Plus Some Observations about Apostasy
by Phil Johnson
riday I spent the morning at the dentist (again!) and the afternoon visiting a friend whose wife is in the hospital with a very serious and painful form of cancer. I was surprised to see the amount of activity in the combox under Wednesday's post, but I read it with interest (and sadness).
I want to comment on several things related to that post, starting with some of the misunderstandings reflected in the early part of the comment-thread:
- I didn't accuse Touchstone of lying because he claimed that he was "a deeply committed, 'sold out' believer for decades." His lie is the claim that as recently as a year ago he was "a devout Christian husband . . . committed to [his] belief in God and [his] faith in Jesus as [his] redeemer and savior." The record of his own words demonstrates that he was promoting skepticism in numerous Christian forums on the Internet nearly two years ago.
- In point of fact, I don't think Touchstone is lying when he says he used to be a Christian. Though it's patently obvious that he is playing fast and loose with the timeline, I do not doubt that he once thought he was a committed Christian.
- Touchstone wrote: If you have the courage of your convictions in saying what you do here, I encourage you hear from my friends and family, who remain devout Christians, about my commitment, and more importantly the "fruit" I was known by as a Christian. I'm happy to make it convenient for you to hear from them if you are willing to report back here what testimony you receive from them. I replied: "I would be more than happydelighted, actuallyto speak to your former pastor, friends, or whoever you think might set me straight about your spiritual journey over the past two years. In fact, I'd be happy to speak to you personally in a venue where you don't get to hide behind a veil of anonymity. My contact info is easily attainable. Give me a call." So far, neither Touchstone nor anyone he encouraged me to "hear from" has contacted me.
- A few other people who say they know Touchstone have contacted me, though. All of them say there was indeed a timeseveral years agowhen he seemed to be a devout Christian. All of them also say he grew deeply skeptical and became openly critical of biblical truth long before the point where he claims he was still "a devout Christian." In other words, none of them vouched for the veracity of his "testimony."
- Those who claimed to know Touchstone have differing ways of interpreting his apostasy. Some believe he is totally and permanently hardened against the truth; others believe he was so committed as a Christian that he could not possibly have been self-deceived or deceiving, and thus he will most likely return to the fold eventually. (Neither Scripture nor experience warrants such optimism, sadly.)
- Those who said they know Touchstone all gave essentially the same description of his life as a Christian. There's no reason to doubt any of the facts that were related to me. No one who knew him before his deconversion told me they suspected that he would ever turn from the faith. As far as they could see, he seemed a sincere, committed Christian and an honorable man. I'm convinced that if I had known him at the time I would have made the same assumption.
- I'm not going to describe details about Touchstone's personal background that were related to me, even though I have no reason to doubt their veracity. I will say this, however: If the facts as related to me are accurate, his faith seemed to begin to unravel in the wake of a series of profound personal tragedies, reminiscent of Job's experience. It's hard not to have sympathy for his plight when you hear the trouble that befell him.
- That, of course, doesn't alter the fact that his "testimony" completely and deliberately misrepresents his true state of mind over the past couple of years. And this seems an especially perfidious style of dissembling, when we remember that it comes from someone who often waved aside criticisms of Mormonism, evolution, postmodernism, or other theological and epistemological aberrations by suggesting that the arguments Christian apologists have used are marred by discrepancies that hinge on the literal meaning of a word, etc. This is someone who handles biblical truth-claims like a little boy tearing the wings off butterflies. When you're willing to treat virtually every difficulty in Scripture as a "contradiction," you don't get to play fast and loose with the facts when you are telling how you became an atheist.
- Touchstone thus illustrates an easily discernible pattern: Most of the "deconverted" care less and less about truth as time goes by.
- The gentleman who posted as "Former_Fundy" is indeed known to me personally. I had a face-to-face meeting with him once in my office around 1995, and I corresponded with him for about a year from 1995-96. He had raised some specific points about fundamentalist separatism that he wanted to discuss, so he started a small forum by e-mail, and I participated from time to time in the discussion. I went to Africa for several weeks in the summer of 1996, and when I returned, the e-mail forum had disbanded and "Former_fundy's" e-mail address was no longer working. After that, I lost track of him and have often wondered what became of him. It made me profoundly sorry to read his story.
- In 1995, he gave every sign of being a devoted Christian and a sound and solid believer. He was a very kind and cordial person, who at the time seemed to be struggling to break free of a more or less extreme variety of Bapto-fundamentalism. He was a highly respected teacher, who was held in high esteem by both his students and fellow ministers. To be clear, I didn't know him really well, but my impressions of him were entirely positive.
- So he is who he said he is. The only part of his story that doesn't ring true is his current participation with a group of the most obnoxious propagandists for skepticism on the Internet. If "Former_Fundy" is, as he claims, an "agnostic" rather than a full-on atheist, his newfound zeal for promoting unbelief alongside the likes of John W. Loftus and crew is a little hard to understand. I gather there is more to "Former_fundy's" story than he has acknowledged, but I'm not going to speculate further about that. Let's just say that the revelation that he has abandoned the faith leaves me profoundly sad.
