Why the Gospel Doesn’t Work on Deconverts

Leaving_churchPeople like me are like flies in the ointment of evangelical theology. We did all the things they told us to do, we gave our hearts and our lives entirely over to Jesus, yet in the end we still found their belief system lacking. It’s not supposed to happen that way.

Evangelists and defenders of the Christian faith like Tim Keller readily acknowledge that the belief system they are trying to sell us has gaps in it—places where the external evidence comes up wanting. But we’re supposed to look beyond those cloudy patches, trusting that the path they have put us on will indeed lead us to our desired destination, as advertised. We’re supposed to trust that in those moments when the road we’re on seems to be taking us in the opposite direction, it’s all going to work out in the end (ever read Hinds’ Feet on High Places?).

We did that. We trusted, we prayed our way through the rough patches, and we learned to live without confirmation because, we were told, some things will just never be validated until we finally reach the other side of death. The wait may take our whole lives, and even on our deathbeds we would have to simply trust that we weren’t sold a bill of goods. No wonder Christians seem to fight death more than non-theists, who learn to accept the finality of death as a natural course of life.

[Related: “The Christian’s Wager: Why Faith Is a Bigger Gamble than Disbelief“]

No matter, though. They always have an out for people like us. They’ve had centuries to develop rationalizations for why those of us who seemed to genuinely commit to faith in Jesus wound up leaving in the end. Perhaps our hearts weren’t really in it. Our commitment wasn’t genuine, and it never took root “in our heart of hearts” (probably the most subjective phrase I’ve ever heard in my life).

Those closest to us should know better, though. They know good and well how “sold out” for Jesus we were. We held back nothing and committed every fiber of our being to loving and serving Jesus. We did everything exactly the way we were supposed to.

Yet somehow our departure must be our own faults. Any other suggestion could potentially undermine the belief system itself, and that, above all else, must never happen. The beliefs themselves must remain above reproach. The whole religious enterprise depends on it.

Here at the end of Keller’s Reason for God, he leaves the reader with a succinct to-do list. Assuming some percentage of his readers have heard enough to give the Christian faith a shot, he leaves them with a short list of things to do which will look familiar to anyone who has been here and done this before:

  1. Repent
  2. Believe
  3. Go to Church

Unpacking these three items, Keller echoes at least a couple of themes that he emphasized in earlier chapters, which I’ll revisit here before briefly touching on his last point.

Everything You Do Is Wrong

Keller admits that the word “repent” sounds pretty archaic, and he’s right…it is. But Calvinists take special pride in embracing out-of-date things. Call it a “chronological snobbery” of the opposite kind from the one his hero C.S. Lewis often deprecated. Like the proverbial hipsters who boast of loving things before they were cool, Reformed folks enjoy reminding us of how faithfully they love things that ceased being cool centuries ago. Think of it as their own peculiar way of being countercultural.

But Keller wants to stress again that repentance is more than just drawing up a list of the things you do wrong and committing to quit doing them. According to Keller’s theological tradition, even the things you do right are wrong:

The repentance that really changes your heart and your relationship to God begins when you recognize that your main sin, the sin under the rest of your sins, is your self-salvation project…in both our bad deeds and in our good deeds we are seeking to be our own Saviors and Lords. (p.244, emphasis mine)

You can’t win. This game is rigged. According to Keller, we are all being graded on a curve, only this particular curve was constructed to disqualify every living soul. With this grading scale, you can get all of the answers right and still fail the test because the teacher (who speaks entirely through assistants because he is nowhere to be found) says that while you were correctly answering the questions, your heart still wasn’t in the right place.

…we should repent not only for things we have done wrong…but also for the motivations beneath our good works. (p.244)

This grading scale couldn’t be more subjective. Once you redefine virtue in terms this subject to personal interpretation, it becomes possible to invalidate the moral fortitude of everyone alive. And lest you conclude this kind of trickery is peculiar to Keller’s brand of evangelicalism, I’d like to remind you that it was Jesus who said, “Why do you call me good? There is no one good but God.”

Whatever your current view of yourself, it is the job of the evangelist to try to make you lower it even further. This is because the Christian faith is at bottom an anti-humanistic faith. It begins with an assertion that you are so wicked you deserve to be punished forever. In such a system of belief, positive self-esteem is impossible…or worse, immoral.

We’ve been there and done that, and we know how it affected us. Most of us are still unpacking all the baggage we picked up from growing up in this mindset. We’re not going back.

Try Not to Think So Much

The second thing Keller says we must do is have faith, which he says entails not only belief toward the claims of the Bible about Jesus (that he died, came back to life, and paid for your sins), but also trust that, in those places where we cannot make sense of what we’re being told, it will all work out in the end because the only alternative to trusting God is trusting ourselves.

…you don’t have to wait for all doubts and fears to go away to take hold of Christ…that would turn your faith into one more way to be your own Savior…

Faith…begins as you recognize and reject your alternative trusts and gods and turn instead to the Father… (p. 245)

This is of course a false dichotomy in at least a couple of ways. First, it’s simply not true that we have only two alternatives—the Christian narrative or else some kind of morally egocentric solipsism. And second, there is nothing morally inferior about demanding that things make sense, or requiring that claims be supported by external evidence. On the contrary, a strong argument can be made that anyone who is serious about rooting their belief systems in objective reality should expect more from them, not less.

