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)