The Missing Apostates

The “New Atheism” is a phenomenon that confuses and confounds, that is both over- and underplayed, and that represents one of the most significant threats to the modern American Church aside from its own shallowness and self-absorption. As such, it fascinates me to no end when I see Christians speaking authoritatively about the New Atheist phenomenon, which is usually an occurrence that sparks as much befuddlement and unintentional hilarity as I might imagine if Richard Dawkins were to deliver a lecture on systematic theology.

That being said, one of the most cogent and authentic attempts to communicate the phenomenon of the New Atheists was recently accomplished by Drs. Doug Blount and Glenn Kreider, with assistance from Dr. Darrell Bock in a chapel discussion at Dallas Theological Seminary:

 

 

I take it as no small point of pride that I had met and spoken with Drs. Blount and Bock previously to this discussion, and hopefully provided them with some amount of personal perspective, as someone who lived through the New Atheism phenomenon as a New Atheist himself.

But there are a few criticisms I have with this discussion, as fair as I thought it was.

Firstly, New Atheism is a much broader phenomenon than just a handful of popular authors. One could convert the remaining Horsemen (Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett) to orthodox Christianity today and it would make little difference to the trajectory of the New Atheist movement. The mainstream American Church needs this clarification made as soon as possible: the Horsemen are not the cause of the New Atheism, they are themselves a product of the same influences which brought it about. Christians who attempt to rebut the Horsemen and consider their assessment of and defense against New Atheism complete are woefully under-informed.

Similarly, this discussion presented an over-emphasis on so-called “militant” atheism. While people like David Silverman and Annie Laurie Gaylor are often the most publicly recognizable (and FOX News friendly), they (and the organizations they represent) are now a fraction of the New Atheist movement. Secular social groups and congregations (like the Fellowship of Freethought in Dallas, the Houston Oasis, and the Community Mission Chapel in Lake Charles) are much more indicative of the direction New Atheism is going.

Of course, any time that Stalin is mentioned when Christians talk about atheism, I die a little inside. That Dr. Blount here characterized Stalin’s acts as occurring “in the name of atheism” docks a great many fairness points from the final tally. Though morally repugnant, neither Stalin nor any similarly-cited tyrants engaged in acts of wickedness “in the name of atheism.” Their philosophies may have been incidentally atheistic, but they were not crusaders of nonbelief in the same way that David Silverman is, and certainly not in the same way that Jerry DeWitt is. By contrast, it is trivially easy to identify many acts of wickedness throughout history that were committed “in the name of” many different religions, including Christianity. I’m afraid Dr. Blount makes a category error when he suggests that Stalin and the New Atheism have any kind of equivalence.

However, one of the BIGGEST gaps in the discussion is any recognition at all that the New Atheists are overwhelmingly old theists. That is to say, 4 out of 5 organized atheists (at least here in Dallas–Fort Worth) are former Christians. Most of us apostatized because we took our Christianity seriously enough to question it without a safety net. Indeed, many of us took Christianity seriously enough to pursue apologetics, lead Bible studies, and even to attend seminaries (including Dallas Theological Seminary). This is not to ignore the fact that there are many incidental atheists (and even some philosophically sophisticated explicit atheists) who convert to various forms of theism, but consider the mathematics of the phenomenon. I would venture to say that there is at least an order of magnitude of difference between the percentage of explicit atheists who have rejected Christianity (and other religions) compared to the percentage of religious people who have rejected explicit atheism. At least, that has been my experience.

In fact, I’d wager that there was most likely a current or future New Atheist in the audience during this very chapel discussion (and I’d bet $20 that he was one of the questioners as well).

So I find it to be a real pity that whenever Christians gather to discuss (and question) the New Atheism, the one person whose opinion is most relevant is missing. I call it the Problem of the Missing Apostates. With the possible exception of myself, the apostates of Christianity disappear from the pews, vanish from Bible studies, and slip out the back door of seminaries. The apostate is no longer a questioning believer, no longer a brother or sister in the body of Christ, and no longer present in the life of the Church. There is, quite simply, no room in the Church, no opportunity for fellowship within the Church, and no possibility of understanding within the Church when it comes to the Missing Apostate.

