December 1, 2019 | From The Christian Post
Growing up, Essie Horn wasn’t much different than many young girls raised in an evangelical Christian home.
She attended church, sometimes Presbyterian, other times nondenominational, with her family, in addition to receiving her K-12 education at a small Christian school. Her college education took place at a small, private Christian college located in the hills of Tennessee, where she felt her faith “really grew” after she grasped her “own depravity and grace.”
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“I considered myself a Christian my whole life,” she recalled.
But as Essie entered adulthood, something shifted.
“The more I studied the Bible, the more I disliked the character of the Christian God,” she said.
“A deep conflict grew in my heart between Christian morality and what I felt in my heart was good and evil. Similarly, I found a huge disconnect with evangelical Christianity and what’s actually in the Bible. I felt that evangelicals pieced together what they liked from the Bible and left out what they didn’t, and then added a lot of emotion to the mix.”
“That,” she added, “turned me off a lot. I feel that if you believe one part of the Bible, you must believe in it all.”
Today, Essie doesn’t consider herself a Christian.
“I feel happier and more at peace now — I’m not trying to reconcile my gut feelings and the character of God,” she said. “I still believe in God, just not the Christian God. I still respect the Church and I don’t hate Christians. I just can’t love a God that I dislike so much.”
Such accounts, popularly called “deconversion stories,” are not uncommon in the Christian church. Dating back to the Old Testament, church history is freckled with stories of those who abandoned the beliefs they once professed.
In recent months, deconversion stories have made headlines due to the public nature of the individual falling away. Whenever an individual publicly renounced the faith they once professed, there have been a wide range of reactions from the Christian community.
Some rush to condemn the offending party, finding solace in the belief that “they were never a Christian to begin with” (hearing this response, Essie told this reporter, was the “most hurtful part about leaving the Church”).
Others respond with fear, grief and even outrage, feeling betrayed by the individuals they once emulated.
But theologian Os Guinness argued that apostasy shouldn’t surprise us, as the New Testament tells us that it does — and will — happen. When asked about the signs of the end of the age in Matthew 24:12, for example, Jesus, speaks of an increase in wickedness that will cause “the love of many [to] grow cold.”
“Scripture tells us we can expect a lot of people to drop out,” he told The Christian Post. “Let’s not use the fancy word ‘deconversion;’ they’re just basically dropping out. It happened in the Old Testament, it happened in the New Testament. They are what the Soviets would call defectors.
“In many cases, their understanding of the Gospel was incredibly weak. You find that they didn’t have a solid grasp of the Gospel. So when the testing came, it fell through. And that’s tragic.”
What is the correct response to those who have deconverted? Moving forward, what can churches learn from those who have left Christianity?
Importance of apologetics
The Case for Christ author Lee Strobel, a former atheist, told CP that the recent spate of deconversion stories highlights the need for apologetics — a discipline that deals with a rational defense of Christian faith — within the Church.
“A lot of people have a faith based on emotion,” he said. “They have an encounter with God that changes them, and it’s probably an authentic encounter with the living God. But when questions come up, when doubts arise, as they do in everybody’s lives, if they’re not equipped to deal with that, it can kick the legs out from under their faith.”
Churches must develop a strong apologetics program to help people understand their faith is based on a solid foundation and historical truth, according to Strobel.
“We need to teach people how to pursue answers when doubts come in,” he said. “When the euphoria of their conversion dissipates over time, they need to understand that there’s more to our faith.”
Still, Strobel clarified Christians should not ignore or suppress emotions, warning “it’s possible to go too far in the other direction.”
“The same danger is on the other end where we have too much of an intellectual faith,” he noted. “Faith is not just a bunch of facts but there is a personal relationship with God that’s involved. I think we have to understand our faith is based on reality and a solid foundation of truth but also involves a personal relationship with God. It’s experiential knowledge; it’s not just abstract knowledge. We can know God personally and that depends on our faith.”
Apologetics, Strobel contended, gives Christians the power to fight the forces of darkness. He pointed out that John 10:10 clearly states the devil comes to “steal and kill and destroy.”
“C.S. Lewis said we make two mistakes about demons and Satan: we see the devil behind every bush, but we pretend like he’s not there. The truth is, there is a personification of evil and he does have certain capabilities and powers and we need to be aware of that. When we have a faith that’s undergirded by facts, it gives us the confidence to weather these attacks and come out stronger.”
“We all benefit when we understand why we believe what we believe,” he stressed. “That’s an essential component of our faith that’s been missing in a lot of church teachings. Churches must develop an apologetics ministry that can strengthen the faith of its people.”
No simple solution
There is no singular, easily identifiable reason individuals deconvert. There are no simple, reductionist solutions to ending the “apostasy epidemic.” Scripture states that until the New Heavens and the New Earth are established, deconversion stories will continue to emerge throughout church history.
Carson told CP that people “often want to have one solution to all the hard cases; ‘if only they had had a proper theological education, this wouldn’t have happened; if only this or that had happened, they wouldn’t have left the faith.”
He shared the story of a former student — a “brilliant, hardworking man” — who was working on his Ph.D. in the New Testament when he was caught in adultery. After resigning from the ministry, he began a blog where his “opinions clearly began moving left.”
“On pride week, he basically said, ‘I’ve had more theological education than 99.9% of the population in this country. So let me tell you flat out, you can’t be sure what the Bible says,’” Carson shared.
“He was basically giving a postmodern hermeneutic. He’s had some good theological training, but when you slip away far enough, you can always use your clever mind to make hermeneutical excuses to justify anything.”
Carson issued a word of caution to those tempted to judge those who have apostatized and called for discernment, offering the reminder that “just as it’s possible to stereotype those who have fallen away as losers, so it’s possible to stereotype those who are saying that they’re losers.”
“They don’t have labels on their foreheads,” Carson said. “So it might be that they need listening to and praying over, praying with, and so on. They might come back. I could tell you some remarkable stories of people who wandered away and what we would call backsliding, who nevertheless returned to the Lord a couple of decades later. So you want to allow that as a possibility and not, in any case, be supercilious or condescending.”
“It’s all ‘good guys and bad guys’ without discernment and recognition that the Bible pictures falling away and inconsistency in many, many different categories,” the theologian added. “Repentance is possible, as well as a renewed commitment to the covenant. It doesn’t have to turn out in a bad way.”
The proper response to deconversion stories, according to Carson, is humility and prayer, acknowledging that “but for the grace of God, go I.”
“At the end of the day, apart from the grace of God,” he said, “we’re all dead.”
(Excerpt from The Christian Post. Article by Leah MarieAnn Klett.)