Julie Mirlicourtois: Are you a little nervous going back here?
Eric Huffman: Nah. I doubt they remember me. Dude, nothing has changed here. This is so weird. So this is Mooringsport, Louisiana. This is the first church I ever served as a pastor when I was still a student in college. I lived right there in that house. That's the parsonage.
Julie Mirlicourtois: How many people live in this town?
Eric Huffman: Maybe 200. Yeah, it's a small town.
Eric Huffman: In April of 2000, I was a junior in college in my first year of marriage and taking a full course load. To make ends meet, I was also working 30 hours a week selling jewelry at a store called Service Merchandise, which no longer exists. One Friday morning while I was prepping the engagement ring display, I heard a voice saying my name from on high, "Eric Huffman, you have a call on line one. Eric Huffman, line one."
When I picked up the phone, I didn't recognize the voice on the other end. He said, "Eric, this is William Peeples. I got your work number from your daddy." And he explained that he was in charge of placing Methodist pastors in Methodist churches and that year, there weren't enough pastors to go around. And he had heard about my work in campus ministry and he wanted to offer me the chance to be a student pastor at a small church outside of town.
After a moment of awkward silence, I said, "I'm very honored, sir, but I don't think that will be a very good idea. I don't think I'd make a good pastor. I'm not even sure I believe in God anymore." I told him how I'd been learning all about how Jesus was a copycat myth, and how the Bible was written by men with specific agendas. I didn't think he'd want that kind of thing being preached from one of his pulpits.
I thought I'd made a pretty convincing case, but Reverend Peeples wasn't having it. He said, "Son, we'll pay you 16,000 a year and you and your wife can live in the parsonage rent free. If all else fails, just preach your daddy sermons." Then he said, "Just come see the church with me tomorrow. I'm telling you son, this town really needs you."
Eric Huffman: I am betting 50 bucks that Tina is inside this building.
Tina: Look who is here.
Eric Huffman: Hi Tina. How are you doing?
Tina: Oh, my goodness.
Eric Huffman: I knew you'd be in here.
Tina: Oh my goodness. Eric.
Eric Huffman: How are you doing? You haven't changed a bit. Tina has lived in Mooringsport over 50 years. She's originally from the Philippines. When she was 20 she met and married an American soldier. When he finished his tour, they moved to Louisiana and spent the next five decades raising kids and overseeing his family pecan orchard.
Over the years, Tina's husband became increasingly volatile. At times he was physically abusive toward Tina, and she spent most of her adult life walking on eggshells around him. When we moved to Mooringsport, Tina was the first person we met. She showed up at our front door with a chocolate cream pie and a $20 bill in her hand. She said she just couldn't wait until Sunday to meet the new young pastor and his wife.
Over the next few months, Tina essentially adopted Geovanna and me. She confided in us how tenuous and dangerous her life at home had been. And she told us that her husband had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer, but that he didn't want anyone to know. One morning at 4 a.m., the phone rang, it was Tina calling to tell me that her husband was dead. I remember she wasn't crying. Her voice was deeper than usual but she was calm. And I said, "Where did they take his body?" "Nowhere," she said. "He's still here. Could you come and pray with me?"
Keep in mind, I was barely 21 years old, I'd never been around a fresh corpse before, but I loved Tina. I knew from my time back in Red Lick that showing up when somebody dies is just part of the deal when you're a small town pastor. So I drove to the orchard, walked into their house, and found Tina standing over her husband's body as he lay on the sofa. His eyes were closed and his mouth slightly open. His US Army hat rested on his chest.
Tina motioned for me to come join her and she took my hand in hers, she began to pray. She prayed mostly for her husband's soul and for God to forgive him for the bad things he had done. As she spoke my mind drifted. I felt like an eavesdropper as I imagined all the memories that they'd made under that roof together. There were some good and tender moments to be sure, but I also knew those four walls held violent secrets and Tina's many pleas for help.
As Tina brought her prayer to a close, I still didn't know what to pray for, but it didn't matter because before I could say a word, a noise arose from the sofa as Tina's husband let out a quick breath so strong it sounded like a groan. Tina jumped and shouted, "My God." It was the only time I ever heard Tina take the Lord's name in vain. I think she was afraid, afraid that her husband had come back. But she didn't have to worry; that would be his last gasp.
I was gonna come and search for you.
Tina: Well, you know where I live.
Eric Huffman: I do. I know where you live. You look exactly the same. Why aren't you aging?
Tina: I got cancer but that's okay.
