Several years ago, it was fashionable to write online articles that sounded like they were announcing a divorce, but when one read them, it turned out that they were about the opposite. “I’m divorcing selfishness so I can stay married” – that kind of thing. It was then that I first had the idea for this blog. It happened that, around the same time, an old acquaintance of mine announced that he had departed from the Christian faith and become an atheist. Not long after this announcement, he published a book chronicling his journey. I knew Fernando from the Christian Club at Imperial Valley College. He was not a close friend, but I always liked him, and had the impression that his vice was the versa (in other words, I think he liked me too).
What struck me about his story was that there were some similarities between us, though there were also many differences. One of the similarities was that we had both earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Christian institutions, and had spent time in ministries of various sorts. My purpose here is not to interact with Fernando’s story or his book, though the book is well worth reading – especially for a Christian. No, Fernando’s story is certainly more colorful than many who quietly leave the Christian religion behind, but I have known many who have trod a similar path. When a person who was once part of the church renounces faith, we usually call such a person an “apostate.”
I grew up in the church, came to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior at seven years old, and have almost always been involved in some sort of ministry since then. I graduated from a Christian college and Seminary, and have taught at a Christian college and worked as a Pastor. In that time, I have known many who have never strayed from their profession of faith, and I have known some who have walked away from it. When people who formerly professed Christ walk away, this raises many questions. Did they lose their salvation? I personally believe in the doctrine of eternal security, so I would say “absolutely not.” Were they false professors who were never saved to begin with (1 John 2:19)? In some cases, I think so. Were they prodigals – true believers who are currently going through a time of rebellion but will ultimately return to following the Lord (Luke 15:11-31)? In some cases, again, I think so. Which is which? I confess that I don’t always know, and God will sort it out. Clarity on these issues is not the point of this blog, rather, the point is to discuss why some people fall away and why, in some very crucial moments, I did not.
Like so many things we encounter in Christian theology, the question of continuing in the faith has a divine and a human perspective. What I mean is that there is a dimension relating to God’s sovereign control, and an issue relating to choices on the part of human beings. If I ask the question of why I never gave up my faith, from the divine side, it is because it is a gift God gave me, and he has preserved it (Phil 1:6, 29). This angle removes any possibility of saying I continued to believe because I was stronger, or in any way better, than those who fell away. But simply looking at the divine side will not do. Otherwise Christians would have no need to evangelize the lost because we could rest in the secure knowledge (perfectly biblical) that God’s sovereign plan will ensure that His elect will be saved. And, of course, we could cite many other examples. Simply citing God’s sovereignty will not quite do.
Looking at it from the human side, we see that people walk away for a number of reasons. For those I have known personally, the reasons cited are usually intellectual objections, but when one knows more of their story, the crisis turning point usually involved a personal encounter with tragedy, evil or suffering. So often the story goes something like this: a person who professed to be a Christian will have an encounter with evil or suffering, this encounter causes them to question God, then the objections to Christianity start to make a lot of sense. The person may have heard them dozens of times before, but they were not ready to take them seriously then. Or, in some cases, the experience with pain and suffering will cause a person to go in search of the best philosophical objections to God. My point is not to pass judgment, but to observe that, in my own experience, this is what usually happens. There are, of course, always objections.
Better men than me have answered the intellectual objections to Christianity. Some find these answers helpful, many do not. But I want to share a little of my own struggles with the God of the Bible and the Christian faith. I want to share some of my own reflections from my own responses to crises moments in my faith. To put it another way, I want to explain why I stayed and why I’m staying.
None of my “I” or “my” statements in the following paragraphs are intended as a dig at anyone else. This is my story, and thus I am telling it.
My first and only encounter with a personal health crisis was when I was eleven years old. My renal vein was blocked and I experienced pain that was so severe I went into seizures and blacked out. I was life flighted to Children’s Hospital in San Diego. At one point I had a 50% chance of survival, and the doctors were sure I was going to have to spend my life on blood thinners. But for reasons that medical science could not explain away, the blockage unblocked without medical intervention and I made a complete recovery. A lot of people were praying for me and God was merciful. As I got better, being in the hospital turned out to be a great deal of fun. At this time, I never questioned my faith. I’m sure that this would have been very difficult for my mother and father if they had lost their baby boy. But baby boy survived, even if he never grew up.
