The Almost Atheist: A Christian Preacher Struggles With His Message, Part II

 

All seemed lost. I was a breath away from throwing in the towel, never to preach or even attend church again. I was devastated and angry on the inside. “Perhaps it's all been a lie.” To Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, I inwardly conceded “Almost thou persuadest me to be an Atheist.”

 

But help came, as it sometimes does, from the unlikeliest of places.

 

While in college I had worked with and become friends with a man named Nick Peters. I recalled how he was always going on and on about some funny thing called “apologetics”, which he explained was the “defense of the faith”. At the time, I thought his “defense” of the Christian faith was unnecessary. I had thought, “We proclaim Truth. We don't need to defend it.” I cared little for the ancient thinkers he read, or the ideas he discussed. But flash forward several years later, and my life had changed. The stained glass in my cathedral had cracked and the falling shards were crushing me. Being frighteningly close to a wholesale rejection of Christianity, I decided to give Nick a try. In a skeptical last ditch effort, I emailed Nick a list of pointed questions.

 

Unlike some of the other Christians I had talked with before, Nick didn't insult me (any more than old friends are sometimes inclined to do). He didn't dismiss my questions, even if they were way off base. He didn’t get sidetracked with minor issues. We talked for months. Over the passing weeks, Nick invested a tremendous amount of his time in responding to my numerous frustrated emails. Realizing that my questions were surface indicators of deeper misunderstandings, he patiently dealt with the deeper underlying issues. He didn't give a witty one liner and leave me with it, secure in his own holy smugness. Nick took my questions one by one, and walked with me through my doubts. Rather than engaging my recycled New Atheist witticisms, he recommended books by actual scholars to read on the important topics, and chatted with me on the phone afterwards to clear up confusion and answer my objections. While the Atheists I had read were deeper than many Christians I had read or talked to (they were certainly deeper than I had been as a Christian), this Christian nudged the conversation deeper than I realized possible. It wasn’t an easy or quick process. It was work for both of us. But I was committed to cutting through the non-sense and to understanding what is true, and Nick was committed to helping me.

 

To my dismay, I did not find simplistic answers to my complicated questions.  The world is not as simple as at first I'd thought it was. Contrary to what a YouTube search would cause one to believe, there was no convenient, all-inclusive, magical “PROOF OF ATHEISM” or “PROOF THAT EVERYTHING IN THE BIBLE IS TRUE”.  No single, clever logical argument or bit of data could conclusively prove or collapse an entire worldview.

 

What I found was much more interesting. Rather than an easy, simplistic answer quickly proving one view or another, I found a vast ocean of ideas, with many points of examination. Some of the points I gave serious thought to:

 

-How did the Universe come to be?

-Why does anything exist at all?

-What does it mean to be human?

-It isn’t necessary for humans to ever have come into existence. Yet we exist. Why?

-What is morality?

-What is Evil, and why do good people face it?

-Why do we suffer? Is our suffering without meaning or hope?

-What is Beauty?

-Why is it that the Universe can be rationally understood by humans in the first place?

-What is Justice?

 

Many major world views address all of these points. I also examined points that specifically deal with Christianity:

 

-Did Jesus of Nazareth exist in history?

-If so, who is right about who he was, what he did, and what he taught? (Was he a failed apocalyptic prophet? A hippie? Were stories borrowed from earlier pagan myths and applied to his legends? Was he a fraud?)

-Is there any reason whatsoever to believe he actually rose from the dead, besides that I was told to believe that he did?

-Is belief in God merely a comforting child’s fable of a father figure in the clouds?

 

Each point was important on its own, but no potential answer to any particular point would satisfactorily convince me that any belief system, Christianity or otherwise, was true. Yet these points suggested a larger mystery; they were whispers of a larger reality. Statements like, “It’s faith, I just believe it”, or its counterpart, “Science is for the intelligent. Faith is for the ignorant” became trite and unhelpful. The complex world I sought to understand could not be explained in such simple terms. Keeping tabs with Nick, I further examined many logical arguments, theories, and ways of thinking. In each major worldview, be it Buddhism, Islam, Existentialism, or Atheism, some of the pieces fit together, but sometimes pieces had to be jammed together to form a jumbled overall picture. Yet, on the major points, the world as Christianity portrays it seemed to match the world I observed.

