Evangelicalism

Walking the Aisle — A Few Thoughts on Altar Calls

altar call first baptist church hammond

Altar Call, First Baptist Church, Hammond, Indiana

Every head bowed, every eye closed.

Is God is speaking to you right now?

What is it God wants you to do?

Do you need to be saved? Step out from where you are and come kneel at the altar. Cry out to God. He will save you. Don’t delay.  Behold, NOW is the accepted time and NOW is the day of salvation.

Do you need to get right with God? Don’t delay. Don’t wait to another day. Step out from where you are and come kneel at an old-fashioned altar and do business with God.

Whatever it is God wants you to do, do it today.

As we sing the first verse of Just As I Am, you come. Don’t wait. You don’t have the promise of tomorrow.

Come…

Over the course of 25 years in the ministry, I gave countless public invitations like the one above. The emphasis might have differed from week to week, but the focus was always on NOW, doing what God wants you to do NOW.

Sometimes I would tell a poignant illustration that I hoped would drive home the importance of making a decision. My philosophy was clear:

  • There is a God
  • The Bible is truth
  • God hates sin
  • Salvation is through the merit and work of Jesus Christ
  • There is a hell to shun and a heaven to gain
  • No one has the promise of tomorrow
  • Death is certain
  • Decisions affecting our eternal destiny should never be put off

The invitation was the point in the service where I (God) brought everything together. It was the climax, the point where God showed his mighty power by saving sinners and calling backsliders back to the faith.

Thousands of people responded to altar calls given by me. I was pretty good at it. I knew what to say and how to say it. I could read the emotions of those under the sound of my voice, and with a few well-placed words, get them to walk the aisle. What I called conviction back then is what I now call guilt. The Bible is a world-class book for making people feel guilty. When people feel guilty (under conviction) they are ripe for manipulation.

In one church I pastored for 11 years, we had over 600 public professions of faith. We baptized hundreds of people. Rare was the Sunday when no one came forward during the invitation. (For many years I gave invitations every time we had a service.)

On those rare weeks when no one stepped out for Jesus, I was often quite depressed. I thought, why didn’t anyone come forward? Maybe my sermon was poorly constructed or perhaps God was punishing me because of some unconfessed sin in my life? (In other words God might send someone to hell to get my attention.)

The number of people responding to the invitation, like the number of people attending the church, is a measure that pastors use to judge themselves successes or failures. Church members judge the success or failure of their pastor by whether God is using his preaching to save people and reclaim backsliders. They also judge him based on the numeric growth of the church. In many ways the church is no different from the corporate world, where corporations are judged a success or a failure based on economic output (stock price, revenue increase, increased productivity, bottom line profit).

Every church I ever pastored grew numerically. I was good for business. I knew I had good preaching skills. I knew I had “people” skills and that I was effective in reaching people with the gospel. I expected results. I expected God to work. I expected people to walk the aisle and do business with God. My modality in the church was similar to the manner in which I conducted myself in the business world. Over the years, I managed restaurants for Arthur Teachers, Long John Silvers, and Charley’s Steakery (along with a number of other management level jobs). As a general manager, I was driven to succeed. Success was measured by net profit (a secular version of souls saved and church attendance growth).

Toward the latter third of my time in the ministry, I came to see that the altar call was a tool used by pastors to manipulate emotions and give the illusion that God’s power was on them and that God was using them. I have no doubt that many pastors believe their own hype, I know I did. I came to see myself as a man used greatly by God. The proof was in the numbers.

When I stopped giving altar calls many people responded negatively and a few people even left the church. In their minds, an old-fashioned, bible-believing church has altar calls. People should have an opportunity to respond to the sermon. People should have an opportunity to respond to the Holy Ghost’s leading. One former friend , a pastor, told me that he would never attend a church that didn’t give an altar call. Never mind that there is not one instance of an altar call in the Bible. Never mind that the history of the altar call can be traced back to Pelagian Charles Finney. In his mind, a good church was a church that gave altar calls. A church without altar calls was a liberal church that didn’t love souls.

billy graham 1951

Billy Graham, 1951, when he was still Associated with the Sword of the Lord

In the 1960s, evangelists such as Billy Graham popularized the altar call and brought it to the TV screen. Many of us remember seeing a Billy Graham Crusade on network TV. Who can forget the altar call, hundreds of people pouring out of the aisles making their way down to the front. What most people did not know is that MANY of the people responding to the invitation were actually Christian altar workers. They helped “prime the pump” with their movement forward, encouraging others to do the same. If you take the first step God will help you take the rest….

When we are part of a group, there is pressure to conform to the group standard. This dynamic is quite evident in church. Individuality is discouraged. Dissent is frowned upon. I see the same problem in the secular world. Most human beings don’t want to stand out from the crowd so they tend to embrace whatever the group standard is.

Personally, I try to fight such conformity. I will gladly sing the National Anthem and recite most of the Pledge of Allegiance, but I’ll be damned if I will bow my head and take off my hat in an act of worship as some knucklehead prays for God to bless the race car drivers or a singer sings God bless America during the 7th inning stretch at a baseball game. That said, I have no doubt I succumb to the group standard more than I care to admit.

Group conformity is not necessarily bad, but we must be careful we do not surrender our ability to reason and think for ourselves. The pressure to conform to a group standard in church often sucks the life, vitality, and joy from a person’s life. When the pastor gives an invitation and scores of people respond, the pressure to do likewise is very strong. Being right with God=walking the aisle. Standing in the pew and not walking the aisle=Not right with God.

curtis hutson

Curtis Hutson

Many years ago I attended a Sword of the Lord Conference in the Canton, Ohio area. Curtis Hutson was one of the main speakers. He preached on the family, on fatherhood. At the close of his sermon he gave an altar call that basically said “if you want to be a better father, you need to come to the altar and profess your willingness to do so” Hundreds and hundreds of men responded. I didn’t. I thought Hutson was being quite manipulative, so I refused to walk the aisle. Of course, I stood out like a sore thumb. People thought, I am sure, Either that guy thinks he is a better Christian than the rest of us or he refuses to get right with God. Who doesn’t want to be a better father? Never mind that one prayer at an altar does not a good father make.

Pastors well-schooled in their craft and blessed with the ability to effectively communicate, can, if they are not careful, manipulate people. The altar call is just one of many tools that can be used for manipulation. What pastors call God is actually the pastor and his well-honed communication skills manipulating those listening to the sermon.

A public church service can be a dangerous place. Parents, with nary a thought, allow their children to be influenced by men expert in mental and emotional manipulation. Even adults, especially those who have “sin” problems in their lives, are susceptible to manipulation. Adults enter the church building burdened with the cares of life, and the pastor, with his well-chosen words, convinces them to respond to an altar call. Jesus is the answer! Hooked on drugs or booze? Jesus will set you free. Family a mess, headed for divorce court? Jesus will make things right. Come, don’t delay. And people, with lives burdened down by problems and adversity, rush to the altar thinking Jesus will fix everything for them. He doesn’t, and they are worse off than they were before. Why are they worse off? Because they will likely think or be told by the pastor that the lack of change is their fault. They didn’t pray hard enough, or perhaps they had some secret sin they are holding on to. God never gets the blame for failing to do what the pastor said he would do. It is ALWAYS the sinners fault, not God’s.

Let me ask you a question. Every head bowed, every eye closed.

Are you saved? Do you remember a definite time and place in your life where you repented of your sins and accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?

If not, raise your hand. No one is looking. This is just between you and God. Raise your hand, I want to pray for you.

I see that hand. And that one. Thank you Ma’am. Thank you Sir.

Lord you see the hands that were raised. Save them Lord. In Jesus name, amen.

In a moment we are going to sing Just as I Am.

If you raised your hand, I want you to step out from your pew and come to the front. Someone will meet you and will share with you what the Bible says about being saved.

Don’t delay.

That’s right, keep coming.

Are there others?

Even if you didn’t raise your hand, is there something you need to confess to God?

Come.

Do it now.

Don’t wait.

Dinner will wait.

Your soul is worth more than all the money in the world.

We are going to sing the last verse one more time. That’s it. Don’t neglect so great a salvation.

God doesn’t promise to always strive with you. One day his Spirit may no longer call and it will be too late for you…

Come…

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Colton Burpo of Heaven is for Real Fame Says His Story is True!

burpo family christmas

And THANK YOU for helping us make a mountain of cash!

The Charismatic and Evangelical Christian world is in an uproar over Alex Malarkey’s denunciation and retraction of his story detailed in the best-selling The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven. Another book, detailing a young boy’s trip to heaven and back, came out about the same time as The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven. Heaven is for Real, details the story of Colton Burpo. You can read my review of the book here.

In a press release on the Crossroads Wesleyan Church website, Colton assures people that his story is true:

Dear Friends

I know there has been a lot of talk about the truth of other Heaven stories in the past few days. I just wanted to take a second and let everyone know that I stand by my story found in my book Heaven is for Real.  I still remember my experience in Heaven.  I want to keep telling people about my experience because it has given hope to so many people.

People may have their doubts about my story, but the thing is, I wasn’t coaxed into doing this.  I wanted to tell people about my experience.  In fact, I started sharing my story with my friends and people in our town way before there was a book called Heaven is for Real.

I hope that my story continues to point people to Jesus.

He really, really loves you.

Colton Burpo

Colton wants everyone to know that he stands by his story and that he wasn’t coaxed into telling his story. Of course, there is no empirical evidence to prove that Colton’s story is true. We are just going to have to take his word for it.

Let me give you several reasons why Colton or his preacher father will never disavow the story.

Well, really only ONE reason. The money.

all about the money

Money from book sales (over 10 million copies sold)

Money from the book sequel, Heaven Changes Everything

Money from conferences

Money from speaking engagements

Money from the movie that was made from the book. (the movie grossed 101 million dollars)

Money from DVD, digital download,  and Blu-ray sales

Money from Heaven is for Real curriculum

Money from the sale of Jesus Junk® (tee shirts, coffee mugs, tumblers, bracelet, greeting cards, music) (link no longer active)

Money from the Red Carpet Special. (link no longer active) For $43.00 and a suspension of rational thought, you’ll receive:

  • The Official Movie Edition of Heaven is for Real (Signed by the Burpo Family)
  • Heaven is for Real for Kids (Signed by the Burpo Family)
  • Heaven Changes Everything (Signed by the Burpo Family)
  • Prince of Peace note card and bookmark
  • Heaven is for Real Bracelet

BTW, I am planning to write a book titled An Atheist Goes to Heaven. It will detail the true story — true because I say it is — of an atheist who dies, goes to heaven, sees Jesus, comes back to earth, and still doesn’t believe. Ought to be a bestseller, don’t you think? I could follow it up with another book, I met Christopher Hitchens in Heaven and He HATES it There!

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But Our Church is DIFFERENT!

ice cream flavors

I pastored my last church in 2003. Between July of 2002 and November of 2008, my wife and I, along with our children, personally visited the churches that are listed below.  These are the church names we could remember. There are others we have either forgotten or vaguely remember, so we didn’t put them on the list. Churches in bold we attended more than once. All told, from 2002-2008 we visited about 125 churches. If I added every church I have ever attended or preached in my lifetime the count would be over 200.

When Christians tell me THEIR church is different I often tell them that I have been to THEIR church. Not literally of course, but one church or another that I have visited over the past 30+ years is just like theirs. Churches are not as unique as they would like to think they are. Polly and I concluded that the name over the door may be different, but after a while, they all look and sound the same. The  congregation size, building, music, and liturgy might be different, but this is nothing more than the man behind the counter at the ice cream shop asking you, regular cone, waffle cone, or bowl.

If the church has a website, I linked to it. A handful of these churches are no longer open.

