"I have been there and I know what I am talking about. I know how you think, and I know that it is wrong."
There is another variety that says, "I have been there and I have looked at the arguments objectively and now I realise how blindly I was conned into accepting it all. Yet all in all, I really wish I could believe again."
I find myself torn as I meet these people. On the one hand I feel sadness - because I know that in all likelihood they haven't experienced true Christianity. A friend of mine falls into this category. His experience of Christianity and mine are radically different. If I had had his experience of Christianity I would be tempted to reject it too. But sadly I don't believe that what he experienced was genuine biblical Christianity. It was a blend of Christian truth and psychological manipulation dominated by strong personalities in a charismatic environment. Rightly he saw through it all. Sadly it appears that he thinks that it was Christianity he saw through.
Yet this is an important realisation - for if you haven't experienced real Christianity, it isn't possible to criticise it from the inside. It isn't a case of poacher turned gamekeeper, more a case of poacher turned 'Strictly Come Dancing' critic. The two aren't related.
In dealing with such people we need to help them see the difference between what they experienced and real Christianity.
On the other hand I find myself irked. There is a patronising attitude that looks condescendingly at those poor unenlightened Christians who still believe. Apparently we don't have the intellectual ability to see things as they see them. Perhaps this grows out of an element of truth. Perhaps their faith was built on teaching that wasn't intellectually rigorous, on facts that weren't facts. And if that is so then they are right to insist on intellectual rigour and honesty.
It also comes across that they think that there are no serious intellectuals who believe in Christianity. Perhaps in their background they haven't come across Alvin Plantinga, Cornelius van Til, Greg Bahnsen, Don Carson, Ravi Zacharias, or William Lane Craig, or the host of famous scientists that have believed the truths of the Bible - Lord Kelvin, Michael Faraday, James Simpson to name three.
However, just because what they were taught was wrong, that doesn't make Christianity wrong. Often there is an attitude of "I am cleverer than you are." There is an over-reliance on their own intellectual ability. But there needs to be a humility of heart that accepts the need to go back and look at what the scripture teaches, rather than what they think the scripture teaches. Yet often that is absent. I believe that is because deep down they know the facts are true and they're real problem is that they don't want to accept them, because they know that it will involve making changes in their lives.
How then do we explain all this? Is there a biblical explanation for this scenario?
The Bible teaches that those who are truly saved will never fall away. It teaches that those who are converted are the recipients of a series of completed and irreversible actions carried out by God. That doesn't mean that they wont have doubts, but it does mean that they know where to turn to in their doubts - they will turn to God. So no matter how hurtful it is to those who claim to be "Ex Christians", the Bible tells us that they were never Christians in the first place. Hence the use of the apostrophes around the word Christian in the title.
Well, what then explains their experience? Mark 4 is one of a number of places that explains it. It is the parable of the sower. Jesus clearly teaches that there are more than two responses - acceptance or rejection - of the gospel. There are also those who receive the word with joy but only last a short time. Others spring up and look like Christians, but other things come along and choke the life out of them. Neither is truly converted because they bear no fruit. Not everyone who responds positively to the gospel is converted.
Ex 'Christians' don't then come as a surprise to me because the Bible has already described that category of people.
How should we respond? What lessons are there to learn?
- We need to accept the truth from these critics when they make valid criticisms. Often Christians are intellectually sloppy. Often they make generalisations that are untrue. Often we pass on stories that aren't factual - e.g. NASA records backing up the missing day in the book of Joshua, or Darwin recanted on his deathbed. Preachers, evangelists especially need to be intellectually rigorous. There is a trite approach to evangelism that says "All you need is John 3:16" - but that ignores the fact that God has given us minds, and that the scriptures say, "Come let us reason together."
- We also need to make sure that our teaching is biblically based, and not a blend of popular psychology and crowd manipulation.
- In evangelism we need to aim to break the pride of sinners before applying the grace of the gospel. Law first, then grace. Otherwise we will have intellectual converts who have never humbled themselves before God. And as Christians we need continually to humble ourselves, for pride is the surest route to failure.
- We need to realise the reality of what theologians call the 'noetic effects of sin'. In other words it affects our thinking. No unbeliever can look at the facts and, of their own intellectual ability, be convinced of the truth of the gospel (Rom 1:21). They will always find a way to explain them away. Evangelism that is based primarily in factual evidence will always fail because it forgets this biblical truth. There are plenty of facts that are intellectually credible, and we are to present them because we don't know whom God is working in. But we are primarily to aim at breaking the heart by a display of its guilt before God.
- We need also to realise that there are many people who will respond positively and then fall away. That is why Jesus taught the disciples as he did in Mark 4. When this happens we should not then be discouraged.
- And we need to respond in love, rather than in frustration. They are lost. We can have no pride or superciliousness in the fact that we are Christians. How did we become Christians? God opened our wilfully blind eyes to the truth. All we contributed was our guilt. How can we be proud in that? Where they have real criticisms we need to listen. Where they are mistaken in their perceptions we need to gently correct. Where other Christians have unjustly hurt them we need to help them see that that wasn't biblical Christianity.