I am perhaps one of the exceptions to this phenomenon. Though I went missing not long after my own apostasy, I’ve returned to the Church often, motivated in part by a hunger to realize Acts 13:15. I’ve since been invited to speak to Sunday School classes, Wednesday night meetings, and even entire congregations, all of which I thoroughly enjoy. Of course, I fully recognize that allowing an atheist into the sanctuary can be troublesome, especially for those at the top levels. But the Church is losing ground in popular culture, and it quite simply can’t compete. Much like the invention of the printing press gave the Protestant Reformation an informational edge against the traditions of the Catholic Church, the writings and activism of the New Atheism are spreading at the speed of the Internet beyond what the modern American Church can hope to contain.

In order to meet these challenges, the Church needs to seek first to understand the New Atheism, even better than was represented here in this discussion, and I submit that the key to this understanding remains in the experiences and perspectives of the Missing Apostates.

10 thoughts on “The Missing Apostates

  1. Hey Zach – always enjoy reading your writings. It’s a fun exercise in critical thinking. I find a consistent theme in your writing, and in your podcasts on Evolution as well. The unspoken theme is based on this: “Because I once claimed to be a Christian, and I am now an atheist, I speak authoritatively on both.” However, I find you often twist or misrepresent what the bible says and what Christianity is, albeit unintentionally MOST of the time. We can only see through the glasses we wear, even when we are staring at another pair of glasses that someone else is wearing. Looking through their lenses without putting them on our own face makes the image distorted and inaccurate.

    Firstly, I would contest the claim that you were ever a Christian. I know your story and church involvement as a kid and growing up in a Christian home. It doesn’t shock or surprise me in the least that you don’t believe. I don’t say this to be mean or hateful, though I’m certain that’s what I will be accused of (though not by you), because we know a tree by its fruits, says Jesus of Nazareth. A tree doesn’t bear fruit for up to 30 years, even though it may appear to be fully mature – this is why fruit trees are grafted instead of planted from seed. We all would do well to actually read, listen to and understand what Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom said, and what they mean, when it comes to “former Christians” or Christians at all. I have no fear that Christianity is “slipping away” or that “apostates” will be the only (former) Christians left in America in the next few years. It comes as no surprise to me, as a student of history, philosophy and the bible itself, that throughout the ages, God’s people have always be a “remnant” (a representative and faithful few) among the masses. There really is nothing new under the sun. This is much ado about nothing.

    Secondly, I understand the dislike of analogies of Stalin and atheism. When I hear this analogy made, what seems to be the point is, not that because Stalin was a crusader of atheism, but rather that he was a consistent atheist, and lived out a more consistent atheist worldview than most so-called Christians (future-apostates perhaps?) live a consistent Christian life. He was a product of his worldview, as we all are – apostates such as yourself included. I would speak more precisely and encourage Christians to do the same, when referring to Stalin. We cannot fault him philosophically for his life because he consistently lived his worldview.

    Adding the “missing apostates” to a discussion of Christianity and atheism in equal parts to both Christians and atheists only weights the pool of perspectives 2:1 against Christianity. I can’t blame you for beating this “missing apostate” drum over and over of late – it’s a strategic move! I don’t know if you are sneaky, or just un-reflectively unaware that an apostate is not a separate class distinct from the other two, but rather a sub-species of atheists. Maybe, as you have characterized in your evolution podcasts, that, because apostates as a group have been isolated from another group, and their malformed, incestuous religious philosophies have interbred with one another, that they are somehow their own “species” now. Hardly. All they are is a group of atheists who have bad memories of conforming to a life they never really understood, belonged in etc. I am sympathetic to their complaints, to be honest. It’s not wonder I am not an apostate myself, after the recent abuses I have endured at the hands of Christians in my last church, especially from the pastors on staff, and their encouragement of several of the members of their church to live in a way inconsistent with the bible’s teachings!

