Some Observations about Apostasy
One of the most memorable and instructive posts in the history of TeamPyro was an entry titled "Stone-Cold Liar." It's the story of a long-time commenter and gadfly from the early days of this blog who abandoned the faith and then wrote an untruthful account of his "deconversion." The comment-thread under that post was the most memorable part of it. If you have an hour or so to read (or re-read) it, give it a go. Anyway, the excerpt below is part of a follow-up post I wrote to try to sort out some of the issues raised in that comment-thread. This was the closing section of that follow-up post:
(First posted 27 September 2008)
'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 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 never had an opportunity to discuss their doubts or questions with any of them until after they were settled in their unbelief.
- The actual pattern seems to be that the person will 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.
- 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.
I preached on these topics three times [in 2008], before any of this even came up on the blog. The third of three messages in that series is most germane to this discussion and can be downloaded free right here. Or you can get the whole series, free of charge and with no strings attached, here. If you are someone wondering how shaky your faith is, I encourage you to acquire those messages and listen.