Sarah Salviander

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conversion to christianity
Sarah’s Story

I was born in the U.S., but grew up in Canada. My parents were socialists and political activists who thought British Columbia would be a better place for us to live, since it had the only socialist government in North America at the time. My parents were also atheists, though they eschewed that label in favor of “agnostic.” They were kind, loving, and moral, but religion played no part in my life. Instead, my childhood revolved around education, particularly science. I remember how important it was to my parents that my brother and I did well in school.

I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, a time when science fiction was enjoying a renaissance, thanks largely to the popularity of Star Wars. I remember how fascinated I was by the original Star Wars trilogy. It had almost nothing to do with science—it’s more properly characterized as space opera—but it got me thinking about space in a big way. I also loved the original Star Trek, which was more science fiction. The stoic and logical character of Mr. Spock was particularly appealing to me. Popular science was also experiencing a renaissance at that time, which had a lot to do with Carl Sagan’s television show, Cosmos, which I adored. The combination of these influences led to such an intense wonder about outer space and the universe, that by the time I was nine years old I knew I would be a space scientist someday.

I had come to believe that Christianity made people weak and foolish; I thought it was philosophically trivial.
Canada was already post-Christian by the 1970s, so I grew up with no religion. In retrospect, it’s amazing that for the first 25 years of my life, I met only three people who identified as Christian. My view of Christianity was negative from an early age, and by the time I was in my twenties, I was actively hostile toward Christianity. Looking back, I realized a lot of this was the unconscious absorption of the general hostility toward Christianity that is common in places like Canada and Europe; my hostility certainly wasn’t based on actually knowing anything about Christianity. I had come to believe that Christianity made people weak and foolish; I thought it was philosophically trivial. I was ignorant not only of the Bible, but also of the deep philosophy of Christianity and the scientific discoveries that shed new light on the origins of the universe and life on Earth.

As a young person struggling to understand the world without the aid of religion, I got involved in Objectivism. Objectivism is a philosophy built on the idea of rational selfishness. It is based on the work of the devoutly atheist philosopher, Ayn Rand, who lived in Soviet Russia before she immigrated to the United States. Unlike my parents, I had embraced capitalism by my early twenties instead of socialism. Objectivism appealed to me, because of the belief that my life was my own, and that I could make of it what I wanted. It seemed like a strong, logical philosophy.

University and the big questions of life

In my mid-twenties, I moved to the United States to go to university and to prepare for a life devoted to science. I enrolled in the physics program at Eastern Oregon University, located in the same little town where my brother and I had been born. As I began to experience life as an independent adult, I started to find Objectivism a barren and sterile philosophy.

It had failed to answer the big questions: What is the purpose of life? Where did we come from? Why are we here? What happens when we die?

It also suffers from an ironic lack of internal consistency. For all its focus on objective truth, the philosophy of Objectivism had no source for that truth except human opinion. And, for all their focus on enjoying life, Objectivists didn’t seem to experience any joy at all. Instead, they seemed preoccupied with angrily guarding their independence from all outside pressures.

I had been indirectly supporting the Ayn Rand Institute with a subscription to an Objectivist magazine, but by this time was starting to regret it. Even though I still thought Christianity was silly, ARI’s relentless bashing of Christians was starting to grow tiresome. And when one of ARI’s most prominent public figures mounted a public defense of partial-birth abortion as being “pro-life,” I canceled my support and no longer identified myself with the philosophy. I realized I had outgrown Objectivism.

I began to focus all of my energy on my studies, and became very dedicated to my physics and math courses. I joined campus clubs, started to make friends, and, for the first time in my life, I was meeting Christians. They weren’t like Objectivists — they were joyous and content. And, they were smart, too. I was astonished to find that my physics professors, whom I admired, were Christian. Their personal example began to have an influence on me, and I found myself growing less hostile to Christianity.

