Why Do Christians Leave the Faith? The Fundamental Importance of Apologetics

Why Do Christians Leave the Faith? The Fundamental Importance of Apologetics November 17, 2011

Part 1 in a series on deconversion.

Several colleagues and I recently finished a study of why Christians leave the faith, and we were surprised at what made a difference as well what didn’t seem to matter. In the next few weeks, I’ll be reviewing our findings in a series of posts.

To start with, let me tell you how we conducted our study. We were interested in how people who left the faith—let’s call them deconverts—explained their actions; i.e., why did they think they left the faith. In order to do this, we found a website on-line in which former Christians post their “testimonials” about their religious history. We chose 50 of these testimonials and read, reread, and reread again each one and then we discussed them as a group. Our goal was to find themes in these deconversion narratives, and several themes did emerge.  From a methodological approach, in-depth studies of convenience samples, such as this, work well for generating explanations of a phenomenon, but they are not well-suited for testing them.  (I.e., low external validity).

Before going any further, however, let me point out different ways this type of work can be done. We examined what people said about their experience, pretty much taking it at face value that they were describing how they experienced their departure from Christianity. Another approach would be to deconstruct what they said, and not think about the content of their testimonials but rather to explore why they might have given the testimonial the way that they did. E.g., what was their underlying motive? Yet another approach would be to collect more data about deconverts and look for more “objective” correlates of leaving Christianity. This approach might look at age, educational experiences, life events, and so forth—seeking correlations with deconversion.

Each of these approaches has its strengths and weaknesses, and ultimately we need all of them to understand deconversion fully. As you read these posts, just keep in mind that we’re examining peoples’ own understanding of their experiences, which may be influenced by where they are placed in society as well as a desire to present themselves positively to the other members of the website. So, on to the data.

All told, we found four general explanations offered by these 50 people as to why they left Christianity.

The first explanation regards intellectual and theological concerns about the faith. A full two-thirds of the testimony writers emphasized these concerns and some wrote about little else.

Some of the intellectual concerns were issues that would be faced by members of any religion, not just Christianity. For example, what is the relationship between religion and science? Does believing in one negate the other? What is the role of logic versus faith?

One man, who was a fundamentalist Christian in young adulthood, defined faith and reason as mutually contradictory, and he described his departure from Christianity as a victory of reason. He wrote: “for most of us, the battle was entirely within ourselves. It was a pitched battle between our faith and our reason, and eventually our reason just refused to be suppressed any longer, no matter what the potential consequences.”

Many other writers, though, focused on theological issues specific to Christianity. One of the issues that arose with the existence of hell and how that could be reconciled with the Christian image of a loving God. Basically, how could a loving God throw his children into hell for eternity?

A man raised as a Baptist expressed what he viewed as a contradiction between love and hell: “Would a loving father really not allow some people to have a chance and send them to hell for eternity? I don’t think so!”

One woman, who loved her grandparents, now deceased, wondered how God could condemn them for not having believed in Him. She exclaimed: “what the hell kind of jerk was God if he’d condemn people like my grandparents?”

A related theological issue regarded human suffering here on Earth. If God is powerful and loving, why is there suffering? One writer likened God’s allowance of suffering to a negligent police officer. ““What if a police officer sat and watched silently as a child was murdered even though he had the power to stop it?”

Other writers attributed to God a more active role in human suffering, often pointing to His actions in the Old Testament. A former Methodist wrote of his doubts about God starting early in his life when he learned about Noah’s Ark. “The turning argument for me was actually a story that is in children’s Sunday school books – Noah’s Ark. I started to really think about the fact that God pretty much killed the ENTIRE planet.” Similarly, a former Pentecostal described God’s actions in the Old Testament as “atrocity after atrocity.”

The final frequently-expressed concern regarded the Bible and its reliability. Is it accurate? Is it believable? A former Catholic dismissed the Bible altogether. She wrote: “Science has all but proven that the Old Testament could not have happened. It is also fast proving that the New Testament is nothing but fiction.”

