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Dear Frank, Is Bruce Backslidden or Was He Never Saved To Begin With?

Rick, 1996, Our Father’s House, West Unity, Ohio

Several years ago, I received a Facebook notification about approving something Rick, a friend of mine, wanted to post to my wall. Rick is a long-time friend, former parishioner, and frequent reader of this blog. What’s interesting about his request is that he meant his message to be a private one sent to a friend of his by the name of Frank. The reason I got the notification is that he inadvertently tagged me. Here’s the message Rick sent to Frank — also a man I have known for many years.message to frank

Don’t be put off by Rick’s poor language skills. Several years ago, Rick had a major stroke. This affected his ability to write sentences. Best I can tell, the stroke has not affected his ability to study and read the Bible, nor has it affected his ability to read religious materials.

I met Rick in the late 1990s. At the time, I was pastoring Somerset Baptist Church in Mt. Perry, Ohio. Rick, a Calvinist, was looking for a Calvinistic church to attend and someone recommended that he check out Somerset Baptist. Rick joined the church, happy in knowing that he had found a man who was conversant in the doctrines of grace (the five points of Calvinism). For the next five years, I would drive two times a week — thirty miles round trip — to New Lexington to pick Rick up for church.

rick and frank (2)
Frank and Rick, 1993, Somerset Baptist Church, Sunday Dinner

One Sunday night, while on our way to the church, Rick was waxing eloquently about double predestination and whether children who die in infancy and developmentally disabled people are automatically a part of the elect — those whom God, from before the foundation of the world, has chosen to save. I told Rick, with a slight irritation in my voice, that Calvinistic Baptist great Charles Spurgeon believed such people were numbered among the elect. Rick, not the sharpest tool in the shed when it came to social cues, continued to defend God having the absolute right to eternally torture anyone, including infants and developmentally disabled people, in the Lake of Fire. I could feel anger welling. I thought to myself, has Rick forgotten that I have a developmentally disabled two-year-old daughter with Down syndrome? Doesn’t he care how hurtful his words are? I slammed on the brakes and told Rick to get out of the car. He could walk to church, I told him. I quickly cooled down, telling him, I didn’t want to hear another word from him about whether infants and developmentally disabled people are elect. Rick complied, moving on to other hot button Calvinistic issues.

Let me share another Rick memory, one that I think readers will find funny. Rick worked third shift at a residential home for the developmentally disabled — Mount Aloysius. Unsurprisingly, Rick was quite tired by the time he arrived for Sunday morning church. Try as he might to stay awake, Rick would often fall asleep. Rick snored, so the entire congregation knew when Rick was sleeping. Sunday after Sunday I watched Rick fight sleep, his head bobbing back and forth during my hour-long sermons. One Sunday, Rick bobbed his head back and then forward just as he did Sunday after Sunday. This time, however, Rick’s head traveled forward farther than he intended, smacking the pew in front of him. I stopped preaching and went to Rick to make sure he was okay. Fortunately, the only thing harmed was his pride. After the service, I told Rick that perhaps he should skip the Sunday morning service when he worked the night before. That way he could be rested and mentally fresh for the Sunday evening service. By the way, this was the only time in twenty-five years of pastoring churches that I told someone, please don’t come to church.

I haven’t been Rick’s pastor for over twenty-seven years, and the last time I saw him was in 1996 when he and Frank drove to West Unity, Ohio to attend services at a new church I had planted. Since then, I have traded a few emails with Rick, but nothing of substance.

rick and bruce
Rick, Bruce, Greg, and boy, 1993 , Somerset Baptist Church, Sunday Dinner

Rick’s message is a reminder to me that people still talk about my deconversion. People who knew me well — as Rick and Frank once did — are still trying to square the pastor they once knew with the atheist named Bruce Gerencser. In Rick’s case, he wonders if am just backslidden, or is it possible that I never was saved. I am sure Rick prefers the backslidden explanation. I am sure trying to wrap his mind around the possibility of me never being saved is too much for him to emotionally and intellectually handle. If I was never saved, this means that Rick was taught for five years by an unsaved pastor, a man he heard expositionally preach hundreds of times; preaching that he believed was empowered by the Holy Spirit. I am sure he remembers the countless hours we spent after church talking theology. I am sure he remembers my love, kindness, and compassion, and my willingness to, week after week, drive to New Lexington and pick him up so he could attend church. I am sure he asks himself, how is it possible that the Bruce I knew was never a true Christian.

The easy out for Rick is for him to embrace Arminianism with its belief that saved people can and do fall from grace. Doing so would mean that I once was saved, but now I am not. Of course, Rick’s Calvinism keeps him from believing I have lost my salvation, so he is forced to psychologically torture himself with thoughts about whether I am backslidden or was never a Christian to start with.

