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Why I Became a Calvinist — Part Five

sovereignty-of-god

In the previous posts in this series, I have talked a lot about the doctrines of grace, also known as the five points of Calvinism. Today, I want to talk about the sovereignty of God — the singular, overarching belief that binds Calvinistic theology together. What do Calvinists mean when they speak of the sovereignty of God? If there’s one book that every newly minted Calvinist has likely read — no, it’s not the Bible — it would be A.W. Pink’s classic, The Sovereignty of God. Since this book is widely accepted as the definitive Calvinistic statement on the sovereignty of God, I thought I would let Pink define the doctrine:

The Sovereignty of God. What do we mean by this expression? We mean the supremacy of God, the kingship of God, the godhood of God. To say that God is Sovereign is to declare that God is God. To say that God is Sovereign is to declare that He is the Most High, doing according to His will in the army of Heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth, so that none can stay His hand or say unto Him what doest Thou? (Dan. 4:35). To say that God is Sovereign is to declare that He is the Almighty, the Possessor of all power in Heaven and earth, so that none can defeat His counsels, thwart His purpose, or resist His will (Psa. 115:3). To say that God is Sovereign is to declare that He is “The Governor among the nations” (Psa. 22:28), setting up kingdoms, overthrowing empires, and determining the course of dynasties as pleaseth Him best. To say that God is Sovereign is to declare that He is the “Only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords” (1 Tim. 6:15). Such is the God of the Bible.

….

The Sovereignty of the God of Scripture is absolute, irresistible, infinite. When we say that God is Sovereign we affirm His right to govern the universe which He has made for His own glory, just as He pleases. We affirm that His right is the right of the Potter over the clay, i. e., that He may mold that clay into whatsoever form He chooses, fashioning out of the same lump one vessel unto honor and another unto dishonor. We affirm that He is under no rule or law outside of His own will and nature, that God is a law unto Himself, and that He is under no obligation to give an account of His matters to any.

Sovereignty characterizes the whole Being of God. He is Sovereign in all His attributes. He is Sovereign in the exercise of His power. His power is exercised as He wills, when He wills, where He wills. This fact is evidenced on every page of Scripture.

Simply put, saying God is sovereign means that He alone is responsible for and controls EVERYTHING! Of course, such a statement quickly leads to the critics of Calvinism saying, so God is culpable for sin? Calvinists have all sorts of arguments they use to get around this logical conclusion, including answering in the affirmative — Yes, God is responsible for sin. If God is sovereign and he decrees all that happens without exception, then the only conclusion one can come to is that God is responsible for sin. So what? some Calvinists say. God is God and he can do whatever he wants to do. Whatever God does is right because it is God who is doing it.  When objections are raised, Calvinists reply, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and his ways are not our ways. In other words, he is God, the creator and we are the created. He is the potter, as the book of Romans says, and we are the clay. God can and does do whatever he wants, and as the Apostle Paul says in Romans 9, those who object to God’s sovereignty need to shut the hell up (okay, he didn’t say it like that word for word, but you get my point). As finite beings, mankind has no right to criticize or condemn God’s works.

When I first came to know and understand the sovereignty of God, I was relieved. For the longest time, I carried the burden of building a church congregation on my shoulders. While God was certainly there right along beside me, I knew it was up to me to get things done. As a Calvinist, I no longer felt pressured to get this or that done; that if God wanted me to do something he would bring it to pass; that if God didn’t want something done there was absolutely nothing I could do. Now, in retrospect, I know that only way anything gets done is if I do it. I suspect that’s how it works for you in your life too. And Calvinism aside, a case can be made for taking this approach to life; that praying and “waiting” on God often become camouflage for laziness and indifference.

As the sovereignty of God permeated every aspect of my ministerial and personal life, how I approached things began to change. The first thing I did away with was giving altar calls — a manipulative tool popularized by nineteenth century evangelist Charles Finney. The second thing I did was turn my attention away from aggressive evangelistic efforts. Instead, I focused more of my time on my studies; on preparing my sermons; on preparing lessons for Sunday school and, later, an elders’ class. As I mentioned in a previous post, I set my sights on un-saving congregants who had been saved during my Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) days. I believed that I had been preaching a truncated, bastardized version of the Christians gospel, so it was my solemn duty to preach the Calvinistic gospel. I learned, after six years of such efforts at one church, that it is much harder to get people un-saved than it is to get them saved. The third thing I did was breatheGod is in control, I told myself. No need to stress out over winning the lost. If God wanted them saved, well he would save them. My job was to preach the gospel.

During my early years as a Calvinist, I read John MacArthur’s book, The Gospel According to Jesus. In this book, MacArthur demolished my IFB soteriology. MacArthur believed: “The gospel call to faith presupposes that sinners must repent of their sin and yield to Christ’s authority.” IFB pastors generally believed that a person could be saved, yet not make Jesus Lord of their lives. The crux of the argument was whether sinners had to repent of their sins to be saved. Many IFB preachers believed in what Calvinists called decisional regeneration; the belief that by praying a simple prayer a sinner was saved. Requiring sinners to repent of their sins was, in the eyes of many IFB preachers, works salvation. MacArthur would not have any of that, saying that the lordship of Christ was not optional; that if a person was not willing to forsake his sin and totally follow Jesus there would be no salvation for him. (See One, Two, Three, Repeat After me; Salvation, Bob Gray Style.)

