Menu Close

Tag: Salvation

Jesus is the Only One That Matters

all about jesus

Repost from 2015. Extensively edited, rewritten, and corrected.

In a Gospel Coalition article titled Please Don’t Make My Funeral All About Me, Nancy Guthrie had this to say:

…We were an hour and fifteen minutes in to today’s funeral before anyone read from the scriptures, and further in until there was a prayer. Resurrection wasn’t mentioned until the benediction. There were too many funny stories to tell about the deceased, too many recollections, too many good things to say about the things he accomplished to speak of what Christ has accomplished on his behalf.

But then this wasn’t a funeral. It was a “Celebration of Life.” In fact there was really little mention of death or of the ugly way sickness slowly robbed our friend of everything. Christ and his saving benefits could not be made much of because death and its cruelties were largely ignored…

Guthrie, like many Evangelical Christians, believes that the only thing/person that matters in life is Jesus. He is the end all, the first and the last, the sum of our existence. Even in the most personal of moments, a funeral, Guthrie wants everything to be about Jesus. The person in the coffin is of no consequence. The life they lived mattered little, because without Jesus they had no life. Without Jesus, their life had no meaning or purpose.

Guthrie wallows in her depravity. She sees herself as a loathsome, vile worm, a putrid corpse of sin and defilement. That is, until Jesus regenerated her and gave her new life. From that moment forward, her life was not about her, but about Jesus. From the moment of her new birth to the moment she dies, she is a nobody. Only Jesus matters.

In Guthrie’s mind, the best funeral is one where the minister says, Joe Smith lived, knew Jesus, and died. Now let me tell you about Jesus, his death and resurrection, and the ugliness of sin and death. In other words, Guthrie wants the funeral to be like a church service, a passive event where Jesus is praised and everyone and everything else doesn’t matter.

This approach is dehumanizing and it robs the dead people of all that made them who and what they are. If they lived a full life, then they left behind countless memories and stories that certainly ought to be told. Why not celebrate the dead person’s life? Why not, one last time, remember them for what they said and did? Is this present life really that meaningless without Jesus? Is the Son of God such a Trumpian narcissist that he can’t bear to hear anyone’s name mentioned but his own?

Guthrie sees funerals as an opportunity to be reminded of our worthlessness and the awesomeness of Jesus. Any talk of the good works or the good life of the deceased is too humanistic, too worldly for her. Rather than making much of the deceased, she desires a service where the dead person is just a pretext to talk about the man of the hour: Jesus.

If the funeral service is really all about Jesus, perhaps it is proper to ask exactly what Jesus did for Guthrie’s friend whose ugly sickness slowly robbed them of everything? Did Jesus physically comfort and aid her friend?  Did he have the power to heal her friend? Did Jesus do so? Of course not — her friend died.

Suppose a friend of yours died in a car accident. Your friend could have been saved by a doctor who stopped to gawk at the accident. The doctor offered no aid and made no attempt to save your friend from death. He had to hurry home to help his wife find her car keys. Everyone in your town knows the doctor could have saved your friend’s life, yet he did nothing. Does anyone think that the doctor should be the guest of honor at your friend’s funeral? Of course not. How is this any different from praising a deity who sat idly by while Guthrie’s friend suffered and died? This deity had “all power” yet did nothing.

Guthrie betrays the fact that she is really just like us unwashed, uncircumcised, celebration-of-life, Philistines of the world when she writes “In fact there was really little mention of death or of the ugly way sickness slowly robbed our friend of everything.” Robbed her friend of everything? Wait a minute, I thought JESUS was E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G? Isn’t everything else about their life, even their suffering, just the minutia of life? Why bother to even mention the deceased? Are they not just a prop used to preach the gospel to those who came to the service thinking they were attending so-and-so’s celebration of life?

I was once like Guthrie. I saw funerals as an opportunity to preach the gospel, to witness to people who would not likely darken the doors of the church I pastored. While I did spend some time reflecting on the life of the deceased — that is if they were a Christian — my main focus was on preaching the gospel to the sinners seated before me. In one church, a dear, close friend of mine, a devoted follower of Jesus, died at the age of 40. His funeral was held at the church and for 40 minutes I hammered his Catholic and Methodist family with the Calvinistic gospel. I even told them that the deceased had specifically asked me to preach at his funeral, knowing that it likely would be the last time they would ever hear the gospel.

What did I accomplish? Nothing. I thoroughly offended my friend’s family, and from that day forward I was, to many of them, Pastor Son-of-a-bitch. In Guthrie’s eyes, I did the right thing. I exalted Jesus. I made the funeral about sin, death, and resurrection; about Jesus. But in the eyes of my friend’s family, I made their loved one’s life of little to no importance. The life their brother/uncle/father/friend lived, his good works, his commitment to his family and his job, none of these things really mattered. According to the Bible, “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags…” Any good this man did was because of Jesus, and any bad he did was due to his sinful, carnal nature.

Simply put, Jesus ALWAYS gets top billing.  This is why I have, for the most part, stopped going to Evangelical funerals. Since the deceased is of no consequence, why should I subject myself to the prattle of a preacher as he tries to use guilt (sin) and fear (death) to coerce people, at a time when they are emotionally vulnerable, to become a Christian?

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Are you on Social Media?

Follow Bruce on Facebook and Twitter.

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.

Seven Reasons People Get Saved

what must I do to be saved

Evangelicals believe all humans are born sinners, alienated from God, and in need of salvation through the merit and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus died on a Roman cross and rose from the dead three days later to save sinners from their sin. Evangelicals believe in the exclusivity of the Christian gospel; that there is one true God; that there is one true path of salvation/redemption/conversion; that it is only through Jesus Christ that sinners can have their sins forgiven; that sinners must repent of their sins and put their faith and trust in Jesus alone to be saved/converted/born again. (I recognize that what I have written above trips over all sorts of beliefs Evangelicals are fond of arguing over. My goal was to provide a general definition of what it means to bet saved without dealing with the doctrines Arminians and Calvinists have been fighting about for centuries.)

Evangelicals believe that getting saving requires a supernatural act by the Christian God. No one can get saved when he or she want wants to or on their own terms. It is God alone who does the saving. Granted, if you listen to Evangelical preachers long enough, you will likely conclude that your salvation is up to you; that all you need to do is walk the aisle/pray the sinner’s prayer/sign a card or one of the numerous other acts of volition these men of God say is necessary for your conversion. Quite frankly, what Evangelical preachers call the “simple gospel” is, in fact, quite confusing and contradictory. (Please see Can Anyone Really Know They Are Saved?) Every sect believes its soteriology is right; that following its plan of salvation is the only way to get saved and gain entrance into Heaven after death. Instead of spending thousands of words parsing the alleged supernatural aspects of Christian salvation, I want to spend my time in this post delineating seven visible, verifiable reasons people get saved.

Geography

One of the most enlightening things for me as I restudied the claims of Christians was to look at a map of the world’s religions and realize that geography plays a big part in why a person worships a particular deity. I grew up in a culture where the world’s religions were neatly and precisely divided into two groups: True Christianity® and false religions. The same went for all the inhabitants of earth. Either they were saved or lost. Either they were Christians headed for Heaven or unbelievers/heathens headed for Hell. I was taught from my youth up that only a small percentage of people were True Christians®; that American Evangelicals were duty-bound to send gospel-preaching missionaries to every non-Christian people group on earth. Jesus commanded his disciples to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” Billions of people did not know Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Saving the world required sending missionaries to the ends of the earth. I later learned that the “ends of the earth” primarily meant cultures that spoke English and would provide missionaries a decent standard of living. Most missionaries end up going to countries where Christianity is already firmly established. Of course, these countries didn’t have the right kind of Christianity, so it was up to Evangelical churches and their missionaries to bring to True Christianity® to unsaved Christians.

Viewing a map of the world’s religions was one of those moments for me that caused me to reconsider what I thought about religion itself. The map showed me that the world’s countries had predominant religions. It also revealed to me that states and regions can have predominant religions too. I came to the conclusion that one of the reasons that most people get saved is because of where they live. The United States is a Christian nation. Is it any surprise that most of its inhabitants are Christians? It’s all about geography.

