Today I read of another high-profile Christian leaving the faith — this time, it was Paul Maxwell, who had previously written for Desiring God and The Gospel Coalition, and had just published a book this January about the trauma of some doctrinal beliefs, particularly Calvinistic ones. Before him in recent memory, it’s been Rhett and Link, Jon Steinberg, Marty Sampson, Josh Harris, and some others who’ve been in the news for leaving the faith. While I won’t go into a whole article about the “whys” and “wherefores” of Christian deconstruction and deconversion here, I do want to pose some questions:
1. When will we stop insisting that people who’ve left the faith weren’t really Christians?
While that’s certainly true for many deconversions, I can’t help but think of men like Templeton and Shermer and Sledge and Abraham Piper along with some of the ones I named above; it should be clear that these guys weren’t “nominal” Christians. They weren’t “spurious” Christians. Not all of them held to a faulty notion or caricature of what Christianity was. Most were what we might call “sold-out,” “on fire” Christians who once fervently evangelized, studied the Bible, and taught it to others — sometimes very well, I might add. One of them, Dan Barker, even wrote hymns and special music before deconverting and taking his parents down the road to atheism with him!
Now, I don’t teach that someone can “lose their salvation” (which itself is a remarkably obtuse and unhelpful phrase anyways), but I also don’t think we should be taking the path of least cognitive resistance and settle for an easy answer by blanketing all of these abdications with “well, they went out from us because they were not of us like I John 2:19 says,” as though that verse was intended to cover every single deconversion. I’m convinced that such an approach is intellectually dishonest because it doesn’t approach the record of Scriptures faithfully. The New Testament alone records multiple people who once apparently faithfully served God but appear to have jumped ship (or “shipwrecked,” to use Paul’s term): Demas, Alexander, Hymenaeus, and so forth. Not to mention the admittedly cryptic warnings in the book of Hebrews to not go back to the Jewish sacrificial system! No matter what position you hold on this issue, let’s not jump into the folly of ignoring a bunch of Scripture just to hold the verses that we like more close to our hearts for comforts’ sake. That’s staggeringly imbalanced. Sometimes all we can do is let things like this sit with us for a while and wrestle with them.
So I hope that one takeaway from all these deconversions (and the inevitable future high-visibility deconversions to come) is that it’s not always as simple as “they weren’t ever really saved.” There’s probably an uncomfortable tension out there that’s much closer to the truth than any extreme perspective in this conversation, but it’s not one that was foreign to the early church fathers. Again, I’m not going to launch into anything too deeply here, but these deconversions are going to be happening more and more and it would benefit us to try to find a more balanced stance on this issue than to write everyone off as a phony or a fraud. That’s disrespectful and fallacious.
2. Have you ever noticed that it’s not usually in the headlines when someone converts to Christianity?
This shouldn’t shock us, but I can’t remember the last time my social media feed was flooded with stories of people coming to trust Christ or at least shrugging off hard-core atheism in favor of theism of some kind. Sure, we’ve got our Kanye Wests and our Justin Biebers, but when’s the last time your timeline was peppered with reports of high-profile atheists and agnostics coming to Jesus? And it’s not because it’s not happening; people are, in fact, still coming to Christ. So then, why?
It’s possibly because it’s not as sensational when someone comes to Christ. After all, where’s the scandal in that? Someone who was living for themselves now lives for a King. Okay, so what? See what I mean? It’s just not salacious and juicy. It’s almost disappointing to our culture: Someone who used to “speak their truth” now is part of a “hive mind” where their own truth is destroyed in favor of “some bronze-age, goat-herder religion.”
I think it’s also, in large part, because it’s something that shouldn’t be able to happen, at least within the confines of most of Western evangelical belief. And yet it’s happening. A lot. So it’s popping up on timelines and Twitter feeds everywhere because it’s anomalous to the modern American Christian confession.
Lastly, I think it’s because it’s happening more frequently and fitting right in with the socio-cultural narrative that, as we learn more about science, we will disregard God. With every high-profile deconversion, Dawkins and Harris and the late Hitchens are seemingly validated in their assertions that religion is something that will be left behind when we finally embrace that Science (with a capital S) is the sum-total of the human experience and can explain everything, even the appearance of quarks and quanta from absolutely nothing (I know Richard Carrier says that there’s no such thing as “nothing,” to which I’d respond, “then where’d those things come from that invalidate the state of nothingness?”). With this in mind, why would a conversion make the headlines? It doesn’t fit the narrative.
3. Are you prepared to respond to this in our current and upcoming generations?
If you’re the sort of Christian who wants to leave this sort of conundrum solely to the pastors and professors and be totally disinvested in a fleshed-out response to this new wave of deconversions, I am concerned that you do not fully realize what’s going on. Every Christian ought to be ready to give an answer for the hope that lies within us, and that includes being prepared to discuss and dialogue this increasingly popular topic of deconversion. And that’s needed more now than ever, because this will eventually hit closer to home.
My own four children will likely one day encounter a witty meme, popular aphorism, or well-reasoned rebuttal to the Christian faith. I want them to be ready for this, and to follow the truth wherever it may go. I am convinced that this trail of truth leads to what someone once called “The Shortest Leap,” which is Christianity. I want them to be well-equipped to reason and weigh out the arguments, rather than feel like their Christianity is unraveling around them, or falling like a house of cards, simply because they see others around them leaving the faith. But I’m not just going to lob apologetics books at them (though those are helpful!) or force them to “pray more” or “read the Bible more.” No, I want to have healthy, real discussions with my children about what the Christian faith is, what it is not, and what is essential and what is not. I don’t presume that all four of my children will embrace Christianity when they grow up, though that is my hope and prayer. But I’m going to do my best to make sure that if they do depart, it’s not because they didn’t understand what it is they’re leaving.
Let me close with this advice: Not everyone who leaves the faith is an obnoxious villain or militant atheist. Some are, yes, but not all of them (or even most?). Many just don’t find the evidence to be believable, and I was once there, too. I get that, and sympathize. Also, not everyone who leaves the faith does so because they just want to live a carnal life. That’s a deeply biased assumption, and a really harmful one. Unless we’re willing to peer deeply into this, we’re not ever going to be ready to deal with this when it ends up in our own homes and churches.