No True Christian

I’m willing to bet that any atheist who has spent any time discussing religion online has come across the suggestion that anyone who no longer believes, never truly believed in the first place. An ex-Christian was never a “real” Christian. Commenter al expressed this opinion about myself and Lorena over on Fallen And Flawed a few weeks ago.

… because Jesus Christ has promised that [1] whoever comes to Him He will never cast out, and that [2] no one (not even ourselves) is able to pluck us from His hand, therefore:
There can be no such person as a former Christian– only those who think they were once Christians but never really were.

This idea is not dissimilar to the perseverance of the saints – “once saved, always saved” thinking of Calvinism. Leaving aside the theological geekery, the obvious first response to this is that al is committing the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, which can be expressed as:

220px-porridge“No true Scotsman would have sugar in his porridge.”
“My uncle Hamish is Scottish and he has sugar in his porridge.”
“Well, then your uncle Hamish is not a true Scotsman.”

The pertinent question here being whether the first speaker is trying to make a generalisation about true Scotsmen, or to define what a true Scotsman is – that is, someone who does not have sugar in his porridge. As most people already have a reasonable definition of what a Scotsman is, to redefine it here without saying so explicitly is misleading. If this is what the first speaker had intended it would be better phrased as, “The definition of a true Scotsman is someone who does not have sugar in his porridge” and perhaps some other criteria such as country of birth or parentage.

In al’s case, the assertion comes from the bible, which he interprets as “There can be no such person as a former Christian”. To a biblical literalist it seems, any conclusion – no matter how much of a stretch it is – is better than the bible being wrong. And yet there are plenty of people who changed their mind about Christianity. So, when faced with atheists who claim that they genuinely believed as Christians before changing their minds, apologists are left with few choices.

One is to say that these former believers are lying and only pretending not to believe because they hate God or want to live as they please.

Slightly more charitably, they can claim the ex-Christian was mistaken and didn’t have a genuine relationship with Jesus in the first place. This is what al does.

You both have obviously tried something– church, a belief system, the counsel of others, I don’t know what– but something that represents itself as Christ. But it was not Him, and you have discarded the baby with the bathwater.

Note the subtle shift here. We’re no longer talking about people “being Christians” as most of the world understands it, but the relationship with an invisible, intangible muslim-woman-at-prayer240Christ. Christians may complain that it is the same thing, but there’s a difference. The world at large does not define people as belonging to a particular religion on the basis of some invisible supernatural relationship. How could they? Nor do people look inside the heads of professed believers and see all their beliefs – they can only see the way people act and trust what they say they believe. If for example someone says they’re a Muslim, if they attend to Muslim prayers and regularly visit the mosque as other professed Muslims do, then it’s quite reasonable to call them a Muslim. The statistics which show there are around 2 billion Christians in the world are not based on observing whether they each have a genuine relationship with Christ. They’re probably based on what which box they tick on census or identification forms.

However, al says, with an air of authority, “But it was not Him”. I doubt he would claim any special insight into our former religious beliefs. He is inferring that our Christian belief was not a genuine relationship with his god by the simple fact that we no longer believe it. It seems he is making a new definition of what a true Christian is – that is, someone who does not lose their faith or change their mind about Christianity.

However, there are some interesting implications of this viewpoint. If this is not the only way to identify a true Christian, then there is potential for a contradiction. If for example professional ministry or daily prayer were considered proof of genuine Christianity, then there are already many examples of “real” Christians who have become atheists.

On the other hand, if there are no other certain indications of true Christianity that rather throws doubt on everyone. The effect is that there’s no certainty whether anyone, however enthusiastic they might be about Jesus, is a true Christian by al’s definition.

So, if we run with his definition, al can’t be certain that there are any true Christians. I’m sure his relationship seems pretty real to him, but even he could change his mind at a later date.

In one sense I’d agree – I was never in a genuine relationship with Jesus because, as far as I can tell, no such person exists. However, at the time, my belief was entirely genuine, as I would assume al’s still is.

28 thoughts on “No True Christian

  1. I’ve often seen the NTC argument used, not only for us atheists, but for any Xian who a) does “bad” things, b) believes a slightly different dogma or c) once got a tattoo. It can be a real catch-all.

  2. I was hoping that people would come over here to have the conversation, but they had it at my blog. Sorry.

    I must say, though, that they wrote some interesting comments. I truly enjoyed answering each one of them. It is as if when I was trying to find something to write, what they were really saying became abundantly clear.

    I really believe that when Christians say we were never Christians, what they mean is, “I don’t know what else to say to convince you.”

