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Trying to Help an Evangelical Pastor See the Light

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I am not a fan of Twitter discussions. While I typically respond to people who tweet about one of my posts, I usually don’t engage in long, drawn out discussions — especially with Evangelicals. That said, if I sense I can be a help to someone, I try to interact with them.

Several weeks ago, a young Southern Baptist preacher contacted me via direct message. Since then, we have had several thoughtful, polite discussions. I am of the opinion that he genuinely wants to understand my story. And I want to do all I can to help him see the light.

Yesterday, Pastor J sent me the following message:

Bruce, if okay, I would like to continue our conversation. What in your life at age 15 compelled you to be saved, baptized, and begin preaching?

I replied:

Conviction of the Holy Spirit and calling by God.

Here’s some of the relevant discussion that followed:

J: Respectfully, may I ask — those same things do not compel you now?

Bruce: No. I now understand such things are psychological, environmental, and cultural in nature.

J: So what you deemed as “conviction of the Holy Spirit” and “calling by God” then, you deem as perhaps a religious delusion now?

Bruce: Religious belief is psychological in nature, driven by cultural, societal, and tribal norms. How we were raised, where we lived, and the expectations of family, friends, and community deeply affect and influence what we believe. Why do most Americans (74%) self-describe as Christian? Why do most Indonesians self-identify as Muslim (87%)? The answer is found by studying religion from a sociological perspective. Whether God exists, matters not. What matters is external influences.

J: I don’t disagree to an extent that we are influenced by those around us and where we live affects how we believe. The statistics you provided intrigue me. I’d be interested how they collect that data. I’ve never been polled personally, or known anyone who was polled. I do think it’s somewhat preposterous to suggest countless people, across thousands of years, have merely gone into a psychological delusion in believing in the God of Christianity, when He doesn’t exist (in the minds of some), and you were somehow duped by your own mind for some 25 years before you had an epiphany.

Bruce: Do you believe Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christians?

J: I believe anyone who is regenerated by the Spirit of God, repents of their sins, and places their trust in Jesus Christ’s redemptive work on the cross is a Christian. Most denominations differ on secondary matters, but hold to the core beliefs of the gospel — the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.

Bruce: Please answer my question. Your dodge is telling. Do you believe practicing Mormons/Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christians? I don’t know of one IFB church/pastor who believes such people are Christians. Are they not cultists who believe in and worship a false Jesus?

J: To be honest, I don’t know all the ins/outs of their religious beliefs. I know more about the Baptist, and Methodist denominations and “charismatic” types like the Church of God, Assembly of God, Pentecostal, etc. With that being said, what specific tenets of their faiths are you asking if I agree or disagree with? I am in the SBC, but came up Missionary Baptist, which differs slightly from IFB.

Bruce: My point is tens of millions of people follow the false Jesuses of these sects. The same could be said for one billion Roman Catholics. This fact directly contradicts your claim that it is preposterous to think Christians are believing in and following a mythical being. If Mormons/JWs/Catholics are following false/mythical Jesuses, why can the same not be said about Evangelicals? (Other than you pleading that your Jesus/God is the “right” one.) The number of people believing something proves nothing.

J: Great point. One way I know Mormonism differs is that one particular individual, Joseph Smith, claimed he received a special vision/revelation from God and that’s how the Book of Mormon was developed. I think you would agree that the same cannot be said of the Bible. 1,600 years, 40 authors, and one central message of Jesus Christ. That the Bible is divinely inspired is not questionable in my opinion. I know many will say that some books were left out (apocrypha) and they do have historical value, but I believe the Bible to be the true words of God and without error.

Bruce: You missed or cannot see my point. The only difference between Mormonism and Christianity is time. What about Islam or Catholicism? Both are ancient Abrahamic religions, each with their own religious texts. Why should I consider them “false” yet consider Christianity true?