    Nevertheless, my Christianity does not hinge on my experience of other Christians, but on my experiences of Christ. I say this with all sincerity: I don’t believe you have ever had such an experience of Christ. In much the same way that a person who undergoes great trauma comes away forever changed – often in the form of “apostasy” (a misnomer) – so also a Christian is forever traumatized by his experience of the resurrected Christ – and goes away forever changed in the opposite direction. The problem with apostates is no problem at all, when it comes to the longevity and validity of Christianity. I long for them to be saved, as I do with all my unbelieving friends. However, I will not try to stop someone from becoming an apostate – I have no illusion to having that power in the first place – since only God himself can regenerate the human soul. As Jesus said to Nicodemus in John 3, you can’t see nor enter the Kingdom of God unless you are first born-again by the Spirit of God. This he said to the leader of the Jews – a religiously devout man who dedicated his life to Judaism! Later, Nicodemus was “born again” but the point we should take away from that story is that he THOUGHT he was ALREADY a TRUE BELIEVER at that time!

    Apostate is just another term for non-Christian. Nothing more, nothing less. This is not an additional problem for Christianity, it’s the only problem for Christianity – that unbelievers die in their sins… what a sad outcome that no Christian hopes for. This is why I continue to preach the Gospel to my Christian and non-Christian friends alike! From my limited-power and limited-knowledge concerning the mind / soul of man, I have but one reference point by which to evaluate another’s eternal position: the fruit the tree produces. Apostates are like Avocado seeds. Plant one, and it will groooooow into a HUGE tree, that never produces fruit. You can plant it in the church yard, but you’ll only know if it belongs there in about 30 years when it does or does not bear fruit. This is what regeneration is all about – it’s taking the good root-stock of Christ and grafting it into the shoot of a person’s soul – only then will the tree bear good fruit. It’s time for apostates to be honest, and just call themselves unbelievers, rather than “former Christians”.

    Later buddy!

    • My former Christianity is routinely called into question by current Christians, and I certainly understand why this would be the case. Apostasy is one of the central anxieties of the Christian faith, second only perhaps to that of salvific orthodoxy. I’ve encountered Christians from all over the denominational spectrum, and the one consistent assessment is that there is no consistent assessment regarding my former beliefs. Some say that I was a saved Christian, others say that I had only put on the trappings of Christianity. Some say that I am saved to this day and for all time, while others say that my salvation has been lost, but may be regained. So you will forgive, perhaps, my skepticism at your confidence regarding my Christianity, and I’ll say merely this: if you would call my previous faith into question, then you must call into question the faith of the majority (perhaps even the entirety) of Christians today. You could not no more have identified me as a likely apostate than you could your own pastor nor even yourself. I realize, again, the anxiety this carries, and I fully understand your need to reject this assessment, but it is the truth.

      There is no such thing as an “atheist worldview.” There are many worldviews which are consistent with atheism, of course, but the only thing required of them is to have no god-belief. With regard to the Christian god, Stalin was an atheist, but then again so was Thomas Jefferson, yet their worldviews could not have been more dissimilar.

      “Apostate” is the technical term that I prefer to label myself because it is distinct and unique from simple atheism. Your confusion about this distinction speaks volumes about your ignorance of these groups, and provides yet more evidence for the need of Christians to understand more about their apostate brothers and sisters. To be an apostate is to have accepted and championed a particular belief system (in my case, Christianity), and then to have abandoned and renounced it. This does, in fact, put me in a unique perspective compared to other atheists who have never embraced a religious tradition or supernatural belief. In addition, it informs my values and interests in a radically different way from those who were born atheist and have remained that way. Many of the apostates, myself included, do not have “bad memories of conforming to a life they never really understood,” as you put it. I loved being a Christian, and I never expected to leave the faith, and my apostasy surprised myself more than anyone who knew me.