Family

Another reason people get saved is family. I became a Christian because I was born in a Christian nation to Evangelical parents who indoctrinated me at an early age in the one true faith. I attended Evangelical churches for the first fifty years of my life. I studied for the ministry at an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) college. While there, I married the daughter of an IFB pastor. We left college and spent the next twenty-five years pastoring Evangelical churches. Much like our parents did, my wife and I indoctrinated our six children in the one true faith, passing on to them the family deity. It seems to me, then, that where I was born and who my family was were largely the reasons I became an Evangelical Christian and spent much of my adult life trying to evangelize people I deemed “lost.”

Personal Crisis 

Another reason people get saved is having a personal crisis. There’s nothing that can get your attention like a crisis. Countless Evangelicals trace their salvation back to a divorce, serious illness or debility, loss of employment, death of a spouse, death of a child, loss of their home due to fire or flood, or countless other tragedies we humans face. It should not be surprising that preachers use such crises to evangelize people. People are emotionally vulnerable and sensitive during times of loss. What they need, Evangelical preachers say, is Jesus. Jesus becomes the cure for whatever ails people. That why many Evangelical preachers evangelize hurting people during funeral services. What better time to preach the gospel than when people are weeping and wailing over the death of a loved one. Strike while the proverbial iron is hot, right?

Addiction

Yet another reason people get saved is addiction. Drug and alcohol addiction cause all sorts of heartache and damage. Evangelical preachers tell addicts that Jesus is the only “fix” for their addictions. And sure enough, scores of addicts end up finding victory over drugs and/or alcohol through getting saved. A religion need not be true for it to provide help and value to people. (Please see Never Underestimate the Power of Jesus.) I know numerous Evangelicals who were, at one time, drunks and drug addicts. These people reached a crisis point, and, having nowhere else to turn, they turned to Jesus. I know some atheists have a hard time understanding this, but the fact remains that the dead Jesus has helped lots of people kick their habits. People really, really, really believe Jesus delivered them, and from a psychological perspective, it’s clear he has. Whatever works, right?

Fear

Dr. Larry Dixon, an Evangelical professor of theology at Columbia International University Seminary and School of Missions in Columbia, South Carolina, recently said that one of the reasons he got saved was fear. In a multipart review of Dr. David Bentley Hart’s article titled, Why Do People Believe in Hell? Dixon wrote:

This is a very personal issue for me, mostly because I got saved as a result of being afraid of going to hell. If hell doesn’t exist, or if it is something quite different than Christians have believed (like, the purging flames of God universally applied), then I got saved under false pretenses.

Dixon is not alone in his admission that one of the reasons he got saved was fear. For those of us who grew up in Evangelical churches hearing sermons about God’s judgment, Hell, the Lake of Fire, and the soon return of Jesus to destroy the earth, fear was a common motivator for salvation. The Bible says in Hebrews 10:31: It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. On July 8, 1741, famed revivalist Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon titled Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Edwards stated:

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.

….

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 were 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.

….

How dreadful is the state of those that are daily and hourly in the danger of this great wrath and infinite misery! But this is the dismal case of every soul in this congregation that has not been born again, however moral and strict, sober and religious, they may otherwise be. Oh that you would consider it, whether you be young or old! There is reason to think, that there are many in this congregation now hearing this discourse, that will actually be the subjects of this very misery to all eternity. We know not who they are, or in what seats they sit, or what thoughts they now have. It may be they are now at ease, and hear all these things without much disturbance, and are now flattering themselves that they are not the persons, promising themselves that they shall escape. If we knew that there was one person, and but one, in the whole congregation, that was to be the subject of this misery, what an awful thing would it be to think of! If we knew who it was, what an awful sight would it be to see such a person! How might all the rest of the congregation lift up a lamentable and bitter cry over him! But, alas! Instead of one, how many is it likely will remember this discourse in hell? And it would be a wonder, if some that are now present should not be in hell in a very short time, even before this year is out. And it would be no wonder if some persons, that now sit here, in some seats of this meeting-house, in health, quiet and secure, should be there before tomorrow morning.

You spend years hearing this kind of preaching, you will fear God too. Thus, it should come as no surprise that fear motivates people to repent of their sins and ask Jesus to save them.

Seeking Forgiveness

Some people get saved because they feel burdened and want/need forgiveness. Evangelicals believe that this burden is the Holy Spirit convicting people of their sins. Preachers will preach against this or that sin, causing guilty hearers to seek forgiveness. We humans are capable of causing all sorts of harm. Making things right requires us to seek the forgiveness of those we have harmed. Christians and humanists alike know the importance of forgiveness. Where they differ is from whom should they seek forgiveness. For Evangelicals, all “sinful” behavior is ultimately an affront to God, and it is his forgiveness they need. I know numerous Evangelical preachers who got caught up in all sorts of scandals. When caught, did these men of God seek to make restitution and seek the forgiveness of the people they harmed? Sadly, no. They sought God’s forgiveness, and in their minds, that’s all they needed. (See Is All Forgiven for David Hyles? and David Hyles Says, My Bad, Jesus.) The Bible says in 1 John 1:9: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Need forgiveness? Shoot a prayer to Jesus, and viola! you are forgiven. No sin is beyond God’s forgiveness. And once God forgives you:

For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him.  As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us. (Psalm 113:11,12)

The Bible speaks of our sins being cast into the depths of the seas, never to be remembered again. Go to any Evangelical church and you likely find guilty unbelievers in need of forgiveness. They have committed this or that sin, and now their lives are weighed down by guilt. The solution? Jesus. He alone can forgive them of their sins. He alone can restore their lives and give them peace. Or so Evangelical preachers say, anyway.

Searching for Meaning

Most of us desire lives that have meaning and purpose. Evangelicals believe that non-Christians have empty lives lacking meaning, purpose, and direction. No matter how many times I suggest otherwise, Evangelical zealots insist that my life is shit without Jesus. Evangelicals believe that it is Jesus and his saving grace alone that gives them lives worth living. Why, without Jesus they would kill themselves, Evangelicals have said to me. It is certainly true that we humans want lives that matter. However, meaning can be found in countless different ways. Not so, say Evangelicals. Wisdom and knowledge begin with Jesus.

Imagine then, that you are an unbeliever seeking meaning and purpose and you are invited to visit a local Evangelical church on Sunday. You have never been to church before. As you sit in the pew, you notice how committed, loving, and friendly everyone seems to be. “These people have what I am looking for,” you say to yourself. The preacher preaches a powerful sermon about grounding one’s life in Jesus. “That’s exactly what I need,” and come invitation time you walk down the well-worn aisle and get saved. According to the Bible, you have a new life in Jesus. Your old life is passed away and everything has become new. (2 Corinthians 5:17)

My wife’s parents have been Evangelical Christians for seven-plus decades. Jesus, the Bible, and the church are EVERYTHING to them. There is no argument I can make that would convince them otherwise. Nor would I. Believing that the dead Jesus saved them and has given them a good life, a happy life, and is someone they can turn to now that they only have a few months or years to live is what helps them get up in the morning.

Did I miss any of the visible reasons people get saved? Please share them in the comment section.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 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.

Are you on Social Media? Follow Bruce on Facebook and Twitter.

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.

Songs of Sacrilege: Loving the Alien by David Bowie

david bowie

This is the latest installment in the Songs of Sacrilege series. This is a series that I would like readers to help me with. If you know of a song that is irreverent towards religion, makes fun of religion, pokes fun at sincerely held religious beliefs, or challenges the firmly held religious beliefs of others, please send me an email.

Today’s Song of Sacrilege is Loving the Alien by David Bowie.

Video Link

Lyrics

Watching them come and go
The Templars and the Saracens
They’re traveling the holy land
Opening telegrams

Torture comes and torture goes
Knights who’d give you anything
They bear the cross of Coeur de Leon
Salvation for the mirror blind

But if you pray all your sins are hooked upon the sky
Pray and the heathen lie will disappear

Prayers they hide the saddest view
(Believing the strangest things, loving the alien)
And your prayers they break the sky in two
(Believing the strangest things, loving the alien)

Thinking of a different time
Palestine a modern problem
Bounty and your wealth in land
Terror in a best-laid plan

Watching them come and go
Tomorrows and the yesterdays
Christians and the unbelievers
Hanging by the cross and nail

But if you pray all your sins are hooked upon the sky
Pray and the heathen lie will disappear

Prayers they hide the saddest view
(Believing the strangest things, loving the alien)
And your prayers they break the sky in two
(Believing the strangest things, loving the alien)

You pray til the break of dawn
(Believing the strangest things, loving the alien)
And you’ll believe you’re loving the alien
(Believing the strangest things, loving the alien)

(Believing the strangest things, loving the alien)

Bruce, the Christian Atheist

salvation card

Recently, a self-identified Evangelical Christian apologist left the following comment:

Both you and Ray [Boltz] were very passionate about the Lord for many many years. And Ray still is. I don’t believe in people losing their salvation so I look to you as a brother who got very very weak in his faith. I think Ray is a very strong believer who has found a liberal church to condone his lifestyle. So are they all unsaved because they don’t see it like us?? I say who are we to make that judgement call??? If you believe in Christ from your heart you are given eternal life period..you are saved. I believe you both have done that.