 

Does the fact that the Universe (all spacetime, matter, and energy) seems to have been created in an instant out of nothing prove the Christian doctrine of ex nihilo? No, it doesn’t. But if Christianity is true, the Universe coming into existence in this way makes perfect sense. Does the unfathomable mathematical precision required in the formation of the early Universe to allow the eventual existence of sentient beings, who question the reason for their existence, conclusively prove that a Being with immense intelligence designed it in just such a way? Not conclusively. Yet, this is precisely what one would expect if an Immense Intelligence had designed it with sentient life in mind. Does the fact that I intuitively feel that Good and Evil are deep realities rather than evolved social fabrications prove that the Christian view of morality is correct? No. But if Christianity is true, Good and Evil are quite real, as my life experiences with them compel me to believe. Does the fact that the Universe is rational and intelligible (it certainly didn't have to be) prove Christian theism? Again, not necessarily. But if a Rational Being (the Logos) created it as Christianity has always held, we would expect it to be just so. And the list goes on.

 

Slowly, I traced the dots. I came to see each point of examination not as absolute proof, but as pieces to a larger puzzle. As I placed the pieces together in the unfolding mystery, the realization gradually overtook me. Christianity, after all, makes sense. A lot of sense.  

 

While I respected Western Atheism for confidently removing the superstitions that its competitors sometimes seemed to happily baste themselves in, I saw that, in the end, Atheism’s attempted explanations of some of the points were actually quite poor, and its ability to explain how things fit together across the Great Puzzle was vastly inferior. This is not to say that because Atheism could not explain a thing that Atheism is necessarily false, but that some other worldviews, most especially Christianity, simply offered better explanations of many of the points. Moreover, Christianity offered a beautiful way of comprehensively piecing things together. Staring at a single puzzle piece was sometimes underwhelming. But seeing how the individual pieces fit together to form a coherent picture was both elegant and compelling. It turned out, the Christian Faith was not an arbitrary list of do’s and don’ts, or a heaping plate full of beliefs so difficult to swallow one would have do it with his eyes closed.

 

Christianity is not a set of simple antiquated beliefs disproven by modern science and irrelevant to modern life. Rather, Christianity provides an overarching narrative, a picture of the Universe, that offers explanation for many of the important questions we ask. Christianity offers an unparalleled comprehensive framework for understanding the world we exist in, which resonates with what we can observe in the world, and in ourselves. What I observe in the world matches the Christian world picture. Further, if Christianity is true, it offers light into the shadows of what I cannot observe. Perhaps more valuably, it offers a way of helping me make sense of my human experience. I finally understood what C.S. Lewis meant when he famously said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”[i]

 

When some Christians said we should ignore the Puzzle, or only look at one or two of its pieces[ii], and many Atheists preached that Christianity offers no help in piecing together the Great Puzzle, when I stepped back and examined it, Christianity simply made sense. More sense than Atheists and even some Christians gave it credit for.

 

But something was missing. I had realized that the Christian worldview was coherent, elegant, reasonable, and meaningful. I had begun with a renewed interest to respect Christianity. But intellectual assent is not spiritual consent. Piecing together the Great Puzzle had become merely an intellectual endeavor for me. Because I did not want to be manipulated by my emotions or by loud preachers into “feeling” something was true, I had tried to leave them out of my intellectual odyssey. I had studied world thought for years. I studied even more intensely during the months Nick and I were talking. I spent every waking moment studying and thinking. I felt I had to know the truth, yet I simply wasn't prepared for the implications of it. One memorable night, God again became much more than an intellectual puzzle.

