Apostasy in the Church
Why are Christians Abandoning Faith?
Apostasy, departing the Christian faith, is one of the greatest tragedies: that one for whom Christ died has been lost.
There has been in recent years an increasing number of well-known Christians abandoning Christianity – notably in traditionally conservative evangelical churches. This ‘apostasy’ has been relabelled as ‘deconversion’ or ‘deconstruction’ where Christians have either ‘deconstructed’ their faith and adopted what is called ‘progressive’ Christianity (which holds some of the basic beliefs but rejecting others) or deconverted – and abandoned faith altogether becoming atheists (as seems to be in most cases) or agnostics.
While there has always been apostasy in the Church throughout its history we should not be complacent but learn from those who depart the faith and why, so we are prepared and not fall into the same error. This is particularly of concern today when historic Christianity is under attack from many quarters. In the Western world this is coming from secular humanism with its roots in evolutionary philosophy, moral relativism and neo-atheism. This philosophy claims certain ‘facts’ of science falsify the Biblical narrative of creation. This claim will be examined in more depth later.
Reasons For Departing the Faith
There is usually more than one reason a Christian departs the faith but as I see it they broadly fall into 3 categories:
3. Rational or scientific
It’s not wrong to have doubts. We all need a reason to believe and there are and will be questions. But as Jude 1:22 says, we should show mercy to those who doubt. And it seems these reasons for doubt are stated with regular frequency. This poses a challenge to the Church today: are we answering these challenges to faith?
Christian faith is not blind. There are good rational reasons to believe so seeds of doubt can be removed and faith strengthened.
My main concern, which I’ll attempt to address in more detail, is the rational or scientific reasons for abandoning the faith of Christianity. But first I’ll briefly describe the other two.
This typically happens when a Christian has been deeply hurt by a tragedy, a life crisis or by the unloving actions of another professing Christian – especially a pastor or leader of a church. Because of their previous trust in that person, who, to them has been a supposed example of a Christ follower, their faith in Christ and God is severely tested. Doubts of God’s justice arise when a tragedy or crisis occur or when we experience censure or rejection by another Christian. Questions then form: why didn’t God prevent this, or why hasn’t this person been bought to justice? Such unresolved questions then lead to doubt God Himself – that He doesn’t love or just that He doesn’t even exist.
In such situations the experiential reality of Christianity is severely eroded such that they no longer feel the benefits and joys of being a Christian. For many it seems, life as a Christian has become an ordeal or just a ritual at best.
What is of note is that those who abandon faith rarely speak of the positive experiences of Christianity – in particular where people have heard or known the presence of God, experienced or seen miracles and specific answers to prayer. Nor do they speak of the joy and peace that comes with knowing Christ – even through difficult or tragic circumstances.
In my own life, having experienced an unexpected divorce, despite the emotional turmoil and depression, I still had an inner peace. God was in control. You can read about it here.
Personal testimony must be considered and judged as evidence in the same way witnesses are heard in a court of law. My own testimony can be read here.
The Lesson of the Parable of the Sower
The parable of the sower sheds light on what happens in the heart of a Christian whose faith doesn’t endure.
1. There is the Christian who believes at first but in time of trial or testing their faith fails.
2. The Christian who because of love for and concerns of life in this world fails to produce the enduring fruit of Christ’s life within (Luke 8:11-15).
The message is this: it is not sufficient that we once believe but that we continue to believe God’s word through trials and temptations.
Trials and temptations will always be a reality of this life. As the apostle Peter states:
In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, [being] more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:6-7).
Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance and let endurance have [its] perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-4).
So we can expect our faith to be tested. But are we prepared?
These reasons typically question God’s justice: if He is good and loving why does He allow suffering of the innocent?; why did God sanction the destruction of the nations who inhabited the promised land?; why would God cause those who don’t believe to be tormented in hell for eternity?; how can the Bible be trusted and be believed as the inspired word of God when there are so many contradictions?
In essence all these question or doubt the foundation and authority of God’s word as revealed in the Bible. These questions have been asked, and answered, for a long time – since the beginning of the Church. There are many excellent sources of Christian apologetics. This is one.
