Why I Left, Why I Stayed by Tony Campolo & Bart Campolo (Book Review)

Why I Left, Why I Stayed by Tony Campolo & Bart Campolo (Book Review) March 27, 2017

Tony Campolo is one of the most gracious and well-spoken voices that I know of within Evangelicalism. For years, he has focussed his ministry on living out the “red letters” of Jesus. And for years, his son, Bart Campolo, took part in this ministry with him. But that all changed when Bart realized he no longer believed in God.

Why I Left, Why I Stayed

In Why I Left, Why I Stayed, Tony and Bart discuss their diverging journeys, their now-differing beliefs, and their still-shared convictions. I can hardly imagine two people better qualified to have this conversation in a way that is mutually dignifying, while still probing into the difficult questions that must be asked. And their book does not disappoint.

I have to admit that one of my strongest emotions while reading was one of jealousy. I wish I had the option to carry out such conversations with my family in the grace-filled manner here exemplified. While Bart’s journey has taken him outside of Christianity, my own has simply shifted me from the Calvinistic fundamentalism of my upbringing to a Christian faith that is more progressive, more ecumenical, and more soundly rooted in historic orthodoxy.

Yet this shift has cost me the relationship I once had with my parents and extended family. It stings for me to read how “Tony’s God-consciousness kept him from saying any hurtful words … and that it keeps Tony from replying with bitterness” (p. xv), when the experience with my relations has been so far opposite. Nonetheless, this book is important for precisely that reason. We need to see these conversations modeled in a better way.

It is refreshing to see the honesty from both sides, acknowledging that the views they hold are based more on feeling than facts.

From Tony:

I’m still a fairly good Christian apologist, but at the end of the day, I have to admit that the primary foundation of my faith is not what I know, but rather what I feel. …

I can’t remember when I did not accept the basic doctrines of the Christian faith, …. (p. 31)

And from Bart:

In my case, however, all that really matters is that over many years my ability to believe in any kind of supernatural reality gradually faded away, until I finally became convinced that the natural universe—matter, energy, and time—is all that exists. …

I didn’t choose not to believe in God; I just stopped believing. … Slowly but surely, that benevolent presence that once seemed absolutely real to me felt like an imaginary friend instead. (pp. 43–44)

But that isn’t to say that nothing more concrete plays into it. For Bart, beyond a general disbelief in the supernatural, he came to view certain elements of his father’s faith as simply unacceptable and even immoral, namely, original sin and penal substitutionary atonement.

Original sin is where the Gospel starts, isn’t it? … We are all sinful by nature, and therefore utterly incapable of redeeming ourselves and entirely deserving of eternal damnation. …

This may well be my biggest problem with evangelical Christianity: It is grounded in a bizarre, counterintuitive self-hatred that claims we have no intrinsic goodness or value of our own, but rather deserve to be eternally punished simply for being born human. Indeed, according to the “good news,” our only hope is the unmerited favor of God, which comes to us in the form of Jesus, the sacrificial lamb who suffers and dies in our place. …

Why can’t our gracious God simply forgive us, the same way Jesus taught his disciples to forgive one another? … How could slaughtering an innocent make the guilty party any more fit for divine fellowship? Parental discipline I can easily accept, but not the retributive violence of the Cross. To me, that is what’s really immoral. (pp. 93–95)

I’m actually in full agreement with Bart’s objections here. The idea of original sin is “bizarre” and “counterintuitive.” It does not accurately reflect the human condition, which is certainly flawed, but not totally depraved. And the idea that God would punish Jesus instead of us is about as immoral as it could be. God does not need a sacrifice. Indeed, God does “simply forgive us, the same way Jesus taught his disciples to forgive one another.” God’s discipline of his children is always and only parental—it is restorative, not retributive.

The notion of original sin and the retributive view of the cross are both inventions of Western Christianity. They find their origin in men like Augustine, Anselm, and Calvin, not Jesus or the Apostles. The Eastern branch of Christianity, for the entirety of its existence, has rejected these ideas. And more and more Western Christians (myself included) are coming to reject these ideas as well, restoring our theology to the more ancient faith once delivered.