    Some Christians also say that fallen pastors and psychopathic killers were not true Christians. But I realized that since in the eyes of God all sins are the same size and a murder is the same as a lustful thought, then nobody is a true Christian.

    Thank you for writing about this. It gave me a lot of food for thought.

  3. Postman,
    Yeah I think it is so popular is because it’s a catch-all. It’s very easy to fall into saying this kind of thing, along with other equivocation.

    Lorena,
    Glad you liked it. Yes, you may be right about them not knowing what else to say. Often it’s hard to see things from another person’s perspective and we end up with inaccurate projections or woolly excuses.

  4. i think the distinction between receiving salvation in christ and calling one’s self a christian because one goes to church or because one prays to god needs to be made. the issue isn’t whether or not you considered yourself a christian and now you don’t but whether or not you have been received by christ, made righteous by his blood. the scriptures are very clear that there are many who think they will enter the kingdom but instead will be cast out. its not enough to just believe that jesus is the christ – for even the devil and his angels believe and tremble.

  5. lorena,

    But I realized that since in the eyes of God all sins are the same size and a murder is the same as a lustful thought, then nobody is a true Christian.

    this is bad theology and not supported by scripture – is this what you were taught in your faith?

  6. Jason,

    I have a lot to say about your comment. But I won’t. Reach your own conclusions and say what you will.

    If you want to know what I was taught, my blog has over 3 years of blog posts that can help you with that.

  7. Jason, that’s what my church taught me. As a matter of fact I’ve heard that preached from the pulpit at many different churches. “All sin is the same in God’s eye!”, they say.

  8. Eshu, I find amusing that the same people who say that once you are saved you’ll never change your mind, are the same ones that give the freewill argument in response to the problems of evil and hell.

  9. lorena,

    that’s too bad. sounds like you may have some strong feelings on the subject – i think it would’ve been an interesting dialogue. unfortunately, i don’t really have the time to sift through the last three years of your blog but i’ve been peeking in from time to time as of recently.

    robert,

    it may have been what was taught to you or preached by the pastor of your church but i assure that it is not a concept based on scripture.

  10. Eshu,
    Nice post. I won’t bother responding to Jason. His mind is made up, and he obviously has a lock on the “right” interpretation of scripture – he’s a True Christian. Except, of course, that he’s not, because the state of being a Christian is a figment of the imagination. Since the Christian god is imaginary, all relationships with him are also imaginary.

  11. “…i assure that it is not a concept based on scripture.”

    Jesus and pals beg to differ:

    “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder,a and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brotherb will be subject to judgment” – Matt 4:21-22

    “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” – Matt 4:27-28

    “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” – James 2:10

    “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” – Romans 3:23-24

    “Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness” – 1 John 3:4-5

    But of course, jason is a True Scotsm- er, Christian, as the chaplain has pointed out, so anyone who disagrees with him must be wrong. Even if that “anyone” happens to be the apostle Paul, or Jesus himself… After all, what would they know about Christanity?

  12. hello yunshui,

    i think there might be some confusion here. the concept that i disagree with, the concept that i do not find supported by scripture, is that all sins are equally weighted and carry the same judgment. now, that’s not to be confused with the doctrine of physical and spiritual death that, without the salvation of christ, is the end result of sin. make no mistake, without justification none of us would be admitted into the presence of god at all. the scriptures, however, make clear that there are two judgments. one to separate those redeemed by christ from those who aren’t and the second to judge both groups according their works. this second judgment is what i am referring to. there are multiple verses that clearly support the logical premise that there will be different severities of reward or consequence based on what a person did (or did not do) in this life. the verses you point to are referencing the first judgment. if you like, i could provide the verses that are relevant to this.

  13. Well, you could – but to be honest, I’m really not terribly interested. The verses I’ve listed above are some of those cited by Christians to support the position that all sins are equal. No doubt you have an equal amount of quotes which can be interpreted to show the opposite. Since I don’t believe either position is correct – I don’t believe in your god, the sin that supposedly seperates us from him, the validity of your holy book, or the theology that underpins either viewpoint – it doesn’t matter one jot to me which side is “right”, or indeed, which side can quote the most Bible. My point is simply that there’re a bunch of Christians out there who do believe that all sins are equal, and can use scripture to back up their viewpoint. They say you’re wrong, you say they’re wrong, yadda yadda yadda. The confusing, poorly-edited, self-contradictory Bible you both use can provide support for both of you, but in the end, it comes down to what you want to believe.

    Thank you, incidentally, for providing a near-perfect illustration of Eshu’s point.