 

In our talks, Nick had introduced me to the arguments of the Medieval thinker, St. Thomas Aquinas. Drawing from Aristotelianism and from what can be observed in Nature, Aquinas sought to show in formal fashion that the existence of God is logically coherent with reality. With the combined weight of many other puzzle pieces in mind, I began to work through one of Aquinas's dense logical arguments. He argued from what he called “motion” to the conclusion that a Being which we call “God” must exist to put things into motion. While reading Aquinas in college, I had grossly misunderstood him, and dismissed his argument as a primitive conception of inertia. When Nick brought him up, I mocked. Nick patiently suggested I carefully reexamine what Aquinas was getting at. It took me some time to wrap my mind around the argument (a couple of days, actually). One night, while lying in my safe bed beside my wife, with a book in hand, as I’d done hundreds of times before, it clicked. I realized that the argument was valid and coherent. In a terrifying moment of clarity, the implications of this argument combined with the implications of many other puzzle pieces hit me: All of Creation depends on this Being not only for its beginning, but for its continued existence. God exists. And if all of this is true, then He isn't a safe, far away God, uninterested in human lives… in my life. I was, in that very moment, depending on His existence for my own. I depended on His existence to read my book and question His existence (as your existence depends upon His as you read this page). He is infinite and timeless, which means He exists in all times and all places, including... Like lightening, I was no longer safely in my bed reading an interesting book about an abstract idea. I was dealing with a Person. And He was there.

 

Startled, I threw the book across the room and ran.

 

All of the memories and feelings of God calling me to be with Him again flooded my mind. I again felt the presence of the One Who Is There. At first it was utterly terrifying. But then I felt warm affection, like when you welcome a dear old friend into your home. As I had in the past, I humbled my heart before Him. Tumult gave way to Peace.

 

When considering the overall coherence and explanatory scope of Christianity, the resonance of the Christian world picture with the world I observe, the many reasons to believe in God, together with the historical evidence for the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (a topic for a coming post), and the inescapable sensing of God's presence, I came to the sobering realization that I no longer had any clear reason whatsoever for considering Atheism. You see, Atheism is not always the confident proclamation, “There is no God.” It is more often skepticism about confident Theism. But I now had far more reasons to believe in Christian Theism than to be skeptical of it. Like John the Baptist, I had needed to step back and ensure Christianity is true before I committed until the end. As God in His grace allowed John his answer, so He allowed me mine.

 

In my journey, I've learned that God is bigger than I once took Him to be. I've learned that Christianity is not antiquated, anti-scientific superstition which must be taken on blind faith in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  I’ve learned that Faith is not a form of ignorant guesswork. I've learned that Christianity is not irrational (even if some Christians are), but has great explanatory scope and power. I’ve learned that certain things must be true in order for Christianity to be true, but that differences of opinion on secondary and tertiary doctrines need not threaten the whole system. I’ve learned that Christianity has much to say to today's shallowing world, and wields great existential relevance in modern life.  While I do not agree with some of the minor doctrinal positions I once held, I do hold, more confidently than ever before, to traditional Christian beliefs. Because there are many good reasons to do so.

 

At the end of my journey, I arrived at the beginning. Or perhaps just next door.

 

I’ll always be grateful to Nick, a true friend, for taking the time to study, and to talk. It changed the course of my life. It changed the way I view the world. It changed how I’ll raise my children. My children will decide what they believe for themselves, but in the years God gives me with them, they will learn something of the Great Puzzle, they will know something of what others believe and why, and they will certainly look back as adults and know why their Daddy was a Christian.

 

 

I am unabashedly Christian. But I was almost an Atheist. And I am not alone. There are many like me.

 

 

 

 

I share my story not because it is unique. But because it is common. The American Church is hemorrhaging young people. I personally know or have talked to hundreds of young adults who have left Christianity. I know former Christian college students, Sunday School regulars, and even Christian ministers who walked away. I know many others who remain in church (some in ministry), but are privately disillusioned, doubting, or confused. Some hold on to belief in God or Christian ideas to varying levels, and are merely disenchanted with organized religion. Many others are skeptical of the entire Christian belief system, and lean toward agnosticism, atheism, post-modernism, and Buddhism. While there will always be those who merely want to “sow their wild oats”, I am convinced that throughout our civilization, masses are walking away from Christianity because they don’t believe it. And many don’t believe it because they don’t understand it. Young adults marching in the mass church exodus often say they perceive the Church as shallow, anti-science, anti-intellectual, smug, irrelevant, and that the Church is not a safe place to ask questions or express doubts. This ought not be.