I’m somewhat surprised, given what I know of him, that Tony Campolo is still holding on to these beliefs. But as progressive as he may be in many areas, this is one area in which he remains quite a bit more conservative. He critiques leaders of the emerging church and others for speaking along the same lines as his son, and he offers his own solution:

My response to such leaders has been to point out that the penal substitutionary doctrine of the atonement is only one explanation of how our salvation was accomplished by Jesus on the cross, and to remind them that none of them alone can contain the whole story. What happened at Calvary is far too profound to be reduced to a simple formula. I do not reject penal substitutionary atonement out of hand, but I don’t put all my theological eggs in that basket, either. The glory of our salvation is bigger than that. (p. 97)

On the one hand, I completely agree that no one theory of atonement can capture everything that happened. As just a few quick examples, the recapitulation, Christus victor, moral influence, and mimetic views of atonement (among many others) all point to elements of truth, and we are better off using all of them together than any one of them on its own. However, unlike these other views of atonement, penal substitution does not in any way point us to the truth. It actually points us away from the truth that God is love and that his forgiveness is unconditional. I don’t believe it has any legitimate place within Christian theology, and I think it should indeed be rejected out of hand.

But I don’t mean to be too harsh on Tony. His overall understanding of the Christian message is so much better than the majority of Evangelicalism. For example, he shared some of his views by recounting an interaction he had with his students years ago. Here are a few snippets to gain a better idea of what Tony is all about:

“Look,” I resumed, “as I was listening to you list the traits of humanness, something kept telling me that you were also describing what God is like. God is all the things that you are telling me you want to be. Then it hit me—humanness and Godness are one and the same. You want to be everything that Jesus was and is. What you call being human is really being Christlike.” …

One of my students said, “If Godness is humanness and vice versa, then we need a new way of talking about Jesus. Jesus is God because He is fully human, not in spite of His humanness. When I was a kid growing up in Sunday school, it seemed weird to me that God could be a man, but if I follow what you are saying, it is the most logical thing in the world. Jesus was God because He was fully human and He is fully human because He was God. In Jesus, everything that God is was revealed and everything that a human being is supposed to be was realized, and both of these were one and the same. …”

“That’s right,” I chimed in. “Each of the rest of us is still in the process of becoming human. Only Jesus is the fullness of what we aspire to become. …” …

“To be saved from sin is to be delivered from this and every other kind of alienation. Is is to enter into a personal relationship with the ultimate human, being transformed into His likeness to enjoy the ecstasy of full aliveness.” (pp. 80–83)

Now this is the kind of Christianity I believe. This is faith of the early church. This is theosis—the idea that “the Son of God became man so that we might become God,” as Athanasius so famously put it in his On the Incarnation.

Returning to Bart, if he no longer believes in God, what does he believe in these days? In a word, love. More specifically, Bart’s purpose is “living a life of love” (p. 64). He grounds his morality in the Golden Rule, which he sees as coming from the shared traditions of humanity, rather than from Jesus in particular (p. 105, a debatable claim, but one I won’t press at the moment). So Bart’s moral center would seem to remain the same as Christianity, even if he thinks these concepts originated elsewhere. Christian morality has never been about following a list of dos and don’ts, but about living a life of love, based on the Golden Rule.

Why, then, does he reject Christianity? Is it because of the objectionable elements considered earlier? Surely not. I can’t believe that one as well-read as Bart is unaware of the immense Christian tradition that agrees with him in rejecting these things. Per my reading of his words, it seems like Bart’s rejection of Christianity really boils down to one thing: he can no longer believe in the supernatural.

At the same time, I can’t help but think that Bart remains in some ways more Christian than many who still identify as such. The First Epistle of John makes it clear that “love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God,” and furthermore, “God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them” (1 John 4:7, 16, CEB). If Bart is continuing to live a life of love based on Jesus’ Golden Rule (and I see no reason to doubt the sincerity of Bart’s love), then John’s words appear fairly straightforward. Bart remains in God, and God remains in Bart. Though Bart may, for now, have lost his ability to believe in God, God still believes in Bart.

As I wrap up my review, I want to emphasize again what a refreshing read this was. Both Tony and Bart shine in their humility toward one another, and they have left us an exemplary model for working through these difficult matters with those who are closest to us. I’ll end with one more quote, from their joint conclusion.

