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Personal Testimony: I Know God is Real Because He Saved My Soul

argument from popularity

I recently listened to a debate between atheist Tom Jump and a Christian woman named Sybil. By all accounts, the debate was a train wreck. Jump is a low-key, levelheaded debater, but after an hour of Sybil trying to make the same point over and over and over again, I wondered if he was ready to start banging his head on the wall. No matter how many times Jump addressed her point, Sybil returned to claim that Christianity is real because many people believe in Jesus. Because 2.3 billion people profess to be Christians, that means Christianity is true. Sybil reiterated ad nauseam that countless Christians have personal testimonies of faith in Jesus, so Christianity can’t be false. Jump tried and failed to get Sybil to see that personal testimony is not the evidence for God, particularly the Christian God. Countless people say they have seen Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, UFOs, and have been abducted by aliens, yet we have no evidence that their claims are true. So it is with the existence of God.

The debate is one hour and eleven minutes long.

Video Link

I want to focus on the notion that personal testimony is sufficient evidence for the existence of God — either singular or cumulative.

For those of us who attended Evangelical Baptist/charismatic churches, we know a lot about personal testimonies. Salvation stories were shared from the pulpit, in Sunday school classes, and during testimony times during church services. Testimonies are supposed to a way for believers to give praise and glory to God/Jesus. However, having listened to hundreds and hundreds of testimonies over the fifty years I spent in the Christian church, I can tell you that many testimonies are all about the sinner, not the Savior. What I call “bad sinner” testimonies always get the most attention. In the 1970s and 1980s, Jerry Falwell had countless bad sinners give their testimonies on his TV program, the Old-Time Gospel Hour. At the time, I was mesmerized by these testimonies. However, they have not aged well. We now know many of the bad sinner testimonies were not true. Mike Warnke, for example, claimed to be a Satanic high priest before Jesus saved him. In 1992, Cornerstone Magazine debunked Warnke’s claims. The previous year, Cornerstone trashed the Satanist claims of Lauren Stratford (Laurel Rose Willson), the author of Satan’s Underground.

Wikipedia states:

As Stratford, Willson wrote three books, the most famous of which was Satan’s Underground, purporting to tell a true story of her upbringing as a baby breeder (for sacrifices) in a satanic cult. Willson had also claimed to have first-hand knowledge of high-profile cases of alleged Satanic ritual abuse (including the child abuse cases in Kern County, where she resided), but her claims were dismissed by investigators as unreliable and fabricated.

An investigation by Bob and Gretchen Passantino and Jon Trott in the Christian magazine Cornerstone discovered Stratford’s real name and family background, and that her stories of abuse were false. In interviews with Willson’s family and former associates, it was revealed that Willson had a long history of mental illness and making false allegations of abuse. She repeatedly threatened suicide and practiced self-mutilation. She attracted the attention and sympathy of evangelical author Johanna Michaelsen, one of the most influential promoters of the Satanic moral panic of the period. While living with Michaelsen, Willson claimed to have given birth to three children as a result of rape; two were allegedly killed in snuff films, and the third was supposedly sacrificed in her presence at a Satanic ritual. However, Cornerstone found no evidence that she had ever been pregnant or adopted a child.

She was also briefly involved in the McMartin preschool trial, claiming to have witnessed the abuses and to have been involved in an ongoing lesbian relationship with Virginia McMartin.

Johanna Michaelsen was another Evangelical who built quite a reputation on the testimony circuit.

Rational Wiki has this to say about Michaelsen, the author of The Beautiful Side of Evil and Like Lambs to the Slaughter:

Johanna Michaelsen is a fundie writer and self-proclaimed “authority on the occult” who promoted the Satanic Panic in the 1980s-90s.

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During the 1970s, Michaelsen claimed to have worked with a psychic surgeon, Pachita, who claimed to do lung transplants, remove impossible tumours and the like, despite considerable evidence that the psychic healer named “Pachita” was far less than claimed. After visiting a Christian centre in Switzerland, she would be convinced that her occult experiences were not from Jesus but Satan. This led to her conversion to Christian fundamentalist.

Michaelsen’s story of her “occult” experiences shot her into fundie superstardom and she became a beacon for other forms of wingnuttery, like the promoting of Lauren Stratford‘s fraudulent Satanic ritual abuse screeds. Michaelsen was one of the biggest defenders of Stratford and supposedly took Stratford into her home for months. She was also a champion of Mike Warnke, author of another fraudulent memoir of his life as a Satanist.