Churches We Visited 2002-2008Location
Our Father’s HouseWest Unity, Ohio
First Brethren ChurchBryan, Ohio
First Baptist ChurchBryan, Ohio
Grace Community ChurchBryan, Ohio
Lick Creek Church of the BrethrenBryan,Ohio
First Church of ChristBryan, Ohio
Eastland Baptist ChurchBryan, Ohio
Bryan Alliance ChurchBryan, Ohio
Union Chapel Church of GodBryan, Ohio
Celebrate Life Christian FellowshipBryan, Ohio
Faith United Methodist ChurchBryan, Ohio
Trinity Episcopal ChurchBryan, Ohio
Archbold Evangelical Church Archbold, Ohio
Sherwood Baptist ChurchSherwood, Ohio
Ney Church of GodNey, Ohio
Ney United Methodist ChurchNey, Ohio
Sonrise Community ChurchNey, Ohio
Farmer United Methodist ChurchFarmer, Ohio
Lost Creek Emmanuel Missionary ChurchFarmer, Ohio
Hicksville Church of the NazareneHicksville, Ohio
Community Christian CenterHicksville, Ohio
Grace Bible ChurchButler, Indiana
St John’s Lutheran ChurchDefiance, Ohio
Harvest Life FellowshipDefiance, Ohio
Community Christian CenterDefiance, Ohio
Second Baptist ChurchDefiance, Ohio
First Baptist ChurchDefiance, Ohio
Grace Episcopal ChurchDefiance, Ohio
First Assembly of GodDefiance, Ohio
Defiance Christian ChurchDefiance, Ohio
First Presbyterian ChurchDefiance, Ohio
St John’s United Church of ChristDefiance, Ohio
Peace Lutheran ChurchDefiance, Ohio
Pine Grove Mennonite ChurchStryker, Ohio
St James Lutheran ChurchBurlington, Ohio
Zion Lutheran ChurchEdgerton, Ohio
Northwest Christian ChurchEdon, Ohio
Restoration FellowshipWilliams Center, Ohio
Pioneer Bible FellowshipPioneer, Ohio
Frontier Baptist ChurchFrontier, Michigan
Salem Mennonite ChurchWaldron, Michigan
Waldron Wesleyan ChurchWaldron, Michigan
Lickley Corners Baptist ChurchWaldron, Michigan
Prattville Community ChurchPrattville, Michigan
Betzer Community ChurchPittsford, Michigan
Fayette Church of the NazareneFayette, Ohio
Fayette Bible ChurchFayette, Ohio
Fayette Christian ChurchFayette, Ohio
Morenci Bible FellowshipMorenci, Michigan
First Baptist ChurchMorenci, Michigan
Demings Lake Reformed Baptist ChurchDemings Lake, Michigan
Medina Federated ChurchMedina, Michigan
Thornhill Baptist ChurchHudson, Michigan
First Baptist ChurchHudson, Michigan
Rollins Friends ChurchAddison, Michigan
Canandaigua Community ChurchCanandaigua. Michigan
Alvordton United BrethrenAlvordton, Ohio
Pettisville Missionary ChurchPettisville, Ohio
Vineyard ChurchToledo, Ohio
Providence Reformed Baptist ChurchToledo, Ohio
Lighthouse Memorial ChurchMillersport, Ohio
Newark Baptist TempleHeath, Ohio
Church of GodHeath, Ohio
30th Street Baptist ChurchHeath, Ohio
St Francis De Sales Catholic ChurchNewark, Ohio
Bible Baptist ChurchNewark, Ohio
Cedar Hill Baptist ChurchNewark, Ohio
Eastland Heights Baptist ChurchNewark, Ohio
Northside Baptist ChurchNewark, Ohio
Newark Brethren ChurchNewark, Ohio
St John’s Lutheran ChurchNewark, Ohio
Vineyard of Licking CountyNewark, Ohio
Vineyard Grace FellowshipNewark, Ohio
Grace FellowshipNewark, Ohio
Faith Bible ChurchJersey, Ohio
Vineyard Christian ChurchPataskala, Ohio
Cornerstone Baptist ChurchNew Lexington, Ohio
St Nicolas Greek Orthodox ChurchFort Wayne, Indiana
Nondenominational ChurchAngola, Indiana
Nondenominational ChurchFremont, Indiana
Victory Baptist ChurchClare, Michigan
First Assembly of GodYuma, Arizona
Desert Grace Community ChurchYuma, Arizona
Calvary Lutheran ChurchYuma, Arizona
Bible Baptist ChurchYuma, Arizona
Calvary ChapelYuma, Arizona
OasisYuma, Arizona
Faith Baptist ChurchYuma, Arizona
Valley Baptist ChurchYuma, Arizona
Calvary Assembly of GodYuma, Arizona
Foothills Assembly of GodYuma, Arizona
Morningside Baptist ChurchYuma, Arizona
Faith Horizons Baptist ChurchYuma, Arizona
Stone Ridge Baptist ChurchYuma, Arizona
Old Order Mennonite ChurchYuma, Arizona
Grace Bible FellowshipYuma, Arizona
Calvary Temple of Christ
Yuma, Arizona
Maranatha Baptist ChurchYuma, Arizona
Independent Lutheran ChurchYuma, Arizona
Community Christian ChurchYuma, Arizona
Church meeting in funeral chapelYuma, Arizona
Pentecostal ChurchWinterhaven, California
North Holtville Friends ChurchHoltville, California
Sierra Vista Baptist ChurchSierra Vista, Arizona
Hedgesville Baptist ChurchHedgesville, West Virginia
New Life Baptist ChurchWeston, West Virginia

 

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Book Review: Heaven is for Real

heaven is for real

In light of the recent repudiation of The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven by its author, Alex Malarkey, I thought I would repost my review of a similar book of fiction, Colton Burpo’s story, Heaven is for Real.

Heaven is for Real is the life-near-death-back-to-life story of a four-year old boy named Colton Burpo. Colton is the son of Todd and Sonja Burpo. The story is revealed by Colton to his father over the course of three or four years (2003-2007). The book detailing the story was written in 2010.

Todd Burpo is the pastor of Crossroads Wesleyan Church (link no longer active) in Imperial, Nebraska. A significant amount of time is spent detailing the day-to-day life of Todd Burpo, pastor. Burpo paints an all-too-typical picture of the ministry. Long hours, overworked, underpaid, under-appreciated. As a former pastor myself, I found Burpo’s story seemed quite familiar.

The young Burpo family had their fair share of adversity. Todd was diagnosed with a severe leg problem, kidney stones, and hyperplasia. A  breast biopsy showed cancer cells which resulted in the surgical removal of Todd’s breasts. Sonja had a miscarriage. On top of these trials, their son Colton required emergency treatment for a ruptured appendix. Colton was shuffled among 3 hospitals before the proper diagnosis was made. He almost died. Almost…

According to the Burpos, Heaven is for Real is a testimony to the power of prayer. Multiple illustrations throughout the book give clear testimony to the Christian God being a prayer-answering God.  Todd gives a testimony of being healed of cancer. A biopsy was used to first diagnose Burpo’s cancer. After having a mastectomy, the doctor was astounded to find no cancer in the removed tissue. The doctor said “I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how that happened.”  Burpo writes “I knew: God had loved me with a little miracle.”

The focus of Heaven is for Real is Colton Burpo’s near-death experience while being operated on for a ruptured appendix. After Colton came out of surgery, he began screaming for his father. Todd raced to his son’s side. Colton said to Todd, “Daddy, you know I almost died.”

There is little doubt about Colton almost dying. He went five days before being diagnosed with a ruptured appendix. By then, his body was full of infection. The doctors left tubes in Colton’s abdomen to drain the infection. After a grueling ordeal that lasted 15 days, Colton was released from the hospital. Burpo credits the prayers of God’s people for the miraculous deliverance of Colton from the jaws of death.

Burpo tells an incredible story that I have heard time and time again. Doctor bills are astronomical. What are we going to do? Pray! And lo and behold, God comes through with the exact amount needed to pay the medical bills.

A closer look at these kind of stories often yields a different conclusion. Take the Burpos’ case. First, the Burpos had insurance. According to the book, the deductible was $3,200.00. Burpo does not say what the maximum out-of-pocket amount is, so readers are left to wonder how much the insurance actually paid and how much the Burpo’s had to pay. What we do know is that God provided the Burpos with almost $23,000.00 in gifts and donations to be used for medical expenses.

After Colton was fully recovered, the Burpos noticed that Colton seemed quite focused on people knowing Jesus as their Savior (having Jesus in their heart).

Todd writes:

I didn’t know what to think. Where was this sudden concern over whether a stranger was saved , whether he had Jesus in his heart, as Colton put it, coming from?

Four months after Colton’s near-death experience, the Burpo family took a Fourth of July trip to Sioux City, South Dakota to visit Sonja’s brother. While traveling to Sioux City, Todd, Sonja and Colton had a discussion about Colton’s time in the hospital.

Colton: “Yes Mommy, I remember, that’s where the angels sang to me.”

Todd:  “Colton, you said the angels sang to you while you were in the hospital.”

Todd: “What did they sing to you?”

Colton: “Well they sang Jesus Loves Me and Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho. I asked them to sing We Will, We Will, Rock You, but they wouldn’t sing that” (implication: angels hate rock music).

Todd: “What did the angels look like?”

Colton: “ Well, one of them looked like Grandpa Dennis, but it wasn’t him ‘cause Grandpa Dennis has glasses.”

Colton: “Dad, Jesus had the angels sing to me because I was so scared. They made me feel better.”

Todd: “You mean Jesus was there?”

Colton: “Yeah Jesus was there.”

Todd: “Well, where was Jesus?”

Colton: “I was sitting in Jesus’ lap.”

Todd: “Colton, where were you when you saw Jesus?”

Colton: “At the hospital. You know, when Dr. O’Holleran was working on me.”

Todd: “But you were in the operating room, Colton. How could you see what we were doing?”

Colton: “ ‘Cause I could see you. I went up out of my body and I was looking down and I could see the doctor working on my body. And I saw you and Mommy . You were in a little room by yourself, praying; and Mommy was in a different room, and she was praying and talking on the phone.”

And so the story Heaven is for Real begins.

Here are some of the things that four-year old Colton revealed to his parents:

  • Jesus was baptized by his cousin and his cousin was really nice. (John the Baptist was the cousin of Jesus.)
  • Jesus rode a rainbow-colored horse.
  • Jesus has brown hair and hair on his face.
  • Jesus has pretty eyes.
  • Jesus wore clothes that were purple and white.
  • Jesus wore a crown with a pink, diamond-like stone in the middle.
  • Jesus had red markers (nail prints) in his hands and feet.
  • Jesus gave Colton work to do and that was his favorite part of Heaven.
  • There were a lot of kids in heaven.
  • Everyone in heaven has wings and people fly everywhere they go.
  • Jesus didn’t have wings and he went up and down like an elevator.
  • All the people in heaven look like angels and have a light above their head.
  • He saw Pop, his Dad’s grandfather, in heaven.
  • Pop told Colton about his dog that had one blue and one brown eye.
  • Jesus went to Colton’s Dad and told him he wanted him (dad) to be a pastor.
  • Jesus was really happy Dad became a pastor.
  • Colton saw his  8-week-old miscarried sister in Heaven.
  • Colton told his Mom it was OK his sister died because God the Father adopted her.
  • His sister didn’t have a name in heaven because her parents never named her.
  • God the Father has a throne in heaven and Jesus sits on a throne right next to him.
  • Jesus sat on the right side of the Father.
  • The angel Gabriel sat on a throne on the left side of God the Father.
  • Colton sat on a small chair near the Holy Spirit.
  • Colton prayed for his parents while he was in Heaven.
  • The Holy Spirit is colored blue.
  • God and Jesus light up Heaven and it never gets dark.
  • There were animals in Heaven.
  • The gates of Heaven had gold and pearl on them.
  • The heavenly city was made of something shiny.
  • Jesus really, really, really loves children.
  • Jesus died on the cross so we could go see God, the Father.
  • No one is old in Heaven.
  • The Holy Spirit shoots power down from Heaven when Todd is preaching.
  • Satan is not in hell yet.
  • The angels use swords to keep Satan out of Heaven.
  • Jesus wouldn’t let Colton have a sword because it would be too dangerous.
  • Colton saw Satan (but refused to talk about it).

