How I Walked Away
I confess it now, my sin, my crime, the cancer on my soul. I am a backslider.
If you didn’t wince, you aren’t in the club. A backslider is an ex-Christian, one who accepted his savior and then fell from grace. One who stood on the threshold of his salvation, and walked away. Certain fundamentalist Christians equate backsliding with the Unpardonable Sin, the sin against the Holy Spirit, at which Jesus hinted darkly in Luke 12:10. Not to be outspoken, St. Peter compared it to a dog returning to its own vomit (2 Pet 2:20-22). Even the Old Testament gets in its dig; see Proverbs 14:14, "The backslider in his heart shall be filled with his own ways."
There are other words: stray, lost sheep, prodigal, apostate. None of them are complements.
I’m a backslider. Not that I feel bad about it now, or even proud. Nor is it much an issue, usually, with my religious family and friends. I live with their belief, as they’ve come to live with my lack of it. And long ago I outgrew the need to convert others just to validate my own convictions.
Yet when an evangelist friend challenged me, months ago, the opportunity was irresistible: a chance to gather up the detritus of musings and memory, old reasonings and conclusions; sort them, dust them, piece them together like chips of broken china; study the mosaic, and with my fingertip trace the singular road I have traveled.
You may not agree with any of it. But if you’ve read this far, I just ask: Keep reading, and think.
The stale joke goes, "I started out as a child." In my pre-teens I was quite devout, with the brittle, diamond-sharp clarity of a child raised in the family faith. Sundays my parents trotted me to Sunday School and church (an Eastern Orthodox denomination); the rest of the week they rarely mentioned Jesus. Christianity was a patent truth, unquestioned as the sunrise or the sky.
Later in high school I grew curious about other religions, living and dead; explored them as best I could; became confused, conflicted, and ultimately, weakly agnostic.
Unhappy and bookwormish, I had few friends and more than my share of teenage angst and self-loathing. For a while I toyed with spiritualism and the occult. It was mysterious, darkly fun–never more than that. Of course there was atheism, appealing just for its simplicity, but I was uncomfortable with the word and all its emotional baggage. (To a degree I still am.)
Then in my first year of university, quite suddenly, God beat down the door–I became deeply, passionately Christian. In fact an encounter with a glib popular creationist/evangelist speaker the year before had nudged me that way already. But new friends from Campus Crusade for Christ helped me make the leap. In retrospect, part of it too was surely a thrashing attempt to escape the sadness that had dogged me through high school. … But I didn’t think so, then.
Christianity blew the lid off everything. It restored the great, bright, morning world of my childhood, where all of life was an adventure played out beneath the blue sky. I felt exalted and encompassed, transfigured and diminished. Under the delirious gravity of my renewed faith, the most humdrum events became new, and luminous – full of music – full of portent.
Drowned in Jesus, I gave Him my life, began praying, and became a feature at the local Campus Crusade meetings.
My emotions were often mixed, of course, but my new friends urged me to put them aside; emotions were not, after all, the true path to God. The Bible contained much I did not understand, but I had faith I’d grow to understand it all later – "in Christ", as they said. I was quite serious about leading a Christian life, and studied earnestly. The Bible, books by C. S. Lewis, and that little yellow booklet of the "Four Spiritual Laws", were my favorite texts.
As I studied and thought, some difficulties became more real, not less. I put these aside also. In fact I soon became quite adept at putting problems aside, compartmentalizing my thoughts. Why did Jesus command us to hate our parents and children (Luke 14:26)? Why did God try to kill Moses immediately after Moses agreed to free the Israelites (Ex 4:24-26)? If abortion is wrong, was it right for the Israelites to murder whole cities of women and children, saving only the virgin girls for use of their warriors (Num 31:17-18)? If false prophecy proves a false prophet, why did Jesus predict that all the Disciples, including Judas, would sit on thrones in Heaven (Matt 19:28)? Didn’t Jesus seem tacitly to approve of slavery, even slave-beating (Luke 12:47)?
Details, trivia. None of it mattered. What did matter was Christ and his loving sacrifice.
When doubt gnawed, I studied harder, giving the Bible every benefit of every doubt. A few problems, however, did not go away, and these left hairline fractures in my faith.
Case in point. (And please try to think of this as I thought it; for seasoned believers, it may help to pretend you are a pagan hearing about Christianity for the first time.)
"Orthodox" Christian theologians and writers, the ones approved of by my evangelical friends, made it clear that accepting Jesus was the sole path to salvation. This acceptance must be a conscious, explicit decision. They scoffed at liberal nonsense about unknowingly being "Christian in your heart" while denying it in your mind. God permits no dichotomy between intellect and conscious.
And needless to say, the alternative is damnation. Meaning, an eternity of terrible suffering, of mind-shattering loneliness, isolation and/or pain, with no escape, no redemption ever. And no exceptions made for well-meaning, basically "good" people who naively die in the wrong faith (or with no faith). Because we are all evil in God’s eyes. We all deserve hell. Only "Christ’s blood" can save us.
