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Army atheist yells, ‘God save me’, as shells explode

This article arose from an exchange of information between CMI’s translations facilitator Roger Griffiths and John T. Tolbert, an evangelist working with several language groups in Asia, primarily Vietnamese.

Published: 12 December 2017 (GMT+10)
JohnBeverlyTolbert
John and Beverly Tolbert on the mission field. Click for larger view.

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John recalls, as a five-year-old, looking up at the sky, and realizing there must be a God. At 17 years, he joined the US Army, which was engaged in the Vietnam War. During basic training, an older colleague, hearing that John believed in God, gave him Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth, which lampoons the Bible. John says, “Not having read the Bible, I fell for it, and became an atheist.”

In March 1969, he arrived in Vietnam and became an interpreter of Vietnamese. That period in his life had a huge impact, because he discovered that when the shells were falling around him and people were getting killed, “I was running for the nearest bunker praying, ‘God save me’!”

Looking for life’s purpose

Honourably discharged in April 1970, John returned to the US and immediately enrolled at the University of Delaware. He was constantly discouraged by the fact that he did not know the purpose of life, or even if it had a purpose. If anyone sat down next to him at a bar, within minutes he would ask, “What do you think the purpose of life is?” No one had a satisfying answer.

John was so turned off by the Vietnam War that he decided to study political science. In the introductory course, he was enamoured with the reasoning and eloquent language of some Supreme Court opinions. Something about ‘truth’ captured his heart and he naïvely thought the study of law would lead him to the ‘truth’. So, after he received his B.A. in political science, at the age of 24 he decided to go to law school.

John says, “While a law student, I went to a Christmas Eve party. I left it about 2 am, drove out to the countryside, and parked near a big field. I walked out into the field and just stared up at the sky and the blinking stars. It seemed like a cold, lonely universe.” Then, as John thought about God, he began to cry, and called out, “God, I know you are there. Why can’t I know you? Send me a priest to tell me about you.”

Nothing happened. No meteors flashed through the sky. Dejectedly he walked back to his car and drove home. But God had heard that prayer.

John’s ‘priest’ arrives

John began to practise law in Delaware. One day, he was assigned a new client, a church pastor, and so met his ‘priest’. John observed that the pastor always brought a Bible with him, and prayed before making decisions about the case. What surprised John was that the pastor clearly seemed to think that someone was listening at the other end.

John was aware that the Bible taught a six-day creation, which was contrary to everything he had ever been taught. “So in my arrogance, and belief that I was smarter than the pastor, I decided to challenge him. One day when he came to my office, I picked up his Bible and said, ‘How can you believe in the Bible, when it’s wrong in the very first chapter’?”

He smiled, and said, “What do you mean, Mr Tolbert? Evolution?”

John replied, “Yes, evolution. Six-day creation. Noah’s Ark.”

“Come on!” He said, “You’re a lawyer, right?”

John said, “Yes.”

Then, he asked John a question that changed his life. He said, “Do you always form conclusions before you’ve studied both sides of the evidence?”

John was stunned, and said, “Are you saying there is evidence for a sudden creation, and against evolution?”

He said, “Quite a bit. Do you have an open mind?”

John replied, “Yes, I do.”

He said, “Ok. Next week I’ll send you some books written by PhDs in their fields, who don’t believe in evolution. They believe in a sudden creation by God, just as Genesis says.”

Sure enough, the next week, two people from his church brought a stack of books on creation and evolution. One of them was Beverly, whom he would marry three years later. But at that time, he was only interested in seeking ‘truth’.

As John read the books, he says he realized three things:

  1. Evolutionists, when pressed, seemed to admit that there was very little evidence to support their conclusions.
  2. The Genesis account of Creation and the Fall provided a serious, cogent explanation for the existence of the universe, and in many ways accounted for the sometimes horrible world in which we live.
  3. Genesis 3 provided the best explanation he had ever encountered concerning how there could be a ‘good’ God and a ‘terrible’ world.

Checking the sources

One morning in 1980, John took the books to the public library and began looking up the footnotes in the original sources (Nature, Science, Smithsonian, etc.). As John put it, “There was no distortion, twisting or misquoting. I slowly pushed my chair back from the table covered with all the original source materials, and said to myself, ‘Evolution is the biggest fraud that has ever been perpetrated upon the world. I have been deceived’.”

John then began to study the Bible, and about two to three months later, got down on his knees in his apartment and said to Jesus: “You are who I have been looking for, for 25 years. I am yours.”

“And that’s how I got saved,” John said. “It was obvious to me that the Scriptures taught a sudden creation in six 24-hour days. As a lawyer, I could reach no other conclusion. I had become convinced of the total reliability and inerrancy of the Bible.”

“I also was convinced that creation was recent,” John said. “Jesus said that ‘from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female’ (Mark 10:6), and He spoke of the blood of all the prophets shed ‘from the foundation of the world’ (Luke 11:50).”

Evangelism and translation

In 1999, a church in Maine called him to be their pastor, and in 2002, John and Beverly commenced eight years service in Vietnam with the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE). In 2010, they moved to Taiwan to work among the Vietnamese there.

In addition to this evangelism work, John also leads a team of 10 Vietnamese native-speakers helping to translate the GotQuestions.org website (an apologetics site that also holds to six-24-hour-day creation) into Vietnamese. He has also helped proofread a portion of the articles translated into Vietnamese and featured on CMI’s website creation.com.1

In 2010, John wrote a 20-page tract called The Ancient Path, which has been printed in Vietnamese, Burmese, Chinese, and Nepali, with over 1,600,000 copies distributed. They are also working on getting it translated into the native tongues of some people groups in Asia that do not yet have the Scriptures translated. It answers the most common objection to Christianity in Asia—that Christianity is a Western religion.