Eric Huffman: What?
Tina: They cut it all out, so I start radiation treatment next week.
Eric Huffman: Oh my gosh.
Tina: Then I'm good. I'm good.
Eric Huffman: You look like nothing's wrong. It's amazing.
Tina: I'm 80 years old already, Eric.
Eric Huffman: That's amazing. You're the ageless wonder. Can I ask you a question?
Eric Huffman: I know that Preston has passed, but where's Tommy?
Tommy and Preston basically ran the Mooringsport church when we were there. On Saturday mornings, I often went fishing with them on Caddo Lake, and they always let me keep whatever we caught. Preston and Tommy were generous, and kind, and well-respected throughout Mooringsport. They were gay, they had been together for 25 years.
This was not a liberal town. In fact, I'm not even sure a single Democrat resides in Mooringsport, Louisiana. Even Preston and Tommy voted for Bush. If you spoke privately with the other members of that church, they tell you that they believe that homosexuality is a sin, which is why I was so amazed at how they all love Tommy and Preston. It wasn't just a hypocritical surface-level love either. Those people would have stepped in front of a train for these two men.
And here, life is really simple and you really just live to take care of each other.
Eric Huffman: And when you look at the New Testament, that's all it is.
Tina: You reach out to one another and care for each other.
Eric Huffman: That's right. That's the whole of the gospel, right?
Tina: Yeah. And that's still going on. The ministry of this church here is we look out for each other, we care for each other, and minister to one another. That is still going. See these trees right here, one is you, the other one is Geovanna.
Eric Huffman: Wait, what?
Tina: We named it Eric and Geovanna.
Eric Huffman: No, you didn't.
Tina: We did. We planted after you guys left. [inaudible 00:07:11] these two. Do you remember?
Eric Huffman: Yeah, I remember that.
Tina: Went and got these trees and we planted here and we named it Eric and Geovanna.
Eric Huffman: Oh my gosh.
Tina: It's beautiful when it's bloom.
Eric Huffman: I never knew that. I still can't believe they planted those trees in our honor. We were only with him for a short time and during that time, I was a condescending no at all. I was spiteful toward Christians and doubtful toward God. But still, they loved us. They saw something in me that I refuse to see at the time. I wish I could say their unconditional love was the turning point for me but my heart only grew harder once I left Mooringsport.
It's good to see your face. I love you so much.
Tina: Make my bed.
Eric Huffman: Come here. If I was a single man, Tina, I'd sweep you off your feet.
Eric Huffman: On today's episode, part two of my journey from the Bible Belt to atheism and from atheism back to God. I'm Eric Huffman.
[clip - Eric Huffman preaching]
Eric Huffman: Where has Martin Luther King gone with his message of nonviolent resistance in the face of pure evil? Whereas Mahatma Gandhi gone with his dedication to non-violence? Where has Jesus Christ gone with His words like 'Love your enemies. Pray for those who curse you. Turn the other cheek if someone hits you. Offer your shirt if someone steals your jacket'? Where have these revolutionaries and their ideas gone? What has happened to their values and their ideals in our contemporary society? I'll tell you what has happened. They have been pushed by the wayside for the purpose of pushing the agenda of the American civil religion.
Eric Huffman: That's me back in 2005, leading a church called Revolution in Kansas City. Revolution is a community that my wife Geovanna and I started while earning our master's degrees in theology. Despite all my doubts about the truth claims of Christianity, I decided that God and the church, and the Bible can be means to a greater end, so I approached my ministry as a vehicle for social justice. During those years, I spent a lot of time poking holes in the Bible and poking fun at Christians. I did some good during that time as well. I helped start an outreach for urban youth ministry for Kansas City's homeless. I was an advocate for immigrant rights. But in the end, it was all about me and my good deeds.
[clip - Eric Huffman preaching]
Eric Huffman: That new direction that we all are longing for and desperately needed will only emerge in grassroots communities of people just like this one.
Eric Huffman: I had a love-hate relationship with preaching. I looked at it like a performance. If people liked it, I felt validated. If they didn't, I was devastated. Deep down I knew that I was living a lie talking about God and Jesus in the Bible without really believing in any of them. So the Sunday performance was all I had. Looking back, I think that's part of the reason why I developed a porn addiction. I think Porn was my way of filling the void in my soul and quieting the convicting voice of my own conscience.
Sometimes I even watched porn on a Saturday night before standing up to preach on Sunday. I don't know if you've ever experienced that level of internal dissonance, but it's exhausting. During that time of my life, I felt perpetually burned out.
