Atheist-turned-Christian asks: Is it really all about nothing?
The question led to Suplita abandoning his atheistic worldview and embracing the Christian faith.
Suplita was born in Fairmont, W.Va. Known as "the Friendly City," Fairmont is the seat of Marion County, just about 20 miles south of the Pennsylvania state line.
He grew up in the Church of Christ, where his father was a deacon. The Suplitas were in church three times each week. During those early years Rich Suplita made a commitment to Christ.
The UGA lecturer admitted, "I made a commitment on the basis of my understanding of Christ at that time. I thought it was like a contract with God and I had to maintain my part of the contract. It was rather legalistic and it was my responsibility to maintain my salvation and if I failed to do so, then God could end the contract whenever He chose. I knew nothing about a covenant relationship with Christ."
At age 22, Suplita enrolled in the University of West Virginia and earned two degrees -- one in psychology and one in communication studies. During those years he also met Carla Price, a medical student at the university, and eventually proposed marriage. Richard and Carla moved to Savannah, Ga., where Carla was able to complete her internship and residency requirements in order to become a practicing physician.
The Suplitas then moved to Winder, Ga., where Carla began her medical practice in the fall of 2000 and Richard enrolled at the University of Georgia to pursue a Ph.D. in psychology and philosophy. On the way to his doctorate, he earned a master's degree and actually began teaching during his last year of graduate school. He is now a full-time lecturer in the school of psychology.
Although the Suplitas' marriage has not survived the stresses of separate educational pursuits and busy professional careers, they have three children: Annabel, 9, Lydia, 6 and Lola, 4.
Richard's journey into atheism began when he was a young adult. "I didn't want to be tied to a god who viewed me as a failure. I concluded that since I was not going to measure up anyway, it would be a relief to abandon the idea of God.
"I also became enamored with the whole concept of academia. Delving into science and evolution was intriguing. Of course, psychology departments are notorious for being secular and humanistic. It became easy for me to attach myself to that.
"I started to explore the atheistic/free thinking mindset from time to time while I was in Savannah, but from 2006 until last year I was devoted to that worldview. I had some fond recollections of Christianity. I thought the story of Jesus being born in a manger was sweet and sentimental, but I was certainly not using Christianity as the guide for my life. In fact, I spoke harshly against it."
Suplita continued, "I spent time ingesting the writings of some of the most renowned atheists of the day. I read Richard Dawkins' book 'The God Delusion,' Christopher Hitchens' book 'God is Not Great' and Sam Harris' 'The End of Faith.'
"I now see these three atheists as the 'unholy trinity,' because they are what I call evangelical atheists. They are trying to silence the voices of faith.
"Last year at this time," Suplita added, "I was convinced atheism was true." The free-thinking psychology professor became the faculty adviser for the UGA campus atheist organization, whose motto is "Being Good Dawgs Without God."
However, through the years "I couldn't deny or explain away the transformed lives of some of the people I knew" who had embraced faith in Christ.
"My sister's marriage was filled with resentment and hostility, but 10 years ago she became a follower of Jesus Christ. Three or four years after that her husband became a Christian. I couldn't help but notice remarkable evidences of the power of God in their lives and how deeply in love they were with each other.
"Then I began to observe the childlike faith of my children. Annabel was baptized at First Baptist Church of Winder two years ago. I know that in my heart I never wanted her not to believe in Jesus -- never!
"I never wanted to discourage the faith of my children. I began to wonder why I wouldn't want my children to follow the ideology I had chosen. I started to listen for God to speak to me."
During this year's Easter season, First Baptist Church in nearby Watkinsville, decided to take advantage of the Free Speech Zone near UGA's Tate Student Center to share the Gospel. Almost any group can reserve the area to promote their cause or advocate their philosophy of life.
Those who want to raise funds for breast cancer research can reserve the platform and microphone for a day to advocate their cause. Secularists can use the venue to promote their agenda. Political activists can herald their propaganda in this concourse where UGA students cross paths daily and often congregate. Fiery evangelists have been known to commandeer the platform in this area to preach the wrath of God's judgment.
With the help of layman Jon Dean and some of the staff at FBC Watkinsville, the decision was made to reserve the Free Speech Zone once in the fall semester and once in the spring semester, akin to the Apostle Paul's experience on Mars Hill in Athens, Greece, in Acts 17. First Baptist calls this campus outreach "The Great Exchange."