One story that stands out from this time is a written interaction I had with Curtis Hutson, editor of the Sword of the Lord — an IFB newspaper. Previous to Hutson, John R. Rice was the editor of the Sword. Rice had written in a tract titled What Must I Do to Be Saved? that sinners had to repent of their sins to be saved. No repentance, no salvation. Hutson, after taking over the Sword, decided to rewrite the part in the tract that talked about repentance. Hutson, like many of the big name IFB preachers of the day, believed that repentance was a mere change of mind: I was against Jesus and now I am for him; I was headed east and now I am headed west; I was a sinner and now I believe in Jesus. Men such as Jack Hyles and Bob Gray, Sr. turned this intellectual assent into an art form. Thousands and thousands and thousands of people prayed the sinner’s prayer, believing that by doing so they became Christians. No mention of repenting of sin was mentioned. To do so was to preach works salvation. And that’s exactly what Curtis Hutson told me when I wrote him. I called him out on his secretive change of Rice’s tract. I told Hutson that he materially changed what Rice believed; that Rice’s gospel and his gospel were not the same. Hutson responded by telling me that I was preaching works salvation, a gospel that did not save.

Rice was no Calvinist, but he did believe that repentance was essential to salvation. If a person was not willing to forsake his sin and follow after Jesus, there would be no salvation for him. Back in my college days, I went door to door attempting to evangelize sinners. My goal was to share with them the simple plan of salvation (The Roman’s Road) and ask them if they wanted to be saved. If so, I asked them to pray the sinner’s prayer. (See The Top Five Reasons People Say the Sinner’s Prayer.) Once they prayed the prayer, I declared them to be a newly-minted Christian. One day, I happened upon a woman I thought might need saving. As I started to go into my spiel, she — realizing I was one of those terrorist preacher boys from Midwestern Baptist College — stopped me and said, there’s no need for you to continue. I already did that. I asked her where she went to church and she replied, nowhere. I am saved now. Why do I need to go to church? Men such as Hyles, Gray, Sr, Dennis Corle, Hutson, Steven Anderson, and countless other IFB preachers believe that this woman, if she “sincerely” prayed the sinner’s prayer, was saved, a new-born child of God. Rice, MacArthur, and the now Calvinistic Bruce Gerencser believed the woman was still dead in trespasses and sins, and headed for hell unless she repented of her sins and followed after the Shepherd, Jesus Christ.

As a Calvinist, I believed that sinners were spiritually dead, unable to believe without God giving them the ability to do so. Man was bound by sin, and unable to do anything about it unless God intervened. This intervention was called regeneration; the giving of life to dead sinners. For most (not all) Calvinists, regeneration preceded faith. Since unregenerate humans had no free will and were spiritually dead, it was impossible for them to believe on their own. As an IFB preacher, I believed faith preceded regeneration; that spiritual life came when a sinner, by faith, asked Jesus to save them. As a Calvinist, my response to this notion was this: how can a dead man do anything?

My goal, then, as a Calvinistic preacher, was to preach the gospel in the hope that what I preached would find fertile ground in the hearts given life by the Holy Spirit. As an IFB preacher, so much of how people were saved depended on me: the right sermon, the right illustrations, the right delivery, the right invitation song. As a Calvinist, my objective was to simply preach the gospel; to declare the whole counsel of God. If sinners were going to be saved it was up to God, not me.

Numerically speaking, hundreds and hundreds of people were saved through my ministry and preaching as an IFB preacher. As a Calvinist, I saw a few people saved. As an IFB preacher, I expected people to be saved weekly. As a Calvinist, I found that months and months could pass without anyone saying that God had saved them. This, by the way, is typical. IFB churches tend to rack up large numbers of converts, whereas in Calvinistic churches conversions are few. IFB churches tend to focus on quantity, and Calvinistic churches on quality. Which is better? It all depends on what matters to a preacher. Does he want big attendance numbers, or does he value the intellectual growth of congregants?

Let me illustrate this difference with what is commonly called The Great Commission:

Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:

Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen. (Matthew 28:19,20)

IFB churches tend to focus on verse 19: Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. The goal is to preach the gospel to the whole world. Calvinistic churches, on the other hand, tend to focus on verse 20: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you. The goal is to teach followers of Christ his commandments. Rare is the church that fulfills both parts of the Great Commission.

As I survey my years in the ministry, I have to say that my Calvinistic years were far more rewarding personally and intellectually. I enjoyed the hard work required for crafting good sermons. I enjoyed spending hours upon hours reading books and studying the Bible.  As an IFB preacher, my life was consumed with the ministry, with winning souls, with building a growing church. As a Calvinist, I was content to be the resident intellectual; a man paid to study the Bible and read awesome books. I still cared about the souls of attendees and church members, but I no longer felt pressed to perform. Above all, as a Calvinist, I found that I had more time to spend with my wife and children.

In Part Six, I plan to write about how Calvinism affected my marriage and my relationship with my children. In particular, I plan to talk about birth control and family size. There’s a reason Polly and I have six children and why there’s six years between child number three and child number four and why we stopped having children after our youngest son was born. Stay tuned.

