I had open-heart surgery when I was 15. It was the day after Christmas.
Terrified that I might die on the operating table, I clung to the promise of heaven to maintain my sanity. My belief in Jesus mattered more to me than anything else.
I grew up visiting church twice a week and I accepted its teachings as truth. I asked to be baptized at age six, went on mission trips, was a leader in my youth group, and played in the worship band.
Then I went to Bible school for nine months, where my faith began to unravel — despite my strong belief that life would be meaningless without God.
This essay describes seven of the problems that had my B.S. detector screaming at levels I couldn’t ignore.
I will be referring to what I was taught in Baptist and non-denominational evangelical churches. Other denominations do not hold all of these beliefs as literal truth.
If you are a believer, I understand this won’t change your mind. That’s okay! I only want to show you that my deconversion was not a careless thing. These questions nagged me for a long time.
If you’re a lifelong atheist, imagine being a child, and the trustworthy adults in your life teaching you these things as literal truth. It’s not easy to reverse deep indoctrination, even in adulthood.
If you are doubting your faith or recently deconverted, I want you to know it’s normal. Your questioning process is valid. You’re not alone!
1: Guidance of the Holy Spirit
According to what I learned in church, the Holy Spirit (who is also God and Jesus) comes to live inside your heart when you accept Christ as your savior.
This is how you can know you’re understanding the Bible properly: the Spirit who guided the original authors also lives in you, so you have direct access to the true meaning of the scriptures.
If the Holy Spirit directs all believers to the same truth, why are there so many sects of Christianity who interpret the Bible in dramatically different ways? Most of them are certain that they alone have the correct understanding and the other groups are heretics. When they have a disagreement, why can’t they listen to what the Holy Spirit tells them is the truth, and resolve it quickly?
One explanation is that believers experience a lack of harmony because they are fallen and deceitful, corrupted at the core. Satan also tries to introduce distortions whenever possible. I can see this making sense, to an extent.
But I trust that the Christians who devote their lives to these studies are making a genuine effort to understand God. Is he unable, or unwilling, to clarify these confounding issues that are so essential to a correct understanding of him? Isn’t his voice more powerful than human flaws and adversarial attacks?
There is no consensus about even the most fundamental aspects of theology, where logically I would expect a fair amount of unity if the Holy Spirit was present as a universal guide. Instead, Christian beliefs seem to branch and evolve along with human culture as the centuries go by, with no evidence of supernatural cohesion.
2: Bondage to Sin
The Bible says that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
In contrast, the deeds of the flesh include adultery, uncleanness, lewdness, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, envy, drunkenness, and the like.
Humans, by default, are supposedly in bondage to sin from birth. They are powerless to do anything except sin.
But with the saving power of Jesus and the indwelling of the Spirit, the bondage is broken, so that believers finally have the power to overcome any sinful pattern. Since they love God, they are motivated to avoid sinful actions which offend him — and they have the power to do so.
If this is true, shouldn’t Christians be far-and-away the most loving, joyful, peaceful, kind people on the planet? Shouldn’t everyone else be suffering a life of wretched depravity because they have no power to break away from it?
As with dissension in the Church, this can be partially explained away by our sinful nature and the attacks of Satan. But if God’s saving power is fundamental and significant, shouldn’t Christians on average display significantly more fruit of the spirit, and less deeds of the flesh, than any other group?
Spend time getting to know people of different backgrounds and it becomes apparent that this is not the case.
I now believe that love, joy, and patience are part of our natural human condition just as much as hatred, jealousy, and envy. Different qualities are cultivated in different people depending on a lot of factors like childhood experiences, personality, mental and emotional health, personal choices, and community influence.
Which set of ancient scriptures you believe in doesn’t seem to factor into it.
The fruit of the spirit is my favorite part of the Bible to this day. I think it’s a beautiful set of ideals, and I still work to embody them in my life, but I don’t see a need for a deity to give them meaning. Why not embrace these ideals directly, recognizing the value and vulnerability of all living things?
3: The Corruption of Humanity
Genesis teaches that humans were God’s crowning achievement, his children, the most precious of his creatures. He loved them and intended to live in harmony with them forever, without pain, suffering, or death.