 

I would like to offer some suggestions for moving forward.

 

 To The Skeptical:

 

Thank you for taking the time to read my story! In my journey, I discovered that the world is more complicated than it sometimes appears. We each have different backgrounds and life experiences, and so perhaps have different doubts and questions. Sometimes, there aren’t easy answers. But, as with many things that are valuable, some ideas are worth investing time and effort into understanding.  In an upcoming series called, “Why I am a Christian”, I’ll be sharing some of the “puzzle pieces”, or reasons why I’ve come to think Christianity is true, and how it is relevant in my life. I’ll give the summary version in my blog, but will recommend books if you’d like to go deeper. I’ll also be candid about questions I still have, or things I’m unsure of. I’d love to read your comments, provided we all remain civil. I can’t promise that I’ll respond to every comment, but I am interested to listen to what you have to say. As a friend helped me, I hope, in some small way, I can be of help to you on your journey.

 

 

To Christians:

 

1.      Apologetics is no longer a luxury. It is a necessity. It must be incorporated into our Sunday Schools, Christian school curriculums, and college programs. Culture is changing rapidly. In the market place of ideas, Christianity cannot afford to pack up and go home. We can no longer assume that non-Christians understand Christianity. We can no longer assume that our children will grow up understanding Christianity, unless we invest in teaching them. My private studies of these very important topics took me years of personal investment. Nick took months of his time investing in me, not to mention the years he spent in study. Yet, I had spent years attending church. I went to a conservative Christian college. I attended seminary. During those years, time could have been spent teaching not just Bible stories, basic doctrine, and a list of do’s and don’ts. Time could have been spent laying the foundation for why we believe Christianity is true in the first place. We desperately need to reach out to our culture. But just as importantly, we need to reach in to our own congregations with preventative apologetics, and reach people before they slip away.

 

2.      When we present Christianity, we must be careful to not muddy it with secondary things. I take certain positions regarding politics, economics, or secondary doctrines. But I mustn’t let someone think that because they disagree with my political views or secondary doctrinal stances, that it is Christianity they disagree with. We must separate core Christian beliefs from secondary doctrine and cultural specific practices. If God exists, and Jesus is who Christianity claims, then Christianity is true. Regardless of how old the earth is. Regardless of the scope of the Genesis flood. Regardless of one’s preferred economic model. Regardless of one’s chosen position on the doctrine of election. Regardless of who I vote for. If Christianity is a structure, we must show people the firmness of the foundation and strength of the support walls. Arguing about the best color of curtains is optional, and should never be our focus when talking with people who don’t live in the house.

 

3.      When dealing with doubters and unbelievers, we must not get arrogantly locked into winning an argument. Humans are complicated. There is always something going on underneath the surface. While my doubts about Christianity were intellectual in nature, in reality, they went deeper than my intellect. My pain, personal mistakes, and confusion about past life events fed my doubts. The problem of Evil carries more weight when accompanied by experience. When discussing Christianity with unbelievers, or with doubters, or even with Christians, we must realize that intellectual objections may be only a part of what's at work. Bitterness, pain, sin, disappointment, lust, fear, and personal loss are factors that may well be at work deep within the human being we're talking to. We must be sensitive to the humanness of our conversation partner, and not be in it merely to win an argument.

 

The Christian Church cannot compromise core Christian doctrine simply to appease cultural fads or keep attendance high. But the Church can wisely navigate its environment, seek to improve its stewardship of people in its care, and better engage with a culture in need. We must begin the slow work of teaching the reasons for, and relevance of, our Faith. The Church can do better. We must do better. And we must do it very soon. The fate of our culture, and faith of our children, are on the balance.

