From Tormented Soul to Freed Atheist – Part 3 of 3
As I write this final post, I realize that I have two difficulties. First is length. There is so much to recount! Second is sincerity and privacy. How can I be honest about my experiences and protect the those who played a major part in my becoming an atheist?
To solve the first, I will not focus as much on arguments, because I think this would be wasting my breath. There are plenty of good posts already on the arguments against the faith (resurrection, fall, existence of God, etc.) Instead it is my focus to pay close attention to my story – those sequence of fortunate events that lead me to realize that all my problems were slowly being solved by reason and evidence. [The "non-essential" parts to my story are enclosed in brackets, feel free to skip them.]
Secondly, I will do my best to hide the identity of those individuals who played a major part in pushing me furthest from the faith but I cannot hide everything. If they ever read this they will most likely recognize themselves in the unfolding drama, but I feel it is only fair that I keep their names private. Beyond that it is difficult to hide them.
Please do not feel like you need to read this entire story, I have carefully included [tangents] in brackets. Feel free to skip them and read them later – or not at all.
Following the dreadful years of my teens, I was confronted with a period of milder Christianity. I just ‘believed’ everything, ‘believed’ I was saved, ‘believed’ God had a plan for me, and ‘believed’ in the inerrancy of the Bible and that any problem passages could just be resolved with enough research and devotion to the Word (as the Psalmist so often sang).
My love for Christ and my fellow man now became my primary focus – often to the chagrin of more fundamentalists / legalistic friends of mine. I would consider this the “maturing” portion of my Christian faith.
My understanding of the gospel was also deepening. I understood it was less about dogmatic claims and more about the love of Christ transforming us from the inside out. It was a story about a man who is lost and who is then subsequently found. I still did believe the Bible to be inerrant, but I understood from some classes at Moody that inerrancy does not apply to the interpretation but to the original intent of the author. Therefore, if an interpretation is wrong it just means the person has not done enough digging into the word to find the proper interpretation.
My friend and I decided we wanted to start a college-age Bible study at our church. Our church, being quite conservative, did not attract college students and I, for one, felt somewhat secluded from believers my age. I think we had a grand total of 6-8 people my age at church – most of whom I had known for years. At the same time, I felt increasingly called to minister to those my age. For some reason I was attracted to intellectual conversation, stimulating debate, and going “deeper” into the Scriptures. I became rather interested in apologetics (especially C.S.Lewis) and would often use these arguments when witnessing to unbelievers.
Our Bible studies grew – extensively. We went from 6-8 people at our home church to 30-40 in literally. We attracted dozens of other students – outside of church. For the most part I was learning how to do expository teaching and preaching from the text of Scripture alone. We were huge fans of John MacArthur.
I began to give in to pornography. I was thoroughly perplexed by my ‘struggle’ (as we used to call it) with pornography addiction. I remember lying on the floor (multiple times), begging and pleading with God that He would remove this sin from my life. I installed filters and got my dad involved. I joined a support group of guys and was rather shocked to discover that they all struggled with this too. Then I discovered that this was a massive problem within the church and that there are support groups for this issue everywhere. It was all new to me. I had not seen a full naked woman until I decided to look at porn when I was around 19 years old. All the built up sexual tension that I had suppressed through my teenage years exploded into my addiction. I would give in about once every two weeks – in those ‘moments of weakness’. Sometimes I would go for months or more but eventually my natural desire would be too much to bear.
To more complicate things, I was under the impression that guys should overcome their sexual problems before entering a relationship with a girl so that they would not carry that ‘problem’ into marriage. (In Joshua Harris fantasy land, relationships are basically equal to marriage because you should not express interest in a girl until you are ready for a serious relationship and serious relationships, if they are done properly, end up in marriage.) I felt like I was in a deadlock. The very thing I needed (a woman) was the very thing I could not get until I was free from my addiction. But my addiction was fed by my inability to get a woman because I was addicted. I was miserable.
During this period I also came up with a rather ingenious harmonization of all of the passages in Scripture that talk about the possibility of losing salvation – including my dreaded Hebrews 6 passage. I can remember the elation and ecstasy at this discovery as I shared it in one of our college Bible studies. My exuberance was no doubt influenced by the relief that finally – finally! – I no longer had to have doubts about my salvation because I understood what these passage were talking about. But the doubts still lingered.
