Joe E. Holman used to be a preacher in the fundamentalist Church of Christ denomination. He wrote about the reasons why he rejected Christianity and became an atheist in his story: “From Gospel Preacher to Good Atheist”. [the link is now defunct; see several references to Joe on the Debunking Christianity website]. I want to deal with one particular aspect of it, in order to illustrate how fallacious reasoning on one point can lead to adoption of further errors — the cumulative effect of which may lead to a person’s rejecting of Christianity on inadequate grounds.
I’ve often noted how people tend to go from one extreme to another, or that they “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Atheists always seem to be carping about “fundamentalism.” There is a good reason for that. Fundamentalism is the least intellectually respectable form of Christianity. Many atheists or agnostics who were formerly Christians were part of this environment. Oftentimes, it didn’t seem to occur to them that their own brand of Christianity left much to be desired, and that larger Christianity usually offered much, much more.
In other words, there were intelligent, reasonable alternative choices available within Christianity. It wasn’t a matter of a dichotomy between “the worst sorts of Christianity and rejection of Christianity” (as if anti-intellectual fundamentalism equals Christianity). How about considering the range and scope of the Christian options available before deciding to reject Christianity altogether? The refusal to consider such a path is the sort of “either/or” shallow thinking that plagues Mr. Holman’s deconversion story. I shall now look at part of it (his words will be in blue).
Before I knew it, the summer of 2000 had rolled around. I was at my third preaching work now and the work of God in the local church went on as normal. It was a hot night in August as a guest speaker addressed my congregation in regard to his missionary work that we were supporting overseas. I had been fighting away my doubts successfully up until this point, but this was about to change. Behind him was the screen where he showed us a video of the work that the brethren were doing in India. The pagans were pulling apart a bull in a town square in honor of a pagan god. “It is unfortunate that this sort of pagan worship goes on in the world today, but it does, and we must remember as Christians that these souls are lost without the gospel. If people can be saved without it, then we are wasting our time and money trying to save souls.” It was as though time stopped for me at that moment. The speaker’s words made my heart race like never before, even though I had preached and heard the same message a thousand times before. Now, I was actually thinking of the implications of what I believed! According to my God, these ignorant, bull-slaughtering, heathens were going to be condemned to eternal fire to burn forever, and yet so many of them had lived and died under their own wrong pagan ways and laws for countless generations. It wasn’t right for God to put them in Hell for simply living in ignorance as they had been taught. I felt like a twerp with my no-other-way-to- salvation gospel, futilely trying to convert a people who already had a belief system and a culture to direct their lives. My heart began pounding and I began to sweat. I was beginning to think for myself and not just sweep every lost person into a secret compartment in my mind, never to be thought about again (as I had been doing).
I feel like a mosquito on a nude beach: where to begin with so many fallacies evident here? First of all, I would point out that being “lost without the gospel” is not the same thing as “being necessarily and inevitably lost if one never hears the gospel.” One can be saved by something even if one is unaware of what it was he was saved by. To make a physical analogy (as the Bible often does with regard to salvation): suppose my four-year-old daughter and I are floating on an air mattress in a deep lake. She falls asleep, and in due course, starts to roll over. I see that she will fall off, and so I reach over and stop her from rolling over, and thus prevent her from falling into the water and possibly drowning. So I “saved” her but she remained completely unaware of it.
Likewise, the gospel and God can save people even if they remain unaware about the particulars of the gospel or even of God Himself. They can be saved according to what they know. Why do I believe this? Well, first and foremost, because it is more or less explicitly stated in the Bible (in fact, in an entire chapter):
Romans 2 (RSV):
1: Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.
2: We know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who do such things.
3: Do you suppose, O man, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?
4: Or do you presume upon the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?
5: But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.
6: For he will render to every man according to his works:
7: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;
8: but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.
9: There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek,
10: but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.
11: For God shows no partiality.
12: All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.
13: For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.
14: When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.
15: They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them
16: on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
17: But if you call yourself a Jew and rely upon the law and boast of your relation to God
18: and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed in the law,
19: and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness,
20: a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth –
21: you then who teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal?
22: You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?
23: You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?
24: For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
25: Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision.
26: So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?
27: Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law.
28: For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical.
29: He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal. His praise is not from men but from God.
Now the relationship of law to grace or the gospel (essentially also the question of the Old vs. the New Covenants) is a complex one, fit for a long discussion in and of itself. Suffice it to say here, however, for our purposes, that the Law for the Jew functioned practically in this specific regard, as the gospel functions for Christians. We think we are saved by the gospel; they thought they were saved by the Law. Even that is putting it very broadly (arguably too much so), but I must necessarily simplify so as not to get sidetracked.
