Some people, when they hear that I became an atheist after being a Christian for over 40 years, deny the possibility of such a thing. In some way or another, they say, "No, that couldn't be. You must not have been a real Christian."
This is an example of what is known as the "no true Scotsman" fallacy--an attempt to maintain a stereotype by redefining a term so as to exclude an example. What I want to say here is that by any common definition of the term "Christian," I was one.
If you arbitrarily define the term Christian so as to exclude someone who later loses his faith, then by your definition I was never a Christian, and you don't need to read any further. I don't see that as a useful definition of the term, however, because it doesn't allow you to identify someone as a Christian until they die. It doesn't even tell you if you are one yourself.
When someone calls my Christianity into question, I respond on one of three levels depending on how well the person knows me:
1. A stranger--someone who doesn't know my Christian background--has no basis for asserting that I was not a Christian.
2. An acquaintance--someone who knows about my Christian background but doesn't know me well--may grant that I had some reason to consider myself a Christian, but assume that I didn't have a strong faith.
3. A friend--someone who knows me well--is grasping at straws in an attempt to reconcile their knowledge of who I am with their conviction that no person who has experienced the goodness of God could reject that ultimate blessing. Such a belief is consistent with the idea of a good God, but inconsistent with my experience.
A stranger who summarily dismisses my claim to have been a Christian for many years may assume that I was what might be called a "cultural Christian"--someone who considers himself to be a Christian because that's what all good people are, whether they're active in a church or not. To the contrary, I based my life on strong Christian beliefs.
I was raised in a devout fundamentalist Christian family. When my high school counselor suggested that I consider applying to Vanderbilt University, I instead chose a small Christian college which required a Bible class and chapel every day. In the various places I have lived, I was very active in several types of churches:
Church of Christ (fundamentalist)
Presbyterian Church in the US (mainline Protestant)
Assemblies of God (pentecostal)
Fellowship of the Way of Christ (charismatic house church)
United Methodist Church (mainline Protestant)
Non-denominational charismatic church
Vineyard Christian Fellowship (charismatic)
Evangelical Presbyterian Church (evangelical Protestant)
I financially supported my churches and other Christian organizations, including Focus on the Family and Samaritan's Purse.
I taught Bible classes and led home discussion groups. I read the Bible aloud and led prayers at home, in churches, and in an office prayer group. My wife and I hosted music parties consisting of worship music in our home. On a few occasions I led worship services, preached sermons, and gave testimonies. I participated in the Dunamis Project, Tres Dias, and Promise-Keepers events, and helped to lead spiritual retreats.
Any religious survey or casual observer would unquestionably categorize me as a Christian.
Many Christians, though, would point out that church involvement is all well and good, but it's quite common to be an active church member without a strong personal faith. Considering a spectrum of devotion from a "Christmas and Easter" churchgoer to a serious monk, I can give some specific evidence that, although I was a computer programmer, I was closer to the monkish end.
Over four decades, I studied the Bible regularly and read scores of Christian books. I took college courses in Bible and classical Greek. I subscribed to "Christianity Today" and read it avidly. In my late 40's I took the time to write several pages describing my theology, intending to give them to my sons to counteract what I saw as false teachings in all the churches I knew of.
All my life, my favorite part of worship services was singing. I especially loved the Vineyard songs, because they were consistently addressed to God, praising him and praying for him to do his work in me and in the world.
I prayed informally, but frequently and fervently--sometimes for extended periods, sometimes in song, but most often in single sentences as I was working or going about my daily activities. My first impulse on learning of a problem I couldn't address myself was to pray. I prayed continually for God's guidance in making any decision of consequence.
I trusted God to take care of me and do what he knew to be best for me and everyone. I did what I thought he wanted me to do, but I didn't worry too much if things didn't go as I hoped, because I knew that God had the ultimate control over everything.
Although members of exclusivist groups like Roman Catholics and Mormons would not consider me to be a true Christian, I believe that the vast majority of other Christian leaders and theologians would.
Some close friends of mine, while acknowledging that I was a Christian, are more concerned with my relationship with God than with my religious affiliation.
They may suppose that my faith in God was merely a result of believing what I had been taught and my behavior was simply the result of practicing what I believed. Perhaps I was just "going through the motions" out of a desire to do the right thing, rather than acting in the power of the Holy Spirit as a loving response to a personal relationship with God.
That is exactly what I believe.
To someone who says to me, "You never really knew God," I say, "That's quite true. You can't know someone who doesn't exist." I could never know God because there is no God to know.
Christians, of course have other hypotheses as to how I could have been (at least apparently) a Christian who subsequently lost my faith in God:
1. I am not one of God's elect.
John Calvin's doctrine of predestination offers the possibility that I'm simply not one of the elect--that God knows what's best and he didn't choose me. That is a non-answer, of course, because it doesn't explain why I am not one of the elect. And it does me no good, because it says there's nothing I can do to change my status; I'm bound for hell--end of story.
