Ben Atkins tells Andrew Stone how finding faith in Jesus rescued him from satanic influences
‘I WOKE up one morning and the Devil was standing at the end of my bed.’ Ben Atkins’s experiences as a troubled teenager – and the way he has moved on from them – led to his appearing in BBC Three’s A Tattoo to Change Your Life.
The concept of the programme is very straightforward. In each episode, one individual talks about a past regret. Previous guests on the programme have regretted their membership of the English Defence League, the tragedy of a plane crash and a period of being morbidly obese. The individuals then go on to get a tattoo that symbolises the changes that have taken place in their life.
The tattoo artists usually take their work in their stride. Until one of them is told that their next client is a vicar.
‘Are vicars allowed to have tattoos?’ she asks, shocked at the prospect of working on the grey-haired old man she expects to meet at the studio.
Instead, Ben turns out to be a 27-year-old guy whose story centres on drugs, sex, self-harm and satanism – and the way God freed him from them all. The tattoos Ben wanted on his forearms were of a bird and a lion.
‘They represent God’s transformation in my life,’ he tells me when we meet after his programme was first available online. ‘God has made me bold and stopped me running away from life and so I had a bird to represent flight tied to a lion for boldness.’
As we talk, I remind him that there are verses in the Bible that explicitly say people should not have tattoos. I wondered how he squared his body art with his Christian faith and role as a vicar.
‘We need to understand the context of those verses,’ he explains. ‘It isn’t God saying that someone mustn’t have a tattoo of their mum’s name on their arm because they miss her. It’s about people in Bible times not associating themselves with the foreign gods and cultures around them who would cut and mark themselves.’
One kind of cutting and marking – known as self-harm – is something that Ben encountered as a child.
‘I was really messed up with a lot of trauma and anxiety,’ he reveals. ‘Growing up, there was a huge disconnection between the way I presented myself and the way I actually felt. There was evidence in my behaviour from early on that I was quite troubled and, by the time I reached 11 or 12, I was finding and using whatever activities and substances I could to escape.
‘I discovered pornography when I was 11. By the time I hit 12 I discovered girls and that was better than pornography. I also discovered alcohol and drugs. I was going to the park and getting smashed or smoking a joint. They were all just symptoms of my belief that life was my enemy and that no one was on my side.
‘My experience of life was not a happy one.’
Ben’s life took an even darker turn at a friend’s house, where he discovered the book The Satanic Bible by Anton Szandor Lavey.
‘I started to read it and I identified with what it was saying,’ he says. ‘It made sense. It was telling me what I wanted to hear. It was like a manifesto combining individualism and materialism, saying you had to fight for yourself and do everything to put yourself first and to get control.
‘It wasn’t overtly calling people to Devil worship, but it was calling them to self worship and to harness the power of the world to get what you want.’
Although, after reading the book, Ben did not feel that the text explicitly directed him to worship the Devil, he found that he began instinctively to pray to him.
‘The satanism I discovered was a philosophy that acknowledged the pain of life, put it in a framework and gave steps to harnessing it rather than being crushed by it. I became fascinated with talking to Satan and giving myself over to him.’
Ben’s fascination also led to him marking his body in a way very different from the tattoos he has had since – and it’s a story he has been willing to share publicly in recent years.
‘I had a huge argument at home and I went to my room,’ he says. ‘All I could think of was to scar myself and before I knew it, I was carving a pentagram – a satanic symbol – over my heart.’
Ben’s most significant satanic experience came when he was 16 years old.
‘I woke up one morning and Satan, immaculately dressed with a waistcoat and pocket watch, was stood by a chair at the end of my bed,’ he recalls. ‘There was something in his presence that was both captivating and terrifying.
‘He told me I was going to pass my GCSEs and then die and I was absolutely certain it was going to happen.’
As Ben waited for his exam results, he began to fixate on how he was going to die that summer and even began to plan taking his own life. Then his elder sister’s friend, who was the vicar at a nearby church, invited him to a Christian festival.
‘I thought I had nothing to lose by going,’ he remembers. ‘I liked the vicar and got along with her and it would be time away from everything.
‘The whole week was incredible. There was such positivity there. People were sharing stories of how Jesus had turned their lives around and the difference he had made.
‘I thought because I had picked Satan that I couldn’t experience the same things.
‘Then on the last night, there was a woman who was talking about trying to live without God and making it on our own. She said that God allows us to come to ruin so that we realise only he can rebuild us in the way we were meant to be. That resonated with me.’
Ben was reluctant to respond to an invitation to go to the front to be prayed for at the end of the talk. However, he was then approached by one of the men at the festival who began to pray with him. The result took Ben completely by surprise.
‘I fell to the floor weeping,’ he says. ‘This incredible peace came over me which was more powerful than anything I had ever experienced before. It was so positive and life-giving.
‘The man said that God had a future for me and that it didn’t end there. He said I was going to bless the lives of many people. It was the complete opposite of what I had been feeling.’
Ben decided to put his satanic past behind him and to follow God. But life didn’t immediately become easy for him.
‘The way I had lived before was not compatible with God’s way and for two years I suffered with depression,’ he reveals. ‘Some days I could barely get out of bed. It was horrid. But, before that, all I had known was hate – of myself and of others – and a desire to die. Depression was nothing compared with that.’
After struggling with A level studies, Ben started work in southeast London with young people at risk of becoming ensnared in gang culture. He mentored them and helped them learn to read and write. He loved the work and wanted to make a career of it.
‘But I felt God wanted me to work in the Church,’ he says.
‘I found that the kids were looking to me for leadership and to teach them about Jesus. I was out of my depth and wanted to learn how to teach the Bible.’
Ben began studying at an Anglican Bible college and, at 21, commenced training to be a vicar. He was ordained in 2016 and is certain that his teenage experiences help him to be effective for God today.
‘We are formed by our experiences,’ he asserts. ‘I know that we’re all following something, nobody is just doing their own thing. We have got to be humble and ask ourselves who we are following and who we are allowing to shape us and whether we’re comfortable with the way we’re impacting the people around us.’
Ben’s attention is now on influencing people in a positive way and encouraging them to be the best that they can be. However, he is still aware of the dark forces that he perceives to be in the world and would challenge people who might doubt the existence of the Devil.
‘Satan’s worst-case scenario is him revealing himself,’ he explains. ‘But you can see his grubby fingerprints all over the world. The Bible says that Satan comes to kill, steal and destroy and it’s universally agreed that these things are not good. Yet we see them everywhere.
‘There are many strands to satanism but all of them are evil. It’s about people putting themselves first. Satan likes us to do his work for him while feeling as if we are in control and in charge. But Satan’s aim is to separate us from each other and from God through fear. God’s aim is to connect us to each other and to him through love.
‘Jesus said that he came to give us life and life to the full. The question is: do you want to have a life without being robbed of your hope? Jesus came to give us hope, here and now and for ever.
‘When I see my self-harm scars today, I’m thankful that I’m not there any more and that I now live with hope.
‘I can say with confidence that God saved my life.’
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