3. Rational or scientific
I believe this is the prime reason for apostasy in this time. The previous two reasons, of themselves, need not be cause for someone to abandon their faith. But when rational or scientific doubts arise then the foundations of faith are weakened and eventually fall. For if there isn’t a factual basis for Christianity – that God exists, He created the world and all living things, that the historical events described in the Bible happened, that Jesus lived, died on a cross and rose again – if these things are not true and can be shown to be false then whatever faith we might have had is based on nothing. It’s all just in the mind.
Having reviewed many accounts of those who have abandoned faith in Christ and become atheists, rational and scientific reasons are, without exception, given for their journey from faith to unbelief. Of the rational and scientific reasons the one which ranks foremost is the idea science has shown unequivocally that the Earth and the universe are billions of years old and that life has evolved from non-living chemicals into complex organisms, including man, by unguided naturalistic processes. This idea contradicts the Biblical account of creation as it plainly reads. Consequently because it is believed the scientific account is true then the Biblical account is a myth and must be rejected. And because the Bible has been shown to be wrong it cannot be relied upon as an authorative source of truth.
A number of recent surveys have shown young people are leaving the Church in significant numbers. What is of particular note are the reasons why they leave. Of these the most common was some form of intellectual skepticism. For example:
“Learning about evolution when I went away to college”
“Religion is the opiate of the people”
“Rational thought makes religion go out the window”
“Lack of any sort of scientific or specific evidence of a creator”
“I just realized somewhere along the line that I didn’t really believe it”
“I’m doing a lot more learning, studying and kind of making decisions myself rather than listening to someone else.”
See this link for more information.
There are many accounts of how and why Christians have departed the faith. I will relate two here to illustrate how the supposed facts of science – the age of the earth and the universe – contributed to apostasy.
This is adapted from a review ‘From Apologist to Atheist: A Critical Review’ by Norman L. Geisler of John Loftus’ book ‘Why I Rejected Christianity: A Former Apologist Explains‘ Trafford Publishing, 2007.
John Loftus was a former Christian evangelical apologist. His cousin Larry, was a bio-chemistry teacher in the Air Force. Loftus had tried unsuccessfully to convince him of the truth of creation over evolution. Instead, he said, “He did convince me of one solid truth; the universe is as old as scientists say it is, and the consensus is that it is 12-15 billion years old. Now that by itself isn’t too harmful of an idea, . . . but it was the first time I really considered the theological implications of it. Two corollaries of that idea started me down the road to being the honest doubter I am today.
The first is that in Genesis chapter 1 we see that the earth existed before the sun, moon, and stars, which were all created on the fourth day. This does not square with Astronomy. . . . The second corollary for me at the time was this. If God took so long to create the universe, then why would he all of a sudden snap his fingers, so to speak, and create human beings?” (22-23) “Nearly two years later, I came to deny the Christian faith. There were just too many individual problems that I had to balance, like spinning several plates on several sticks, in order to keep my faith. At some point they just all came crashing down.”
While there were other incidents in his life which contributed to his final rejection of Christianity, it was the contradiction between the supposed facts of science and what the Bible plainly stated which caused his final foundation to crumble.
Charles Templeton and Billy Graham
This account of Charles Templeton and Billy Graham in the late 1940’s shows how doubt in God’s word leads to apostasy and how trust in His word leads to strength and assurance:
Charles Templeton was a popular evangelist working with Billy Graham in the 1940’s. In 1946, he was listed among those best used of God by the National Association of Evangelicals in bringing thousands to faith in Christ. However, despite his popularity and seeming success as an evangelist, all was not well with Charles Templeton. The more he read of the claimed scientific fact of evolution, the more he questioned the essentials of the Christian faith. Science had, for Charles Templeton, disproved God’s Word.
In a conversation with Billy Graham in early summer 1949, concerning Templeton’s desire to attend Princeton Theological Seminary, Templeton stated:
“But, Billy, it’s simply not possible any longer to believe, for instance, the biblical account of creation. The world wasn’t created over a period of days a few thousand years ago; it has evolved over millions of years. It’s not a matter of speculation; it’s demonstrable fact.”
Templeton warned Graham that it was ‘intellectual suicide’ to not question the Bible and to go on preaching God’s Word as authoritative.