Some Observations about Apostasy
've had perhaps four or five friends over the years who seemed to be truly devout believers but abandoned the Lord unexpectedly. Nice guys, all of themintelligent, thoughtful, knowledgeable, and (in one or two cases) active in full time ministry. So we're not talking about people who briefly made a questionable profession of faith while trying to keep one foot in the world. These were people who seemed completely devoted, exemplary disciplesjust like Judas seemed to be right up until the point where he betrayed Christ. Let's call them Type-J Apostates. There are several other key similarities and differences from case to case:
- In each case, news of their apostasy came to me as a profound shock and deep disappointment. It wasn't preceded by any plea for help or probing questions. After the fact, every one of them described their struggle as a lengthy emotional and psychological battle with nagging doubts in which they desperately sought answers from every conceivable source. But in reality, I've never had an opportunity to discuss their doubts or questions with any one of them until after they are settled in their unbelief.
- The actual pattern seems to be that the person will seem to disappear from circles of Christian fellowship for an extended time. If they actually do express their doubts to anyone, it's usually under a false identity on the Internet. Under the cloak of anonymity, they will begin to gravitate toward skeptical forums. And if they do voice their doubts in "Christian" forums, rather than going where they might get help from mature believers, they tend to favor mixed forums featuring totally unmoderated discussion dominated by lay people, novices, and cranks. Moreover, if they voice their doubts in such a context, it will usually be in an argumentative way, and not as someone genuinely seeking answers.
- Then after a year or three, the person resurfaces as an agnostic, and after "coming out," becomes increasingly aggressive and militant in spreading the gospel of skepticism. They rarely seem able truly to put their faith behind them, but become more obsessed with Christianity as unbelievers than they were as "believers." I call it the Loftus Phenomenon.
- Half the time (or more), it has later come to light that the person's original "doubts" were related to a moral struggle. (In three of the five instances I have specifically in mind, one was addicted to pornography, another was having an extramarital affair, and the third had decided to openly indulge a homosexual bent he had struggled with secretly for years.)
- A disproportionate number of apostates seem to come from the kind of über-rigid fundamentalist backgrounds where what you do seems to be given ultimacy over what you believe. That kind of stress on externals naturally cultivates Pharisaism rather than authentic faith, so we shouldn't be surprised at the high percentage of apostates such a system produces.
- The New Testament prominently features several very sobering warnings about the dangers of spurious faith. Jesus Himself said that many will come to His judgment seat and be completely surprised to hear Him say, "I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness" (Matthew 7:23). This is also a huge theme in the epistles. It's the central theme of Hebrews. In fact, every major New Testament epistle (and some of the minor ones) at least touches on the dangers of false and half-hearted faith.
- Jesus' words in Matthew 7:21-23 suggest that a large number of people whose faith is spurious are self-deceived. They blithely assume their faith is real and sufficient. By all external measurements, they seem genuine enough. (Which is why the other disciples trusted Judas enough to make him their treasurer, and all the others suspected themselves rather than accusing Judas when Jesus said one of them was about to betray HimMatthew 26:21-22). So there's no reason to think that all (or even most) of the "former" believers who now promote skepticism on the Web are consciously lying when they say they were once devoted believers. (As I have said repeatedly, that wasn't the argument I was making about the discrepancies in Touchstone's story, either.)
- Combine the potential for self-deception (Jeremiah 17:9) with the reality that Scripture expressly warns us that many people will be turned away at the judgment who claim to know Christ, and it is a good reason for each of us to examine himself, to see if we are truly in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5). In fact, every time we come to the Lord's table, we are supposed to take the opportunity to do that (1 Corinthians 11:27-32). We need to take that duty seriously.
- If you find yourself resentful and doubting in the wake of personal tragedy, don't cultivate that kind of emotionally-driven doubt. (And if you do, don't salve your mind by assuring yourself that your doubts are "rational.") I do understand and sympathize with the depth of grief suffered by someone who is suffering personal loss such as the death of one's children or the loss of one's health, or whatever. Job lost everything at once, and his response is the model of true faith: "Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him" (Job 13:15). That didn't keep him from saying (later in that very same verse), "Even so, I will defend my own ways before Him." But if the opening phrase of that verse doesn't describe the quality of your belief in God, your "faith" probably will not survive the inevitable sorrows and hardships of life in this sin-cursed world.
- In the combox under that earlier post, the question was raised about whether apostasy is the unpardonable sin. I want to be clear: I don't think apostasy per se is automatically unpardonable. But I do think there are certain flavors of apostasy from which no one ever recovers. I also think it's clear from the context of Matthew 12 that the sin Jesus described as "unforgivable" was unforgivable not because of any limit on the mercy and grace of God but because of the deliberate nature of the sin. Hebrews 6 and 10 likewise speak of the impossibility of being renewed to repentance after deliberately turning away from Christ with full knowledge and conviction of the truth of His claims. There is no litmus test that I know of to verify infallibly whether it is possible " to renew [this or that person] again to repentance." But in my experience, the longer they persist in unbelief and unrepentance, the more agressive they become as campaigners for skepticism, the more hatred they have for Christ, the more impervious they become to biblical and rational answers to their "questions," and the more like taunts those "questions" begin to sound. I can't recall ever hearing about one of these "de-conversions" being reversed. The hardened skeptic will say a statistic like that is proof that skeptics are truly enlightened. Scripture points to it as proof of how dangerous skepticism is.