Like the pealing of a submerged bell, it rang in my heart as a perfect, terrible truth. For suppose the true ticket to heaven is simply to be "good" (by human standards). What then is the point of Christian evangelism? Christianity might be true, but it would be no more relevant to salvation than the atomic theory of matter or the Baconian theory of Shakespeare’s plays. Then evangelists and apologists have wasted two thousand years pushing the wrong message! Instead of trying to convince people of the divinity of Jesus, they should persuade people simply to be good and loving, to lead morally balanced lives. And then Christianity, in its broad strokes, would be no different from Buddhism or Humanism.
To my novice Christian mind, that was unthinkable.
But what this meant, of course, was that many I had always admired were doomed to burn in hell forever, were burning that moment–people like Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Huxley, Emerson, Luther Burbank, Ghandi, Florence Nightingale, Helen Keller, Einstein -because they had not been Christian. And children too, past a certain age of responsibility, who were simply not taught to love Jesus, and died "not knowing Him," were damned.
If someone like (to select a poignant example) my own little niece had been raised in a Hindu or Moslem or atheist household, then died in an accident, she would go to Hell too. And since I "knew" I was a saved Christian, I realized I would have to watch them all suffer. Forever. Forever.
The image beat at my mind, a soft, purring wind that worried the shutters. Was it "fair" that salvation and damnation should depend on merest chance that way, a fall of dice, the luck of a draw? Born into a Christian household, perhaps be saved; born into a non-Christian household, almost certainly be damned. (Conversions happen of course, but are rare.)
No. And it troubled me. The more I thought, the more it troubled. I had nightmares and sleepless nights. What I couldn’t deny was that this was exactly what the Bible, and Jesus, taught (for example, see Luke 10:15 &12:5; Matt 13:42, 13:49, 18:9 & 25:41; John 5:28-29; Rev 14:10, 20:15, 21:8; etc., etc.). My thoughts often returned to Jesus’s parable of the young virgins cast out by the master into the darkness, pounding on the door, pleading "Lord, Lord," but never let in (Matt 25). My new Campus Crusade friends blandly agreed that it was all true. What was my problem?
Of course the "right" Christian writers took their side. Christian fathers, conservative theologians, folk like Josh McDowell, Walter Martin, Gleason Archer and others – grandmaster apologists who certainly knew their Bible pretty well – all fought hard the heresies of universalism and annihilationism, or any sect that rejected a hell of eternal torment.
"In order that the happiness of the saints will be more delightful … they are permitted perfectly to behold the sufferings of the damned. … The saints will rejoice in the punishment of the damned … which will fill them with joy."
–St. Thomas Aquinas
"The happiness of the elect will consist in part of witnessing the torments of the damned in hell, among whom may be their own children, parents, husbands, wives and friends; … but instead of taking the part of their miserable being, they will say ‘Amen!’, ‘Hallelujah!’, ‘Praise the Lord!’"
–Rev. Nathaniel Emmons (1745 – 1840)
"You are going to see again the child … that was condemned to hell. See! It is a pitiful sight. The little child is in this red hot oven. Hear how it screams to come out…. It beats its head against the roof of the oven. It stamps its little feet on the floor of the oven. … You can see on the face of this little child what you see on the faces of all in hell – despair, desperate and horrible."
–Rev. J. Furniss, in "Tracts for Spiritual Reading", a popular booklet for children (late 19th Century)
Not least was the Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, perhaps the third best-selling book in Christendom (after the Bible and The Imitation of Christ). In the very last paragraph of Part 1, I read how a poor hopeful soul, after a long struggle, manages to reach the very gate of heaven. But at the last instant, with sweet salvation in sight, angels grab him and thrust him into a burning Hell forever – because of a slight unorthodoxy of faith.
The message was clear as a slap.
Still, the wrong of it clung like cobwebs. Once, discussing it with friends, I asked about Anne Frank, the famous Jewish girl who wrote the diaries and died at Auschwitz. Certainly Anne Frank knew of Christianity, but she never responded to the Gospel, never accepted Jesus as her savior (if we can trust those diaries). Rather she expressed her belief in mankind. One writer called her "a humanist to the bone." Our inescapable conclusion: that the next thing she will know, after the acrid scent of cyanide in the Nazi death camp, will be the proceedings of Judgment Day – and the stern face of a God Who will cast her into eternal fire.
Meanwhile, Hitler, Mussolini and Franco of Spain–who (despite their crimes) did happen to believe Jesus was God and Lord–will go to heaven. It’s the law.
Salvation is through faith, never works.
Such thoughts stabbed ice in my heart. Still, still, each wave of doubt broke on the rock of my faith, carrying away no more than a few grains of sand. God created us, I told myself, so He could do with us as He would. … And part of me whispered that He’d find a way to make it all right in the end, anyway, somehow.
The point is, that first question led to others. It cracked the door to critical thinking, you might say. Earlier I wrote that an encounter with a well-known creationist/evangelist had planted the first seeds of my conversion. This person was Dr. Duane Gish of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR). Dr. Gish was the premier creationist debater of his day, and is still an icon in anti-evolution circles.