 

 

End                                                                                       

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Lewis, Is Theology Poetry?

[ii] When some well-meaning Christians argue for the truth of Christianity, they tend to spend more time arguing about how old the earth is, than focusing on the weightier points. If God exists, and Jesus is who He claimed to be, then Christianity is true. If God does not exist in the way Christianity claims, or if Jesus is not who Christianity claims, then Christianity is false. The age of the world is a secondary detail involving other puzzle pieces (hermeneutics and epistemology). The support structure of the Christian world view is far removed from the age of the world.

The Almost Atheist: A Christian Preacher Struggles with His Message, Part I

 

I am unabashedly a Christian. But I haven't always been. I was almost an Atheist.

 

Growing up, I knew of the Gospel. Like many American children, I attended Sunday School on occasion, and can to this day recall early memories of hearing in class about the man who foolishly got himself swallowed by a whale. My home life was better than many, but was sometimes less than ideal. Periods of blissful peace spent playing soccer, canoeing, fishing, building Legos, and watching Saturday morning cartoons would sometimes be abruptly interrupted by living day-mares brought on by a father who at the time hadn't conquered his own demons. For all the good things in my childhood, some bad moments would haunt me well into adulthood. Paradoxically, it was my father who one day asked me, “Are you saved?” I had no idea what he meant. But being a boy who craved love, when I heard that Jesus loved me enough to die in my place, I thought, “Then I want to love him, too.” Being trusting by nature, I placed my trust in Jesus.

 

I'll always be grateful to my father for caring enough about me to tell me about Jesus. I'm sure it altered the course of my life. Even still, life wasn't perfect. In fact, sometimes it was downright confusing. Contrary to the happy life in Jesus my Sunday School teacher had talked about, saying a prayer to Jesus didn't make everything ok. “Did I do it wrong? Or has Jesus forgotten about me? Maybe he isn't there?” Time inched on. No matter what happened, I never doubted that my mother loved me. Right or wrong, she poured her life into her children. Even when I became angry with her as a teenager, I could not doubt that she loved me. Her dedication proved her heart. It was because I knew she loved me that I went along with her when she told me to read in the New Testament each day as a teenager. But many times I wasn't sure exactly what I was reading. Around the age of thirteen, I distinctly remember asking myself as I sat reading on my Grandmother's familiar old couch, “Why should I believe any of this? I know what I've been told, I know I've trusted Jesus, but how do I know it's true?” Being an eternal inward conversationalist, I replied, “I don't know that I do.” By my teenage years, the good word of my parents was losing its ability to convince. I needed more.

 

Life promises never ending change, and it always delivers. We moved from the coast of Mississippi to a new home on a beautiful piece of property in the panhandle of Florida. Our house was very small, but I had endless woods to explore, so I was thrilled. Yet again, even with our fresh start and new home, life was far from ideal. My family reached the point of knowing we needed to change something. With some feeling of desperation, we began attending a conservative Baptist church regularly.  The preaching was loud, confident, exciting, and demanded repentance of sin and consecration to God. I knew that I had trusted Jesus years before, but also knew that my life wasn't perfect. What's more, I knew that I had personally “sinned”. I knew that I wanted my life to be better. I wanted peace and love. I wanted to grow into a good man, like my Grandpa. I spent many Sundays at that church, weeping in prayer, begging for God to help me live in a way that was pleasing to Him. The pastor and staff encouraged me to choose to live a holy life, even if those around me did not. Again, my life's course was altered. When my old friends were getting themselves into typical teenaged mischief, I had decided to follow Jesus. I'll always be grateful for the pastors and kind friends in the church who encouraged me. If I was privately going through an abysmal time in life, or tempted to sin, they would unknowingly lift me up and move me along. I gained a great passion for God, for my church, and for telling others about it. The preaching, the music, the friends, it all felt right. I truly felt as though God was seeking me to be with Him. But still, the question I once asked myself on my Grandmother's couch would echo in my mind: “I know what I've been told about the Bible. I know what I feel about Jesus, about church, and about my Christian friends. But how do I know that it's actually true?”

