Dr. Vic Reasoner
About twenty years ago we published the powerful conversion testimony of a close personal friend in The Arminian Magazine. I remember the following year when he was presented to a ministerial examination committee, they were so impressed with his testimony that they wanted to dispense with protocol and give him the highest and most permanent ministerial recognition. Less than four years after that ministerial interview he sent me this email stating
The more I have studied the more I have come to believe that the Bible is not “inspired” or “God-breathed” or the “Word of God.” It seems to me that Christianity is just another false religion, and that the Bible is just another attempt at a holy book. I have been agnostic for about the last two years. . . . I have studied this issue very carefully, and I cannot believe in the Bible or Christianity with what I know about it now. I never imagined that this would happen to me.
What happened? He lost his faith while attending a leading evangelical seminary which was more dedicated to teaching higher critical theories than in nurturing faith.
The March-April 2008 issue of Mission Frontiers was devoted to the question, Why are they walking away? Drew Dych also wrote “The Leavers: Young Doubters Exit the Church” in the November 2010 issue of Christianity Today. According to Dych, U. S. sociologists see a major shift taking place away from Christianity. Between 1990-2008 the percentage of those claiming “no religion” doubled. Of the group that claim “no religion,” 73% come from religious homes and 66% are labeled as de-converts. Dyck reported that young Americans are dropping out of religion at five to six times the historic rate. David Kinnaman claims that more than 60% of young people who went to church as teens drop out after high school [You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church And Rethinking Faith (Baker 2011)].
How we interpret the current trend to apostasy is based on our theological grid. Two months after the Christianity Today article a letter to the editor proclaimed, “Those of us who hold to the doctrine of eternal security believe de-conversion is a scriptural impossibility.” Dyck had done exit interviews and concluded that we cannot give a one size fits all answer. However, many are so blinded by their theology that they cannot even acknowledge the legitimacy of the question. At least, until it happens to their children.
In Walking Away from Faith: Unraveling the Mystery of Belief & Unbelief, Ruth A. Tucker, (InterVarsity, 2002) associate professor of missiology at Calvin Theological Seminary, acknowledges that there is not reason to doubt that those who “walked away from faith,” were anything but true believers. She actually declares that the answer, “Those who lose faith were never sincere Christian to begin with” to be a myth. However, she argued that salvation depends only on God’s grace and that she would not abandon the faith “if for no other reason than the mysterious fact that God has a grip on me.” She tended to blame the philosophy of humanism for most of their destruction. Although Tucker will allow there are exceptions to the rule, those exceptions never cause her to examine the biblical basis for her Calvinistic presuppositions.
Rick Wood, the editor of Mission Frontiers, asked if we are proclaiming a defective gospel. He suggested that we set people up for disillusionment when we introduce the gospel by saying, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” Wood said it is like a person who buys a vacation package to the French Riviera expecting to enjoy a wonderful time, only to discover upon his arrival that the region is engulfed in war. Such a person would naturally complain, “This is not was I signed up for.”
He concluded his analysis by writing, “Until we realize that we are in a war for our lives, we will be sitting ducks for Satan’s attacks and schemes. We will continue to lose those people who were never adequately prepared for battle.”
Contained in the same magazine was a review of the evangelical awakening in Britain. Without diminishing the tremendous influence of the Methodist revival, it was pointed out that many of the evangelicals lost their children and grand children to agnosticism or atheism because they did not enter the marketplace of idea or think it necessary to refute the skeptics, higher critics, agnostics, and atheists of their day.
“George Eliot” was the pen name of Mary Ann Evans. She was raised an Evangelical and wanted to be used of God like William Wilberforce, but she read two current books of biblical criticism and experienced a de-conversion.
Hannah Whitall Smith wrote The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life in 1875. Yet her son-in-law, Bertrand Russell, had discarded the last of his parents Christianity by eighteen and became an influential atheist, writing Why I Am Not a Christian (1927).