Our church got a new pastor. He scared me, I will admit. For the first time in my life I met a person who had an answer for everything and I have to admit it seemed fake. Compared to the elderly former pastor who was willing to admit “I don’t know” to a crucial question like my own salvation, this pastor seemed cocky. I can remember once sitting in the car, asking him difficult questions – testing him – just to see if he would ever say “I don’t know” to anything I asked. He never did. I confess this left me rather confused. On the one hand he seemed arrogant, but on the other he actually did have answers. Were his answers right? What if he was ever wrong – would he admit it? I was leery, but I decided to give him a chance and trust that maybe he did know what he was talking about.
This pastor immediately got down to business in the church and started mentoring me and my friend who helped me run the local college Bible study. It was during one of these Bible studies that I shared with my pastor about my discovery regarding Hebrews 6. I was animated as I spoke.
He glared at me. I can still remember his words: “So your telling me that you have discovered something that nobody has known for 2000 years?” In other words, who do you think you are?
As you can imagine I was quite taken aback and pressed him for more information. Where had my interpretation gone wrong? How was I being arrogant? My entire goal was to demonstrate the inerrancy of Scripture and the validity of doctrines of eternal security and election in light of these more difficult passages like Hebrews 6. Tell me, pastor, where did I go wrong? He did not have an answer but instead got visibly agitated and frustrated. I was bewildered. Why could I not just get an answer?
Around this same time, our college group was accused (by this pastor) of being a “parachurch” organization. Despite the fact that we had explicitly outlined that we wanted to be under the elders, they wanted more explicitly outlined control over our group. I can remember talking to my pastor and my dad (who was an elder) asking what this was all about. The college group was going great! What were we doing wrong? They kept reassuring me they only wanted to have it made very clear that the group was under the church because we met on church property. This weirded me out because 80% of the people coming to the Bible study were not from our church and we were not doing anything wrong or teaching anything wrong. Things had been fine for over a year, why the sudden change? I felt this was an attempt to place extra control on our group and I wanted to know why. My fear was that if the church took over completely it would scare some of our non-church attendees to leave. Then we would only be left with people from our church (my fears were confirmed within the next year).
I was accused of trying to take over the college group. I’m not kidding. My pastor accused me in his private office of being unsubmissive, unteachable, and likened me to a girl he knew who was manipulative and controlling. I was aghast. I looked for answers and got accusations. How was I supposed to respond to that?
[I had seen what this had done once before. Our church once had a new attendee who struggled with alcoholism. I loved this guy - he was so smart. Yes he was going through a rough time, yes he smoked cigarettes, and yes he struggled with alcohol. But I still loved Him because He loved Jesus. And he was a new baby Christian in our church! After he had only attended for a few months, our church decided to rebuke him in front of the entire congregation for his alcoholism and unwillingness to repent. I still remember how shocked and hurt I was that even though he never showed up for his public punishment, the elders decided to go through with the rebuke anyway - in keeping with the Scriptures. He never came back to the church (no duh). I did not want to end up like this poor guy.]
So I decided to start my own Biblical confrontation of my pastor, who had deeply hurt me and left me confused. We met at a local coffee shop and I kindly and calmly explained to him how much he had hurt me and how much I wanted some answers over the Hebrews 6 passage as well as his accusations that I was trying to take over the college group. I just wanted answers and an apology for hurting me. He blew me off. When he started going on the offensive, rubbing in my arrogance, etc. I decided to get up and just walk out. I can still remember him yelling at me as I walked out of the front door of that public coffee shop. I felt literally ripped to shreds for my curiosity.
How could a man like this have the Holy Spirit?
My heart was broken. I had no one to talk to. I tried to talk to my parents, but they simply tried to soothe my frustration. Nothing was done about this, to my knowledge. The pastor never apologized.
Fast forward several more crazy stories about a bizarre Christian sect in Kansas, wild interpretations of Genesis (weirder than six-day, I kid you not), and extremely arrogant Christian businessmen who used “God’s Will” as evidence that he wanted them to start an almost impossible multi-million dollar business on money from friends and family to help the poor in developing nations.