But the Apostle Paul takes it much deeper than that, by making the argument that the Law itself or status as a Jew or “chosen race” (analogous to the Christian — particularly Calvinist — notion of the “elect”) is not enough to save one. One must also do good works and show that the Law (by analogy, grace) is active in him as a transformational and motivational force.
But not only that; Paul also makes it clear that even those who haven’t heard the Law (again, analogously, the gospel) can still be saved because their conscience makes clear to them the requirements of the Law, which fact can “perhaps excuse them” at the Judgment (thus meaning that they are saved, if so). This is not apart from the Law itself, but rather, apart from a conscience awareness of the particulars of the Law, or the revelation that any observant Jew was aware of.
So it is quite clear that the Bible does not teach that God sends to hell all people who have not literally heard the gospel. He does not “put” anyone in hell simply for “living in ignorance,” as Mr. Holman vainly imagines. That is a rather monstrous tradition of men that got smuggled into many Protestant sects (but by no means do even the majority of Protestant denominations teach this).
It was part of Mr. Holman’s fundamentalist Church of Christ tradition, so when he figured out that it was untrue and unjust, he didn’t (so it seems from his account) bother to check whether the Bible (which that sect ostensibly claims to be following more closely than any other form of Christianity) teaches against his own false tradition of men, or whether all other Christians believed the same thing. No; he simply concluded that if “Christianity” teaches this notion, then “Christianity” must be false. Anyone can readily see the fallacious nature of this equation. It’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Nor does this teaching of Paul in Romans 2 mean that Christians should cease evangelizing. That is as unreasonable as saying that “primitive stone age tribes in the jungle may be able to be saved from certain sicknesses by means of their own herbal remedies, so we won’t try to introduce modern medicine to them.” We don’t conclude that they already have some semblance of cure for sicknesses; therefore, we won’t inform them of any advances in medical care.
Likewise, the fact that someone may theoretically be saved without hearing the gospel is no reason whatsoever not to preach it to them, because that knowledge opens up far more possibility for blessing and Christian understanding, as well as spiritual power. Most Christians believe exactly the same thing about the benefits of availability of sacraments (such as baptism) versus not having them available. The existence of “loopholes” do not imply the absence of routine and the status quo. Christians preach the gospel because God wants them to be involved in the sharing of His message of Good News.
I felt like a twerp with my no-other-way-to-salvation gospel, futilely trying to convert a people who already had a belief system and a culture to direct their lives.
His brand of salvation should have made him feel that way, because it wasn’t altogether biblically based, but again, this is no reason to go to the other extreme and let people live without the gospel, if you believe they would be further benefited by actually hearing the message of the Good News of Christ.
My heart began pounding and I began to sweat. I was beginning to think for myself and not just sweep every lost person into a secret compartment in my mind, never to be thought about again (as I had been doing).
Yeah, it was pretty stupid, I agree. But how is that relevant to Christianity as a whole, is the question? I’ve been doing the work of evangelism for 25 years and I have never approached the task in this fashion (and that includes being both an evangelical Protestant and a Catholic).
This Hell idea I had been preaching was starting to seem like a terrible thing. Though I wouldn’t have admitted it, I never could harmonize the concept of hell with the concept of a merciful God, especially when God could easily rehabilitate sinners or just blot them out of existence.
Of course, if one starts with this fallacious notion that God sends people to hell for completely unjust reasons, I could see how it would be repulsive and revolting. I don’t believe God acts that way, either, but it doesn’t cause me to reject Christianity, does it? And that is because there are many more ways to approach the question of hell and election and salvation than the fundamentalist or specifically Church of Christ or extreme supralapsarian Calvinist fashion.
After all, you get rid of a sick dog, you don’t torture it, right? But this posed a dilemma: if God could choose to save some lost souls without the gospel, then he must do the same for everyone lest he be branded a respecter of persons (Acts 10:34-35), in which case, his word would not always be true (John 10:35).
But this again incorporates the false dichotomy highlighted above. God doesn’t save anyone without the gospel. Whoever is saved, is saved by the death of Jesus Christ on the cross on their behalf. But they don’t necessarily have to consciously be aware of that fact of the means of salvation in order to be saved. Therefore, the “dilemma” proposed above collapses.
Or, if it is as the bible says, and literally no one can be saved without the gospel, then you have the uncomfortable and unjust position of making God a tyrant who condemns helpless and ignorant pagans who never heard of Jews or Jesus or the Christian Church (Luke 12:4-5; Mark 16:16; Matthew 7:21-23; John 14:6).