In the same Mission Frontiers issue Gregory Boyd, an open-theist, told about sincere Christians who struggled to understand why a good God let bad things happen to them. His answer was that God was not to blame. He argued that God did not do it. His theology is that we can only understand God through Jesus. Yet he did not attempt to answer the question, was God powerless to prevent the evil which came into my life?
America’s Research Group surveyed a thousand twentysomethings who had attended an evangelical church nearly every week while growing up but today never or seldom go. 40% of them thought the Bible contained errors and 30% did not know. They had deep questions about the Bible that were not answered. The majority began to question the Bible during middle school or high school. According to Randy Douglass, many kids started doubting their faith before college, but they departed the faith when they went to college.
In a personal interview with a prominent minister who had a serious lapse, he explained that the disconnect between what he was taught and what he saw close up in the lives of holiness leaders left him jaded.
Paul Billheimer developed a theology that God uses bad things to strengthen us and prepare us for future service. At his best, Billheimer seems to be developing the theology of Samuel Rutherford that “The devil is but God’s master fencer, to teach us to handle our weapons.” This agenda seems to be expressed in Judges 3:2-4.
Billheimer wrote Destined for the Throne (1975) and Don’t Waste Your Sorrows (1977). Yet Billheimer almost teaches that we become “little gods” through regeneration. Billheimer taught that through the new birth we become “as utterly like Him as it is possible for the finite to be like the Infinite.” Some Word of Faith teachers do teach that we can speak reality into existence because we are gods. The tendency of this teaching is to deify man and diminish Christ. Billheimer also taught the work of Christ was not finished on the cross, that he had to be reborn in hell.
In the very next issue of Mission Frontiers veteran missiologist Ralph Winter weighed in. Winter said part of the problem was that we ask a person, “Do you believe that Jesus died for you and rose again?” If so, you’re okey. But 75% of our young people then lose their faith and only a fraction of them stumble back to the church in a confused state. Winter cautioned against a decisional regeneration which is followed by the corrosion of a secular university education. Winter said that 15 out of 17 evangelical youth never attend a Christian college. I would add that in most cases their faith would still be under attack even if they did. In an attempt to gain academic credibility, most “evangelical” institutions teach about the same thing as their secular counterparts. This may be why Ruth Tucker rejected the solution that those with serious doubts should go to Bible college or seminary.
Winter told about a Pentecostal minister, Hector Avalos, who became a secular humanist. And he told about Bart Ehrman, who attended Moody and Wheaton, but ended up losing his faith. There seems to be no shortage of books such as Dan Barker, Godless, How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists (2008) and John W. Loftus, Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity (2008).
And so we have several possible answers on the table:
- We must make sure our converts are genuinely converted. In too many cases we have reduced the new birth to the simple affirmation of propositions. We have many cultural Christians who are religious simply because that is the way they were raised. A radical new birth would prevent most of the problems discussed.
- We must disciple our converts. In too many cases we only count and report numeric growth and rarely do anything more than baptize them. We must minister to the whole person. They need an existential experience with God and an intellectual apologetic for God.
- Sometimes people have the expectation that since God has a wonderful plan for their life, now that they have accepted Christ they will live happily ever after. They are thrown off balance by the losses the experience. Faith does not exempt us from trials. There are 150,000 martyrs every year. According to the book of James, trials may come to prove whether or not our faith is genuine. Without minimizing human suffering and grief, Alexander Maclaren observed, “The only real calamity in life is to lose one’s faith in God.”
- We must understand that willful sin erodes saving faith. In some cases, God was rejected intellectually because he was a barrier to a promiscuous lifestyle. I remembered a teen in a congregation I once pastored. As I remembered his story, he was an agnostic who was converted at youth camp and has become an effective Christian leader. When I contacted him he replied, “Although I never doubted the existence of God, I went through a time where (because of sin) I couldn’t get through to God.” However, he discovered he was able to be restored when he met God again on his terms.