In reading through these testimonies, and understanding how many of the former Christians linked their departure from the faith to these intellectual and theological concerns, I started wondering if the Church has an incomplete appreciation of the role of apologetics. Typically, the defending of Christianity encompassed by apologetics is aimed at non-Christians, helping them to understand the faith as removing their objections to it. I accept that, but perhaps an even more useful role is with existing Christians, helping them to think through these issues from a Christian perspective.

There are defensible, and even persuasive, answers to each of the concerns raised above, and maybe pastors, writers, and other Christian leaders should review them on a more regular basis with their listeners. Maybe Christian pastors should regularly schedule sermons on:
• The relationship between faith and science
• Why is there a hell?
• Why does God allow human suffering?
• Is the Bible reliable?

Turning to deconstructionism for a moment, I realize that some of the writers might have turned to theological issues as a way of “rationally” explaining their leaving the faith, when in fact, maybe there were more person, idiosyncratic reasons. Even if that’s the case, that people sometimes hide their real issues behind theological questions, addressing these questions would help people to see beyond them and address underlying issues.

For many writers, however, I think that these cognitive issues swayed them from the faith. We live in a highly-educated, rational society, and so these issues are defined as very important.

Part 2: Breaking Up with a God Who Failed Them

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  • Brad,

    This is a tremendously important subject. I would very much like to see more research into the value of apologetics regarding discipleship and evangelism.

    For your readers who would like to learn more, there is a network called the Christian Apologetics Alliance (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Christian-Apologetics-Alliance/170164429711140) which provides excellent resources and community for apologetics within local churches. The Evangelical Philosophical Society (www.epsociety.org and http://epsapologetics.com/) is also excellent. Both are recognized by Mission America as leaders in this area (www.missionamerica.org/Brix?pageID=23817) and both organizations can point pastors and lay people to other relevant resources outside of themselves.


  • I’m looking forward to seeing these upcoming posts.

    I do lean toward the “deconstructionist” interpretation of your findings, but (to turn the beam back on myself) that’s probably because I’m a social psychologist. Whatever the situation, humans are highly creative at concocting reasonable-sounding interpretations of their actions. Ask people about their voting behavior, for example, and they are likely to tell you a story in which they rationally evaluate the pros and cons of candidates’ platforms. And then after telling you that story, they vote for the tall good-looking candidate with a full head of hair and impressive speaking voice (sorry, Ross Perot).

    Research by Jon Haidt and colleagues shows that people’s moral judgments are formed by rapid emotional and intuitive responses; and only later do we construct Enlightenment-style rational explanations to justify our gut reactions.

    Research in the psychology of religion shows there to be a wide range of non-rational variables at work (family dynamics, emotional struggles, personal moral issues, motivation to protect self-esteem, life crises, existential issues, etc) involved in the establishment and functioning of one’s religion. Deconversion is similarly influenced by such variables, but deconverts are often motivated to deny this in the name of presenting themselves as heroically rational. Paul Vitz wrote: “the major barriers to belief in God are not rational but-in a general sense- can be called psychological… for every person strongly swayed by rational argument there are many, many more affected by nonrational psychological factors” (The Psychology of Atheism, 1997).

    • Thank you for the very thoughtful comment, Charles. The interplay between emotional intuitions and rational explanations in religion is fascinating. The only thing that I would add to your thoughts is the famous sociological dictum that if people define things as real, they are real in their consequences.

      So, even if people do initially make all religious decisions based on emotional intuitions, they might recast it as a cognitive choice and that becomes the staying-force for the decision. It becomes a real factor because they think it is.

    • Jeremy

      I’m with Charles here. And what about the old Lofland and Stark argument re: conversion, that people convert (or in this case de-convert) when their social ties to the new group outweigh the social ties to the old group, and that theological justifications are only given after the fact? I suspect that a lot of these de-converts were exposed to non-believers, started to like and respect them, and then began to put stock in their “crazy” ideas about the problem of evil, biblical criticism, etc. Even if theology is motivation and not simply justification, it may be a mechanism through which the social exerts influence. In other words, theology may (or may not) be important, but we shouldn’t ignore the context in which this happens either. The implication may be not just to beef up on apologetics (though that is probably appropriate), but also to emphasize the importance of religious community for maintaining faith (a la Berger’s plausibility structures…).