  14. yunshui,

    you make a good point. it does come down to belief – faith actually. i have faith that we are created, ordered beings, carefully thought out, and purposefully made in a created, ordered, carefully thought out, purposefully made universe. you have faith that we are the descendants of one-celled organisms that somehow spontaneously arose from non-living matter in an environment that would be as inconducive to life as one could possibly imagine – and these early ancestors of ours not only survived in such a hostile place but thrived in it. oh, and they also coincidentally had the amazing innate ability to reproduce exact replicas of themselves. oh, and this all takes place in a incredibly vast universe that was formed from…nothing? in a giant explosion. what exploded and why? and how did it form anything? oh, and don’t forget the question of the origin of the matter that caused this explosion in the first place. well, never you mind what the exact details were that allowed these natural-laws-of-the-universe defying events to happen – no one knows. yeah…i’d say that takes as much faith as believing in a creator. even more, maybe.

  15. Jason,

    You are also offering a perfect example of the Christian’s debate method. When backed into a corner, come up with a different issue.

    The main issue here is that Biblical interpretations are unreliable because they’re personal. The book is so contradictory and vague, that anybody can–and does–interpret it in whatever way he/she wants. Your interpretation is one of them. Yet you boldly came here to say that the theology I was talking about was BAD.

    Stick to the issue. Do not move along to evolution now that you’ve insisted on talking about a particular interpretation of the Bible.

    And since I finally decided to speak out, I will ask you a question, but I will not hold my breath for a sound answer.

    The main Biblical passage for the theology that all sins are equally bad is the Sermon on the Mount, thinking equally bad as executing. What do the words of Jesus have to do with the White Throne Judgment? He seems to have been completely unaware of your Josh-McDowell-like convoluted theology.

    Why would a merciful God come up with such complicated explanations if he wants everybody to be “saved,” anyway?

  16. “you have faith that we are the descendants of one-celled organisms that somehow spontaneously arose from non-living matter in an environment that would be as inconducive to life as one could possibly imagine – and these early ancestors of ours not only survived in such a hostile place but thrived in it. oh, and they also coincidentally had the amazing innate ability to reproduce exact replicas of themselves. oh, and this all takes place in a incredibly vast universe that was formed from…nothing? in a giant explosion.”

    Yes. Although I also have what we in the trade like to call “evidence” for said beliefs, from such diverse fields as astrophysics, geology, paleobotany, biochemistry, cosmology, tectonic geomorphology, bacteriology, ecology, embryology, geodesy, minerology, genetics, petrology, thermodynamics and paleontology. You have a Bronze Age myth. Good luck with that.

    But as Lorena pointed out, you’re dodging the issue. Shall we get back to the topic at hand?

  17. lorena,

    i didn’t realize this was a debate – for me its just an interesting dialogue. my last post was in response to yunshui’s point on personal belief. was it a sarcastic shot at the atheistic belief system? sure – but i think that’s fair considering all the snarky sarcasm that’s thrown around about christianity here. by the way, i didn’t reference evolution at all in that post. as any darwinist would be quick to point out, the origins of life and the formation of the universe have nothing to do with evolution. i personally think that trying to figure out where humans came from before having an idea where life came from (much less all the matter and energy in the universe) is putting the proverbial cart before the horse but that’s neither here nor there.

    as to your question –

    What do the words of Jesus have to do with the White Throne Judgment?

    What jesus was saying was do not be like the pharisees and only have the outward appearance of righteousness. They were considered to be holy men and keepers of the law – respected and politically powerful but jesus compared them to tombs in a cemetery – outwardly beautiful but inside full of dead man’s bones. He was saying sin can be committed not just by the physical act of doing but also the inward act of thinking and that we should guard against sin from pervading our minds as well as our actions. now, sin (of any type) carries the ultimate consequence of judgment unless we are justified by Christ, however, all judgment will not be the same. 2 corinthians 5:10 shows this – “for we must all appear before the judgment seat of christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” as does psalms 62:10 – “and that you, o lord, are loving. surely you will reward each person according to what he has done. and romans 2:6 – god will give to each person according to what he has done. and also – revelation 2:21 – “then all the churches will know that i am he who searches hearts and minds, and i will repay each of you according to your deeds”. i think scripture makes pretty clear that although sin leads to judgment and separation from god, not all sin is weighted equally and a perfectly just god won’t judge a person who never received christ but led what we would call a decent life in the same manner as he would, oh, let’s say adolph hitler, or a serial child rapist and murderer.