I had always loved science. To learn evolution was all wrong, a fraud promulgated by evil secular humanist scientists, shocked me. It turned my world on its head. It recalled the catchphrase of the old Firesign Theater: "Everything you know is wrong." Because evolution is so deeply linked with other aspects of physical science, I had to surrender most of what I thought I knew of geology, of astronomy, of comparative anatomy, of genetics–even language and linguistic evolution. (For example, if the universe is less than 10,000 years old, how could astronomers see stars millions of light-years away?)
Now doubting, I sought sources and references for many things the creationists had told me. What did I find? Tissues of misquotes, out-of-context quotes, half truths and plain deception. I learned that many well-known creationists claimed to have doctoral degrees from universities that did not exist or which were unaccredited diploma mills. I found cases where a creationist speaker was forced to admit he was wrong on a certain point, then went on to repeat the falsehood in his next lecture.
Slowly it dawned that almost all creation science "research" consisted of combing science books and journals for quotes and factoids that can be pulled of context and used to support the Genesis story. As one critic wrote, "Creationists use data the way a drunk man uses a lamp post – for support, not illumination."
The rest was just bad science.
Here is the caper. When I told my Christian friends about this, they didn’t care. Their attitude was, the "creation scientists" are winning souls, doing God’s work; so what matter that they were occasionally deceptive on certain points? Salvation was important, not science. I wondered why Christianity must depend on falsehoods and deception to save souls. What kind of truth uses lies as a crutch? For that matter, if some things I had been taught were disinformation, what else was untrue? What else were they not telling me?
This at last lit a candle, began a slow gut-wrenching renaissance. I had been a sincere, dedicated Christian, seriously trying to live a Christian life and understand Christian doctrine. And as a result of doing just what I had been told to do -study and learn Christianity – I had discovered a spiderweb of cracks in the very foundation! In short, my gradual loss of faith was not something I did willfully or maliciously. Indeed, I fought. I kicked and raged over each millimeter.
It was like loosing my heart.
For a long time I wandered that dark forest by myself, feeling isolated and guilt-ridden – a traitor, a … Judas. Only much later did I learn I was not alone. Others had walked there too. Many, in fact; the list might surprise you. Apologists trumpet stories of unbelievers who converted to Christianity (my Campus Crusade friends liked to mention Lew Wallace, the author of "Ben Hur"), but we rarely hear of those who convert the other way.
One striking example is Dr. Charles Templeton. Never heard of him? No surprise. But you have heard of Billy Graham, right? Templeton was Graham’s best friend and original preaching partner.
Few now recall that when Graham was just starting in the revivalism circuit, he was half of a team. Chuck Templeton and Billy Graham, fondly called the "Golddust Twins," quickly grew famous for their deep faith and charismatic preaching. But Templeton, unlike Graham, was curious; he wanted to explore the philosophical foundation of Christianity, the historical evidence for it – "to get some buttressing," he said. So he applied for seminarian studies at Princeton. That was in the early 1940’s. By 1949, Templeton had become an agnostic and secular humanist.
Likewise, I learned of Joseph McCabe, a Jesuit priest who "broke free" and became an atheist, church critic and noted historian. And Dr. Robert M. Price (Master of Theological Studies, New Testament, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary), once a fervent fundamentalist Baptist and pastor, now a humanist, a freethinker, and author of Beyond Born Again – a book all believers should read! And Joseph A. Polansky, Jr., former Benedictine monk, who wrote Prick the Bubble. And the Rev. Farrell Till, a former Church of Christ minister who has become an outspoken religious skeptic. And Rev. Dan Barker, a Baptist preacher for 19 years from the age of 15, missionary, touring evangelist and successful Christian song writer; now an advisor for the Freedom From Religion Foundation. And …
Well, galaxies of others.
Just some names; you can research them if you like. Or not. But I was not singular in my "falling away". Dr. Templeton in particular was known to be every bit as "strong" and "foursquare" in the Gospel as Billy Graham. If someone like him could doubt, why not ask a few questions myself? I did ask, and I found this: For every case of a miracle vision, a Jesus encounter or religious conversion, waiting quietly offstage is a case of a de-conversion, someone who had a moment of crystal insight, a spiritual "aha," which showed the worm in the heart of traditional Christianity.
So ends my epic – so far, at least. My long walk from fundamentalism began twenty-seven years ago. The guilt that haunted me, the suffocating self-doubt, the bolts of bright chill terror in the sleepless night, died slowly, slowly, fading to far sheet-lightning, then flickers, then nothing. Well-worn thoughts and knee-jerk responses always take time to throw off. But, after all …
After all, what sane person controls his belief the way he controls how he combs his hair? Belief is not a mere decision – it is something you experience as a result of experiencing, of observing and learning. Belief can be wrong but never feigned. To go on affirming something I did not believe would be like telling myself that 2 + 2 = 5. I could not do it and stay sane.
Looking back, it was inevitable. Often I think I was wiser at twelve than at twenty. Now the fear is a memory. Smiles come more easily. And almost to my astonishment, the sky remains blue, the sun shines, breath is sweet, love still gives me wings – and life is as beautiful and meaningless as a flower.
It is not a bad world. Not so bad at all.