Colton also told of a future day when there will be a war. Good people and good angels are going to fight against Satan, bad angels, monsters, and bad people. While this war is going on, the women and children get to stand back and watch. Colton saw his Dad fighting on God’s side. Jesus wins and throws Satan into hell.

And so, there you have it. Colton told his father that he saw all of the above in three minutes. That’s how long he was in Heaven…three minutes. It took the Burpos four years to get the whole story out of Colton.

What are we to make of Heaven is for Real, A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back?

First, Colton was raised in a pastor’s home. He was taught from his earliest days the stories of the Bible. That he was conversant in “church-talk” should not be surprising. Most preacher’s kids learn “church-talk” at an early age.

It is quite evident that Colton has a vivid imagination. Having raised four boys myself, I am well aware of the imaginative powers young boys (and girls) have. My three-year-old grandson, only 11 months younger than Colton was when he had his vision, has quite an imagination. On any given day he believes he is Batman, Superman, or the Incredible Hulk.

Most of the book consists of Todd Burpo trying to prove that what Colton saw has a Biblical basis. Virtually every part of the vision was fact-checked according to the Bible. Colton’s vision always matched what the Bible said. Amazing, yes? The Bible is an amazing book. It can be made to say anything and it can be used to prove even the most astounding things.

As I read the book, I found myself saying, “is the story told by Colton in the language of a four year old?” It isn’t. The story has been polished for publication. Only Todd Burpo knows what the actual story is. I am not suggesting that Burpo is lying, but I am saying the story shows the marks of being shaped by adults. One, seemingly insignificant, example of this stood out to me. Colton asked the angels to sing We Will, We will Rock you. I thought, “would a boy a few months short of four say We Will, We Will Rock you or would he more likely say We will Rock you or Rock you?”

For those who are Evangelical Christians, the book has numerous theological problems. I want to focus on just one of them.

Colton describes heaven as a place filled with people, especially lots of kids. This description flies in the face of orthodox Christian doctrine concerning death and the resurrection from the dead. When people die, they are put in the grave to await the resurrection from the dead. Depending on what eschatological view a person has, the Christian’s body remains in the grave (or wherever its final resting place is) until Jesus comes again or until the final judgment.  At that moment, the Christian dead will be resurrected and given a perfect body. At this time, there are NO physical bodies running around heaven.

NT Wright writes:

There is no agreement in the church today about what happens to people when they die. Yet the New Testament is crystal clear on the matter: In a classic passage, Paul speaks of “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23). There is no room for doubt as to what he means: God’s people are promised a new type of bodily existence, the fulfillment and redemption of our present bodily life. The rest of the early Christian writings, where they address the subject, are completely in tune with this.

The traditional picture of people going to either heaven or hell as a one-stage, postmortem journey represents a serious distortion and diminution of the Christian hope. Bodily resurrection is not just one odd bit of that hope. It is the element that gives shape and meaning to the rest of the story of God’s ultimate purposes. If we squeeze it to the margins, as many have done by implication, or indeed, if we leave it out altogether, as some have done quite explicitly, we don’t just lose an extra feature, like buying a car that happens not to have electrically operated mirrors. We lose the central engine, which drives it and gives every other component its reason for working.

….When Paul speaks in Philippians 3 of being “citizens of heaven,” he doesn’t mean that we shall retire there when we have finished our work here. He says in the next line that Jesus will come from heaven in order to transform the present humble body into a glorious body like his own. Jesus will do this by the power through which he makes all things subject to himself. This little statement contains in a nutshell more or less all Paul’s thought on the subject. The risen Jesus is both the model for the Christian’s future body and the means by which it comes.

Similarly, in Colossians 3:1–4, Paul says that when the Messiah (the one “who is your life”) appears, then you too will appear with him in glory. Paul does not say “one day you will go to be with him.” No, you already possess life in him. This new life, which the Christian possesses secretly, invisible to the world, will burst forth into full bodily reality and visibility.

The clearest and strongest passage is Romans 8:9–11. If the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus the Messiah, dwells in you, says Paul, then the one who raised the Messiah from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies as well, through his Spirit who dwells in you. God will give life, not to a disembodied spirit, not to what many people have thought of as a spiritual body in the sense of a nonphysical one, but “to your mortal bodies also.”

Other New Testament writers support this view. The first letter of John declares that when Jesus appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. The resurrection body of Jesus, which at the moment is almost unimaginable to us in its glory and power, will be the model for our own. And of course within John’s gospel, despite the puzzlement of those who want to read the book in a very different way, we have some of the clearest statements of future bodily resurrection. Jesus reaffirms the widespread Jewish expectation of resurrection in the last day, and announces that the hour for this has already arrived. It is quite explicit: “The hour is coming,” he says, “indeed, it is already here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of Man, and those who hear will live; when all in the graves will come out, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.”….

Evidently bad theology is less of a problem for Evangelicals than is was years ago. Heaven is for Real is a bestselling book among Evangelical Christians. At our local library, the waiting list for Heaven is for Real is 488 patrons long. Astoundingly, it is the number one seller on the Amazon.com book list.

From a non-theist perspective, Heaven is for Real is cheap lit of the worst kind. It is a work of fiction, and not very good fiction either.  Sadly, many Evangelicals will see this as a wonderful, true story. The book reinforces their view that life is filled with tragedy but heaven awaits all those who, through Jesus, faithfully endure what life gives them.

Todd Burpo said in  the preface:

I am not a believer in superstition.

Heaven is for Real is 162 pages of proof that he does.

The Heaven is For Real website.

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Book Review: The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven

boy who came back from heaven

The internet is buzzing over Alex Malarkey’s repudiation of his earth-to- heaven-and-back story. Alex now says the story is a lie. In a recent press release, Alex stated:

An Open Letter to Lifeway and Other Sellers, Buyers, and Marketers of Heaven Tourism, by the Boy Who Did Not Come Back From Heaven.”

“Please forgive the brevity, but because of my limitations I have to keep this short.

I did not die. I did not go to heaven. I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention. When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough. The Bible is the only source of truth. Anything written by man cannot be infallible.

It is only through repentance of your sins and a belief in Jesus as the Son of God, who died for your sins (even though He committed none of His own) so that you can be forgiven may you learn of heaven outside of what is written in the Bible … not by reading a work of man. I want the whole world to know that the Bible is sufficient. Those who market these materials must be called to repent and hold the Bible as enough.”

Alex Malarkey

The gist of what has happened here is that Alex and his mother Beth, have repudiated the fundamentalists charismatic/pentecostal beliefs that are the foundation of Alex’s book. Sadly, they have taken up with a different group that is almost as bad. To the best of my knowledge, Alex and Beth are now in a John MacArthur-like Reformed/Calvinistic church. Their recent statements reveal that they have been deeply influenced by Reformed/Calvinist thinking, especially its emphasis on sola scriptura. For more information on this connection, please read the Pulpit and Pen blog and John MacArthur’s right hand man, Phil Johnson’s article, The Burpo-Malarkey Doctrine.

Are Beth and Alex Malarkey in a better religious setting? That’s for them to decide. They should, however, realize that they have traded one form of fundamentalism for another.

What follows is the review I wrote when The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven first came out. I thought it was lost, but I was able to retrieve it from The Wayback Machine.

The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, a remarkable account of miracles, angels, and life beyond this world is written by Kevin and Alex Malarkey.

At the bottom of the front cover are the words True StoryThe Boy Who Came Back From Heaven recounts the story of six-year-old Alex Malarkey, who was seriously injured in an automobile accident that left him paralyzed. While in a coma, Alex was taken to heaven and given the grand tour. He returned to earth and his body so that he could share with all of us the story found in the book. The book also records post-coma trips to heaven by Alex and even includes an angel appearance to Alex’s father Kevin Malarkey.

I almost stopped reading the book after reading the introduction. Kevin Malarkey, an Evangelical Christian therapist in Columbus Ohio wrote:

I’m not here to beat a drum, convince you of a theological argument, or force you to validate Alex’s experiences. But I humbly offer a challenge: suspend your judgment for just a few chapters. I think your life may be changed forever.

If Alex’s story is to be taken as a TRUE story, then why do I need to suspend my judgment? Should not the truth of the story be clear to all who read it?

According to Kevin Malarkey:

Heaven is real. There is an unseen world at work—an intensely  active spiritual realm right here on earth , all around us. And much of this activity keeps us from focusing on our future destination, the place where we will spend eternity. Alex has been there….

The only thing the book actually proves is that some people believe there is a heaven. The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven may be a true story, but it is a “true” story without one shred of provable truth. In other words, you are going to have to take the word of six-year-old (or 11-year-old by the time the book is written) Alex Malarkey that what he shares is the truth.

The story begins when Kevin and Alex Malarkey are involved in a horrific automobile accident. Kevin, while talking on his cellphone, turned in front of an automobile coming in the opposite direction. The driver of the other car was a woman with two young children. Alex was injured far worse than anyone else. The accident left him paralyzed and in a coma for 2 months.

At the accident scene, unconscious Alex saw:

  • Five angels carrying his father outside the car. Four were carrying the body and one angel was supporting his head and neck (the police report said Kevin Malarkey was ejected from the automobile).
  • The devil sitting in the front seat of the automobile accusing Alex of causing the accident.

While in a coma, Alex was taken to heaven. What did Alex see and experience while he was in heaven?

  • His father was in heaven too, but only for a short time.
  • Alex saw the five angels that carried his father’s body outside the automobile. The five angels stayed with Alex so his father could have time alone with God.  He pleaded to trade places with Alex, but God told him no. God sent his father’s spirit back to earth and Alex remained in heaven. God told him that he would heal him later on earth to bring more glory to His (God’s) name.
  • While in the emergency room, Alex watched everything that was going on from the ceiling. Jesus was standing right there beside him. Alex felt safe and he was not afraid to die.
  • While in the emergency room, Alex saw 150 pure white angels with fantastic wings who were all calling his name. After a while, they said “Alex, go back.”  Alex did go back and Jesus came with him and held him during his time in the emergency room.
  • Alex found himself in the presence of God. God had a human-like body, but a lot bigger. Alex was only allowed to see God from the neck down because the Bible says anyone who looks on the face of God dies.
  • There is an inner heaven and an outer heaven. The outer heaven has a hole that leads to hell.
  • There are lots of colorful, beautiful things to see, and beautiful music too.
  • Heaven is a lot like earth, but it is perfect in every detail.
  • Angels are white, have wings, and are sexless.
  • Some angels are short, 2 feet tall, and others are much taller.
  • There are different types of angels, with different jobs to do.
  • There are lots of buildings in heaven, but Alex only really noticed the Temple. God never leaves his throne in the Temple. There is a scroll in a glass container that only Jesus can read.

After Alex came out of  his coma, he continued to see other world beings. Angels were present in Alex’s hospital room. The angels helped Alex and the angels talked to Alex and he talked back to them.

One day, Alex told his father that he had something important to tell him. He wanted to make sure his father would not be sad after hearing what Alex had to say. Alex said:

There are two days I look forwards to more than any others in my life. The first is the day I die. You see, I can’t wait to get home. It’s not that I want to die right now; I’m not sad…. The second is the day when the devil goes to the Lake of Fire. I can’t wait for him to be gone for good.