At different times in my college and seminary studies, I had to wrestle hard with deep philosophical questions related to the truth or falsehood of Christianity. In theological seminary, in particular, I could not hide from these questions. After all the sleepless nights wrestling at the intellectual Jabbok (cf., Gen 32:22-32), my faith came out stronger than ever. But the greatest challenges were yet to come.
The greatest challenge to my faith has been witnessing the suffering my wife has undergone. Unlike my health crisis when I was 11 years old, my wife has to endure chronic suffering due to Lyme disease and many related issues. As Lyme has compromised her immune system, she has a toxic reaction to certain kinds of mold. At different times, this has meant that we endured semi-homelessness, living in campgrounds because we could not find other moldless shelter. Along with this, she has endured chronic pain, and a good deal of other sicknesses because her immune system cannot function properly. Many times her life has been in danger, and many times she has had to endure horrible suffering. Some have said that watching someone you love suffer is far worse than suffering yourself. I believe this is true.
The details of our story need not be chronicled here, but in all my wife’s suffering, pain, and our periodical semi-homelessness, I often battled with feelings of despair, depression, inadequacy and anger. I know our atheist friends blow an aneurism when someone says they are mad at God, and I want to respect the sanctity of those aneurisms, but since I never became an atheist I can say freely that I was mad at God, intensely and often. One possible outlet for that anger could have been to try to get even by denying His existence, but it would have been just that, an attempt to get even by denying His existence.
What we are talking about here is what theologians call “the problem of evil.” This problem has to do with the question of how a good God can allow so much evil and suffering in the world. Christian philosophers and theologians have, in my opinion, explained this problem on an intellectual level, but explaining it on an intellectual level is just not enough. I am reminded of a scene in the film “Maverick,” when Mel Gibson tells an angry cowboy that he had tried to cheat, “shooting me isn’t gonna make you any richer.” The cowboy responded, “Sure is gonna make me feel a lot better.” Apologetical solutions to the problem of evil have the reverse effect. They might (or might not) be intellectually satisfying, but that sure doesn’t make a suffering person feel any better.
For me, like so many, my faith was severely challenged when suffering came knocking on my own door. This led me to a situation of considering whether I could continue to believe in the God of the Bible when my wife was experiencing such terrible suffering. The results of some of these musings is what follows:
What struck me most of all was that, unlike Siddhārtha Gautama, the reality of suffering in the world was never a secret that was kept from me. I remember as a small child hearing about how many, including small children like me, were starving to death in Ethiopia. In the following years I would hear about massacres in Somalia, the Balkan Peninsula, Darfur, and many others. As I studied history, I learned that the world has a long history of carnage and suffering. These kinds of facts were known to me from almost the beginning of my life, and they were confirmed again and again by world events and my own studies in history. Yet, for all that knowledge, these famines and massacres had never put my faith to the test. I had believed that there was a reason, even if it was beyond my understanding, that a good God would allow this. If I were to suddenly deny my faith just because suffering touched me personally, what kind of faith would that have been to begin with? What kind of hollow and insipid faith says “I accept a good God and the reality of suffering as long as me and mine are not the ones doing the suffering”?
Another factor for me was that fact that the Bible was required reading for me as a child. I am not necessarily advocating required Bible reading for children. I know that, for some, it is a source of resentment. But for me it was a wonderful thing to grow up reading the Bible. I completed my first reading of the entire Bible at the age of nine. This meant that I did not have a lot of time to hide from the Book of Job and 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, etc. The Bible gives no illusions about the realities of suffering. Liars and false prophets are quick to say that a person who follows God faithfully will not suffer, but God’s Word gives no such indication. If I was wrestling with the reality of the God of the Bible, and the Bible had always been clear about the reality of suffering, then why would it suddenly challenge my faith if suffering touched me personally? I realized quickly what the answer would be, namely, a deep-seated conviction that I and my loved ones were more important than everyone else. My apostacy would have arisen form some idea that we deserved a special place before God. Whatever the origins of such a conviction, it has nothing to do with biblical faith.
