Dr. Paul Chamberlain is director of the Institute for Christian Apologetics at Trinity Western University, where he is also professor of apologetics, ethics and leadership. His newest book, Why People Stop Believing, is a response to the growing wave of Christians, including leaders, who are turning from Christianity and, in some cases, becoming some of its most ardent and well-informed critics.
When People Stop Believing
Responding to those who have walked away from faith
Some time ago, a colleague of mine and I were invited to participate in a public debate as the opening act of an atheist convention. They paired us up with two of their members to debate in front of a few hundred atheists, and, in a strange sort of way, I felt honored to be asked.
Once we arrived, it quickly became clear that the vast majority of the conference attendees were not merely atheists, but also former members of a religious group from which they had been “set free.” They were now celebrating their new liberated status as atheists.
The theme of the conference was, “Imagine No Religion.” One of the debaters we engaged was a former Southern Baptist who had been preparing for ministry. The other had been a Catholic altar boy. Scattered throughout the crowd were former Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Muslims and former members of several other different religions and faiths.
In the world of faith and religion, something different is happening in the West. There is a new and passionate kind of skeptic out there—one who, in the past, was a devout member, or even leader of a faith community and worshipped alongside others in it.
Perhaps you’ve met skeptics like this. Their take on Christianity is different from other skeptics. Your conversations with them are not the same. In some cases, they’re more knowledgeable than the Christians to whom they speak, and the way they formulate their objections against Christianity involves different argumentative strategies than the ones they know for which most Christians are prepared.
This wave of people turning away is now recognized by most Christian leaders around the world—so what can we do about it? Is there a way to stem the tide or engage those who leave or prepare our people in such a way that their chances of turning from the faith are lessened?
Meet disillusionment and disappointment with grace and truth
One former pastor—John Loftus, in his book, Why I Became an Atheist—describes a personal setback in his life as a Christian leader, which quickly became ugly and blew up into a public scandal. When he tried to make amends, he found he was treated like damaged goods. Even long-time friends refused to accept his version of the events. This hurt deeply and eventually, over time, started him on a downhill slide that ended with him leaving the church and God altogether.
Whether self-caused or brought on by circumstances beyond us, disillusionment and disappointment will find us all, and when they do, others must be ready to step in and help. As pastors and leaders, we have an opportunity to prepare our people—and ourselves—to respond to others in their lowest times and help stop this downhill slide.
There are at least two ways we can do this in our teaching. First, we should teach and illustrate Jesus’ “no condemnation, no approval” principle. When Jesus addressed the woman caught in adultery in John 8:1-11, He made it clear He did not approve of her action (“Go and leave your life of sin”), but at the same time, He did not condemn her as a person (“Neither do I condemn you”). No condemnation of the person, no approval of the action. This is a dual approach that many of us—preachers and laypeople alike—find difficult to hold together. Our tendency is to emphasize one or the other.1
A young man I know had slipped into a lifestyle that not only violated biblical morality but also caused disruption and pain for those around him. In light of this, a group of Christian friends discussed the matter and decided to confront him—making a point to follow Jesus’ approach in John 8. After asking to meet with him, they told him directly his actions were wrong and unacceptable while, at the same time, showing a caring and non-condemning attitude toward him personally. His response surprised them all.
The resistance they thought might come fell away. Not only did he thank them for their willingness to approach him this way—something he realized would have been hard for them—but he also immediately sought forgiveness from a number of people. He then cleaned up his act and chose a different course of action for the future. As one said later, shaking his head, it was almost too good to be true. Let’s not underestimate the value of using wise approaches in how we communicate hard information to others.
The second way is to frame good take-away questions for people to pose to someone who has walked away from the church and God over this kind of disappointment. A question I find helpful is, “If this is what moved you to leave the faith, exactly which tenet or teaching of Christianity did your experience disprove?” Even if the actions of the Christians around you were second- or third-rate—or if you, yourself, acted in a third-rate manner—does it then follow that Jesus is no longer the Savior? Or that He never rose from the dead? Or that, somehow, God no longer exists?
The point of asking these questions is to move the discussion—and the person—to the real important issue of whether or not Christian truth claims are true. If they are, then their truth is not affected by the actions of others or of oneself, however wrong or inappropriate those actions may have been. A person may then reply that it is simply not that easy to distinguish people from their beliefs—and it’s not—but there is a distinction between people and the truth of their beliefs. As the 19th century pastor and writer George MacDonald put it, “Truth is truth, whether from the lips of Jesus or Balaam.”
Unity in essentials, charity in nonessentials
For those of us given the privilege of teaching and preaching to people, we must always make clear the distinction between the infallible text from which we teach and our own interpretations of that text.
J. I. Packer once told his students that, while he believed in an infallible text, he, in no way, believed in an infallible human interpretation.2 We should encourage those who hear us teach or preach to examine and question our teachings just as the Berean Christians in Acts 17 were commended for doing with the apostle Paul. Christian culture should be a culture of thinking and questioning. When this happened in Berea, it resulted in others coming to faith.
This becomes especially important when discussing secondary, nonessential Christian teachings, where there is legitimate disagreement among Christian and biblical scholars. While it’s completely appropriate to hold settled views on these matters, if we preach our views on these issues with the same level of certainty we give to essential Christian doctrines, we may unwittingly send the wrong message—that being a Christian requires a commitment not only to doctrine but also to our own particular views. By implication, we will have placed them on the same level.