Eric Huffman: There are probably 80 or so people here. What can 800 or so people do in a world so full of destruction and violence? The answer might not be promising.
It really felt like we were doing great work. But as much as we tried and as hard as we worked, the church never really grew. It was like something was missing. This is my wife Geovanna reflecting on how frustrated I used to feel when the pews remained empty.
Geovanna Huffman: The part that was fascinating to me is that used to always wonder, why is it that my ministries are not blessed? Why is it that my churches are now growing? I always used to tell you, "It's because you're preaching lies. You're telling lies. You're living a lie. What you're preaching are things that are humanist, are things that are justifying things that are your own opinions and not the opinions of God, not the will of God."
I think that even you started listening to theologians I think base all of their ideas and feelings, and this feels good, you know, this feels culturally relevant. This feels like nobody's going to be mad at us, then that's what we should do. I think that that's not something God blesses.
Eric Huffman: Yeah, it was exhausting. I mean, we kept hitting walls because of the burnout that inevitably was going to hit you because you're trying to change the world. That's all you care about is changing the world. And the world doesn't change when it's all about you and your ideas, right? You need supernatural forces at work. You need God to change the world. So for all the good stuff we used to do, it felt like to me, we were just slowly sinking during that time.
Geovanna Huffman: It was definitely challenging. I don't feel that that time was a waste in any way, shape, or form. The one thing I did feel was a sense of guilt about some of the things that you preached. I remember that some of the sermons they used to preach, I used to ask people for coffee or lunch the week after to say, "Hey, he's going through something really difficult right now and I just want you to help me pray for him."
And I think that's what got us close to the time in our lives when I felt like, "Oh, my goodness, I think that he really is going to stay in this new person that he's become." And I think that that's when I convinced you that you needed to go to law school.
Eric Huffman: Yeah, you told me to stop preaching.
Geovanna Huffman: Yeah, I told you to stop preaching. I said, "I think it's healthier for you to become a lawyer." My heart broke when I said that to you but I felt that it was better for you to become a lawyer than to preach theologies that are basically misleading people into a life away from Christ instead of a life in Christ.
Eric Huffman: Geovanna never doubted her faith and I never doubted my doubts, so we arrived at a stalemate. Eventually, I surrendered the fight and decided to go to law school. By that time, we had two little kids at home and we were living below the poverty line. I continued working at Revolution and preaching on Sundays, but my heart really wasn't in it.
Eric Huffman: Five and a half years ago, I was halfway to a law degree, $50,000 in debt, and questioning every life decision I'd ever made, and that's about the time everything changed.
In 2012, two ladies in their 60s who were heavily involved in my church invited me to have coffee. They wanted to convince me to go to the Holy Land. They talked nonstop about how their lives were changed when they went to Israel and Palestine and they wanted the same for me. I was making a list of excuses in my head when they told me they'd already raised enough money to cover half my trip cost. And they encouraged me to set up a Kickstarter campaign online to raise the other half.
Hey guys, I'm checking in with my final Kickstarter update before the trip begins. I just wanted to say one last thank you to those of you who supported the project. Geovanna is here with me and she's ready to see off. Say hi. She's really happy to see me go because she thinks we need a break.
That day at the airport, I remember thinking, it's gonna be nice to have a break from my family, from the church, from law school, and just from feeling like a fraud. When I kissed you Geovanna and the kids goodbye, none of us had any idea that I would be coming home that changed man.
Bert Gary: Okay, folks, I want to make sure you see it, do you see it?
Woman: Say it again.
Bert Gary: Do you see what I'm seeing?
Eric Huffman: The reason this tour was different for me is that you would point across the way where other tourists were gathered, and you'd say something like, "That's where they want you to think it happened. That's where the tourists give all their money away. Now come over here with me and I'll show you where it really happened."
Bert Gary: That's pretty egotistical of me not to do that.
Eric Huffman: Oh, man, but it blew my mind. I thought I was like there with the Holy Land equivalent of like James Bond or something.
Bert Gary: James Bond of Jerusalem.
Eric Huffman: I met Bert Gary, five years ago at the airport in Amman, where he greeted me and a handful of other Americans he would be leading through the Holy Land. The minute I saw Bert, I knew I was gonna like him. He was about 50 years old, stood about six feet tall with a shiny bald head, and he wore a black tactical fleece jacket, the kind that Army Rangers were. He was obviously a tough guy, but he embraced me with this big hug and said, "Welcome to Jordan."