The commenter is a proponent of the doctrine of once-saved-always-saved. At the age of fifteen, I asked Jesus to save me. For the next thirty-five years, I was a committed, devoted follower of Jesus. For twenty-five of those years, I pastored Evangelical churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Based on my decision at age fifteen, the commenter mentioned above concluded that I was still a Christian — once-saved-always-saved. While I know this doctrine well — having grown up in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement — I have long believed that this idea is absurd. Yes, I lived as a Christian for four decades, but there’s is nothing in my life today that remotely suggests that I am still a Christian. I have spent the past decade opposing Christianity in general, and Evangelicalism in particular. I proudly self-identify as an atheist and agnostic. Yet, according to this commenter, because I sincerely prayed the sinner’s prayer at age fifteen, I am still a Christian. There is nothing I can do to divorce Jesus. We are married, no matter what I do or how I live. I can fuck every other God and make a mockery of my marriage to Jesus, yet I am still married to him. Nothing, according to the Bible, can separate me from the love of Christ. (Romans 8:31-39) Think, for a moment, about the men featured in the Black Collar Crime Series. All of these men likely had similar religious experiences to mine. The difference, of course, is that they raped and sexually molested children and took advantage of vulnerable congregants, and I did not. Yet, according to the aforementioned commenter, these vile, disgusting “men of God” are still saved, and when these men die, they will inhabit the same Heaven as the children and congregants they harmed. Is there any Christian doctrine more disgusting than once-saved-always-saved?

Look, I get it. Evangelicals who believe in once-saved-always-saved are hemmed in by their literalistic beliefs and interpretations of the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God. Instead of stating the obvious — that people can and do walk away from Christianity — proponents of once-saved-always-saved are forced to defend the indefensible. Christian salvation is reduced to a momentary transaction in time, and once the transaction is completed salvation is sure and secure. Are there Bible verses that teach once-saved-always-saved? Absolutely! But there are also verses that teach the perseverance/preservation of the saints and conditional salvation. Any and every doctrine Christians believe can be justified by the Bible. The Bible is a book that can be used to prove almost anything. When I am asked if the Calvinists or the Arminians are right, I reply, “they both are.”

The Bible speaks of there being a “faith once delivered to the saints.” This suggests that Christianity is singular in nature. However, it is clear, at least to me, that there are numerous Christianities, each believing that their sect/church is True Christianity®. Christians can’t even agree on the basics: salvation, baptism, and communion. Millions of theological tomes have been written, each defending a peculiar theological system. According to Evangelicals, the Bible can be understood by children, yet pastors spend years in college learning how to interpret the Bible. Their church office shelves are lined with books that break down the Bible into singular words and clauses. Baptists and Campbellites fight to the death over the one Greek word in Acts 2:38 — the word eis. Evangelical Internet forums and Facebook groups are filled with people who spend their days and nights debating the nuances of this or that interpretation of the Bible. Once-saved-always-saved is one such interpretation.

From Pascal’s perspective, once-saved-always-saved is a good deal. I have said the prayer, and now I am headed for God’s Heaven when I die. No matter what I say or do, a room has been reserved for me in the Father’s mansion. (John 14:1-6) Sweet deal, right?

I have decided to call myself a Christian Atheist®. Sounds crazy, I know, but is this not the logical conclusion of once-saved-always-saved? I am in every way an atheist, yet because of the prayer I prayed at the altar of Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio at age fifteen, I am a Christian. Or so some Evangelicals say, anyway.

I feel embarrassed for Jesus. Well, I would anyway, if he were still alive. But, he’s not. Jesus’s bones lie buried somewhere in the sandy soil of Palestine. Consider what I am saying here. I deny that Jesus resurrected from the dead. Is not Jesus’s resurrection central to Christian belief and practice? How can one deny Jesus’s resurrection and his divinity and still be a Christian?

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 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.

Are you on Social Media? Follow Bruce on Facebook and Twitter.

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.

Quote of the Day: Why Don’t You Just “Believe?”

bart ehrman

What do you have to lose by having faith and believing that Christ was born supernaturally as a result of a virgin birth to Mary, that Christ performed miracles, that Christ died by crucifixion and came back to life from the dead, and that Christ went back into heaven in a supernatural ascension into heaven? I don’t see any downside.

I get this kind of question on occasion. Usually when someone asks it they tie it to “Pascal’s Wager.”

….

The first question I would ask this person is: Are *you* able to believe something that you honestly do not think is true?

The question itself raises a much bigger issue: what does it mean to believe? Does anyone really and genuinely think that authentic faith means mouthing certain words that you don’t actually subscribe to in order to be let off the hook? Would God be convinced by that? Wouldn’t he, uh, see through it?  I assume so. So what good would it do for me to say that I believe something I don’t actually believe?

And how can I force myself to think something is true when I don’t think it is? Belief isn’t mouthing words or lying to get off the hook.

 

The second question I would ask is, for me, the real zinger: Can it really be a simple case of either/or?  Either you believe or not?  In other words, is it really a case that if you choose to believe and you’re right, you may be saved, but if you’re wrong you will be damned?   Doesn’t that assume there are only two options: believe in Christ for salvation or don’t and be damned?

That may have made sense for Pascal, who lived in a world where, for all practical purposes, there were TWO options. But what about our own world?  We don’t have two options. We have scads of them. And it is literally impossible to take them all.

That is to say:  If you want to make sure you cover your bases when it comes to salvation: WHICH religion do you follow? Suppose you decide, OK, I’ll take Pascal’s wager and decide (somehow) to believe in Christ? What if, it turns out, Christ is NOT the right option?  Or even, say, the only/best option?

In concrete terms:  what if you decide to believe in Christ and then it turns out the Muslims are right? You could be damned forever for choosing the wrong option. So how do you cover the Islamic option as well as the Christianity one? And … well …  there are lots of religions to choose from.

Even within Christianity: I know some Christians who have an entire detailed list of what you have to believe to be saved. And I know other Christians who have a *different* list. It is impossible to believe both at once, since they are at odds with one another. On a most simple level, I know different Christians who believe that if you do not belong to *their* denomination, you will be damned; and even Christians who say that you have to be baptized in *their particular church* to be saved. So what’cha gonna do?

On this logic, do you become Mormon to cover your bases? And Catholic? And Southern Baptist? And a Jehovah’s Witness? And an Independent-Bible-Believing-Hell-Fire-and-Brimstone Fundamentalist? And …. ?

— Dr. Bart Ehrman, Why Don’t You Just Believe?, December 1, 2019

Want to access all of Bart Ehrman’s posts? Become a member of his blog. $24.95 per year, with all proceeds going to charity.

Dear Jesus

Jesus
Painting by Jessie Kohn

Dear Jesus,

I’m sixty-two years old, and there has never been a moment when you were not in my life.

Mom and Dad talked about you before I was born, deciding to have me baptized by an Episcopal priest. They wanted me to grow up with good morals and love you, so they decided putting water on my forehead and having a priest recite religious words over me was the way to ensure my moral Christian future.

A few weeks after my birth, Mom and Dad gathered with family members to have me baptized. I was later told it was quite an affair, but I don’t remember anything about the day. Years later, I found my baptismal certificate. Signed by the priest, it declared I was a Christian.

Jesus, how could I have been a Christian at age four weeks? How did putting water on my head make me a follower of you? I don’t understand, but according to the certificate I was now part of my tribe’s religion: Protestant Christianity.

I turned five in 1962. Mom and Dad decided to move 2,300 miles to San Diego, California, believing that success and prosperity awaited them.