Michaelsen was also instrumental in telling Christian parents the evils of cartoons like He-Man and She-Ra, as well as Dungeons & Dragons. It even turns out that she was Hal Lindsey‘s sister-in-law, until he left Johanna’s sister for a Bible study student.

Although completely discredited, Michaelsen has her own ministry and rants about “demonic spirits,” the evils of the German rock band Rammstein and Halloween.

Despite not making major mentions of Warnke or Stratford in public, it still seems that after all these years Michaelsen believes that Satanic Ritual Abuse is real.

As an Evangelical Christian and pastor, I heard testimonies from believers who said they were mob hitmen, murderers, bank robbers, sex traffickers, perverts, Satanists, renowned sports stars, or atheists before Jesus magically saved them. Over time, I became quite cynical over such testimonies, and today I largely believe that these stories are fabrications or admixtures or truths and lies. Preachers, in particular, are notorious for massaging their testimonies. As David Foster Wallace said (and I paraphrase), don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.

In 2018, I wrote a post titled Testimony Time: The Blue Light Special at Somerset Baptist Church:

Older readers might remember shopping at the stores of discount retailer Kmart and seeing what was commonly called a “blue light special.” Blue light specials were sudden discounts offered to shoppers during their shopping experience at Kmart. A store employee would roll a cart with a police-like blue light attached to a pole near the aisle where the sudden discount was going to be offered. At the customer service desk, another employee would announce to shoppers, for example, “ATTENTION KMART SHOPPERS! There’s a blue light special going on right now on GE light bulbs in aisle three!” The employee in charge of the blue light would switch it on. and with its flashing/rotating light, the blue light would guide customers to their exciting just-for-them discount on light bulbs. Woo-hoo!

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For eleven years in the 1980s and 1990s, I pastored the Somerset Baptist Church in Mt. Perry, Ohio.

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The church also attracted more than a few people who had — in my Baptist eyes, anyway — screwy beliefs. One such person was the mother of a woman who was a member of the church (along with her husband and two children). I had visited this woman and her husband several times at their home, hoping that they would join their daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren in worshiping Jesus at the “fastest growing church in Perry County” — as the church’s sign said, anyway. I knew the woman had some charismatic tendencies, but I thought I could preach all that nonsense right out of her if she would only give me the opportunity to do so.

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As was our custom for many years, the church has a testimony time on Sunday evenings. This was time allotted for church members and visitors to stand up and share with everyone in attendance what Jesus had done for them over the past week. Sometimes, these brag-on-Jesus times turned into narcissistic, look-at-what-I-did-done-do for Jesus sessions. Often, testimony time was a time for congregants to lie about their relationship with God. One dear woman, who had been a smoker her entire adult life, stood up one Sunday and praised Jesus for delivering her from the filthy sin of smoking. We had a quite a praise-fest that night, thanking our Lord for delivering Sister R from her addiction. Years later, I learned that Sister R had, in fact, never stopped smoking, and that the only reason she said that she did was so she could have the appearance of a victorious Christian life like the rest of us. Oh, if she had only known that NONE of us, including her preacher, had victory over sin, she might not had felt compelled to lie. Sister R felt so guilty about not being as spirit-filled as the rest of us that she was willing to lie to her friends about her deliverance from smoking.

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On one particular Sunday night, the charismatic lady mentioned above decided to attend church with her daughter. She had visited several times before, and let it be known that she really liked my “old-fashioned” preaching. Prior to my sermon, I asked if anyone had a good word they wanted to put in for Jesus. Several people raised their hands, signifying that they wanted to brag a bit on their Lord and Savior. The charismatic woman excitedly raised her hand, anxious to let everyone know about a recent encounter she had with Jesus. When it came time for her to testify, she popped up  from her seat and said this (as recounted from thirty years ago):

I was asleep last night, and all of a sudden I awoke, feeling a “presence” in my bedroom.  As I stood to see this presence, my eyes saw a blinding blue light. Now, I knew that Satan could present himself as an angel of light, so I spoke to this light, saying, If that’s really you Jesus, please make yourself known to me. And right then and there I heard, Attention K-Mart Shoppers! (Okay, that last sentence was a bit of literary fiction, also known as preaching.)  And right then and there I heard a voice that said, it’s me, Jesus. Praise, the Lord. I knew then that the presence in my room was Jesus.

