De-conversion is the reverse of conversion. While some creep away from the faith like a gliding glacier, the de-converted are glaciers calving off, crashing into the sea with devastating effect. Read on with holy fear.
Paraphrasing Dr. Michael Kruger,
De-conversion stories seek to convince Christians that their ‘outdated, naïve beliefs’ are no longer worthy of assent. People tell how they once thought like you, but have now ‘seen the light’. Christianity has never lacked people, who once in the fold, later left. They tell their stories with a conviction, passion, and evangelistic zeal to make a televangelist blush. Today, these powerful stories are high profile, wide-spread throughout the internet.1
Also, today de-converted people have greater zeal. They don’t leave quietly, as they might have generations ago. Now their purpose is to ‘evangelize’ the found rather than the lost sheep. In their minds, they are missionaries, compelled to help Christians realize their ‘mistake’. Modern examples of people in the de-conversion business include Bart Ehrman, Rob Bell, Peter Enns, and Jen Hatmaker. We could add the “Jesus Seminar” and, for the UK, Steve Chalke.2
They experienced overwhelming ‘aha’ moments.3 The Bible suddenly jarred with their intellectual integrity, personal sensitivities, or cultural proclivities. Whenever that happens, the Bible loses out. Scripture speaks of de-conversion with terrifying seriousness. The technical, theological word is ‘apostasy’. (Hebrews 10:31)
Apostates heard the Gospel, understood it, and acknowledged its truth. Their wills once consented to it, and apparently their hearts embraced it. Some are in pulpits, where they once preached the truth. Some are in seminaries and remain, but teach something different. These are people who know better. Still they break off, like glaciers calving. Thunderously!
Apostasy often begins by avoiding worship, including the preaching and teaching of the Word. Hebrews’ unknown writer warns his audience against, “neglecting to meet together …” ‘Neglect’ is too weak; it should read, “To utterly forsake…” Christ’s Church. It’s not sleeping in a couple snowy Sundays a year!
People fall for various reasons. Some find the teaching too strong, too hard, or too mainline Biblical for their taste. Whatever their reasons, they wish their minister would dish up a different spiritual diet. Jesus had followers who found His teaching too ‘hard’, so they “no longer walked with him.” (Isaiah 30:9-11, John 6:60-66)
Or perhaps being seen with ‘those eccentric Christians’ was embarrassing, compared to those in their office or social circles. Or perhaps they rebelled against Biblical morality.
Again, maybe they mouthed the words too long. One day, they ask themselves, “Do I really believe this?” Or they succumb to American individualism, thinking of it as “finding my own space.” So they ease up when they should go deeper.
For whatever reason, apostates abandon the churches they once knew and loved. Some adopt a distorted ‘Christianity’, crafted to suit themselves. They attend ‘alternative Bible studies’. They often say, “Well, that’s what you believe, but I like to think of God as….” They think Almighty God is amenable to their definition of Him.
They engage in activities with a churchy gloss, while pursuing their own moral or ‘spiritual’ agenda versus the clear teaching of Scripture. Their hearts become resistant, hardened to instruction from God. All this is sin, but we cannot yet label these people fully apostate. (Isaiah 30:9, Hebrews 3:13-15)
The apostate adds defiance to sinning. They sin deliberately, willfully, fiercely. Again, ‘deliberately’ is too weak a word. (Hebrews 10:26)
An article in First Things describes such defiance:
[T]he Moderator of the Church of Scotland, the Rt. Rev. Dr. Derek Browning, [i]n his Yuletide message to his disappearing flock… confessed that in his “darker moments,” he sometimes wondered whether “the world [would] have been a better place without [Jesus]…. would there have been no Crusades? Would there have been no Spanish Inquisition?”4
Nor are Roman Catholics immune. One priest substituted a “syrupy pop-religious tune… for the Creed” because he didn’t believe it anymore.
Both are apostate. They proclaim their beliefs from pulpit and altar. However, people may depart from the truth privately. They slowly, but steadily detach themselves …until the break comes. Their hearts and minds no longer subscribe to Scripture. Divine revelation is the heart of the matter. Apostates become adversaries of revealed truth. It’s not just that they don’t believe it; they are actively opposed.
Let me reassure some of you. These weren’t poorly taught Christians with doubts. These weren’t people bowing to extreme pressure, like many who failed the test under persecution but repented. They weren’t in some dark psychological state of confusion, nor were they coping with medical depression.5 They weren’t struggling with a difficult passage or a lesser doctrine here and there. They weren’t caught off guard by unforeseen temptation, falling into sin.
No, these people – eyes wide-open, with deliberate intent, by free choice, without coercion – embraced what Scripture calls ‘an evil heart of unbelief’. (Hebrews 3:12)
We would like to think the de-converted could return. Perhaps a few are not truly apostate. However, psychologically, as a group, they never want to repent. They never feel sorry for leaving the Church. They box themselves into a decision freely made.
You might ask, “What about the Perseverance of the Saints, or Eternal Security?” Actually, it leaves those intact. How so? John says of such people, “They went out from us, but they were not of us….” Their departure demonstrates that something was always missing, says John. True believers persevere. (1 John 2:18-19)
Believers must be challenged to endure, hold fast, retain their confidence, make a clear confession without wavering – to the very end, whether natural death, martyrdom, or the Second Coming. Such challenges are necessary today.
Believers must cheer each other on! How? Gather for worship. Listen attentively to the sermon. Focus on heavenly things throughout the week. Otherwise, we are vulnerable to de-conversionists.
If you worry you might be apostate, ask yourself:
- Would you feel sorry to be truly outside the Church?
- Do you care what godly people think of you?
- Is it frightful to contemplate eternity without Christ?
- Are you willing to work your way back?
If you say ‘yes’ to any of these, you are not among the de-converted – but perhaps you should tidy up loose ends in your Christian life.
De-conversionists don’t care. They place themselves outside the discipline of Christ’s Church. Eternity means little or nothing to them. They have no desire to repent. They should be truly frightened! Outside His Church, Christ is not the Mediator of the Father’s wrath. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Psalm 10:4-6, Hebrews 10:31)
Paul says, “Avoid such people.” It’s pointless to argue. If you yourself are struggling, flee! They look for Christians at their weakest. Flee into the arms of your Savior (2 Timothy 3:5b-8). God will deal with them in His own good time.
1. Dr. Michael J. Kruger is President of the Charlotte NC campus of Reformed Theological Seminary. He wrote an article entitled, “The Power of Deconversion Stories: How Jen Hatmaker Is Trying to Change Minds about the Bible.” Our apologies to Dr. Kruger. It was necessary to paraphrase and abbreviate this citation in the interest of space. You can read the original post here.
3. This is Peter Enns’ term.
4. An excerpt from, “Men without Convictions, Churches without People,” in First Things.
5. Such conditions may require a doctor. See one – and then read your Bible, in that order.