In August that year Charles (Chuck) Templeton and Billy Graham had been invited to speak at the annual College Briefing Conference at Forest Home, a retreat centre east of Los Angeles. During that week Templeton told Graham:
“You’re fifty years out of date. People no longer accept the Bible as inspired the way you do.”
At the time of their conversation, Graham was president of the North-western Bible School founded by W.B. Riley. Greatly disturbed by these words Billy Graham knew he had to resolve his doubts and questions concerning the Bible once and for all. If he could not trust the Bible he could not go on.
Graham had put up a brave front with his Canadian friend, but the confrontation left him stunned. He sought the counsel of Henrietta Mears, the celebrated Bible teacher and evangelical visionary who had founded Forest Home ten years earlier. Mears reassuring confidence was just what Graham needed. The truth and inerrancy of Scripture was foundational to Christianity, she reminded the evangelist. Undermine that foundation and the whole edifice collapses.
Graham picked up his Bible and wandered alone into the rugged hill country surrounding Forest Home. Spotting an old tree stump by the side of the path, Graham fell to his knees, laid down his opened Bible, and began to pray.
“O God! There are many things in this book I do not understand. There are many problems with it for which I have no solution. There are many seeming contradictions. There are some areas in it that do not seem to correlate with modern science. I can’t answer some of the philosophical and psychological questions Chuck and others are raising.”
“Father, I am going to accept this as Thy Word – by faith! I’m going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts, and I will believe this to be Your inspired Word!”
When he rose from his knees his eyes stung with tears and felt the Spirit of God flooding his soul. He sensed the presence and power Of God that he had not known for many months. When he addressed the Forest Home audience the following evening, Henrietta Mears knew she was listening to a new man. There was a confidence, a sense of authority to his preaching that was new and powerful. A month later, the response to Graham’s Los Angeles crusade was so overwhelming that organizers were forced to add several nights to accommodate the crowds. Billy Graham never looked back.
Charles Templeton left the ministry in 1957. In addition to his doubts about Genesis, Templeton wrestled with the problem of evil in the world and could not reconcile this with his concept of a loving God. Eventually he rejected faith in God altogether and wrote ‘Farewell To God’ (published in 1996). He died in 2001.
Billy Graham, by contrast, went on to be the most effective and well-known evangelist in modern history. Why? Though he didn’t have all the answers he trusted God’s word.
Why We Can Trust God’s Word in the Face of a Skeptical World
I am convinced that the confidence in the prevailing scientific explanation for origins rests on two faulty assumptions:
1. on the ability of science to reconstruct the past
2. the objectivity of scientists themselves
The Limitations of Science
First we need to appreciate the limitations of science. In saying this I am not anti-science. I have had a great and active interest in science since my youth. Having worked in science for most of my working life (40 years) I have a good appreciation of how science works in the real world.
We often hear the phrase “Science tells us …”. Yet we should understand that science itself does not tell us anything. Science is the means or method by which scientists investigate the natural world. It is scientists, who through the scientific method, endeavour to explain the working of the natural world. Secondly, scientists can only investigate directly by observation things in the present. If something is observable and testable we can be confident it is a scientific fact.
The observable and testable laws of physics, for example, give us the confidence to travel to the moon and back and explore other planets. However, if something is not observable it is not testable and if it is not testable it is not strictly science. For that reason there are limitations of the scientific method. It cannot directly investigate the past but only through observations in the present and making certain assumptions it may make a proposition of what happened in the past.
When science endeavours to reconstruct the past it is at best like forensic and archaeological science where, on the basis of a number of independent lines of evidence, propose a probability of what happened, but never an absolute certainty.
It is an established step in the scientific method that to determine or quantify the age (value) of something, the method to determine that age must first be validated with things of known age. This of course cannot be done for prehistorical things. While scientists do make estimates for the age of prehistorical things they are all based on a number of assumptions which cannot be held conclusively (such as radiometric dating and sedimentary rates). The glaring problem with the supposed ‘fact’ of an ancient earth are the many independent scientific evidences which give ages orders of magnitude less than the prevailing evolutionary time scale. Furthermore when objects of known historical age have been dated by the most commonly used methods they have given erroneously high ages.