 

The church I attended had many good qualities. I learned more and more about the stories in the Bible. I learned about what things I was not supposed to do, and I learned about things I was supposed to do. I learned that the Bible was from God. I also learned that Liberalism was bad and that Conservatism was good. I learned something about what the Bible said. But I never learned why I should believe it in the first place. At that stage in my life, the only exposure I had to any semblance of a defense of the Christian Faith, was to men who defended vehemently the idea that the world is young. This view assumes that the Bible is inerrant, and since the Bible teaches the world is young, it MUST be young (6,000ish years was the commonly argued for age). While this wasn’t presented as part of the Gospel, it was certainly married to it.[i] “You take all the Bible or none of it.”  (The unspoken assumption this framework unintentionally put in my head, of course, is that if the earth is older than 6,000ish years, then Bible is not inerrant, and therefore it is all simply false. In other words, the whole Bible, including the Gospel, is malarkey if the universe could be shown to be older than 6,000 or 10,000 years in age.)

 

At this church, I knew that my life was moving in a more positive direction, and because of this, I felt that Christianity was true. My experiences with answered prayer[ii] and a deep feeling of a call to be with God, convinced me that Christianity was working, and must somehow be true.  “I don't understand why it's true. But I feel it is. And it's working in my life.” For many years, my zeal coupled with very loud preaching drowned out the sound of my nagging, quiet doubts.

 

Being exposed to Gospel preaching, it was not long before I had surrendered to be a Gospel preacher. I felt the call to follow God so strongly, that at age fifteen I surrendered my life's goals to not seek wealth or fame, but to help others and to be a preacher of His Gospel. When I was old enough, I attended a conservative Baptist college in hopes that I would learn to be a better preacher. I trusted that at Christian college I would finally learn once and for all the details about why we believe Christianity in the first place. (How are we certain there is a God? Why does God let terrible things happen to people? Why do the books in the Bible seem to contradict each other? Is there evidence for the events in the Bible? If there is, why do so many people not believe this? Is it simply my feelings and blind faith against your feelings and blind faith?)

 

At Christian college, I learned more about the Bible, and about how to be a preacher. I learned from eloquent preachers more about the stories in the Bible, about basic systematic theology, about how to be an effective public speaker, and about how to be a caring pastor. But there is no other way to say it. I received virtually no education on the foundation for believing Christianity in the first place. I learned little about textual criticism. I learned nothing of the rich intellectual tradition and rigorous philosophical contributions that Christianity has made to the world at large. I learned little about the worldviews that have critiqued Christianity from its inception. I learned virtually nothing of rigorous attacks on the heart of the Christian Faith, or how to defend against those attacks. Even after earning a bachelor's degree and a year of seminary training, the only biblical scholarship I was familiar with was that of a few men who supported my previously held beliefs. I knew nothing about serious intellectual arguments stacked against orthodox Christian beliefs, or against the very belief in God, which was at the heart of everything I had dedicated my life to.

 

In my rather Fundamentalist circles, Sola Scriptura (Latin for “Scripture Alone”) was taken to mean that, because the Bible is our final authority, all we need is the Bible, and perhaps some books about it. No need to study scholarship or philosophy or textual criticism. In short, I got no answers for my long held questions. No salve for my deepening wounds. Only band-aids. “We don't need to explain or defend belief in God or the Bible. We begin with God and assume the Bible.” Christianity began to seem like a list of do’s and don’ts with no intellectual basis.

 

While I truly wanted to serve God and help my fellow man, during my junior year of college, I was inwardly heartbroken. In addition to trying to sort out my childhood, night after night I'd stay awake, questioning everything I was dedicating my life to. (By this time, I was married to my high school sweetheart. Although we were both entirely too busy to properly build a young marriage, her undying dedication, commitment and love to me stabilized me in ways I can never repay her for.)