The Watkinsville church has as many as 600 UGA students in Sunday worship, with many of those students ministering to their peers on campus. Some read Scripture or give their testimonies for The Great Exchange. Others sing praise songs. Some may share biblical truths. First Baptist passes out thousands of pieces of literature including Gospel tracts, New Testaments, copies of "Mere Christianity" by C.S. Lewis, Lee Strobel's book "The Case for Christ" and Josh McDowell's "More than a Carpenter."
During the first Great Exchange last spring, Suplita showed up with an "Ask an Atheist" sign, recalling, "I was an atheist then, I suppose, but not much of one. But that is when I met David Holt, one of the pastors at First Baptist Church Watkinsville.
"I began to meet with Pastor Holt. I sensed that Jesus was in my heart as a smoldering ember. I was trying to extinguish that ember, but I couldn't put it out.
"I went to church one Sunday morning, but snuck in and out without speaking to anyone.
"One day when I met with Pastor Holt he told me to read the Gospel of John and Romans and pray that God would open my heart. Then he said, 'I'll be interested in seeing what God will do.'
"As I read the Bible, God began to speak to me. His truth began to resonate in my heart. It was undeniable. You might be able to deny it when you get away from it, but not when it's before you. It screams the truth at you in a profound way.
"I think God excused all my misunderstandings and partial understanding and saw the sincerity of my heart and helped me to comprehend what it means to have a personal relationship to Christ."
Holt, who is discipleship pastor at First Baptist, described Suplita's story as "one of the most dramatic conversions I have ever personally witnessed. It is the closest thing to a 'Saul-to-Paul' conversion I have seen in my 25 years of pastoring. The Holy Spirit is obviously the One who drew Rich to Christ."
Holt explained, "I met Rich last spring when we did our first campus outreach at the Free Speech Zone -- The Great Exchange [a theme reflecting how Christ exchanged His righteousness for our sin that we might exchange our sin for His righteousness]. Rich showed up with a homemade sign -– 'Ask an Atheist.' Many people talked to Rich that day. Thankfully, all the conversations were healthy and not argumentative. I was simply one of those who talked to Rich, and I found him to be quite open and receptive.
"After that event, I began meeting with Rich weekly. I saw a very sincere hunger to know truth. He agreed to start reading the Bible, and God's Spirit spoke through His Word.
"On Pentecost Sunday in June, we had a special outdoor service. At that event, [layman] Jerry deBin talked to Rich and challenged him to surrender his life to Christ. Rich did just that! Three weeks later Rich shared his testimony and was baptized.
"He began his testimony by saying, 'Many of you college students may have taken a class from me and heard me bash your God. I really got into that kind of thing.' From there he told of how he has now given his heart to Christ."
Holt concluded, "In the last few months I have seen Rich grow in his faith. Just today he told me of the hunger he has to know and follow Jesus with all his heart. Pray for Rich as he grows and seeks to influence others through his very strategic position on the campus at UGA."
deBin, a member of First Baptist and vice president of Tifosi Optics, also has become a friend to Suplita. "When Rich came to that outdoor service on Pentecost Sunday he not only heard the Gospel, but he got to see genuine, authentic Christian fellowship and some things he could never see in the academic community," deBin said.
"He got a glimpse of the life he was missing. As I shared my testimony with him, he began to be convicted and started to weep. I told him he could settle the issue that night. He prayed to receive Christ then.
"Rich has become a faithful, committed Christian who is eager to learn. … In fact, he meets with several of us every Thursday morning at Jittery Joe's Coffee for fellowship and accountability.
"God has put him in a hostile environment, but he is proving to be an incredible bright, loving Christian -- touched by Christ to the very core of his being."
This fall, Suplita showed up at First Baptist's Great Exchange outreach church carrying his "Ask an Atheist" sign. This time he used the sign to illustrate his past life, but then set it aside to testify how he had personally experienced a Great Exchange -– whereby God had replaced his secular philosophies with His infallible truth and his sinful life with Christ's forgiving grace and imparted righteousness.
J. Gerald Harris is editor of The Christian Index (www.christianindex.org), newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Convention.