After getting settled, Mom and Dad said we need to find a new church to attend. Their shopping took them to the growing Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) congregation pastored by Tim LaHaye. It was here that I learned that my tribe had a new religion: Fundamentalist Christianity.

I quickly learned that our previous religion worshipped a false God, and my baptism didn’t make me a Christian at all. If I wanted to be a True Christian®, I had to come forward to the front of the church, kneel at the altar, and pray a certain prayer. If I did these things, I would then be a Christian — forever. And so I did. This sure pleased Mom and Dad.

Later, I was baptized again, but the preacher didn’t sprinkle water on my forehead. That would not do, I was told. True Baptism® required me to be submerged in a tank of water. And so, one Sunday, I joined a line of people waiting to be baptized. I was excited, yet scared. Soon, it came time for me to be dunked. The preacher put his left hand behind my head and raised his right hand towards Heaven. He asked, “Bruce, do you confess before God and man that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior?” With a halting child’s voice, I replied, “Yes.” And with that, the preacher, with a hanky in his right hand, put his hand over my nose, dunked me in the water, and quickly lifted me up. I heard both the preacher and the congregation say, “Amen!”

Jesus, the Bible says that the angels in Heaven rejoice when a sinner gets saved. Do you remember the day I got saved? Do you remember hearing the angels in Heaven say, “Praise to the Lamb that was slain! Bruce Gerencser is now a child of God. Glory be, another soul snatched from the hands of Satan?”

After a few years in California, Mom and Dad discovered that there was not a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and our family was just as poor in the Golden State as they were in dreary, flat rural northwest Ohio. And so we moved, a process that happened over and over to me throughout the next decade — eight different schools.

As I became more aware and observant of my environment, I noticed that Mom and Dad had changed. Mom, in particular, was quite animated and agitated over American social unrest and the war in Vietnam. Mom and Dad took us to a new church, First Baptist Church in Bryan, Ohio — an IFB church pastored by Jack Bennett. We attended church twice on Sunday and on Wednesday evening.

I attended Bryan schools for two years. Not long after I started fourth grade, Mom and Dad decided it was time to move yet again. This time, we were moving to a brand new tri-level home on Route 30 outside of Lima, Ohio. It was there that I started playing basketball and baseball — sports I would continue to play competitively for the next twenty years. It was also there than I began to see that something was very wrong with Mom. At the time, I didn’t understand what was going on with her. All I knew is that she could be “Mom” one day and a raging lunatic the next.

I was told by my pastors, Jesus, that you know and see everything. Just in case you were busy one day and missed what went on or were on vacation, let me share a few stories about what happened while we lived in Lima.

One night, Mom was upstairs, and I heard her screaming. She was having one of her “fits.” I decided to see if there was anything I could do to help her — that’s what the oldest child does. As I walked towards Mom’s bedroom, I saw her grabbing shoes and other things and violently throwing them down the hallway. This was the first time I remember being afraid . . .

One day, I got off the school bus and quickly ran to our home. I always had to be the first one in the door. As I walked into the kitchen, I noticed that Mom was lying on the floor in a pool of blood. She had slit her wrists. I quickly ran to the next-door neighbor’s house and asked her to help. She quickly summoned an ambulance, and Mom’s life was saved.

Mom would try again, again, and again to kill herself: slitting her wrists, overdosing on medication, driving in front of a truck. At the age of fifty-four, she succeeded. One Sunday morning, Mom went into the bathroom, pointed a Ruger .357 at her heart, and pulled the trigger. She quickly slumped to the floor and was dead in minutes. Yet, she never stopped believing in you, Jesus. No matter what happened, Mom held on to her tribe’s God.

Halfway through my fifth-grade year, Mom and Dad moved to Farmer, Ohio. I attended Farmer Elementary School for the fifth and sixth grades. One day, I was home from school sick, and Mom’s brother-in-law stopped by. He didn’t know I was in my bedroom. After he left, Mom came to my room crying, saying, “I have been raped. I need you to call the police.” I was twelve. Do you remember this day, Jesus? Where were you? I thought you were all-powerful? Why didn’t you do anything?

From Farmer, we moved to  Deshler, Ohio for my seventh-grade year of school. Then Mom and Dad moved us to Findlay, Ohio. By then, my parents’ marriage was in shambles. Dad never seemed to be home and Mom continued to have wild, manic mood swings. Shortly before the end of ninth grade, Dad matter-of-factly informed me that they were getting a divorce. “We don’t love each other anymore,” Dad said. And with that, he turned and walked away, leaving me to wallow in my pain. That’s how Dad always treated me. I can’t remember a time when he embraced me or said “I love you.” I would learn years later that “Dad” was not my biological father. I wonder, Jesus, was this why he kept me at arm’s length emotionally?

After moving to Findlay, Mom and Dad joined Trinity Baptist Church — a fast-growing IFB congregation pastored by Gene Millioni. After Mom and Dad divorced, they stopped attending church. Both of them quickly remarried. Dad married a nineteen-year-old girl with a baby, and Mom married her first cousin — a recent prison parolee. So much upheaval and turmoil, Jesus. Where were you when all of this was going on? I know, I know, you were there in spirit.

Mom and Dad may have stopped going to church, but I didn’t. By then, I had a lot of friends and had started dating, so there was no way I was going to miss church. Besides, attending church got me away from home, a place where Dad’s new and improved wife made it clear I wasn’t welcome.

One fall weeknight, I sat in church with my friends listening to Evangelist Al Lacy. I was fifteen. As is the custom in IFB churches, Lacy prayed at the end of his sermon, asking, “with every head bowed and every eye closed, is there anyone here who is not saved and would like me to pray for them?” I had been feeling under “conviction” during the sermon. I thought, “maybe I not saved?” So, I raised my hand. Lacy prayed for those of us who had raised our hands and then had everyone stand. As the congregation sang Just as I am, Lacy said, “if you raised your hand, I want you to step out of your seat and come to the altar. Someone will meet you there and show you how you can know Jesus as your Lord and Savior.” Much to the surprise of my friends, I haltingly stepped out from my seat and walked to the front. I was met by Ray Salisbury — a church deacon. Ray had me kneel as he took me through a set of Bible verses called the Roman’s Road. After quizzing me on what I had read, Ray asked me if I wanted to be saved. I said, “yes,” and then Ray said, “pray this prayer after me: Dear Lord Jesus, I know I am a sinner and I know you died on the cross for my sins. Right now, I ask you to forgive me of my sins and come into my heart and save me. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” After I prayed the prayer, Ray said “AMEN!” “Did you really believe what you prayed?” I replied, “yes.” “Then you are now a child of God, a born-again Christian.”

The next Sunday, I was baptized, and the Sunday after that, I went forward again, letting the church know that you, Jesus, were calling me to preach. I was all in after that. For the next thirty-five years, Jesus, I lived and breathed you. You were my life, the sum of my existence.

At the age of nineteen, I enrolled in classes at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. It was here I received training to become a proper IFB pastor, and it was here I met the love of my life, a beautiful dark-haired preacher’s daughter. We married during the summer between our sophomore and junior years. We were so excited about our new life, thrilled to be preparing to work in God’s vineyard. We planned to graduate, go to a small community to start a new IFB church, buy a white two-story house with a white picket fence, and have two children: Jason and Bethany, and live happily ever after. However, Jesus, you had different plans for us. Do you remember what happened to us? Surely you do, right? Friends and teachers told us that you were testing us!  By early spring, Polly was six months pregnant and I was laid off from my machine shop job. We were destitute, yet, the college dean told us, “Jesus, wants you to trust him and stay in college.” No offer of financial help was forthcoming, and we finally had to move out of our apartment. With my tail between my legs, I packed up our meager belongings returned to Bryan, Ohio. I had failed your test, Jesus. I still remember what one of my friends told me, “If you leave now, God will NEVER use you!”

What did he know, right? After moving, I quickly secured secular employment and began working at a local IFB church. For the next twenty-five years, I pastored Evangelical churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Jesus, you were my constant companion, my lover, friend, and confidante. I sure loved you, and I believed you loved me too.We BFF’s, right?  Sometimes, I wondered if you really loved me as much I love you. Our love affair was virtual in nature. We never met face-to-face, but I believed in my heart of hearts you were the very reason for my existence. When I doubted this, I attributed my doubts to Satan or to me not praying hard enough or reading the Bible enough. I never thought for one moment, Jesus, that you might be a figment of my imagination, a lie taught to me by my parents and pastors. I was a true believer. That is until I wasn’t.