The next year I moved to Colorado. I went on “faith”, trusting the Lord to provide (He “did”). I was interested in a girl out there too, and started to feel that maybe the Lord wanted me in a relationship with her. I took the necessary courtship steps at that time by getting to know her father. He agreed to start a Bible study with me and my friend (the same friend who had done a Bible study with our pastor). This girl’s father seemed like such a godly man and I was excited to meet him – and his daughter.
The Bible studies we held were a little – weird. It was basically him teaching us all his wisdom and trying to find ways to demonstrate how wrong we were about things. Often when we would question him, he would start to get agitated and frustrated if we did not take his first answer as gospel. He was one of those types who decides that nearly every guest who comes to his house should be subjected to a rudimentary Bible study after the evening meal.
One study we somehow got into discussing relationships, and he was pointing out the “Biblical” mandate that the father of the bride is supposed to have the final say in his daughters relationships. He also pointed out that the young man should come to the father first and pursue the daughter through him. I could not help but notice that his interpretation was a little off (ok, a lot off, but whatever) and so I pointed out that the greatest love story in the Bible is about Ruth, where it is actually the women who are most involved in pursuing and attracting a man into a relationship – no fathers involved (sure, they were dead, but I figured it was a good example that his strict interpretation was a little too black and white).
[Okay, weird story. So my other friend who helped me start the Bible study also liked this girl at one time. He was attending an extremely conservative Christian school in Colorado at the time that she was attending as well. He was confined to campus (a church) for three months for calling this girl and talking to her on the phone for an hour without permission. I am not joking. If there were extenuating circumstances we were never told - this was what he told me (almost crying). He was told that all courtships were supposed to be approved by the school and his phone call broke that rule.]
He grew agitated and would not look me in the eye. He almost started yelling, explaining how wrong I was and that the Bible was “so clear” on how relationships are supposed to be run. He knew I liked his daughter and I think he probably felt like I was trying to usurp his God-given authority in the relationship. I didn’t know what to do. His Biblical interpretation was just downright silly. He never acknowledged the Scriptures I cited and almost banged his Bible saying “God’s Word is so clear, how can you not see it?”
This got me curious: how many Christians hold on to bad interpretations of Scripture and insist they are Biblical when they are not? How many interpretations of Scripture did I hold in similar fashion to this man? And if someone can hold onto a bad interpretation and not know it, what bad interpretations did I have that were wrong?
But I still held on to my faith. Around this time I was starting to have problems with Biblical inerrancy and science and the Bible. One day I was talking to a friend about evidence for God’s existence, and my friend (who is normally pretty darn smart) said this: “Josh, you know how they don’t know what the gluon is? Well, I think they can’t figure it out because the gluon is God.” Now, I may not have been as philosophical then as I am now, but I was not so stupid as to accept this. What would happen when they did discover what the gluon was – would this mean they killed god? Unintentionally I discovered the “god of the gaps” concept.
I was getting interested in philosophy and psychology and biology, etc. I was starting to read – a lot. One thing that kicked this off was an agnostic friend who had me read some Descartes. Finally! I found a person who thought!
I was thoroughly intrigued by atheists. I knew they were wrong, but why were they so smart? How could they not see the error of their way? In church we had learned about all sorts of world religions, but rarely discussed atheism. What was up with these people?
The year of 2007 I spent massive amounts of time writing. I was working on a book – a rational defense of the Christian faith. I reached the point where I had nearly 115-120 pages of material and then hit a dead-end. I had figured out an entire system about how knowledge turns into understanding turns into beliefs which influences actions and generates emotions. My premise was that the right beliefs will lead to peace. This is (of course) why Christians have so much peace. If a person believes something wrong, it will lead to inner turmoil because their beliefs do not match reality. This explains the “void” in people’s hearts in the world. They obviously have bad beliefs.
Because of my interest in atheism and consistent compliments people would give me on my intelligence, I started to feel lead by the Lord into apologetics so I could lead atheists to the Lord. I figured if the Lord had given me the gift of my intelligence and analytical mind, surely I could use it to reach atheists. I met a man at a bookshop who was an atheist and we agreed to start a book club. I was so excited at what the Lord was doing! I agreed to read The End of Faith by Sam Harris and he agreed to read Mere Christianity by C.S.Lewis.
