I have never been happier than when I was a born-again evangelical Christian. No one could have talked me out of my faith back then. My life made sense. I had purpose and direction. Peace. love and joy flowed from my inner being. One could only describe the difference between the “old” and “new” me as miraculous. I had undergone a transformation beyond my wildest expectations. I truly mean this.
I was a deeply disturbed young man before a became a Christian. I hated everything about me and my life. I was depressed so I hid behind humor. I was the tragic clown making everyone around me laugh while being miserable. Others take refuge in academics, sports, hobbies, drugs and alcohol. I found it in comedy.
Growing up I never met anyone poorer than we were, not even close. When my brothers and sisters were young, we had no idea of our poverty. We lived in an old run down farmhouse with no insulation, rats (not mice), deteriorating walls from water saturating the bricks due to serious plumbing issues but lots of space to run and play. My mother labored endlessly cooking, mending, cleaning and taking care of a special needs child which took her attention from her other six children. My father was an emotionally detached immigrant from Holland who fought in WWII. He was cold and hard as well as uneducated. He never ever engaged in parenting other than yelling and occasionally hitting his children. His road rage was unequalled. Many times he left us horrified in the car as he got out to confront other drivers. All this had a deep and lasting impact on my psyche which would reveal itself the older I got.
As I entered my teen years I was confronted with yet another major emotional hurdle. I lagged behind my friends in puberty. When I was in ninth grade, I weighed under one hundred pounds and was under five feet tall. My nicknames included, “Scrawny Ronnie,” “Weasel” and “Runt.” Even my “friends” were merciless in their teasing. I laughed it all off but the hurt inside took its toll. My self esteem could not be lower. I wanted girls to like me but my small stature, poor academics and worn out patched clothing had little appeal. I knew it and so did they. Confidence goes a long way if you don’t have much, but I didn’t even have that. My father made sure of it.
I remember watching television programs like “The Brady Bunch” or “Partridge Family” and secretly wished they were mine. I was embarrassed and ashamed to have friends come over and see where I lived. Even worse, to see my father sprawled out on the couch in his underwear barking orders at my mother or for us to get out of the way of the television. I used to loom for any friends after school who wanted to play. I would go to their homes and wonder why I was chosen to be so poor.
We grew up eating powdered skim milk, the ends of processed meat logs, margarine and the cheapest bread available which was frozen for later. Our boot leaked so we wore bread bags over our socks. We wore our running shoes until our feet wore through the bottoms. Hand me downs or donations from friends were our source of clothing. I had no structure or guidance in my life. My mother must have assumed I was happy because I was always joking around. Maybe I wanted her to think that but I was suffering greatly and had no idea what to do about it. Enter a high school friend who recently became an evangelical.
Matt (not his real name) was one of the most popular people in my high school. He was tall, handsome, athletic and smart. He excelled at everything he did. He was liked and respected by everyone. He came from a wealthy family and lived in a beautiful home in a nice neighborhood. He was everything I wished I was, so when he invited me to his church, I jumped at the chance to be around him.
The Sunday morning he picked me up, he drove his fathers new shinny black Cadillac. I remember how soft the seats were and how smooth it rode. He was playing a Christian music cassette tape and the sounds filled the car. It was heavenly. I had no idea what to expect and had I known I probably would not have gone.
We arrived at a small church without even a parking lot so we parked on the street. As we entered, I felt every eye on me. I was nervous and uncomfortable by the attention and hope we were going somewhere I could blend in. Instead we went to a small backroom where a Sunday school class for “young people” was being held. I took a seat. I do not recall what the teacher said, but my life would be forever changed in this room.
When you talk of cults, typically the one phrase you hear repeated is, “charismatic leader.” This man was all that and more. He exuded charm and confidence. He spoke effortlessly and eloquently. I hated school but I could not stop listening to him. His soothing words flowed from his handsome face and enveloped me. He taught from the Bible and I felt if he was talking directly to me. Could this ancient book really be that interesting and relevant I wondered?
