Copyright © 2003 by John J. Diegel
I’ve read many deconversion stories; I can’t help wondering what difference it will make to add mine to the pot. It’s a personal thing, the story of one’s walk away from religion. Those who will find it helpful or entertaining are either relatives, friends, or otherwise from a similar background. For all others this text is merely an anonymous allocation of bandwidth, no more attention-getting than the thousands of other deconversion stories on the Net. Nevertheless, I’ve been asked to tell my story. I’ll do my best to make it interesting.
Jesus Christ was my best friend since the Third Grade, but he’d always been around. He looked out for me since before I was born, since before my father was born, since before any of us were born. The Bible – a book that he co-authored – says that he existed before the world was made. In fact he made the world (with his father’s help). He was the most powerful force in the Universe. It made me proud to have him as a friend.
I talked to him every day via a telepathic one-way voice connection. He explains how to use this link in the Bible. The only trouble is that he could hear me but I couldn’t hear him, at least not audibly. Some people say they can actually hear his voice, but I never did. I was taught by other friends of his – we all called ourselves Christians, for obvious reasons – that people were once able to hear his voice, but only certain people. This was several thousand years ago. Back then Jesus was called Jehovah by his friends, only they weren’t allowed to say his name out loud. I forget what name they were allowed to call him, but nowadays people just call him God, even though he’s also known as Jesus. (It gets a little complicated.) Anyway, certain of his friends – those most loyal or unique – were allowed to hear God’s voice. Sometimes they heard it in their heads; sometimes they heard it out loud. This was in a time when God was still writing the Bible. He carefully selected certain of his friends to transcribe it for him and then pass it down through the generations. My Christian friends in this century told me that God doesn’t talk to people out loud anymore because he’s already finished writing the Bible: everything he wanted to say to us is in there. My friends and I liked to imagine that prayer is how we talk to God, and reading the Bible is how God talks to us. It was good enough for me.
God and I spent a lot of time together. I’d talk to him at any time of the day or night. He was always there for me. I could even feel his presence, even though I couldn’t see or hear him. Having this big brother watching over me all the time was very comforting. I knew that whatever happened I would be all right. Even if I died I would be all right, because the Bible says that all of Jesus’s friends are instantly transported to a place called Heaven when they die. It used to be that people believed Heaven was above the clouds, but then we found out that there’s nothing but thin air above the clouds, so people decided Heaven must be in another dimension. Somehow when a Christian dies their soul leaves their body and journeys to this other dimension, where it will live in peace and happiness for all eternity. This kind of assurance made me feel especially secure, I must say. Being God’s friend had big rewards. I was just glad that I wasn’t one of those people who didn’t know him. Those people go to Hell when they die – an other-dimensional place where souls burn for all eternity if they weren’t God’s friends in life.
As you can probably tell by now, God and I aren’t friends anymore, but I’m not afraid that I’ll go to Hell when I die, and I know I won’t go to Heaven either. I’ll explain why I now think this way. Around the time I was thirteen my mother and father began to realize that some of the things that God wrote in the Bible were being misinterpreted by his friends. This came as a surprise for me also. I guess the trouble with human beings is that we can have a hard time understanding some of the supernatural concepts in the Bible. Sometimes we read it wrong. The issue when I was 13 was about God’s friends being too friendly with God’s enemies. My parents had met some other Christians who told them that the Bible was being misinterpreted on this issue. Christians should strive to be different from the rest of humanity. They should take their children out of public school and teach them at home because the people who run public schools aren’t friends with God. They should tell their wives to quit their jobs because the Bible says that women should stay at home and raise the children. They should spank their children more often because even rolling your eyes when asked to do something is grounds for punishment. Of course I didn’t like that last concept very much, but within a couple of years I started to agree with it. God might tell us to do some things sometimes that we aren’t comfortable with, but it’s all for our own good. We just have to stop questioning him and start obeying him.
Over time God convinced my family to be more and more conservative, but after awhile we began to rethink some of our recent interpretations of the Bible. Eventually we ended up almost right where we started, still somewhat conservative but not nearly as much as when I was 13. I guess we decided that we misinterpreted the Bible again. It’s such an easy mistake to make, since the Bible was written by God and we’re only humans. What mattered is that we were sincere in our desire to understand and obey him. He’d forgive us anything as long as we kept the right focus. God is my best friend, I thought. He said he’d never leave me, and I have no desire to leave him, so I’ve got nothing to lose by trying to make sense of the Bible, even if it means questioning the validity of the Bible itself.