I may be misrepresenting Calvinism here, and I doubt that many Christians would describe my status in this way, because I can't see how to reconcile such an idea with the thrust of the New Testament and the traditions of the church. To me, this idea implies that God is unjust. It is thoroughly contradicted by the concept of the gospel as good news.
To someone who believes this, though, I have to grant that it is a reasonable explanation of my apostasy.
2. I failed to recognize God.
Based on any theology I'm aware of other than Calvinism, it seems very unlikely that God tried to reveal himself to me but I failed to recognize him. I don't know of any Biblical doctrine that would suggest that God would not successfully reveal himself to someone who was open to such a revelation.
Some people insist that God has revealed himself to me in many ways: in the Bible, through preachers, teachers, prophets, my friends, book authors, through circumstances, and directly in my own mind. Of course I used to believe that myself.
All of those communication methods except the last two are indirect--through other people. It is clear that all those people are passing along a religious tradition. I can see no evidence that they are mouthpieces through which the creator of the universe is speaking to me.
The last two of those "communication methods," circumstances and my mind, are both my interpretations of events and thoughts. They are heavily influenced by what I have been taught by other people, so to a large extent, they also come from other people. To the extent that they were not due to the influence of other people, I thought that they originated either in my own mind or from God, but I saw no way to determine how much, if any, came from God.
Knowing how easily people's worldviews are molded by their upbringing and society, it doesn't seem wise to accept what I've been taught without strong evidence to support it. I was exposed to a wide variety of theological doctrines, and found none that made sense to me. If I failed to recognize God because he only communicated with me through other people, I would have to conclude that he was unwilling to show me which of their ideas were accurate.
3. I refused to accept him.
This seems similarly unlikely. Only the idea of arbitrary predestination would allow for the possibility that someone would try to serve God for 40 years while refusing to accept him.
4. I failed to approach God humbly.
Some people have suggested that I needed to accept God on his terms rather than mine, saying that I just needed to wait for God to reveal himself to me when he (or I) was ready. For my part, I could see no reason for such a delay, and I saw nothing in all Christian teaching to indicate that God would not be ready when I was. I wasn't demanding that God reveal himself to me within a certain time period; I was merely waiting for him to do so. But after 40 years, it began to seem unlikely that I would someday begin to see convincing evidence that God was more than a religious tradition.
5. I was deceived by the Devil and rebelled against God.
This is a common theory, but it just raises the question of why God would allow me to be so deceived instead of revealing himself to me.
6. God gave up on me because of persistent sin.
One answer is that I was so persistent in some sin that God abandoned me to suffer the consequences of that sin, causing me to see my foolishness and give it up. This is plausible as a concept, but it I was not aware of persistently committing any sin. As a very conscientious person, I seldom do things I believe to be bad, and when I do, I readily apologize and try to do better. Perhaps I rationalized my sin so thoroughly that I was no longer able to recognize it as a sin. In that case, I needed for God to reveal it to me, not abandon me to it.
Furthermore, this idea is difficult to reconcile with the "gospel" that Jesus takes away our sins. I was taught that the undefined "sin against the Holy Spirit" is the only kind that can't be forgiven. I knew that I had never done such a thing intentionally, and I believed that God would not be so unfair as to irredeemably condemn someone for accidentally breaking some obscure rule.
In any event, abandonment, if it has occurred, doesn't appear to be a very effective approach. For the most part, I'm enjoying my life very much; I don't know anyone whose life I would prefer to mine.
7. I didn't seek God with my whole heart.
I am not aware of any theology which suggests that God would refuse to reveal himself to someone who might have reservations or selfish motives. This would require perfection of anyone who wants to know God personally.
Some people have quoted Jeremiah 29:13 to tell me that if I want God more than anything else, I can still find him. I believe this to be true because I know that people can convince themselves of anything if they want it badly enough. However, I am not willing to sacrifice reality to gain faith in an imaginary God.
8. I never experienced God's grace.
Some people close to me lament that I never had a profound conversion experience in which I realized the depth of my depravity and the wonder of being freed from it by God's forgiveness.
Personally, I'm grateful that I felt enough love from my parents that I never felt that I was fundamentally a worthless sinner. I feel sorry for people who feel that way about themselves; the comfort they take in God's forgiveness never seems adequate to free them from the shame into which they have been indoctrinated.
Many of these comments on my apostasy try to defend God by blaming me for doing something wrong--failing to seek God, rejecting him, or rebelling against him. My testimony is that I sought him to the best of my ability. To anyone who feels that my efforts simply fell short, I would ask why it is so difficult to know a god who is supposedly all-wise, all-powerful, and longs for me to know him.
Everyone has a slightly different definition of what makes someone a Christian, but I was certainly what I believed a Christian to be. If I was not a true Christian, then I have never to my knowledge met or even heard of one.