      It’s entirely possible that you and I had vastly different experiences of Christ. But why is yours normative? Simply because you’ve remained a Christian? What about the experiences of Christ reported by Roman Catholics, or Pentecostals, or Quakers? What about the experiences of Christ reported by Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons? What you appear to be engaged in is a kind of existential orthodoxy, when you are in no position to speak authoritatively on the experiences of others. I advise you to take care in this regard, as your confident dismissal of the personal experiences of others can easily be construed as arrogance and theological self-centeredness.

      I agree that apostasy is a significant problem for Christianity, but not just because apostates are no longer saved (depending on which Christian you talk to). It’s a problem because it hints at the insufficiency and unconfirmability of Christian soteriology, and it undercuts the self-identity of all professing Christians. That is indeed a troubling thing, but I think it’s time for Christians to be honest, and take account of the apostates in their midst, rather than chucking them out of the theological door to make themselves feel more secure in their faith.

      • Thank you for your lengthy reply.

        Of course there is not a consistent assessment of your former beliefs – because, as I said, we have limited knowledge and limited power to assess them. That is precisely why I said we should treat all people who do not bear lasting fruit as unbelievers – just as the Bible and Jesus say. This is the only normative rule available. I felt like I said that pretty clearly before, but there it is again. Jesus and the Bible are the standard. That standard says exactly what I just stated above, in multiple places, in various analogies, etc. And like you say I ought to, I DO call into question the faith of all who claim to be Christians who bear no lasting fruit. Again, I said this in my previous comment. I’m beginning to wonder if you read all of it, Zach. Again, it carries zero anxiety for Christianity, though you keep saying it does, because it’s not our job to know for certain who is or isn’t a “real” Christian. Jesus tells us to “judge a tree by its fruits” precisely because we CANNOT know for sure. Don’t mistake our not knowing who’s saved and who’s not with God’s knowing or not knowing. To completely separate things. I fail to see the dilemma here… what am I missing, Zach?

        But the statement “There is no such thing as an ‘atheist worldview’ is just silly. In my original reply, I meant to type “atheistic worldview” in reference to Stalin’s life-philosophy, rather than “lived out a more consistent atheist worldview” Nevertheless an atheist has a worldview, or philosophy of life (indeed all who have life have a philosophy of that life, although most un-reflectively so) which does not include theism. Just like there are multiple theistic worldviews that say a god does exist. My point was Stalin was an atheist, who lived consistent with his atheist(ic) worldview. You don’t deny he was an atheist, nor that he was a consistent atheist do you? The consequent of denying a theistic worldview is an atheistic worldview. The result of atheism is made most clear in men’s lives such as Stalin. When there is no grounding, or standard for morality, ethics, or even laws, then we get Stalin. Morality and ethics are not the result of a naturalistic worldview – they are contrary to such a worldview. Any attempt to employ morality or ethics in a naturalistic worldview is merely a popular vote that is reflects the current sentiment toward certain issues, and is open to being revised by subsequent generations.

        Your argument will probably next be that I am “an atheist in regard to Zeus…”, etc… which is just an equivocation on the term atheist to make a rhetorical point. Remember, we aren’t comparing Thomas Jefferson to Stalin, we are comparing Stalin to consistent atheism. You are needlessly confusing the issue – or maybe you are trying to throw others off the trail you are fleeing down. Now you will likely say “Christians committed this or that atrocity at thus-and-such a time…”, but, again, we know a tree by its fruit – Christianity not only predicts such people committing such atrocities, but it also CONDEMNS them as being inconsistent with a Christian worldview and inconsistent with the life of Christ. No one can condemn Stalin for being inconsistent with his atheistic worldview.

        Also, I know what apostate means. I’m not confused, or ignorant, and am friends with many “Apostates” like you classify yourself. The reason I included apostates as atheists is because those are the only kinds you will side with! Would you side with an apostate (from atheism) like Dr. Anthony Flew? Peter Hitchens? CS Lewis? Alister McGrath? Mortimer J. Adler? Avery Dulles? Malcolm Muggeridge? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn? Francis Collins? (the list goes on…) I don’t think so. The only “Apostates” you will side with are apostates from theism in general (and Christianity in particular) to atheism. This is why you’ve incorrectly employed the term apostate in the context you laid out in your original article and response to my comment.

