Among many other things, Rhett cites evidence for evolution and the unbelievability of the Bible as major factors in why he walked away from the Christian faith. In this post, I’m not going to respond to those specific objections, since many other Christians have already done that. What I would like to do instead is to suggest a few important lessons that I think we can learn from Rhett’s “anti-testimony.”
Don’t Dismiss Stories
When a high-profile Christian walks away from the faith, it causes significant confusion and doubt within the Christian community—one may think of other Christians, like pastor/author Joshua Harris and Hillsong United worship leader Marty Sampson, who have also recently announced that they are no longer Christians. What do we do when someone we thought was a committed Christian suddenly says they’re not anymore?
One way Christians have responded is to say, “Oh, well they must never really have been a Christian in the first place.” As Rhett tells his story, he graciously asks us not to say things like this—because it is “dismissive.” “Jesus was as real to me as he possibly could be,” he says. Rhett goes on to argue that we sometimes say things like this because we have to fit people into our theological system. He pleads, “Please don’t reduce me to a theological footnote.”
He has a point. Some Christians say things like this because they are concerned about eternal security. If you believe it’s impossible to lose your salvation, then what do you say when someone walks away from Jesus? You have to say they must never have been a Christian; but this clearly doesn’t fit the bill for Rhett, who wasn’t play-acting at Christianity. If we take him at his word—and I think we should—he was a genuine, committed Christian who was wrestling with a lot of doubts. He said multiple times throughout his story that he didn’t want to give up Christianity.
Of course, another way of saying this is, “Once saved, always saved.” But can we really believe this? If someone really wants nothing to do with Jesus, does God simply ignore that and force them to spend eternity with him? That view doesn’t seem to square with the story the Scriptures are telling. There are always two ways, the way of life and the way of death. God says, “Choose.”
Perhaps another way to think about it is to acknowledge with the Scriptures (John 10:28-30) that nothing we can do is so bad that God is going to drop us or take away our salvation. On the other hand, I think we are free to leave Christianity if we want to (2 Peter 2:20-22), and that doesn’t necessarily mean that we were never saved. I realize that this is a contentious issue, but perhaps this is a good opportunity to think through the implications of these different views again. Whatever conclusion you come to on that, don’t dismiss people’s stories with offhand comments. It’s not our job to figure out who’s in and who’s out.
Apologetics isn’t Everything
Upon hearing that Rhett has walked away from faith, partly because of evolution and lack of trust in the reliability of Scripture, we might be tempted to throw some apologetics at him. However, one thing that became really clear throughout Rhett’s testimony was the fact that he is very well-read. Rhett honestly wrestled with his doubts and sought help from apologetics books, as well as conversations with other Christians. Unfortunately for him, apologetics merely “plastered over his doubt” for a time.
Apologetics is a good and important thing for Christians to study. It’s important to know that there are good reasons to believe that Christianity is true. We don’t need to stop “doing apologetics” just because it doesn’t convince everyone. It was never meant to. Apologetics cannot save anyone. You can have all the reasons in the world and still choose not to believe. Even so, apologetics has been instrumental in helping many Christians to be more confident in their faith, as well as helping to convince unbelievers that Christianity is reasonable.
But I sometimes wonder if we have spent so much time trying to prove that the Bible is true that we have forgotten to actually teach people what it really says. This becomes clear when Rhett later talks about his problems with the God of the Old Testament. He doesn’t want to believe in that kind of God. But the kind of God that you find in the Old Testament can easily be misunderstood if you don’t pay attention to context.
Though there are many complex parts of the Bible that need to be addressed, we need to take a fresh look at the story of the Scriptures as a whole. This takes hard work. It means not jumping to conclusions because of a verse we don’t like; it means looking at the context, culture, and original languages. Fortunately, one doesn’t need to be a scholar to engage with Scripture. There are myriads of good resources to help us engage with the story of the Bible, including the challenging parts. We should also approach Scripture with an open mind, asking God to reveal the truth to us, especially when we are unsure about something. We shouldn’t expect to get our questions immediately answered, but faithful engagement with the text will yield fruit in the long run. It would be interesting to know how much Rhett has engaged with the text on this level.
Lots of people have made a thorough case for the trustworthiness of the Bible, but ultimately, the power of the Bible is not in our ability to defend it, but in the fact that it is a living book through which God continues to speak today. It’s not a list of rules about all the things you can’t do. Most of the Bible is actually a narrative—a story. We read the Scriptures to see what God has done, is doing, and wants to do with his people. We read his Word to see how we fit into the great story of what God is doing in the world.
Certainty is not the Goal
From his reading on the subjects of creation and evolution, Rhett said that he was “disappointed” in the way that Christians had handled the data. He was bothered by the divisions within Christianity about this. He saw how many people would simply dismiss evolution off-hand. He “read books about it by people who didn’t believe in it.” But when he began looking at the evidence for evolution himself, he found that “this isn’t as clean as I thought it was.”