That day I walked down the street, book in arm, to a coffee shop down the road. I had already started reading the God Delusion, but The End of Faith knocked me flat. As I read the first 50 pages, I realized that Sam Harris had stolen all my ideas. He was basically speaking back to me everything I had worked so hard to discover in my book. But he was an atheist.
I couldn’t take it. I stopped reading the book. I literally walked out of that coffee shop unable to continue reading The End of Faith. My confidence was devastated.
A few weeks later (at the beginning of this January, 2008), I got a call from a family member in Chicago who lets me know that there is an opening on the floor at Moody Bible Institute on my old floor. I had not attended for over a year, but with my new doubts and desire to be an apologist I thought I would attend – if not just to get some new answers. I needed time – to think and study God’s Word. I was confident they would have the answers and the only thing I was dreading was the PCM (Practical Christian Ministry) because my faith was so weak at that time I felt like I needed to be taught – not teach.
That night I nearly hallucinated as I opened my Bible to Genesis 1 and 2. I was shocked. For the first time I was seeing problems everywhere. There were contradictions, difficulties galore. I panicked. I called my dad, telling him I thought I was under demonic attack. As I left for Moody the next day I even thought I saw two angels fighting a demon over me at the top of the stares. I almost stopped and then thought “what the heck am I thinking?” This can’t be happening! The voices felt like they were going to come back.
[Ah yes, the voices. I said that I was going to explain them. Ironically around this time I discovered that I could almost always predict what the voices were going to say to me. On top of this, they never said anything new to me - they only told me things I already knew. This got me to thinking: maybe they were all in my head? If they really were demons, I should not have control over them or be able to predict what they say and they should also occasionally reveal something to me that I did not already know. Otherwise they might as well be figments of my imagination. Ironically, upon this discovery the voices started to go away. As soon as I was able to identify them as figments of my imagination, my "belief" in what they said dropped, and I suddenly gained control over them. I can now, in the right moments, make them come back and say whatever I want. They normally just disagree with what I am thinking at the moment anyway!]
If there was anything that cured me of Christianity, it was this last semester at Moody Bible Institute. I took up three primary courses, all of them specifically chosen so that I could get some good answers. They were Philosophy, Genesis, and Intro to Bible.
As I sat in those classes, I was appalled at some of the things students were saying. In Intro to Bible, I can remember our teaching explicitly telling us that Hebrews was probably not written by Paul. A girl piped up and said, “Well, I believe it was written by Paul” – as if that settled it. In Genesis class, our teacher was explaining how the Hebrew structure in Genesis 1-2 does not necessarily imply a literal six day creation. Several students raised their hands and asked him if he had ever heard of Answers in Genesis. One of the most loved, and most hated, teachers was a teacher who believed in progressive creation. He would often be ‘corrected’ in class when he would admit he was a progressive creationist. Our teachers were smart and well educated and they were being gently insulted by students in the class who thought they must have missed something. I was appalled. How could this be? If these students already had the answers, what were they coming to school for?
Sadly, the answers from the teachers were not any better.
I literally spent hundreds of hours studying extra-curricular topics at Moody. I dove into psychology, the paranormal, aliens, UFO sightings, miraculous reports, resurrection reports on the Internet, the Book of Enoch, the Apocalypse of Peter, the formation of the canon, evolution, six-day creation, theistic evolution, debates, apologists, William Lane Craig, a little of Bart Erhmann, Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Polkinghorne, Francis Collins, Ken Ham, C.S.Lewis, Socrates, Aristotle, etc.
As my doubts increased, I talked to teachers, pastors, students. I talked to a grad student who was attending Moody. I read books people recommended. I talked to my roommate, my father, and confided in anyone I could think of. I talked to my dorm supervisor.
[My dorm supervisor sat down me down and I confessed that I was having doubts about inerrancy and creation / evolution. To my surprise, he was not surprised. Then (to my later astonishment) he handed by a book by John Polkinghorne entitled "The Faith of a Physicist". Imagine my surprise when I discover that John Polkinghorne does not believe in inerrancy and does believe in evolution. How weird. Here I was admitting to my teacher that I was struggling with doubts about inerrancy and six-day creation and he hands me a book by a Christian who believes neither. If inerrancy is so true, why not give me a book defending inerrancy? I took this as a tacit admission that maybe inerrancy is not true.]