It was therefore to his great displeasure that Adam & Eve fell into sin after being tempted by Lucifer. Their nature became sinful, all of their descendants would be born inherently sinful, and they were cast out of the garden of Eden to live lives of pain and hard labor.
Why did a loving God allow this to happen?
I was told that humans had to have the choice to reject God; otherwise, it wouldn’t be love.
But why should that be the case? Is love a principle higher than God, so that he’s obligated to work within its confines? Was he incapable of designing love such that everyone is secure in it without teetering on the edge of eternal punishment? If I can imagine it, so can God.
In fact, heaven supposedly works this way. You’ll be there forever, with free will, in love with God, never at risk of falling away.
Even if God needed to set up a test of obedience (which Adam and Eve could not understand in the first place, because they had no knowledge of right and wrong), why would he allow his fallen minion Lucifer into the garden to contaminate humans with his sinfulness?
If they had refused Lucifer’s attempt at corruption the first time, how many times would God have allowed them to be tempted? Was ejection from Eden inevitable?
God reminds me of a man who gets a puppy, tells it not to pee on the carpet, flies into a rage when it does, hurls it outside to be abandoned forever — and then considers himself the victim.
A compassionate and empathetic creator would set its creation up for success. God in this story is either not loving, or not in control.
Even if humans needed to have the choice between loving him or not, why should choosing against God result in eternal torture? There are many reasons why a person might not believe, and most of them do not include malicious rebellion: maybe they never had a chance to learn about God, or maybe they suffered abuse at the hands of religious people and were turned off to it.
The typical answer — God is infinitely great, so rejecting him deserves infinite punishment — makes no sense to me. If he’s infinitely great, then our beliefs shouldn’t have any effect on him. He should be able to forgive anyone he wants, regardless of whether they ask him to.
The other typical answer is that God didn’t make hell for people, he made it for Satan and the rest of the fallen angels. Okay, but why did he want to torture them? And if humans weren’t meant to go to hell, why is God sending us there anyway when he could effortlessly create a third option?
It’s very simple. If you’re the creator of the universe, and you don’t want your precious children to suffer in hell… you don’t invent hell!
I’m expected to revere a deity who threatens me with eternal torture if I don’t love him? What kind of choice is that?
Hell does make perfect sense in the context of using fear to manipulate people and keep them obedient. These kinds of stories about the afterlife are used as control mechanisms by many religions.
5: God’s Answers to Prayer
There are a lot of Bible verses that promise tangible, reliable answers to prayer. For example, Matthew 7:7–11:
Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!
Why do Christians worry about losing their jobs if they can pray to the God of the universe for food and shelter, trusting that he will provide? If God’s provision is as guaranteed as the Bible says it is, they should have realized long ago that he always comes through.
They say it’s not that straightforward. When we pray to God, he always answers, but it might be “yes”, “no”, or “maybe”. It might be immediate or it might take a while. It might be mysterious, or roundabout, or it might be a direct response to what you asked for.
The problem is: the same results happen when you pray to a refrigerator. Some of the requests work out, some don’t. That’s life.
If any result can be considered an answer, how do we know if it’s actually working? If the Christian God is the only true God, shouldn’t the result of Christians’ prayers be measurably different than those of other faiths?
Another explanation is that God only answers prayers that are in line with his will. To be an effective prayer warrior, you have to listen to understand what God wants you to pray for, and then ask for it. If it doesn’t happen, then it wasn’t his will.
In that case, why pray at all? God already has a perfect plan, which he’s carrying out regardless of our input. Shouldn’t we have faith that the best plan is already what’s happening?
It seems the only reason to pray is for personal peace and clarity — benefits commonly reported by devotees of all religions who spend time in prayer, meditation, or worship.
Maybe prayer only happens in our heads, a placebo that works in certain cases (changing our emotions) but not others (regrowing amputated limbs). Humans are good at seeing patterns where there are none. We dance until it rains and then we believe our dance made it rain.
6: Draw Near to God and He Will Draw Near to You
They say that God loves his children, and he speaks to them to tell them they are his. If you open up your heart to him, you will experience his abundant love, the same love which will keep you enthralled for eternity in heaven.