According to Alex, demons and evil spirits came to visit him. He was thankful that his father taught him how to pray and how to take authority over the demons.

Alex had this to say about the devil, about demons  and evil spirits:

  • They are evil, scary, and ugly.
  • They accuse Alex of things, bring him doubt, make him feel sad, tell him he will never be healed, and that God won’t protect him.
  • The devil has three heads and all three heads have hair of fire (is the devil a redhead?). Each of the heads speak different lies at the same time.
  • The devil has beaming red eyes with flames for pupils. His nose is nasty and torn up.
  • The devil speaks English to Alex. His voice is screechy like a witch and changes into different sounds. The devil’s mouth is funny-looking with only a few moldy teeth.
  • The devil’s body has a human form but has no flesh.
  • The devil wears a torn and dirty robe.
  • The devil personally appeared to Alex. Sometimes, the devil came along with other evil spirits but sometimes he came alone.
  • Demons are often green and they have hair made of fire. Their skin and robes are just like the devil’s. Their eyes are like the devil’s and they have long fingernails.

According to Alex, demons walk around telling lies. In Frank Peretti style, Alex says that there is a spiritual war going on—angels against demons.

Towards the end of the book, Kevin Malarkey lets readers know that Alex has continued to take periodic trips to heaven. Readers are also told that Kevin himself had an experience where an angel named John appeared to him.

The angel John gave Kevin  a message:

I have anointed you with a message of hope…for the church….for the body of Christ…and for those who will be the body…..that He will be raised up and seen in His true glory…This is the word of the Lord given to you by the angel John.

Speak of Me, for Me, and about Me. Use Alex to show who I am. I have chosen him as a screen upon which to show myself. I am unity, the Trinity, a complete circle. Your story will lead to praise and worship, there will be altar calls. Your bills are the least of my worries. I will be with you all the days of your life. I will speak to you, I will guide you, I am in you. I am about you, you be about me. My love is unconditional. My vengeance is restricted for the holy. My apostles died for Me, will you die for Me? I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last.

Most of the book is Kevin Malarkey’s explanation of Alex’s trips to heaven and how God is using them to reach other people. One chapter is devoted to the things that Alex knew about his time in the coma. To many people, this is proof above all proof. Alex talked of things that were not possible for him to know.

The story is what it is. Either you believe it or you don’t. Just like the book Heaven is for Real, you have the story of a young child being taken to heaven. Both boys waited for years before their story was put into print. Both stories show clear signs of being shaped by adult human hands (whether by parents or book editors).

I have no doubt that the Malarkey family believes what is written here. As with many Christians, they are desperate to know that their lives matter and that when death comes there is a new life that awaits beyond the grave.

As a non-believer, I found that the story said little that I would consider as proof that there is a God, a devil, a heaven, a hell, or that life continues beyond the grave. I found myself angry, once again, at the idea of a god who paralyzes a kid in an automobile accident so he can get some praise and glory. With all the suffering, sickness, disease, and death in the world, it seems to me that God has plenty enough praise and glory.

My conclusion? Kevin Malarkey asked me to suspend my judgment as I read the book. I could not do so, and, in my judgment, the book is a bunch of malarkey (meaningless talk and nonsense).

In June of 2014, I wrote the following update:

Last week, I reposted a review of The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven by Kevin and Alex Malarkey. After my review hit the internet, Beth Malarkey, the mother of Alex, contacted me via Twitter.  She let me know that Alex, now a teenager, did not write the story and he does not agree with what is in the book.

On her blog, Life’s a Journey, Beth wrote:

I never intended this blog to be a place that I would have to defend my son ALex’s indentity [sic] let alone the journey that he and he alone has endured. I started this blog as a “fun” thing to do and with the intention of maybe sharing some hope and bits of wisdom that has been learned through the struggles. I have taken this blog down from time to time not sure what to do with it and NEVER wanting to make it appear as if any of the people that I write about are extraordinary individuals…

,,,This past week a movie based off the book Heaven is for Real came out. I have not read the book, do not plan to, and am strongly opposed to the movie. Let’s just say that the Burpo book and the book that has Alex’s name listed as coauthor (The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven), as does the Tyndale Publishing website (can not understand how that can be), have a few things in common which I will not get into on here. I am trying to defend my son and truth. Here is something to think about….

It is both puzzling and painful to watch the book The Boy who Came Back from Heaven to not only continue to sell, but to continue, for the most part, to not be questioned. I could post facts and try to dispel many of the things contained within the pages of that book (have done a bit of that), I could continue to try to point out how Biblically off the book is (a few strategically placed scriptures does not make a book Biblically sound) and how it leads people away from the bible not to it (have done that as have others including John MacArthur and Phil Johnson), I could talk about how much it has hurt my son tremendously and even make financial statements public that would prove that he has not received monies from the book nor have a majority of his needs been funded by it (a fund that was set aside by a friend a few years ago has actually been paying for most things in the past few years but that fund is dwindling), I could…..but it seems like many people want to believe what they are given despite the wrong that it may be doing or the wrong that was done in the making of it.

When Alex first tried to tell a “pastor” how wrong the book was and how it needed stopped, Alex was told that the book was blessing people. Ok…first, Alex said that while he was struggling physically and trusting this person as someone who seemed to be concerned so the person was invalidating Alex’s feeling while justifying the wrong that Alex was trying to make that person aware of. . The person told Alex to “trust” him. Alex is the ONLY one that supposedly had the experiences being written about(Alex was a 6 year old and coming out of major brain trauma…note I am not saying what is true and not just that Alex was a kid with major brain trauma which alone should raise questions as to validity) Alex is the ONLY one who has endured not only a horrific set of injuries, but having his journey capitalized on. His struggles are NOT past tense nor is the “story.”

The ones making money from the book are NOT the ones staying up through the night, struggling for their breath, or were they the ones at six years old, waking up unable to move or breathe and in a strange place after last remember seeing a car coming right at the car he was riding in. What I have walked through with Alex over the past nine years has nearly broken me personally and spiritually. I have wept so deeply for what I have watched my children go through, been made aware of how ignorant I was of some things, how selfish I was, and how Biblically illiterate I was which allowed me to be deceived! Sure, I had read my Bible A LOT, but I had not studied it. I had listened to teachings but probably enjoyed more ear tickling than I am still even aware of(for that I repent and have experienced deep sorrow) I am so thankful that God is so merciful and patient. I am thankful that God allowed me to go ahead and fall for the junk that I did(and it was that junk)for I am fully aware of what it feels like to be pulled in.

There are many who are scamming and using the Word of God to do it. They are good, especially if you are not digging into your Bible and truly studying it. They study their audience and even read “success” books to try to build better and bigger…”ministries/businesses”. Please, examine what you see and read. I see many things from a different vantage point because of how much I have witnessed and am witnessing first hand…not second hand. I will remain puzzled and remain seeking truth in the Word of God! One more time..Alex did not write the book and it is not blessing him! Saying that it is blessing others to try to justify its wrong is just that…justification of wrong!

Beth is divorced from Kevin Malarkey and continues to be Alex’s primary caregiver.

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The Legacy of Jack Hyles

jack hyles

Jack Hyles, pastor First Baptist Church Hammond

Members of First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana and people closely associated with Hyles-Anderson College and Pastor Jack Schaap were astonished at the firing of  Schaap for sexual misconduct with a minor and his later criminal conviction for these crimes. Evidently these people have a short memory or live in denial because First Baptist Church has a long history of pastors getting themselves in trouble with the fairer sex. (Please read Chicago Magazine feature story on First Baptist and their sordid history.)

Jack Schaap’s father-in-law, Jack Hyles, had a long-running illicit sexual relationship with his secretary. The evidence against Hyles was overwhelming, yet the church rejected the evidence and Jack Hyles continued to pastor the church until his death in 2001. (Please read The Biblical Evangelist’s report on Jack Hyles)

David Hyles, the son of Jack Hyles and youth pastor of First Baptist Church, had numerous sexual relationships with women in the church. The church quietly sent him away to pastor another church, not telling the new church about his sexual proclivities, and he continued to have numerous sexual relationships with women in the new church.

Many people praised the church for publicly exposing Jack Schaap’s “sin.” This is the same church that ignored Jack Hyles’ “sin,” covered up David Hyles’ “sin,” and whitewashed numerous other scandals in the  church and  college, so forgive me if I don’t think they are acting “better” than the Catholic Church (as one commenter said).

The people of First Baptist Church were taught by Hyles and Schaap that if they didn’t see something it didn’t happen. They were taught that unless an allegation could be confirmed by two or more witnesses (Matthew 18) they were not to believe it. This kind of thinking resulted in a culture where “sin” was ignored or swept under the proverbial rug (a rug that is so high now that you have to walk up a five- foot hill to get into the church).

In general, the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement abhors scandal and its members do everything they can to cover it up. More important than the sin or the victims is the church’s testimony. The church’s testimony must be protected at all costs, even if  a pedophile in their midst is ignored , as was the case with Trinity Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida. (Please read Stop Baptist Predators articles on Trinity and Bob Gray.)

For First Baptist Church of Hammond to out Jack Schaap, they had to have been backed into a corner without the option of covering it up or quietly making the “problem” go away. Calling in attorney David Gibbs to “manage” the crisis speaks volumes about depth of the scandal.

The root of the Jack Schaap scandal is found in the ministry, teaching, and doctrine of his predecessor, Jack Hyles. The remainder of this post will focus on Jack Hyles. It is impossible to understand the Jack Schaap story without first looking at Jack Hyles’ forty-two year ministry at First Baptist Church of Hammond (a church that was an American Baptist Church until Hyles pulled it out of the Convention a few years after he arrived there in 1959).

In its heyday, First Baptist Church of Hammond was the largest church in the United States (and at times, claimed to be the largest church in the world). The Church was built around two things: the bus ministry and Jack Hyles.

jack hyles 1973

Jack Hyles, 1973

In 1973,  the  church saw attendances exceeding 25,000 people. At the center of this huge church was its pastor, Jack Hyles. In the late 1960s and 1970s, Jack Hyles was, as many of us described, the pope of the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Church movement. He authored numerous books with titles such as Let’s Go Soul Winning, Let’s Build an Evangelistic Church, Enemies of Soul Winning, The Hyles Church Manual, How to Rear Infants, How to Rear Children, How to Rear Teenagers, Satan’s Bid for Your Child, Marriage is a Commitment, Woman the Completer, and Blue Denim and Lace.

There is a hard-and-fast rule in the IFB movement: the greater the church attendance, the more authority  the pastor is granted and the more weight his words have. I heard countless big name IFB pastors say, “until you have as many eggs in your basket as I do you have no right to criticize me.” Pastors with small churches were looked down on and were expected to shut up and learn from those whose baskets were overflowing with eggs.

From 1976 to 1989, I heard Jack Hyles preach numerous times. I traveled to a number of Sword of the Lord Conferences, often taking with me people from the churches I pastored. Hyles was a dynamic preacher, a real motivator. He used very little of the Bible in his preaching. His sermons were always topical or textual and were littered with personal stories and illustrations.

Hyles was a narcissist. Most of his stories and illustrations were about his own personal life and exploits. His stories about him and his mother are legendary.

Over time, as I became more and more dissatisfied with the IFB movement, I paid closer attention to the substance of Hyles’ sermons. In particular, I focused on the stories that Hyles told. I came to the conclusion that Hyles was a narcissistic liar.

Hyles would often talk about how important and busy he was. In several sermons he talked about how many people he counseled every week. I sat down and did the math and I concluded it was physically impossible for Hyles to have counseled as many people each week as he claimed.

Hyles was a ruthless man. I watched him, during Q and A time, at a conference at the Newark Baptist Temple,  dress down and belittle pastors for asking the “wrong” question. He refused to allow anyone to challenge his authority as the king of the IFB hill.

