Christian media has been ablaze with stories and discussion about two prominent figures within Christian culture who have either expressed severe doubts about Christianity (in the case of Marty Sampson) or have apostatized (Joshua Harris). In fact, it seems like this has been talked to death a bit and I am late to the news cycle. Marty Sampson is a songwriter for Hillsong and Joshua Harris is a pastor who was famous for his book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which attempted to forge a model for Christian mate-seeking, called “courtship.” Harris described his own “falling away” from Christianity in an Instagram post and, from what I can see, he does not give any specific reason for his rejection of the faith.
Marty Sampson says that he has not apostatized but merely that his faith is on very shaky ground. Unlike Harris, Marty gives intellectual reasons for his doubts. “How many preachers fall? Many. No one talks about it. How many miracles happen. Not many. No one talks about it. Why is the Bible full of contradictions? No one talks about it. How can God be love yet send four billion people to a place, all ‘coz they don’t believe? No one talks about it. Christians can be the most judgmental people on the planet – they can also be some of the most beautiful and loving people. But it’s not for me. I am not in any more. I want genuine truth. Not the “I just believe it” kind of truth. Science keeps piercing the truth of every religion. Lots of things help people change their lives, not just one version of God.” There’s more to the post and you can read the full post here. I don’t want to focus on the objections themselves but on what might be lying behind them. In both the cases of Sampson and Harris, they are describing their own state of mind, not making a case for unbelief, which makes their comments difficult to respond to.
Michael Brown has criticized Sampson for saying that “no one talks” about these questions. It may be true that no one in his circle of Christian acquaintances talks about them, but it is certainly untrue that nobody in the Christian world is talking about these questions. It is especially the case in the wake of the New Atheism that good quality apologetic material which answers the type of objections he talks about are quite easy to find (if you look). Sampson says “I am genuinely losing my faith and it doesn’t bother me.” The most troubling bit here is that it doesn’t bother him that he’s losing his faith. If it doesn’t bother him that he’s losing his faith, he’s not going to think carefully through any objections levelled at Christianity, and he’s not going to look for a way to resolve his own doubts. That is why both Harris and Sampson’s posts are difficult to respond to, because the spiritual nature or origin of their doubts is showing. What is that spiritual nature? What is the heart of unbelief? I want to add a small disclaimer before we start. I’m not saying that the theological reason for unbelief that follows is necessarily what applies in the case of Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson, but their doubts about Christianity and the the way their stories have become viral provides a great springboard for a look into the theological foundation of unbelief and apostasy.
The Heart of Unbelief
But you were unwilling to go up; you rebelled against the command of the Lord your God. You grumbled in your tents and said, “The Lord hates us; so he brought us out of Egypt to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us.” Deuteronomy 1:27 -28
“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Genesis 3:4-5
Do you believe that God is good? More than this, do you believe that God is good to you in particular, not just in some general or abstract way? Do you believe that God wants the best for you? Do you believe, in your heart of hearts, that God has forgiven you all your wrongs and only wants to do good to you? Do you believe that God is a good Father?
We shouldn’t assume that there is just one reason that people apostatize or reject God. But I think a very important reason, and perhaps the primary reason, is a failure to trust that God is good. When the serpent tempts Eve in the Garden of Eden, he puts a question mark on two things: God’s word and God’s character. Satan’s temptation of Eve can be broken down into two separate temptations: one based on God’s word and one based on God’s character. The first temptation questions that God really said what Eve thinks he said. But that temptation doesn’t really work, because Eve disagrees with the serpent and says what God really said ( although modified slightly). But then the serpent responds by questioning God’s character and appealing to her pride. He says, “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God.” (emphasis added) What is that supposed to mean: that God knows? It is just a suggestion of foul play and that is all that’s required to plant the seed of sin and rebellion. The suggestion is that God is dishonest, that he is spitefully keeping something good from you in order to protect himself. What he said is really a charade and that there is a sordid truth behind all his grandiose commandments. God is keeping you down. He doesn’t care about you. His commandments are a stricture and they are keeping you from all sorts of wonderful things. There are many versions of this primal Satanic lie, and many people believe it, and believe it strongly.