That day I would be invited along with the rest of the youth to his home to have lunch and play football. After which there would be a Bible lesson followed by group prayer. It was unlike anything I imagined. The other kids were extremely friendly and accepting of me. I would become a regular visitor to this new group of friends and especially their leader. We would meet several times throughout the week for Bible study, prayer, meals or sports sometimes until late into the evening. I learned he was a fire fighter which meant he had unusual hours. Often we would meet him at the fire station.
During these first months, I was accepted unconditionally by my new friends and youth leader. Although they constantly talked of one’s need “to accept Jesus as your personal Savior,” I considered this optional. I was just happy being there. But there was a deeper reason lurking in the dark recesses of my soul.
One time Matt and I visited Greg (not his real name) at the fire station. I did not know it at the time but this meeting was deliberate and had a specific agenda — my salvation. They knew I was comfortable within “the group” and had not made a decision to become a Christian, yet. They wanted to confront me with what could possibly be preventing me from entering into the most gloriously satisfying relationship I could imagine. So I told them.
The first day I went to the church, the preacher had invited any who wanted to accept Jesus into their hearts to come forward and be saved. He said then, and I heard it repeated many times after by Greg and others, Jesus would revolutionize your life. He would bring you unimaginable peace, abounding joy and take away your deepest pain. I remember thinking, that might be true for some people but not me. Nobody, not even God could take away my pain. So I told Greg and Matt I was beyond hope. I knew how emotionally scared I was but they didn’t. If they ever knew, they would understand my reluctance to accept Jesus.
That day at the fire station Greg said something which had a powerful affect on me. He said, “You can’t possibly know what God can or cannot do until you let him try.” He explained I was thinking as someone without the benefit of the Holy Spirit to help me understand or the resources to change my life. Unless I gave him the opportunity to come into my life and take control, I would not and could not know. Then he cautioned me telling me change is often slow and not to expect miracles over night.
He had given me a lot to think about but I knew I was going to dedicate my life to Jesus. What did I have to lose? I was too self conscious to pray Jesus into my life in front of them so I went home. That night I got on my knees and received Jesus, Then waited for something to happen…
Greg was right. There wasn’t a bright light or the voice of God after my decision, but I did feel different. It was kind of like takng a sleeping pill and waiting for something to happen. It was when I told everybody in the group things really started to change. Everybody congratulated and hugged me. They assured me my life was going to change drastically and to expect great things from God. And I believed them.
To those who have never had a dramatic conversion experience, I cannot begin to tell you how powerful and faith affirming it is. It is profoundly real and incredibly satisfying. You feel like a new person, almost supernatural (evangelicals believe you actually do become a supernatural person in Christ). The spiritual high this brings is unimaginable to those who only “play” at being a Christian. I was on fire for Jesus and nothing could stand in my way.
I used to habitually bite my fingernails for years as a nervous kid. One day after becoming a Christian, I noticed my finger nails needed trimming. This was incredible to me. I never remember having to cut my nails before. My anxiousness was gone. There were other changes as well. I stopped swearing, drinking, drugs and hanging out with non Christians. I became a voracious reader (of Christian books but mostly the Bible) devouring everything I could to increase the knowledge of my new faith. I evangelized my “old” unsaved friends. I put religious tracts in all the lockers in my high school and proudly owned up to it when the principal launched an investigation. I enrolled in Bible schools overseas (England and Austria) then Bible College (Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, Il.) after that. I was eternally grateful to God — literally.
As graduation approached, I knew I wanted more theological training to quench my biblical thirst so I enrolled at Dallas Theological Seminary (Dallas, Tx.). Here my Christian life would take a drastic turn. By this time I had spent a huge amount of time and energy studying the Bible and interacting with other evangelicals. I had begun to harbor doubts about the authenticity of evangelicalism biblically and historically. The knowledge and skills I had been acquiring were causing me to question whether evangelicalism was a legitimate expression of historic or apostolic Christianity. The reasons for this doubt was twofold:
First, many of the central tenets of evangelicalism seemed to be unrepresented in the writings of the Church Fathers and the history of the Christian Church. Second, those I met who considered themselves “true” Christians were not much different from the non Christians I had known except in word. I had had close personal contact with hundreds of evangelicals over the years and one thing was abundantly true: Most talked like angels but behaved like devils.
