A letter from a former Christian who now is atheistic or agnostic, used with permission and now also leading to some observations about our study on the “anatomy of apostasy.”
I was really surprised that I could deconstruct my own faith away. I sort of fell into it, like you pull the thread that you know has to be dealt with – and next thing you know, half the garment is unraveled already.
Anyway, if I may ask – how do you think about people like Templeton (or whoever you’ve read about who you’re convinced had true faith at some point)? Is he in heaven, embarrassed but glad he made it? Is he in hell? Is there another option? Do you choose not to take a position on this (just like I choose not to take a position on God’s existence)?
I’m not sure how much commentary you’re putting in your book – maybe it’s mostly stories without interpretation (like the Old Testament). But I’m very curious about your personal take on these stories. (Even though I suppose I might not like it.)
I’ve noticed that a lot of Christians find deconversion very unnerving – it personally threatens them: what if it could happen to them? My sense is that you’re not that way – otherwise I wouldn’t be asking about your reaction. I’d know and I’d not want to read your book because I’d know that you’d have to reassure yourself by forcing some sort of framing on deconversion which ‘explains’ it as something that couldn’t happen to you. At the expense of accuracy.
Maybe you don’t have time to answer these questions…but if you do, I’m interested.
At the heart of your letter, so it seems to me, is a question that nags the emerging movement and it nags at the heart of lots of Christians who are afraid to let the question come to the surface for fear of what they might come to think and believe. And this question, so it seems to me, is one of the most pressing questions that needs to be asked and I wish more would ask it and answer it. It’s a question dying at the hands of a thousand qualifications. It’s a question that a pluralistic world feasts on and drives deep into the heart of the convinced believer.
Here it is:
Does faith in — or discipleship to — Jesus Christ really matter in the end? Not only does it matter now — that’s a pragmatic question. But does it matter eternally?
And how do we answer such a profound question? I could give you my opinion — which I’ll admit is that I hope Templeton and others like him had a change of mind. Or I could be political and ride the fence — and say that it is not up for me to decide or that God is the judge and I’ll let him judge.
The first shouldn’t matter to you; it shouldn’t matter to anyone. My opinion doesn’t count when we raise the issue of eternity. The second way of answering this question is nice and it can sound very theological actually — we’ll let God decide. But I find a cop out on this one to be irresponsible. Why? Because those of us who say we follow Jesus means we follow what he said. Which leads me to my third way of answering.
We can only answer this question as responsible Christians by asking (1) if Jesus thought there was an afterlife and (2) if he thought believing in him or following him mattered for that afterlife. And then we have to ask if we have the pluck to own up to what he said.
On #1: Yes, Jesus believed in the afterlife, a very typical belief at the time of Jesus.
Mark 12:24-27 Jesus said to them, “Is not this why you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.”
On #2: Yes, Jesus believed confessing him in public, which means owning up to an attachment to him as well as following him in public, determined whether or not someone would be welcomed by God.
Mat 10:32-33 So every one who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.
We might call this the Synoptic Gospel version of John 14:6 — “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me.”
Now, there are lots of issues involved in your question — questions about those who have never heard (and this has all kinds of nuances) and questions about the nature of eternity and separation from God and annihiliationism etc and I don’t want to pretend that these two points addresses those questions.
But, I do believe this is what Jesus taught and I do my best to follow him and teach what he says. The issue for me is this: Do you agree with Jesus? Forget what you think of me or anyone else. The question is this: Are these teachings of Jesus worthy of belief or not? I’d be interested in what you think of Jesus on this one.
On the stories of leaving the faith … no, I won’t be evaluating the stories. I admit that some of them are hard for me to read. But I’m committed to describing what goes on … the apologetics comes in a different setting.