 

From time to time, I would meekly ask a direct question to a pastor or college professor. This inevitably was met with a fluffy, eloquent dodging of my question, an attempt to use charisma rather than intellect to convince me, or to a humiliating personal attack on my character for even asking such a question. “We don't question God [or me]. We begin with Him. Then we believe Him.” A popular sentiment held by preachers and Christians in general, “It doesn't have to make sense. It's called faith for a reason. I just believe it.” I heard many preachers actually ridicule reason, science, scholarship, or nearly any other intellectual vice from the pulpit. Many Sunday sermons left me with the impression that it was the pulpit versus the academy. It was the pulpit versus Hollywood. It was the pulpit versus the White House. It was sometimes even the pulpit versus the NBA.  I thought inwardly, “There must be more to this. Is this all there is? Some of this even seems quite silly. I now know more about what I believe and how to put it into practice, but apart from my experiences and my parent’s word (which could be mistaken, after all), I haven't the foggiest as to why I know it's true. If I simply assume it's true, I could be wrong! Am I not allowed to think critically and ask questions? What if Christianity is irrational, or there is no evidence to support it? Must I turn off my mind to believe this? I'll try to learn more on my own.”

 

Carrying on with an increasingly humbled zeal, I accepted a position as Assistant Pastor at a small but growing Baptist church just south of Louisville, Kentucky. It was here that my wife and I had the privilege of getting to know and serve with very warm and loving Christians. I was able to serve under a pastor who was a good man who loved God and Country. He took me under his wing to train me with practical ministry experience. We made good friends at this church and were happy to serve. But inwardly, a quiet battle was raging. “How do I know this is true?” We were welcome to stay at the church permanently, and my wife and I loved the people. But in the end we felt our lives should take a different path. I had an increasing burden to serve our Nation in my youth, and I knew that I had to step back and resolve my doubts once and for all. “I feel it's true, but I don't know if I think it's true.” Holding firm to the belief that the United States is something worth serving, that I could attempt to help military families, and that I should step back and resolve my inner doubts (and work out some details of my theology), I left the church on very good terms, and made a major course change. I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. 

 

In the Marine Corps, life changed very quickly. (If I wanted a challenge, I got one.) Thankfully, I never had to see combat. But life was sometimes not easy. In fact, sometimes it was downright rough. What's more, the Marine Corps gave me a different kind of zeal, one that would be helpful in a fight, but not for serving Jesus. In the Corps, I continued to attend church and live the best I could as a Christian. But it was here that something changed inside of me. I had, for a very long time, been running on the fumes of feelings. But now, I no longer had those feelings. I came to the harsh, abyssal, and sobering realization that I no longer had any clear reason whatsoever for being a Christian. I had no intellectual reason, and I now highly doubted my own feelings and experiences with the Lord. I was defeated. If a hero falls in battle, he dies proving his heroism. But if a warrior in battle loses faith in his cause, he becomes a cowering worm.

 

Most of the books I read or preachers I heard presented a Christianity that said “Don't ask questions. If you have doubts, just believe harder.” A few preachers even convinced me that they were liars by irrationally insulting me rather than rationally attempting to answer a simple question about even simple things. I thought to myself, “You don't know, do you? But you want the people who give to your offering to think you do, so you publicly insult me and change the subject.”

 

I had reached the place where my quiet doubts were much louder than even the loudest preacher. While some of my preacher heroes fell from grace, my Christian education failed to even address my questions much less answer them. While the Christian crowd seemed to say, "Just believe”, there was a different crowd which proudly proclaimed a different, and more appealing message. “Don't believe anything without evidence! Reason over blind faith! Don't believe. Think! Follow logic and evidence through to conclusion!” This crowd preaching Reason was not a Christian one. Far from it. They were the New Atheists. I had earlier read books by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Stephen Hawking and others. Over time, I read the older (and more interesting) Atheists like Nietzsche, Sartre, and Russell. I read a book that seemed to level Christianity (it leveled mine, anyways), The Case Against Christianity by the late professor of philosophy Michael Martin. And I discovered the scholarship of Bart Ehrman (a former Christian pastor turned agnostic.)