A word of warning: Evangelicals who try to defend this characterization are either sincere believers who assume other evangelicals are as well, an unlikely possibility. Or, they know of their own hypocrisy and complacency and want this charade to remain undetected. This goes back to what I mentioned earlier. Most evangelicals were born and raised in an evangelical environment. They have never experienced a radical conversion which has propelled them into a deep and powerful faith. As such, they think the status quo is typical (and it is) and the normative experience of evangelicals (and it is). It is not, however, the model of a New Testament Christian (this is for a not too distant future blog). These doubts would have to wait until I had the time to explore them further.
I graduated after four intensive years at seminary where I was able to acquire the necessary theological tools to properly excavate evangelical Christianity. This in itself was a big sacrifice. Instead of seeking a ministerial position, I returned home with no job prospects during a deep recession. I again threw myself into exploring my lingering doubts. I estimated it would take a year or two to finish. It has been more than two decades since I first started my investigation.
I wish I could adequately convey how painful to me and those I care about this journey has been. The sacrifices I have made and the hurt I have caused have left me emotionally and physically exhausted. I have never strayed from my ambition to find the truth no matter where it leads. This obsession has consumed my entire life, day and night. The sheer investment of time spent studying the Bible and Church history would be staggering for the most passionate of biblical scholars. It has not been a full time occupation, it has been an all time occupation. Now at least this part of my journey is complete; hence, this blog.
There is still plenty for me to know about the Bible. It contains an inexhaustible wealth of information. However, I have come to one inescapable conclusion which dictates my understanding of the Bible, Christianity, Jesus Christ and evangelicalism.
The Bible is entirely the product of primitive men’s vividly religious imaginations. The God they presume to know is a fabrication necessary for their survival and understanding of the natural world. You do not need to believe in God for the Bible to make sense. In fact, it makes perfect sense without Him!
The above statements have spawned multiple articles which in time will be shared on this blog. The person of Jesus Christ being especially critical. Others will include the relationship of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, the role of Paul in the formulation of Christianity, the origins of evangelicalism and the dangers of American evangelicalism to name but a few.
I began this blog with the question, “Why would someone like me leave a faith which provided me with so many benefits?” The answer is profoundly simple: Knowledge
Evangelical will often attack knowledge and reason as enemies of faith, and they are. Facts are already being vilified by evangelicals in the context of Trump and his deceit. But evangelicals have a built in mistrust for truth and an affinity for, shall we say, untruth? Evangelicalism rests squarely and completely on the foundation of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Either this is true or false, no in between. If true, the world should conform to this belief. If false, it should be rejected.
Evangelical accept what is demonstrably fake as true. It is not much of a leap to by into the Trump narrative of “fake news” when questioning science and reason is a fundamental characteristic of Christianity.
I rejected Jesus because all the evidence led me to this conclusion. I had no choice regardless of the consequences of having spent the best years of my life earning degrees in a field I now was abandoning. It took courage then and it takes courage now to be willing to walk away from something you know is false. Many evangelicals are too invested in their faith to consider this. They will dismiss my efforts as those of one never truly saved (true, but neither are they) or disgruntled (nope, this was never the issue) or one seeking fame (I do hope my work starts to make a difference in how we view Jesus and the Bible).
I have sacrificed my entire life on this seemingly endless quest to know the truth. There is nothing more I can give except my findings.
If I had never gone to Bible school, college and seminary, I would in all likelihood still be a deeply committed believer. I still reflect on those as the best days of my life. Blissful ignorance is wonderful like soaking in a warm bath. It is soothing and peaceful which is why evangelicals prefer to stay in it.
Many times I have wondered what my life would have been like if I had not invested my life in the pursuit of truth. It many ways Jesus (or at least my belief in him) saved my life. I was a depressed and directionless teenager who turned his life around because I thought God genuinely cared for me. This unlocked my potential whether it was true or not.
The challenge is immense. Hope of eternal life and escape from all pain and suffering is an attractive prospect and not easily surrendered. And for what, intellectual honesty and integrity? The faith of most evangelicals requires almost no effort, financial or personal sacrifice, compromise of lifestyle or anything else. In exchange, many receive comfort, peace, joy and strength. The alternative is spiritual suicide.
Being an evangelical today in America is as easy apple pie. And who doesn’t like apple pie?