        I will grant, that, as a Christian apostate to atheism, you have more “inside experience” than an atheist with no Christian history whatsoever. However, you either lack, or more likely the case, purposely ignore, the basic principles of biblical interpretation (or any kind of literary critique) which you would have learned in your extensive Christian experiences, and “homework” given by your father, etc.

        Also, I never claimed my experience of Christ was normative. You did. I claimed that Christ’s description of the Christian experience is normative, and gave a biblical example of someone who thought their experience was normative (Nicodemus) who was corrected by Jesus. Again, just because someone claims to be a Christian (“little Christ” or “Christ-imitator”) and makes claims to a normative experience with Christ, does not mean they are correct! If they are indeed NOT imitating Christ, or saying what Christ said, why then would you believe them? It is making the same error that you complained Christians make concerning Stalin! The sword cuts both ways.

        Also, I never said that apostates are “no longer saved” – you did! I said that apostates were never saved to begin with. This is a major distinction that makes an eternal difference. Lasting salvation is a necessary result of true conversion. Again, I spelled this out with a biblical example of Jesus explaining this to Nicodemus, and also referenced his parables which take this and expand upon it even further.

        When you say that there is insufficiency and unconfirmability in Christian soteriology, you are just mistaken. Sufficiency in salvation is inseparable from salvation itself, because it is a gift of God by grace. A gift that cannot be earned cannot be lost, even by failing to produce fruit. The reason Jesus told us to judge a tree by the fruit it bears is because you and I cannot tell if someone is saved in any other way! But again, God is not confused. We are! That is why we are given this helpful analogy. This is not insufficiency or unconfirmability in the least. Zach, you are not producing the fruit of Christian salvation. Therefore, I must assume you are not saved / an apostate / etc. God is certain of the condition of your soul, though I can only judge by the lack of Christian fruit in your life. Simple as that. Please let me know if that is still not clear. You need to make a distinction between God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge in order to be accurately talking about Christian salvation.

        I know of NO Christian bearing Christian fruits who is, as you say, “chucking [Apostates] out of the theological door to make themselves feel more secure in their faith.” This just does not happen, ever, unless you are perhaps confusing Westboro Baptist Church with Christians. Again, not my standards, but God’s standards, spoken by Jesus and recorded in Scripture, say that we judge by the fruits. WBC does not bear Christian fruit despite the fact they refer to themselves as Christians. If I start calling myself an atheist, but continue to go to church, pray to God and live a life consistent with Jesus’ does that make me an atheist? Would you accept me into your atheist club? No! You fail to apply your critique to your own views. It’s extremely inconsistent.

        I know you aren’t a Christian, maybe even don’t care for Christians or Christianity in general. However, you have a very flawed understanding of the historic Christian faith. That is what I am trying to point out here. Shouldn’t we be able to accurately state the view we oppose before we try to defeat it? I think so. If indeed you agree, then please hear me when I say, you are misrepresenting basic (or “mere”) Christianity, and in so doing you are setting up a straw man that is easily defeatable since, in reality, it doesn’t exist.

        • Thanks for your lengthy and critical responses, as well, BJ. Perhaps you weren’t as clear before as you’d hoped, or at any rate, more clarification was necessary. And perhaps more indeed still—for instance, what, specifically, do you mean by “fruit?” I’m well aware that “bearing fruit” is a metaphor used throughout the scriptures, and especially in the New Testament. But this is an ambiguous term. Paul writing in Galatians is the most clear about what these fruits could be: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness.” At the risk of self-congratulation, I would venture to say that I manifested all of these “fruits” as a Christian, and I continue to do so as an apostate. Now, there has been much ink (digital and analog) spilled in adding additional “fruits” to this list, but as with most theological issues, there is little consistency across Christendom. So perhaps you could be more explicit with the characteristics that you think a True Christian demonstrates? And why you say that “we CANNOT know for sure” who is a real Christian, while also asserting that measuring “fruits” in fact provides that knowledge?