At age fifty, I finally realized, Jesus, that you were a myth, the main character of a 2,000-year-old fictional story. I finally concluded that all those times when I wondered where you were, were in fact, true. I couldn’t find you because you were dead. You had died almost 2,000 years before. The Bible told me about your death, but I really believed that you resurrected from the dead. I feel so silly now. Dead people don’t come back to life. Your resurrection from the dead was just a campfire story, and I had foolishly believed it. I guess I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. Everyone I knew believed the same story. All of us believed that the miracles attributed to you, Jesus, really happened; that you were a virgin-born God-man; that you ascended to Heaven to prepare a mansion for us to live in after we die.

It all seems so silly, now, but Jesus, I really did believe in you. Fifty years, Jesus. The prime of my life, I gave to you, only to find out that you were a lie. Yet, here I am today, and you are still “with” me. My parents, pastors, and professors did a good job of indoctrinating me. You are very much “real” to me, even though you lie buried somewhere on a Judean hillside. Try as I might, I can’t get you out of my mind. I have come to accept that you will never leave me.

You should know, Jesus — well, you can’t know, you are dead — that I spend my days helping people get away from you. What did you say, Jesus? I can’t hear you. I can hear the voices of Christians condemning me as a heretic, blasphemer, and hater of God. I can hear them praying for my death and threatening me with eternal damnation in the Lake of Fire. Their voices are loud and clear, but your voice, Jesus? Silence.

Always silent, Jesus. Why is that?

If you ever want to talk to me, you know where I live. Show up at my door, Jesus, and that will be a miracle I can believe in. Better yet, if you can help the Cincinnati Bengals win their last six games, well, I just might rethink your existence. Not going to happen, I know. The Bengals are going to bungle their way to an 0-16 record.

If you can’t help my football team win a few games, Jesus, what good are you? It’s not like I am asking you to feed the hungry, heal the sick, or put an end to violence and war. That would require you to give a shit, Jesus, and if there’s one thing I have learned over the past sixty-two years, it is this: you don’t give a shit about what happens on earth. We humans are on our own, and that’s fine with me.

signature

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 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.

Are you on Social Media? Follow Bruce on Facebook and Twitter.

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.

Devout IFB Christian Struggles with Understanding my Story

somerset baptist church 1985
Somerset Baptist Church, Mt Perry, Ohio, Bruce and Polly Gerencser and kids, 1985

What follows is a discussion I had today with a devout Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) Christian.  As you will see, Jack (not his real name) genuinely had a hard time wrapping his mind around my story. Schooled in IFB soteriology, Jack cannot fathom someone being saved, and then lost. In his mind, that’s impossible. Yet, here I am. 🙂

Jack: Hey Bruce, I just read a little about your life and your description of how IFB preachers are treated like Demigods. I was saved in 1981 and God changed my life and Christ is my Saviour. I went to Hyles Anderson College for a little bit. I’m back with the Lord. The Lord seems to have restored me and I’m happier and have more peace and am winning souls consistently. Are you saying that none of this is real to you anymore? What about God, and Heaven and Hell and Judgement? I’m just asking I’m not trying to argue. I’m curious about your response.

Bruce: I’m an atheist, so no, I don’t think there is a God, Heaven, Hell, judgment, etc. You might find these posts helpful:

https://brucegerencser.net/why/

Jack: Are you familiar with Dr. Jack Hyles?

Bruce: Yes, I’ve written extensively about Hyles and his son.

Jack: So what about getting saved, you never believed in that?

Bruce: Yes, I was saved, and now I’m not.

Jack: You really believe you were saved? How can you lose your salvation when the Lord comes into your heart?

Bruce: Don’t let your theology get in the way of reality. Countless people faithfully follow Jesus for years and then deconvert.

Jack: You don’t believe in being born again, and the Lord coming into your heart, and you becoming a new creature?

Bruce: Of course I did, but now I don’t.

Jack: So you don’t think that really happens?

Bruce: I “believe” it happened. All religious experiences are psychological in nature. We can believe all sorts of things that aren’t true or convince ourselves that certain experiences were real.

Jack: I believe the Lord really did come into my heart; there has been an internal change that cannot be denied! IT IS REAL! My desires changed, and my outlook, and I’m in the Light now, I see things differently! By faith!

Bruce: It’s “real” because you think it is. You want, need it to be real, so it is. And that’s fine.

Jack: You don’t think peace and comfort and joy and God’s love is real. I experience it!

Bruce: You “experience” what you believe those things to be. Again, all religious experiences are psychological in nature. Devout believers in other religions have similar “experiences.”

Usually, when an IFB Christian contacts me, I roll up my sleeves and ready myself for a bloody fight. Either that or I just say fuck off and turn on Sports Center. I sensed that Jack really wanted to understand my story, so I decided to briefly engage him in a discussion. I thought, “maybe, just maybe, I can get Jack to look beyond his narrow Fundamentalist theology.” I am not sure I accomplished that, but I hope that I planted a few seeds of doubt that might germinate and cause Jack to rethink his worldview. Not every online discussion has to end in hostility and conflict. I am content to put in a good word for reason, skepticism, and intellectual inquiry and move on.

Trained by the late Jack Hyles and his acolytes at First Baptist Church in Hammond and Hyles-Anderson College, Jack believes that once a person prays the sinner’s prayer and asks Jesus into his heart, he is a Christian; and once saved, always saved. In Jack’s mind, there’s nothing I can say or do to separate myself from God (Romans 8:35-39). Because I prayed the sinner’s prayer at Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio, at the age of fifteen, I am forever a child of God, and Heaven awaits me after I die. No matter what I have said or done in the intervening forty-seven years, nothing can undo what took place one fall night years ago. I could become a Muslim, commit mass murder, or sexually molest children — it matters not — once saved, always saved.

IFB Christians such as Jack are left with two possibilities after reading my story:

  • I never was a Christian
  • I am a backslidden Christian

The first possibility is absurd. There’s nothing in my past that suggests that I was anything but a devoted, committed, sincere follower of Jesus. The fact that I am now an atheist does not magically erase my past (or the knowledge I have about Christianity and the Bible). The only honest explanation for my past is this: I once was a Christian, and now I am not.

The second possibility is equally absurd. There is nothing in my present life that remotely suggests that I am a Christian. Anyone who reads my blog surely knows that I am not, in any way, a Christian. Not an Evangelical; not an IFB Christian; not a liberal Christian; not a progressive Christian; not a Christian humanist; not a Christian universalist; not a Christian, period. I am a card-carrying atheist, a member in good standing of the unwashed, uncircumcised Philistines of the world.

When someone tells me that they are a Christian, I accept their “testimony” at face value. Jack says he has been an IFB Christian for thirty-eight years. I believe him. It’s his storyline. Who better to tell his story than Jack? I just wish that Christians would do the same for Evangelicals-turned-atheists. “But Bruce,” Christians say, “the Bible says yada yada yada yada.” What the Bible purportedly says is not my problem. I get it. Jack can’t square my story with his peculiar theology. Countless Evangelicals have the same problem when they read my story. Again, that’s not my problem. I know what I know. Ask anyone who knew me when I was a Christian: Was Bruce a “real” follower of Jesus; a True Christian®? To a person, they will say, absolutely! Either I deceived my wife, children, in-laws, extended family, friends, college roommates, professors, ministerial colleagues, and congregants, or I really was a Christian. What’s more likely? Trust me, I am not a very good liar. Me not having been a Christian is akin to the moon landing being a hoax.

Stories such as mine will continue to cause cognitive dissonance for IFB Christians such as Jack. All I can hope for is that by reading my story, they will have doubts and questions that will lead to further investigation and inquiry. Fundamentalist Christians can and do change. I once believed as Jack did, and so did many of the readers of this blog. Yet, we are now unbelievers. Deconversion is a slow, agonizing, painful process. Some people cannot bear the questions and doubts, so they retreat into the safety of the house of faith. Others, however, are willing to suffer through the process, believing that truth and freedom await them on the other side. There’s a gospel song that says, we’ve come this far by faith, we can’t turn back now. For people such as myself, we’ve come this far by reason, we can’t turn back now.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 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.