      • That’s actually what I expected going into the project, but we ended up finding fewer references to non-Christians “pulling” them away. Instead, we found much more discussion of push factors. Now, maybe that’s the nature of the forum, that people felt rewarded for dissing Christianity.

        Research like this is good for generating ideas but not as much for testing them, so it’s difficult to exclude explanations.

        • Jeremy

          Interesting! I’m still right. 😉

    • The social psychology point of view indicates that religion is primarily held for non-rational reasons? Fair enough. So to hold a religion or to not hold a religion for rational reasons would be rare, then, you argue. Also fair enough.

      But deconversion is also rare, is it not? That is, the US population has like 5% explicit atheists or some small percentage like that, and a decent chunk of those were probably never raised in any religion and so could not deconvert in the first place.

      What justifies your further claim that a common process (rationalization of why one believes a religion) explains a very rare process (deconversion)?

  • Looking forward to this series. There seems to be a difference, in my mind, between people who actively “deconvert,” having reasons to do so, and those who simply stop going to church and over time their beliefs play less and less of a part in their lives. One seems like a sudden deconversion, the other is more a process of gradual detachment. In the latter case, the people might conjure up reasons, when pressed, in order to seem rational or consistent, but in actuality they just didn’t have the time/motivation to go to church and don’t find much value in belief.

    • Interesting distinction, Syphax. The website we’re looking at would select either people who actively deconverted or those who faded away have strong feelings about it (enough to post their testimonial).

  • Fascinating. I’ve often thought that apologetics are more important for strengthening existing believers’ faith than they are for persuading nonbelievers to convert.

    • I concur with you Mike . . . Note: comment’s a little longer b/c WordPress didn’t let me simply post “I concur . . .”

  • I am glad to read your research. Your analysis shows considerable thought and insight although you must admit that your sample is a bit small. I fully agree with your conclusions on why people rationalize but I would also like to present another unstated possibility. I see people dissatisfied with the role the church is playing in our society. We are not, as a body, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and reaching the lost. There are, of course, notable exceptions but in many churches what we find is apologetics for a lack of real action. More than anything else, I believe, people want their lives to make a difference and they don’t see themselves challenged to that enough from the pulpit.
    The pulpit itself is a rather odd construction. The notion that a single person, man or woman is the sole authority on God’s Word and Will during the course of worship is not reflected in the Bible but seems to be a uniquely European construction. I would suggest that the lack of relevance and interaction are the reasons people find excuses to leave a faith of habit rather than finding a meaningful relationship to a living God.
    I serve as the Youth Pastor at the church I attend. I do not believe that that enhances my credibility but I do see people viewing the church as ineffective and lacking in the power Christ speaks of in the gospels.
    I look forward to reading more of your findings.

    • Interesting thoughts, Mike. The sample is small, and even more problematical it’s a convenience sample, so it wouldn’t make sense to generalize too broadly from it. An analysis like this is better suited for creating explanations rather than testing them.

      • Lac

        I feel the internet gives a skewed perspective on deconversion. For every vocal, anti-religion atheist deconvertant online, you have so many more “friendly” atheists and agnostics in the real world, not out to argue or battle. The evangelical church does indeed push Christians out by not addressing the core questions.

  • j smith

    Fascinating topic.

    Pretty hard to sort out how much rational problems are playing a role and how much ties to non-Christians or life events (including behaviors disallowed by Christianity) are playing a role. These may happen all together as necessary or sufficient conditions, or rational problems may be presented instead of the fact that the deconvert simply wanted to move in with his girlfriend and wanted to evade the rules about this among church circles. Even if deconverters were aware of the latter reason, would they really be willing to post it online?

    • Yes, that would be a viable alternative hypothesis… that people get tired of the difficult parts of Christianity or due to “temptation”… but I don’t know why people would not admit that online. Especially the forum we looked at would be quite okay with that.