Rhett acknowledged that he didn’t want to believe in evolution but said that the truth “had to be more important than my ideology.” Rhett acknowledges that he doesn’t think that Christians are trying to deceive anyone, but rather “They’re so committed to their belief system that they have become impervious to pretty straight-forward information about this subject.”
Again, he has a point. Sometimes we are so eager to prove something about Christianity—to have certainty about it—that we overstate our case or make things seem too simple. Sometimes Christians talk as though the evidence for God’s existence or for the Resurrection, etc. is air-tight. We think in terms of mathematical sums: Here’s the question and here’s the answer. If everyone would just be intellectually honest, we’d all be Christians. But air-tight certainty is not the goal of Christianity, nor is it as simple as 2+2=4. How could we, with our finite minds, expect to have perfect certainty about anything?
However, we must beware of falling into a trap on the other side. Rhett acknowledged throughout his testimony that even if he couldn’t have certainty, he could still have faith in Jesus. Christianity was just about a relationship, after all, he could let all that science and history stuff go. What really mattered was Jesus. In short, Rhett was tempted to abandon his mind.
However, he soon found that he couldn’t do so. He found that leaving it all to faith made Christianity no different from many other religions. He specifically points to Mormons, who, when confronted with evidence that suggests their history is false, resort to saying that they have a “burning in the bosom” that tells them it is true. For Rhett, since he couldn’t have certainty about Christianity, he could only have faith—but this wasn’t good enough.
However, there is a big difference between throwing up your hands and saying that evidence doesn’t matter, and becoming unconvinced of a particular conclusion based on evidence. Rhett has explored the evidence for Christianity and finds it uncompelling; however, he does acknowledge that there are other ways to look at the facts, and that you can’t absolutely rule out God. Christianity is, in fact, different from many other religions for this very reason. It can be debated, discussed, and argued about. There is evidence to consider. The argument for Christianity is not that it is absolutely irrefutable, but that it is the one truth that best explains the world. It makes the most sense of the facts and is the most reasonable worldview to believe based on what evidence we have available.
Furthermore, it should be pointed out that the way Rhett describes faith is tenuous. He seems to think of faith in terms of a sort of nebulous good feeling, or just wanting to believe it. Biblical faith is much more robust than this. It is not blindly walking in the dark or just feeling good about something. A helpful case is the story of Abraham, told in Genesis 12-25. If we read the story carefully, we see how Abraham, the great hero of the faith, consistently failed to have faith in God. We also read how God kept his promises and continued to be faithful to Abraham, even in the midst of this. So, by the time we get to the end of Abraham’s story, Abraham knows that he can trust God to do the right thing no matter what. Biblical faith is more like trust and allegiance; it is about knowing a person and trusting them to live according to their character. It’s not about having certainty or just having a good feeling about something.
Faith does not require abandoning the mind. We cannot have absolute certainty, but that doesn’t mean we rely on blind faith. Rhett himself acknowledges that he is a “hopeful agnostic.” He has become convinced that evolution is true and that the Bible is unreliable, but he still has to have a certain measure of faith to believe that Christianity isn’t true. In reality, Rhett doesn’t take an “either it’s evidence or it’s faith” approach, and neither should we.
Listen to Other Stories
Christianity gave Rhett something to hold on to, so when he left the faith, he said that he jumped into a “sea of uncertainty.” “I’ve lost my appetite for certainty,” and he now feels that he has a greater openness and curiosity. It seems that Rhett’s problem is not necessarily with Christianity at this point, but with systems that shut down curiosity and openness to alternative interpretations of the evidence. Christians have done this at times, but so have atheists, Muslims, and many other religions.
To my mind, Rhett’s major error is in implying that he is more intellectually honest because he has given up certainty about Christianity (he’s still fairly certain about evolution, morality, etc). Plenty of thoughtful Christians have wrestled through these same issues and come to different conclusions—and it’s not because they are so committed to their ideology that they can’t see things any other way. To say so is just as dismissive as saying that Rhett was never a Christian to begin with.
The power of Rhett’s anti-testimony seems to come from the fact that he was a committed Christian who slowly realized that it was no longer possible for him to believe. Lots of people who were deeply committed to other faiths and worldviews have had the opposite experience, where they realized that it was no longer possible for them not to believe Christianity. All of this does not necessarily prove anything—except to say that absolute certainty is not a requirement for being a Christian. It’s important that you don’t take Rhett’s or even my word for it, but that you explore the evidence for yourself—and that you listen to other people’s stories.
The greater lesson in all of this is that we need to be careful about how we respond to people walking away from the faith. We need to be careful about how we practice apologetics, and we need to be careful that we don’t make certainty a litmus test for being a Christian. If we listen carefully to others’ stories, we will learn how to better communicate, and perhaps it will cause us to rethink and sharpen beliefs that we have adopted without really examining them.
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