Note

For you who are interested in the difference between Rice’s version of the tract What Must I Do to Be Saved? and Curtis Hutson’s:

John R Rice wrote:

Does not the Bible say that we must repent? Yes, the Bible plainly says that “God … commandeth all men every where to repent” (Acts 17:30), and again, “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3,5).

This was the preaching of John the Baptist, of Jesus, of Peter and of Paul, that men should repent. And certainly repentance is in God’s plan of salvation. The trouble here, however, is that men misunderstand what repentance means, and there has grown up an idea that repentance means a period of weeping and mourning over sin, or sorrow for sins. This idea comes from the Douay Version of the Bible which instead of “repent” says “do penance.”

So the place of inquiry, where people should be taught the plan of salvation from the Bible, in revival meetings, became “the mourner’s bench” and thousands of people have been taught that God would not hear their prayer nor forgive their sins until they went through a process of sorrow and mourning over their sins!

Do not misunderstand me. God is anxious for you to have a penitent, broken heart over your sins. You have gone away from God. You have trampled under foot the blood of Jesus Christ, wasted years of your life which you can never live over again. You have served your father, the Devil.

There is plenty for you to weep over, and I am not surprised if you feel deep shame and sorrow in your heart that you have so mistreated the God who made you and the Saviour who died for you. I am not surprised if you cannot keep back the tears! But what I want you to know is that tears or no tears, however much sorrow you may have in your heart, or not have, those things do not save you.

You ought to be sorry for your sins and ashamed of them. “Godly sorrow worketh repentance” (II Cor. 7:10)—the right kind of sorrow leads to immediate repentance, but mourning is not itself repentance.

“Could my tears forever flow,
Could my zeal no respite know,
These for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.”

To repent literally means to have a change of mind or spirit toward God and toward sin. It means to turn from your sins, earnestly, with all your heart, and trust in Jesus Christ to save you. You can see, then, how the man who believes in Christ repents and the man who repents believes in Christ. The jailer repented when he turned from sin to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Curtis Hutson changed the tract to this:

Does not the Bible say that we must repent? Yes, the Bible plainly says that “God … commandeth all men every where to repent” (Acts 17:30), and again, “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5). This was the preaching of John the Baptist, of Jesus, of Peter and of Paul, that men should repent. And certainly repentance is God’s plan of salvation. The trouble here, however, is that men misunderstand what repentance means, and there has grown up an idea that repentance means a period of weeping and mourning over sin, or sorrow for sins. This idea comes from the Douay Version of the Bible which instead of “repent” says “do penance.” So the place of inquiry, where people should be taught the plan of salvation from the Bible, in revival meetings, became “the mourner’s bench” and thousands of people have been taught that God would not hear their prayer nor forgive their sins until they went through a process of sorrow and mourning over their sins! The right kind of sorrow leads to immediate repentance, but mourning is not itself repentance.

Other posts on the Sovereignty of God

Is God Sovereign and Does Everything Happen for a Reason?

Luck, Fate, or Providence?

Does Everything Happen for a Reason?

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Why I Became a Calvinist — Part Four

i have a questionPart four of this series is a short parenthetical post meant to answer several questions asked by readers.

What was it about Calvinism that attracted you, theologically and psychologically?

Calvinism is a theological system built with points of doctrine which build upon one another. Pull any of the five points: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the Saints, from the system and it collapses upon itself. Of course, the same could be said of any theological system. That said, Calvinism is the most complex, intricate theological system ever created by human minds.

It was the order and complexity of the system, then, that caught my attention. I have Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) and I am a perfectionist. (See Christian Perfection: A Personal Story.) I desire, crave, and need order. Theologically, Calvinism provided for me just what the doctor ordered. As I read and studied the Bible, listened to preaching tapes of Calvin-loving preachers, and devoured countless Calvinistic books, I began to “see” the truthiness of the doctrines of grace, along with its attendant doctrines such as the Sovereignty of God.

The primary reason I became an atheist is that Christianity no longer made any sense to me. (See The Michael Mock Rule: It Just Doesn’t Make Sense.) The opposite was true with Calvinism. It simply, at the time, based on my reading and study, made sense to me. Calvinism best explained certain Bible verses that had always perplexed me. Yet, at the same time, it created new interpretive problems for me. As a non-Calvinist, I found that words such as world and all meant everyone without discrimination (i.e. For God so loved the world — John 3:16). Calvinism, due to the doctrines of election and predestination, requires adherents to reinterpret verses that imply that Jesus died for everyone, Jesus loves everyone, etc. Of course, Arminians do the same with verses that speak of election and predestination.

I have long argued that the Bible is a book that can be used to prove almost anything. Whatever your theological beliefs might be, there’s support for them in the Bible. I’ve concluded, then, that all theological systems are Biblically “true” and that all sects – Baptists, Catholics, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Methodists, to name a few —  are right when they claim their beliefs are the faith once delivered to the saints.

How is Calvinism different from Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) theology?

While IFB churches are autonomous, each with its own set of beliefs and practices, they do, generally, have a common set of beliefs. (See What is an IFB Church?) When I entered the ministry in the 1970s, I didn’t know one IFB pastor who claimed the Calvinist moniker — not one. There were several pastors who, if rumors were true, had Calvinistic tendencies. Calvinism was routinely derided, criticized, and deemed heretical — antithetical to soulwinning and church growth.