As we said at the beginning, while we come to it differently, each of us always reaches the same conclusion about this life: Love is the most excellent way. Moreover, each of us is both sure and content that the other has found that way. For now, at least, that is enough. (p. 158)

Pick up your own copy of Why I Left, Why I Stayed as a hardcover or a Kindle eBook.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from HarperOne in exchange for an honest review.

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  • I picked up a copy of this book recently, and I look forward to reading it, as I am on a similar journey with some of my family members (I’ve left Christianity, while others have remained).

    I’m sure that Bart’s rejection of Christianity is more grounded than just a rejection of the supernatural (though that is reason enough). When one finds that the valuable philosophical gleanings of a religion can be found universally in other sources, and when there is much in the “trappings” of religion to find objectionable, why should Bart remain a “Christian”. What would it even mean to remain a “Christian” in those circumstances.

    That both positive and negative versions of the Golden Rule predate the New Testament in multiple religious and philosophical traditions is not “a debatable claim”. It’s a fact.

  • See Noevo

    “The notion of original sin and the retributive view of the cross are both inventions of Western Christianity. They find their origin in men like Augustine, Anselm, and Calvin, not Jesus or the Apostles. The Eastern branch of Christianity, for the entirety of its existence, has rejected these ideas. And more and more Western Christians (myself included) are coming to reject these ideas as well, restoring our theology to the more ancient faith once delivered.”

    What does “the more ancient faith once delivered” say about the reason for and effect of Christ’s crucifixion?

    • Quite a few things, but not that Jesus had to die to appease the wrath of God that would otherwise have been directed toward us. If you’ve not yet read it, Athanasius’ wonderful little book, On the Incarnation, is a great place to start. It’s freely available online and immensely readable. And Ben Myers has a fantastic talk on the early (Patristic) view of the atonement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DzdgDdZkSOY

      • See Noevo

        How would you answer my question above for those who aren’t
        going to read Athanasius’ book or watch Ben Myers’ one hour and 26 minute

        • Understanding that the concept really needs to be unpacked in greater depth than I can do here, the gist of it is this.

          Jesus died to save us from our sins, and from the natural consequence of our sins, which is ultimately death. But he did not die to save us from God’s wrath or punishment.

          Jesus effected our salvation by entering into death to defeat it from the inside out. Just as a light dispels the darkness, so the source of life (Jesus) when he enters death, dispels and defeats it.

          • See Noevo

            “Jesus died to save us from our sins, and from the natural consequence of our sins, which is ultimately death. But he did not die to save us from God’s wrath or punishment.”

            I assume you don’t mean earthly death, since everyone dies, but rather
            spiritual and eternal death.

            But if the eternal life is subjected to God’s wrath or punishment, then what good was Christ’s death?

          • He saved us in that we do not die eternally. Thanks to Jesus, death does not have the final word, for resurrection is coming.

            As for “if the eternal life is subjected to God’s wrath or punishment,” I’m not sure exactly what you mean by that, but no, God will not be punishing anyone throughout eternity.

          • See Noevo

            “…but no, God will not be punishing anyone throughout eternity.”

            So, “the more ancient faith once delivered” stated that there is no Hell?

          • For clarification, my statement in the post regarding the early church was addressing atonement, not hell. My comment regarding punishment for eternity was answering with my own view, not necessarily that of the early church.

            As for hell, neither I nor the early church denies its existence, but there are many different views to explain what hell is. While some see it as an eternal punishment from God, others do not. These differing views have been around since the beginning of the church and continue to this day.

            Traditionally, they have been lumped into the three categories of eternal conscious torment, annihilationism, and universal reconciliation, but I personally see those categories as being too limiting.

            For more on all this, along with an explanation of my own view, see my post, “25 Views on Hell? 2 Questions to Reframe the Debate”: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/hippieheretic/2016/02/25-views-on-hell-2-questions-to-reframe.html

  • errorboy

    What then, does propitiation mean?

    • Well, the dictionary definition of propitiation is “the action of propitiating or appeasing a god, spirit, or person.”

      But it has no place in Christian theology. God does not need to be appeased.

      And “propitiation” is a very poor translation for Romans 3:25, Hebrews 2:17, 1 John 2:2; 4:10, etc.

      • errorboy

        And why is it in the Bible?

        • It isn’t.

          • errorboy

            Right. And that’s the problem with this whole discussion. What word would you use?