“Question the validity of the Bible?” you ask. “Isn’t that sacrilegious?” Well, I’d been taught that it was sacrilegious, but my friends only got that teaching from their interpretation of the Bible. From what I felt in my heart, I knew that interpretation had to be wrong. Everything else that I knew about God told me that he wanted me to ask questions, as long as I was sincere in my asking. I just wanted to understand what it was he was trying to tell me.
My investigation led me to some startling conclusions. When I started to question the Bible I had no idea that I’d end up rejecting it altogether. If I knew that might happen I probably never would have considered doing it. Then again, maybe I couldn’t help it. Some people tell themselves that doubting the Bible is a sin (because their interpretation of the Bible tells them it is), and so they learn to stop questioning. They’re told that faith is when you accept something that you don’t understand. I used to think that way too, but after awhile I found that I could understand some of the things that I’d previously accepted through faith alone. Sometimes, if I would try hard enough, I was able to make sense of something in the Bible; when I found out that tons of other Christians were doing this too I was relieved. Not everything God told us had to be believed through faith. The only thing that required faith was that God was real and that he’d written the Bible.
People misunderstand parts of the Bible, but that’s only because we’re imperfect humans. What I didn’t understand was why God would allow his friends to make such a mess of things. I wasn’t blaming him: it’s not his fault we’re so confused, but still I wondered why he didn’t just write the Bible in a way that no one could possibly misread. I considered that maybe the problem was simply that some meaning had been lost or changed when the Bible was translated from the original language into the language of today. Then I found out that the ancient Roman Catholics compiled the Bible from hundreds of possible manuscripts into just 66 books. What was in those other manuscripts that they didn’t like? I wondered. Why just 66? And what’s all this talk about the Catholic Church editing the Bible to match their own interpretations?
Still, God was right there with me. He was real – I knew he was real because I could feel he was real. I didn’t understand it. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I knew he was there. He just wasn’t the God that the Bible said he was. The text had to be wrong about him. It just had to be. Everything I felt about God told me he couldn’t be the same deity that he was described to be. In the Bible God is both ruthlessly destructive yet unfailingly merciful. Was the loving God of the New Testament the same God that slaughtered millions to defend his precious Israelites? Did he really demand so many ridiculous things such as are outlined in the books of the Law? In the New Testament he came to Earth as a man named Jesus. He was the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet, preaching love and forgiveness to all. But still there’s this teaching in the Bible that says those who haven’t believed in Christ as their savior will go to hell when they die. The God of the Bible may not be ordering the slaughter of the heathen anymore, but he still kills them in the end. Anyone who isn’t God’s friend burns in hell.
For awhile I didn’t mind this idea of God too much. God is God, I said. If that’s what he wants, I won’t question it. Sure, billions will suffer eternal torment, but it’s their choice: all they had to do was believe in Jesus Christ. The more I got to know some of God’s enemies, however, the more I revolted against the Bible’s verdict on mankind. There are wonderful, kind human beings in this world that I just can’t see anyone sending to hell. Any god that would do such a thing to some of the nice people that I’ve met must be a heartless monster. The Devil, as described in the Bible, is a more humane, more compassionate entity!
I knew in my heart that God was real. He just wasn’t the God of the Bible.
My friends had always told me that Christianity isn’t really a religion, it’s a relationship with God. I kind of understood what they were saying, but I didn’t try to make it a part of my theology. The fact is the Bible has no trouble describing Christianity as a religion, so why should we? James 1:27 says, “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” Of course there are still some people who think that religion is simply the distinction made between the various denominations in Christianity. I’m not sure what we’re supposed to call the other people in the world with non-Christian spiritual beliefs. I guess my friends would’ve called them heathens, as I once did. Even so, our modern dictionaries call the beliefs of these heathens religions. It always seemed to me counterproductive to use completely different word definitions than the people my friends and I were out to save. It’s one thing to be separate and unique from the rest of the world, it’s another thing to go out of our way to make communicating with these people a lot more difficult. I figured it made more sense to speak in a language that everyone would understand. Regardless, there was no doubt in mind that God and I had a wonderful relationship, even after I decided that the Bible couldn’t possibly come from God; even after I decided that Jesus Christ may not have been a real person but merely a construct of the Catholic Church to arbitrarily “fulfill” the messianic prophesies of the Old Testament.