  18. yunshui,

    you have verifiable evidence that life originated from inanimate, nonliving matter? and also have verifiable evidence that all the matter and energy in the universe sprang forth from nothing? wow… you better contact a science publication of some sort because i think there’s a nobel with your name on it.

  19. ** What jesus was saying was do not be like the pharisees and only have the outward appearance of righteousness. They were considered to be holy men and keepers **

    There we go. A long winded explanation for a piece of scripture so it will fit your own particular brand of Christianity. Bible verses could easily be arranged to arrive at a completely different conclusion. Others interpret the Sermon differently, and because it doesn’t fit your “theology,” you call it “bad theology.”

    But there are tens of ways to explain that passage, Jason. Describing an interpretation which differs from yours as “wrong” is plainly arrogant.

    As for me, the fact that someone’s eternal salvation may depend on a particular manipulation of this-or-that Bible verse makes the Bible completely unreliable and unworthy of a so-called just, loving God.

    Regarding the word DEBATE, this became a DEBATE the second you minimized my Bible knowledge by calling my statement BAD THEOLOGY.

    Perhaps if you are not interested in coming across as a debater, you should stay clear of language that may sound condescending to your readers.

  20. lorena,
    where is there room for interpretation in a verse such as 2 corinthians 5:10 – “for we must all appear before the judgment seat of christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” the answer is, of course, none nor is there any muddied waters in the passages that describe the events of the sermon on the mount. jesus is followed around by a lot of people and so he takes his disciples up the mountain and begins teaching. the first thing he tells them is what kind of people will receive blessings, the second is that they (the disciples) will be the bearers of his message, and the third is the he (jesus) is the fulfillment of the law. this third topic he begins with a calling out of the pharisees – “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

    he then goes on to teach on a number of issues prefacing each one with “you have heard it said…”. well, said by who? naturally, the teachers of the law – the pharisees – for he is speaking about the law. he then goes on – “but i tell you…” and then finishes each teaching. its clear that jesus is teaching his disciples to not do what the pharisees do, don’t use them as an example – but to listen to him instead because as he stated earlier, he was the embodiment and the fulfillment of the law. and to emphasize his point he illustrates a number of the things the pharisees did which the disciples should not emulate – praying in an obvious manner in a public setting, giving to the poor with fanfare so that others may see it, when fasting, making it obvious with facial expressions, etc…

    these passages are clear, concise, laid out well and well written. i just don’t see that they are open to interpretation. a little study of the full gospel to gain an understanding of the setting and the context is all that might be required for the meaning to be made clear. i suppose anyone, though, can use the excuse of “there’s too many interpretations to know what to beleive”. and if you think about, anything and everything could potentially be open to interpretation – robinson crusoe could actually be about a man that takes an extended, tropical vacation and meets some eccentric culinary artists while there.

  21. lorena,

    i also meant to extend an apology to you in the last post. if i was condescending and that was hurtful and/or insulting to you i am sorry – that wasn’t my intent.

  22. where is there room for interpretation in a verse such as 2 corinthians 5:10

    Jason,

    I don’t believe that the Bible is either innerrant or inspired by a God, so you may cite verses galore and it will make no difference. To me, Paul was a schizofrenic, legalistic, women hater cult leader. Sorry, but the issue is deeper that the interpretation of a single verse.

    The Bible I know. Whether the writers were for real is a different ball game.

    When I was a Christian, by the way, I was your type of Christian. So, I know exactly what you are trying to say. But I already rejected those explanations. Nice try, though.

  23. lorena,

    what exactly, then, is the issue? i have read through the earliest posts of the archives on your blog (i know i said i wouldn’t but i changed my mind) and i haven’t yet read anything specific that points to the event or moment that you came to the realization that you no longer had faith. of course, it might be there, i haven’t read through all of it yet. i did read a few passages in which you were very displeased with the character of some of the people that attended your church and the hypocrisy you saw in them was disheartening for you. was it more than this? an accumulation of things you witnessed at your church? i’d be interested to know.

    to be fair – i’ll tell you what it was for me. it was logical really. the moment i realized that there must be a creator was the day i asked myself this – if matter and energy can neither be destroyed nor produced, where then did it come from? you see, according to physics (which i know a little something about), everything must have a cause and something cannot come from nothing. even today there is no sufficient explanation for the origin of all the matter and energy in the universe. sufficient, of course, being the key word as i’ve heard theories ranging from – it all leaked in from another parallel universe where the laws of physics are radically different from this universe’s (no kidding – an actual respected particle physicist believes this) to the good old big bang which again cannot sufficiently explain the origin of the singularity that caused this universe-forming explosion. i thought about for some time and could only conclude that it was created by a source that itself had no cause because if it had a cause it would produce an infinite linear paradox.

    only years later did i come across this idea expressed by someone else only in a more eloquent manner –

    There are two other “Universal Laws” that we see demonstrated in everything we examine in the world around us.

