I fell in love with Jesus when I was 12 years old. On the back wall of the baptistery of the Chemung Baptist Church, there was a life-size picture of Jesus as a shepherd, a crook in one hand, cradling a soft, little lamb in the other. As I looked at the face of Jesus, I felt that his eyes were gazing right into my soul — kind eyes, eyes of love. I can recall the picture of Jesus like it was yesterday.
When I turned 12, my father decided that I needed religion so I was sent off to Vacation Bible School in the summer of ’72. I was enraptured by the story of how he came to earth as a baby born of a virgin, did miracles to prove that he was God, died for my sins so that I could be forgiven, and rose again to make a way so that I could go to live with him in heaven forevermore. The VBS teacher said that all I needed to do in order to go to heaven someday was to tell Jesus that I was a sinner, that I was sorry for my sins, and ask him to come into my heart to live. Of course, being in a Baptist church I was also warned about the consequences if I refused to believe in Jesus, namely, going to hell. But it was the love of Jesus that drew me and I responded to that love by becoming a Christian. Nevertheless, I think it is important to note that Christianity does its best to try to get a hold of children before they have developed critical thinking skills. If it can do this, then it puts them in its "Matrix" before they even know what truth and reality is. For a child or young person, truth most often comes, not from the consideration and study of evidence, but from an authority figure, often a parent or a priest. "Because I said so," was often my father's reply as to why I should do a thing. And "because the Bible says so" is the Christian mantra (although it needs to be pointed out that Christians are very much cherry-pickers when it comes to the parts of the Bible they believe or act on). I accepted this "blue pill" because it was handed to me by people I trusted and it promised me a blissful afterlife.
Things at home were rather rocky. As far back as I can remember, my parents were always fighting with one another over something and I can remember thinking that they were the ones who really needed to go to church. Growing up in the farming countryside of upstate New York, I spent a lot of time exploring the woods and nature around me. There were plenty of times that I took my Bible with me up into my tree-house and just spent time reading the scriptures, learning everything I could about God and Jesus and their plan for my life. As I read about God being a deliverer, a protector, a rock, and about Jesus being a savior, I prayed that God would also deliver me from the child abuse that I sometimes experienced and that he would heal my parent’s marriage. But despite my prayers, things continued to get worse. I began to struggle with the efficacy of prayer. Despite all the promises in the Bible that God hears and answers our prayers, my prayers for the wholeness of my family were not answered. I'm not talking about God forcefully violating what is called human "free will", but if God is omniscient, then he would certainly know exactly how to reach everyone of us, what would "throw our switch", so-to-speak.
In ’75, my parents divorced. I suppose that this could be seen as one way that God answered my prayers, but it still hurt nonetheless. My mother started attending a Pentecostal church and “found Jesus.” We were both “on fire” for Jesus. I took my Bible to school with me throughout my high school years and witnessed to anyone I felt God was leading me to.
After high school, I went to a Bible college and then came back home and married a Christian girl I met in high school. We both came from rocky home backgrounds but felt like we could make it because we were, after all, Christians with God on our side. So we married and I decided to go into the Army to get electronics training in order to provide for my family. Despite the fact that we were both Christians, our marriage was a struggle. We both came from broken homes where problems had been dealt with, not by the hard work of communication and compromise, but with holding grudges and getting divorces. So neither of us was really equipped to work out our problems and all the going to church and praying that we did just didn’t seem to help. After five years of marriage, we divorced – the unforgivable sin in modern Christianity (despite the fact that over 50% of Southern Baptists have been divorced and remarried). Due to the fact that I was still in the service, she got custody of our two children. I was decimated. After all, despite many things in my past and in my life that may have been stacked against me, didn’t God have “a wonderful plan” for me? Didn’t Jesus come to give me an abundant life? I was disillusioned – with myself, my life, and my religion. So I stopped going to church as I tried to recover from the shambles that my life was in.
Probably the most important thing that I learned from this period of my life is that guilt is the main tool used by Christians to keep people within the Christian Matrix. That and threats of hell. Couple guilt and hell together, and people will stay within this paradigm for life. Christianity told me I was guilty because of what Adam and Eve did, guilty for sins I committed, guilty for the sins of not doing what I should have done, and guilty for killing Jesus. I was told that I was to blame for the problems in my life. This is one of the problems that can drive someone in Christianity nuts – it is never really God’s fault if something goes wrong. If things go right, God is thanked and given full credit, but failure is always attributed to personal sin or to original sin or to the devil or to a sinful world. Disappointments and hurts in life are never blamed on the God that is said to be “in control” and who is running this universe according to his divine plan. God always seems to be blameless where human suffering is concerned. I didn’t dare think this way back then; I just felt that the failure was mainly on my part because I was, after all, a sinful human being. Church reinforced that notion to me every Sunday.