J: Christianity is distinctly different from the other religions. Salvation is based, not on anything meritorious on our part, but simply in placing faith in Christ to obtain eternal life. Islam believes that Jesus was a prophet, nothing more. The fact is, when comparing Christianity to the other major religions like Islam and Buddhism, neither of the latter can stack up to the former. There is an empty tomb in Jerusalem. No traces of Jesus’ physical remains are there or have been found. Shrines have been set up for the bones of Mohammed and Buddha. Detractors must explain the empty tomb. Christianity hinges on the truth of the gospel — the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Eyewitnesses were so convinced that Jesus rose from the dead that they went about preaching the gospel and lived and died championing this cause. Either Jesus Christ’s claims are all fabricated and everyone was deceived by this masterful con artist, or He is exactly as He says He is — God Incarnate, the only Savior of the world, and will come again to judge the world in righteousness.

Bruce: Except, it’s not, and that’s my point.

J: We must respectfully disagree sir.

As readers can readily see, Pastor J is steeped in Evangelical dogma and talking points. He wrongly thinks that my facts are just opinions; that statements of faith are empirical facts. Once you reach a point in a discussion where one party thinks facts and evidence is “opinion,” it’s impossible to move forward. I appreciate J’s genial tone — a rare character trait among Evangelical preachers — but I do hope that he will think about what I said: that he will ponder and wrestle with the truthfulness of my claims. I’m not trying to convert Pastor J to the one true religion of atheism. My goal is to get him to critically think about the things he believes and the arguments he makes for his peculiar religion.

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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15 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Emersonian

    As someone who was never a Christian, I find his responses fascinating. The things he believes to be special and distinct about Christianity entirely stem from his own investment in believing them. There are no bodily relics of any number of historic figures; the “empty tomb” is not remotely convincing to non-Christians as proof of Christ’s divinity. Yet this seems to Pastor J to be irrefutable evidence of Christianity’s uniqueness. I could more easily get my head around it if he said “I had a conversion moment, a road-to-damascus where a bright light appeared and I heard a voice say “Go to church, fool!” ” But just a matter of fact statement that his entire belief system rests on egocentricism, It’s True Because I Think It’s True is really difficult for me to grok.

  2. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    Of course he knows all the talking points, christianity is different, an empty tomb, yadda yadda yadda. Those points are not at all compelling to those of us outside the religion, any more than the Mormin belief that when the Mormon men dye they become gods of their own universe and their wives get to adore them and bear spirit babies. You hear Christian’s talking about “the empty tomb” as PROOF, but where’s this tomb? Has it been examined by scientists? Is there agreement of the ACTUAL TOMB’s location? And if the pastor questions a poll conducted by polling agencies whose job it is to collect and publish data, why would he trust the supposed word of illiterate, ignorant ancient people who had an agenda in spreading stories after their beloved teacher died? The fact is that the majority of religious people were indoctrinated as children before they developed critical thinking skills. Children learn through stories, and they don’t know the difference in veracity of Hans Christian Andersen tales, Disney tales, or Bible stories. (In fact, I have heard children taking elements of all of these when telling a story they want to tell). And we learn the religion – or no religion – that our parents follow. My kids raised nonreligious heart heir grandparents talking about their version of a Christian God and those stories and consider them no different from the Greek, Norse, or Egyptian mythologies they learned during school. Ancient stories from ancient cultures.

    • Avatar
      Matilda

      ‘…no different from the Greek, Norse or Egyptin mythologies..’ 80yos in my UK village recount going to Sunday School, or even two Sunday Schools, they went at 10am to one, then rushed over to the 11am one at another chapel. That way, they got 2 xmas parties, there were no other treats over xmas for them back then. The only time they left the village was to go on the 2 chapel charabanc trips to the beach with the annual treat of ice creams. There was nothing else to do on Sundays. Now children have a million other stories on their screens. The uniqueness, the ‘specialness’ of stories from the bible has completely gone…as you say, holding no more value than any other stories from ancient cultures. Fundies can’t get their heads round the fact we see no reason whatsoever to regard the bible as either true, or a guide for life or that its stories are unparalleled and exceptional…and they have no relevance to modern lives.