          You are simply incorrect about an “atheist worldview.” There is no such thing. Worldviews are either atheistic or not, and there are virtually infinite variations possible. Stalin’s worldview was no less consistently atheistic than Jefferson’s, nor Diagoras’, nor mine. Atheism is not like a kind of mirror worldview of Christianity. Neither is it a necessary worldview component for those who deny Theism, there are at least two other options available: Deism and Pantheism (and possibly Panentheism).

          It may perhaps surprise you to know that I do, in fact, give more deference to those who leave one set of beliefs and consciously move to a different set. Lewis, Collins, and even Flew to a certain extent are much more interesting and meaningful to me than someone who has not challenged or modified the worldview in which they were raised. And the bigger the change, the more I pay attention. Not just converts from atheism to Christianity, mind you, but converts from atheism to Islam, from Christianity to Islam, from Christianity to Buddhism, and all the other possible permutations. But in this particular article, I hope it is apparent, I’m speaking specifically to Christians about Christian apostates to atheism.

          Perhaps you may not believe that I was previously a Christian, but I can assure you that I bear no ill will towards Christians in general (though I do take issue with specific Christians and specific doctrines). And my goal is not to “defeat” Christianity, despite what you seem to imply. But please hear me when I say that I had and have an understanding of “mere Christianity” that is equal to yours, equal at least to any other Christian’s. You may deny this if you wish, and if you are right it means that my criticisms are utter foolishness, and irrelevant. But if you are wrong it means that the Church has a significant blind spot which will continue to bedevil its cultural and spiritual impact for generations to come. There is still some part of me that hopes you are right, but all of my experience tells me otherwise, so be cautious in how you proceed.

          • Well, Zach, it looks like we’ve both said about all we can say at this point. I guess we can let the readers decide if we have sufficiently supported our positions. Appreciate your interaction and responses. Looking forward to future posts, as well.

          • Well, that’s unfortunate. I was looking forward to your answer to my questions above, as they are related to the central theme of the article as well as to your objections to my previous beliefs.

          • My friend, the reason I didn’t want to reply anymore is two-fold:

            1) I didn’t want to monopolize the conversation on your blog, out of respect. I felt my position and objections were clear enough for your readers to decide for themselves whether or not I made my case in response to yours.

            2) I feel like you are ignoring the fact that you do not accurately represent the orthodox, catholic, historic Christian faith, and despite my objections, keep making the same errors in support of your position.

            Nevertheless, this certainly is my last reply to this thread, and I will let my words stand alongside yours for your readership’s consideration. Thanks for allowing me to do so.

            Repeating an objection (apostasy is one of the central anxieties of the Christian faith), that has been rebutted (by one who is more well-versed and highly trained in the Christian faith) without offering new information, does nothing to move the debate forward. Read that again, because I suspect that you will reply that you are also trained in the Christian faith. I don’t deny that. I did deny that you accurately understand and represent it as Christ would. I have done just that – accurately represent the orthodoxy, catholic, historic Christian faith (you can check my work by checking the textbook), which plainly shows your objections to be unwarranted.

            Denying that an atheistic worldview exist is like denying gravity. I don’t really know what else to tell you other than to jump and try to stay up in the air. Any non-theistic worldview is, by necessity, an atheistic worldview. An atheist, who holds a worldview, holds an atheistic worldview. Just like there are various theistic worldviews, which required differentiation, so likewise there are various atheistic worldviews, which also require differentiation. Denying that an atheistic worldview exists is not one of the options. To hopefully more whimsically press the point, I include a quote from William Blake which states the point nicely:

            “This life’s dim windows of the soul

            Distorts the heavens from pole to pole

            And leads you to believe a lie

            When you see with, not through, the eye.”

