Thoughts of a former evangelical Christian

My Testimony

lonely child            The testimony of my deconversion is tied to my conversion story.  Both events were planted in the same revelation – a conversation my mother had with me as a young boy.  That conversation is etched deep, painfully deep, in my consciousness.

When I was five years old, Mom took me to my bedroom – just me and her – to tell me about God’s redemption story.

I remember the setting well.  It was a late summer afternoon.  We lived in a little house in Tacoma, Washington.  A melancholy sunlight diffused through the white sheet curtains of the bedroom I shared with my older brother.

Child Evangelism Fellowship teaches children they are so wicked that they deserve to go to hell

From’s Child Evangelism Fellowship’s famous “Flipper Flapper”

There, Mom told me about Hell.  Because God hates sin – that is, disobedience – He prepared a place of eternal fire and torment called Hell.  And when sinful people died, they went to Hell.  It was God’s punishment for sin.

But God sent Jesus to this earth to die and bear that sin for anyone who believed Him and asked Jesus into their heart.  Those who invited Jesus into their heart had the promise of heaven when they died; those who did not awaited Hell.

My older brother had asked Jesus into his heart.  He was bound for heaven.

Mom left me in my bedroom to ponder her words.  Mom wanted my conversion to be genuine, thoughtful and real.

So there I was, alone in my bedroom.  I was terrified of a God who hated disobedience so much that He would condemn people to Hell.  I felt abandoned and alienated.  I pondered this terrible knowledge as the rays of late afternoon sunlight penetrated the white curtain sheets, illuminating the dusty air.  The sunlight that once warmed me felt eery and horrible and cold.  The sun’s rays represented the distant foreboding flickers of a hateful eternal fire waiting to torment the souls of the lost.

I stood there in that room all alone, condemned, diminished and stripped of all human dignity.  God hated me for who I was.  I was to learn, later, that I was made in God’s image and likeness.  But that status counted for nothing.  It was eclipsed by my sin, by the horror of my disobedience.  Without submissive faith and repentant surrender, the fact that I bore God’s image and likeness would not keep me out of Hell.

That knowledge alienated me from my Mom.  I could not help but think, after what Mom told me, that Mom hated me for my disobedience too.  I was her flesh and blood.  I bore my Mom’s image and likeness too.  Yet all of that also counted for nothing, for Mom embraced without reservation or objection the doctrine that I – in my created, original state, in the form that Mom brought me into the world – was worthy of Hell.

I didn’t stay in my bedroom long.  I went out to the kitchen and asked Mom to help me pray Jesus into my heart.  And so I became a Christian.

But the alienation I felt on that eery summer afternoon stayed with me and never left.  I could never forget something like that.  It became the fearful cornerstone of my understanding of God.

That understanding was soon layered with countless stories from the Bible.  Story after story emphasized the virtue of faithful obedience and/or the terrifying consequences of disobedience.  I will never forget the melodious refrains we sang again and again: “Trust and obey, For there is no other way, To be happy in Jesus, But to trust and obey,” and “The B-I-B-L-E, That’s the book for me, I stand alone on the Word of God, The B-I-B-L-E!”

In my early to mid-teenage years, I was indoctrinated with, and drawn to, pre-millennial eschatology and the New Testament’s many passages about persecution and apostacy.  I learned about the threats of communism, secular humanism, the New World Order, globalism, and liberalism.  In my longing to be regarded valuable, worthwhile, and worthy, I dreamt of becoming a fierce defender of the faith.  That dream, vision, and mission — encouraged and validated by those around me — shaped my sense of purpose and meaning for almost 20 years.

Also impressed deeply into my consciousness as a teenager was the evil of the natural self, reckoning one’s natural self crucified and buried with Christ, the conceit of self esteem, and the virtue of complete surrender to Christ.  Life was to be guided by daily Bible devotions and soul-searching prayer.  And so I devoted myself.