The seedbed for rebellion is believing lies about God’s character. Original sin resulted from failing to believe that God is good. In the case of the Israelites, their grumbling and rebellion also results from failing to trust that God is good. In fact, it astounding how explicit this is made by Moses in describing their rebellion (from Deuteronomy 1): “You grumbled in your tents and said, “The Lord hates us; so he brought us out of Egypt to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us.” (emphasis added). The Israelites didn’t believe that God is good and they didn’t believe that God is good to them in particular. And the irony is that their belief in God’s malevolence is so that they interpret God’s great blessing to them (liberating them from Egypt) as a punishment and a curse. Think about having such a warped view of the world that you experience God’s blessings as punishments, and his love as hatred.
There is a quote by the well-known philosopher Thomas Nagel where he describes a reason for his atheism. With commendable honesty, Nagel says : “I want atheism to be true…It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, I hope that I am right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” This clearly not just true of Nagel. It is probably true of most people’s belief about ultimate reality. On the whole, people who want to be atheists are atheists. People who want to be Christians are Christians. But why would you want atheism to be true? Why would you not want a good God to exist. I think that many atheists do not believe that God, if he existed, would be good. This may be the most fundamental reason for why they refuse to believe.
Cling to the Cross
“Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us.” 1 John 3:16
When I read Joshua Harris’s Instagram post, something he wrote caught my eye. He says,“Martin Luther said that the entire life of believers should be repentance. There’s beauty in that sentiment regardless of your view of God. I have lived in repentance for the past several years—repenting of my self-righteousness , my fear-based approach to life, the teaching of my books, my views of women in the church , and my approach to parenting to name a few…”
This made me think somewhat. Living in repentance is good of course, depending on what you mean by repentance. There is a difference between living in guilt and living in repentance. Repentance is asking God for forgiveness, determining not to do that wrong again, and then trusting that you’ve been forgiven. If you are constantly beating up on yourself after confessing and determining to do better, then you are not living in repentance, but living in guilt. And if you are constantly beating up yourself for things you did at 21, then you don’t believe you’ve been forgiven, or you believe that God’s forgiveness isn’t what matters, or that God’s forgiveness is contingent on the forgiveness of the people you’ve wronged. If you don’t believe that God has forgiven you, that your life is not defined by what you did in your past, then you don’t believe that God loves you and wants the best for you. If you don’t believe that God loves you and wants the best for you, then it is only a matter of time before your faith fails.
It is speculative that this is what is going on in Joshua Harris’s heart, but the point holds true. The mercy of God must be your strong tower. You must cling to that mercy, because it is your lifeline, the salvation of your soul. Believing that God forgives you is not a nice extra. It isn’t optional. It is absolutely essential. To fail to believe that God has forgiven your sin through the blood of Jesus Christ, and continues to forgive your sin, is to fail to believe the gospel. You don’t really believe Christianity unless you believe that you have been forgiven all the wrong you’ve done, no matter what you’ve done, no matter how forgiven you feel, or how many people still condemn you and how strongly they condemn you. God’s forgiveness is not contingent on what people think. It is not contingent on what your church or pastor thinks of you. It is not contingent on what the powers and the experts of this world think of you. There is no sin, no evil thoughts and desires, no matter how strong that are stronger than the blood of Jesus and the mercy of God. There is nothing that can separate you from the love of God.
In the secular world, guilt is often treated almost entirely as a pathology. In the religious world, the opposite is true in that guilt can be indulged too much. Both of these approaches are wrong. Guilt is good for revealing wrongdoing. But not all guilt means you’ve actually done something wrong. You must first determine if you have done something wrong by judging your actions against God’s word. If you haven’t done anything wrong, you must reject the feeling. If you have, you confess the sin, repent of it and then trust that you’ve been forgiven. But you will often continue to feel guilty. You must then reject those feelings of guilt. If you continue to indulge the feelings of guilt after you have repented, you are just engaging in a form of psychological self-flagellation. You are trying to pay for your sins. You are trying to do what Jesus has already done for you. It may seem very righteous and selfless and humble of you to cause yourself this pain for what you’ve done, but it is not. It is a reassertion of self-righteousness. It is another way the self attempts to justify itself apart from God and is therefore a rebellion against God. It is a refusal to accept the gospel. There will be many voices telling you that this is what you should do; that you should try to pay for your sins; that you should exist in state of prostration and grovelling for what you’ve done. Those are voices of unforgiveness and they do not come from God.
Is God punishing you?
