interesting conversations about it in terms of its significance as a pointer to a Holy God.
So all of that has been along with me in a journey through science that has involved largely an investigation of life and particularly the instruction molecule for life—DNA. I did have the privilege of presiding over a 13-year journey from when we didn’t know our own instruction book, until we did. In 2003, with the completion of the Genome Project’s original goals in crossing a bridge into territory that we had, for all of human history, not had the ability to study: our 3 billion letters of our own DNA book. For me, that was an experience both of scientific exhilaration, but also as a believer, of appreciating the incredible elegance of God’s creation. I’m fond of noticing the similarities, not just in the words, but also in the images. The comparison between the stained glass window in York Minster and a view of DNA along the long axis (the way you usually don’t look at it), both show this beautiful radial symmetry.
So for me, faith and science always—from the time of my conversion—seemed incredibly complementary. Synergistic. They were two ways of knowing, but knowing different things and asking different questions. Science asking how, faith answering why. We are reading both of the books God gave us. When I encountered Francis Bacon’s words about that that, it made such complete sense and it does to this day. The book of God’s words and the book of God’s works—and up here on the banner is a new version of this, which I like very much: God’s word and God’s world. That’s what BioLogos is all about. And again, very much in the line of Jesus’ words in Scripture, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and your soul and your strength and your mind.” (Matthew 22:37)
If you enjoyed this personal story, we recommend you check out the following:
BONUS | Francis Collins & Phil Vischer
Leslie Wickman | Bring on the Multiverse
Phil Vischer | Being Evangelical
Sy Garte | Beginning to Wonder