In the late 1980s, Calvinism began to make inroads into the IFB church movement. Some IFB preachers embraced Amyraldism (four-point Calvinism). Wikipedia explains Amyraldism this way:

It is the belief that God decreed Christ’s atonement, prior to his decree of election, for all alike if they believe, but he then elected those whom he will bring to faith in Christ, seeing that none would believe on their own, and thereby preserving the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election. The efficacy of the atonement remains limited to those who believe.

The issue, of course, was for whom did Jesus die? Evangelical Calvinists believe Jesus died on the cross only for the elect — those chosen by God from before the foundation of the world. Four-point Calvinists, uncomfortable with the doctrine of limited atonement (particular redemption), concocted a system that said, the atonement of Christ is sufficient to save everyone in the world, but efficient for only the elect. God that?

While Calvinism continues to make inroads in IFB churches, many Calvinistic pastors tend to keep their beliefs to themselves. They preach Calvinism without ever mentioning Calvinistic buzz-words. Over time, congregations are converted without ever realizing they changed.

Classic IFB beliefs are laughingly called one-point Calvinism. Yes, God is the one who saves sinners, but it’s up to them to decide whether to believe. As with Arminian churches, emphasis is placed on man’s ability to choose (free will). Calvinists, on the other hand, focus on the sovereignty of God and the inability of man. As you can see, these two theological systems are disparate, so much so that the two groups are continually at war, each believing the other is heretical.

Evangelical Calvinists generally believe that IFB churches preach works salvation, and they alone preach salvation by grace. Carefully examining Calvinism, however, reveals that they too preach salvation by works. In fact, outside of Pelagian sects, all Christian sects/churches preach some form of salvation by works. (Let the howling begin.)

There are numerous other theological differences between IFB theology and Evangelical Calvinism, but I have shared enough of the differences to show that these two groups generally don’t “fellowship” with each other. Calvinists view IFB (and Southern Baptist) churches as targets for subversive theological change. Pastors neglect to tell such churches about their Calvinistic beliefs, hoping, over time, to win them over to the one true faith. This approach has led to all sorts of church conflict.

Why would your change of theology cause friends and colleagues in the ministry to shun (abandon) you?

In the IFB church movement (and many other Evangelical sects), fealty to right doctrine is paramount, as is following certain social practices. Some tolerance is granted for being slightly off theological center, but major deviations result in shunning or being labeled a heretic/liberal. Calvinism was certainly considered antithetical to IFB doctrine and practice, so I was not surprised when many of my preacher friends distanced themselves from me as they would a gay man with AIDS. I moved on to new fellowship groups, those with Calvinistic, reformed beliefs and practices. I will talk at length about these groups in a later post.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

An Argument Against the Existence of God: The Suffering of Animals

animal suffering

One of the biggest problems Christian apologists face is the fact that there is suffering in the world; that violence, bloodshed, famine, disease and death ravage all living things. The existence of these things suggests, at least to atheists and agnostics, that the Christian God of the Bible either doesn’t exist or he is an absentee creator who have no interest in these things.

When pressed on these issues, apologists usually take one of three approaches:

  • God’s ways are not our ways; his thought are not our thoughts. Humans are finite beings who cannot understand why God does what he does.
  • Humans are sinful, thanks to the fall of Adam and Even in the Garden of Eden. Suffering is the result of mankind’s fallen nature. Want to blame someone, blame man!
  • Suffering is a problem that cannot be totally understood in this life, but its existence does not negate the existence of God. There are other evidences for God which prove his existence.

If you have engaged Evangelical zealots on the issue of suffering, you will always hear one or more of approaches mentioned above. Simply put, God can do whatever he wants to do, and humans are to blame for whatever befalls them, not God. If God is the divine creator, as Evangelicals say he is, then an argument can be made for him doing whatever he wants to do. However, Evangelicals further assert that their God is moral and just, and that his revealed morality and justice is found within the pages of the sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible.

Once appeals are made to the Bible, Evangelicals have a big problem on their hands. According to the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God, nothing happens apart from God’s decree, purpose, and plan. Calvinists and Arminians alike believe that God is sovereign and that he alone controls the universe. Thus, if Evangelical theology is taken to its logical conclusion, this means God is ultimately culpable for everything that happens — including sin, suffering, and death. When backed into a theological corner, Evangelicals will use all sorts of arguments in their attempts wiggle out of the obvious: that God, the first cause of all things, is culpable for everything done on planet Earth.

Some Evangelicals will argue that God created humans with free will. This means, then, that humans are responsible for their actions, not God. What a minute. Are Evangelicals saying that human will trumps the will of the Almighty; that humans can subvert what God desires to do; that God is forced to stand by and do nothing while humans exercise their free will? I thought God was omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent? Are Evangelicals saying that God is the biggest bad ass in the universe, yet he is powerless to stop humans from doing whatever it is they want to do?