I wish Rick nothing but the best. I hope he will, in time, come to terms with my current godless state. I chose to be exactly where I am today. Or did I? Perhaps all of this has been decreed by God, and the person ultimately responsible for my lost condition is the divine puppet master, John Calvin’s God.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 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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  1. Avatar
    Byron Smith

    In my personal experience, it seems to me that your religious friends probably aren’t as concerned about you personally or your spiritual condition, Bruce, as they are about their own spiritual condition and how, since they surely have the Holy Spirit, that they could not detect a deceiver / deceived one (you), why God would have hidden that from them, or what dark spiritual sin such as a mixture of pride or unbelief or what have you concocted this current plan in your brain of outright rebellion against God if you are backslidden and not just plain ole lost. My merry band of elitist self-loathing “Calvinites” did not believe in being backslidden: usually spiritual rebellion to that extent meant you were most likely lost to begin with, and my pastor preached against the idea of being backslidden thanks to the Holy Spirit, but also that God’s punishment on the elect who pursue rebellion against the Lord fell even more strictly than on the “backsliding” of the OT. Supposedly this was true, I suppose, though I didn’t see any real evidence of it, and the easier explanation that I worked out for myself was to basically trust no one as being saved and elect, and to not be surprised when God “revealed” infidels and such and pruned them out of the church. That line of thinking was great, until with me being the fine introvert that I am, I began applying this introspective speculation upon myself with surgical precision. Then again, maybe that’s what karma would be if I could have brought myself to believe in it back then. My deconversion has been accomplished by burning lots of bridges, needlessly offending many people, and in general reaping what I sowed, so I don’t earn a lot of sympathy. Still, the logical dictates of double predestination and eternal conscious torment in hell have driven me away from any orthodox form of the faith and also I have fled from religion pretty much in general. I also learned that some religious people tend to resemble their unloving, hateful deity and make no further attempts to “rescue” me once I’m considered “beyond redemption” (on the flip side, some atheists can act just like religious fundamentalists, I realized, when I became guilty of doing exactly that, thinking I was fighting fire with fire I guess).

    BTW, isn’t Rick, for all his faults, most likely correct in his logical approach to double predestination? I had the same conversation with my mom that Rick had with you, though mine was shorter, more pleasant, and probably accomplished less. My mom was older, wiser, and had empathy. I was young, foolish, not emotionally invested in my argument, and didn’t care about any non-elect because I knew were I was supposedly going. To hell with the rest of the world; though I do confess it did bother me a little and I retreated from it mentally. Double predestination a la Rick’s style made more sense to me than Spurgeons’ “only the elect die as infants” and such (my paraphrase), especially in light of Psalm 137:9. But Spurgeon was probably more of a humanist than a logician in that context.

    I had too many logical problems with Arminianism once I left it and embraced Calvinism to ever return to it. If God is omniscient, then temporary salvation is nothing more than a sham in the foreknowledge of God, who knowing your eventual fate chose to create you anyway, supposedly out of love that God logically foreknew would be eternally frustrated. Calvinism has some horrible problems as well, especially concerning the origin of evil and rescuing God from moral blame without appealing to the mystical unknowns of the spiritual reality of God’s hidden decrees and purposes.

    What I love about your blog posts is your honesty and desire to ask provocative questions: you are still pastoring and teaching to a great extent.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Double predestination is logically consistent and best fits the Calvinistic scheme. My humanity always got in the way, so while I intellectually understood why double predestination had to be true if Calvinism is true, I hated how the doctrine sounded and how it made God look. The same could be said for the doctrine of limited atonement.

      I was accused once of not being a real Calvinist because I preached on the love of God too much. (This was after I preached a sermon on John 3:16)

      I always preferred Calvinistic authors such as JC Ryle, Andrew Fuller, and Charles Spurgeon to the Puritans. The former seemed to have a love for people, whereas the latter seemed to have a love for doctrine. In the end, it was people who mattered the most to me.

  2. Avatar

    I love ‘what if’ thought exercises. What if you, Bruce, with your excellent mind and too large heart, were led by Deity to the next step? What if all the dogma you escaped is nothing more than a test of all humans – will you accept the scary freedom of good without god or will you choose the safety of human created purity tests to ensure your faith is the correct flavor?

    When you were a Christian you, Bruce, were the best Christian you could be. Now your journey requires freedom from the dogma I find you still practice the principles of Christianity (caring for others) even though you no longer follow any religion.