Bert Gary: I was so glad you were there the minute I saw you.
Eric Huffman: Why?
Bert Gary: I saw a brother. I knew that if I invested in you, that you would take more home than anybody else. That's why I snuck you around to do some things, just us.
Eric Huffman: I remember.
Bert Gary: I wanted to invest in you. Because I think you are like me and an important way, and that is that my heart always wants to say yes to Jesus, and always has but my head was screaming, hell no. Because I just wasn't going to buy anything cheap. He has to criticall, logically make sense to me. That's why I'm so voracious in my study because I had to get my head around what was happening before I could say, Okay, heart let go.
Eric Huffman: Were you ever a skeptic? Were you ever an atheist?
Bert Gary: All my life, in a way.
Eric Huffman: What exactly gave you pause or doubt about religion or about Jesus in particular?
Bert Gary: All my friends. I remember sitting in class one time and one of my Jewish friends was having a conversation with one of my Christian friends. And the Christian friend said to the Jewish girl, "Well, you're going to hell, you know that?"
Eric Huffman: Were you ever one of those people?
Bert Gary: And that's the loving thing to do in her mind.
Eric Huffman: Right. Yeah, because if you don't say it, then their blood is on your hands.
Bert Gary: I was never ever, not for a split second one of those people. I can't believe the way that people bully one another. And the worst bullies are the religious bullies. Because they believe they're on the side of God. It's like, "I have a right to do this."
Eric Huffman: I remember hearing this Sunday school teacher. I was a teenager at this time that, you know, Mahatma Gandhi was a good man, but he's burning in hell. I had written a paper on Mahatma Gandhi. And I was thinking, "Wow, something doesn't seem right about that. It doesn't add up to me."
Bert Gary: Somebody said we shouldn't judge. Right?
Eric Huffman: Who said that?
Bert Gary: Who was that?
Eric Huffman: I think He's the guy that religious guys killed.
Bert Gary: Yeah, yeah, that guy.
Eric Huffman: Of course, Bert and I are talking about Jesus who urged his followers not to be like the religious leaders who stand on their soapboxes and judgment over others. As we got to know each other, Bert told me how his journey to faith in Christ really began once he learned to tune out the Christian voices in his life and to simply study the words of Jesus. That's when Bert really began to believe, not in the Christian religion, but in Jesus Himself.
Over the past two decades, he's been studying, preaching, and writing books about the life crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. But what was it that actually convinced an educated skeptic like Bert not only that Jesus existed, but that He was truly the Son of God?
Bert Gary: By the accounts, all four Gospels, He was praying, "I don't want this to happen. Please don't let this happen. Let this cup pass." He could have run. You know, five minutes, sprint a little bit to the top of the Mount of Olives, no one would have found Him.
Eric Huffman: Wilderness.
Bert Gary: Yeah, He's gone.
Eric Huffman: Free and clear.
Bert Gary: And He could have fought but that fight-flight thing was not something he was going to choose. He chose to stand. And that's been for me the pattern that makes more sense for pastor than anything else, is not to be vindictive and fight back. You know, eye for an eye. But not to tuck your tail and run away either but stand and die for something.
Eric Huffman: Jesus knew the fate that awaited Him that night. He probably watched men die on crosses all of His life. crucifixions were a daily reality through the Roman Empire.
Bert Gary: It was on the main road outside of the gate of the city because the Romans crucified at roadside. It was sort of like state terrorism. You know, this is what will do to you if you mess up, so don't mess up.
Eric Huffman: And people were passing by in the gospels.
Bert Gary: And it says they're passing by-
Eric Huffman: Sneering at Him.
Bert Gary: They do know He was from Adam, an just going in and out.
Eric Huffman: Another guy getting crucified.
Bert Gary: Yeah, here we got, another guy.
Eric Huffman: Bert isn't just a pastor. He studied the history and archaeology of the Holy Land for over 20 years. On day seven of our trip, Bert took us to the exact spot where he and other scholars agree that the Romans crucified convicts, including Jesus. Contrary to what I had been taught growing up, Jesus didn't die on a hill far away. As we stood near the spot where Jesus actually died, Bert taught us details about Roman crucifixion that made me physically ill.