But I struggled with Christianity’s exclusive truth claims.  At the age of 15, after several weeks of intense self-directed Bible study, I produced a 15-page apologetic single-spaced, typewritten treatise on why all are without excuse.  My Dad made copies, and I distributed that tome to several of my high school classmates.

By the time I was 20, the apologetic I had produced – with its extremely dualistic view of people – proved unsatisfactory to me.  From time to time, until I was about 33 years old, I periodically wrestled with Christianity’s exclusive truth claims.  I read several deeply unsatisfactory apologetical works and repeatedly struggled – but never to my own satisfaction – to develop a more compassionate and sensitive context for those claims.  Each time, the quest drove me to the brink of despair, the very same despair I felt as a five year old.  The few minutes I was left, as a five year old, to ponder the thought of going to Hell, meant that I would forever identify with, and anguish over, the great mass of humanity heading toward Hell.  Each of my apologetical quests failed because I cared, I grieved, and felt the pain, and all the apologetics only deepened my sense of alienation from God and the masses of unsaved humanity.  After each failed quest, I gave up, buried myself in work or some other intellectual activity, and tried not to think about it for a while.

While I periodically struggled over these issues, I read the Bible every day devotionally.  But that only made the anguish worse.  The harsh dualistic passages of the Bible made me ever more conscious of my sin and my intrinsic worthlessness.  The countless hours I spent reciting, meditating on, and praying over passages about reckoning myself, with its evil desires, dead, crucified, and buried with Christ produced self-loathing, but no victory over my natural self.  Also, the abundant life and overflowing joy that those same passages promised eluded me.

In 2007, and despite the persistent but gentle urging of my wife, I stopped reading the Bible.  Much of it made little sense, and much of what did make sense produced despair.  But we kept going to church, and for the most part I just tried not to think about theological matters.

In December 2008, we adopted our son, Nathan, on the eve of his fifth birthday, from Ukraine.  Very quickly, I bonded with Nathan and felt the deep, primal parental love to which most parents can relate, but which I had never felt or understood before.  My love for Nathan is not dependent on his obedience or behavior, but goes to his very nature.  I love Nathan for who he is, not for what he does, and not for any theological commitments he makes.  Nathan is, from the inside out, beautiful and inestimably precious to me.  His dignity is intrinsic, and I love Nathan much deeper than I could ever love myself.

As I interact with Nathan, and look into his eyes filled with a child’s deep trust, innocence, and secure sense of belonging, and as I respond to Nathan’s deep and fundamental need for love and affirmation, my thoughts often go back to my own childhood.

How could I possibly teach Nathan what the Bible teaches about God, Hell, the great divorce between the saved and the unsaved, and the evil of his intrinsic nature?  It brought me to tears to even consider it.  I trembled at the thought of Nathan loathing his natural self the way I loathed mine, or of Nathan experiencing the same deeply wounding sense of alienation, abandonment, and despair that Christianity’s sacred text produced in me.

I love Nathan.  And now, I am learning how to love and value myself again.

I have come full circle.  The very revelation Mom gave me as a five year old — the one that produced my panicked conversion — planted the seeds of my deconversion.

Now, I write to protest and prosecute the text that enslaved me.  I write in hopes of connecting with others wounded as I was.  My writing helps me to heal from what I was taught.  I write for Nathan.  And I write for the great – and generally perplexed, unsympathetic and non-empathetic – crowd of Evangelicals that still surrounds me.  I challenge them to reflect on what Christianity says about intrinsic dignity, and what, when standing before God’s judgment throne, does it count for?  I challenge them to affirm my intrinsic dignity in spite of my unbelief; for I will continue to affirm their’s in spite of their belief.

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  1. How terrifying for a child to hear that. I also remember a conversation with my parents about hell when I was growing up, at our kitchen table, but they told me that there is no one in hell except maybe Hitler. I must have been considerably older than 5 for the Hitler reference to make any sense, and I suspect I was the one who raised the subject and asked them about it. I think what my parents taught me about hell is pretty typical of Catholics of my generation. (Unfortunately they still heaped on all the guilt about sexuality, and that was pretty bad in its own right, even without being backed up by a threat of eternal torment. As we know from parenting, most kids really don’t want to disappoint their parents–or, by extension, God–even if there is no concrete punishment attached.)