    As I see it, there are some people who need to live in the goldfish bowl because it’s safe if boring. There are others, like myself, who’ve outgrown the aquarium and choose to swim in the deep sea. It’s a bit scary sometimes but the freedom is worth it.

    Seems to me you are who you are – a spiffy person. Is there a reason for torturing yourself as to why?

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      The why’s of life have always plagued me. ? Just being in the moment is hard for me. My primary care doctor told me years ago that I have a mind that never seems to shut off. This is why it often takes me hours to fall asleep, especially in my younger years. I accept that this is how I am, but I do try to be more “in the moment.”

  3. Avatar

    Thanks for a very interesting and emotional post. For me this is a very poniant reminder that times change. I found the photo at the end very emotional. 3 people – one now very different. It makes me take stock of my own circumstances.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      That’s how I feel too. Rick, as I mentioned in the post, had a major stroke and now lives with his sister in North Carolina. Greg died of cancer two years ago. I conducted his funeral. And then there is Bruce with all of his health problems. The young blond-haired boy is married and lives in Texas.

      Time stops for no one. Six months after this picture was taken, we moved to Texas to begin my ill-fated pastorate at Community Baptist Church. In retrospect, I should have stayed in Ohio, but then others things in my life might not have happened. The would of-could of-should of game is a fool’s folly. Life is what it is. All we can do is take each day as it comes and make the most of it.

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    Justine Valinotti

    Bruce, you may have come to a different conclusion about the existence of a deity, and about Christian theology, from the ones you once held. But that does not change the substance of your mind and heart, which directed your actions then, as it does now.

    You may see some things differently, but you are really still the same person. The latter is what people like Rick have difficulty in accepting.

  5. Avatar
    Lara Snider

    I find people worrying about someone else’s eternal salvation/sex life/orientation need to look at what they are doing in their own lives, and what they need to work on, before worrying about anyone else’s salvation.

    I give you tons of being a decent human being points for not shoving him out while you were driving 40 miles an hour. The great (albeit not well paid) joy of my life has been working with people who had different labels, certainly including Down’s Syndrome as a label. I hope people who get these delightful, funny and sweet individuals gifted to them, are so busy loving them and having the joy that having someone in your life who have intellectual and or developmental disabilities brings. I am happy for the delight in your family with your daughter. It’s not always easy, but there is much joy and laughter.

  6. Avatar

    “I chose to be exactly where I am today. Or did I? Perhaps all of this has been decreed by God, and the person ultimately responsible for my lost condition is the divine puppet master, John Calvin’s God.”

    Sometimes in moments when I’m feeling low, I think things like this. I wonder if my self-hate is so great that I’ve condemned myself to hell by rejecting my former God and Christ as my Saviour. I wonder if it was a way to punish myself for sins or what not. That I believe I do deserve hell and therefore chose it as my fate, when I could have had heaven.

    Fortunately it usually doesn’t last that long, but it is this slightly nagging doubt. I’ve been a believer for so long and am only an atheist for about 2 or 3 years. It is still new and fresh and my family (parents and brother) don’t know that I’ve stopped believing. I can’t tell them and I won’t but it does make me feel alone. And sometimes it makes me doubt. I wonder if they’ll be in heaven together and I’ll be in hell alone and I did it all myself.

    Most of the time my lack of religion makes me feel free and lighter – much lighter than my faith did – but sometimes it makes me afraid. The fear of hell, the devil and of God’s punishment doesn’t leave all that quickly nor easily.

    • Avatar

      Hi Melody,

      I felt the same way after my deconversion: was afraid that I made the wrong choice and the ever popping question of ‘what if I’m wrong?’. Thankfully, knowledge has a way of helping with fear. I read so much, watched a lot of videos that helped realize that hell is not real. Time also helps too.

      Someone asked me on Saturday what I would tell God if I met him, I replied with ‘I searched him but didn’t find him’. It’s that simple. I wouldnt swap the leave that comes with following evidence and my conviction for an unconfirmed heaven.

      In dealing with loneliness, Twitter helped a lot. I got to interact and meet fellow atheists. Some have become good friends. It’s also how I got to know this site.

      I wish you the best.

      • Avatar

        Thanks! Yes, it’s not as often anymore as in the past and I’m getting more used to the “new normal.” It’s just ingrained sometimes, the fear. It’s strange when people around you still do believe: most of the time I think: how can they believe it? How could I have believed it for so long? It’s just the same as any other religion that you don’t believe: tales of old with loads of magic in them. But sometimes it is as if I’m the one who might be wrong; the one who doesn’t see it (anymore).