    • Lac

      I am technically deconverted, but I have gone through serious doubt and agnosticism. As such, I resonate with the process of deconversion and am saddened that so many Christians, particularly conservative evangelicals, have completely misunderstood the reasons for deconversion. It is unfair to generalize or stereotype. To assume that deconverts are all looking for a “worldy” lifestyle is a way to scapegoat…thus allowing a Christian to avoid analyzing and addressing the intellectual, historical and scientific challenges to Christianity and the Bible.

      • Lac

        Correction..I am not deconverted (I’d classify myself as a seeker, agnostic Christian, progressive, etc).

        • Jim

          Same here. Ultimately I can’t make my brain believe the New Testament should be considered the ‘word of God’. It seems likely that Jesus was not God or part of a Trinity, and his deity was attributed to him after his death. Plus, so much of this ‘word of God’ was written by someone who never met Jesus (Paul). Therefore, since the Christian faith requires one to believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and died for one’s sins, and my brain can’t make that leap, I no longer consider myself a Christian.

  • Jason

    Interesting idea.

    Although Charles is right, and human beings are more rationalising creatures than rational creatures, the advantage of apologetics in that context is that it leaves people with no place to run. They have to face the facts that, taken at face value, their justifications for leaving Christianity don’t hold water.

    Then they have the choice of either returning to the fold, or accepting that it wasn’t a matter of faith versus reason, but reason versus irrationality.

    • I agree, Jason. Either the arguments really matter or they are just rationalizations… either way it’s worthwhile addressing them.

    • Rosemary Lyndall Wemm

      The problem with this argument is that it is an untestable conjecture. It assumes to know more about what the deconvert is “actually” thinking than the deconvert does. It is the opposite of scientific.

      This thinking is on a par with the ideology of psychoanalysis which “explains” people’s behavior by simply asserting, without any proof whatever, that they have unconscious desires about (insert Freudian or Jungian blather) and “defense” mechanisms which prevent them from agreeing that the therapist is right about this. Both psychoanalysis and the imputation of “rationalizations” to de-converts are internally consistent systems that are completely unfalsifiable (and therefore behave like a religion, not like a science.) Both assume that the assessor has some secret knowledge about the inner workings of the person they are assessing. They are both very arrogant paradigms that give the assessors an undeserved sense of superiority over those whom they are assessing.

      Sometimes a spade is just a spade – and not a phallic symbol that symbolizes the unconscious wish to plant semen in one’s mother.

      With regard to the reasons that deconverts give for deconverting, it seems much more likely that the Christian assessors are the ones doing the rationalizing. They don’t like the answers that the de-converts give so they are making up a set of “unconscious” reasons that are more palatable to them and more in line with the doctrines they espouse. Note that no objective evidence for this conjecture is provided. This is not good social science.

      The objective truth is that apologetics convince the already converted that their religion is correct; they rarely, if ever, persuade those who have left the faith as the result of investigating and considering alternative points of view. Just about every practicing Christian came to believe the doctrines of their particular branch of Christianity as the result of uncritical osmosis between the ages of 4 and 14. Others were converted while in a highly emotional state. It is very rare to find someone who converted to Christianity on cognitive grounds after their brain has matured.

      The internet affirms that there are plenty of very well-churched Christians (missionaries, preachers, apologists, evangelists, faith healers) who become atheists after investigating both sides of the religious case, but it is extremely rare for a person who has looked at both sides of the case to be converted, or reconverted, to Christianity.

      Likewise, it is very rare to find a continuing Christian who has objectively and exhaustively investigated the basis of their beliefs. Almost everyone restricts their studies to authors who hold similar beliefs to themselves. That is, they only listen and attend to the Case for the Defense. That would result in a Mistrial in a court of law on the grounds that the decision was made on the basis of hopelessly biased information.

      BTW, Anthony Flew is a very bad example of an atheist who became a Christian, because he did not do that at all. On the basis of information that he later rejected, he become a Deist – not a Theist and most definitely NOT a Christian. He remained skeptical of Christian claims until his death. Worse than that, he reconverted back to atheism after discovering that his Deist position was based on inaccurate information.