Are you on Social Media? Follow Bruce on Facebook and Twitter.

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.

The Cruel Message of Calvinism

Guest post by Linda

One of my earliest memories is sitting on the floor in a church nursery, rolling a big ball to a little boy who would then roll it back to me. I was delighted with this simple game. An equally delighted adult was watching us. I can’t remember who she was, but I am sure she was smiling and encouraging us in our ball rolling. We were probably three or four years old. I felt safe, happy, and comfortable.

My family went to church every Sunday. I didn’t understand why of course, but it was always fun because there were other kids to play with. Eventually I outgrew the nursery and began attending Sunday school. In Sunday school the teachers were always ladies and they were always sweet. They taught us all sorts of Bible stories. It wasn’t quite as fun as the nursery had been, but it was pleasant and sometimes we got to color. We soon began learning about Jesus. We would sing “Jesus Loves Me” or the song about the wise man who built his house upon a rock, smacking our fists into our palms to show how good and solid the rock was. There was an important message in these songs, though I wasn’t sure what it was.

After a while, Sunday school took a more serious turn. Our teacher taught us about lepers. Lepers were people who had a terrible disease that caused their body parts to rot and fall off. Other people hated them and made them live far away. Only Jesus was kind to lepers. Jesus was better than other people. Like the Sunday school songs, there was an important message in this story. I still didn’t fully understand it, but so far, I liked Jesus a lot. I was glad he was nice to the sick people and he even helped one of them get well. I don’t remember the first time we heard about Jesus dying on the cross to save us, but the teacher started bringing it up every week. She told us it was very important for us to believe that Jesus died to save us from our sins. It had never occurred to me not to believe something an adult said, especially a teacher, so it seemed kind of strange that she thought we might not believe her story.

Around this time, I started learning to read. Thanks to TV, I even learned that all people did not use the same words as we Americans did. Some people spoke and wrote a language called Spanish. It had different words for things like “water” and “friend.” This was amazing. The subject of language came up one week in Sunday school when our teacher taught us about the Tower of Babel. In this story, God punished some men who tried to build a giant tower they could use to climb into Heaven. He did this by switching everyone’s words around. It all made sense now! That must have been where Spanish had come from, plus a whole bunch of other languages I had never even heard of. I found myself smugly wondering why God had written the Bible in English. I decided it must be because English was the best language.

It was the 1970s. Hippies were everywhere. Stores carried posters and signs with slogans like: “Keep On Truckin’,” “Peace,” and “Smile God Loves You.” One week our sweet Sunday school teacher had a warning for us kids. She told us not to believe the signs that said “Smile God Loves You” because they weren’t true. God did not love everybody. I didn’t think much about this warning at the time. I was already learning not to question the things I heard in church. As the years went by and I transitioned from a curious child into a quiet teenager, I grew frustrated with church. Those early lessons about kind and helpful Jesus didn’t mesh with the grown-up sermons about a righteous, angry God. The punishment doled out by God at the Tower of Babel seemed like a prank compared to burning unbelievers in Hell forever. I didn’t understand what we were supposed to do for Jesus. I knew that He had died for us wicked humans, but there was something crucial I was missing. Why did all these people spend every Sunday listening to the preacher talk about it? What was the point? Our preacher spent a lot of time and energy ranting about all these other preachers who had everything wrong. There was a long list of these false preachers. He also had a long list of behaviors that would not help you get into Heaven: praying, tithing, getting baptized, helping the poor, caring for the sick, winning souls, going to church, volunteering in church, building the church, studying the Bible, serving your community, and on and on and on. I got tense just listening to him talk about all the ways you could waste your time trying to be a good person. It was like listening to a song with an overly long introduction. I kept waiting for the tension to break and for him to finally say what we should do to get into Heaven, but he never did.

It occurred to me that church was vastly different from school. In school, you learned about a new subject, studied it, took tests on it, then you moved on to the next level. You repeated this process from first grade to second grade to third grade and so on. By the time you got to middle school, you didn’t keep going over the same topics you learned in grade school; you were expected to have them memorized so they could form the foundation of more advanced subjects. Not so in church. In church you went every Sunday, year after year, to hear the same lecture about how horrible you are and how you deserve to burn in Hell and how Jesus would save you from Hell if only . . . something. What that something was, I couldn’t quite grasp. I wondered if I was dumb. Obviously, every other person in church understood it, so why didn’t I? Confusion morphed into anger and I started to hate going to church. I was closing in on adulthood and longing for independence. It felt like church was keeping me trapped in childhood. My escape finally began when I left home for college at the age of eighteen. I was still a Christian, though I could not have described my actual beliefs to anyone who might have asked. I knew what I was supposed to say, but those Christian-approved words didn’t match up with the thoughts and emotions I kept inside. In college I made the shocking discovery that other people sometimes questioned the origins of the Bible. They talked about it as if it were any other book written by men. Even more shocking was the fact that college instructors now encouraged us students to think about these things. They wanted us to think! I couldn’t handle it. I decided they were all evil. Though I had problems with Christianity myself, it felt like an attack to hear others criticize the faith — my faith! Even so, I did begin allowing myself to think, just a little bit at first. This was the beginning of the end of my faith. It wasn’t until many years later that I finally left Christianity for good. It took a long time to get rid of the fear that I might accidentally come to the wrong conclusion and burn forever because of it. And it wasn’t until the advent of the internet, decades later, that I finally understood what our preacher was really saying all along. I had started reading online articles about Christianity in its various forms. When I came across a description of Calvinism, I realized that there was a good reason our preacher never told us what to do to get into Heaven. He did not believe it mattered one bit what we did, because God had already decided who was in and who was out.

I had heard this long ago, this doctrine of predestination. It hadn’t upset me too much back then, because I was so deep in fundamentalist brain fog that I couldn’t process the horror. It just didn’t sink in. Now I thought about all the convoluted, pseudo-intellectual gobbledygook I had heard masqueraded as wisdom. And I realized that the particular message of our peculiar brand of Calvinism did not require years of lectures to understand. It was as simple as it was cruel: God created some people to damn and some people to save. There is nothing any human being can do to change this situation so it is foolish to even try. I cannot describe the way this realization made me feel. I was astonished at how ridiculous it was, and at how many otherwise intelligent adults really believed that this was the sort of thing a righteous creator would do. It still gives me a strange feeling to think about how that church, which I first knew as a safe and happy place, was never anything more than a shrine to violence and injustice.

Most Evangelicals Don’t Choose to Become Christians

indoctrinating children

Here’s one of the dirty little secrets rarely spoken of by Evangelical pastors and leaders: most Evangelicals don’t choose to become Christians. Now, I’m not talking about the internecine war between Calvinists and Arminians over free-will. What I am talking about today is how people become members of Evangelical churches. Being a Christian, of course, is a requirement for membership, but most church members did not choose to become Christians — even if they think they did. Let me explain.

People come into the Evangelical church one of three ways:

  • They are born into and grow up in the church. They are what are called cradle Evangelicals.
  • They have a crisis conversion — a born-again experience — and, after baptism, are admitted into membership.
  • They are already Christians and are members of other churches. They leave these churches and join Evangelical congregations. This is commonly called transfer growth.

Let me deal with these in reverse order.

Transfer Growth 

Despite all their talk about evangelizing the lost and reaching the world with the gospel, most Evangelical churches — particularly megachurches — “grow” through transfer growth — Methodists becoming Baptists, Baptists becoming Charismatics, Nazarene congregants becoming Reformed Baptists, etc. Far too many Evangelicals want to be entertained and “fed,” so they seek out churches that can meet their “felt needs.” Thinking that their present churches are “dead” or lacking in some way, Evangelicals visit other churches hoping to find one that clicks with them; one that offers the preaching, programs, music, and handsome preacher they are looking for.