[During spring break I sat down and talked to a graduate student. I confessed that I was having trouble with Biblical inerrancy and laid out before him a rather complicated contradiction between Paul's writings and what Moody taught about Scripture. He looked at me lovingly and basically said "Well, I know that is what the passage says, but hey, there are more complicated problems with the texts that we are learning about in Grad school. Have you heard about the issue with the virgin birth? The amazing thing about all this is that it actually strengthens my faith!" I suddenly felt like I graduated with a PhD in theology. I was way beyond this man, and he was in graduate school. The virgin birth problem was the least of my worries, I was discovering stuff far beyond that. I felt so alone. Did no one else see the problems in Scripture that I was seeing? Why did churches and seminaries hide these issues so carefully from people - until they entered grad school? What did they have to hide?]
My skepticism increased. That semester we had Josh McDowell come to Moody. I was elated. Here was a big-hitting apologist coming onto the scene. I was hoping he would answer my questions and attack this “new atheism” that was on the rise. I was on the edge of my seat, hoping for some new evidence to come to light that the atheists were hiding.
Instead, he gave an impassioned speech about how the evidence is so overwhelming he did not feel the need to address it in front of Moody. Instead, he explained how Christians need to stop paying attention to the evidence and instead start developing close relationships with those outside the church. If we can develop those relationships, and gain their trust, we can then teach them about our Lord. Can anyone say manipulation? We had just learned about logic in philosophy and here was McDowell (an apologist!) breaking the rules of logic. He was basically saying: ignore the evidence and focus on emotional appeals and gaining trust. I was ashamed because I suddenly felt like I was part of a cult.
[At this meeting McDowell confessed something he had never confessed before. He admitted that it was not the evidence that lead him to the faith, it was the close relationship he had with a pastor in his early twenties. You see, he had been molested as a child and the anger of the experience had built up inside him. This pastor taught him about God and lead Him to the Lord and eventually he got up enough courage to confront the man who had abused him.
I was shocked.]
Is that it? Is this all Christianity is? Good relationships? Gaining trust? Emotional appeals? Where is this massive mountain of evidence? How the heck was I supposed to defend the faith as an apologist when I was being asked to basically commit to the faith and make the evidence fit?
During chapel once, a wise old ex-president of Moody Bible Institute was asked by a student what the most difficult question he has to answer on a daily basis. He said “how do I know I am saved?” Then he added his own difficult question he asked himself all the time: “why do I not see more evidence of the Holy Spirit at work in my life?” I could not help but think the answer to both was most easily satisfied with: because neither of them are true.
[One time during a Bible study with a bunch of Chinese people (in which we lured them in by teaching them English and then said they could stay to study the Bible) I mentioned to a very intelligent Chinese lady that I believed in God. She looked at me, curiously tilted her head sideways as a small playful smile slipped into her lips, and simply asked "Why?" That one word did more to destroy my faith than anything so far. I had just spent hundreds - if not thousands - of hours studying Christianity and the arguments for the existence of God and in one simple word she revealed just how silly I was being. I did not have a good answer. I think I made something clever up. I can't remember.
That night I realized I had a problem. I was always an extremely honest person, and I knew I could no longer lie about my doubts. At this point I still clung to the faith but was willing to give up inerrancy. Thankfully school was almost over and I needed time away - away from ministry, away from the indoctrination I felt I was getting at Moody. Away to think. I was in mental anguish. I would spend hours and hours mulling over all the possibilities, trying to think of any way that Christianity could still be true.]
One incident at Moody particularly got my attention. The elevators in the guys dorms are notorious for not closing or opening when they should. Often students will press the “close door” button over and over and over – until the door closes.
I remember once standing in the elevator, looking down at that small button, thinking how stupid it was that people would keep pressing it – when the door was going to close anyway. The thought popped into my head and nearly knocked me over: isn’t this what prayer is? Don’t most Christians intentionally pray in such a way that their faith is safe? Not only this but we all prayed for things that were probably going to happen anyway. Were we all just as stupid as those students who keep pressing the close door button over and over?