This unintended message can have a devastating effect on thinking and questioning people in our churches who may find evidence for a different point of view. It may force them to decide between setting aside their questions or tragically, to turn from the faith altogether.
The EFCA has always placed special emphasis on the essentials of Christian faith while pointedly not drawing battle lines over secondary points of doctrine where there is disagreement between people holding a high view of Scripture. Fellowship and ministry opportunities in the local church are based on one’s credible profession of faith, which consists of the truth to be believed, the “faith once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3) and the truth lived. People are not excluded from membership because they may not agree with others on every fine point of doctrine. In other words, there is allowance for legitimate differences of understanding in certain areas of doctrine. This is a much-needed emphasis today, and we would do well to make sure it is not lost.
Something I’ve always deeply appreciated about the Christian faith is that it encourages us to think and reason, not to believe ideas that fly in the face of evidence. Christianity stakes its entire message on a historical moment—Jesus’ resurrection—and then invites the world to investigate whether or not it really happened.
Don't overpromise on God's behalf
When another former pastor, Michael Pleban, was asked why he stopped believing in God, he said he “ran out of excuses for Him.”
Pleban’s theological training had stressed that God would protect Christians, answer their prayers, provide them with wisdom and strength, and give them an abundance of everything they need. It was part of what he preached and was something he loved about Christianity. Over time, however, he noticed that more often than not, these promises failed to materialize.
Bad things happened to him as frequently as to his non-Christian friends. He began collecting answers to his prayers, precisely because they were so rare. At first, he made excuses for God, which he referred to as the fine point of his theology, but this could only go on for so long. Eventually, he ran out of excuses, and his belief in God came to an end. This was an unfortunate case of misguided expectations.
We need to guard against overpromising on God’s behalf and committing Him to actions that He may decide not to carry out. When our sermons include promises from God, we run the risk of creating false expectations and even sowing seeds of doubt concerning God’s good character—or even His existence—if He does not see fit to deliver on them.
Godly people still sometimes experience pain and grief. People still sometimes die even when we pray for healing. The 17th century Scottish pastor, Samuel Rutherford, wrote that it’s God’s prerogative to “pluck his roses and gather in his lilies at midsummer...or...in the beginning of the first summer month...The goods are His own.”3 God does not always conform His actions to our wishes, and that’s not a bad thing.
Though God does not always answer our prayers as we’d like, we still have a Savior who understands our suffering because He, Himself, has suffered more acutely than any of us ever will. Those who leave the faith for atheism are choosing a worldview that has virtually nothing to offer the suffering person, but we have a Savior who promises to walk through our suffering with us right to the end.
Be ready with evidence
Many who have left the faith believe an informed 21st century outlook requires a naturalist stance that rules out the possibility of miracles. Given how widespread naturalism is in Western culture this is not surprising, but how can we engage such a person?
Keep it simple. Ask how a naturalist can be sure that naturalism is true. If it is true, then yes, Christianity collapses as it would undermine much of the New Testament record of Jesus’ life, teaching and resurrection. The reality is, though, naturalism has a grave intrinsic weakness, which British theologian and philosopher, Richard Swinburne, explains this way:
"...it is at least logically possible that the way things behave depends on God (or some other supernatural agent) and he can alter this on an isolated occasion, while conserving the normal way things behave on other occasions. . .That allows the logical possibility of a ‘transgression,’ or as I shall call it, a violation of a ‘law of nature’...‘by a particular volition of the Deity’...”
What Swinburne is saying is that so long as God is even logically possible, miracles are also possible. Miracles can be ruled out only if one has an airtight argument for atheism, and even many atheists admit that such an argument is hard to find.
In the end, the naturalist is really in the same position as the rest of us—needing to examine the evidence for any particular report of a miracle. Such events cannot be summarily written off. We should then be ready to present people with evidence for the greatest miracle of all, Jesus’ resurrection, and authors like Gary Habermas and Michael Licona have presented such evidence in their writings.
Our strongest strategy
Whatever else we do, let’s fill our sermons and conversations with encouragements to pray for those who have walked away. They are our former colleagues, brothers and sisters. They are not the enemy, and atheism is not necessarily their final intellectual destination. Many Christian intellectuals in our midst once embraced atheism, but as a result of rigorous intellectual evaluation and the illuminating and empowering work of the Holy Spirit, they left it behind.
This article is a follow-up to Chamberlain’s June 2018 post, “Why People Stop Believing,” which recently won fourth place (“General Article: Medium” category) in the Evangelical Press Association’s annual writing contest.
1 John 7:53-8:11 is not in the earliest manuscripts, and is not likely original, however, it likely contains an accurate early account of Jesus' ministry. 2 This was told to me in 2016 by a student of J. I. Packer. 3 Vol. 31, Letter CCCX, Letters of Samuel Rutherford. Edited by Andrew A. Bonar, 1891.
1 John 7:53-8:11 is not in the earliest manuscripts, and is not likely original, however, it likely contains an accurate early account of Jesus' ministry.
2 This was told to me in 2016 by a student of J. I. Packer.
3 Vol. 31, Letter CCCX, Letters of Samuel Rutherford. Edited by Andrew A. Bonar, 1891.