“You’re all going to Hell!” I heard as soon as I stepped off the subway. I sighed and looked around, trying to figure out which subway exit I should use to avoid, what I thought, was a drunk person fighting with police. Already. At twelve noon. On a Sunday. As I looked around I quickly discovered that there was no drunk person, but a loud, passionate woman on the other side of the station fervidly waving around what appeared to be a Bible. I sighed. She was one of those.
I should have kept walking but I stopped, starred, and listened. I watched as dozens of passengers on her side of the platform put in their earbuds, lifted the hoods of their jackets, and avoided eye contact with her as she spewed hateful words about “who God hates.” Her words burned my ears as she called people slurs, said they were “disgusting” and stated that God hated them. As I stood there, I was reminded exactly why I left “Christianity.” It was because of people like her.
When I Stopped Being A Christian
Six years ago I “walked away” from my faith. I was so fed up with “Christians” and people like that woman on the platform; people who were the antithesis of why I became a Christian in the first place.
I became a Christian when I was 9 years old at a Christian summer camp in New Hampshire. I still remember that moment so well. It was the middle of July and I was sitting on the wooden steps of my cabin. The camp was located in the middle of the woods and even though I was terrified of the dark, I stepped out onto the steps with my counselors because I just had to talk to them. That night at chapel, the pastor had shared how much God loves all of us. How much God loved me and wanted me. I often felt overwhelmed with loneliness and rejection growing up. I had been born to teen parents who, simply, were not ready for the responsibility of caring for the emotional needs of a child. Although my grandparents tried their best to give me a loving home I always did (and at times, still do) feel abandoned and rejected. So, to hear that the Creator of the Universe loved me and wanted me blew my mind. On those steps, I was so eager to have a relationship with God. I wanted him. And as I sat on those wooden steps, I don’t remember the words I said, but at that moment I began a relationship with God.
My faith over the next decade was rocky. I became caught up in the man-made rules of the faith and lost sight of the relationship. Although the relationship was always there, like the relationship with your first best friend, I didn’t nurture it and the relationship faded. My faith became a long list of rules. Specifically, a list of “do nots.” Don’t dress this way. Don’t listen to this kind of music. Don’t watch this kind of movie. Don’t date. Don’t kiss. Don’t have sex. If you do all of these things, I was explicitly and implicitly told then God would give me a good life…okay, that’s a very watered down version, but you get the point.
But, then the man-made rules failed me. And I was forced to reconsider my faith altogether. The unwinding of my faith began in August 2012, when I followed the young man I just “knew “I was going to marry, because we’d followed all the rules, 2000 miles away from home to college. The school was a Christian college so it was supposed to be safe for my religion of man-made rules. Or so I thought. But in actuality, it was anything but.
When I moved to college, I had no idea how much my life would be turned upside down.
As soon as I arrived at the college I knew it was different, because there were far less rules there than at the other Christian colleges I visited, or many of the Christian organizations I participated in growing up.
At my new college, there was no dress code. So I saw girls from my Bible classes, who clearly knew Jesus, walking around in outfits I had been taught Christians didn’t wear. Wait, what?
There was no kissing ban. Couples, who loved Jesus and stayed virgins until they were married, openly kissed each other on campus. Ummm, that’s a thing?
The university was inter-denomination. I met people who shared my faith but attended liturgical churches. No way.
And, to top it all off, my Biology professor, with whom I had shared many deep faith discussions and who clearly loved Jesus, taught theistic evolution as one of the possible ways God had created everything. Shut. The. Front. Door.
In the middle of all of my questioning, my boyfriend broke up with me. Although looking back, that really was the best decision for both of us, I felt betrayed by God. I did everything right. I was supposed to be rewarded, but instead of getting a pretty ring on my finger, I got a smashed heart. This wasn’t supposed to happen. If I followed the rules, which I did, this wasn’t supposed to happen. And I began to realize that not only were the “rules” I had followed frivolous, I had been lied to. Lied to by Christians I respected, the authors of the dozen or so Christian books I had read, and what felt like God himself.
As my faith of man-made rules crumbled, I began to see things I hadn’t noticed before. I noticed how “Christians,” treated people. With my rose covered glasses taken off, I watched as my faith was used to hurt people. To justify bullying people. To justify excluding people. And yes, even to justify killing people. The hypocrisy became overwhelming. So I left. I was done.
My Journey Back
(updated for clarification) I spent the next two years trying desperately to disprove God to myself. It would be so much easier if we were just and blobs of matter and groups of chemicals, created by an accident, existing for no purpose. But I was unsuccessful. Ironically, the theistic evolution-based biology class that I feared so much during my first year of college was the foundation for my lack of success. Because even if the universe did begin with a big bang and all life forms were brought about by complex, micro genetic changes over billions of years, that still would not disprove the existence of God. I think I was the most frustrated want-to-Atheist in the state of Arkansas throughout 2013. Realizing science could not prove or disprove God, I turned to psychological reasoning. I devoured the books I had simply been told were wrong growing up written by the man who hated God: Richard Dawkins. I combed through his books, intently watched his videos. I wanted everything he said to be true and dove into the parts of the Bible “untouched” by most Sunday school curricula: the “dirty” stories of genocide and murder in the Old Testament. I was not the first person to do this, however, and there were multiple arguments and word studies to counter Dawkins’ claims. In mid-2013 I finally settled on being a Deist: God may have put the world in motion but he was no longer present, and, if he or she was still alive, he certainly did not care.
Therefore, I don’t think I ever stopped believing in God. I think the relationship was always there. But I didn’t know what to do. My religion of man-made rules had crumbled and my emotional health was spiraling out of control without my faith to bring me comfort. I started to hate religion, churches, and all “preachy people.” And if you asked me if I was a Christian from 2012-2014, I would have told you “no.”