The past forty years have been hard on small, often rural, churches. As megachurches pop-up everywhere, they steal or entice away disaffected congregants from smaller churches. This is how a new church plant can skyrocket from a dozen people to hundreds in a matter of weeks or months. Megachurches, or mega-size aspiring church planters, deliberately target people who are looking for a church that is “relevant” or has the best damn band in the land. Music, in particular, has become a primary reason people leave their churches and join up with new churches. Oh, Evangelicals won’t say this out loud, choosing instead to give all sorts of “spiritual” reasons for desertion, but when pressed they will admit that they sure do love the music at their new church. Like it or not, the quality of a church’s band is often the biggest factor in whether prospective members will join the club. Small churches, of course, can’t compete with congregations that have large budgets, paid music staff, and worship leaders who look like Ken or Barbie. Brother Bill leading congregants in the hymns of the faith can’t compete with coiffed worship bands who play and sing the latest praise and worship music with professionalism and skill.

Crisis Conversion

Regardless of the fact that most Evangelical church growth comes from transfers from other congregations, membership via crisis conversion is a fairly frequent occurrence. Evangelizers seek out people who are having troubles in their lives: marital problems, family issues, substance abuse, incarceration, criminal behavior, sexual perversion, to name a few, and share with them that the solution to their problems is Jesus Christ. How aggressive churches are in this regard varies from church to church. In the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Church (IFB) movement, churches tend to emphasize evangelization. I heard countless evangelists say that churches should find the biggest, baddest, meanest man in town and win him to Jesus. Seeking out the dregs of society was common, as was targeting the poor and disadvantaged. Promising that Jesus was the cure for what ailed them and the church was the family they never had, countless people accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, were baptized, and became members of Bible-believing churches.

As a youth growing up in the IFB church movement, I heard countless testimonies from people who were bad people before Jesus saved them. I heard stories of changed lives from people who said they were a mob hit-man, Satanist, occultist, drug trafficker, prostitute, drug addict, alcoholic, porn star, bank robber, Black Panther, to name a few. The badder the person, the greater the conversion, or so the stories went, anyway. Many of these stories were later discredited or proved to be lies, but they sure made a mark on me. “Wow! Look at what Jesus did for these people! If Jesus can save them, he can save anyone!”

Cradle Evangelicals

Most Evangelical church members are born into and grow up in the church. As is common among all religions, their parents chose for them what their religion would be. My parents were saved, baptized and became members of an IFB megachurch in the early 1960s. While I was baptized as an infant in the Episcopalian church, the church of my youth all the way up to age 50 was Evangelical Christianity. There was never a time I chose to be an Evangelical. My parents believed right-wing, racist, Fundamentalist Christianity was the one true faith, and following the words of the prophet Jeremiah, they determined “but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15) I suspect most of the ex-Evangelicals who read this blog can say the same; that their religion was chosen for them. Yes, I made a profession of faith as a young child and again as a fifteen-year-old teen, (Please see My Baptist Salvation Experience) but these “choices” were really expected rituals that all church children went through; little more than confirmation in Roman Catholicism or mainline churches.

Fifteen years ago, a Barna Research study revealed:

For years, church leaders have heard the claim that nearly nine out of ten Christians accept Jesus as their savior before the age of 18. If that statistic was accurate in the past, it no longer depicts U.S. society. The current Barna study indicates that nearly half of all Americans who accept Jesus Christ as their savior do so before reaching the age of 13 (43%), and that two out of three born-again Christians (64%) made that commitment to Christ before their 18th birthday. One out of eight born-again people (13%) made their profession of faith while 18 to 21 years old. Less than one out of every four born-again Christians (23%) embraced Christ after their twenty-first birthday. Barna noted that these figures are consistent with similar studies it has conducted during the past twenty years.

The survey data show that Catholics who become born again are even more likely than Protestants to do so before reaching high school. Among those currently associated with a Catholic church and who are born again, two out of three (66%) accepted Christ before age 13; one-fifth (21%) did so from 13 to 21; and the remaining 13% made that decision as an adult. In contrast, born-again people aligned with a Protestant church make that choice at an older age: 40% did so as children, 35% during the 13-to-21-age span, and one-quarter (25%) as adults.

The precipitating event for someone to accept Christ as his or her savior varied by the age of the individual making that spiritual commitment.

For instance, among Christians who embraced Christ before their teen years, half were led to Christ by their parents, with another one in five led by some other friend or relative. Comparatively few accepted Jesus in response to a minister’s personal prompting (7%) and only one out of eight cited a special event as the turning point in their journey. Among those who mentioned events, about half identified a church service. Just 1% mentioned media evangelism or other special situations as being responsible for their conversion.

Among people who accepted Christ when they were age 13 through 21, the process was much more diverse. One out of five credited a friend with bringing them to Christ, and a similar proportion said their parents were responsible for their decision. One-fifth also recalled an event as the trigger for their commitment. One-sixth of the people saved as teens (16%) listed a relative other than their parent as the primary influencer. Ministers were cited by one out of every ten Christians who accepted Christ during the 13-to-21-age bracket, while media and special personal situations were listed by only 1%.

Dave Shibley, a writer for Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF), states:

I believe in the validity of child evangelism.

For one thing, statistics are on its side. 19 out of 20 Christians receive Christ before the age of 25. After that, the odds against conversion become astronomical.

Early conversion saves not only a soul, but potentially points an entire life toward service to God and man. In 15 years of ministry I’ve met no one who is sorry he came to Christ early in life. I’ve encountered many who are sorry they didn’t.

….

Children are reached more easily than adults. Jay Kesler, president of Youth for Christ International, has well said, “Any evangelism after high school isn’t evangelism. It’s really salvage.”

Young children are notably tender. Their sincerity is never in doubt. Their heart attitudes contribute to genuine conversion. And Jesus told adults that they must become as children to experience the new birth (Matt. 18:3).

True, children who make an early profession of faith sometimes struggle with assurance and make a second public commitment later. They often say, “I didn’t know what I was doing the first time.” More likely, however, the personal worker attending the child didn’t know what he was doing.

We need not fully understand the Gospel to be saved; we need only believe and receive it. What adult fully comprehends the rationale or the magnitude of redemption?

Some argue that children are unable to stay true to their commitment. Yet the late English preacher Charles Spurgeon noted, “Out of a church of 2,700 members, I have never had to exclude a single one who was received while yet a child. Teachers and superintendents should not merely believe in the possibility of early conversion, but in the ferquency [sic] of it.”

Child evangelism assists in the formation of character. The Bible clearly teaches that man’s only capability for good lies in the imputed righteousness of Christ. We do not expect unconverted adults to act like Christians. The same should be true for children.

Christians seem to be the only ones who believe they should wait to influence children’s minds. Advertisers don’t wait. Child abusers don’t wait. Neither do humanist educators, false religions and cults, or Satan.

The church that reaches its children has a better chance of reaching its adults. Often newly-converted children win their parents and grandparents to the Lord. Those children grow up to be adults who can nurture their own families to faith in Jesus Christ.

Lest we forget, Christianity is always just one generation from extinction. We must reach the coming generation with the Gospel.

As you can see, Evangelical churches and parachurch groups know how important it is to evangelize children. That’s why they have junior church programs, youth programs, vacation Bible school (VBS), and countless other ministries/programs. These programs are used to indoctrinate children before they can make rational, informed decisions about religion, God, and the Bible, sucking youngsters into the Evangelical ghetto before they have a chance to “think.”  Evangelizers don’t want children and teenagers to use critical thinking skills to ponder whether the claims of Christianity are true. Instead, they are expected to believe and obeyMom and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa, and their church knows what’s best for them, children are told, so there is no need to “think” about these things. Just follow the prescribed salvation rituals and all will be well. And for most of the people sitting in Evangelical churches, this is exactly how they became members in good standing.

Many former Evangelicals will tell you that studying the Bible and the claims of Christianity as a teen or adult are what eventually led to their loss of faith. Their stories show that Evangelical indoctrination of children is no longer as effective as it was a generation ago. Thanks to the Internet, younger Evangelicals now have access to information about Christianity and the Bible that they have never heard from their parents, pastors, and Christian school teachers. Facts and evidence, along with skeptical, rational thinking are the best cure for those infected with Fundamentalist thinking as youths.

Churches can no longer rely on cradle Evangelicals to prop up ministries for another generation. Too many young congregants are exiting stage left, never to be seen again, save at weddings and funerals. So, Evangelical churches will focus on pilfering people from “dead” or “liberal” congregations or double-down on evangelizing the meanest, baddest people in town. Whether these approaches will pump enough new blood into the Evangelical churches remains to be seen.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 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.

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.