- The number of people who claim no religious affiliation has more than doubled since 1990. While they may comprise 16% of our population, most have not rejected God. Only about 4% identify themselves as atheist or agnostic. While none of the “nones” have not given up on faith, they have given up on organized religion as rigid and dogmatic [see Time, 12 March 2012, p. 68]. However, I must protest that there is no virtue in disorganized religion.
- We must grasp the concept that they best prevention from going back is to keep moving forward. Wesley taught that Christian perfection is not absolute, but a dynamic that can constantly be improved and can always be forfeited. Wesley was impressed with the phrase from Fénelon — moi progressus ad infinitum — “my progress is without end.” Wesley wrote, “You do well strongly to insist that those who do already enjoy [Christian perfection] cannot possibly stand still. Unless they continue to watch and pray and aspire after higher degrees of holiness, I cannot conceive not only how they can go forward but how they can keep what they have already received.” Nathan Bangs wrote, “We must be either gaining or losing; either going forward or backward.” Therefore to need frequent infusions of the Spirit. Clarke wrote, “Neither apostle nor private Christian can subsist in the Divine life without frequent influences from on high.” Clarke also said, “Apostasy begins in the closet: no man ever backslid from the life and power of Christianity who continued constant and fervent, especially in private prayer.”
- If all of life is a probationary period, apostasy is always a real possibility. Solomon was the wisest man, but perhaps the only biblical writer who did not go to heaven. In his comments on 1 Kings 11, Adam Clarke noted Solomon’s apostasy and his death. According to Clarke, there is no intimation that Solomon ever repented or turned to God.
- While apostasy may be a real possibility, it is never a necessity. God’s grace can keep us. We must maintain our hope in the power of the Gospel. When Jesus asked his disciples if they would also turn back and cease to follow him, Peter answered, “To whom shall we go?” Jesus Christ is the only answer. John Wesley observed,
If it be asked, “Do any real apostates find mercy from God? Do any that have ‘made shipwreck of faith and a good conscience,’ recover what they have lost? Do you know, have you seen, any instance of persons who found redemption in the blood of Jesus, and afterwards fell away, and yet were restored, — renewed again unto repentance?’” Yea, verily and not one or an hundred only, but, I am persuaded several thousands. . . . Indeed, it is so far from being an uncommon thing for a believer to fall and be restored, that it is rather uncommon to find any believers who are not conscious of having been backsliders from God, in a higher or lower degree, and perhaps more than once, before they were established in faith [“Call to Backsliders,” Sermon #86, 2.2].
But we cannot leave or abandon what we never possessed. A recent internet post on the subject of “losing my religion” asked “If I’m so done with faith, why do I still feel it’s loss?” Margaret Wheeler Johnson wrote of her first lesbian encounter and her subsequent rejection of Roman Catholicism. But although she had rejected religion, she wrote that “sometimes when I’m at my wit’s end, I find myself sending up a plea for help. And afterwards, in the face of all reason, I sometimes feel relief.”
When Drew Dyck interviewed musician David Bazan about his deconversion, Bazan revealed that he still prays and on some nights, he still fears that he’s going to hell [http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/music/interviews/2010/davidbazan‑jan10‑1.html].
God is too big and too real to be ignored. In 1893 Francis Thompson wrote the famous poem,“The Hound of Heaven,” in which he told how God did not give up on him. In some cases the “apostate” has not rejected God, only his distorted image of God and religion.
In the face of the new paganism and disillusionment with organized religion, the best apologetic is a holy life. Voltaire, the famous French atheist, was once asked by a skeptic friend if he had ever met anyone like Jesus Christ. After a lapse into silence, Voltaire answered seriously, “I once met Fletcher of Madeley.” May God help us to reflect Christ.
Some prophetic “experts” have claimed that a great falling away was a sign of the times. However, the two billion souls who have never heard the name of Jesus Christ cannot fall away from the faith. They never exercised saving faith. Let us pray that God visit our pagan culture with an awakening that will check their rebellion, answer their doubts, and create a hunger for the real thing.