To understand the scandals at First Baptist Church in Hammond, we must understand the gospel that has been preached at First Baptist for over 50 years. It is the same gospel that is/was preached by men like Bob Gray of Texas, Bob Gray of Jacksonville, Curtis Hutson, Dennis Corle, and thousands of other IFB pastors.

Jack Hyles preached a bastardized version of the Christian gospel. The Hyles gospel has been labeled as decisional regeneration or one, two, three, repeat after me. I used to label the gospel of the IFB church movement as:

  • win them
  • wet them
  • work them
  • waste them
lets go soulwinning

Jack Hyles, Let’s Go Soulwinning

The only thing that mattered was winning souls. IFB Evangelist Dennis Corle told me one time that I should spend more time soul winning and less time studying in preparation to preach on Sunday.

In the IFB church, the key to church growth is to keep more people coming in the front door than are going out the back door. IFB churches are notorious for turning over their church memberships, especially when a pastor leaves and a new one comes in.

The Hyles gospel focused on praying the sinners prayer. Pray this prayer and you are saved. Good works? They were desired and even expected, but if saved  people never exhibited any change in their lives they were still considered saved.

If a pastor dared suggest that new life in Christ meant a change of conduct, they were accused of preaching “works salvation” (the Lordship Salvation controversy). According to the Hyles gospel, it was all about praying the prayer, and once a person prayed the prayer they could NEVER EVER be lost again. This is why some people insist that I am still saved, even if I don’t want to be. Once God has you he never lets go of you.

The Hyles gospel filled churches with people who had made a mental assent to a set of propositional facts. Every year churches like First Baptist Church in Hammond and Longview Baptist Temple report thousands of people being saved. Most of these new converts stop attending after a short while, but this is of no consequence. They prayed the “prayer.” On to the next sinner in need of saving.

The IFB church movement is centered on men. Most IFB churches are pastored by one man who has total control of the church. Most IFB churches are congregational in name only, with the pastor being the autocratic king of the church.

david hyles greatest men

Jack Hyles, David Hyles, Jim Krall, World’s Greatest Men

Jack Hyles, Jack Schaap, and countless other big-name IFB traveling preachers routinely promote the notion of pastoral authority. The pastor, under the authority of Jesus and powered by the Holy Spirit, is the final authority in the church. He is the hub around which everything turns.

An IFB church  is not known for their name but for who its pastor is. IFB church members routinely say, when asked about what church they attend, I go to Pastor So-and So’s church.

In a post titled The Cult of Personality, I wrote:

Churches aren’t known for what they believe or even the works they do. They are known for who their pastor is. When asked where  he goes to Church, a Christian will often say “I go to Pastor Smith’s Church.”

The focus of everything is on the pastor. He is the mover and shaker. He is what powers the machine. Without him it all fails.

Christian TV, radio and publishing is all about the personalities within the Church. Name recognition is the name of the game.

Does anyone really believe Rod Parsley is a good writer? Yet, his books sell. Why? Name recognition.

Everything is focused on and culminates with the sermon and the preacher.

I had people drive 40 minutes to the  church I pastored in SE Ohio. They loved my preaching. They thought I was the greatest preacher since the last guy they thought was wonderful. Really? As much as I think that I am a pretty good public speaker, they had to drive past 40  churches to get to the  church I pastored. Not one of those  churches had a preacher that could preach competently? ( Well maybe not, after hearing more than a few preachers.)

What happens when the pastor leaves the  church? What happens when the personalities change, when a new preacher takes over? Strife. Division. People leave the church . Why? Because church became about the preacher rather than about Jesus and serving others.

Why is it the pastor’s name is on everything? The sign out front. The bulletin . Every piece of literature the church produces. If it is really is all about Jesus then why does it matter if anyone knows the pastor’s name?

Ah, but it does matter. Many Evangelical Christians are good capitalists (serving a socialist Jesus). They are consumers first and Christians second.  They know people are “attracted” (the attractional method) to the church by the pastor, the programs, the building, etc.

They know the pastor becomes the face of their church. It shouldn’t be this way, but it is, and quite frankly, it is the church itself that must bear the blame for this.

The church members revel in the cult of personality. They love having a name- brand preacher. They watch Christian TV and listen to Christian radio because Pastor/Rev/Dr/Evangelist/Bishop/Apostle so-and so is on. Take away the names and it becomes as interesting as eating a no-name hamburger at a no-name restaurant surrounded by no-name people…

Is it any wonder IFB pastors and churches have the scandals they do? Members are taught to obey their pastor without question. He is the man of God. If he is doing something wrong God will chastise him.

This kind of thinking allows IFB pastors to commit adultery, molest children, and steal from the church without anyone ever knowing about it. I could spend the next two days writing about IFB pastors who have abused their place of authority and committed heinous acts against the people they pastored.

IFB churches think they are above the world and other churches because of what they believe. They are Bible believers and their pastors preach hard against sin. Because of this, they have a hard time believing that their pastor or any other noted preacher could ever commit sins like Jack Hyles, Jack Schaap, David Hyles, and Bob Gray did.

Bob Gray, pastor emeritus of Longview Baptist Temple had this to say on this blog about the Schaap scandal (I was unable to find the post on Gray’s blog):

May I present the practical side?  There exists more molestation cases proportionately reported in the 42,000 churches of the Southern Baptist Convention than in the 22,000 independent Baptist churches.  Consider the largest denomination in our nation, the Catholic Church, and then think on their sexual transgressions for a while.  This is not to take lightly one person who is violated by a leader in a church.

Look carefully at the argument Gray is making here. The Southern Baptists and the Catholics are worse than us! Praise Jesus! Such thinking should sicken all of us.

Here is what I know about the IFB movement. They will wail and moan for a while, but, in a few weeks or months, the scandal will pass, and they will go back to “winning souls” and “preaching hard against sin.” It is only a matter of time before a-n-o-t-h-e-r scandal rocks the IFB movement. Until the IFB movement repudiates its corruption of the Christian gospel and changes how their churches are governed, there is no hope of meaningful change.

Change is not likely to come because of their literalism and their belief in the inerrancy of the Bible. Armed with certainty, knowing they are right, they will continue to preach a corrupted gospel and allow narcissistic pastors to rule over them. Why? Because, it IS in the Bible…

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Never Underestimate the Power of Jesus

the power of jesus

Often, atheists and agnostics grossly underestimate the power of Jesus. I am sure that some of you are already thinking or saying out loud, Bruce, are you nuts? Have you renounced atheism and become a follower of Jesus again? We don’t underestimate the power of Jesus because he doesn’t exist. End of story!

But, he does exist and I think many atheists and agnostics forget this. In our desire to rid the world of the damaging effects of religion we often forget that Jesus is alive and well.

Now, the Jesus who is alive and well is not an actual, physical living human being and neither is he an actual, physical God or Son of God. The Jesus who was born in Bethlehem two thousand years ago is dead. The Jesus who, for thirty-three years, walked the roads of Palestine is dead. The Jesus spoken of in the Bible is dead. We know that dead people do not come back from the grave. We know that once a person is dead he stays dead. Jesus is dead and there is no chance that he is coming back from the dead.

But, Jesus is alive and well in the myths and beliefs of millions of Christians. In the mythical Jesus, people find comfort, meaning, and hope. In the mythical Jesus, people find what they think is lacking in their lives, and quite frankly atheists and agnostics don’t have much to offer when it comes to what Jesus can offer a person.

But, Bruce, believing in Jesus is irrational. Believing in Jesus is as rational as believing in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. Totally correct, but this doesn’t matter.

When suffering and loss come our way, our rationality often doesn’t do us much good. When our lives are in a heap of ashes, knowing the evidence for God not existing does nothing to comfort us. When we are struggling to keep from drowning, the books written by Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris, provide no help. All our rational, well-thought-out arguments do little for us when we are at those moments in life where the most precious thing to us is our next breath.

In these times we look for comfort and hope. We look to those who love us and who are willing to do anything for us. In these times, our intellectual prowess does not matter. What we desperately want and need is a hand to hold on to, someone who will tell is it is going to be all right.

But, Bruce, shit happens and we are all going to die in the end. Atheists and agnostics don’t need sentimentality. Surely, we can face what comes our way with a rugged resolve, knowing we are right. Perhaps.

But is knowing we are right the most important thing? Is drawing our last breath knowing we were right about religion, God, Jesus, and the Bible really the grand objective?

Forget for a moment what you know about the Bible. Forget what you know about its teachings. If you were once a Christian, forget your experience in the church. Think for a moment about the essence of the Christian religion. What is the one thing that matters more than anything else?  What is the one thing that allows millions of people to live in a state of cognitive dissonance? What is the one thing that allows Christians to shut off all the criticisms of Christianity and allows them to continue believing?

One word…Jesus.

The mythical Jesus, the Jesus of legend, the Jesus that is preached in countless Christian churches all over the world, this Jesus is the one thing that matters above all else.

Why is this? What is it about Jesus for which  millions of people will abandon rational thinking?  There is no proof for what the Bible teaches on most anything. Few of the events in the Bible have any historical proof. Why does Jesus have such power over people?

Jesus offers salvation. Jesus offers friendship, love, and compassion. Countless drug addicts and alcoholics have abandoned their addictions because of Jesus. Gang members have forsaken their violent ways and thieves have turned to gainful means of employment all because of Jesus. Only the most hardheaded and blind among atheists and agnostics would deny the fact that, for millions of people, Jesus makes a qualitative difference in their life.

In Jesus, millions of people find meaning, purpose, and direction. In Jesus, they find the strength to suffer and die. This Jesus promised to never leave them or forsake them, and no matter how hard we try to show that Jesus is AWOL in the lives of Christians, they still believe he is that friend that sticks closer than a brother.

I am sure there is some psychological or neurological explanation for why this is so, but such explanations have little value. People believe what they believe and that is all that matters.

My wife’s parents are almost 80 years old. They are on the short side of life and it is unlikely that either of them will still be living ten years from now. When they die I will mourn their death. I love them dearly. I will grieve over the loss of two people I have known most of my adult life. Good people. Loving people. Caring people.  And yes, devout, fundamentalist Christians.

They believe that Jesus is with them through thick and thin. Jesus has been their faithful guide. According to them, Jesus has worked countless miracles for them. To them, Jesus is as much a part of their lives as the air they breathe.

I could point out to them all the times that Jesus wasn’t there for them. Where was Jesus when they miscarried? Where was Jesus when their daughter was killed in a motorcycle accident? Their life is filled with countless examples of Jesus leaving them for dead along the side the road. He seems to always be around when they need a hundred dollars, but nowhere to be found when faced with job loss, economic troubles, or sickness. Yet, they still steadfastly believe.

Is it my place to expose their fraudulent Jesus? Is it my place to point out all the places that their friend Jesus was no friend at all? Perhaps I should buy them Bart Ehrman’s books for Christmas so they can know the truth about the Bible and Jesus? Why would I want to do this? Would their life be better without Jesus?

I can’t think of any way their life would be better without Jesus. Their whole existence and being is invested in him and they are trusting Jesus to be there when they are dying and to carry them home to their reward in heaven.

None of this is true, BUT it doesn’t matter.

All that matters is what Jesus means to them and what value he adds to their lives. If this Jesus gives their lives meaning, purpose, and direction, I have no right to disabuse them of their beliefs.  If this Jesus gives them peace and comfort…who am I to take that away from them?