I eventually found some healing through an older Christian who counseled me. He assured me that God could and would forgive my sin and restore me if I sincerely repented. This, of course, is the “formula” for staying in fellowship with God in Christianity: a constant cycle of sin, repentance, and restoration. This is how Christians “keep their slate clean” before God. They intuitively know that they can’t stop sinning, so the best they can do is to try to stay forgiven. Ironically, their relationship with God doesn’t really stop the sinning, it only forgives it afterward. But I did find some healing through this Christian’s counseling. His beliefs in God’s ability to restore were tested when I began to show an interest in his daughter. I knew she was special from the moment I met her and she was very accepting of me and even of my two children. We began dating and married almost a year later.
My wife and I became very involved in our local churches, both Southern Baptist and then Bible Churches. But I slowly began to grow a little agitated with the kind of Christianity that I was involved with. Maybe because of my past, coming from a poor, broken family, going through brokenness myself, I felt like Christians ought to be doing more to help the poor and broken instead of just sitting in pews singing, “I’ll Fly Away.” I began to wonder, “Why is Christianity so focused on leaving this world instead of on changing it for the better?” I wondered why Christians weren’t doing more to follow Jesus’ teachings about helping the poor, setting captives free, healing the sick and broken, and living out the Sermon on the Mount. I felt that Christianity was almost entirely focused on only “personal” issues – personal sins, personal forgiveness, leaving this world for a personal heaven where we would get personally rewarded. After all, didn’t “the Lord’s Prayer” mention God’s will be done on earth? Because the Christianity I knew was so eager to leave earth, it wasn’t concerned whether the earth was destroyed through war or misuse. For every song we sang that emphasized “This is My Father’s World”, we sang nine others that emphasized “This World Is Not My Home, I’m Just A’Passin’ Through.” And I found that most of the songs and sermons I heard were not about what God could do through us here for the sake of others but only about what Jesus has done for us personally in order to take us to heaven later. I began to see that despite claims to the contrary, Christianity is a very self-centered religion, that it is all about what God or Jesus does for us with very little about what we could do for others.
The “coupe de grace” came for me in this form of Christianity when one day during church service, my wife and I were called out of the service to come tend our 4-year-old son who was in Children’s Church. When we got there, he was in the hall, crying hysterically. Between sobs, he repeated, “Daddy, why would Jesus burn me? Why?” I assured him that Jesus loved him and would never burn him but he was simply too scared to really listen to what I was saying. My wife took him out to the car and I went into the Children’s Church room to see what had happened. The teacher had shown the kids an artist’s rendition of a man engulfed in flames, his arms raised to heaven, his face contorted with agony, crying out to heaven with a plea for mercy that would never be heard. She told the kids that this is what would happen to them if they did not accept Jesus as their personal savior. I reminded her that Jesus never once threatened children with hell but she insisted that she did not want God holding the blood of these children on her hands.
I was struggling myself at this time with the question of how a good and loving God could sentence people that he supposedly loves to eternal torment for finite sin, a question that no Christian that I have ever met has given me a convincing answer to. But I knew for sure that it was inappropriate to foist this doctrine upon young children and asked one of the church elders if a teacher should be allowed to expose children to this “side” of the “good news.” His response was that truth should be taught to all and that, no surprise here, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” It’s probably also the seed of many a psychotic break. We left that church shortly after that.
I was also struggling with Paul’s writings during this time. Paul wanted women to be quiet in church, to never have any authority over men, to never teach men anything. Paul supports slavery in his writings. Paul thinks that government officials rule by “divine right.” And Paul puts forth this offensive doctrine that everyone is born into this world as an evil human being, deserving, not God’s love, but his wrath and destruction in hell. According to Paul, even babies are “born sinners” and will go to hell if they have not believed Paul’s gospel about believing in Jesus’ death and resurrection. This is the “good news” to the world?
I discovered in my youth that being a Christian was no guarantee that life would go well. The Bible itself is contradictory on this subject. Sometimes it says that the faithful will be blessed, sometimes it says that the wicked will prosper. But the evangelical call to faith certainly entails a promise of a redeemed, wonderful life. No evangelist says, "Come to Jesus and see how messed up your life will become." The truth of the matter is that life is simply messy, Christian or not. We and our world are complicated and despite Christianity's claims, there are no magic bullets.