Other Evangelicals — usually Calvinists — will use various lapsarian (the order of God’s decrees) arguments to extricate God from the vice of culpability.  Here’s a chart that details the various lapsarian views:lapsarian views

Wikipedia

These arguments, of course, are not found in the Bible. They are philosophical arguments used to justify various theological beliefs. Some Calvinists, realizing the huge problem the origin and existence of sin and suffering causes them, will take their theology to its logical conclusion and say that God created sin; that the fall of the human race was decreed by God; that God from before the foundation of the world only purposed to save a remnant of people; that the overwhelming majority of humans will die and go to hell, all because of the sin nature God gave them. Other Calvinists, denying the aforementioned logical conclusions, put their dancing shoes on, and with salsa-like motions attempt to dance around the problems of sin and suffering.

Regardless of the arguments made for humankind’s sinfulness and the subsequent fallout, none of them adequately answers the problem of non-human animal pain and suffering. Animals do not have a will or a soul. Animals have no ability to make moral or ethical choices — at least not in the sense that humans do. Thus, animals, in a Biblical sense, are not sinful. Yet, animals face untold violence, suffering, and death. As anyone who has watched Animal Planet or the National Geographic channel knows, the animal world is violent. Darwin’s theories of adaptation and survival of the fittest are on glorious display as animal species fight to live.

If animals are not sinners and God created them, why did God create animals to be so violent? Why do animals suffer through no fault of their own? Why are billions of animals annually raised and slaughtered using violent, torturous methods by humans who supposedly bear the imprint of God? Why do these same image bearers, hunt down animals for sport, causing untold terror to the hunted? What, if anything, in the animal world says to rational humans that the Christian God of love, mercy, and kindness exists?

In recent weeks, a hawk has been frequenting our back yard. He has developed an appetite for the pigs of the feeder — starlings. Starlings tend to be bullies, forcing other bird species to feed elsewhere. These starlings think they have nothing to fear, so they drop their guard as they voraciously scarf down bird seed. The visiting hawk takes advantage of their carelessness, swooping in and grabbing a starling dinner. One day, I watched him nail two starlings in the space of half an hour.

Now, I am not a big fan of starlings (or grackles). They love to raid our feeders, at the expense of other birds we feed. That said, their death at the hand of this hawk is a reminder of how violent the animal world is. Since sin and free will are not issues, why then did God create animals to be so violent? Why is there so much suffering and death? Billions and billions of animals annually die horrific deaths, sometimes suffering for great lengths before dying. What in this arrangement says to us that the Christian is who and what his followers say he is? From my seat in the atheist pew, it seems to me that there is no God.

Some Evangelicals will agree that animal suffering is problematic; that the violence and death is regrettable and troubling. But, that doesn’t mean the Christian God is a myth. There are OTHER arguments for the existence of God, so no one should reject God without considering these other arguments. God will, in eternity, explain everything to us, but, for now, we must trust that God is working out all things according to his purpose and plan. The problem, of course, is that God’s indifference to animal suffering and death points to the fact that if the Christian deity exists, he is lacking moral character; that he is willing to do nothing while animals suffer; that he has the power to end their suffering, yet he turns a blind eye and says, make my steak rare.

smile god loves you

I can accept, from a theological perspective, that, thanks to sin, humans suffer and die. Their suffering is recompense for their disobedience. However, animals never sinned against God. They’ve done nothing to warrant suffering and death. Thus, a God who created animals knowing they would suffer and die is not a deity worthy of worship. This same God not only killed the entire human race — save eight — by drowning them, he also slaughtered all living things save the few animals gathered up by Noah (and birds capable of continuous flight for a month or longer and sea animals able to live in fresh water). What in the story of Noah says to us that the Christian God is kind, loving, and good? Nothing. God not only killed millions of men, women, and children, he also killed countless innocent unborn babies. He also killed who knows how many animals. Why? Because he could.

Some Christians will ignorantly argue that animals don’t feel pain, so it is impossible for them to, in the classic sense, suffer. Those of us who have spent time around animals, either as pet owners, farmers, or observers in the wild, know differently. Animals can and do feel pain, and they can and do suffer (so much so that we have them euthanized).

Peter Singer writes:

We can never directly experience the pain of another being, whether that being is human or not. When I see my daughter fall and scrape her knee, I know that she feels pain because of the way she behaves – she cries, she tells me her knee hurts, she rubs the sore spot, and so on. I know that I myself behave in a somewhat similar – if more inhibited – way when I feel pain, and so I accept that my daughter feels something like what I feel when I scrape my knee.

The basis of my belief that animals can feel pain is similar to the basis of my belief that my daughter can feel pain. Animals in pain behave in much the same way as humans do, and their behaviour is sufficient justification for the belief that they feel pain. It is true that, with the exception of those apes who have been taught to communicate by sign language, they cannot actually say that they are feeling pain_ but then when my daughter was a little younger she could not talk either. She found other ways to make her inner states apparent, however, so demonstrating that we can be sure that a being is feeling pain even if the being cannot use language.

To back up our inference from animal behaviour, we can point to the fact that the nervous systems of all vertebrates, and especially of birds and mammals, are fundamentally similar. Those parts of the human nervous system that are concerned with feeling pain are relatively old, in evolutionary terms. Unlike the cerebral cortex, which developed only after our ancestors diverged from other mammals, the basic nervous system evolved in more distant ancestors common to ourselves and the other ‘higher’ animals. This anatomical parallel makes it likely that the capacity of animals to feel is similar to our own.

….