            You have accused me of having made my personal perspective normative for all Christianity. I replied that just because it’s my perspective, doesn’t mean that it is not normative for all Christianity. As a Christian, I ADOPT Jesus of Nazareth’s perspective, which, as the name Christianity implies, necessarily is normative for all who call themselves Christians. Again, all we have to do is check the textbook. Where my view differs from Jesus Christ’s, then please, point it out, and that will, indeed, be a non-normative perspective in that singular case. However, I maintain that I have accurately represented the view of Christ himself. Again, we can not fault Christianity when a Christian does not accurately not represent Christ with his words or life. That should be obvious.

            I know you want to be called an apostate, and that’s fine with me. What you need to understand, though, is that from an orthodox, catholic, historic Christian perspective, you couldn’t have possibly been a true believer, if indeed you are a true non-believer, because orthodox, catholic, historic Christianity has always maintained that because a Christian cannot earn or merit their salvation, it’s not theirs to dispose of either. If you want to say that you were a “christian” of the non-orthodox, non-catholic, non-historic variety, then you should qualify it as such. After our discussion, that seems to be the case. To not make that distinction is confusing for your readers who may not be well-versed in the Christian scriptures.

            I completely agree with you, that, true Christians, of the orthodox, catholic, historic variety, have a lot of ground to make up between what Christ said and what we, as Christians, actually do, concerning the non-believing world, as well as within our own ranks. Apostates are not special in that regard. The fact that Christians don’t live up to Christ’s commands / example is predicted by the Christian worldview, and condemned as sin. We make no attempts to hide this or deny it. To say that there is insufficiency in Christian theology is to not understand it. You are claiming that there is an internal contradiction but not making an argument with premises that support that conclusion. Instead, you are just making the claim. I invite you to make the case, that, within orthodox, catholic, historic Christianity, there is an insufficiency within the doctrines of salvation, that directly result in apostates being able to throw off their “true Christianity” for “true atheism”. To do this, as I keep saying, you first need to accurately understand the doctrine of salvation according to the orthodox, catholic, historic Christian faith. This entire dialogue has served to demonstrate that, at this juncture, you do not, in fact, have that understanding.

            What does “fruit” mean? Bearing fruit simply means imitating Christ. Again, this is how we humans, in our limited knowledge are supposed to differentiate between someone who claims to be saved (a tree with no fruit or bad fruit) and someone who is saved (a tree that bears good fruit). When you eat an apple, the apple came from a clone of the original apple tree. If you merely plant an apple seed, it will never be like it’s parent tree because it’s a different kind of tree. In the same way, unless the Christian remains grafted to Christ, not only can we not imitate Christ (consistently bear Christian fruit) but we are a different thing than Christian altogether. I don’t blame you for not understanding this analogy, since we have no need to grow our own food these days, it does make the analogy a bit more distant. But I know you understand that a peach tree never grows pears, unless you graft a pear on to a peach stump. This is what regeneration is in Christian theology. Christian fruit is only comparable to Christ – the Galatians passage you mentioned is a good start, but not an exhaustive list, as I am sure you are aware. It also gives some examples of non-Christian fruit immediately following that brief, non-exhaustive list. The point is this: Christ-imitators look like Christ. Those who don’t look like Christ are imitating something or someone else. That is how a limited human mind is instructed by the Creator of humanity to best attempt to discern between true and false converts. The fact that you are not persisting in the imitation of Christ in the way described by Christ, as represented in the pages of the Bible, as the orthodox, catholic, historic Christian faith has always maintained, I conclude that you are not a Christian. Perhaps, after reading this, you will repent, and return to the orthodox, catholic, historic Christianity, and to Christ himself. In that case, I will conclude that you are a Christian. Again, don’t confuse my limited certainty with God’s knowledge. God is not confused, not uncertain, etc.

            It doesn’t surprise me that you give more deference to apostates. I’ve never indicated I was shocked, only that it seemed like you are cherry-picking your apostates as only apostates from Christianity (or theism) to atheism, but not from atheism to Christianity (or theism). To give special treatment to people who have changed their mind, just because they have changed their mind, but completely apart from any arguments, is foolish. I am not confused about Christianity. You obviously are. So why should anyone take your mistaken views of Christianity as an apostate as superior to my non-mistaken views of orthodox, catholic, historic Christianity? It’s just bad logic.

