Everyone has a story
Sociologists say that nearly 50% of people have a major faith transition in their life. It may be from belief to non-belief, a change of religion, a conversion from non-belief to belief, or a change of beliefs within the one religion.
Deconstruction refers to the process of analysing and rejecting beliefs we once held. Reconstruction is the process of rebuilding faith in one’s religion on a different basis to previously.
This page tells the stories of three people (one of them is me) who went through a process of deconstruction. Two of them rebuilt their faith into something new and one became a non-believer.
I have tried to tell the stories faithfully and have left my own comments until the end. The issues raised in these stories will be addressed on other pages.
A life-changing realisation
Nate grew up in a very conservative church in the US, and as an adult was very involved in his congregation – teaching, leading and occasionally preaching. For many years he never questioned the truth of his faith, and totally trusted the reliability and truthfulness of the Bible.
Yet over a period of just over two years, Nate and his wife came to completely lose all faith in the Bible and in God, and now they identify as atheists. There are two aspects to his story, his doubts and the family issues that followed. In his story, I am impressed by his honesty and sincerity, and his sensitivity to his church and family.
Problems and doubts
As Nate tells his story, I see four main issues that caused his doubts and finally disbelief.
- Conservative christianity, social justice and Jesus. The first question came when he saw his conservative christian friends expressing opposition to social welfare programs like universal healthcare. This opposition seemed to him to be contrary to Jesus, who said we would be judged by how we cared for the poor and disadvantaged (Matthew 25:31-46).
- Hell. His church believed that it was the only true church, established by Jesus, and that meant that an enormous number of people must be destined for a literal hell, forever. This seemed harsh for a loving God, and he felt “dejected and distraught over the fate of most of mankind”. But it also raised questions of who exactly was in and out, and were there no shades of grey?
- The problem of evil. The southeast Asia Boxing Day 2008 tsunami killed almost a quarter of a million people. This is enough to make anyone wonder, and coupled with other examples of suffering plus the killings in the Old Testament, and the belief in a God who was sovereign over events and could change things, led him to wonder why God allowed all this to happen. How could such a God be loving? And so he recognised his faith had serious problems.
- Biblical inerrancy. Sometime later, while still a believer, Nate was challenged by arguments about inaccuracies in Old Testament prophecy and history. He investigated them, thinking there were clear answers to these problems, but found that his doubts increased. And if Daniel (for example) wasn’t historically reliable (e.g. about whether Belshazzar was the son of Nebuchadnezzar as said in Daniel), how could he trust the rest of the Bible to be inerrant?
As a result of these problems Nate’s faith became very weak, and he began to have significant doubts about the truth of the Bible, and hence the truth of the whole gamut of christian belief. He says he prayed constantly through the early stages of this “deconversion”, but in the end, he didn’t believe the evidence stacked up. It took a year or two, but eventually he could say clearly he didn’t believe in Jesus or God.
Personal and family issues
At the same time, Nate was dealing with the personal aspects of these issues. Initially, Nate tried to discuss his doubts with family and fellow church members, but he found none of them were really able to appreciate his doubts or offer any reasonable answers to them. He read apologetics books, had a brief but intense correspondence with a college professor, but his questions and doubts remained.
Nate’s church practiced “withdrawal”, the cutting off of contact with any church member who becomes “apostate”, i.e. stops believing or starts to live in ways regarded by the church as sinful. This practice added an extra dimension of pain for Nate and his family, for withdrawal would mean them no longer being in contact with parents and parents-in-law.
Nate and his wife tried in various ways to avoid this situation – his blog outlines many meetings, discussions and attempts. It is fair to say that he “bent over backwards” to retain his family ties, a difficult balancing act for someone for whom honesty and evidence are so important. But two and a half years after his serious doubts surfaced, the church formally informed them they “had been withdrawn from”.
Withdrawal is supposed to help bring the errant christian to repentance, but Nate’s problem wasn’t disobediance or lack of faith, but a search for truth. In a way (ironically) like Luther, “he could do no other”. As he said:
“When we were Christians, our faith was sincere. We held to our convictions, not because they were convenient, but because we firmly believed them. When we left Christianity, we were no less sincere.”