Sometimes, we atheists and agnostics, in our zeal to rid the world of the evil of Christian fundamentalism, forget that most Christians are not theocrats trying to take over America. They have sincerely-held beliefs and, for them, Jesus adds value to their lives. Yes, we must battle Christian fundamentalists who want to turn American into a Christian theocracy. Yes, we must battle attempts to teach creationism as science in the public schools. Yes, we must battle attempts to codify Christian morals and ethics as the law of the land. We must battle any and all attempts to lessen the individual liberty we have to believe or not believe. But, beyond these things, it is not our place to rid the world of beliefs we think are silly or anti-intellectual.

We must remember, those of us who are bloggers, that the Christians who come to our blogs to debate, evangelize, and attack are not typical Christians. Zealots deserve all that we give them and I have little tolerance for such people. But…I must never forget that most Christians are not like the zealots.  Most Christians are like my wife’s parents — people who love Jesus and want to live a good life.

All human beings want a life that has meaning and purpose. We want to be loved and we want to know our life mattered. In the end, we all die and we will soon be forgotten by all but those who loved us. Let’s be careful, in our zeal to rid the world of all the evils associated with religion, that we don’t lose those we love, that we don’t trade being right for those who will be there for us when we draw our last breath.

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Did You Know Spaghetti Straps are Sinful?

girl wearing spaghetti straps

Girl Wearing “Sinful” Spaghetti Straps

When people think of Christian fundamentalism they most often think of the fundamentalism found in Evangelicalism and the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement. However, as the following story will show, fundamentalism is alive and well in the Roman Catholic church.

Melanie Pritchard, Founder of Vera Bella Catholic Girls’ Formation Program and the Executive Director of the Foundation for Life and Love, recently wrote an article about why she does not let her four-year old daughter wear spaghetti straps:

My four-year-old daughter Ella received a doll from a relative for Christmas that was wearing a fluffy pink skirt and a spaghetti strap tank-top covered by a sweater. To my daughter’s wild surprise, she also received the same outfit as her doll, in her own size. She put on her new outfit immediately to match her doll. I call them “the twinsy-bops,” since my daughter proceeded to try to wear the same outfit as her doll for the few days following Christmas.

Although I love the doll’s and my daughter’s outfits in their completion, I don’t allow my daughter or her dolls to wear spaghetti straps without something covering the tank-top. Some may think I go overboard or even call me a prude, but I am parenting with an advantage. I have inside knowledge of the working relationships between parents and their teenage daughters. Since I have been speaking to teenagers and their parents for the past 15 years, I have gained an extensive knowledge of the kind of drop-down-drag-out battles parents have with their teenage girls and their wardrobes.

One of those battles is over spaghetti strap tank-tops being worn without something else covering them. Now, I’ll admit, when my four-year-old attempts to wear the new spaghetti strap tank-top, she doesn’t look immodest. She still manages to look innocent and dignified. So, why won’t I allow my daughter to begin wearing these types of tank-tops at age four? Because the battle she and I will inevitably have over tank tops will be a lot easier to win if the standard never changes. The same rings true for two-piece bathing suits and other clothes that will not protect her dignity and mystery when she is at a more womanly stage in her life…

For those of us raised in the IFB and Evangelical church, Pritchard’s argument is quite familiar. Better to win the battle over clothing when a child is young and impressionable than when she is a teenager. Better to teach her “modesty” at age four than try to get her to dress “modestly” at age fifteen.

Pritchard recounts a story about her daughter that she thinks illustrates that her daughter is starting to understand the importance of modesty and why she should not wear spaghetti straps:

A couple days later, we went to enjoy taco Tuesday at a locally owned restaurant in town. We were sitting at our table waiting for our food when Ella grabbed my arm and pulled me close to her. She was pointing to the hostess with the very womanly figure wearing a spaghetti strap tank-top that kept sliding up to reveal her stomach and was accentuating and revealing her large chest. Ella whispered in my ear, “Mom, her mystery isn’t protected. She is wearing a spaghetti-strap and it’s not modest.”

Ella saw it for herself. It clicked for my four-year-old. She began to have a small amount of judgment in her voice as she continued to talk about this woman. I explained gently, “Ella, we can’t judge her or talk about her behind her back. She may not know her beautiful mystery and why she should protect it. Instead, we should pray that God may reveal it to her, so she knows just how special she is.” Ella was satisfied with my answer and agreed to pray for her.

Later in the article Pritchard reveals the real reason she won’t let her daughter wear spaghetti straps. Some day, her daughter will be a teenager, and if she hasn’t learned to be modest she might dress immodestly and attract poor, helpless horn dog Catholic boys:

I meet many parents who have allowed their daughters to wear spaghetti-straps, tube tops, leggings as pants, two-piece swim suits, and other clothing when they were young when their figures hadn’t emerged, only to find out there comes a time when they become extremely uncomfortable with their beautiful, womanly, innocent, teenage daughters wearing them in public. Fathers are by far the ones who cringe the most when they speak to me. They know teen-age boys. Every father was a teenage boy once. They cringe at the way their daughters are dressing, but the fight is so big, they often back down and let their girls wear what they want.

As a parent of six children, I know the importance of teaching children to dress appropriately. However, there is a difference between appropriate and puritanical. Pritchard goes far beyond appropriate and teaches her daughter a way of thinking that will result in her thinking her now-womanly body is sinful and must be covered up lest poor, helpless men take sexual advantage of her.

Pritchard, with her silly objection to her daughter wearing a top with spaghetti straps (and tube tops, leggings as pants, two-piece swim suits), is making sure her daughter will grow up to be a sexually repressed Catholic woman. Instead of teaching her daughter to dress appropriately, she is planting the seed of sexual repression.

Her ban of certain clothing will do little to help her daughter when she becomes a sexually aware woman. Silly talk about a woman’s “mystery” will not keep her daughter from desiring what is natural: sex. While we can certainly debate whether it is a good idea for teenagers to have sex, the fact of the matter is they do:

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the year 2007, 35% of US high school students were currently sexually active and 47.8% of US high school students reported having had sexual intercourse. This percentage has decreased slightly since 1991..

Self-report surveys suggest that half of all 15- to 19-year-olds have had oral sex. That percentage rises to 70% by the time they turn 19, and equal numbers of boys and girls participate. Research indicating that oral sex is less risky to teens’ emotional and physical well being than vaginal sex has been advanced;[13] researchers at the University of California do not believe this conclusion is warranted. They found that oral sex, as well as vaginal sex, was associated with negative consequences. Of adolescents engaging in oral sex only, girls were twice as likely as boys to report feeling bad about themselves and nearly three times as likely to feel used. Despite their behaviors, 90% of adolescents “agree that most young people have sex before they are really ready.”

The average age of first sexual intercourse in the United States is 17.0 for males and 17.3 for females, and this has been rising in recent years. The percentage of teens who are waiting longer to have sex has been increasing. For those teens who have had sex, 70% of girls and 56% of boys said that their first sexual experience was with a steady partner, while 16% of girls and 28% of boys report losing their virginity to someone they had just met or who was just a friend.

Pritchard belongs to a sect that is known for sexual repression and the denial of natural human sexuality. The Church also condemns masturbation and birth control. One would think if the Church wanted unmarried Catholics to remain sexually pure that they would encourage masturbation as an acceptable release of sexual tension. One would also think that the church would encourage Catholic women to use birth control since it would help eliminate the need for abortion. But they don’t. I wonder how different the discussion and rules would be if women were allowed to have a say in the teachings of the Church?

When it comes to human sexuality, the male-controlled Catholic Church is fighting a losing battle. In 2012, the Guttmacher Institute had this to say about Catholic women having sex and using birth control:

“Guttmacher’s analysis of data from the federal government’s National Survey of Family Growth found that the vast majority of American women of reproductive age (15–44) — including 99% of all sexually experienced women and 98% of those who identify themselves as Catholic — have used a method of contraception other than natural family planning at some point. Women may be classified as sexually experienced regardless of whether they are currently sexually active, using contraceptives, pregnant, trying to get pregnant or postpartum.

“By their early 20s, some 79% of never-married women — and 89% of never-married Catholic women — have had sex. (Presumably, all married women have done so.) In short, most American women (including Catholics) have had sex by their early 20s, and virtually all of them have used contraceptives other than natural family planning.

It is now known that the best way to combat unplanned teen pregnancy is to provide sex education and easy access to birth control. Just say no because God says so, is not a plan. Yet, Pritchard’s church wants to deny teens and unmarried women the means to keep from getting pregnant.

Knowing how the Catholic church views human sexuality helps to explain Pritchard’s puritanical obsession with her four-year old daughter’s clothing. She doesn’t want her daughter to grow up to be one of those “easy” Catholic girls whom boys are fond of talking about.

Instead of teaching her daughter to embrace her sexuality and prepare her for life as a sexual being, she is teaching her that a woman’s body should be covered up so her “mystery” is not revealed. This is no different from the teaching of the IFB church, with its prohibitions against wearing any form of clothing that reveals the female shape and body. The reason?  The teens and men of the church are pathetic, helpless creatures who are little more than dogs seeking bitches in heat.

Instead of teaching accountability and responsibility, religious zealots such as Pritchard teach repression and impotence. Sexually awake young women wearing spaghetti straps is not the problem. Any teen boy or man who can’t sexually control himself if he sees a woman wearing a top with spaghetti straps is pathetic. Men, regardless of their age, need to be responsible for their sexual behavior and the manner in which they treat women. Women should not be forced to manage not only their own sexuality but the sexuality of men who can’t help themselves. They are not the gatekeepers, the protectors of the “mystery.” Men need to own their sexuality and act appropriately (as the Catholic church needs to own its cover-up and protection of the real predators that roam the sanctuary and rectory: Catholic priests).

Lest readers think Pritchard is a lone fundamentalist Catholic, I leave you with the advice another fundamentalist Catholic woman, T.M. Gaouette, gives to sexually aware Catholic girls:

In a 2004 article titled “The Forgotten Virtue: Modesty In Dress,” author Monsignor Charles M. Mangan lays out a basic guide founded upon principles of modesty set by Pope Pius XII in 1957. These values are still valid today and I’ve found them to be very helpful in determining what’s modest and what’s not.

With Mangan’s help, I will offer specific guidelines on dressing modestly.

To dress modestly is to avoid deliberately causing sexual excitement in oneself or one’s neighbor (Mangan).

The objective of modesty is to refrain from wearing clothing that causes lustful thoughts, whether intentionally or unintentionally. When dressing modestly, Christian girls should avoid clothes that reveal, enhance or highlight certain body parts.

  • Bust: Avoid tight or see-through shirts or tops without appropriate undergarments, and tops with low plunging necklines that reveal a cleavage. If you have a large bust, then you should also stay away from spaghetti straps and strapless designs.
  • Thighs: When it comes to skirts, select those that are no shorter than above the knee. Make sure you account for how high the skirt rises when you sit. When it comes to shorts, opt for those that don’t expose too much of the thigh.
  • Back: Refrain from wearing backless shirts or dresses that plunge in the back. These styles are designed to look sexy.
  • Stomach: Shirts and tops should always cover the stomach.
  • Butt: Avoid tight skirts, shorts, dresses and pants that reveal the shape and curve of the buttocks. I also would avoid pants with words printed on the butt, since they are designed to cause the eyes to gaze at that area of your body.

I added “butt” to Mangan’s list because it often causes lustful thoughts in men when highlighted by tight shorts, pants, dresses and skirts.

There usually are no exceptions to the above rules in the case of everyday clothing. When it comes to athletic wear, make sure that your ensemble doesn’t look sexy.

Clothing fulfills three necessary requirements: hygiene, decency and adornment. These are ‘so deeply rooted in nature that they cannot be disregarded or contradicted without provoking hostility and prejudice’ (Mangan quoting Pope Pius XII).

In addition to these guidelines, I believe that, in some instances, modesty is subjective. One item of clothing may be immodest on one person, but modest on another. For example, spaghetti straps can look both modest and immodest, depending on the size of the person’s bust. However, modesty in this case can usually be attained by adding a cardigan or light jacket.

