I receive all sorts of emails every day, everything from personal attacks to honest questions. Rarely does a week go by where I don’t receive an email that deeply affects me emotionally. Several days ago, I received one such email from a young Evangelical Bible college student. After reading and pondering his words , I thought his email would be a great subject for a blog post.
I have removed all personally identifiable information. People who email me in good faith can rest assured that I will always protect their privacy. Here’s what this young man had to say:
I am a Biblical Studies major in pursuit of becoming a pastor. Growing up, faith was all I had and everything that I held onto. Over the past year, I have learned things about the faith and the church that have left me confused and hurt. I am going into student debt to pursue this “calling” I feel in my life. Yet, this calling has slowly faded away and I am sitting here writing this, confused on what to do or where to go. I am scared to let go of my faith, although I am not sure why. It is hard for me to ignore hard facts and scientific explanations. They just make sense. I know you said you have 25 years of ministry, and my whole life has been built up for me to go into ministry as well. I am looking for answers, and I do not know who to turn to as all of my family and friends are believers, and I honestly do not feel comfortable coming to them. Please write me back any advice, book to read, or just honestly someone to share experiences with.
I want to applaud this man for being willing at such a young age to question his beliefs and seek out answers to his doubts and questions. I wish I had the courage this young man has back when I was a student at Midwestern Baptist College in the mid-1970s. Sadly, I was a true-blue believer, and with nary a question or doubt, I continued on a ministerial path that led me to pastorates in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. I was fifty years old before questions and doubts overwhelmed belief and I deconverted.
My objective in responding to this man is NOT to convert him to atheism. I have never been an evangelist for atheism, and I don’t intend to be one. My goal remains the same as always: to help people who have doubts and questions about Christianity or who have already deconverted. I see myself as a facilitator. To use a worn-out cliché, life really is a journey. Evangelicalism teaches — dare I say demands — believers to focus on the destination — Heaven or Hell, and not the journey. Life is little more than preparation for meeting and living with God in the life to come. I challenge people to see that life is all about the journey. Your destination is immaterial. Walk the path that is in front of you, following its course wherever it leads. In doing so, you will end up exactly where you need to be. My only regret is that I waited until I was in my forties before I realized this grand truth.
This man comes from a family who is devoted to Jesus. I can only imagine how painful his doubts and questions are as he thinks about how seeking answers might affect his relationship with his family. As many readers of this blog know firsthand, daring to step outside of the prescribed rut of Evangelical faith can lead to catastrophic consequences. Verbalizing such things can lead to estrangement and excommunication. That’s why I warn people in the post Count the Cost Before You Say I Am an Atheist to carefully consider confessing unbelief to Evangelical family and friends. Once you share your doubts and questions or admit you no longer believe, you no longer control what happens next. That’s why several commenters on this blog call themselves atheist Christians. Family (or economic) concerns prevent them from being out and proud. I would say to this young man: ponder carefully what you say or do going forward. Weigh the consequences carefully.
The email writer mentions having a “calling,” that he is attending an Evangelical college to pursue that calling. Evangelicals believe that men are “called” by God into the ministry. I wrote about that very subject two weeks ago in a post titled, I’m a Prophet, Preacher, or Evangelist Because I Say I Am. When you believe that God is “calling” you, it can be quite a struggle when you begin to doubt not only your call, but also your beliefs. I remember the struggles I had over trying to reconcile what I believed was a divine calling with my waning faith. In the end, my slide down the slippery slope of unbelief destroyed any notion of a divine calling. As an atheist and a humanist, I still have a sense of what I consider a “calling.” Not in a supernatural sense, of course, but I still feel drawn to helping others — Christian or not.
I am more than forty years older than this young man. I try to picture myself at the age of twenty-one sitting in my dorm room questioning my faith. This man is surrounded by people who appear resolute in their Christian beliefs, yet he has doubts and questions. Is there something wrong with him? Of course not, though Evangelical zealots will say that this man is being tempted by Satan, battling “secret” sin, or is not a True Christian®. Remember, questions and doubts are not really permitted in Evangelical circles. Oh, apologists will beg to differ, but the fact remains that doubts and questions are permissible only if they lead to Biblical answers. Straying outside of the safe confines of the Evangelical box is verboten, as is asking an ex-Evangelical-turned-atheist preacher for help. (Please see The Danger of Being in a Box and Why it Makes Sense When You are in it and What I Found When I Left the Box.)
When doubting Evangelicals ask me for advice, I typically suggest that they read Dr. Bart Ehrman’s books. The reason I do so is because Ehrman, a professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a leading authority on the New Testament and the history of early Christianity, is a former Evangelical. Ehrman began his ministerial training at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, and Wheaton College, in Wheaton, Illinois — both staunch Evangelical institutions. He finished his M.Div. and Ph.D. at Princeton Theological Seminary. Today, he is the author of numerous books on the history of the New Testament.
Evangelicals typically believe that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God. This belief is foundational to Evangelical faith, and that’s why I point doubters to Ehrman’s books. Written on a popular level, Ehrman’s books lay siege to and destroy the Evangelical notion that the Bible is in any way inerrant or infallible. Inspired? That’s a faith claim. Inerrancy and infallibility, on the other hand, are matters of facts and evidence.
I would suggest that this man read several of Ehrman’s books. Here’s a partial list of his works:
Ehrman recently released a book titled, Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife. I am currently reading through this book. Fascinating, to say the least. I have concluded, so far, that there’s a lot I don’t know about Heaven or Hell from a historical or Biblical perspective.
I am confident that reading Ehrman’s books will disabuse all but the most stubborn of Evangelicals of their belief that the Bible is an inspired, inerrant, infallible text. While coming to an enlightened conclusion about the Bible does not necessarily lead to unbelief, it does render Evangelical dogma untenable. Once this happens, an Evangelical is ready to take a hard look at what it is he really believes. Once the Bible loses its power and authority over a believer, he is free to let facts and science determine the validity of religious beliefs. For me personally, skeptically and intellectually examining the core tenets of Christianity led me to conclude that these beliefs could not be rationally sustained. Your mileage may vary. Many ex-Evangelicals find ways to hang on to some sort of Christian faith. Any move away from the Fundamentalist tendencies of Evangelicalism is a good one. (Please see Are Evangelicals Fundamentalists?)
I hope this young man will continue to correspond with me. I sincerely wish nothing but the best for him, realizing that difficult days lie ahead for him if he continues to walk the path he is on. Unlike Evangelical family and friends, I am more than willing to help regardless of where his journey takes him. I have six grown children, all of whom were raised in Evangelical churches. Not only was I their father and prison warden, but I was also their pastor. After Polly and I left Christianity in 2008, I have watched as my children have struggled with matters of faith. Their respective journeys have taken them away from Evangelicalism, but not necessarily towards unbelief. The unbelief of their parents, especially their preacher father, gave them the freedom to wander; to seek knowledge and understanding outside of the narrow confines of Fundamentalism. I wish the same for this young man.
Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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