This summer, unable to get answers to my questions from private meetings with professors or pastors or reading the books they recommended, I opened up to the public about my doubts. I first revealed on Facebook that I was having trouble with six-day creation and was now a theistic evolutionist. The backlash was horrifying. People were telling me I was losing the faith (not far off, really), that I did not trust God or His Word, and that I was going liberal. I had carefully outlined my reasons but no one cared about that – not a soul dealt with anything I actually said. 95% of those who responded did so out of anger, frustration, and confusion. I kept thinking: are these children of a God of peace and order and truth? Why are they so afraid of solid arguments? Where is the Holy Spirit they claim to have – the Holy Spirit who was promised to lead men into truth?
Then I posted notes about why I was now no longer believed in inerrancy. Vile responses, threats, confusion, anger, frustration, etc. Now I was getting frustrated. I was seriously hoping that somebody would shoot me down, put me in my place, show me how I was wrong so that I could go back to Moody in the fall with a reinforced faith. (Only one professor from Moody really dealt with the issues seriously, and I have him to thank for being one of the best Christians I have met who was willing to dig deep to find answers. If you are reading this, Douglas, I respect you.)
[One friend sent me a reference to a missionary for New Tribes Missions, who was also a PhD in biological chemistry. I was thinking: oh good, someone who can show me how I am wrong! I still wanted to believe in six-day creation because it would have been so much easier that way.
His responses appalled me. We got into a deep discussion and I actually started to out-match him in philosophical matters. This scared me a little, quite frankly. Then we began to discuss inerrancy, and I (rather bluntly) challenged him to find the place in the Old Testament that predicts that the Messiah would rise on the third day. But I gave him one stipulation, he could not use the story of Jonah because the early Christians did not have the book of Luke yet and so they would have only had the Old Testament to work with. Besides, using the book of Jonah was taking it out of context anyway.
His response was scary. He told me that just as Joshua entered the promised land three days after the bearer of the first covenant had died (Moses), so Jesus as the bearer of the second covenant entered the new promised land three days after he died (resurrection). Impressive. But it only took me fifteen minutes of Bible study to realize how wrong he was.
How could a believer indwelt by the Holy Spirit twist Scripture so elegantly? It was a beautiful allegorical interpretation: but it was dead wrong. How could he be so careless with the very Words of God? If Satan is the one who twists Scripture, what am I supposed to believe about this man?]
Christians were pushing me away from the faith with every ridiculous word they uttered.
I continued to post notes. I received dozens of lengthy responses from believers, asking what was “going on?” I have met dozens of new people on Facebook, all of them trying to help me. I was trying to be as honest as I could with everyone, knowing that “faking” my faith was just stupid. I’ve made new friends, probably lost a few friends. One relative kindly told me to stop tagging her in my notes. I stopped tagging anyone, for fear I would keep offending Christians.
Eventually I had to admit I was an atheist. This brought in a new flood of criticism. At the same time it has been bringing in a flood of apologies from believers on behalf of other Christians who have been so ridiculous in their comments to me. I have received confession notes from other believers that they no longer believe the things they used to either. It has been a little weird. One day I receive notes from seasoned believers with comments like “Ya, ya big talker” or “May God have mercy on your soul” and the very next note I receive is a confession from a young Christian that I have been making them think or an admission they are having doubts about things and have not told very many other people for fear of ridicule. Either way, all the comments I receive only convince me more and more that Christianity is false.
So that brings me up to today. I have not hidden anything, I have been open and honest and blunt about my atheism. And it is starting to pay off. “You will reap what you sow.” I have been desperately sowing honesty, rationality, and as much kindness as I can muster (it is really hard to be kind to people who damn you to hell) – and I am starting to see the fruit.
And if anyone has anything new to add to the conversation, I am all ears. If you can demonstrate that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God – and not just a figment of your imagination – I will believe. Hands down. I miss the good days of my faith, just not the horrifying ones.
Many of you will say that the Christianity I “knew” is not the Christianity you “know”. Oh really? I would just argue you are not taking your faith seriously enough. You are lukewarm, which Jesus detests. Try making sense of Hebrews 6:4-6 – realizing these are the living Words of God – and see if the Bible looks so rosy next time you open its pages.
I am an atheist, and I am free:)