Keller is essentially telling us that when we get to those gaps in the story he’s putting before us, we must choose to trust that God won’t lead us astray. But if we haven’t yet become convinced that any gods exist, how can he ask us to simply trust communication that purports to be from one of them? This is impossibly circular, and I’m amazed that he cannot see that.

To understand what I mean, see if you can spot the circularity of the story he tells at the beginning of this chapter:

A man once said to a pastor that he would be happy to believe in Christianity if the cleric could only give him a watertight argument for its truth. The pastor replied, “What if God hasn’t given us a watertight argument, but rather a watertight person?” Jesus is saying “I am that person. Come to me. Look at who I am. Look at my Cross. Look at my resurrection. No one could have made this up!” (p.242)

First of all, Keller too frequently overstates how picky we skeptics truly are, as if our demand for evidential support were asking too much of his belief system. He often speaks of our need for evidence that is “airtight,” as he did in his Intermission chapter when he represented the perspectives of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens as “strong rationalism,” or a perspective which overconfidently believes we can achieve knowledge without the presence of any human error. He then passes judgement on this straw man as unacceptably high maintenance:

…we should not expect conclusive proof, and to demand it is unfair. (p.125)

You’re not going to persuade anyone of anything if you keep misrepresenting what they believe. But back to that earlier quote…

If we haven’t yet been given sufficient reason to believe that the story of Jesus is based in reality, what good would it do to encourage us to trust that Jesus wouldn’t lead us astray? How would we even know what Jesus says in the first place if not for the book that we’ve just finished telling you we haven’t been convinced tells the truth?

Keller seems incapable of truly putting himself in the shoes of a person who doesn’t esteem the Bible the way he does. Watch how he explains his own belief in the infallibility of the Bible toward the end of the book:

Speaking personally, I take the whole Bible to be reliable not because I can somehow “prove” it all to be factual. I accept it because I believe in Jesus and that was his view of the Bible. (p. 277 n.4)

Wait a second, what? How do you know that Jesus subscribed to the infallibility of the Bible? Because the Bible says he did? Forgive me, but the circularity of this evokes genuine laughter. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but do you not see it?

This is almost certainly why the apostle Paul made it clear that the Christian message would always appear as foolishness to some—he knew good and well that what he claimed was absurd, he simply believed it anyway. But he was self-aware about it, which put him light years ahead of so many today who desperately want to make the Christian faith appear intellectually respectable. I can’t say that I fault them for that, only that doing so flies in the face of what the founder(s) of this religion told its earliest adherents: “They’re gonna thinks it’s baloney, folks.”

One Final Step to Take

Finally, Keller steps even further out on a limb and confesses that the final step to becoming a real Christian is to join a church. The Christian life, he argues as I once did myself, was never meant to be lived out in solitude. The religion itself was hammered out by communities from the very beginning, and the books and letters that make up so much of its sacred text were addressed not to individuals but to a collective people, and were written to be read aloud to a room or auditorium full of people.

But even as he advises this, experience compels him to admit how routinely Christian community falls short. Just in the past few years, since the publishing of this book we’ve seen a number of high profile debacles involving the very same tradition to which Keller belongs.

Testosterone-addled Reformed pastor Mark Driscoll had to leave his own church and his church planting network both because of his own authoritarian leadership style and because of a misuse of church funds for promotional purposes. Likewise, Reformed pastors C.J. Mahaney and Joshua Harris had to resign from their own positions of leadership following the disclosure of a cover up of sexual abuse within the ranks of their staff. Evidently not even the most widely admired Reformed church networks are immune to the human problems that plague every other religion and subculture on the planet (my own tribe included).

Keller acknowledges that a large contingent of people who find the claims of his message unbelievable do so at least in part because they’ve known too many Christians, and have been a part of too many churches to believe the message does what it says it does. Keller embraces this, and argues that it’s an integral feature to the message itself:

I will grant that, on the whole, churchgoers may be weaker psychologically and morally than non-churchgoers. That should be no more surprising than the fact that people sitting in a doctor’s office are on the whole sicker than those who are not there. Churches rightly draw a higher proportion of needy people. (p.247)

This explanation is plausible enough, although it is predicated on the very first point in this post: That people are fundamentally broken and they need saving from themselves. I would argue this is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, which is incidentally the only kind that reliably comes true. If you keep telling people they are scum, they will conclude they aren’t capable of any better.

Evangelical pastors like Keller remind me of that scene in Little Shop of Horrors when the sadistic dentist (played by Steve Martin) finally met a masochistic patient (played by Bill Murray) who welcomed every sharp object with self-immolating glee. In time you learn to love being told how unworthy you are. It makes the offering of forgiveness so much sweeter the more you rehearse your own neediness.

Mind you, I don’t fault Keller himself for belonging to the tradition in which he lives. He didn’t invent the Christian message. But I can confidently say that I’ve “been there and done that,” and that people like me know exactly what we’re leaving behind.

We didn’t leave because we did it wrong. We left because we did it right, but then discovered it was the belief system itself that was broken, not we ourselves.

[Stay tuned for an upcoming article that summarizes all 18 posts into a single review. Afterwards I also hope to see this put into print as a book.]

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As with the rest of this review, I am including links to the videos of Steve Shives, who covered all of these chapters in pairs in his “An Atheist Reads” series. Be sure to check them out. Here he covers both Chapter 14 and the Epilogue:

[Image Source: Adobe Stock]

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If you’d like to read the rest of my responses to Keller’s chapters up until this point, you can find them listed here:

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