Andrea Nolan writes:

The nature of pain is perhaps even more complex in animals. How pain is sensed and the physical processes behind this are remarkably similar and well conserved across mammals and humans. There are also many similarities in pain behaviours across the species, for example they may stop socialising with people and/or other animals, they may eat less, they may vocalise more and their heart rate may rise. The capacity of animals to suffer as sentient creatures is well established and enshrined in law in many countries, however we don’t understand well how they actually experience pain.

Some aspects of the experience and expression of pain are not likely to be the same as in humans. First, animals cannot verbally communicate their pain. Dogs may yelp and you may notice behaviour change but what about your pet rabbit, cat, tortoise or horse? Animals rely on human observers to recognise pain and to evaluate its severity and impact. Without the ability to understand soothing words that explain that following surgery to repair a bone fracture, their pain will be managed (hopefully) and will subside, animals may also suffer more when in pain than we do.

The debate around animals’ capacity to experience pain and suffer raged in the 20th century, but as we developed a greater understanding of pain, and studied its impact on the aspects of animal life that we could measure, we veterinary surgeons, along with many behavioural and animal scientists, recognised the significant impact of untreated pain, and we now believe this experience causes them to suffer.

….

The World Small Animal Veterinary Association established the Global Pain Council and released a document detailing the existence of animal pain and how it should be treated. The document’s introduction states:

The ability to experience pain is universally shared by all mammals, including companion animals, and as members of the veterinary healthcare team it is our moral and ethical duty to mitigate this suffering to the best of our ability. This begins by evaluating for pain at every patient contact. However, and despite advances in the recognition and treatment of pain, there remains a gap between its occurrence and its successful management; the inability to accurately diagnose pain and limitations in, and/or comfort with, the analgesic modalities available remain root causes. Both would benefit from the development, broad dissemination, and adoption of pain assessment and management guidelines.

….

The science is clear on the matter: animals do feel pain and suffer. Only those wanting to protect God’s character and moral virtue deny their existence. Thus, because innocent animals can and do suffer, feel pain, and die violent deaths, I am left to conclude that the Christian God is not loving, kind, or good. He is not, for this reason alone, a God worthy of our fealty, devotion, and worship. Animal suffering, then, is yet another reason I doubt the existence of said God. And since there’s no God that can intervene, it is up to humans to do all they can to lessen animal suffering and pain. How we treat the least of these says much about our character and values. Show me a man who mistreats animals and kills for sport, and I will show you a man who is lacking in character. The path to peace requires love and compassion for all living things, not just those who agree with us or who offer some benefit to us.

Let me conclude this post with several quotes from Gandhi:

Strictly speaking, no activity and no industry is possible without a certain amount of violence, no matter how little. Even the very process of living is impossible without a certain amount of violence. What we have to do is to minimize it to the greatest extent possible.

It ill becomes us to invoke in our daily prayers the blessings of God, the Compassionate, if we in turn will not practice elementary compassion towards our fellow creatures.

There is little that separates humans from other sentient beings — we all feel joy, we all deeply crave to be alive and to live freely, and we all share this planet together.

A good read on the issue of suffering is Bart Ehrman’s book, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 60, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 39 years. He and his wife have six grown children and eleven grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

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Jesus Did All of This For YOU!

jesus did all of this for you

Warning! Lots of snark ahead. Easily offended Christians have been warned! 

From the Isaiah 53:5 Project blog. My comments are indented and in italics.

“But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”
– Isaiah 53:5

Jesus Christ left Heaven for YOU.

Jesus is God, right? So, when Jesus exited Heaven, it was left without a God? No, God the Father was still there. Wait a minute. I thought Christianity is a monotheistic religion. If there is a God on earth — Jesus — and a God in Heaven — the Father — doesn’t this mean that Christianity is actually a polytheistic religion?

How do you know Jesus left Heaven for me? Calvinists say that Jesus came to earth to only die for the elect — those predestined to salvation by God from before the foundation of the world. And doesn’t the Bible say that Jesus actually came to earth to die just for the Jews and that only after they rejected him did Jesus (God) decide to die for Gentiles?

Matthew 1:21 says: And she [Mary] shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people [Jews] from their sins.

John 1:10-12 says: He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own [Jews], and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:

He left Heaven and entered a world He knew would hate Him, for YOU.

Jesus, God number two, came to earth because his Father, God number one, decided before he created the heavens and earth that he would send God number two to earth to earth to be hated, physically assaulted, and killed. What kind of father sends his one and only son (well God, according to the Mormons, has many sons)  to a hostile environment, knowing that he will be viciously killed? Here in the 21st century, such a father would lose custody of his son and likely face criminal prosecution.

He endured beatings for YOU.

Actually, Jesus endured beatings because he pissed off his fellow Jews. Much like Fred Phelps and Steven Anderson, Jesus verbally attacked the Jewish religion and even went so far as going into the Temple to physically assault people and destroy their property. In other words, Jesus is to blame for his ass-whooping, not me.

He was unimaginably tortured for YOU.

See previous paragraph. Yes, Jesus was tortured, but was it really as big of a deal as Evangelicals make it out to be?  The United States government tortures people they deem terrorists for weeks, months, and years. Jesus suffered torture for about twenty-four or so hours. I know of people who have suffered with unrelenting pain and agony for decades. Oh, how they wish they could suffer as Jesus did and then be done with it.

He suffered for YOU.