      • Interesting comment, though reviewers of this article at sociology journals said the opposite… that it relied too much on what the respondents said, taking it at face value.

        • Rosemary Lyndall Wemm

          Unless the reviewers have some objective evidence of other motives (such as the results of well-constructed psychological tests) this type of objection holds no academic water. There may well be other motives than those that de-converts are aware of, or prepared to admit in public venues, but it is not valid to impute conjectured motives to them unless you have a solid objective basis for making them. I haven’t seen anything other than a whole lot of “convenient thinking”, so far. That is bad science, folks.

  • Steve Dawe

    I found your article very informative, and I am honestly tempted to agree directly, but going from the deconstructive position, I think you will find a smaller group of ex-Christians talking about how their connections to non-Christians pulled them away, not because it didn’t happen, but because the materialist ex-Christian narrative is that coming to atheism is itself a personal triumph of reason over groupthink and irrationality. If someone is speaking from that paradigm, it’s likely that social facets of deconversion are going to be (perhaps subconsciously) discounted.

    • Rosemary Lyndall Wemm

      I think you will find that this group is, indeed, small.

      The general message from “New Atheists” that have recently banded together on Facebook and social groups like “Think Atheist” is that they came to their intellectual independently of others and that they felt extremely lonely until the advent of these networking opportunities arose. Many of them, including those who continue to work as Pastors, admit to attending church services and functions in order to avoid social ostracism or economic punishment by their family and community.

      I realize that this is not what Christians are taught is the case but that does not give you the right to massage the data and invent “unconscious” motives to make it fit these doctrines. How about being ruthlessly intellectually honest, instead?

  • I just finished reading the new Walter Isaacson biography about Steve Jobs. There is this sad portion that tells how Jobs went to church with his parents (Lutheran) until he was 13. At that age, he saw the cover of a Life magazine that showed a couple of starving children. Jobs took the magazine to his pastor and asked, “Does God know about this?” (In effect, does He allow this and do nothing about it?) The pastor answered him, saying, “Yes. You won’t understand this, but He does.” And that was it for Jobs. One inadequate answer, given into the mind of a genius adolescent, and he cognitively walked away from the faith of his childhood.

    I’m kicking around a little sadness in my heart over this, because I see this way too often. As you say, there are really quite good and intellectually honest ways to answer many of the questions people ask – but often, we (in the church…lifelong Christian here, pastor’s kid, pastor’s wife….) don’t know or don’t give those answers. We tend to shut down the honest questions and encourage anti-intellectualism. We push a lot of good, smart people away from faith.

    I’m watching my own son – super smart, computer programmer, logic driven – as he grows and works to intellectually reconcile faith with science and faith with logic. I like where he’s going, I think he’ll come out healthy – but not without sincere engagement of his questions and an encouragement to realize that God is bigger than that box we want to stick Him in and He’s also better than we dare to imagine. I shudder to think where he might end up if not “handled with care,” if his intellect were treated as a burden or an obstacle to his faith, rather than a gift and the key to an exciting religious life of faith. I think he’d chuck it right out the door and that would be so, so sad. It happens too often, though, if the studies are accurate.

    The answer to Steve Job’s question, I think, goes something like this:

    “Yes. God knows. And He expects us to do something about it. If we ask Him and take the first step of faith, he will give us the wisdom and the tools to change the face of the world.”

    We have to know the people we live with, work with, worship with. We have to know their weaknesses. What challenges their faith, what hurts their relationship with God? Then, we have to give better answers.

    This study looks so interesting – looking forward to reading more.

    • Rosemary Lyndall Wemm

      Your answer to Steve Job’s question is deeply unsatisfying.

      In real life, what kind of monster would allow his children or people fro whose care he is responsible to suffer so that a few of them could be helped by members of his Fan Club who would then feel good about it? This sounds like the type of argument a government official would say who does not want to spend money on helping his disadvantaged constituents: “We do not believe in unduly helping the needy because we do not want to take away the right of our citizens to exercise their fiscal altruism and humane responsibility.”