  2. Beautifully written Eric.

    It seems there comes a point, where the dichotomy can no longer be tolerated within oneself. And oh, your sharing of your love for Nathan causes all the warm fuzzies inside. I’m so glad [but I’m sure not as glad as you! 🙂 ] that little Nathan won’t have to tolerate that horror through the white sheers in the bedroom.

    I hope to be able to read more as the opportunity arises.

    To life…
    ~carol

  3. Hi Eric. That was amazing. I too was brought up in a evangelical home my dad being a pastor. I was taught about hell and indoctrinated. I have even considered going back to my faith recently after 20 years mainly because the fear of hell has never left me. I understand what you say about your son Nathan. I have two children 11 and 8 and wouldn’t dream of talking about hell to them. I do think it is a form of child abuse. Whether or not hell is real is not for a child to have to worry about. Thanks for sharing this. Best wishes

  4. Thank’s for sharing your story. So sad that your mom (and probably those around her) hit you upside the head with the story of God that is not in the Bible, but rather out of context pieces.

  5. Thanks for sharing your story.
    I read it on Recovering Fundamentalists & found my way here.

    All the best to you!

  6. I read this on the release and reclaim link, as I’m a member and have just posted my own profile and so I’m reading other group members. Your tale resonates with me. I’ve written down a couple of your comments. One especially about receiting and meditating on passages reckoning yourself, with its evil desires dead etc produced self-loathing but no victory over your natural self. That is yet another reason for my breaking free or trying to: the scripture that claims total victory is the same scripture that makes you feel, not humbelled but self-hating, believe one and you have to therefore believe the other as well, which for some people, like me who have low self esteem, just encourages and reinforces a sense of self condemnation – but as you said that doesn’t then give victory of the natural self, just guilt, misery, despondant feelings, and discouragment. I was at college to-day and we did Mansels higherarchy of basic human needs which begins with shelter, food etc and then moves to the next stage social contact etc. As I read it I realized how feircly oppossed to that the Bibles sense of the human experience is and the Bibles and St.Pauls view of how humans should feel about thereselves is. Don’t you think?

    You’re a good parent and I’ve sometimes felt if god were a human parent he’d have his children taken into care!!! I hope you’re enjoying Nathan who’s lucky to have been adopted by you and I thank you for sharing your story.

    Valerie Levey (from the release and reclaim group).

  7. I hope to hear more from you. My story is your story. I was four years old when my parents had the hell talk with me, though I had heard most of it already in Sunday school. After asking Jesus into my heart at the age of 4yrs. I continued to repeat that prayer several time a day throughout my childhood. I was just never sure I was good enough. I was raised in Olympia WA in the 50’s and 60’s. The “Good News Club” was held in our home after school and as frightening as it was it was really no different than what I sat through in Sunday school every Sunday. I remember the flannel boards and the black heart and wondering what I had ever done to have received a black heart at my birth. I started to ask a lot of questions, but by the time I was 6 my Mother had told me it was a sin for me to question these things. My story out of this mindset was a long and difficult one, I am finally free and have been for many years now, but let me just say, those messages I heard as a child left a mark on me that I don’t believe can ever be fully erased.

  8. I think the question here should be of True conversion. Just because you became upset with the truth, doesn’t make it less truth. God takes NO pleasure in watching people reject Him. He doesn’t send people to hell, They choose to go there. God is a just God and a gracious God and if your feelings were hurt because of the truth that’s an issue with YOU not the gospel.

    • Fred, thank you for your comment; and I’m glad you got that off your chest. You know, God is pleased with your valiant (if somewhat obtuse) defense of his honor. After all, if God’s followers don’t speak up for him, who will? Keep talking and writing, Fred.