In the summer after my sophomore year, I participated in a physics research internship at the University of California – San Diego. For the first time in my life, I was no longer in the center of mass of science—the realm of long-accepted scientific truths—but had moved to the frontier of science, where new discoveries were being made.

I had joined a group in the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences (CASS) that was researching evidence for the big bang. The cosmic background radiation—the leftover radiation from the big bang—provides the strongest evidence for the theory, but cosmologists need other, independent lines of evidence to confirm it. My group was studying deuterium abundances in the early universe. Deuterium is an isotope of hydrogen, and its abundance in the early universe is sensitive to the amount of ordinary mass contained in the entire universe. Believe it or not, this one measurement tells us whether the big bang model is correct.

If anyone is interested in how this works, I’ll describe it, but for now I’ll spare you the gruesome details. Suffice it to say that an amazing convergence of physical properties is necessary in order to study deuterium abundances in the early universe, and yet this convergence is exactly what we get. I remember being astounded by this, blown away, completely and utterly awed. It seemed incredible to me that there was a way to find the answer to this question we had about the universe. In fact, it seems that every question we have about the universe is answerable. There’s no reason it has to be this way, and it made me think of Einstein’s observation that the most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it’s comprehensible. I started to sense an underlying order to the universe. Without knowing it, I was awakening to what Psalm 19 tells us so clearly:

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”

That summer, I’d picked up a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas and was reading it in my off hours. Previous to this, I’d only known it as an exciting story of revenge, since that’s what the countless movie and TV adaptations always focused on. But it’s more than just a revenge story, it’s a philosophically deep examination of forgiveness and God’s role in giving justice. I was surprised by this, and was starting to realize that the concept of God and religion was not as philosophically trivial as I had thought.

Going from unbelief to belief

All of this culminated one day, as I was walking across that beautiful La Jolla campus. I stopped in my tracks when it hit me— I believed in God! I was so happy; it was like a weight had been lifted from my heart. I realized that most of the pain I’d experienced in my life was of my own making, but that God had used it to make me wiser and more compassionate. It was a great relief to discover that there was a reason for suffering, and that it was because God was loving and just. God could not be perfectly just unless I—just like everyone else—was made to suffer for the bad things I’d done.

For a while I was content to be a theist and didn’t pursue religion any further. I spent another very enjoyable summer with CASS, and then during my last year at EOU I met a man I liked very much, a computer science student from Finland. He’d been in the special forces in the Finnish Defense Force, and was just about the most off-the-wall character I’d ever met. But he was also a man of strength, honor, and deep integrity, and I found myself overwhelmingly drawn to those qualities. Like me, he’d grown up atheist in a secular country, but he’d come to embrace God and Jesus Christ as his personal savior in his early twenties through an intensely personal experience. We fell in love and got married. Somehow, even though I wasn’t religious myself, I was comforted to be marrying a Christian man.

I graduated with a degree in physics and math that year, and in the fall, I started graduate work in astrophysics at The University of Texas at Austin. My husband was a year behind me in his studies, so I moved to Austin by myself. The astrophysics program at UT was a much more rigorous and challenging environment than my little alma mater. The academic rigor, combined with the isolation I felt with my family and friends being so far away, left me feeling pretty discouraged.

Conversion to Christianity

conversion to christianityWandering through a bookstore one day, I saw a book called The Science of God by Gerald Schroeder. I was intrigued by the title, but something else compelled me to read it. Maybe it was the loneliness, and I was longing for a deeper connection with God. All I know is that what I read changed my life forever.

Dr. Schroeder is a unique individual—he is an MIT-trained physicist and also an applied theologian. He understands modern science, has read the ancient and medieval biblical commentaries, and is capable of translating the Old Testament from the ancient Hebrew. He was thus able to give a scientific analysis of Genesis 1. His work proved to me that Genesis 1 was scientifically sound, and not just a “silly myth” as atheists believed. I realized that, remarkably, the Bible and science agree completely. (If you’re interested in the details of this, you can either go through my slideshow here or read Dr. Schroeder’s book.)