      You are making your particular version of the Christian god out to be an amoral psychopathic sadist. To be cynical, that is at least compatible with the descriptions of the Yahweh god of the Old Testament, but I doubt that it is consistent with the type of god you want to worship.

      • Dominick J

        Rosemary, the possibility must exist in your mind that some people are born into extraordinarily good circumstances and obversely some are born into extraordinarily unfortunate circumstances. If this is agreed upon, is it right to assume that God is an amoral monster because he does not enforce “fair” treatment for all humans?
        My aim is to serve you with a friendly helping of logic so that you might better understand how foolish the thought of us accusing God of being unfair is and how we might think upon how inhuman mankind would be if it were “fair”.

        Definitions are in order!
        Fairness: the state, condition, or quality of being fair, or free from bias or injustice; evenhandedness (Fairness is a notion that cannot be scientifically delineated in the first place because it is variable and completely dependent on what one thinks it is.) Everyone has biases, don’t we Rosemary. To be clear, humanity could not be humanity without unfairness or better spoken imbalance; it would not be animated. It would not require cognition or society. It would be—by now—entirely predicted out breath by breath. i.e. You will be born. You will become a mathematician let’s say. You will make a precisely fair and equal salary. You will not get sick. You will procreate and bear a specific and balanced amount of offspring so as to maintain harmony in your home and society. You will die at the precisely perfect age of peak wisdom yet before burdening society with the loss of your mental and physical faculties. You will pass away in a manner in which no one you leave behind will grieve in excess of that which is easily managed. This is inexplicably impossible and the inhabitants of such a world would soon start to complain of the longing for flavor and imbalance of the scales of life as they would haughtily criticize the creator of such a world that he was cruel to not create free will and the individual freedom to decide for oneself.

        Can you condemn God for being ruthless and heartless because of extreme disenfranchisements that certain individuals experience? If so, let us draw the markers on the scale closer to the center and apply the logic of experiential disparity to a more moderate situation.

        Let us—for the sake of ease of common relevancy—use yearly income to describe the quality of living standards. Here we go:

        Is God ruthless and heartless because one family must struggle to make ends meet while living off of $30 thousand a year while another family lives more comfortably from off of $100 thousand a year? This is a large disparity and relative to one another it might be—by some—considered unfair.

        Let us draw the scale even closer to the center.

        Is God ruthless and heartless because one must suffer making only $45 thousand per year while another makes $55 thousand per year? The disparity is much smaller. Does it seem so unfair at this point? However the one is still afforded more luxury in life making $10 thousand more per year. Unfair?

        Let us draw the markers in closer to center.

        Is God ruthless and heartless because someone makes $49999 per year and another makes $50000 per year? The difference is only one dollar. Is this unfair? If the top example was unfair then the same logic must apply to the second example. Experiential disparity is experiential disparity after all.

        But you might say well the ultra poor and the ultra rich are so far apart from one another that it must be unfair.

        Alright when does any disparity become fair? And in whose eyes is the fairness defined? Within $100 thousand differential? $10 thousand differential? A one dollar differential? I’ll bet that the odds of you and another person coming up with an identical answer of what is satisfactory behavior for God in fairness matters would be akin to you and another person sporting identical fingerprints.

        Is God only good if we all make the exact same amount of money?

        Is God only good if we all experience the exact same things?

        Is God only good if we die—or those we love die—without pain?

        This might sound like something “unfair God” proponents might like: God can only be described as good if I do not suffer any inconveniences, relatively speaking.

        Here is why God is more than fair:

        Humanity does not deserve God’s favor. Who do we think we are? We were created to be in an unique union with God,we rebelled and we have made it a well-rehearsed habit to avoid being in any kind of union with God. We work diligently to prove that our creator is not relevant and complain like spoiled children that others suffer, believing their suffering gives us the right to say that God must not exist outside of being a “psychopathic sadist”—to quote the eloquent Madame.