I began to think of God as neither male nor female, neither human nor alien but spiritual. He (I continued calling him “he” out of habit) was a force of nature, if you will, permeating everything in the Universe. I no longer had any idea what he wanted with me, or the human race in general, but I had a feeling it was something good. He created everything that we know. The only reason it gets so messed up is because we do it to ourselves. Every single religion, I mused, is a kind of “evidence” that God exists. In every culture throughout history humans have had this notion that there was some kind of benevolent being operating just beyond their physical senses. Every religion has their own definition of who God is and what he wants, but it’s all the same entity. It was just like I’d always been saying, it’s all a matter of interpretation.
Then I began reading articles and essays on the Internet. The ones that I found the most fascinating were the ones that critiqued the historical events in the Bible that supposedly happened. Logic and the scientific method, as well as what we know about human and Earth history, picked apart each and every event mentioned in the Bible. Then I began reading investigations into the purported existence of the human soul. “A Ghost in the Machine” showed me that consciousness, individuality, and conscience – everything that defines the popular definition of “soul” – is dependent on the physical matter in the brain. Medical research continues to reveal that there are no spirits hiding in our heads. There are actual, verifiable physical explanations that make traditional spiritual explanations insulting and childish by comparison.
Quite naturally I became an atheist. My best friend since the age of eight, I finally realized, was never actually real to begin with. It was somewhat of a blow, I’ll admit, and somewhat disheartening. The feelings that I had for God were very real to me. We’d spent countless hours talking together. Sometimes I still catch myself longing for a good long chat with him. It was God, after all, that got me through my anxiety-prone childhood. It was in our talks that I found the strength to face my fears. And now he’s suddenly disappeared. Not gone away, not dead, just vanished. All I have left of him is a dusty old Bible, and that, sadly, was never even his. So goes the fate of an imaginary friend.
In a way I suppose my experience is kind of prophetic. Throughout the Bible mankind is constantly trying to become independent of God; in each instance God is quick to foil man’s attempts. In Genesis Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit because they’re told (by the serpent) that doing so will make them “as gods, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). God recognizes the threat in Genesis 3:22 & 23, when he says, “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.” In Genesis 6 mankind had so far departed from God’s intentions for them that he flooded the Earth with water, killing all but eight humans. Later, in chapter 11, the inhabitants of Babel tried to built a tower to reach unto Heaven. “And the Lord said, ‘Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city” (Genesis 11:6-8).
Mankind was always trying to extricate themselves from God’s control. Every time you read the Bible you’re presented with examples of it, and each time you’re shown what God does to those who try to subvert him. Anyone who says that God has no need for scare tactics is seriously mistaken. The first few chapters of his book, as I’ve shown, make it clear that God is threatened by man’s quest for independence. “Ye shall be as gods,” the serpent said. “The man is become as one of us,” God said.
We’re a dangerous experiment gone wrong. “It repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart,” it says in Genesis 6:6. We’re out of control and God is afraid of what we might become if someday we manage to outsmart and overpower him. Well, that day has come. It took some doing, but we finally got the upper hand. His henchmen in the middle ages beat us down whenever we questioned the beliefs of the Holy Catholic Church. Witches were hunted, tortured, and burned alive for presuming to violate the laws of God. Infidels of heathen religions were made war upon and forcibly converted by their Christian oppressors. The suppression of skepticism and the outlawing of objective investigation into religious claims has characterized the “civilized” world for the last two thousand years. Just now, as logic and the scientific method gains greater public acceptance, people are finding themselves with the power to challenge God and get away with it.
We can finally build that tower to Heaven: God is powerless to stop us. We have tasted the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and now we want more. The Cherubims have thrown down their flaming swords and left the garden unprotected. Here we come, God, my old friend. Your reign is over.
Keller further sets up the quote by describing the situation underlying the quote:
“C.S. Lewis was part of a famous circle of friends called the Inklings, which included J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings, and also the author Charles Williams, who died unexpectedly.”
C.S. Lewis’ quote is a reflection on the results of the loss of his friend Charles Williams.
“In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s [Tolkien’s] reaction to a specifically Charles joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him “to myself” now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald…In this, Friendship exhibits a glorious “nearness by resemblance” to heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each of us has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision are crying “Holy, Holy, Holy” to one another (Isaiah 6:3). The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall have.”
Keller sums it up:
“Lewis is saying that it took a community to know an individual. How much more would this be true of Jesus Christ?”
May God use the internet community to reach those individuals who cannot or will not attend church to find a band of Christian brothers and sisters on the internet. Better yet may God help them find a good church home to share their views in the community of believers.