        I like hanging out at atheist blogs because that does help with the loneliness but it won’t solve that I don’t think it’s possible to share my lack of faith with my family. I don’t know how they would take it and I’m not ready to find out. I’m protecting myself from their potential rage and feelings of betrayal and I’m protecting them from believing that I will end up in hell for all eternity – which they will believe.

        Wishing you the best too.

      • Avatar
        MJ Lisbeth

        A sadistic God wasn’t enough for Calvinists. So they created one that’s doubly sadistic.

        Saved? Unsaved ? Never saved? You know what you really are, Bruce? An old-school blue-collar Italian American from my old neighborhood in Brooklyn. You know, the kind who warn, “Don’t say nothin’ ’bout my family!”

        My family includes at least a few, my father among them. That is one of his better qualities: He’ll criticize me in all sorts of ways and holds a few political views that are frankly abhorrent. But he won’t let anybody talk shit about trans people because, you know, his daughter is one!

  7. Avatar
    Yulya Sevelova

    Visiting your blog again this morning. I hope you are doing better, especially now that winter has arrived. In reading about Rick and his attitude, it seems like most Calvinists feel it’s alright to hate people. Many Pentacostals are on board with this outlook also. It’s just too bad. Like that Steven Anderson guy, and it comes through, in spite of efforts to mask it. How else can one explain the complaint that you ” preached about love too much”. The Puritans were murderous, coveting racists and slavers. We see the results of this today, in all this anger over race and history- as well as societal ills. These fanatic types deny the obvious, naturally. I’m glad for you, Bruce, that you never bought into such immoral thinking. Trump was recently exposed for calling his fananical allies and their beliefs as ‘ bullshit’. The only thing besides the stimulus checks sent out, that he did right in four years, lol!!

  8. Avatar

    “Learn a lot about backside.” I understand and have compassion for your friend Rick who had a stroke, so am not mocking him here. I also couldn’t help thinking about the current SBC sex scandal as reported by the Houston Chronicle and the Washington Post. The whole world is learning a lot about evangelical men and their backsides.

  9. Avatar

    I once told my Calvinist pastor that the Calvinist “never saved in the first place” and the the Arminian “lost their salvation” positions amounted to the same doctrine. That earned me a lecture, but I still don’t see the difference. Neither position can really accept the concept of backsliding. If God is as sovereign as the Calvinist insists, it is God who is “backsliding” the Christian and since God cannot sin, well…… The Arminian position that permits a Christian to exercise enough free will to commit a sin bad enough to revoke a their eternal salvation more logically implies the same thing (how can you lose eternal salvation?). But my-oh-my will the two camps expend a lot of energy denouncing each other as mistaken at best, more likely heretics or false teachers. (And there are so many mingling combinations of the doctrines; 5-pointers, 4-pointers,3-pointers,….)

    I used to envy (sinful, I know) others at my church who knew without a doubt they were elect (Calvinist) and/or saved (to include the non-Calvinists), but the more I examine the doctrines it seems that the only way to be sure was to die and find out where you wind up. God seems willing to allow even a Calvinist to mistakenly believe they are elect whereas the Arminian might lose it anytime right up to the end. Even the “once-saved-always-saved but I’m not a Calvinist or Arminian” group often questions whether or not they “really meant it” when they offered up that sinner’s prayer. If they were just caught up in the emotion of the moment, they might be fooling themselves as well, so they pray the prayer over and over.

    I don’t know how any Christian can have absolute assurance of their salvation.

  10. Avatar

    Here’s something I am wondering. I grew up in Southern Baptist church and fundamentalist Christian school whose curriculum cane from IFB institutions (Bob Jones University and Pensacola Christian College). We were taught that Hod was “all good, all the time”. I am not sure that all Christian sects believe something like that. Do Calvinists believe that God is always good? If so, how is predestination of some people to have been created specifically to be tortured in hell a sign of being all good? “God’s ways are above our understanding” isn’t going to satisfy me here. What could possibly be an adequate explanation for that?

    • Avatar

      That’s why many non-Calvinists will declare that God, not being bound by time, knew who would and who would not accept Christ and chose/elected according to his foreknowledge. That get’s God off the hook for sending the non-elect hell. They choose to go there, except maybe the ones who never heard the Gospel, but God also knows which them would have responded (apparently none of them). Of course the Calvinist rejects that and is stuck with exactly what you stated, followed up with some sort of “God sets the standard. He says he’s good, so he is.”

      None of that addresses the other “good” things God did/does (flooding the world, ordering genocide, killing his own people because their king sins, miscarriages, birth defects, general suffering, eternal torture instead of rehabilitation…..). But, as God told Job, “I’m God and your not!” – The JW paraphrase version.

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Bruce Gerencser