See previous two paragraphs. Since Jesus, according to orthodox Christian theology, was fully God and fully man, does this mean God can suffer; that a perfect, sinless being can experience physical pain? I thought, as John 4:24 states, that God is a spirit. How, exactly, does a spirit suffer?

He hung on a cross for YOU.

See previous paragraphs. I think the record is stuck. Please bump the needle.

He shed his blood for YOU.

Christianity is a blood sacrifice cult, as is Islam, Judaism, and a host of other human religions. What’s with all the bloodshed? Couldn’t God have designed a better way of redeeming man from their sin? Why require the bloody sacrifice of innocents? Centuries ago, some religions sacrificed humans. Christians say these other religions are cults. Why is one human sacrifice right and another wrong? The Bible condemns the worshipers of Molech for offering their children as sacrifices, yet offering Jesus as a sacrifice or eating his body and drinking his blood every Sunday during communion are acts worthy of veneration and worship. Seems hypocritical to me.

Christians are divided as to for whom Jesus shed his blood. Did Jesus shed his blood for everyone, as Arminians claim; or did Jesus shed his blood only for the John Calvin’s elect? Or perhaps the Christians sects who believe that Jesus’ blood atonement was sufficient to save everyone, but only efficient to save the elect are right (Amyraldism). Or maybe the Universalists are right — that Jesus’ blood sacrifice provides salvation for everyone regardless of belief.

So much blood, so many confusing, contradictory beliefs about Jesus’ shed blood. Why didn’t the writer of the Bible — God — make it clear exactly who it is that is covered by Jesus’ blood sacrifice.

He died for YOU.

I think I have snarkily established that Christian sects are divided over for whom Jesus died. From a historical perspective, Jesus didn’t die for anyone. He was executed at the behest of the Jews by the Roman government because he was viewed as a threat to the established order. At best, Jesus was executed because his political beliefs were causing social unrest — that is, if the secondhand reports recorded in the Bible are true.  If, as Evangelicals claim, Jesus was/is a world-changing figure, why is there virtually no mention of him outside of the Bible?

I didn’t ask Jesus to die for me, nor did anyone else. God created us, gave us the capacity to sin, and then, when we act of the nature given to us by him, he requires that blood sacrifices be made to satiate his anger; anger I might add that should be directed at himself. If I create a car, fill it with gas, start it, and put the car in gear, only to have it go driverless down the road careening into bystanders, who is to blame? Not the bystanders. We humans are mere bystanders in the Christian God’s sordid morality play. God could have chosen a different path, but he didn’t. This is the best humans, uh I mean God, could come up with?

Amazing, isn’t it?

No, actually it is not. There’s nothing amazing about the blood sacrifice of Jesus. There’s nothing amazing about his suffering. There’s nothing amazing about his death. Jesus’ story is one of failure, that of a man who went against the political and religious powers of his day and lost. His story is repeated daily in countless places as people stand against oppression, only to end up imprisoned or killed. Instead of wallowing in the blood of Jesus, the world would be better served if Christians focused on reducing suffering and eliminating the bloody slaughter caused by war.  You know, quit talking and start doing.

I have never asked anyone to die for me, nor would I. I recognize that police officers and soldiers might be called on to keep me safe. These are jobs that they have chosen to do. I would never ask anyone to die on my behalf. When someone says that American soldiers are fighting in the Middle East so I can enjoy life in the land of the free and home of the brave, I say, not for me! I would never ask such a thing. Bring all the soldiers home, today. Of course, the troops will not be brought home, betraying the fact that the real reasons for their deaths are imperialistic American ambitions and corporate profits.

There are certainly times when human death for others is worthy of praise and remembrance. Dying to protect and save others is certainly noble, and I honor those have given their lives for others. Such people are heroes —  hero being a word robbed of its significance by its shallow, frequent use. The death of Jesus is not worthy of such a designation. Think about it for a moment. Ponder the whole God/creation/Adam-and-Eve/Satan/original-sin/blood-sacrifice/Jesus/redemption/salvation/death/heaven-or-hell story line. Does any of it make any sense to you?  When viewed with eyes that have not been colored by religious indoctrination, this story sounds like some sort of Stephen King novel — soon to be adapted into a feature film for the SyFy channel.

Why is that Christians never ask God WHY? Why this sordid story of animal and human sacrifices? Why the creating of Satan just so he could tempt humans to sin? Why create humans with a capacity to sin? If all of this was just a coder’s work gone awry I would understand. But, according to Christians, their God is all-knowing, all-seeing, and all-powerful. THIS was the best the Christian God could come up with? According to a Ken Ham-reading of the Bible, four thousand years ago, God killed every human, save eight, by drowning them in a worldwide flood. Millions of people died. Here was God’s chance to start over with just eight supposedly God-fearing humans. And what did these humans do? Got drunk and had incestuous sex. Why didn’t God kill Noah and his family and start over? Why didn’t God put an end to Satan and demons? Why did God kill millions of people because they committed execution-worthy sins, only to reboot the world without changing anything?