Nope. One must incorporate the data of Romans 2 to have an accurate, adequate understanding of the full Bible teaching on potential salvation of the pagan or heathen. Since Mr. Holman didn’t do that: then or now, he was forced to accept a false dichotomy, so that he had to reject what he falsely thought was (the sum total of) “Christianity,” since the “straw box” that he had forced it into reduced it to moral absurdity with a capricious, amoral “god.”
There is no way to answer this dilemma and maintain both the soundness of God’s word and the mercy of God.
No?! That’s news to me. I just did it.
I used to be content explaining this by saying that since God himself was the only immutable standard of morality, then he could do whatever he wanted with souls and his will would be “good” and ours would be “bad,” but this no longer resolved the problem in my mind.
That may be true of Allah, in Islamic thought, but it is not the Christian conception of God, where God is Love and cannot do evil. He will always do good.
Now the idea of eternal torment started to seem like the truly malicious thing it was. God was running a “little shop of horrors” all his own! The more I thought about it, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to serve a monster capable of such cruelty.
Again, if one believes in false notions of how people end up in hell, that would follow. But if hell is regarded as a free choice of creatures who wish to reject God, then it is quite different. God gives them that freedom, and we also believe that He gives all men enough grace to accept His freely-offered and completely God-enabled salvation. Calvinists don’t accept that, because they believe in limited atonement and don’t think that Jesus died for all men and made it theoretically possible for all men to be saved. But Calvinism is not the whole of Christianity. There is Arminian Protestantism, and Catholicism, and Orthodoxy, all of which groups reject this soteriology.
Other aspects of Mr. Holman’s deconversion story fall prey to the same shallow thinking. He figured out that the earth was not six thousand years old. Good for him! Only a tiny fraction of Christians believe such a silly thing, but that didn’t stop him from using this newfound knowledge of his to reject “Christianity.” He acts as if the theory of evolution is somehow fundamentally hostile to Christianity, too, but there are millions of Christians who are theistic evolutionists. He pretends that similarity of certain elements of other religions to those in Christianity somehow casts doubt on Christianity. I don’t see how (yet this is a common motif in atheist / agnostic polemics).
My knowledge pool was filling and my worldview that was kept so small before and full of intolerance and scientific illiteracy, was now growing, and with this knowledge came peace like the bible only claimed to give me.
So he was particularly ignorant of science, gets up to speed, and figures out that more knowledge of science means less acceptance of Christianity, as if it were a zero-sum game? Yet this kind of thinking is considered impressive in the circles he now moves in? This mentality leads him to utter inane, puerile platitudes such as: “if I can explain design by means of evolution, then I don’t need a god” and “Science had been replacing the god notion for centuries.”
I look back now and wonder how I could ever have believed in an angry tyrant of a god who brought unimaginable guilt and fear of eternal torture on his children.
Yeah, it is amazing, isn’t it?: that anyone would and could believe in such a ridiculous “God.” If I thought “God” acted in such a manner I wouldn’t be a Christian for one minute, either.
But when I defended my decision to leave, I quickly became the flaming heretic without hope of saving: “You are evil!!” “Do you worship the devil now, Joe?” “Joe, you have no morality!” “Will you beat me and take my wallet now that you’re an atheist, Joe?” They called me not knowing what they were in for. It was almost funny to listen as they got upset and tried to get off the phone as quickly as possible!
People act in all sorts of ways when deep emotions and commitments are involved. I don’t have any need or compulsion myself to jump to such conclusions. And if humor is brought into the mix, I can find lots of hilarious atheist rantings, too. That’s neither here nor there in the end, though.
As far as I can see, Mr. Holman’s deconversion was due (at least in the above explanations) to flimsy, sloppy, illogical thinking and the common human tendency to adopt false dichotomies and to move from one extreme to another. I believe that can be corrected, and that is why I wrote this paper, so that others will not fall into this same trap of building houses upon the sand of utterly fallacious premises or foundations.
I realize that I haven’t dealt with all aspects of the paper; rather, what I have done is to show that these particular reasons for rejecting Christianity do not stand up to the test of rational scrutiny. These “reasons” are not good or solid ones. And these are commonly-used rationales given in such cases. Simply repeating them because they play well in the atheist / agnostic sub-community (i.e., “preaching to the choir” or the cheerleading club) does not cause them to cease to be lousy reasons, insofar as they can truly be called “reasons” at all, seeing that they are so unreasonable and irrational.