The Unbeliever


The foreman glanced at his pocket watch and listened intently in the chilly early-morning air. The metal rails gleamed faintly in the bluish light. The sun began to flood the tops of the mountains. Then he heard it—the wail of an approaching train. The rest of the work crew turned their attention from the writhing flames of burning railroad ties and stared down the track. In a few moments they spotted the yellow eye of the headlight atop the rumbling gray bulk of the engine.

Black smoke spewed furiously from the smokestack and drifted back along the length of the train and across the plain. The workmen leaned on picks and shovels and watched as the locomotive slowed before it reached the section of the track the men were working on. The air brakes hissed the train to a crawl. The smell of pinewood smoke filled the air. Sticking his head out of the cab window, the fireman waved to the men along the track. They returned his greeting as the olive-green Southern Pacific cars rocked past. A child pressed his face against a coach window, wide-eyed, wondering what the men were doing out on the lonely plain. The train began to gather speed, and seconds later—with a blast from the whistle—the Southern Pacific limited vanished in the distance, heading for Chicago. A lantern still burned on its observation car.


Mrs. White drowsed in her seat, one cheek laid against the plush mohair upholstery. The jolt of the slowing train had awakened her, and she watched the silent figures of the track crew slide past her window. A voice from the rear of the coach attracted her attention. She could by listening carefully make out the man's words above the rattle and clatter of the coach wheels on the track. He seemed to be talking about religion. She turned around to see who he was. The conductor had extinguished the Pintsch gas lamps. Not too much light filtered into the coach yet. The varnished walnut wood of the car's walls and ceiling made it seem even darker inside. But she located the person she had heard. He was talking to another man, a man who looked as though he wished he were by himself in the dining car, eating breakfast. Instead he feebly argued with a stranger who seemed to enjoy attacking religion.


When the unbeliever saw that his seatmate no longer wanted to talk, he looked for another victim. Not all of the seats were filled, and he easily found a seat beside someone willing to talk to him. For a couple of hours he went from one person to another in the coach, criticizing and condemning Christianity. Some of the passengers agreed with his statements, laughing at his clever arguments and manner of gesturing. Others tried to defend Christianity, but soon gave up when he defeated their every attempt.


The unbeliever knew that everybody in the car was listening to him, and he enjoyed the attention. Some of the more devout Christians in the coach wished that someone would silence his ridiculing and boasts, but they could only sit helplessly in their seats or go into another chair car. With pride and triumph on his face, he walked up and down the aisle and swayed back and forth as the engineer tried to make up for lost time and regain his fifty-mile-an-hour average speed.

Spotting Mrs. White with a Bible in her hand, the man sat down in the empty seat beside her and began a tirade against Christianity. Religion, he said, reminded him of someone juggling balls. It was all a form of trickery with nothing real behind it. He compared it to sorcery and superstitious magic. On and on he ranted and raved. Mrs. White said nothing.

Still talking loudly, the man knew he had the complete attention of the passengers. His voice boomed down the length of the coach. Many wondered what Mrs. White would say to the atheist, but she remained silent. She made no attempt to argue with him. Finally the man stopped from sheer exhaustion. Turning to face him, Mrs. White quoted, “‘This is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.’” (John 17:3.)

Briefly she told the man about her own conversion and life. “You call religion sorcery,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion. “But we have ‘a more sure word of prophecy,’ a promise ‘whereunto ye do well that ye take heed.’” She raised her voice so that everybody could hear.

The unbelieving man objected vigorously to her reply. Trying to regain what he thought had been his advantage, he asked if she had ever read books by certain authors. Some of the books tried to find mistakes in the Bible and prove it was nothing but a collection of myths. Others were about ancient philosophy. If she answered that she hadn't read them, he hoped to make her look ignorant in front of the other passengers.

Ignoring his attempt to make her look foolish, she answered simply, “No, I have not.”

“There. There, you don't know,” he sneered. “Since you haven't read even these books, you don't know the first thing about the subject.”

“I don't want to know,” she declared firmly. “I have no time to read such trash.” All the wisdom of the secular philosophers, she explained, came as a gift from God. Instead of using it in God's service, they had perverted their intelligence and twisted it to satisfy human pride and ideas. Anything worthwhile such men wrote or said came as inspiration from God. All true knowledge came from Christ, and the world's greatest men only reflected its Source as the moon reflects the light of the sun. Carefully Mrs. White explained that man could find truth only with Christ's help. She talked more to the other passengers than to the man in the seat beside her. Everybody listened, clearly hearing her above the rhythmic click of the wheels on the rails. Angry at the way Mrs. White had gotten control of the conversation, the man muttered and mumbled under his breath. He turned in his seat and sat in sullen disgust. The other people in the coach, seeing how tiny, elderly Mrs. White had silenced his boasts, burst into laughter. After taking the laughter for a few minutes, the unbeliever hurried down the aisle and crossed the swaying open vestibule to another coach.

Mrs. White had not used any complicated arguments with the scoffing man. To have done so would have given him a chance to twist the discussion to his own advantage. Instead she exposed the man's ignorance by revealing to the other people in the coach that he knew nothing about God. He could not hide that fact by quoting statements from books he had read. The Spirit of God took Mrs. White's simple defense and stabbed it into the agnostic's heart, humiliating his pride. She showed that she knew true wisdom.


D. A. Delafield and Gerald Wheeler