From Tormented Soul to Freed Atheist – Part 1
My de-conversion story is one that will probably leave many of you appalled and shocked at just what religion can do to someone. My story is not simple – it is extremely involved, intense, and complicated. As such, this small (hopefully only 3-part) series will relate my detailed journey from fundamentalist, six-day literal, biblical inerrancy believing, calvinistic, highly spiritual Christian to atheist. I will cover my reasoning, my spiritual experiences, and my the internal hellish torment that my faith gave me. The first part will cover my childhood, the second will cover my teenage years, and the final portion will cover my recent de-conversion at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago at the age of 23.
[Please forgive me for the length. I want to make it as clear as possible that I was as deeply into the faith as one can imagine, because most accusations made against de-converts have to do with the fact that we were never a “true” Christian. Well, if I was not a “true” Christian, then I cannot imagine what one is!]
As a child I never knew anything but Protestant Christianity. My parents were not forceful in their beliefs, but it was certainly obvious they took them seriously. My dad was born into a pastor’s family, and my mother grew up in the same church as my father. Both of their immediate families were extremely devoted Christians.
I was extremely intelligent for my age as a young child around the age of 7-10. I can remember some of the things I pulled off and the arguments I concocted and even now I wonder how I came up with that stuff. For example, I can remember basically explaining the problem of Zeno’s paradox to one of my dad’s bicycle shop employees who was in college at the time. I must have only been ten, but it occurred to me that when molecules travel from point A to point B they must travel an infinite set of possible locations in order to reach their new location. How do they ever arrive?
My parents knew from the beginning that it was important to raise their children in the faith. I commend them for this, only because it was the best they knew how at the time. This devotion to the faith eventually lead them to home-school all of us children.
Around the age of 7 or 8, I can remember my mom giving me a small booklet on being a good little Christian boy or girl. I thought it was silly and scoffed at it in my little mind, but I remember distinctly feeling a sense of remorse at this thought. Not so much that I had scoffed at “God” or anything, but more so that I had rejected my mother’s advice. I never read the book.
But my parents were intelligent and were not easily phased by our lack of interest in spiritual things. We all loved to play computer games, and they knew that they could get us to do just about anything if they used our love for computers as bait. My parents started this rule: we could not play our allotted one hour of daily computer until we had read the Bible for half an hour. So, of course, we consented. I can remember the drudgery of reading through Isaiah when I was around 10 years old – for half a lifetime (excuse me, half an hour). But it was all worth it because we wanted to play F-19 or blow up Russian tanks in M1 Tank Platoon. It was for a good cause. Because of this I had probably read the Bible from cover to cover 2 or 3 times by the time I was 12 years old.
What my parents could not accomplish, reading the Bible did. Through study of Scripture, I became seriously interested in Christianity. Beyond this, the thing that got me most convicted was a spiritual dream I had when I was around 9 years old. In my dream there was a river with a bank. On that bank lived the devil – in a small shack. There was a small path that separated the devil’s “workshop” from a park at the top of the river bank. In my childlike mind I understood a few ground rules. First of all, I knew deep down that if I crossed the path into the devil’s territory I was able to be caught by him. Unfortunately the poor devil could not cross the path into the park until sundown. So what I would do is sneak past the path, down the riverbank, and tease the devil until he chased me back up the bank to the path. There I would mock him on the other side of the path – confident that he could not get me. But there was a catch.
At sundown the devil could cross back over the path and get anyone he chose. I can remember distinctly in the dream that I was playing with my friends on the playground when I saw the sun slip behind the trees. A deep dread fell over me, as I remembered that the devil could come get anyone he chose. This, of course, would be me. And get me he did.
I remember the dream took on a nasty overtone when the devil grabbed me to take me back to his little “workshop”. The sky was black – a nasty black. The playground faded into the distance. It was just me, the devil – and my dad (of all things). The devil said “But Josh crossed the line, he belongs to me…” I thought to myself: my dad will show him! But my dad said “You are right” (or something like that). I was in the pits of despair, depressed, sullen, and dreading my impending torment. At that moment the entire dream changed. I looked up, and it was no longer my dad next to the devil. It was a man who was facing away from me with dark, long hair. He had his shirt off and he was sweating drops of blood. And the words he spoke before my dream ended have haunted me to this day: “Don’t take Josh, take me instead.”
Then I awoke.