Bert Gary: So hard to tell this, but I think the worst thing that they did to Him had to do with the putting the sponge on the stick to give him a drink when He said He was thirsty. We've got a lot of records about how Roman toilets and spas worked. They had a certain kind of a toilet that had an opening on the front, and on the top when you sat down. And then they had a receptacle that had a sponge on a stick in it. If you didn't bring your own, you can borrow it, you can clean the sponge in the running water trough in front of you in the restroom facility and then you could pass it through the front hole on the toilet beneath you and clean yourself and rants and clean yourself and rants as needed.
But soldiers, you know, they didn't always have a spa, they were on the road. So they often had their own. What you're hearing me suggest is that the sponge on the stick that Jesus agreed to drink from might have been that.
Eric Huffman: I remember hearing that. I still get choked up when I think about it. But the notion of He was drinking from someone's-
Bert Gary: He took it. He took it.
Eric Huffman: Even if you don't believe Jesus was God in the flesh, it's impossible to not be shaken by the details of His death. His physical suffering was immense, no doubt, but the sickening ways they humiliated Him in front of His family and his friends, not to mention His enemies and total strangers passing by, it's just gross. And how did Jesus respond to all of it? With grace. From the cross, He looked at the soldiers who put them there and said, "Father, forgive them, they don't know what they're doing.
Bert Gary: Everyone is familiar with the road you're on. The way Jesus sets it up is that there is a man lying half-dead naked by the side of the road. What did Jesus specifically say the priests did when he came to the place where the dead man was? He went by on the other side. Now, the Levite, he saw the priests make the judgment and he doesn't want to contradict him. At the same time, he comes to look and he actually draws closer. But in agreement with the priest interpretation of the situation, he suspected, "Yeah, I can't tell if he's a Jew and I can't tell if he's dead." So he goes on, even though he drew closer. And this is where Jesus throws the curveball. And then came along a Samaritan.
Eric Huffman: Every time Bert made a point, I felt my defenses going up. All the stuff that I had learned from professors like Dr. Otto and other academics who said Jesus either didn't exist or that He did exist but was posthumously deified by the zealous disciples He left behind, all of that came rushing back into my mind. I had already decided that Jesus actually existed. The evidence for that is just too overwhelming. So I knew it was time. Time to make the choice that I'd been avoiding for years. The choice to believe that Jesus was a charlatan and His movement a hoax, or to come to terms with the profound possibility that at a certain point in human history, the Creator God broke into space and time to know us and to be known by us.
Eric Huffman: As an academic, Bert has heard at all the claims that professors like Dr. Otto make. For instance, how scholars said for years that King David never existed. But then all the evidence started pouring in from archaeological digs around Jerusalem the Hebrew King David really did exist exactly when and where the Old Testament says he did. And one day at a time, with one compelling shred of evidence after another, Bert chipped away at all my arrogant assumptions about the Bible. Still, I wasn't ready to back down.
For me, it all came down to one issue, the issue of Jesus's divinity. In college and seminary, I learned that Christians didn't really decide that Jesus was God until three or 400 years after He died. And halfway through the trip, Bert still hadn't presented us with any evidence that Jesus was more than just a man, until we got to Nazareth, the hometown of Jesus' mother, Mary. There, Bert showed us shrines that were built in her honor as early as the first century.
Bert Gary: They're right there in the museum. It's hard to deny it when it's found in the excavation and they-
Eric Huffman: Yeah, [inaudible 00:26:03] in the first century. And they're calling her the Mother of God. So three 400 years before I was taught anyone refers to Jesus as God incarnate. Anything more than just a man, right?
From there we traveled to Capernaum the city where Jesus lived and worked in construction for much of his adult life. After His death, and suppose at resurrection, Capernaum became a headquarters for the followers of Jesus. And one home, in particular, appears to have served as the first Christian house of worship.
Bert Gary: Modern church, fourth-century octagon-shaped church. You're standing on near the foundation wall of Queen's Helena Memorial Church. Underneath that, a house church and the venerated room is in the middle of that circle. It's a room originally that was just a room in that first-century house that was later expanded, plastered...
When they excavated the house church. Remember, it was originally a first-century house, there was nothing special about it initially. And when they saw the fragments of plaster, they began to translate it and they realized, "Oh, boy, we've got, you know, a house church here." And they settled on it be in Peter's house, you know, his mother-in-law's house. But obviously, this was the special house in the town in the first and second century where they worshipped. There's no denying it. You can't run from that.
Eric Huffman: One of the plaster fragments discovered in that house bears an inscription that reads "God Jesus Christ". Scientists estimate the inscription was made in the middle of the first century, another reference to Jesus's divinity, not three or four centuries later, but from the decade or two following His death. And that's when it hit me, the people who knew Jesus personally, including His own family members, and best friend, believed with all of their hearts that He was more than just a man. So convicted were they about His divinity, that they were willing to die painful, shameful deaths in His name. I did my best to stand strong as a stubborn intellectual, but Capernaum brought me to my knees.