I KNEW it was Jesus, the charismatic woman said. This is the same argument Sybil used in her debate with Jump. She knows God is real because she has personal testimony to that effect, as do countless other Christians. In doing this, Sybil is committing the ad populum fallacy.

Wikipedia describes the ad populum fallacy (appeal to popularity) this way:

In argumentation theory, an argumentum ad populum (Latin for “appeal to the people”) is a fallacious argument that concludes that a proposition must be true because many or most people believe it, often concisely encapsulated as: “If many believe so, it is so”.

Just because a large number of people believe something doesn’t make it true. Sybil is a Christian. I assume she thinks Mormonism, Islam, and Buddhism are false religions, and their “gods” are no gods at all. Yet, 1.8 billion Muslims, 500 million Buddhists, and 17 million Mormons think she is wrong. Why should we believe Christianity is true based on the number of adherents, and not these other religions? In fact, upwards of 500 million people are atheists. Using Sybil’s illogical logic, doesn’t this prove that atheism is true?

As of today, Christians have provided no sufficient evidence for the existence of their God (s). However, we do have other explanations for Christianity’s existence, arguments that do not require appeals to myths, magic, or logical fallacies. (Please see Why Most Americans Are Christian.)

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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10 Comments

  1. Avatar
    BJW

    This is why I don’t publicly espouse much of a religious faith, except universalism.* Because what I have felt is no basis to expect others to feel the same way. I’ve told my sons I care about their good actions. I just hope their philosophies continue to evolve over their lives. Now, I’m not against optimism and hope, although I know some people put their faith in the wrong thing. But how can we live in reality if we refuse to see what is plain to rational people?**

    *I can’t prove the existence of God. I’ve had some interesting experiences but that doesn’t lead me to believe in a Christian god. Ergo, I have zero desire to force others to have my beliefs. I do believe in a spirit of love and that is the most important thing for me to show others, not whether there is or is not a deity. Reading Bruce’s blogs helped me to see that my beliefs were merely filtering through Christianity, and I don’t need Christianity for them.

    **I wish I knew what the hell we as Americans are going to do with Q nuts. Some of them have had their faith shaken but many more are coming up with more crazy conspiracies. I hope no one I care about ever believes in that, as I see no way to change their minds. I guess I would try to be a friend and care about them while gentrly pushing against the crazy shit. I do have a close family member who believes in Trump, and I have zero interest in talking about it. sigh

  2. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    I hated testimony sharing time. As kids, we were taught in Sunday school that we needed to have a testimony prepared to be able to share at any given time with nonbelievers. You never knew when Jesus was going to send a new mark, so you had better be ready. Having been raised in church, attending a fundamentalist Christian school, and not having freedom to roam the neighborhood and do anything, I lacked a convincing story. At least so.e of my friends at church attended public school where there were drugs and cheerleaders in mini skirts. I realized I had nothing to share, but of course I had to make up internal battles about this or that. I never once got the courage to share my testimony with anyone outside church. Not once.

    A lot of people believe a lot of untrue things, but that doesn’t make those things true.

  3. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    Setting aside the basic rules of evangelical belief, I am both an atheist and a lover of much ol’ gospel music, paricularly if done by a southern gospel group or an Aretha Franklin… What a wonder she was! Christianity itself, the very foundational bedrock of original sin and atonement, the whole lot of it harmed me as a child, a young person, an adult. I rejoice in every dawn I wake to observe as a None, as an old fella skeptic. Still, the trappings of Canadian culture, Western culture really, and the pervasive presence of the Christian religion offered me wonderful human experiences of emotional gushing and being allowed as a young man growing up in patriarchy, to feeeel the music of the old time religion and to cry my heart out as a sinning 9 year old. I was able to watch grown men with families, huge farmer arms and hands the size of dinner plates, fall to their knees and cry among their peers. The culture of belief encouraged us to be this kind of ‘us’ and it set us apart, bonded us, made us tithe and sing in the choir! We shared big big feelings and the ideas, even the wild walking on water and kickstarting Lazarus and all of it fit in so well with the gush, the whoopla of belief. By Jesus I’ll give you 20.00 bucks pastor so you can send a missionary to Ghana and save Africa so they can be as happy as we are on these pews. Even the pathetic manipulations of us as kids at camp, the daily devotions and studying toward being mature in the Lord, the end of camp faggot services where I rose among the others and admitted through my tears what a wretched lost boy I was and how I needed Christ to be more real, more present. Terrible confessions, abusive even…. but I think back and am thankful that our culture allowed a way, some viable way for a youngster to openly feel and be. I wonder if perhaps it was partly those whizz-bang faith experiences, Just As I Am’s, that helped me to one day see behind the curtain and then find an exit from the ‘culture of belief’.
    What a wonderful thing it is, to know in a moment, even a passing moment, that one is fully and completely self, true as can be.

