Myth: Deconverted atheists were never really Christians
There are a couple of schools of thought with regard to how salvation “works.” One that is particularly well-known is that of “once saved, always saved,” based on passages like Hebrews 6:4-6, John 10:27-29, and Romans 8:38-39. The basic idea is that if someone is saved through belief in the tenets of the Christian faith, they can never be unsaved. This theology exists most commonly within Reformed thought (the “P” in TULIP – Perseverance of the Saints), but when someone deconverts from Christianity to atheism, it seems to become far more wide-spread.
Sometimes this is said because people want to believe that their once-saved friends and relatives are still saved and presumably going to heaven. But more often it’s believed for the contrasting reason, that being that the atheist was never saved in the first place because they never really believed.
Now, of course, there are some atheists who will read this and say, “Yup, that is me all the way.” However, I think it is far better to allow the person who believed or didn’t believe make this statement for themselves, rather than for us to make determinations about who was and was not a real believer.
I can understand why Christians might cling to the idea that the person was never really a believer. It can be frightening to see someone who, from all outside appearances, has the same faith that you do. It can be unnerving to realize that faith can be stripped away. Often it is easier to believe that they were never really believers in the first place than to believe that a loss of faith is possible.
In our relationship, Jason always had the stronger faith. In the times when I doubted or even simply had a more tempered faith, Jason was all in. There was never any question for me about the authenticity of his belief. This made the loss of faith surprising to me and did shake me up with regard to my own far weaker faith. It could have been easy for me to deny that he had a genuine faith for all of those years to shore up my own doubts, but the truth is, the one thing that I never doubted was that he had a real belief in God and the Christian faith for most of our marriage.
When we start to talk about whether or not someone was a “real believer,” we negate their story and that can be a hurtful thing. For a number of atheists who left the faith, there is a genuine sense of loss when they reject their former faith. And for many, what led them on the path toward atheism was a closer examination of the faith that meant so much to them. When we deny someone the opportunity to grieve that loss of faith by claiming that it never existed, we deny part of their humanity. We say that we know better than they what they believed and we are the arbiters of whose faith is legitimate and whose is counterfeit.
Rather than making assumptions about the veracity of someone’s prior faith, ask them about the experiences that led them away from that faith. I have found that most people who I have met are happy to share their journey with someone who is willing to listen.
Next week: Atheists find life meaningless
- I’m one Christian and my pool of atheist friends is not vast. If you want to know about what an atheist believes, ask them. Daniel at The Barking Atheist will be co-blogging with me for this series and he is as committed as I am to having a good conversation between Christians and atheists. Stop by his place for additional thoughts on each of these topics!
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