Therefore it is not true to say it is an incontrovertible scientific fact that the universe, the Earth and life evolved billions or millions (or for that matter thousands) of years ago. It is not possible for science to prove or validate pre-historical events such as the origin of the universe and the earth and how life first arose because they are no longer observable or testable.
What is less known is that there is scientific evidence which is consistent (not proof) with the intelligent design of living things and creation which occurred less than 10,000 years ago (see link above). But this is ignored by most scientists.
Please note: I am not saying here that you have to believe creation occurred 6000 years ago (based on a literal reading of Genesis) but neither should it be rejected until the evidence for this is given serious and objective examination.
The Fallibility of Scientists
Secondly, scientists, like all of fallen mankind are fallible, subject to sin, prejudices, pride, self-interest and foremost a resistance to acknowledge their Creator to whom they are accountable. Unregenerate man is said to ‘walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart’ (Ephesians 4:17-18). Therefore we would expect scientists, like all mankind, in general, to resist the Bible’s revelation of creation and cast doubt on its historical truth.
So when it comes to examining the origin of life and the universe we should expect prejudice and bias. It has become almost axiomatic that the findings of contemporary science must preclude the role of a supernatural creator (this idea, in reality a philosophy, is known as naturalism) even if there is evidence which points to that. Naturalism has become the dominant scientific philosophy of this time and strongly resists attempts to question it.
Professor Richard Lewontin (1929-2021), a geneticist, was one of the world’s leaders in evolutionary biology. He wrote this revealing comment (italics were in the original):
‘Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.
It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.’ 1.
This illustrates the philosophical bias of many scientists against the Genesis account of creation—regardless of whether or not the facts support it.
So if we allow ‘science’ to re-interpret Genesis where do we draw the line? Science has ‘proved’ dead people can’t be resurrected, that water can’t be turned into wine and that over 5000 people cannot be fed from 5 loaves and 2 fish. The virgin birth of Christ and His miracles all stand in contradiction to the consensus of scientific opinion. There is clearly no way science, as it is popularly taught, and Scripture can be harmonised in a consistent manner.
Many Christians, lacking the specific knowledge required, are reticent to challenge the prevailing views of the scientific establishment. While rightfully opposing science’s naturalistic philosophy and observing the plain evidence of design in God’s creation, the idea of a 6000 year old earth is seen to contradict established scientific fact and therefore untenable.
However we must discern between what is conclusive and what is just conjecture in science. We should not just accept the consensus of scientific opinion without question since consensus in science does not determine the truth of a matter.
The Bible plainly teaches us God created the heavens, the earth, all that is in them and man in six literal 24 hour days and rested on the seventh. Scripture also reveals that creation occurred about 6000 years ago and the global flood about 4500 years ago. Yet many Christians do not believe this to be historically true and have reinterpreted the Genesis account to accommodate the findings of contemporary science.
However this belief creates a serious and unnecessary conflict with the plain reading of Genesis and sound exegesis. Those who hold this view I believe have accepted the consensus of scientific opinion and not been sufficiently critical of the naturalistic underpinnings of scientific methods to determine the age of the earth. The evidence shows such belief carries potential dangers not only for our own faith in Scripture but also for those we teach and disciple and in particular young Christians who are in the process of growing in the Faith.
This is why I believe God has raised up many Christian ministries which, beginning with the Bible as our ultimate authority, to do precisely that: examine what is fact and what is conjecture. There will never be conflict between what are truly facts and Scripture. For more in depth reading on Genesis, creation and science see here.
The issue ultimately at stake is the trustworthiness of Scripture’s record of history as it plainly reads. The teachings of the Scriptures are not disconnected doctrines but form an interwoven fabric. Therefore once we allow man, on the authority of ‘science’, to question and re-interpret one part of Scripture’s record every other doctrine we hold as sacred is also in danger of being challenged and rejected.
There is considerable evidence (both within and outside Scripture) that upholds Genesis as a literal narrative of history. If the clear teaching of scripture is for a (relatively) young earth and creation as an event (not a prolonged process), then science, true science, will ultimately be found in harmony with the Scriptures. In that I have every confidence.