One way in which faith in God’s goodness can be undermined in our Christian lives is through the idea that God is punishing you with some particular event of suffering. It is true that, for the Christian, any particular event of suffering may be God’s discipline, but we can never really know that it is. But the notion of God punishing you is not the important bit. There will be all sorts of other tacit assumptions and nuances thrown in and you don’t even realize you’ve assented to them and believed the lie. You may believe that God is punishing you, but you understand “punish” as “ill will” or “malice”. Your understanding of punish is entirely human and so you project how human beings, perhaps your parents and teachers, have punished you onto God. But to do that is to believe the lie, because if God is disciplining you, that truly is the best thing for you. Your trust in God’s goodness must be absolute. You must truly believe that he is a good Father, the perfect Father, and that there is no one who has your best interests at heart as much as he does, even in the face of great suffering. That means that if God decides to punish you, that truly is the best thing that could have happened. The Satanic lie in the midst of suffering is that God wants to punish you, that he takes some sort of satisfaction in your pain, that he gets carried away on a power trip or moral crusade, has forgotten about you, or the like. It is always important to examine your beliefs about God’s attitude toward you beyond the surface and to reaffirm you trust in God’s goodness and mercy.
Whenever the Devil attacks your beliefs about the character of God, there will always be the tacit assumption that there is something better than God. This will be a thought or just a suggestion that implies or presupposes some standard beyond God that you can appeal to against God. This is the idea that God himself has failed to be good in some respect and that you can recognize that. As soon as you believe the Satanic lie, that there is some fault in God, you have by definition ceased believing in God, even if you still believe that he exists. You have elevated your own concept of right and wrong above the authority of God and committed what seems to be the primordial sin. There’s an interesting line in C.S. Lewis’s description of his conversion. He says that he admitted that “God is God.” What does that mean? Isn’t that just a meaningless tautology? It means to admit that God really inhabits the highest authority. To rebel against God is to commit yourself to an absurdity. It is to say that the highest authority is not authoritative. It is to say there is an authority beyond Authority itself.
A Theological Lie?
One of the reasons I think the resurgence of Calvinism is bad is that it undermines the belief that God is good ,and that God is good to you in particular, more so than other theologies. If Double Predestination is true, then you can never really know that God wills your good. According to Calvinists, as with other theologies, works are evidence of saving faith. This means you will only know that you really are elect by looking at your works, which means you will trust in your works and cling to your works as assurance. This is ironic in a theology that prides itself on eradicating works-righteousness and it is not surprising, given this, why Calvinism has a reputation of legalistic rigidity. Apart from your works, you don’t know if God wills your good and loves you and wants the best for you. Perhaps God wants you to be damned or has simply not chosen you to have saving faith ( which is the same thing). This means that God does not want the best for you, because saving faith is the best thing for you. If God does not want saving faith for you, then it does not mean anything comprehensible to say that God still loves you or wills good for you. You can’t trust in the Cross, because Calvinism says there is something that is more fundamental than the Cross that determines God’s attitude toward humanity. This is even worse for a five-point Calvinist who believes in Limited Atonement, that God only died for some people and not for others. If Calvinism undermines the belief that God does love you, and by “you” I mean any given person, then it aids and strengthens apostasy and unbelief. However, the ordinary Christian who believes in Universal Atonement, which is the traditional historic belief, can trust that God loves him in particular and wants the best for him in particular, because he wants the best for everyone in a fundamental sense. And this fundamental goodwill of God is prior to any response of faith and is not contingent on it: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) The love of God, or to put it differently, the goodwill of God is universal and fundamental. It applies to all before they have even responded in faith. We can refuse God’s goodwill, but that does not mean that the goodwill is eradicated. And the fact that God punishes after people have resolutely chosen to reject him in spite of God holding his arms out to them, does not contradict God’s fundamental goodwill toward them.
Type in the phrase “God loves the sinner, but hates the sin” into Google and you will find a lot of media by Calvinists disputing this idea. They teach that God does hate sinners and not just their sins. Why do they teach that? It fits neatly into the doctrine of Double Predestination. But if you and I are also sinners, if everyone are sinners, then doesn’t that imply that God hates us too, that God hates everyone? The point is, you don’t know if God hates you or loves you if Calvinism is true. How far is this from the theological ideas of the rebellious Israelites who declared that the Lord hates them?