I had the opportunity to think deeply about my own faith. In the end, I found that, however imperfect it might be, it was real. I had a real relationship with the living God. One that began when I was seven years old and never stopped. I say this, not to brag about my faith (something that, from a biblical worldview, is nonsensical, cf., Rom 3:27-28, 4:3;Eph 2:9, etc.), but to focus on yet another reason that I did not walk away from my faith. The relationship was real. I know it is a loaded deck question to ask an atheist whether he or she ever had a real relationship with God. Of course, one who denies God’s existence is going to say “no.” But I still think there is a substantive point here. Some might say “I was delusional. I thought I had a relationship with God.” But that distinction makes all the difference. At the risk of sounding arrogant (or deluded, as you prefer), I did not and do not think I have a relationship with God. I did and do have one.
My father and I live in different cities. I have not seen him face to face since January. If I were to tell you all about him, you might doubt he existed. You might doubt that I have a father who is a freakishly strong seventh degree black belt in karate who can do advanced trigonometry and is currently becoming an expert in New Testament Greek. Unless we go to meet him together, I can’t prove that he exists, but you also can’t make me doubt it. As I sit here in my church office, my wife is at home. If you were to visit me, and I told you about her, I probably couldn’t prove to you that she existed. You could doubt the reality of this person and our relationship all you wanted, but that would not make me doubt it. This kind of argument might not be the stuff of intellectual brilliance. I know a good logician would point out a laundry list of logical fallacies. Fair enough. I would not make this the core of an apologetics textbook, but for those of us with a real relationship with the Living God and His Son Jesus Christ, this is an extremely powerful argument. If one has never truly tasted and seen that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8), then perhaps it is not so surprising if such an individual rejects the idea of God, whether because of intellectual challenges or the trials of life.
For me, the challenges of suffering came in a context of being well aware of suffering in the world, and of growing up reading a Bible that strongly affirmed this reality. All of my challenges came against the backdrop of a real relationship with God the Father through the salvation He provided in Jesus Christ, and His Holy Spirit living in me and not letting me go.
Having shared my experiences, I want to suggest two final points. Things that I believe are true and invite you to consider.
First, I believe that apostates are, generally speaking, closer to a real faith in God after renouncing their faith than they were before. As I said, I do recognize the category of prodigals. Those who have true faith but are in a time of rebellion. But unless we are dealing with a prodigal, I believe an apostate has renounced a false faith, and this brings them one step closer to finding a real one. So, when we see former professors denying the Christian faith, perhaps it is not as sad a situation as we think it is. Perhaps they are one step closer to a real encounter with God and the salvation he provides.
Second, though suffering is a challenge to the Christian faith, I would argue that the Christian faith is the only worldview that can do justice to the reality of suffering. Siddhārtha’s (The Buddha) solution to suffering was to simply dismiss it as an illusion. What an outrageous and horrible thing to tell a suffering person! “It’s not real, you are unenlightened.” It is real! The glory of Christianity is that we have a God who entered into our suffering in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ does not deny the reality of suffering. He suffered more greatly than anyone, and now invites us into a glorious future where He makes all things new (Rev 21:5). True Christianity does not seek to avoid the reality of suffering. It looks it in the face and provides an ultimate solution, though God’s patience with the lost means that his people need a good deal of patience while they wait for the future (2 Peter 3:9).
He is real. This is true. And so I echo the famous words of Charlie Brown: “Here I stay!”
Note: This blog was in no way written in response to Jon
Steingard’s renunciation of the Christian faith. I had begun writing before he
made his announcement.
 Fernando Alcantar, To The Cross and Back: An Immigrant’s Journey from Faith to Reason (Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing, 2015).
 From the Greek word ἀποστασία, “defiance of established or authority, rebellion, abandonment, breach of faith (Bauer, Walter, F. W. Danker, W. F. Arndt, and F. W. Gingrich, eds. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature,3d ed. [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000], 120).
 Among the many works on this subject that many have found helpful are C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1952, 1980), and Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008). I have found both of these books helpful, but I must confess that the Chronicles of Narnia have done far more for my faith than Mere Christianity.
 E.g., Robert A. Pyne, Humanity & Sin (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1999), 194-206; D. A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990).
 Aka, the Buddha. Tradition has it that Siddhārtha’s family were careful to keep the realities of human sufferings hidden from him, but one night he snuck out of the palace and came face to face with it. This experience was an influential part of the development of his views that the world, including suffering in it, is an allusion.
 The Ethiopia famine of 1983-85 claimed an estimated 1.2 million lives.