  3. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    Sounds like a very civil exchange and it pleases me that it did not degrade because both parties chose to treat one another with respect. I have to say though, that it brings me a sigh when people ‘talk the talk’ and start to list thier fantastical beliefs as if they are as real as the sun breaking over the dawn hills. As soon as I hear ‘the talk’, I feel weary because I know I have entered, have fallen into the rabbit hole where evidence and opinion must with one another while the magical day rolls on, respectfully disagreeing. Still, up until the statement of faith, the exchange was thoughtful and worthwhile. Who knows? Maybe the views you shared, Bruce, will encourage individual search, further query.

  4. Avatar
    Steve Ruis

    Bless you, Bruce. Your stamina is far greater than mine. I have been over and over and over those arguments/discussions that going through them with someone naive to them is just exhausting. While we may not be our brother’s keepers, some of us are kinder than others. You are far kinder than I.

    Keep up the good work and stay well, my friend.

  5. Avatar
    darcyinsatx

    B: Why do most Indonesians self-identify as Muslim (87%)? The answer is found by studying religion from a sociological perspective. Whether God exists, matters not. What matters is external influences.
    -> If I’d been born and raised in Indonesia as an Indonesian, I’m sure I would be Muslim or a lapsed Muslim.

    J: … I do think it’s somewhat preposterous to suggest countless people, across thousands (Well, 2 thousand) of years, have merely gone into a psychological delusion in believing in the God of Christianity, when He doesn’t exist (in the minds of some)…
    -> Well, countless people, across even more thousands of years, have believed in their local deities just as deeply as you, or as not-deeply as atheists. If the only real god was your version, then weren’t all those generations of people, for many thousands of years, before and after they heard of Yahweh, just deluding themselves? And if there is no deity at all, they were still deluding themselves. The psychological need for “religio” was there before Jesus was born and doesn’t need Jesus to be real. If you are born Indonesian, you are probably going to follow Islam because that is the “religio” that surrounds you.

    I hope that all makes sense.

  6. Avatar
    ourchurchville

    The circular logic is maddening – “The bible is the actual word of god because, well, look, it says so, right in the bible!” Argh! Bad enough dealing one-on-one with that type of thinking, but it’s so much worse when you turn on the radio or TV and hear someone with education, credentials, credibility, personal magnetism and authority, blasting that nonsense out repeatedly to thousands of listeners. Then some of the listeners, many who are in a place of pain and bewilderment, latch onto that, and the cycle continues…. So, so sad.

  7. Avatar
    Dave

    I see my old self in this discussion as I’m sure many ex-christians would. It all makes so much sense when you have been indoctrinated. I remember reading Mere Christianity by C S Lewis and thinking it completely confirmed my beliefs. While in the process of deconverting I read it again, hoping to resolve my crisis of faith and found it to be illogical and trite.

  8. Avatar
    Michael Mock

    It is nice to see someone approach you with a… civil discussion? I guess? …on the topic. Like, I don’t think he gets it (and I think he realizes that) but he seems to be trying, at least.

  9. Avatar
    Tim Matter

    ” Detractors must explain the empty tomb.”
    Actually, there are two empty tombs, so believers have to explain that, and admit that at least one of them is a fake.

    “One way I know Mormonism differs is that one particular individual, Joseph Smith, claimed he received a special vision/revelation from God and that’s how the Book of Mormon was developed. I think you would agree that the same cannot be said of the Bible.”
    Actually, Paul claims to have had the same kind of revelation that Joseph Smith claims to have had. A vision. And Paul even admits he never saw Jesus in real life. The things Paul taught were very different than the teachings of the disciples who supposedly were taught by Jesus himself.

    • Avatar
      Astreya

      Empty tombs are easy to explain.

      They’re, um, empty.

      This can be caused by many things, the most plausible being (a) the tomb had not been used yet, or (b) someone moved the body. “Jesus was interred here but miraculously came back to life and walked away” is rock-bottom on the list of possibilities.

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