It was Autumn on Wheaton College’s campus (an Evangelical Christian college in Illinois), the trees were gorgeous quilts of soft browns and reds. The air was refreshingly cool and I was going out on one of my prayerful evening walks, as was my custom in those days.
A few months earlier I had returned from an eye-opening one-year overland hitch-hiking trip to India. Since then I had been confessing to friends that my Christianity had transformed and that I could not longer comfortably call myself a “normal” Christian–or at least that is the best expression I could come up with at that time.
I had a difficult time telling my friends why my Christianity was no longer “normal” except that I did not believe that all non-Christians were going to hell. I still felt I was a Christian but deep inside, this really felt like only the beginning of my deconversion. Would it be only a deconversion from the Evangelical/charismatic flavor of Christianity that I had embraced, or would it go further — I wasn’t certain.
My First Deconversion Step
So how did I make that first step in my deconversion? It was not because I had deeply studied the Bible to find passages to support Universalism. But instead, after one year of wonderful encounters with people of many different faiths, and also those who were religion-free, I could no longer belief/feel that they were all be going to hell simply because they didn’t believe what I believed.
My hitchhike from Europe to Asia was made without money and had been fraught with dangers. But I was kept safe by the kindness of people I had met on the journey — people of many faiths. I was privilege to the generosity from many of them. I saw the hearts of many people, for without common languages, the heart is often all I could see. Also, at the end of that journey, I worked with Christian missionary groups both in Pakistan and India and I had a chance to compare the kindness of Christians and the kindness of these “pagans”.
I saw that a good heart could be shared by Christians, other faiths and the religion-free folks alike. I started seeing that beliefs were more like clothing we wear than the substance of our souls. Our beliefs are for appearance and to keep us warm (among fellow believers), but beneath, our real selves remain unchanged by the clothing we call beliefs.
My Second Deconversion Step
These universalist doubts alienated my Wheaton Christian friends from me. By that time in my life, all my friends were Christian and now I could tell they were all very uncomfortable in our conversations and so they avoided me and that isolation help nurture my doubts.
That isolation accompanied on my walk that autumn evening. But I still believed in God and his son Jesus and I still prayed often. But this evening, as I walked and as I finished my prayer-conversation with God, I ended my prayer with only a simple “Amen”. Then I remembered, “Oooops, wait ! I need to add ‘in Jesus’ name‘, because as a Christian, that is what makes my prayer effective. It is only through Jesus that God hears our prayers.”
These verses chastised me:
I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me[a] for anything, I will do it. –John 14:13-14 (NRSV)
And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him. — 1 John 5:14-15 (NRSV)
But then a huge wave of embarrassment of such a silly thought came over me as I thought of all the sincere non-believers who I had met in the last two years who don’t tag on the Jesus coupon to get their prayers heard. I thought of their heart-filled prayers and of their love of their gods and ideals — Hindu, Muslims and Buddhist. I remembered their commitment to following sacrificial love and their giving without expecting in return. I had been the recipient of such kindness on my Asian sojourn. And yet, my simple Christian belief was that without finishing their prayers correctly (without using my god), these fine people had prayers that were meaningless before God. God could not even hear their prayers because they did not tag on the Jesus coupon.
“No, no, don’t think like that.” My mind said to itself. “Don’t doubt! Stay faithful! It may seem simple and heartless, but remember Jesus’ sacrifice, his resurrection, and how he paid the debt of sin. God’s ways are not man’s way. It may seem complicated, but it is the truth. You are a mere vessel, how dare you doubt !”
But in spite of all the warnings that my Jesus-brain was now giving me, it was too late. I could feel the momentum of doubt cracking the wall of hypnotism I had voluntarily constructed during the last six years of my Christian life.
Consequences of Doubt
Then I shivered as realizing that I was actually entertaining de-converting. And I knew that if I de-converted I would loose my girlfriend, all my friends and my dreams of my future Christian life. After all, I graduated with a Psychology degree from Wheaton College so I could do Christian Psychology and help believers in their doubts and their suffering. What was I doing? Here I was, just out of college for 1 year and still living in the city of Wheaton safely surrounded by my Christian community and if I continued on this path, I would loose it all.
“Wow”, I thought, “I am hesitating with pursuing this doubt because I am afraid of the social loss.”
Ironically, it seemed that I had a deeper choice than mere belief, I was now about to make a decision between following the truth wherever it may take me or to staying committed to my beliefs because of what they offered me. And with that insight, when I saw how simple this choice was, I chose truth.
And indeed, eventually, I did lose all my Wheaton friends, my girlfriend, my imagined career and a whole community. All that knowledge of the Bible would mean nothing in my new world. It felt like I had to start over. What I did not foresee, was that I would gain many more good-hearted friends from various belief systems — religious and otherwise– without needing to sacrifice truth. And indeed, operating from our human commonality with honesty gave me a supportive community more quickly than I imagined. A life without my invisible friend Jesus and my true source of knowledge, the Bible, was not as empty as I had imagined.
- See my view of self here to see how beliefs are more complicated than we imagine.
- It was not until decades later that I learned how some flavors (a minority) of Christianity believed in universalism.