          • “Expiation” is the general concept being expressed, but any number of renderings would be better than “propitiation.” See, for example, the REB, CEB, NRSV, and NIV as just a few examples of translations that do fine on these verses.

            And for a more detailed explanation, here’s what the UBS Handbook has to say on these phrases:

            Romans 3:25

            “The phrase by his death (JB “to sacrifice his life”; NEB “by his sacrificial death”; Goodspeed “dying”) is literal “by his blood,” but “blood” is used in this passage in the same way that it is used in a number of other places in the New Testament, that is, to indicate a violent death. (See also the comments at 5:9.) The means by which men’s sins are forgiven (see NEB “the means of expiating sin”) is used in the Septuagint as a translation of “the mercy seat” that was a part of the covenant box (or ark), and so may also mean “the place where sins were forgiven” (see Hebrews 9:5, the only other occurrence of this word in the New Testament). Although this noun (and its related forms) is sometimes used by pagan writers in the sense of propitiation (that is, an act to appease or placate a god), it is never used this way in the Old Testament. There God never appears as the object of this noun (that is, the one who is placated), though God does appear as the subject with sin as the object, in which case the meaning is “God expiates (that is, forgives) sins.” For this reason, the meaning of expiation (equivalent to TEV the means by which men’s sins are forgiven) is a much more accurate translation than propitiation (see Moffatt and Phillips “the means of propitiation”).”

            Hebrews 2:17

            “RSV’s “expiation” translates a Greek word which refers to the removal of a barrier between men and God. In pagan writings, it was often used of making the gods favorable to the worshiper. In Luke 18:13 (the only other place in the New Testament where this word is used) the object is the worshiper; TEV translates have pity on me. In the Old Testament it sometimes refers to the blotting out or “covering” of sins (not “covering up” with the idea of deceit!). This is the idea here. There is no question of offering sacrifices to an angry God so that he will stop being angry. It is not God who is being dealt with in this verse, but sins, and they are “forgiven” (see Brc), “taken away” (see TNT), or wiped away.”

            1 John 2:2

            “Accordingly, the meaning of the Greek verb comes close to that of “to cleanse” (cp. 1:7) and “to forgive” (cp. 1:9). An interpretation along these lines leads to renderings like, “Christ himself is the means by which our sins are forgiven” (TEV), ‘who makes good all our sins,’ ‘it is he who is what-frees-from our sins’ (making use of a term that in the indigenous religion refers to the exorcising of magical influences), ‘he is the means of the disappearance of our sins,’ ‘he himself takes away sin,’ ‘he covers up our sins.’ The last mentioned rendering is fully acceptable in some languages (among them probably also Hebrew, for “to cover” is one of the meanings the corresponding Hebrew verb can have), but in other languages and cultures it would suggest hiding (so that God cannot see it), and therefore cannot be used.”

            1 John 4:10

            “To be the expiation for our sins, or ‘that he should expiate our sins,’ ‘in order that our sins might be forgiven,’ etc., see 2:2. As long as man is sinful he cannot participate in the true life; hence, the doing away with sin is the necessary counterpart of the granting of life. For sin compare 1:7; the plural is to show that the reference is to specific sinful deeds, see comments on “we confess our sins” in 1:9.”

          • errorboy

            And thus we create a scenario we can agree with. Other scholars agree propitiation is appropriate. Why are they wrong?

          • Everyone has their arguments. I don’t find the arguments for “propitiation” compelling. If you do, that’s fine.

          • errorboy

            It makes all the difference in the world.

          • Jiminy Jillikers

            Incorrect. Fortunately, Jesus doesn’t say we have to hold the correct theory of atonement to be Christians. Lucky us!

          • errorboy


          • errorboy

            You can deny what’s there but it’s still there? Interesting approach.

  • Amos Paul

    I agree with Tony’s statement that “no one theory points us to the truth” AND your objection that penal substitution theory (PST) is still very flawed. But I do not agree that PST does not *in any way* point towards truth.

    I used to think that PST was worthless in my post-evangelical days. But it’s been partially redeemed for me by works like Douglas Meeks’s book God the Economist. Jesus “forgiving debts” has the prophetic ability to speak truth to our spiritually bankrupt market economy and ways that we value human lives or measure worth.