And so Nate’s blog, which started as a means of sharing his faith, became a way of explaining his disbelief. He and I have had many discussions and disagreements there, but generally we have been respectful and remain on friendly terms after all this time. He remains a firm atheist, but one willing to discuss respectfully with believers.
For Nate and his wife, deconstruction was not followed by reconstruction (at least not so far), but was a cataclysmic process that completely destroyed their previous faith.
A dramatic transformation
Emma Higgs lives in England. She grew up in a “Christian Bubble” of Sunday School, church youth group, and christian groups at school and university. She lived a very happy life with her loving God. The only shadow was the thought that many people were going to hell, but she was able to put that thought aside mostly.
When she was 18, some fellow christians challenged her understanding of the gospel and provoked her to think differently about her faith. That started a 10 year journey of doubt as her “happy, white, Western, middle-class, Protestant, evangelical Christian world began to crumble”.
It was the core evangelical doctrine of sin and salvation that she found herself questioning. Could a loving God send people to hell if they never had a chance to believe? How could it be fair if a good, unselfish Hindu like Gandhi went to hell while a selfish, materialistic christian went to heaven? Would God, a loving Father, really set up the world in such an arbitrary and unjust way?
Many christians give up their faith when they reach this point, and she couldn’t help also thinking why would she want anything to do with that God?
A step too far
But she didn’t take that final step into unbelief. She says: “I have never been able to shake off the sense that there really must be more to life than what we see and experience …… The life and message of Jesus has continued to captivate me”.
Emma’s husband is a scientist (a biologist) and with his input she could say: “I was still satisfied that the Christian worldview as I understood it was not only scientifically viable, but psychologically and sociologically beneficial.” And so, instead of throwing the baby of Jesus out with the bathwater of evangelical doctrine, she went through the “exhilarating but terrifying” process of examining everything. The end result was a far more messy faith with far less certainty.
“I know far less now than I did ten years ago. I have far more questions than answers, and God seems more mysterious and unfathomable than ever…. I am generally suspicious of Christians who claim to be certain about what they believe.”
But the result has somewhat surprised her. She is now “more passionate than ever about my Christian faith”, even if she still has times of doubt and questioning.
Things have changed
Emma’s beliefs in a number of areas have changed dramatically:
- The Bible. She has concluded that believing that every part of the Bible is literal and a guidebook applicable today creates problems that are only resolved by ignoring the bits we don’t like. Taking bits out of context has justified many evils. She now sees the Bible as inspired by God, but more “a family history …. telling the story of how God has interacted with people”, a story of “love, hope and reconciliation”.
- Jesus. Jesus’ message was not just one of personal salvation, but of the kingdom of God on earth, which is political and social as well as spiritual, and affects how people live NOW. God’s plan is to restore the world, not destroy it.
- Hell. She no longer believes the Bible teaches the traditional view of hell, and sees the salvation offered by Jesus as more than just a “hell avoidance strategy”.
- Christianity is more than just “saying a prayer to save yourself and then trying to get others to do the same”. Rather, it is following Jesus whole-heartedly, “choosing to live the way he lived and working with him to bring about this thing called the Kingdom of God…. feeding the poor, visiting the lonely, befriending those everyone hates, helping others to know their value and to experience the incredible mystery of a God who loves people like us”.
- Faith. As a result, her faith has moved “from fear to hope”.
Finding Peace in Unknowing
Emma still sometimes sits in church and wonders whether her fellow christians see their faith as she now does, and feels it is “desperately important” that they come to that realisation. She still wonders about answered prayer.
But she has found peace in her life now through living the way of Jesus and accepting that she cannot possibly expect to understand God. She practices mindfulness and focuses on living in the here and now, trusting God and not worrying too much about the specifics of belief.
This is my own story of faith deconstruction and reconstruction.