 

Because I had very little to no evidence to support my deepest held beliefs, I fell victim to the statement made by popular atheist Christopher Hitchens,

 

That what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.iii

 

These men leveled argument after argument against my faith, and accusation after accusation against the violence in Christian history and the anti-intellectualism in today’s Church. While even then I could see that some of their arguments were full of hot air, many of their arguments seemed valid. But how would I know? The only way I had learned to combat criticism was to ignore it and believe the Bible louder. In attempting to be honest, I simply could no longer ignore these criticisms. These men didn't just attack a few contested passages of the Bible, they attacked belief in the Bible itself, arguing that it should be dismissed with every other superstitious ancient religious text. “Why dismiss other ancient texts, but hold to this one, other than the fact that your parents told you to?” These atheists didn't always seem to hate God (easy to counter), they argued that there is no good reason to believe in God in the first place (a belief I had always assumed). Some suggested that Jesus didn't even exist, and that the early Catholic Church had just copied and pasted earlier pagan myths to the story of someone named Jesus in order to control the people. How would I know? The most ferocious attacks were leveled against belief in the historical resurrection of Jesus. If he didn’t rise again, then the faith of millions of Christians was terribly misplaced. They argued that Christianity makes strong men weak, and is thus to be abhorred. After watching many men submit to overbearing pastor figures, I thought perhaps they were right. They argued that Science and Reason had replaced antiquated religion as the primary means of learning about the world. They argued that Christians were proudly anti-science and anti-intellectual. Because many or most Christians I knew, living in a post Fundamentalist Christianity, were quite proudly anti-intellectual, this objection seemed to fit. The atheists said that my experiences with God were not grounded in evidence, and were no more than my inner longing for an ever present father figure to comfort me from my unresolved childhood. Because I had some deep emotional struggles left over from childhood, I thought perhaps they were right; that I was imagining my feelings with the Lord to fulfil my need for a loving father. They said that we shouldn't appeal to an unquestionable authority (like a pastor figure), but to evidence. But it was precisely an unquestionable authority that I based all my assumptions on. I felt I had no evidence. They attacked the popularly held Young Earth Creationist view of Genesis as being blatantly opposed to the vast majority of empirical evidence. I had believed that the age of the earth was tied directly to the Christian Gospel. So if the evidence shows the world is old, then the Gospel is directly damaged. (If you don’t believe this is how the public perceives the “Science vs Religion” divide, then listen to the debates between popular youtubers. Belief in an old earth and evolution are perceived as the “Atheist” view, and a young earth is perceived as the “Christian” view.)

 

Some of these sentiments resonated with me. Others I felt were not correct, but how would I know? These men were highly intelligent and many had Ph.D.s in their respective fields. The Christian preachers who told me to believe harder or that science and philosophy were a sham were often men with little accredited higher education, or who's arguments made almost no sense. “Just believe me.”  “Don't question the Bible.” (Which often meant don't question the preacher.) While Christians seemed to be preaching that Reason was something to be avoided because it was contrary to faith, that evidence should be made to support the book we assume is true, and that the important questions shouldn't even be asked, the Atheists encouraged me to question everything, and bravely follow evidence. For one interested in truth, and disillusioned at life, the latter message proved to be much more attractive.

 

All seemed lost. I was a breath away from throwing in the towel, never to preach or even attend church again. I was devastated and angry on the inside. “Perhaps it's all been a lie.” To Sartre, Dawkins, and Hitchens, I inwardly conceded “Almost thou persuadest me to be an atheist.”

 

 

To Be Continued

 

[i] Ken Ham, in his book Six Days: The Age of the Earth and the Decline of the Church, points out early on that one can be a Gospel believing Christian without accepting that the earth is young. But he then spends the entire book arguing that believing the world is old compromises the Gospel itself. He even goes so far as to blame the decline of the church on pastors who have conceded that the world may be old. See specifically chapter 3 of Six Days.

[ii] My wife is an answer to my constant prayer, but that is a different story.

iii  http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/fighting_words/2003/10/mommie_dearest.html (retrieved 07/29/2016)