    The main problem with PST is that Jesus is paying God. Or, in other words, it’s kind of like a backwards ransom theory. PST uses modern economic / legal language that CAN be helpful. God may even be the judge in the metaphor, but the offended party can’t also be God. That’s the problem with it.

    If we change the offended party to the accuser, evil, corruption, the devil, etc. We have something much more ancient in Christian theology and IMO a functioning PST. We get the benefits of forgiving debts, no way to pay, Jesus declaring freedom, etc. without the absurdity of God satisfying our debt to Godself–which really started with Anselm’s medieval understanding of a King’s responsibility to uphold honor more than anything else.

    But at the end of the day, I still agree with Tony’s quote more than I care about using the “right” theory. Even if I think PST can be redeemed by merging it back with ransom theory, that doesn’t make ransom PST “the Gospel.” I believe that the story–THAT Jesus came, THAT Jesus lived, THAT Jesus died, THAT Jesus rose, and THAT Jesus saves is the Gospel.

    HOW Jesus saves is not the Gospel itself. It’s commentary / interpretstion upon the Gospel. Whenever we mix up the Gospel itself with our personal favorite atonement theories about how and why he saves is when we really get ourselves in trouble.

    In fact, much like the Gospel itself, which traditionally has four faces: we must leave ourselves open to many theories about how and why–otherwise we castrate and limit the power of the Gospel to speak to multiple contexts. The Gospel is “that he saves.” Everything else is commentary.

  • George Waite

    If you’ve decided to go back to Orthodoxy, the “more ancient faith once delivered.”, does this mean you don’t allow widowed pastors to re-marry? Or bishops to be married? Or clergy to marry after ordination? How about gay/lesbian/trans people-do you think that the Orthodox are correct on how they view them?
    Lots of picking and choosing here.
    Typical-and pathetic.

    • I make no claims to be myself Orthodox as in Eastern Orthodox. I have a tremendous amount of respect for them, and I think we Western Christians have an awful lot to learn from them. But like every tradition of the church, they have their merits, and they have their flaws. On this particular matter of theology proper, I think they’ve had it right all along, and we would do well to heed their wisdom. This need not mean we must agree with them in all areas, particularly in matters of justice and equality, where I believe they err.

      • George Waite

        So who gets to decide?
        You’ve just proven my point-you’re picking and choosing; the Orthodox are picking and choosing; the Fundiegelicals are picking and choosing…..
        There’s no “there” there.

        • Sure. Everyone picks and chooses. Even those who decide to submit wholly to one system (such as Eastern Orthodoxy) must pick that system out of all the others in the world.

          Who gets to decide? Each of us for our own lives. We’re all bound by our own consciences to make the best decisions for ourselves. Hopefully, we’ll bring in as many good external influences as possible to help us make those decisions, but at the end of the day, the decision is a personal one, and there’s no way around that.

          • George Waite

            So what makes your opinion any better than theirs?
            And if you can reach your conclusions without religion, why bother with religion?

          • Who said that my opinion was better than anyone else’s? I would certainly not say so myself.

            I believe that what I believe (my religion) is true, and so I follow it. What else can I do but follow what I believe to be true? But that doesn’t mean I think any less of those beliefs with which I disagree, assuming they are not harming anyone.

            I’ve come to my beliefs through the various experiences and studies I’ve encountered in life thus far. I’m grateful to all those who have gone before me and shared their own beliefs so that I may evaluate them and decide for myself which parts I believe and which parts I do not. I, likewise, share the beliefs to which I have come in the hopes that my thoughts may be helpful to others.

            But I would never, for a second, want to impose my beliefs on others as the absolute truth they must follow. You, and every other reader of mine, must evaluate what I write, benefit from what you agree with, and disregard what you do not. I’m not going to try to convince you to believe anything you don’t want to believe.

          • Our conversation here inspired a blog post on the topic. If you’re interested: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/hippieheretic/2017/04/picking-choosing-beliefs-humility.html

  • George Waite

    So Campolo has the honesty to say that it’s based on feelings, not facts?
    Well, that’s one down, but hundreds of millions left who still claim that religion is fact- based.

    • Neither he nor I would say that it’s based on no facts. We all have the same facts that we interpret as best as we can. But every faith (including atheism) is based more on feelings than on facts. We cannot empirically prove or disprove anything about a God who, by definition, operates in some way outside of the natural laws that govern our physical universe.