    • Thank you Fred for sharing this response. “God is not willing that ANY should perish, but that ALL come to repentance.” He loves us all so very much that John 3:16-17 says, “For God so loved the world that HE GAVE HIS ONLY SON, THAT WHOEVER BELIEVES IN HIM, SHOULD NOT PERISH, BUT HAVE EVERLASTING LIFE.” vs. 17 “FOR GOD DID NOT SEND HIS SON INTO THE WORLD TO CONDEMN THE WORLD, BUT THAT ALL SHOULD BE SAVED.”

      I’m so sorry your experience was so very bad! I received Jesus as my Savior at 16 and
      it was the most amazing thing to ever happen to me! For the first time I felt true love in my life! And at age 53 I can tell you, it is God’s love that gets me through each and every day!
      I love Jesus with ALL my heart!

      That is who God really is! He loves us SO much that HE GAVE! Please realize, He is not judging nor condemning. This comes after death. That is also personal CHOICE. Salvation is free to ALL who come!!

      I am very sorry that your experience was so very scary Eric! Why didn’t you talk to your mom and tell her afraid you were? Any mom who truly loves her child would show you the
      deep love of JESUS! The Gospel of John is full of the DEEP, DEEP LOVE OF JESUS CHRIST! God bless you & prayers for you to see the real love, grace, mercy and truth.
      Again, I’m sorry you were hurt so deeply, but I do pray God’s healing in your heart and life.

      G-GOD’S
      R-RICHES
      A-AT
      C-CHRIST’S
      E-EXPENSE

      BY THE WAY….GOD DOESN’T NEED ANY OF US TO DEFEND HIM.

    • Fred, which of the hundreds of god’s are you referring to? Apollo, Mars, Diana, Athena, Minerva, Dionysus, Thor, Mercury, Poseidon, Neptune, Luna, Zeus, or perhaps Jupiter? ALL of these Roman and Greek Gods were, at one time, believed to be real beings that interacted with humans. They were as real to the ancient Romans and Greeks as your god, apparently Jesús, is to you today. The one thing all these gods have in common is they were made up by people to answer unanswerable questions. The more science discovers the true causes of natural phenomenon, the less people need a god to provide comforting but false answers.

  9. Wow! I’m so sorry to hear that your conversion was so traumatic. Mine was the total opposite. I was told how much God loved me and sent his Son to take my punishment so I could be with Him forever one day in Heaven. No one had to tell me I did bad things even as a child I knew that I would lie or steal, then I would be punished by my parents. No one taught me how to do those things. I was told even though I did those things God loved me even when I was bad and made a way for me to be in heaven with Him, because He loved me. I was also taught that I could not be perfect, but that God would still love me just like my Mom and Dad and I would still be His child. Using Hell to scare children is just wrong. It is God’s love that draws people to Him and produces a genuine faith in Christ.

  10. I heard many things about God growing up, but it was when I was in my early teens that I had an encounter with Gods love for me. It came at a time when I felt shame and self loathing, due perhaps to things I was doing that I knew God wouldn’t be very pleased with. When I encountered Him and His love….I knew deep inside I was of beyond great value to God. I did not feel Him scolding me or angry….but rather restoring me to what He intended me to be when he created me. It’s hard to explain or describe. It impacted me deeply. When I came to really know God and His love…it made me want to love others, serve God and others….I had hated my sister, but God filled my heart with love for her. I was scared of unlovable people, but God gave me a desire to go to the most unlovely….the homeless, the prostitute the drunkard on the street and love them. This all happened when I was 13 and 14. When i was 16, i actually did participate in a group that went weekly to the streets at night to share Gods love with people. i went into bars and night clubs and talked with all kinds of people. i would come home sooooo full, so satisfied, so amazed at Gods love for those that seem so unloveable to most. It’s unexplainable how from one day to the next I caught a glimpse of Gods love for me, my intrinsic value, his love sacrifice on my behalf….and my entire world and way of doing and thinking about things changed.
    I am sad to hear how you were conditioned to focus on something that would bring so much depression….I hope someday you will experience your intrinsic value to God no matter what and experience his love for you….it is life changing.

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