Dear reader, what do you think? Is Pritchard correct in not allowing her four-year old to wear a top with spaghetti straps? You already know what I think. Please leave your thoughts in the comment section.

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Is There Only One Plan of Salvation?

saved lost

o hear many Evangelical preachers tell it, salvation is a transaction between God and humankind. Humankind is wicked, vile, and sinful, unable to do good and headed for hell. God, in his infinite wisdom, made a way for us to have our sins forgiven. Once we avail ourselves of this super-duper sin-erasing way, we have a ticket to heaven that cannot be canceled. The moment we pray to Jesus and ask him to forgive us of our sins and come into our life, one of heaven’s angels puts a door hangar on a room in the Father’s House that says RESERVED.

Countless American Christians have prayed the sinners prayer and are certain that when they die they will wake up in heaven. They have successfully pulled the handle on God’s Salvation Dispensing Machine® and down the chute came a Fire Insurance policy that guarantees payment upon death. It is the only insurance that pays off AFTER you die.

Eternal security, also known as once-saved-always-saved, is a central tenet of many an Evangelical preacher’s soteriology. Once in the family you can never leave the family. God’s family is like the mob, once you are in, you are in for life. What better thing to offer sinners than a guaranteed home in heaven that costs them nothing more than a few heartfelt words:

Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for Your forgiveness. I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Savior. In Your Name. Amen

The Bible says in Romans 10:9,10,13:

 That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.

Arminians, those who believe you can lose your salvation, object to the doctrine of eternal security. According to their theology, Christians can lose their salvation. Good works are necessary to maintain one’s salvation.  Calvinists also object to the doctrine of eternal security. They emphatically believe that a person must persevere, hold on until death. And if they don’t, this is proof that the person never really was a Christian.

Based on what I have written above, this means that someone such as myself, a reprobate, a denier of God and his offer of salvation, a man who once was saved, who once followed Jesus is either:

  • Still saved because once you are saved you can never lose it
  • Unsaved because I lost the salvation I once had
  • Never was saved

Over the years I have had numerous Christians tell me that one of these three statements is an accurate description of my present state. All of them are quite certain that they are 100% right about my standing with God and where I will end up when I die.

Every Christian sect would agree that salvation and eternal destiny are THE most important issues every person must decide. Amos 4:12 says, PREPARE to meet thy God.  Surely then, God has made the whole salvation thing crystal clear, right? Nope.

Take the aforementioned verses in Romans 10:9,10, 13. It seems clear that belief=salvation=eternity in heaven.  John 10:28 says:

And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.

and 1 John 5:13 says:

These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.

and Hebrews 8:38, 39 says:

For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

These are the verses on which the once-saved-always-saved believers hang their hats. Of course, Arminians and Calvinists both have arguments and rebuttals to the once-saved-always-saved interpretations.  I once heard an Arminian preacher explain John 10:28 this way:

No man can pluck you out of God’s hand but you can jump out by yourself.

The point I am trying to make is that the whole notion of Christian salvation is hopelessly convoluted, complex, and contradictory. Right now, Evangelical preachers reading this post are:

jumping man

They are certain that THEIR soteriology, THEIR plan of salvation, is the right one. As I have stated numerous times, the Bible teaches multiple plans of salvation, with each plan contradicted by other Bible verses. Let me illustrate this. We already know what the once–saved-always-saved preacher says. Are there verses that contradict his salvation plan?

Hebrews 3:12-14 says:

Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God. But exhort one another daily, while it is called To day; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast unto the end;

This passage seems to be quite clear. A brother (brethren) can have an evil heart of unbelief and walk away from God. He will only have salvation and eternal life if he is steadfast to the end.

Can a person, for a time, fall away, and then come back to Jesus? Is it possible for someone such as I to repent of my sin, renounce my atheism, and return to following Jesus? Countless Evangelical preachers would say, YES! It’s never too late. As long as you are a living, breathing soul, you can be saved.

But wait a minute!

Doesn’t Romans 1 and 2 talk about people who can’t be saved, people who have been given by God over to a reprobate mind? Isn’t it too late for them? And what about the Jews? John 12:37-40 says:

But though he (Jesus) had done so many miracles before them (the Jews) , yet they believed not on him: That the saying of Esaias the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spake, Lord, who hath believed our report? and to whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed? Therefore they could not believe, because that Esaias said again, He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them.

God blinded the eyes and hardened the hearts of the Jews so they would not understand and be converted. In other words, these Jews could not be saved. Does this no-salvation-for-you only apply to Jews alive during the days Jesus walked through the streets of Galilee and Jerusalem? Evangelicals argue endlessly over the Jews and whether they can be saved or even need to be saved.

Now, if I can, let me land this plane. Consider a few passages from the book of Hebrews.

Hebrews 6:4-6 says:

For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.

As a Christian, I was once enlightened and I tasted of the heavenly gift. I was made a partaker of the Holy Ghost, tasted the good word of God and the powers of the world to come. I am now an atheist and I have repudiated all that I once said I believed. According to Hebrews 6:4-6, it is IMPOSSIBLE for me to ever be saved again. Why? Because I make a mockery of Jesus’s atoning work on the cross.

The writer of Hebrews reiterates this in Hebrews 10:29-31:

Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace? For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Granted, theologians and preachers of every persuasion have explanations for the multiple, contradictory plans of salvation. Many will dismiss the Hebrews quotes with a wave of the hand saying, these verses apply to the Jews not us. Others will open their sect’s systematic theology book, turn to the section on soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) and “prove” that any salvation scheme but theirs is wrong and will likely lead to eternal damnation and hell fire.

Here’s my point. If Christian theologians and preachers can’t agree on something as basic as salvation, what hope is there for those not trained in theology? How can they, without the preacher telling them, read the Bible and find out for themselves the way to heaven?

From cover to cover the Bible is a convoluted, contradictory mess. Try as theologians and preachers might to “harmonize” the Bible to fit their theological system, it remains unable to simply answer the question, what must I do to be saved? (Acts 16 and Mark 16) Even with the passage that asks the question what must I do to be saved, Christian preachers argue amongst themselves over whether salvation requires baptism.

All of what I have detailed here is evidence that the Bible is very much a human-made book. Surely if the Bible is inspired, inerrant, and infallible as many Christians sects and preachers believe, one would think that the manner in which someone is saved, how one comes into right standing with God, would be clear. It’s not.

Let me finish this post with Bruce Gerencser’s salvation plan:

Live well, do good works, and die. The only heaven and hell you will experience in this life is what you and your fellow human beings create.

Straight from the mouth of Bruce Almighty, written down on this inspired, inerrant, and infallible page. Thus saith Bruce.

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Heaven and Hell, The Carrot and the Stick

carrot and stick

The two tools most often used by Evangelical preachers to keep people in the pews are:

  • The threat of God’s judgment
  • The threat of hell

As with Jonathan Edwards in his famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, Evangelical preachers warn parishioners of the judgment to come and the hell that awaits anyone who does not repent of their sins and become a follower of Jesus.

Here’s what Edwards had to say:

…The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.

O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment…

While few Evangelical preachers can turn a word and speak as eloquently as Edwards, their message is still the same: judgment and hell awaits those who do not repent of their sins and follow after Jesus.

Preachers often use what I call the carrot and stick approach. Every person has a choice to make about where they spend eternity. While Calvinists and Arminians argue endlessly over whether we really are free to choose, saving faith does require an act of volition. Every person must choose between heaven and hell. Become a follower of Jesus and heaven, the carrot awaits when you die. Reject Jesus, his salvific work on the cross and his death-defying resurrection from the dead, then hell, the stick, awaits you when you die.

Evangelical preachers impress on those under the sound of their voice that it is important to make a decision for Christ NOW! The Bible says in the last part of II Corinthians 6:2:

…behold now is the accepted time; behold now is the day of salvation.

According to Evangelical preachers, none of us has the promise of tomorrow. Proverbs 27:1 states:

Boast not thyself of to morrow; for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth.

Evangelical preachers are like Larry the Cable Guy. Git ‘er Done! Today, right now, don’t delay.

Some preachers spice up their sermons with illustrations of people who died suddenly or who died after hearing and rejecting the preacher’s warning about God’s judgment and hell. These stories, true or not, are meant to elicit an immediate response. When I was a preacher, my goal was to press every person who heard my sermon to make a decision. I was of the opinion that there was no such thing as a neutral position. Once a person heard the gospel, heard my sermon, they had a choice to make. Heaven or hell, which will it be?

A regular reader of this blog sent me a Franklin Graham quote that I think will help illustrate what I am trying to say in this post:

“Death is serious, eternal business. Once our physical hearts beat for the last time, we will instantly find ourselves either in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ in all His splendor, or in the pit of Hell away from His presence.”

There’s the carrot and the stick. Heaven or hell; choose now while your heart is still beating. The moment your heart stops beating, your eternal destiny is settled.

Think for a moment about what Graham said here about the heart stopping. So, if a person’s heart stops, his eternal destiny is settled? What if his heart is restarted using a defibrillator? Does this mean his eternal destiny is not really settled and he gets another chance to decide, heaven or hell? For those people who have heart transplants, does that mean that they need to decide again?

The bigger problem with Graham’s statement is that it is bad theology. According to orthodox Christian theology, when people die, they do not go to heaven or hell. Instead, they go to the grave and will remain there until the resurrection of the dead. Grandma is not up in Heaven running around, nor is she peering over the portals of Heaven watching her grandchildren play. Neither is Christopher Hitchens in hell, being tormented day and night for daring to mock the thrice holy God. They are dead, lying in the grave, awaiting the second coming of Jesus and the resurrection of the dead.

After the resurrection of the dead, the final judgment will take place and every person will be sent to his or her eternal destiny. And even here, many Evangelical preachers, including Graham, get it wrong. Christians will not spend eternity in Heaven. Instead, they will spend it in the kingdom of God. Hitchens and the rest of us reprobates? We will not spend eternity in hell. Instead we will spend it in the lake of fire.

Revelation 20:11-15 makes this quite clear:

And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.

and Revelation 21:1-8:

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful. And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely. He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son. But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.

And here an even more interesting point. Isn’t our eternal destiny is settled by repenting of our sins and following after Jesus? These texts state that everyone is judged by their works, that it is works that determine whether Grandma, Hitchens, or anyone else goes to heaven or hell.

I wish Evangelical preachers would get together and figure out exactly where it is we are all going when we die. I wish they would  determine if it is really up to me to decide? With so much confusion and lack of theological precision, how is a poor, lost atheist such as I am, supposed to determine in what hotel to make my final reservation?

The purpose of this post is to show how confusing and contradictory Evangelical preachers and their theology can be. If they are not precise and clear, can mere untrained, unwashed Philistines such as we are have any hope of finding THE Way, Truth, and Life?

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Curiosity, A Missing Evangelical Trait

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Why is it that so many Evangelicals have no desire to be curious? Yes, I know many are, so don’t get your panties in a bunch if you are a curiouser- than-a-cat Evangelical. I frequently get an email or a blog comment from an Evangelical Christian wanting to “help” me find my way to Jesus. Such people are certain that they possess the requisite knowledge and skill to win me to Jesus. They are sure that if they just befriend me, quote the right verses, soothe my hurts, or understand my pain, I will fall on my knees and call on the name of Jesus.

I was in the Christian church for fifty years. I was a pastor for twenty-five of those years. I have a Bible college education. Surely they understand that I am not an atheist out of ignorance? Of course not, and here is where their lack of curiosity gets them in trouble. They often don’t know anything about me or this blog. Why? Because they did a Google/Bing/Yahoo search for _________________ and their search brought them to a single blog post of mine. They read that one post and immediately decide that I am a poor wayfaring waif in need of Jesus.