For years this dream was the only token I had that I was “saved”. I considered it a personal revelation from God Himself that I was indeed a Christian, because it was one of the first times I truly grasped the story of salvation. How many people on this planet have a dream when they are a child that clearly reveals the entire gospel message to them in such allegory? While my friends simply had conversion experiences where they were afraid of the rapture when a tornado siren went off (hey, it was Kansas), I had a full-blown revelation from God. Ironically, I was somewhat embarrassed at this story for quite some time because I did not want to be accused of being sensational.
Despite this obvious revelation from God, I was filled with doubts about my salvation for several years after that. I can remember once when someone asked me my “testimony” for an AWANA assignment that I was suddenly stricken with this fear: what if I was not actually saved? How could I know? I never “prayed the prayer” or “had that moment” or had the “date written in my Bible” of when I was saved? How could I know for sure? One would think that the dream would have done it, but not for me.
Most of my agony was due to the preachers I was accustomed to hearing. They would often end their sermons with the little marketing speech “If you have never received Jesus as your Savior, or you have any doubts about your salvation” – then you are probably not saved. I was horrified by these sermons. They terrified the living daylights out of me. I am not sure, but I probably prayed that sinners prayer dozens of times, trying to make sure I “did it right”.
Despite these doubts, I can remember also having my moments of rapture and joy beyond human description. One time I was sitting on my bed (at probably 11 years old), and I remember reading Galatians and I was suddenly filled with this overwhelming sense of God’s presence. It was all I needed. I was enraptured – addicted. I wanted it to never stop. Who was I that the God of the universe would choose me to be his son?
This experience was like gasoline to a flame. I became enamored with spiritual experiences. I can remember sitting on my bed, wanting God to form the clouds into a special message for me – I just knew He could do it. He never did. I remember the dozens of time I must have prayed for God to speak to me personally. I wanted to hear his voice – to feel His touch and to know He was as real in my little physical reality as I knew He was in the spiritual realm. I will not say He never spoke – but that will be a topic for my next post.
I also became extremely ethical. I was honest – too honest. I would often apologize for mistakes I did, dreading the next time communion would come around. Knowing that the pastor would say “If you know of any unconfessed sin in your life, you should talk to that person before you take communion… because some have fallen asleep [died] because they took of the bread and the cup in an unworthy manner.” [Side note: I always wondered why pastors never took this reasoning seriously. They never had the boldness of Paul to claim that someone died in church because of bad communion.] It was an awful thought: that I could be punished by God for taking communion with one unconfessed sin. I would often pray long and hard before communion, asking God to show me any unconfessed sins. Often little “misdeeds” would come to mind, and then I would agonize in torment trying to figure out if this was a “big enough” sin that I needed to go confess it to someone.
I can remember once reprimanding my parents for unfairly arguing that they could watch a movie and us kids could not because it was “inappropriate” for us. This was ridiculous. In my theology, if it was inappropriate for us, it was inappropriate for them. They did not watch the movie (that I know of). I must have been a nightmare!
My own personal internal judgment did indeed extend to others. I would often judge my friends for their dirty jokes, or their swearing (gosh, darn, dang it, etc.), or for their bad theology. I can remember getting so upset that some of my friends believed they could go to heaven by being baptized, or that another friend believed that their pet dog was going to be in heaven. This was just not right. Jesus didn’t die for animals! I would often argue with them for quite some time, pointing out Bible verses to show that they were wrong. I can even remember going to a Ken Ham conference and during the Q&A my “big question” was about how I could prove from the Bible to my friends that animals do not go to heaven. All I got was some equivocation and a slight reference to Ecclesiastes (“Who knows that the soul of man ascends into heaven and the soul of animals descend into the earth?”, paraphrased from memory). Not a very good answer, but it did not bother me at the time.
When I was 12 years old, I remember distinctly sitting in the basement of my house, reading Romans. I came upon Romans 12:1 and was filled with passion for my Lord. I gave my life to Jesus Christ that day, looking into a beam of light coming through the basement window that seemed to wrap me in its arms, as if Jesus Himself was telling me how much He loved me. I was ecstatic. It was the most fulfilling feeling I have probably ever had. Could I have this feeling forever?
That next year my parents moved to a new church and I was baptized. Coming up out of the water at that cool Kansas lake I can remember the feeling that what I had done was right somehow. It was just – well – good. I had done the right thing.
To be continued…