    1. There is no new mass/energy coming into existence anywhere in the universe, and every bit of that original mass/energy is still here.

    2. Every time something happens (an event takes place), some of the energy becomes unavailable.

    The First Law tells us that matter (mass/energy) can be changed, but can neither be created nor destroyed. The Second Law tells us that all phenomena (mass/energy) continually proceed to lower levels of usefulness.

    In simple terms, every cause must be at least as great as the effect that it produces—and will, in reality, produce an effect that is less than the cause. That is, any effect must have a greater cause.

    When this universal law is traced backwards, one is faced again with the possibility that there is an ongoing chain of ever-decreasing effects, resulting from an infinite chain of nonprimary ever-increasing causes. However, what appears more probable is the existence of an uncaused Source, an omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, and Primary, First Cause.

  24. ** What exactly, then, is the issue? i have read through the earliest posts of the archives on your blog (i know i said i wouldn’t but i changed my mind) and i haven’t yet read anything specific that points to the event or moment that you came to the realization that you no longer had faith.

    Why are you looking for a moment? De-conversion isn’t a moment. It’s a process. After a while, the evidence accumulates and you walk away disheartened but sure that Christianity is a well-concocted myth.

    ** you were very displeased with the character of some of the people that attended your church

    My church? More like 25 churches in several countries. I saw it all and heard it all, Jason. Including going to Bible school and reading the Book several times in two different languages.

    Seeing the inconsistent beliefs and behaviour of other Christians pushed me to research whether the Bible was for real, and it wasn’t.

    ** if matter and energy can neither be destroyed nor produced, where then did it come from?

    Evolution is on my to-be-studied pile, Jason. It isn’t important enough to me, because I do not need to know where everything came from. I know for sure, though, that the creation story is a ridiculous children’s tale, unsuitable for intelligent adults.

    ** according to physics (which i know a little something about), everything must have a cause and something cannot come from nothing.

    I see. Like all other Christians, you also assume I know nothing about physics. Regardless though, even though I haven’t studied evolution enough to argue in its defence, I have a hard time believing that scientists postulate that everything came from nothing.

    Most likely what they’re saying is that some ENERGY transformed into differently shaped ENERGY. Keep in mind that pure atomic energy did destroy Nagasaki & Hiroshima.

    ** In simple terms, every cause must be at least as great as the effect that it produces—and will, in reality, produce an effect that is less than the cause. That is, any effect must have a greater cause.

    Ha! The physics professors that gave me the A’s would laugh at your “simple terms,” Jason.

    As for the greater cause, I’ve never seen any evidence of it. But if there be one, it surely wouldn’t be the arrogant, self-centered, blood thirsty God of the Bible. That I know. The Greater cause would be a humanist, not a mass murderer of women and children.

  25. Lorena,

    ** according to physics (which i know a little something about), everything must have a cause and something cannot come from nothing.
    I see. Like all other Christians, you also assume I know nothing about physics.

    Take it easy. To be fair, I don’t think Jason was implying that you (or any of us) don’t know about physics.

    However, I do think he’s falling into the trap that he sees something in science which is not fully understood or maybe beyond our knowledge and leaps to the conclusion that the entire Bible is true. Jason, I’m sure you’ll insist that there are a few steps in between there, but that’s basically how it looks from here.

  26. I totally Agree.
    I wrote this post where I put up a survey asking the Christian readers that question about me and 14% said I was never saved in the first place. It is much more comfortable to them. I once, inadvertently made a woman cry when I showed that she can not be secure in thinking her husband is saved because he could end up like me. To imagine such a fate for her family was painful. Funny !

  27. Interesting article,Thanks.I enjoyed it.I dont think there really are any ex christians in the sense of just because you have stopped believing in christ and stopped believing in God that he will stop walking with you,when in effect I would think hes bigger than that,Just because we turn our backs doesnt mean he does.

    Garnett

  28. Garnett,

    I’m afraid that seems like speculation to me. Christians disagree over this and so far as I can tell God hasn’t turned up to resolve the dispute.

    As a result you can say what you think God ought to be like: “I would think hes bigger than that” while others can say he’s completely different. If we’re interested in what’s true, this isn’t especially helpful.