Didn’t God learn anything from the Human 1.0 experiment? Evidently not. Two thousand years after Noah’s flood, God decided he had to do something about the Human 2.0 experiment. God became human (much like he did when he walked in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve), traveled to earth, was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life for thirty-three years, only to commit suicide on a Roman cross. (Suicide? Therefore doth my Father love me, because I [Jesus] lay down my life, that I might take it again. John 10:17) And now, for two thousand years God is conducting the Human 3.0 experiment. And if the book of Revelation is to be believed, this experiment will also end in horrific violence and bloodshed.

It seems to me that God is having a hard time getting things right; that try as he might his multi-player action games are riddled with bugs — coding errors that often cause the games to either reboot or stop working. Perhaps it is time for another coder to try his hand at creation. Sorry God, you’ve been fired.

Christianity would be better served if the bronze-age blood sacrifices and cult worship found in the Bible were excised from its pages. Thomas Jefferson was on to something when he took a pair of scissors to the Bible. Instead of a God who became a man, we could have a sage who uttered sayings and teachings worthy of emulation. Few would argue with the value of such teachings. Human sacrifice? Blood sacrifice? These are relics best left in the dust bin of human history.

 

Will the Pastor-Turned-Atheist Bruce Gerencser Go to Heaven When He Dies?

bruce-gerencser-heaven-after-death

It never ceases to amaze me the places I find my story being cussed, discussed, diagnosed, and deconstructed. The latest discussion is currently going on at the Baptist Board: A Christ Centered Community. The focus of the discussion is whether Bruce Gerencser will go to Heaven when he dies. Baptists, for the most part, believe that once a person is a saved, he is always saved. This doctrine is variously called once-saved, always-saved or eternal security. Calvinists call the doctrine the preservation or perseverance of the saints. The end is the same: a person who repents of his sin and puts his faith and trust in Jesus is eternally saved and Heaven will be his home after he dies. No matter what I do or how I live my life, be it as an adulterer or murderer, when I die angels will carry me into the Christian God’s Heaven.

Some Baptists, unwilling to allow such a miscreant as I into God’s Heaven, take another approach. He NEVER was saved, they say. This argument, by far, is the silliest I have heard over the years. What in my life as a Christian and a pastor points to some sort of fatal defect in my understanding of the gospel? Why shouldn’t my sincere testimony of faith be taken at face value? Can those who say I never was a Christian give any evidence for their claim? Of the thousands of people who heard me preach, called me pastor, or were colleagues of mine, who among them said at the time, Bruce Gerencser is not a Christian? Not one person. My life by any reasonable measurement was one of faith and devotion to Jesus Christ.

Presently, I am an atheist and a humanist. I am quite clear and forthright about how I view the past: I once was saved and now I am lost. Arminian Christians — those who believe a Christian can fall from grace and lose their salvation — have no problem squaring my storyline with their theology. They readily admit that I once was a committed follower of Jesus and now I am not. While on one hand this issue is of no importance — the Christian God is a work of fiction and of human origin — it does matter to me that people accept my story at face value. When Christians give testimony about the when, where, why, and how of God saving them, I believe them. While I certainly think there are psychological, sociological, and cultural reasons for such stories, I do accept at face value that Christians believe their stories to be true (as I did as a Christian for many years). All I ask is that Christians do the same, regardless of whether they can square my storyline with their peculiar theology. It’s my story, and who better to tell it than I?

I hope readers will stop by the Baptist Board and read their discussion. The comment that amused me the most was the one that said, “I think it would be very interesting to sit across the table from him, maybe a different doctrinal take would have yielded different fruit.” I would love to know exactly what “doctrinal take” would have led to a different outcome for me spiritually? Having spent the years from ages fifteen to fifty studying the Bible and reading countless theological tomes, I highly doubt that there is a theological system that I am unfamiliar with. Unlike some of the men on Baptist Board (I know several of them), my theology changed over the years. I began my life as a Christian and a pastor as an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB). I left the IFB church movement in the late 1980s, spending the next decade in Sovereign Grace and Reformed Baptist circles. In the late 1990s, my theological (and political and social) beliefs began to creep leftward, finally finding a home in Emergent/Emerging/Red-letter Christian circles. When I left the ministry in 2005, my theological views were such that I no longer considered myself an Evangelical. In the three years between leaving the ministry and walking away from Christianity, I committed myself to seeking out a Christianity that mattered. During this time, Polly and I, along with three of our children, attended over one hundred churches. You can see the list of churches we attended here. I concluded after three years that Christian churches are all pretty much the same — social clubs that exist for the benefit of their members. Regardless of their ecclesiology, soteriology, and liturgy, churches are pretty much like hamburger joints: McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Sonic, Carl’s Jr, or Five Guys. The way the hamburgers are cooked and with what condiments they are served with vary from chain to chain, but one thing remains the same: a hamburger is a hamburger. So it is with Christians and the churches they attend. No matter how special they think their church is, once the bun and condiments are removed, what’s left is a 1/4-1/3 pound round hamburger. Except for Wendy’s, that is. Perhaps they are the One True Hamburger Joint®.

I certainly wouldn’t mind there being life after death — that is, as long as it is not the Evangelical version of heavenly bliss. I have no interest in spending eternity praising and worshiping the Christian God. Now, if Heaven is a pain-free version of the present, beam me up Scotty, I’m ready to go. However, if Heaven is as Evangelicals say it is, count me out. This life is enough. Live for today, for tomorrow we die. And then? Nothing.

Bruce Gerencser