Why is it, then, that so many Christians like myself never felt any real presence of God, despite years of authentic devotion and honest attempts to open up to his love? Despite hours and days spent crying for his presence and desperately yearning to feel held by him?
I was told that sometimes I might experience a “desert time”, a dry spell of not feeling God or hearing from him. It’s part of a lesson he’s teaching me and ultimately his love for me is infinite and perfect.
Eventually, I began to wonder how I could tell the difference between living in a lifelong spiritual desert and trying to be in love with a God that doesn’t exist.
I think some people feel emotionally involved with characters in books and other people don’t. For some, the effect is strong enough that they’re significantly happier on a day-to-day basis; other people get nothing out of it except the frustration and anxiety of not feeling what their peers claim to feel.
If it works for you, it makes sense why you’d keep believing. If it doesn’t, you’re told: “God won’t test you beyond what you can handle. Don’t expect that your needs are going to be met in any specific way. God’s ways are beyond understanding.”
If you ever get exhausted and give up, it will be seen as your fault. You should have found a different way to understand his love; tried harder; fixed yourself; waited longer. No responsibility can be given to God.
7) Anyone Who Leaves the Faith was Never a Christian
If a Christian decides to leave the faith, it’s never accepted that they were a legitimate believer who made an informed, valid choice. There are many ways to invalidate this choice, but usually, it’s because they were never a Christian to begin with; true Christians experience God’s love so deliciously that they would never, ever decide to leave. All real Christians remain lifelong believers.
When pastors give altar calls at the end of their sermons, they lead the congregation through a simple prayer of inviting Jesus into their hearts and accepting him as their personal Lord and savior, and then they announce that anyone who said those words is now saved and going to Heaven.
That same pastor, on the same day, might imply that someone who earnestly sought Jesus for years never received him.
Is it easy to become a Christian, or not?
Some Christians acknowledge that true believers can fall away from God. Again, this is usually attributed to our natural tendency to stray from God, and to the influence of Satan. Again, I ask why the perfect love of God is not enough to overcome these obstacles for someone who is desperate to connect with him.
If Christians can give God their hearts, do everything right, and still end up disbelieving, it casts doubt on the idea that God’s grace is perfect; that his salvation is life-changing; that his Holy Spirit always does incredible work. An ex-believer’s faith is therefore invalidated to preserve the illusion for the rest of the church.
It’s also a way to keep people doing the heavy lifting of “experiencing intimacy” with God. By convincing them that they must be feeling God’s love to be a True Christian, they became embarrassed to talk about the absence of God in their own lives. They don’t want their faithfulness questioned, so they’ll convince themselves they’re profoundly fulfilled by insubstantial love.
Why yes — the emperor’s clothes are beautiful!
Most Christians will eventually have a close friend or relative who leaves the faith after being a devoted Christian. Having known their friend’s heart intimately, they might be left to wonder why the Holy Spirit couldn’t continue to captivate them; or, they might turn against that friend and accuse them of faking their belief all these years, because they simply cannot accept the idea that losing faith is possible.
People gravitate toward the second option when they’re afraid to think that someday they could experience a reversal in belief, too. They want to believe their fate is sealed and secure, and that their doubts will never reach a tipping point like their friend’s did.
I never found satisfying explanations for these problems. It seemed more and more likely that Christianity was yet another religion invented by humans. Creation myths, moral codes, holy books, superstition, social control mechanisms — people do it all the time.
Some say that God works in mysterious ways which we cannot fathom, so our attempts to understand are useless. If I’m not allowed to use reason, instinct, logic, or my senses to determine what is true — what do I have left?
If I’d grown up in another part of the world, I would have embraced the local religion just as strongly as I did Christianity. My peers and leaders would have warned me against using logic to question those beliefs, too.
I felt such a relief when I admitted to myself that none of it made sense anymore, despite how badly I wanted it to.
I still deal with a fear of mortality. When my heart gives me trouble and I wonder if I will die, I don’t have the comfort of an eternal afterlife anymore.
That’s okay — I prefer to believe a difficult truth over a comforting fiction. That’s the only way I want to live now.