Bert Gary: Any questions before I turn you loose for free time? Have you got a sense of where we are biblically, archaeologically, geographically? Yeah?
Bert Gary: Okay, I did my job then.
Eric Huffman: It was humbling to know that I was standing exactly where Jesus once stood, exactly where the movement that shaped the modern world, the movement that shaped my life all began. I was overcome. I couldn't catch my breath. I decided to go for a walk along the shoreline alone. I couldn't believe what was happening inside of me. I knew in that moment there would be no more hiding.
After spending more than a decade criticizing the church, poking holes in the Bible, and making fun of Christians. I could no longer run from this truth. All the facts were lining up. And with tears starting to stream down my face, I remember saying out loud, to no one in particular, "There's no way this isn't true."
Eric Huffman: I had cell reception there somehow and I texted my wife who was, the whole time, praying for me, back home because she could see me for the 10 years before that we were together just simmering, just a time bomb. It was just a matter of time before I lost it. And I texted her and all I said in the most cryptic way possible, "Oh my God, it's all real. All of it, it's real." And that's all I said.
Bert Gary: I'm wondering what she was thinking,.
Eric Huffman: Can you imagine getting that text?
Bert Gary: Oh, wow.
Eric Huffman: But something changed in me. You know, most of my friends as they've gotten older have gotten less reverent and less devout. They read their Bibles less and they focus on their careers or focus on other things. But since that moment every everything has become clearer to me and I have become an evangelical.
Bert Gary: Really uncomfortable, isn't it?
Eric Huffman: I barely could say it.
Bert Gary: I know. It's hard.
Eric Huffman: Because those are the very people that I used to sit around making fun of.
Bert Gary: When it clicks, though, you're in trouble because you don't belong in any world now. And in a way you kind of belong and all but none, because you're evangelical in heart because you love Jesus. Then you said that to your liberal friends and they think that, you know, you've gone off your rocker.
Eric Huffman: Totally jumped the shark.
Bert Gary: And then you talk to evangelical friends, and you tell them some of the things you know about scripture that's really detailed, accurate, critical, and they think he's some sort of, you know, heretic.
Eric Huffman: It does feel a little homeless and lonely sometimes. Evangelical means, literally, bearer of good news. But over the past few generations, that word has been sullied by political opportunists on both sides of the aisle. And now, tragically, evangelical has become a dirty word. Type "evangelicals are" into a search bar and Google will suggest words like brainwashed, immoral, and heretics. So much for being bearers of good news.
I've known a lot of Christians who say they can't stand evangelicals. But I've come full circle on this issue. I am an evangelical now. I don't care what political conservatives and the liberal media have done to the word. If Jesus really is who He said He was, the gospel really is good news for all the daughters and all the sons of God. And I believe people need to know about it.
I need you to hear me say this, and I don't know why it's taking me so long to tell you directly. That if not for your willingness to be used by God in the way that you were, if not for your willingness to risk being rejected by evangelicals and then secularists alike, and speak the truth about what you've found in the Holy Land and what you found in Scripture, I can say with no doubt in my mind that I wouldn't be sitting here today, a preacher, church planter, or even a Christian.
And that I came back from that trip, and when I sat down in the car with my wife for the first time, I was exhausted from the trip and everything and Turkish Air had unlimited beer for free, so I was a little out of it. But Geo, looked at me and said, "What happened?" And she said, "You're different." And she's been saying that ever since, "that you came home different". Even my daughter who was old enough at that time to notice "dad you're different. You came home different".
And it was the craziest thing because I'd been around and in the church my whole life. But something about that trip I finally was able to internalize the truth of it all and exposed the lies that I was following: the lies that I'm the most important person in the universe, the lies that nothing's ultimately or absolutely true. Everybody's truth is their own truth, man.
Bert Gary: Relatively.
Eric Huffman: You just believe what you believe, whatever works for you. And all those lies that I built my life around came tumbling down like the walls of Jericho, and I was fundamentally changed.
I asked Geo how I changed. She says before I was-
Geovanna Huffman: Angry and confused, and disoriented.
Eric Huffman: But when I got home, the cynicism was all but gone and in its place, she found the humility, tenderness, and depth that she remembered seeing in the college sophomore she married 14 years prior. She knew that everything had changed. I felt it too.