I was raised in a non-christian family, but was sent to Sunday School as a child, in a reformed and evangelical church. I stayed on for the church youth group, I believed what I was taught, and by about age 17 I had committed to being a christian. It was only then that I started thinking critically about this belief.
At first, my main motive in examining my beliefs was to be able to better present them to others. And so I began a lifelong interest in apologetics, especially the writings of CS Lewis, who explained so much so well. In him I found the first challenges to my evangelical beliefs, for he viewed scripture as something less than error-free, but it was years later that I saw he was right.
Questions and answers
I soon started to discover questions and apparent anomalies that led me on quests to better understand the beliefs and practices I had been taught.
The starting point for me was when I saw quite clearly that the Jesus of the gospels was very different to the western, evangelical Jesus I had been taught. This puzzled me for a while, but then I discovered New Testament scholarship in the form of Scottish scholar AM Hunter. I had been led to believe that “modern scholarship” wasn’t really to be trusted, and there were ideas in Hunter’s writings that scared the conservative me a little, but his understanding of first century Jewish culture and Jesus’ mission of establishing the kingdom of God on earth were like a bright light in a dark place to me.
I came to see New Testament scholarship as being absolutely central to following Jesus today, as scholars illuminated, challenged and expanded my understanding of christian belief. The modern evangelical church, following the early creeds, tends to see Jesus’ mission as solely aimed at personal salvation, and that only of a limited number of chosen people. The only really important parts of his life were his virgin birth, his crucifixion to bear our sins, and his resurrection to prove he really had taken our sins away. But there is so much more to his life, teachings and miracles. God’s plan is so much bigger than personal salvation, but includes justice and compassion on earth as we join Jesus in the kingdom of God.
Doctrines that didn’t stand up
This foundation led me to so many other doctrines and beliefs that needed review, including:
- Creation vs evolution. Reading the creation story in Genesis, it became obvious that this was not history, but something like folktale, and for a while I was sceptical of both Genesis and evolution. But eventually I decided I would guardedly trust good secular scholarship and science, and so the creation-evolution debate was resolved for me.
- Hell. I discovered that the Greek used by the gospel writers is quite clear that whatever happens after death, “unending conscious torment” isn’t a Biblical teaching. That was a great relief to me because I don’t think I could believe in a God who created billions of people knowing that would suffer unimaginable horrors while I was enjoying life in a perfect age to come.
- Evangelism isn’t the only thing. The clear teachings of Jesus on care for the poor and suffering, allied with the trenchant early “protest music” of Bob Dylan helped me reject the “evangelism only” approach of my evangelical upbringing. I came to believe that sharing faith sensitively, serving others and working for justice were all things God required of me.
- Non-violence. I had been raised to think that wars were just when my righteous nation fought evil, and that God wanted christians to fight against communism. But when I was conscripted into Australia’s army for two years during the Vietnam war, I began to think differently. I noticed that Jesus in several places urged non-violence and love and forgiveness of enemies, and I became something close to a pacifist. I even began to see that Jesus’ teachings were probably closer to communism than capitalism, though of course he supported neither.
- The Old Testament. This led me to reconsider the killings and genocide reported in the Old Testament – how could the God of Jesus give such commands and act in that way? For many years, this was an unanswered question for me, and it is only in the last decade, after praying about the matter for more than a year, that God led me to see, like CS Lewis said so long ago, that the Old Testament is a gradually unfolding of God’s revelation to initially pagan people. It begins in myth and legend and only gradually becomes history, and many of the “historical” accounts are a mix of the two and tell more than one story. I no longer believe God gave those genocidal commands, but they were from a time when the revelation of God was incomplete.
- The Bible. And so my understanding of the Bible has changed dramatically. I believe it is a collection of human writings, inspired by God, but based on the thought forms and understanding of the times. It is less a guidebook, and more a source of divine ideas. It was a “revelation” to me when I discovered that Jesus and the apostles used their scriptures in creative ways, often changing the meaning to suit their new message, but all the time revealing more about God and his purposes.
