Hugh Ross once said that after he offered very convincing cosmological evidence in support of God, some atheists in his audience said that while they found his evidence compelling, they weren’t ready to believe. Something or someone was holding them back. Sometimes the reason people do not become Christians has nothing to do with whether we provide compelling evidence. Instead, it’s based on the emotional state or personal preferences of the evaluator of our religion and/or his or her experiences with Christians or the Church. Sometimes Christians can be judgmental, smug, hypocritical, and pushy. These traits turn people away. Period.
Other reasons may also lead people away. Romans 1 makes it clear that sometimes people aren’t ready because they prefer to live out their lives in sin. They prefer not to “bear their own crosses.” They don’t want to be held accountable to a higher power and authority.
Consider Peter Hitchens, who’s the brother of the late famous atheist Christopher Hitchens. Both became atheists in their early teens. When Peter became an atheist, he believed the following, as quoted in his book, “The Rage Against God.”
“I smugly congratulated myself on being able to be virtuous without hope of reward or fear of punishment. I know now that proper virtue is easier to lose, and harder to find, than I thought it was then. I rather think I imagined this was a tremendously original thing to do and a shrewd blow at the dull believers who needed to be scared or bribed into goodness. This is one of the principal joys of the newly fledged atheist, and a continuing joy for many rather experienced non-believers…But my excitement was undimmed. There were no more external, absolute rules. The supposed foundation of every ordinance, regulation, law, and maxim – from “don’t talk after lights-out” and “give way to pedestrians on the crosswalk,” to “Thou shalt not commit adultery, “Thou shalt do no murder,” “Honor thy father and they mother,” and “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of my brethren, yet have done it to me” – was a fake….I did not have to do anything that I did not want to do, ever again. I would therefore be “happy” because I was freed from those things whereof my conscience was afraid…That is pretty much as far as my personal confessions will go.”
“My sins are unoriginal. The full details would be tedious for most people, unwelcome to my family (who have enough to put up with anyway), and upsetting for those directly affected by my worst behavior. Let us just say that they include some political brawling with the police, some unhinged dabbling with illegal drugs (less damaging than I deserved), an arrest – richly merited by my past behavior but actually wrongful – for being in possession of an offensive weapon – very nearly killing someone else (and incidentally myself) through criminal irresponsibility while riding a motorcycle, and numberless acts of minor or major betrayal, ingratitude, disloyalty, dishonor, failure to keep promises and meet obligations, oath-breaking, cowardice, spite, or pure selfishness” (Hitchens, 2010, p. 19-21).
Peter eventually converted back to Christianity and now speaks out in support of Christian values and causes. His experience is not unique. God hardens the hearts of people who choose to deny Him so that they can do as they please. Sometimes they come to realize a life devoid of God lacks a higher purpose and meaning. Sometimes they return to the Christian faith.
But why leave the Christian faith?
But why did they leave in the first place? Studies have distinguished two types of religiosity: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic religiosity is a shallow belief system, focusing on the benefits one gets from the community of church-goers and church offerings. Intrinsic religiosity is deeper, focusing on a tight-knit bond with God. Compare this difference with a famous statement by President John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Replace the words “your country” with Jesus.
A person who has high levels of intrinsic religiosity is unlikely to abandon God when faced with very difficult circumstances. Job from the Bible is an example of a believer with high levels of intrinsic religiosity. Despite the fact that God took everything from him, Job remained a staunch believer. He never gave up his faith in God.
People who have low levels of intrinsic religiosity and high levels of extrinsic religiosity are like the “sunny day” sports fans. They’re only at the games in which the team is winning. Losses drive them away.
The mother and the son
An atheist (Courtney Heard) who calls herself “Godless Mom” wrote a blog where she detailed the story of one of her neighbors, a former Seventh-day Adventist. Her neighbor’s son announced one day that he is gay, so his mom began to pray for him and to search for answers in her church. People at her church told her that being gay is a “choice,” excluding the possibility of other factors impacting her son’s decision to come out. They also endorsed “conversion therapy.”
She read a few scientific studies on homosexuality and discovered that other factors may contribute to being gay. Parents’ hormones may play a role, so some may be more likely to be gay based on epi-genetics or genetics. After making this discovery, she questioned her church and her beliefs. Two years later, Courtney Heard’s neighbor decided to abandon her church, become an atheist, and march with her son in a Gay Pride festival.
To me, this is a non sequitur, yet it’s all too familiar. Too often, people “throw the baby out with the bathwater” by giving up on God thanks to the actions or beliefs of one or more humans. Using a person’s or group’s interpretations of one part of Scripture to justify abandoning the holy source of Scripture equates to using a county judge’s opinion on a court case to abandon the legal system. It makes zero sense.
I suspect people who so easily turn away from the Christian faith had only shallow and extrinsic faith systems in the first place. We should pray for our brothers and sisters that they may grow stronger in their faith before being snared away.
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore, put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” – Ephesians 6:10-18.
God calls on us to be heroes, not heathens. He wants us to overcome, not succumb. He wants us to persevere and to strive to be more like our pioneer and perfecter of faith, Jesus Christ.
Nabeel Qureshi’s dream
This calls to mind a dream that I heard a former Muslim called Nabeel Qureshi recount in a YouTube video from David Wood’s Acts 17 Apologetics ministry. Nabeel had been raised a devout Muslim in an American home. His family had a long tradition of Muslim apologetics and he had been trained to respond to any Christian challenges. Then he met David Wood, a Christian apologist and former college roommate who challenged him back.
Nabeel started questioning his faith after digging into it, so he called on God to give him answers. God provided dreams and visions, yet Nabeel was still hesitant. He knew if he renounced his Muslim beliefs, he would lose his family and he loved his family immensely.
Then he had the following dream. He found himself at a very narrow doorway. Inside the doorway, he could see his friend David Wood sitting next to a table at a banquet. The owner of the banquet had not yet come to the table and Nabeel felt the urge to go in – but he couldn’t enter. When he asked David about joining him, David responded, “You haven’t yet answered.” Nabeel hadn’t yet accepted Jesus.
When Nabeel woke up, he asked his friend David Wood for his opinion on his dream. David pointed Nabeel to the following passage from the New Testament, which Nabeel had never read.
“Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?”
He said to them, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’
“But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’” – Luke 13:22-25.
Make every effort to enter the narrow door by following the calling God has given you and persevering in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We only have one chance in this world to fulfill our mission. Let’s let our light so shine!
Hitchens, P. (2010). The Rage Against God. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.