When I get comments such as these, I go to the logs and see what pages they read. Usually, they have read only the page the search brought them to. Their lack of curiosity (or laziness) is astounding and leads them to make wild judgments about me and come to rash, ill-informed conclusions. If they would just read the About page they would be better informed about me and this blog.

I suspect part of the reason Evangelicals are not, in general, known for their curiosity, is because they are 100% certain that they are absolutely right. They worship the one, true God and this God lives inside of them. This God walks with them, talks with them, and tell them that they are his own. They have a supernatural book given to them by this supernatural God. This book contains all the answers about life they will ever need.

When you are certain…there is no need to think, reason, investigate, or doubt. When the man upstairs is on your team, no need to consider any other team. When your church has declared that strawberry ice cream is the one true ice cream, no need to try any other ice cream.

Simply put, no need to know anything else, when you already know all you need to know. God said it and that settled it. One true God, one true religious text, one way of salvation. The earth is 6,000 years old, created in six days. The Bible gives the blueprint for Christ-honoring family, a happy marriage, obedient kids, and great sex. When the answer to every question is God, it’s not surprising to find that Evangelicals are not curious.

The good news is that more and more Evangelicals are discovering the curiosity that lies dormant beneath the surface of their lives. Once they make this discovery, they are on their way out of the closed-mindedness and senses-dulling prison of Evangelicalism. They will find out that science can and does explain the world they live in. Science doesn’t have all the answers, but it is asking the right questions.

Still want/need to believe in a transcendent deity or some sort of spirituality? Once free of the heaven/hell, saved/lost, in/out, good/bad paradigm of Evangelicalism, people are free to wander at will. When the fear of hell and judgment is gone, they are free to experience those things that are meaningful to them. Once the question is no longer will you go to heaven when you die, the journey rather than the destination becomes what matters.

Curiosity may kill the cat, but trust me Evangelicals, it won’t kill you.

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Almost Everything You Wanted to Know About Bruce Gerencser

questions

Updated April 13, 2016.

I wrote the following to inform those who don’t know me about my past and present life. While this is in no way the sum of my life, it should help to answer some of the questions readers might have. I try to be open and honest. If you have a personal question you would like me to answer, please send me an email or leave your question in the comment section.

I also wrote a humorous follow-up to this post. You can read it here.

How do you pronounce Gerencser?

Grr IN Sir

What nationality is your name?

Hungarian

How old are you?

58

How long have you been married?

37 years

How many children do you have?

Six

How many grandchildren do you have?

Eleven  ten granddaughters and one grandson

How many times have you been married?

Once

Where do you live?

Rural NW Ohio, the village of Ney. One stoplight, one gas station, one pizza place/bar, and one restaurant/bar. We have lived here since 2007.

Do you own your own home?

Yes

What color is your hair?

Well it used to be bright red, some say orange. These days, it is a faded, dull red, mostly white. (see picture above)

How tall are you?

Six foot

How much do you weigh?

I currently weigh 365 pounds. I weighed 160 pounds at age 18, 180 pounds the day I got married, and 225 pounds five years after I married. I am twice the man I was on my wedding day.

Which hand are you?

Left, 100% left.

What color are your eyes?

They range from gray to sparkling blue. Polly says my eye color is determined by my mood.

What is your body shape?

I have short legs (29 inch inseam) and a long body. One man told me I was built like a fire plug.

What’s wrong with you?

How much time do you have? I have suffered with depression most of my life. I have Fibromyalgia, diagnosed in 1997. Since 2007, I have had non-specific neurological problems that affect my ability to stand and walk. I live with daily, unrelenting pain. I walk with a cane and often have to use a wheelchair.

What sports teams do you root for?

Cincinnati Reds, Detroit Tigers, Louisville Bats, Fort Wayne TinCaps, Toledo Mud Hens, Cincinnati Bengals, and Ohio State football and basketball.

I am also a dirt track racing fan.

Did you play sports?

Yes, I played Little League and City League baseball and City League basketball. I played one year of junior high football.

I was usually good enough to make the team, but I tended to be on the far end of the bench (except for City League basketball, where I was a starter).

Should Pete Rose be in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame?

Yes

What do you like to do for fun or to relax?

Go anywhere with Polly.

Attend a sporting event with my sons.

Read non-fiction books.

Take a walk in the woods, or a walk anywhere with the love of my life by my side. These days, it is usually Polly pushing me in a wheelchair when we take walks.

What are your hobbies?

I am a serious amateur photographer. I use Sony, Tamron, and Sigma equipment.

I have extensive computer/Windows software knowledge. I build my own computers.

I also like to garden and work in the yard when I am able.

When did you buy your first computer?

1992, a V-Tech 286.

Who are your favorite authors?

Thomas Merton, Henry David Thoreau, Bart Ehrman, and Wendell Berry, along with countless other authors who have helped me along the way.

What is your favorite comic?

Get Fuzzy.

What foods do you like?

Food.

Do you drink alcohol?

Yes, I like wine and spirits. I am not a beer drinker.

What are your favorite restaurants?

Mad Anthony’s in Fort Wayne and Auburn, Indiana, Red Lobster, and Texas Roadhouse.

For dessert, I like Eric’s Ice Cream in Defiance, Ohio and Dietsch Brothers Ice Cream in Findlay, Ohio.

What is your favorite ice cream?

Rocky Road and Mint Chocolate Chip.

What is your favorite candies?

Double dipped chocolate malted milk balls from Dietsch’s, Clark, Zero, Zagnut, Snickers, and Milky Way candy bars, and Goetz’s Carmel Creams.

What communities have you lived in?

Over the past 58 years, I have lived in:

Ohio: Bryan (numerous times), Ney (twice), Farmer, Deshler, Harrod, Findlay, Mount Blanchard, Alvordton (twice), Newark (twice), Buckeye Lake, New Lexington (twice), Junction City, Mount Perry, Glenford, and Somerset.

California: San Diego and Chula Vista.

Arizona: Tucson, Sierra Vista, Hereford, and Yuma.

Michigan: Pontiac and Clare.

Texas: Elmendorf.

How many houses have you lived in?

16 houses by age 21 and 18 more houses since Polly and I have been married.

How many cars have you owned?

Over 60. The cheapest cost $25.00, the most expensive cost $29,000.00.

What car do you currently own?

2015 Ford Escape.

What was your favorite car?

The 1970 Chevrolet Nova SS I owned in the 1970s.

What was your least favorite car?

Any of the cars I owned that were made by American Motors.

Besides pastoring, what jobs have you worked?

Janitor, gas station attendant, short order cook, newspaper motor route, life insurance salesman, sweeper salesman, restaurant general manager, network manager, durable medical equipment supply office manager, dairy department manager, grocery stock clerk, workfare/court offender program manager, litter control manager/officer, building code enforcement officer, grant manager, real estate updater for auditor’s office, farm worker, mechanic, cable box repairman, shipping and receiving, turret lathe operator, and numerous general laborer jobs in factories.

What was your favorite job?

Restaurant general manager.

What is your favorite color?

Blue.

What are your politics?

Liberal, progressive, socialist.

Are you an atheist?

Yes.

Are you a humanist?

Yes.

What is your worldview?

I am agnostic on the God question. I cannot know for certain if a god of some sort exists, but I think it is highly improbable. It is possible that a deity of some sort might someday reveal herself to us, but I highly doubt it. I am convinced that all of the deities in the human panoply of gods are the creation of humans.

I live my day-to-day life as an atheist. Thoughts of God never enter my mind unless I am writing an article for this website.

I try to live my life according to the humanist ideals spelled out in the various humanist manifestos.

Do you fear going to hell?

No more than I fear Mickey Mouse breaking into my house and stealing my TV.

In other words, since heaven, hell, and the devil are the fictions of humans, I don’t fear hell.

What churches did you pastor?

Montpelier Baptist Church, Montpelier, Ohio – Assistant Pastor.

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Buckeye Lake, Ohio – Assistant Pastor.

Somerset Baptist Church, Somerset, Ohio – Pastor.

Community Baptist Church, Elmendorf, Texas – Pastor.

Olive Branch Christian Union Church, Fayette, Ohio – Pastor.

Our Father’s House, West Unity, Ohio – Pastor.

Victory Baptist Church, Clare, Michigan – Pastor.

What was your favorite church?

Our Father’s House, West Unity, Ohio.

How many churches did you start?

Five.

I helped start Emmanuel Baptist Church, Buckeye Lake, Ohio.

I started Somerset Baptist Church, Somerset, Ohio and Our Father’s House, West Unity, Ohio.

While co-pastor of Community Baptist Church, Elmendorf, Texas, I started two churches, one in Floresville, Texas and one in Stockdale, Texas.

Have you ever been baptized?

Three times.

I was baptized as an infant at the Lutheran church in Bryan, Ohio.

I was baptized when my parents joined Eastland Baptist Mission in Bryan, Ohio.

I was baptized at Trinity Baptist Church, Findlay, Ohio after I made a public profession of faith.

When were you saved?

I made a public profession of faith at Trinity Baptist Church, Findlay, Ohio at the age of 15.

When were you called to preach?

I was called to preach several weeks after I was saved.

Where did you attend college?

Midwestern Baptist College, Pontiac, Michigan 1976-79.

How many churches have you visited/preached at in your lifetime?

Over 150.

What can you tell me about your wife?

We met at Bible college. Polly is a pastor’s daughter. She is my lover and best friend. She is an awesome cook, a great seamstress, and she never lets me have all the covers.

What can you tell me about your kids?

Well, there are six of them, four sons and two daughters. Four of them are married and have children of their own. One of them is going through a divorce. Five of them are gainfully employed. Our oldest daughter has Down Syndrome.

Are your children Christian?

You’ll have to ask them. None of them is Evangelical and all of them have left the faith of their youth.

Do you have any siblings?

Yes, a brother and sister. They both live in Arizona (Chandler and Tombstone).

Are your parents still living?

No. My father died at the age of 49 from a stroke and my Mom committed suicide at the age of 54.

What kind of music do you like to listen to?

I like every style of music except rap, old-style country, and opera.

Who are your favorite artists?

Matt Nathanson, Eliza Gilkyson, Darius Rucker, Theory of a Deadman, Staind, Seether, Lucinda Williams, The Carpenters, Collective Soul, Sugarland.

What is your favorite movie?

Mosquito Coast and Hell in the Pacific.

If you could live any place in the world where would you live?

Anywhere near water as long as Polly is with me and my children live 20 minutes away.

Why do you blog?

I have a story to tell and blogging is my way of telling it.

Why do you stop blogging from time to time?

Depression and health problems.

Have you made a lot of money blogging?

Yes, millions of dollars. So much money that I don’t know what to do with it.

Serious answer? Last year, blog donations totaled about $2000. I don’t write to make money. I write because I want and need to.

Are you writing a book?

Yes, I started it a dozen times and I hope to have it done before I die. I signed a book contract last December. I hope to have it completed by the end of summer.

What’s most important to you?

My family.

What’s least important to you?

The approbation of others.

What is your favorite season?

Fall.

If you had one piece of advice to give me, what would it be?

You have one life. There is no heaven or hell. There is no afterlife. You have one life, it’s yours, and what you do with it is what matters most. Love and forgive those who matter to you and ignore those who add nothing to your life. Life is too short to spend time trying to make nice with those who will never make nice with you. Determine who are the people in your life that matter and give your time and devotion to them. Live each and every day to its fullest. You never know when death might come calling. Don’t waste time trying to be a jack of all trades, master of none. Find one or two things you like to do and do them well. Too many people spend way too much time doing things they will never be good at.

Here’s the conclusion of the matter. It’s your life and you best get to living it. Some day, sooner than you think, it will be over. Don’t let your dying days be ones of regret over what might have been.

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