Well, hi, everybody. I'm finally back in my office. This is my first day back, and what an adventure. I stood where Jesus was born, I walked in His footsteps to Samaria and Jocob's well. It's overwhelming. And the one thing I'm coming back with is just this pressing urgency to tell the world how real it all is. It's not a game we're playing here, as Christians, as followers of Jesus, the church in the world. It's just so true when you see it with your own eyes, and I owe that experience to all of you who supported me with your money, with your prayers. My life will never be the same. The way I read the Bible will never be the same. And I hope that the way that I preach and teach and guide others as followers of Jesus will never be the same.
Geovanna Huffman: You became a person of passion again and you started thinking, how do we build the kingdom of God? And for me, that was powerful to witness because I never thought I would see you do stuff like that. We were having all these conversations that we hadn't had for a long time since our early years in college again. For me, that was like, "Thank You, Jesus."
Eric Huffman: This is what I learned about peacemaking in the Holy Land, that for me, a skeptic who has always struggled with the strife of these crippling doubts about Jesus and whether it's all a myth and whether it's true what I'm saying on Sunday mornings. Peacemaking in the Holy Land began for me with the shocking revelation that as much as I've always loved to doubt everything in my life, there's nothing left to doubt when it comes to Jesus.
When it comes to who He was, how He lived, the movement he began, and how He plans on reaching us and the rest of the world through grace, there is no more doubt about how He wants to make peace with us. And it's not Pax Romana. It's not peace by force. It is a Palestinian Jew softening the hearts of Palestinians and Jews. It's a man on a cross forgiving the soldiers who put Him there, and then inviting them to build his church. His Roman soldiers and Jewish fishermen sharing the same table together. What we're doing here together, friends, is real.
It was so hard to come back from that trip so dramatically different to the same people, like to the same people that have been talking to and basically preaching questionable-
Geovanna Huffman: Very questionable?
Eric Huffman: ...questionable theology and being such a cynic about most things and then come back and tell them, "Hey, all the stuff I said for the last seven years-
Geovanna Huffman: Never mind.
Eric Huffman: Forget it. I've got the truth now. And a lot of them were not happy and got disgruntled with me and with our ministry.
Geovanna Huffman: I think a lot of people unfriended us from Facebook. Even now, I mean-
Eric Huffman: It's really tough to change teams sort of and to become, out of nowhere, this weird evangelical person. I still struggle with that part of it.
Geovanna Huffman: Evangelicals have a bad reputation. But what I see it more as a Bible-believing Christian as a person who understands the Bible for it being the Word of God and who is not willing to compromise it for anything.
Eric Huffman: We loved our time in Kansas City. We love the people there. We accomplished some great things together. But after coming back from the Holy Land, I began to feel out of place there. I felt really guilty for leading people astray all those years. I felt bad that some of them were confused and felt betrayed when their super liberal, semi-agnostic pastor became an evangelical overnight. We needed a fresh start. So a year later, we packed our bags and headed for Houston, Texas, where we had an opportunity to start something brand new.
I gotta tell you something, parents. If you want to make sure your kids become adults who have no faith to speak of, if you want to ensure that your kids grow up believing that church is irrelevant to them and Jesus doesn't matter, if you want them to grow up checking "none" on that religious affiliation box or sleeping in every single Sunday morning, let them see you call yourself a Christian and then prioritize everything else above Jesus. Let them see you call yourself a Christian and then love money more than Jesus and love football more than Jesus or even love them more than Jesus because children more than anyone, you've got a nose for hypocrisy.
From day one we were devoted to a singular mission: to inspire non-religious skeptics to follow Jesus. We decided to call this new thing The Story because if skeptics struggle with anything, it's the Bible. But I think if skeptics could see what Bert helped me to see, that the Bible really is a story, a love story about a God who calls us all sons and daughters no matter what, then maybe they would find themselves in that story.
Bert Gary: I can't change the world, man. I'm not that smart and I don't have that kind of bully pulpit. But I have a feeling that's what you're doing. I think you're carrying the ball. And if you're carrying the ball, man carry the ball.
Eric Huffman: Well, thank you.
Bert Gary: Because you're gonna make a difference, if you haven't already, in some people's lives. Because you're just honest. People are looking for someone who's not selling anything. They're looking for somebody who is not bullshitting. And I think they're looking for someone who's not performing.