I also think it is important to note how contradictory the Bible is about the nature of God and of what he supposedly desires for mankind. Now, I'm no longer in the Christian Matrix so I no longer believe in God, but it is interesting how the scriptures have a verse or a concept for saying almost anything about God that we might want to believe. Christians are very much cherry-pickers about which verses of the Bible and which concepts of God they hold to. So the crisis in my faith really began, not because I wasn't reading my Bible and praying, but because I was. The more I read my Bible, the more I saw how contradictory and nonsensical it was. And the more I prayed, the more I felt I was hitting a glass ceiling. Christians are really good at counting the hits and ignoring the misses. I began seeing the ugly side of Christianity - the constant guilt, the fear of good works, the desire to escape the world, the constant harping on hell, and the adherence to ancient superstitions - and it was too much to ignore.
Overall, I think most of my problems were simply what was going on in my own heart and mind. The more I studied the Bible, the more contradictions I found there and the more I saw things in the scriptures that I felt were immoral or unethical. Things like God killing women and children in the flood. Things like God commanding the Israelites to kill their enemies, including women and children. Things like God testing people (remember Job) when he is supposedly omniscient. Things like God wanting his people to show their devotion to him by mutilating their sexual organs. Things like the notion that blood can somehow remove sin. Things like God sending evil spirits. Things like God hardening Pharaoh’s heart and then destroying him for having a hard heart. Things like God commanding genocide. I couldn’t help but wonder, this is the God that so loved the world?
Some would argue that this is the God of the Old Testament and that Jesus came to show us a different view of God, a “New Testament” God, a kinder, gentler God. But the God that Jesus describes, while maybe not calling for God’s people to kill their enemies, steps things up by warning people of everlasting torment. In the OT, if you sinned against God, you were just killed for your sin. In the NT, if you sin against God or Jesus, you suffer unending torture.
And, to top it all off, I’ve never been comfortable with all of Jesus’ teachings either. After all, according to the gospels:
He said that he didn't come to bring peace to the earth, but to bring a sword.
He said we should to hate our families.
He said that we shouldn’t marry or have children.
He never denounced slavery; instead he advocated that some slaves should be beaten harder than others.
He supported physical mutilation – cutting off your hand/ foot and gouging out your eye.
He said that the poor would always be with us.
He said that marrying divorced women is forbidden.
He forbade planning for the future.
He forbade having sexual urges.
He forbade stopping thieves or physical attackers.
Image by Jonathan L D Bennett via Flickr
It began to dawn on me that despite Christianity’s claims, the Bible is not a perfect book and Jesus was not a perfect person. The Bible is simply a record of what ancient peoples thought about God, the world, and their place and purpose within it. And Jesus was just as human as all the rest of us. Christianity wasn’t even the religion that Jesus practiced. It’s the religion centered on worshipping him. But I have to wonder, has this religion, taken as a whole, brought more harm or good to this world? Are Christians necessarily better people than anyone else? I think not. It was Christians who burnt women as witches (with biblical sanction). It was Christians who burnt scholars for translating the Bible into English. It was Christians who stood against women’s rights (with biblical sanction). It was Christians who stood against the abolition of slavery in this country (with biblical sanction) and who donned the robes of the KKK. It was Christians who stood against the civil rights movement of the ‘60s. It was Christians who wanted us to go to war with Iraq and destroy that country in retribution for 9-11. And for any Christian to deny these things proves that they either don’t know their history or they simply chose to ignore it.The Christianity I have known is, for the most part, a personal religion about how to get one’s personal sins forgiven so that one can gain personal rewards in a personal heaven in the future. It doesn’t seem to be much about how to compassionately change our world for the better for the sake of others here and now and for humanity’s future. Truth be told, if heaven is simply standing or kneeling before God's throne for all eternity, repeatedly telling God how great he is, that just doesn't sound like much of a "purpose-driven afterlife" to me. People that constantly need to be told how great they are have some serious self-worth and self-image problems, no matter how divine they might claim to be.
So I have little use for Christianity. I don’t believe it makes our world or human beings better. People are people, Christian or not. It’s not that we are all sinners; it’s that we aren’t yet mature human beings. I want to be a better person, to be a more mature, well-rounded individual. I don't think that the way forward is into an ancient, superstitious religion. Instead, I face the hard work of rebuilding my life based upon what I - not the Bible, not Jesus, not the church - think is worthy of my time and labor. That notion is very freeing to me. I've left Christianity. After 32 years in the religion, I grew tired of the nonsense, of the constant guilt, of the pressure to conform, of the lack of convincing evidence, and of the notion that Iron Age religion and worldviews are "timeless truths" that should never be challenged by science, logic, or progressive morality. I don't want to waste whatever life I have left in a religion that, all things considered, doesn't make it's followers or the world a better place. People (and all life) are precious. So is our world. We don’t yet know if we are the only intelligent life in the universe. This shouldn’t make us proud, it should make us wonder that we are here to explore, enjoy, and value existence. And that is what I want to do.