        Sickeningly enough, we do this while we sit comfortably in our beautiful homes replete with all the comforts afforded to us by way of electricity for automatic light and enjoy maintenance free heating where we no longer have to find wood for fuel so that our ungrateful rear-ends are kept at the particular level of butt-warmth that we prefer. We type away at our computers, so full of righteous angst as we munch on some treat earlier retrieved from our ultra convenient refrigerator that has so faithfully kept our food preserved. You, Rosemary, live in the most luxurious time in all of humanity. Yet with all this we still feel entitled to unyieldingly contemplate our oh-so-sad state, blaming God for the atrocities that everyone BUT MYSELF suffers! How lame! How pathetic! How full of selfishness and self-indulgence have we become? If God were fair he would make us, no, HE WOULD MAKE YOU to suffer like those starving children. So next time, instead of blaming God for not being fair and taking care of the poor and needy, say good bye to all your friends at thinkatheist, get off of your computer, thank God for your rich blessings, and give all of your excess to those who need it. If not, for God’s sake, be thankful and be quiet. Nothing is more nauseating than hearing a spoiled brat complaining that they don’t have enough.

        By the way, the research is what it is. And despite its supposed inability to hold “scholarly water”, it is a GREAT READ!
        Thanks Bradley.

    • The pastor answered him, saying, “Yes. You won’t understand this, but He does.” And that was it for Jobs. One inadequate answer, given into the mind of a genius adolescent, and he cognitively walked away from the faith of his childhood.

      Holly: suppose the pastor had given a lucid explanation of Plantinga’s free will defense for the theodicy*, an argument widely accepted as logically valid if the right kinds of free will exist and what one could call ‘state of the art apologetics’.

      Do you suppose that would have satisfied the young Jobs? If yes, why? If no, why do you blame the pastor?

      * this is possible; Jobs seems to have been 12 years old when Plantinga first published on it

  • This is a critically important subject. You are doing an excellent work here. I believe the church has abdicated its responsibility to teach believers how to view all of life to public schools and universities. Thus, the spiritual has been separated from the so-called secular (science, politics, entertainment, art, history, etc.) and Christians don’t have answers. Please continue teaching.

    Mark Waller

  • Displaced

    Sorry to revive an old topic, but here are some thoughts since I just stumbled upon this.

    The OP is too optimistic about apologetics. Had I read this while I was completing my degree at an evangelical seminary, which I attended because of my doubts about Christianity, I would have agreed that churches do indeed need more apologetic teaching because there is a silent contingency of Christians out there not saying anything about their doubts. The problem, however, is apologetics doesn’t touch the root issues.

    For example, arguments for the reliability of the Bible may help reinforce the faith of the non-doubter, but the doubter who is well aware of the historical problems of the Bible will not be convinced. Arguments concerning the Bible’s reliability typically deal broadly with topics like the historicity of Acts and the Gospels, but they don’t deal with the chronological problems of Jesus’ death and resurrection, or the contradiction on how Judas died, or Jesus’ mention of Abiathar being high priest at a time when he was not. But even when these issues are addressed, the answers are unsatisfying because they are often forced and present an unwarranted harmonization, which brings up the second point.

    Apologetics, in the realm of Bible reliability, requires the doubter to accept a special pleading. Apologists have many good points to make about the usefulness of the Bible for the study of history, but this still cannot convince the doubter to accept the miracles of the Bible. Herodotus is considered the first historian, yet no one believes the supernatural events he claims happened, not even Christians who believe the supernatural is completely possible. Apologetics fails to demonstrate why the doubter should suddenly change his/her approach toward ancient documents from doubting or dismissing claims of the supernatural, even in reliable documents, to being accepting of supernatural claims in the Bible, especially when few can claim to have witnessed an actual miracle themselves.

    As a final note, despite the profusion of attempts to deal with the so-called problem of pain (including the elaborate ones by my own apologetics teacher), we might as well admit that we have no answer. Even in Job God himself refuses to to offer an account of Job’s pain; rather, God calls for unquestioning belief. Voltaire’s satire of Leibniz’s best-of-all-possible-worlds argument still stings today as a testament to our failure and inability to deal adequately with the problem.