Ironically, I ended up back in church due to my failure to prove a point. One night, I vented to one of my friends about my dislike of “preachy Christians.” He sat there, patiently listening, and then asked me to go to Church with him on Sunday morning. I laughed. “Just try it,” he urged. “It’s different. It’s a home church.” I think I eventually agreed to go, to prove to him that the church was no different, on the condition that once I “proved” him right he wouldn’t ask me again.
Well, I was wrong. When we showed up 20 minutes late (ironically, I did that on purpose so that no one would talk to me). When we walked in the singing had already started and this young woman, about my age, got out of her seat and introduced herself to me. I was hesitant. Who gets up out of their seat during the service to welcome someone they’d never met? The whole service was…different. People shared what they were going through and “prayer request” time was really “prayer conversation time.” Not only did the church take prayer requests, people then, right then and there, strategically planned what they could do to help that person. So and so’s husband is in the hospital, so let’s get a group together to go do the yard work at their house. So and so just had a baby, great, let’s start a meal train. What the heck was going on?
When we got back in his truck my friend smiled and said, “see, I told you they were different.” I was still too nervous to believe it. But as I got to know the people in that church over the following months and years I realized something. Something so obvious that it was painful: as a Christian, my goal is to help people realize how much God loves them.
I became a Christian because I wanted to be receptive of God’s love. I wanted to know the Creator of the universe and the lover of my soul. Only once this relationship was in place did the rules even begin to become important. And then, they weren’t really “do not’s,” as I had been taught and believed for most of my life, but instead, the rules were really a list of things to which God had said, “hey, there’s something better than that.” And, as I watched my fellow church members consciously seek out the forgotten and oppressed in society, with the desire not to change them, but to show them God’s love and to have those people be changed by that love, my hard heart began to soften.
Love is the Center of the Gospel
The Gospel, the message of God’s love for us, is not that complicated. It’s basic relationships. There is a Creator of the universe, we call Him God. God created people to be in a relationship with Him. We are relational beings. But, every person knows that a relationship is not a relationship if it’s forced. So, God gave us this thing called free will: we can either chose to be in a relationship or not. We can choose to follow him or not. When we think to say or do things that are not a reflection of love towards God or our neighbor this is called sin. Our sin separates us from God, both in this life and in the life to come. But, God loves us so much that Jesus took the punishment that we deserve for sin. This forgiveness and reconciliation is a free gift that God offers, and all we have to do to accept this gift is “confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead” because “for with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Romans 10:9-10). That’s it. That’s faith. And when we do this, we have a restored relationship with God, and this restored relationship should compel us to want to honor God, love our neighbors, and tell others about the reconciliation that they, too, can have with God. Sure, there are much deeper theological points we can dig into, but the Gospel, in it’s most basic form, is that.
I often wonder if the preachy subway woman or the “hypocritical” Christians that pushed me away from the church know the same Jesus I know. I can’t help but think that the woman screaming on the subway doesn’t know the loving God I know. If someone is screaming at me that their God hates me, I surely wouldn’t want to listen. And somehow, that woman screaming, felt like she was doing a good thing. Perhaps a great thing. And if that’s true, I don’t want her God.
“Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?” ~Romans 2:3-4
Yes, I do believe that there is life after death. And yes, I believe that those who do not have a relationship with God go to a place where God is not. Since God is all things good, the absence of God in a place would be all things bad. And yes, that is hell. But, I also believe that each person knows, honestly, how “bad” they are. How they’ve broken the unspoken rule of the universe to love God and our neighbor. We all know we’ve lied, lusted, cheated, been dishonest, been racist, lied on our taxes, and the list goes on. I don’t think most people need to have their sins pointed out, because I know at least for me, I know how bad I am when I see how good God is. And it’s this patience, this mercy, that made me want to have a relationship with God.
Jesus Loved Sinful People Before He Rebuked Their Sin
“The Son of Man, on the other hand, feasts and drinks, and you say, ‘He’s a glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and other sinners!’ But wisdom is shown to be right by its results.” Matthew 11:19
There have always been “groups” of people that the “religious” liked to point at and say they were better than. But when Jesus was here on Earth, he specifically sought those people out and loved them first. In fact, Jesus was called the friend of sinners! Jesus intentionally sought out and loved the “discpicable people” that the religous leaders claimed they were better than: women who committed adultery (John 4; Luke 7:36-50); tax collectors for the foreign government that oppressed the Jews (Matthew 9:9-13; Mark 2:13-17; Luke 5:27-32); children (Matthew 19:14); the physically diseased (Matthew 8:1–4, Mark 1:40–45 and Luke 5:12–16); the impoverished (Luke 18:35); and the physically disabled (Luke 18:35).
He intentionally sought them out and loved them. Then these individuals were amazed by his loving kindness, had faith, and then he told them to go and sin no more.
The majority of Christians today are like the religious leaders in Jesus’ time. Instead of seeking out the “groups” or people, the groups that we, and not God, created, we find reasons to shun these people. Now, do not confuse what I’m saying: if an individual makes a profession of faith, then by all means, we are to encourage that person and discipline him/her in the love and laws of God. But we cannot expect non-Christians to follow God’s law. We need to be more concerned about helping people develop an authentic relationship with Christ, which will lead to faith and repentance, than telling them God hates them. Becuase God doesn’t hate anyone. Not one. But yet, “Christians” are pretty good at telling people God hates them:
But, when I think about Jesus, I can’t help that he wouldn’t spend time in many of our churches. He would be going out of his way to engage people that Christians demand be “kept out” and refuse to go to. And if Jesus would do this, and Jesus did do this, then we should be the same.
So, to the woman on the subway: you’re the kind of Christian that made me leave the church, and ultimately, I don’t think we know the same Jesus.