  4. Avatar
    Matilda

    I wrote a pro-reason, where-is-the-evidence? comment on an atheist blog and a fundy replied he knew god was real cos he’d ‘walked closely with him for 40yrs.’ I replied I’d done same, but for 50yrs if we were being competitive. He danced around me some more trying to prove he was right and I was wrong. He said oh,he didn’t actually go to church any more, churches are too corrupt. I came back with that sounds like Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood on how to de-rail a x-tian. Namely get him to nit-pick on doctrine so he moves further and further away from his fellow-believers and becomes a church of one person cos no one else has his purity of doctrine. Got me a lot of ‘likes’ and appreciative comments that day!

  5. Avatar
    Matilda

    I agree so much, Obstacle Chick. There was a book called ‘From Witchcraft to Christ’ in the 1970s, IIRC. It was huge in fundy circles in the UK. Doreen Irvine told of conversion from satanism, witchcraft and all the naughty perverted sex and drugs this involved. We went to hear her speak. Though fundy, I had dissonances way back then. I was underwhelmed when she said god had given her a vision that she was now a ‘chaste virgin in his sight.’ And I thought, that’s clever, she’s telling us puritannical, purity-culture warriors what she wants us to hear….or she’d soon lose her audience and the money she was raking in, if she stood in front of us and we were all privately thinking ‘You whore of Babylon.’ Kind of innoculated me against ‘celebrity’ testimonies from then on.

  6. Avatar
    mary

    i remember hearing these stories when i was a kid. some of them downright scared me. mike warnke suckered many of us out of our money under the guise of the money going to help victims of satan worship. it’s sad he thought he had to do this as he actually was a pretty good stand up comedian.. i cringe when i think about those crazy testimonies way back then. thanks for exposing this so all can see what a fraud it really is.

  7. Avatar
    BJW

    OC, I once gave a testimony that was too honest. After talking about my conversion I proceeded to admit I had struggled. It was in a small home meeting and boy, did I put a damper on things. But I never fit in anyway, probably due to my undiagnosed then autism.

  8. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    Went to Catholic schools first through twelfth grades. There was a Catholic retreat place run by some monks, that organized and ran group retreats in a beautiful setting in the Northern California wine country, and I went to a retreat with my class (from an all-girls high school) along with the same year class of our all-boys counterpart school, probably in my eleventh year. (These things are always much more interesting when you mix a bunch of teenagers with raging hormones who might be interested in pairing up, and contrive to cheat them of such activity.)

    I, whose faith was failing even then, actually got a big high out of the experience. I felt amazingly connected with God and my fellow humans. Not to be cynical or anything, but running us on only a few hours of sleep and orchestrating activities in certain ways undoubtedly enhanced the high.

    At the end of it, we (the gals at least) were all given interesting, modern-art cross pendant necklaces, not the crucifixes one normally associates with Catholicism. Don’t remember what the guys got, maybe matching money clips. That pendant encapsulated for me the entire experience. Still riding high even after the long bus ride home, I proudly showed mine to my mother. Her immediate comment was, “Oh, I like that, I’m going to borrow it from you.” It wasn’t a request.

    Now, this was the mid 1970s. I had never seen something like this, you couldn’t get on the internet and find something similar from China for twelve bucks, and I was never allowed to go out and shop for myself anyhow. I was upset, and said something about how it had special meaning, but that was it. Instant deflation. The high was gone. Within 24 hours I concluded that the entire weekend had been a waste. One thoughtless parental engagement, and another nail had been pounded in the coffin of my belief.

  9. Avatar
    DoctorDJ

    Hyper-christian apologist William Lane Craig was unabashedly honest when he admitted: “The way in which I know Christianity is true is first and foremost on the witness of the holy spirit in my heart. This gives me a self-authenticating means of knowing that Christianity is true, apart from the evidence.”

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