- Doctrine. Along with all this, I came to new understandings of doctrines of salvation (I am inclusivist, not exclusivist), atonement (I think many theories of the atonement hold some truth, and I think penal substitution is often presented in an ugly way) and God’s sovereignty (I am not a Calvinist).
A lifelong journey
All of this took place over something like 50 years. Unlike others I have read, including Nate and Emma, there was never a “make-or-break” moment of crisis, just many small episodes of deconstruction and reconstruction. I rarely felt my basic beliefs in God and in the historical Jesus were threatened by what I was learning, for the deconstruction didn’t change the evidence for God and Jesus.
What can we learn from these three examples?
Several doctrinal issues were common problems among the three of us – hell, apparent inconsistencies in the Bible (especially in the Old Testament), and understanding the ministry of Jesus in terms of justice and renewal as well as personal salvation. The same issues crop up in many of the other deconstruction stories I read to prepare this page. This suggests these are areas where christian leaders need to consider whether they are teaching correctly.
Different starting points
Studies show that conservative or fundamentalist believers are less likely to deconstruct, but when they do they are more likely to completely abandon their previous belief, whereas less conservative believers are more likely to review and reconstruct. These three stories bear that out.
And I think we can see why. Nate had been taught that his conservative form of christian faith was the only way; question the Bible and you could throw everything away. And that is what he did. But Emma and I grew up in traditions that were not quite so opposed to thinking issues through, and certainly didn’t think ours was the only true form of christian faith. So it wasn’t “all or nothing” for us.
Encouraging questions and addressing doubts
I think too we can see that trying to prevent young christians expressing doubts, asking questions and exploring alternative ideas, is a serious mistake. Alternative viewpoints are so easy to find these days that we cannot build a wall around our children or youth. Such opposition may tend to lead thoughtful people to a crisis of faith rather than a slow journey of discovery as I experienced.
Encouraging people to explore while we stay in good relationship with them to assist in answering questions, leaves them freedom to find their own way (assuming they are mature enough to do this) and has (to my mind) several benefits:
- It treats people with respect and values their own journey.
- It values truth over dogma and blind faith.
- It trusts the Holy Spirit.
- I think it is more likely to allow people to remain believers, even if with different doctrines.
- It makes the whole process less traumatic. Nate’s experience of “withdrawal” was extreme, but even more subtle pressures can be unnecessarily hurtful.
Different basis, different outcome
Perhaps most significant was that, for me, the doubts about some doctrines didn’t affect the evidence that I felt justified my belief in God and in Jesus. This evidence is based on scientific, philosophical, historical and experiential facts, not on a particular view of the Bible or doctrine. So I could deconstruct and reconstruct without feeling my faith was being shaken at the core.
However for Nate, it seems that his faith was based most strongly on the Bible as a document without error, so when he found evidence that it contained apparent errors, the basis of his faith was shattered, and, lacking answers to those problems, he felt compelled in honesty to give up his faith.
Emma’s faith was apparently based more on the intuition that life is meaningful, and her positive response to Jesus. That basis was shaken by her doubts about the Bible and doctrine, but not destroyed, and so she too continued to believe. But she has ended up seeing God and Jesus in quite a new light which questions some of the core doctrines of evangelical christianity, such as atonement and salvation.
I don’t think any of these reflections explain fully why the three of us came to different conclusions, but they may illustrate some important differences.
Nate has been an internet friend of mine for quite a few years. He blogs at Finding Truth, and his story can be found here (this is part 1 of 12 parts – each post has at the very bottom a link to the next one).
Emma Higgs tells her story on her Patheos Progressive Christian blog, especially in My Confession / Why I Am Still A Christian, Rethinking Christianity: Deconstruction and her Faith in the Fog series.
Read more on this site
- Faith deconstruction.
- When sensitive and thoughtful people begin to doubt.
- When thoughtful christians begin to doubt.
- Reconstructing how we see the Bible
- Impossible things for many christians to believe any longer
- Deconstructing faith: Meet the evangelicals who are questioning everything. Premier Christianity.
- Losing my religion: how I almost lost my faith and gained it back. Scott Higgins.
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