    So, I don’t think apologetics is going to fix the problem. Apologetics has provided limited help to me as I constantly teeter on the brink of unbelief.

    • Nicely put, Displaced. I agree with you in disagreeing with Bradley that “There are defensible, and even persuasive, answers to each of the concerns raised above.” Maybe Bradley thinks he knows some inerrant answers as to what lay behind the metaphysical curtain or maybe he thinks he know the only true interpretation of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, but for those who look deeply into such questions, there are no easy answers, there remain plenty of questions. Christians themselves are the biggest debunkers of each others “answers” and “interpretations” from Genesis to Revelation. Right now you can see Evangelical Christians on the web debating whether the Bible is inerrant, and even among inerrantists they are debating which portions are history and which might be legendary, whether Adam and Eve were historical personages, whether the birth narratives and story of the raising of many saints in Matthew are history or not, and whether the resurrection tales are all history or include some legendary material and whether the resurrection was physical or more visionary/spiritual. And there are many general questions besides the biblical ones. Even among believers in an afterlife who study NDEs, all NDEs do not point to the truth of Christianity. Mormons like Betty Eade have highly descriptive NDEs in which they meet a Mormon Jesus. Some meet balls of light that tell them that the best religion is whichever one brings one closer to God. Another meets a Buddhistic turtle god. Another meets a guy named “Bob” in the afterlife who comforts him. Most people who are revived after their heart has stopped do not recall having any NDE at all. And many people who are not Evangelical Christians have loving NDEs that help them overcome their fear of death. The NDE evidence appears mixed in other words. And then there’s the hiddenness of God, the question of prayers and probabilities and fooling one’s self via confirmation bias, and amazing coincidences that do indeed happen in real life including cancer remissions that have been documented and not connected with any particular religious beliefs.

      • Stephen Sponsler

        Perhaps the bigger Reality is that the Bible proves itself only when understood through the Spirit of Truth, which then proves itself . The errors occur only through mis-translation from the original text by people that had interjected their own errors into them which holds to varying degrees of the KJV to the nearly ‘blasphemous New age incorporations as some say’ to the likes of “The Message” bible (which clearly takes meaning out, but has it’s few moments here and there). The WORD is in the hearts of those who are ‘believers’ but understand that BE-livers is the same in translation to TRUST, and one cannot trust something to be True without the Spirit of Truth to begin with. There are atheists who have come to the faith or at least belief in God because the science has to them been too overwhelming to deny it. But the reality is it is God who comes to us Through Christ and those are the witnessesses..that is why it is written, “No one comes to the Father except through Me” because it is the Spirit who ‘does’ the action and through Christ that we come to the Knowledge of God (having the mind of Christ) and His Abundant unconditional Love and Grace”. what it all means is, one is not going to learn through the process of acquiring knowledge like a textbook..it only valids what already at that point IS. .Do we not See the signs of the times? The Rainbow is the Glory of God in all His Splendor seen only when the Son Has Your Back before the Eve of Nightfall.

        • If only every Bible reader had the “spirit of truth.” Then they might all finally agree on what the Bible really says and teaches. And if only we had a way to determine who had the spirit of truth and who did not have it, or, a way to determine to what degree a person had it. Maybe there is a spectrum of “having” say 30% of the spirit of truth, and 70% the spirit of the human reader of the Bible, etc., But we have no way for everyone to agree on such matters.

  • i once left god,but it didn’t fill right.i read this and t helped me choose to turn back to him

  • SJ

    This is an older article, but I’m going to post something here.

    Concerning “hell,” most of the Early Church did not believe in eternal punishment. In fact, of the six main sects in the Early Church, apparently one–and only one–was decidedly in favor of eternal punishment. The rest believed that the wicked would eventually be reconciled to God, and that any punishment they received would eventually come to an end. Most modern Christians would be shocked to know this. (Another thing to think about–where did Moses ever warn the Israelites about “hell”?)

    Furthermore, who understood the Bible better–the Early Church or modern-day Christians? I think it’s obvious that that EC understood it much better than we do today.