My Baptist Salvation Experience

bruce gerencser 1971
Bruce Gerencser, Ninth Grade, 1971-72

Over the past twelve years, I have received countless emails from Evangelicals wanting me to share with them my salvation testimony. Some of these interlocutors sincerely want to understand my past and how it is I became an atheist. Others are looking for discrepancies or errors — from their theological perspective, anyway — in my testimony. Finding these glosses allows them to dismiss my story out of hand, saying, Bruce, you never were a Christian. I used to take great offense when Evangelical zealots dismissed my past life of love, faith, and devotion to Jesus, but I no longer do so. I now realize that many Evangelicals must neuter my story lest it force them to consider and answer uncomfortable questions about their own lives and theology. It’s far easier to just dismiss me out of hand, saying that I never was a Christian; that I was deceived, a false prophet, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or any of the other epithets Evangelicals throw my way. I have never said to a Christian, I don’t believe your testimony of saving faith. I accept what they tell me at face value. You say you are a Christian; that Jesus is your Lord and Savior? Who am I to doubt your story? Unfortunately, many Evangelicals don’t seem similarly inclined when it comes to my story or those of other Evangelicals-turned-atheists.

What follows my Baptist salvation testimony. Instead of writing out my testimony every time some asks me for it, I will now send them to this post.

I was raised in the Evangelical church. My parents were saved in the early 1960s at Scott Memorial Baptist Church (now Shadow Mountain Community Church)  in El Cajon, California, pastored at the time by Tim LaHaye. From that time forward, the Gerencser family attended Evangelical churches — mostly Bible Southern Baptist,  or Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) congregations.

evangelist al lacy
Evangelist Al Lacy

In the spring of 1972, my parents divorced after 15 years of marriage. Both of my parents remarried several months later. While my parents and their new spouses, along with my brother and sister, stopped attending church, I continued to attend Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio. In the fall of 1972, a high-powered IFB evangelist named Al Lacy came to Trinity to hold a week-long revival meeting. One night, as I sat in the meeting with my friends, I felt deep conviction over my sins while the evangelist preached. I tried to push aside the Holy Spirit’s work in my heart, but when the evangelist gave the invitation, I knew that I needed to go forward. I knew that I was a wretched sinner in need of salvation. (Romans 3) I knew that I was headed for Hell and that Jesus, the resurrected son of God, was the only person who could save me from my sin. I knelt at the altar and asked Jesus to forgive me of my sin and save me. I put my faith and trust in Jesus, that he alone was my Lord and Savior. (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 the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamedRomans 10:9-11)

I got up from the altar a changed person. I had no doubt that I was a new creation, old things had passed away, and all things had become new.  (Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. (2 Corinthians 5:17)

The next Sunday, I was baptized, and several weeks later I stood before the church and declared that I believed God was calling me to preach. For the next thirty-five years, I lived a life committed to following after Jesus and the teachings of the Bible. While I failed many times as a Christian, there was never a time where I doubted that Jesus was my Lord and Savior. I loved him with all my heart, soul, and mind, and my heart burned with the desire to preach and teach the Word of God, evangelize the lost, and help Christians mature in their faith. No one doubted that I was a Christian. Not my Christian family; not my Christian friends; not my colleagues in the ministry; not the people who lovingly called me preacher. I was, in every way, a devoted Christian husband, father, and pastor. As all Christians do, I sinned in thought, word, and deed, but when I did, I confessed my sin to the Lord and asked for his forgiveness. (If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)  And then I got up from my knees and strived to make my calling and election sure. (Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall. (2 Peter 1:10)

This is my testimony.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 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.

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.

Independent Baptist Songs: Heaven Came Down by John W. Peterson

john w peterson

From time to time, I plan to post lyrics from the songs we sang in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches I grew up in and pastored. Unbelievers and non-Fundamentalists might find some of these lyrics quite interesting, and, at times, funny or disturbing. Enjoy!

Today’s Independent Baptist Song is Heaven Came Down by John W. Peterson. I was able to find a video of this song being sung by the Temple Baptist Church congregation in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Heaven Came Down was one of my favorite songs. The churches I attended and pastored would lustily sing this song, with congregants with higher pitched voices singing the last line right out of the ballpark.  Heaven Came Down reminded me, at the time, of the wonderful relationship I had with Jesus and Heaven that awaited me after I died.

I am many years removed from my church singing days, but songs such as Heaven Came Down still lurk deep within my mind. As I listened to the video below, I sang along, not missing a word. Using music to religiously indoctrinate people works, as I can surely attest. I suspect many readers can say the same; that try as we might to wash our religious past from our minds, songs and Bible verses live on.

Video Link

Heaven Came Down by John W. Peterson

O what a wonderful, wonderful day, day I will never forget;
After I’d wandered in darkness away, Jesus my Savior I met.
O what a tender, compassionate friend, He met the need of my heart;
Shadows dispelling, with joy I am telling, He made all the darkness depart.

Chorus
Heaven came down and glory filled my soul,  (filled my soul)
When at the cross the Savior made me whole;  (made me whole)
My sins were washed away and my night was turned to day,
Heaven came down and glory filled my soul!  (filled my soul)

Born of the Spirit with life from above into God’s family divine,
Justified fully thru Calvary’s love, O what a standing is mine!
And the transaction so quickly was made, when as a sinner I came,
Took of the offer, of grace He did proffer, He saved me, O praise His dear name!

Chorus
Heaven came down and glory filled my soul,  (filled my soul)
When at the cross the Savior made me whole;  (made me whole)
My sins were washed away and my night was turned to day,
Heaven came down and glory filled my soul!  (filled my soul)

Now I’ve a hope that will surely endure after the passing of time;
I have a future in heaven for sure there in those mansions sublime.
And it’s because of that wonderful day, when at the cross I believed;
Riches eternal and blessings supernal, from His precious hand I received.

Chorus
Heaven came down and glory filled my soul,  (filled my soul)
When at the cross the Savior made me whole;  (made me whole)
My sins were washed away and my night was turned to day,
Heaven came down and glory filled my soul!  (filled my soul)

Heaven came down and glory filled my soul.

About John W. Peterson:

John W. Peterson (1921-2006) was born in Lindsborg, Kansas, and began his musical career while he was still in his teens. During World War II, he served as an Army Air Force pilot flying the famed “China Hump.”Later, he attended Moody Bible Institute and served on the radio staff there for a number of years. In 1953, he graduated from the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago and shortly thereafter settled in Pennsylvania to continue his songwriting career. He then moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where for over ten years he was President and Editor-in-Chief of Singspiration, a sacred music publishing company. He also served on the board of Gospel Films, Inc. of Muskegon, Michigan for several years. Later he moved to Scottsdale, Arizona where he continued his writing and co-founded Good Life Productions. A few years later, the John W. Peterson Music Company was established. During this time, he also served on the board of Family Life Radio Network in Tucson, Arizona. He had wide experience as a choral director, and throughout his career was in great demand as a guest conductor of his own works.

His music is loved and sung around the world. Mr. Peterson has composed well over 1000 individual songs, including titles such as: “It Took a Miracle,” “Over the Sunset Mountains,” “So Send I You,” “Springs of Living Water,” “Heaven Came Down,” “Jesus Is Coming Again” and “Surely Goodness and Mercy.” In addition, he has written 35 cantatas and musicals. Among these are “Night of Miracles,” “Born a King,” “No Greater Love,” “Carol of Christmas,” “Jesus Is Coming,” “King of Kings,” “Down from His Glory” and “The Last Week.” Approximately 10,000,000 copies of these cantatas and musicals have been published and sold.

In 1967, the National Evangelical Film Foundation presented Mr. Peterson with the Sacred Music Award in recognition of his accomplishments in the field of sacred music. In the same year, he received the honorary degree, Doctor of Sacred Music, from John Brown University. In 1971, he received the honorary degree, Doctor of Divinity, from Western Conservative Baptist Seminary in Portland, Oregon; and in 1979, he received the honorary degree, Doctor of Fine Arts, from Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona. In 1977, his autobiography, “The Miracle Goes On,” was published by Zondervan Publishing House, and a film by the same title was released by Gospel Films. In 1986, Mr. Peterson was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and in 1996 at MusiCalifornia, he received the prestigious Ray DeVries Church Music Award. He’s listed in “Who’s Who in America” and “Who’s Who in the World.”