For well over a billion people, Christianity is the only religion. It guides their lives and thoughts from birth to death. It has existed, in various forms, for close to two thousand years now. In many ways, Christianity is an inextricable part of the history of the last two millennia.
This was the religion of my birth. I attended a Baptist Church for as long as I can remember. I believed completely that the Bible was the sole Word of God, perfect and inerrant in every way. I believed completely that God made the Universe in six days, that Adam and Eve were literal historic figures, and that Noah really did build an ark to save himself from a worldwide flood. I sincerely believed that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and that at any moment I could be raptured, taken out of the earth to be with Christ.
In later life, I defended the inerrancy of the Bible, defended Christian doctrine against the encroachment of the 'cults', and actively attempted to convert the unbelievers. Christianity and the Bible dominated my thinking and actions.
Throughout all of this, however, there were a few things that worried me. In particular, the doctrine that God would send unbelievers to Hell for eternity seemed to strike me as uncompassionate, and not a little capricious. It worried me that there were billions of people who were born into non-Christian religions, and thus had very little hope of ever hearing about Christian salvation. I could not understand how God would punish them for an accident of birth.
Of course, Christian apologists had a ready answer for this. "God reveals Himself through Nature", I was told, "the unbelievers will be judged on how well they responded to that Revelation." Despite the fact that this doctrine does not appear in the New Testament (and, in fact, is specifically contradicted by the Bible in several places), it mollified me a little.
However, there was another problem - what about those who had heard, and yet consciously rejected the Plan of Salvation? The answer, in this case, was unequivocal - they were to be consigned to Hell forever, with no hope of reprieve. But, does this make sense? There are hundreds of competing Revelations, all of which offer their own paths to God. I had to admit that there was, in the final analysis, no foolproof way of discriminating between the various claims. God, it appears, had not chosen to make one unmistakable, incontestable revelation of Himself. Would it therefore make sense for Him to condemn a person for rejecting Christ? Would he punish a person forever, for exercising their God-given critical faculties? It was hard to escape the conclusion that God was playing some sort of cosmic guessing game, with eternal damnation as the prize for those who, on the basis of insufficient information, guessed wrong.
Then there was the problem of God's conduct during Old Testament times. Did He really command the Israelites to commit genocide on more than one occasion? Did He really require them to kill women and children, along with the men? And if so, what does this tell us about God's character? What about His much-vaunted attributes of Mercy, Compassion, Love and Justice?
There were many other questions that bothered me, questions that appeared to have no ready answer. For example, I was well aware that other, long-dead religious traditions taught the myth of the savior-God, who died for the sins of Mankind. Other traditions held that their Saviors were virgin-born. And still others taught that God existed in Three Persons, and celebrated a Eucharist very similar to that recorded in the New Testament.
The break came when I finally realized that the apologetic method that I was using to defend the Bible could just as easily be used to defend other Holy Books. I finally began to recognize my own arguments applied by Mormons to the Book of Mormon, and by Muslims to the Koran. There was no difference.
Today I am an Atheist. However, I do not feel cheated or disappointed by my decades as a Christian. I feel that I learned a lot during those times, and was very happy, for the most part. I am simply glad that I learned the truth, before it was too late, and I arrived at the end of my life having wasted it all on worthless pursuits and meaningless dreams.
Contents Copyright 1997 Curt van den Heuvel
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