Schroeder’s great work convinced me that Genesis is the inspired word of God. But something told me to keep going. If Genesis is literally true, then why not the Gospels, too? I read the Gospels, and found the person of Jesus Christ to be extremely compelling. I felt as Einstein did when he said he was “enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.” And yet I struggled, because I did not feel one hundred percent convinced of the Gospels in my heart. I knew of the historical evidence for their truth. And, of course, I knew the Bible was reliable because of Genesis. Intellectually, I knew the Bible to be true, and as a person of intellect, I had to accept it as truth, even if I didn’t feel it. That’s what faith is. As C. S. Lewis said, it is accepting something you know to be true in spite of your emotions. So, I converted. I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior.

Trials that tested my faith

Maybe that sounds coldly logical. It did to me, and for that reason, I sometimes worried whether my faith was real. And then I had a chance to find out a couple of years ago. That year started with my cancer diagnosis and an unpleasant course of treatment. Not long after, my husband fell ill with meningitis and encephalitis, and it was not clear if he would recover; we didn’t know if he would be paralyzed or worse. It took him about a month, but, thankfully, he did recover. At that time, we were expecting our first child, a baby girl. All seemed well until about six months, when our baby stopped growing. We found out she had Trisomy 18, a fatal chromosomal abnormality. Our daughter, Ellinor, was stillborn soon after.

It was the most devastating loss of our lives. For a while I despaired, and didn’t know how I could go on after the death of our daughter. But I finally had a clear vision of our little girl in the loving arms of her heavenly Father, and it was then that I had peace. I reflected that, after all these trials in one year, my husband and I were not only closer to each other, but also felt closer to God. My faith was real.

I don’t know how I would’ve coped with such trials when I was an atheist. When you’re twenty years old and healthy, and you have your family around you, you feel immortal. I never thought about my own death or the potential deaths of loved ones. But there comes a time when the feeling of immortality wanes, and you’re forced to confront the inevitability of not only your own annihilation, but that of your loved ones.

My Calling

I love my career as an astrophysicist. I can’t think of anything I would rather do than study the workings of the universe, and I realize now that my lifelong fascination with space has really been an intense longing for a connection with God (“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” [Romans 1:20]). But I also feel a strong calling to minister to others through this same work.

I will never forget the student who got me started on this path. When I was a graduate student, not long after I had converted to Christianity, I was leading a help session for an astronomy course, and we were going over big bang cosmology. After the session, the student came to me and asked, very timidly, if it was okay to be a scientist and believe in God. I told her, of course; I was a scientist and believed in God. She was visibly relieved, and told me that one of her professors in another department had said she couldn’t be religious and believe in science, too. I was haunted by this, and wondered how many other young people were struggling with similar questions about science and faith. I decided to help others who are struggling with doubts. I also wanted to help people answer false atheist arguments confidently. I’ve struggled with this, because I know it will be a difficult road to travel. But the meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice leaves no doubt about what I have to do.

…two things drew me to God—the overwhelming evidence of his involvement in the physical world and his perfect justice.
When I was in the process of becoming a believer, two things drew me to God—the overwhelming evidence of his involvement in the physical world and his perfect justice. I can help people to see God’s handiwork in the physical world, but I am not capable of perfect justice. None of us are. God’s perfect justice demanded atonement for sin, but because of our flawed nature, we aren’t capable of atonement. God sent his only begotten son, Jesus Christ, to atone for us. Jesus was crucified, He died and was buried, and on the third day He rose. Perfect justice was achieved.

Jesus triumphed over temptation, sin, and death. If we choose to accept the gift of salvation, we are reconciled to God: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whomsoever believes in Him should not perish but have life everlasting.” (John 3:16)

I don’t know who you are, dear reader, or what your background is. Perhaps you are a believer; if so, you already know the power of those words. But if you are still seeking God, perhaps you will choose, as I did, to accept this great gift of salvation and be reconciled to God.