John advises, “Virtually all Asians believe that Christianity is an American or Western religion. The idea of ‘sin’ clashes with ‘karma’, and so we have to deal with Buddhism and Hinduism. Most Asians just think that the universe ‘has always been there’. So in evangelism, starting with ‘the beginning’ is crucial (Luke 24:27).” The Ancient Path does this effectively, with pictures.

Inspired by this article?

John, who has been reading CMI’s articles for years, says this is “because they are so well-reasoned and well-documented”. He says, “There is no reason to abandon the historical and traditional view of Genesis 1. There is an infinitely powerful God who loves us, who created the entire universe in six days and then stopped creating. It’s as simple as that!”

John and Beverly are people who believe what God says, take Him seriously, and respond by using their talents to point others to God. It leaves a question for us: how are we using our talents to do likewise?

If you are fluent in a language other than English, perhaps you could help multiply CMI materials by becoming a voluntary CMI translator. Contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

References and notes

  1. See creation.com/Vietnamese. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

The True Story of the World
by Russell Grigg
US $7.00
Hard cover
The True Story of Noah's Ark
by Tom Dooley, Bill Looney
US $17.00
Hard cover
Evidence for the Bible
by Clive Anderson and Brian Edwards
US $40.00
Hard cover
Should Christians Embrace Evolution?
by Norman C Nevin (Editor)
US $20.00
Soft cover

Readers’ comments

D. C.
I have in front of me a New Testament bible printed in 1916 and handed out 'to His Majesty's Troops on leaving Fulwood Barracks, Preston in 1916'.

Imagine young soldiers trembling on their knees in a wretched swamp of stinking mud and praying to God before they leave the trenches to face their enemy.

The first day of the Somme:

'Out of 700 officers and men of the 1st Battalion who went into action, only 237 were present at the end of the attack to answer their names when the roll was called, while the 11th Battalion lost 594 killed, wounded and missing out of the 720 in the attack.' On a single day the British Army lost 57,470 men.

Is it possible that:

A) Some soldiers believed in creationism and they were slaughtered?

B) Some soldiers didn't believe in creationism and they were slaughtered?

Tas Walker
What you described was a hell on earth. These men were only young. The Bibles they received were able to give them hope and comfort even in the midst of hell on earth. I'll quote a few parts from the New Testament that could have given those men hope in their situation.
It was a hell hole because we live in a fallen world under the dominion of the evil one. And the glorious hope of Christmas is that Jesus Christ has redeemed our world by providing for the purification of our sins.
There are so much insight and hope in the Scriptures that those men received and that deal with the attitudes and questions in your comment. I would like to think that you will read and think about what I say, and to do some searching of the Scriptures for yourself.
For example, reflect on the events surrounding the three Hebrew men who would not bow down to worship the golden idol and were threatened with execution (Daniel chapter 3). Reflect on their words to the king (vv 17-18), "If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up." In this case God delivered them dramatically. (This event is referred to in Hebrews 11:34.)
God can deliver and does deliver but he doesn't always deliver. He did not deliver his own Son, Jesus Christ from death on the cross.
This fact is also set forth in the glorious hall of faith in Hebrews 11:35-39, "... Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, ..." Read the whole chapter.
We see the same sort of horiffic things happening every day today, on TV and in the papers men and women who refuse to deny Christ even when the sword is held to their necks, but they prefer to die for Christ. That is why these Scriptures are so relevant today.
Notice the word "resurrection" above. In other words, they were killed.
This same truth is set out in Romans 8. Note vs 38-39: For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Notice the word "death" above. Do you have a hope that goes beyond the grave? Do you have a cause worth dying for? Do you have the confidence expressed in Romans above?
The truth of creation is important. It's not a doctrine where you you just tick the box and give intellectual assent. But it gets deep into the core of your being and gives you the confidence to trust God for your self, personally, even in life-and-death circumstances. In so doing you will experience His power and presence in your life. May that be your experience.
Vern R.
I too, was a foxhole convert. And just like John, the commitment made under fire was forgotten after the shooting was over. A few years later God let you know He hasn't forgotten your commitment. CMI has been helpful in my understanding of creation as well. Thank you CMI.
Eileen T.
Although I can in no way compare my humble, comparitively uneducated life (I am now 80 yrs old) to this gentleman's - I too was an atheist who eventually (at age 27) wanted to know the purpose of life. Truth became my driving motivation and I can so identify with this testimony. Thank you for publishng it - I will be sharing it to Facebook!
Gary B.
Evangelising to Buddhists requires you to start with the God of the Universe and the story of Creation is very important in setting the foundation for the salvation story. With karma there is no concept of sin.
Grahame G.
Thanks for sharing this story. It is so encouraging to know that faithfulness is so important. We may not see fruit on this earth. It may be rare. Or it may not.

But God does as He sees fit and we choose whether to join Him in His work or not.

Trust and obey. There's no other way. Forget about results, that is not our responsibility. It is required in stewards that a man be found faithful.
Bryan R.
This is a brilliant article! Thank you so much for sharing it.
B L.
Powerful read.

The great lie of evolution is taught to children in all grades and it seems in every school and university (even Christian ones).

How do we protect our children from this dangerous great lie when school is compulsory in most countries?



Tas Walker
Provide material that will counteract it, such as a subscription to Creation magazine. Take an interest in what they are learning at school and talk about any issues that arise. Home school.

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