Eric Huffman: I just want to be authentic and real with people. And now there's another thing happening, you know. I couldn't get anyone to come hear me before when it was just me. And now there's a movement afoot, you know, because it's about something other than just me.
Eric Huffman: Five years ago, I could barely draw crowds on Sundays. Today in three years since it began, The Story welcomes nearly 800 people to worship and over 1,200 people in small groups, and just continues to grow like crazy. But filling the room on Sundays means nothing if it's all about the show. The stuff I'm most proud of is what happens between Sundays when the people of The Story go out into their homes, into their offices, into their city to mentor young people, to befriend and feed hundreds of our homeless neighbors, to help rescue sex trafficking victims, and to simply open their homes to each other, breaking bread together, doing life together.
Last September, when Hurricane Harvey dropped 50 inches of rain on this town, who do you think were the first groups to get organized and mobilize support? And those who lost everything, who do you think they called first? Local churches like The Story were first on the scene. And now that the rest of the world has moved on, my church and others are still helping Houston families get back on their feet. I can't explain the power a church has when people simply choose to love God and to love each other. But it's an awesome thing to behold.
Eric Huffman: I want to tell you another story before we have to wrap. And this is probably the moment I remember most-
Bert Gary: On the trip?
Eric Huffman: On our trip. Aside from all the facts and stuff you gave me, toward the end of the trip, we were at a scenic overlook looking at the city of Jerusalem. You were telling us what's what and being the smart guy that you are. But then you loaded us up on the tour bus and I could hear you talking to somebody outside the door of the bus. And I look outside the window to see who you're talking to. And it was the most pitiful...
Bert Gary: Oh, God I remember this. You're gonna make me cry now. Oh, I remember this. It was awful. It was awful.
Eric Huffman: It was the most pitiful person who life had just not been kind to. He was asking us for money, asking you for money. And you talked to him for a long time. And when you got back on the bus instead of doing what you normally did, which was grab the mic and teach us something, you put your head in your hands and you started to weep.
Bert Gary: I remember. It was terrible.
Eric Huffman: Uncontrollably weep. You were mumbling and all I could make out from the words you were saying, "It could have been me. That could be me. That could be any of us." And in that moment, Bert, what occurred to me is that faith doesn't have to be a heart thing or a head thing. One of the smartest guys I had ever met who had just led my mind to faith in Jesus was in tears with his head in his hands over a beggar that he just met. I saw Jesus in His fullness in that moment. And of all the stuff you taught me intellectually, that's the most important moment of our trip. I just think God has done something special in you and I know I'm not the only one that you've touched in that way. So I love you.
Bert Gary: I love you, too.
Eric Huffman: I thank God for you.
Bert Gary: I thank God for you. Keep doing what you're doing, man. Be real.
Eric Huffman: I will.
For me, the answer was Jesus. I searched high and low, but I never found anything as true as Him. I understand if you don't agree. I'm only telling my faith story to encourage you to doubt. If you're a Christian, it's okay to doubt your assumptions and to seek more understanding. It's okay to listen to people who don't share your beliefs. And if you're a skeptic, it's okay to doubt your doubts. Don't believe everything you hear, whether it's from Bible Belt Christians or published PhDs. I believe you bear the image of God inside of you. And if you seek the truth for yourself, you'll find it.
One last thing. I know that professors aren't there to coddle and spoon-feed students. The best teachers are the ones who challenged students to question everything and seek the truth. In spite of his condescension toward Christians and his sometimes slanted agenda, Dr. Otto challenged me to think and ask hard questions. He might have broken my faith once, but he's also one of the reasons my faith is now stronger than ever. So Dr. Otto, if you're listening, thank you, and God loves you.
So that's my story so far. It's still very much a work in progress. I continue to wrestle with some doubts and there are many things I still don't understand. But 10 days in the Holy Land gave me something that 10 years of agnostic secularism never did—hope. If God is real, and if Jesus is who He said He was, there really is hope for this world. And after spending years doubting everything, I'm thankful, thankful that I still have a part to play in the love story God is telling.
Julie Mirlicourtois: Maybe God is produced by Eric Huffman, Brandon Duke, and me, Julie Mirlicourtois. Our sound engineers are Pat Laughrey and Aubrey Schneider. Our editor is Brittany Holland, music is by Nathan Bonus, and our intern is Caroline Love. If you have questions or doubts that you'd like us to address in upcoming episodes of Maybe God, email us at [email protected] or start a discussion with us on our Facebook page, Maybe God Podcast. And don't forget to subscribe now on Apple Podcast or your favorite podcast app.