Friday, April 15, 2011

Were We Never Christians At All?

Perhaps the most common claim that Christians make about ex-Christians is that they could not possibly have been "true Christians" in the first place. It can be frustrating to hear this, and from the unbeliever's perspective it seems downright ridiculous. To show why, let's start with an illustration.

Let's take the case of a hypothetical Christian, Jane, who accepts this doctrine. She believes herself to be a "true Christian." She sincerely believes that Jesus is Lord, and that God raised him from the dead, and that she accepted him as the savior of her life. But here's the problem: there is some possibility—even if it's only a small one—that at some point in the remainder of Jane's lifetime she will reject Christianity and either become nonreligious or an adherent of some other religion.


Now, Jane could deny this as a possibility. But life often presents us with unexpected twists and turns, so to rule out such an outcome would be narrow-minded and na├»ve. So if Jane accepts the possibility that she could reject Christianity in the future, she must accept the possibility that she is not currently a Christian—in spite of her sincere belief! She would likely find this conclusion patently absurd, and I find the conclusion that I was not a Christian absurd for more or less the same reason. 

Now Christians can (hopefully) see how their assertion looks from my perspective. But some of them might say, "I know I'm a Christian because my faith resulted in good works. You unbelievers didn't bear spiritual fruit, so your Christianity was false." But this has two problems. First, the Bible doesn't necessarily require these fruits for salvation. Romans 10:9 states, "That if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved." All this verse requires is a sincere confession of belief in Christ's deity and resurrection—no ifs, ands, or buts.

Can one find verses that say there's more to being a Christian than sincere belief? Certainly. But what that shows me is that the Bible is at worst contradictory, and at best startlingly unclear, regarding what is by far the single most important element of Christianity. If we're to be punished or rewarded eternally according to a certain set of criteria, isn't it strange that the Bible doesn't just lay out all in one place (or better yet, in many places) exactly what those criteria are? It seems rather cruel of a supposedly omnibenevolent God to leave the matter even slightly ambiguous.

Second, let's assume the objector is correct. In fact, let's raise the stakes even higher. In 
Luke 9:23 Jesus says, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him pick up his cross daily, and follow Me." If we interpret this as a requirement for "true Christianity," then almost the entire church consists of fake Christians. Yet I can point to ex-Christians who met even this ridiculously high standard. Ex-preachers like John Loftus and Dan Barker once dedicated their lives completely to Christ and produced plenty of so-called spiritual fruit. If they weren't "true Christians," then no one is.

Those who claim that ex-Christians weren't Christians at all probably haven't had any experience with them. My advice to them? Read the testimonies linked in the above paragraph. Read the stories from regular people on the ex-christian.net forums. Read Ebonmuse's excellent essay "Into the Clear Air," which describes the agonizing process that Christians go through when they leave Christianity. And read blogger Luke Muelhauser's detailed account of the richness of his former relationship with God. If they've read all that and still believe that ex-Christians must have been insincere, they are only revealing their dogmatic adherence to a view that bears no resemblance to reality.

2 comments:

  1. earlier comment deleted, corrected, and reposted, referenced Luke instead of Matthew

    Hi Tim, it's me again-lol

    I've read lots of your entries, and find your blog and your life-story interesting. I find myself wanting to comment on every entry, but don't want to be overly intrusive. If I may, I would like to give my thoughts once again here:

    @"If they've read all that and still believe that ex-Christians must have been insincere"...

    Tim, I don't personally doubt the "sincerity" of your belief that you were once a true Christian, and the same goes for the others linked above, several of which I did read. I guess the breakdown is in defining what a "true Christian" is. People can be "sincere", and "sincerely wrong" i.e. "deceived" at the same time. Consider the words of Jesus to many people who were sincerely wrong and deceived:

    Matthew 7:22(ESV) On that day many will say to Me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' 23 And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness.'

    Obviously those to whom Jesus was speaking in this passage were very sincere. But they were not His. The phrase "I never knew you" has to do with an intimate loving relationship, such as "Adam knew Eve", Joseph knew not Mary, etc..., not just an intellectual assent to facts about Jesus and Christianity.

    John 6:37 All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and whoever comes to Me I will never cast out...(vs 39)that I should lose nothing of all that He has given Me...

    I'll continue to follow periodically and see what the future holds for you, Tim. I wouldn't be surprised to log on one day to see you have returned to your Christian roots, but realize I could be far off. Meanwhile, I'll hope and pray you're not in that number in the passage above.

    Don

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  2. Hi Don,

    As I said in the post, I find the Bible's criteria for salvation to be at worst contradictory and at best startlingly unclear considering the infinitely high stakes involved. The verses you cite don't do much to change my position on that point. I expand on this idea here, dubbing it the Problem of Poorly Communicated Salvation.

    That said, I do appreciate your concern for me. I very much doubt that I would ever return to Christianity, but I'll certainly continue to keep an open mind about it.

    —Tim

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