            You are just mistaken when you claim to have an understanding of “mere Christianity” that is “equal to [mine]”. I think anyone reading our interaction can see that this is just not true, though I know you sincerely want it to be the case.

            I maintain this: until you represent a view of Christianity that any orthodox, catholic, historic Christian would identify with, you can no longer say with integrity that you and I believe the same things about Christianity and the Christian worldview. Buddy, I really really like you, and think you’re a swell guy. I really enjoyed this, but I am weary now of repeating the same corrections from my first reply, that are still not being corrected. That is why I can’t continue, at this time, another response. I hope you will reply to this, and have the last word. Thanks for entertaining these things and for your cordial interactions. Until next time! 🙂

          • Well, I certainly didn’t mean for you to repeat yourself, I was asking specifically about your definition of “fruits,” since you hadn’t provided it before. Though it appears that you now agree with me about the non-normative nature of atheist worldviews, which is encouraging.

            You say that “bearing fruit simply means imitating Christ.” But this is troubling because what you say is extremely ambiguous and imprecise. You have merely substituted one poorly-defined phrase, “bear fruit,” with another, “imitate Christ.” Imitating Christ in which way? In everything he did, from collecting disciples and wandering Palestine in poverty to performing miracles and suffering martyrdom at the hands of the political leadership? All of his characteristics, including his annoyance with his family and his rough way with members of the out-group, or only in certain things that he displayed, such as humility, kindness, and lovingness? I note that Paul gives us an exhortation to “imitate Christ” in his first letter to the Corinthians, but he is as unfortunately unhelpful as you have been in explaining quite what that means.

            At least in his letter to the Galatians, Paul is clear about what characteristics he has in mind as being “fruits of the spirit.” If there are better attestations in the scriptures, then please let’s see them. You say that bearing fruit through imitation of Christ is “described by Christ, as represented in the pages of the Bible,” but offer no proof text of this. And I am the one whose claims are under question?

            Your analogy of grafting, used to illustrate your point, is also troubling. Rather than clarifying the issue, it just further muddies the water, since a grafted branch does not produce the fruit of the tree that it is grafted onto, it produces the fruit of the tree that it was removed from. So if, as you say, the Christian is “grafted to Christ,” then she can never hope to bear Christ’s fruit, she will continue to bear her own. In his letter to the Romans, Paul makes the same mistake: he characterizes the Gentile Christians as a wild olive shoot grafted onto the cultivated olive tree of Judaism. Clearly he (or whoever wrote this section) was not an experienced olive farmer, since this would result in an olive tree full of inedible fruit! In reality, experienced olive farmers graft shoots of cultivated olives onto wild olive trees, but this doesn’t conform to Paul’s analogy (nor, indeed, your own).

            Though I sincerely appreciate your efforts, I’m afraid that you have done little to clarify the distinction that you had hoped to press with regard to apostasy. But as it happens, I picked up a copy of R. C. Sproul’s column in Table Talk this morning at church, and I noticed that he had quite a bit to say about apostasy that may be illuminating. He notes that, with regard to determining who is a “full apostate,” that “one thing none of us can do is read the heart of other people. When I see a person who has made a profession of faith and later repudiates it, I don’t know whether he is a truly regenerate person who’s in the midst of a serious, radical fall but who will at some point in the future certainly be restored; or whether he is a person who was never really converted, whose profession of faith was false from the start.”

            So perhaps the agnosticism suggested by the good Dr. Sproul would be a good way to approach those who, like me, professed Christianity with sincerity, experienced the fruits of the spirit and a sanctified life, but have failed to persevere (at least, for the time being).

            I’ll conclude with more from Dr. Sproul, who comments on the spiritual anxiety of confronting apostasy:

            “The question of whether a person can lose his salvation is not an abstract question. It touches us at the very core of our Christian lives, not only with regard to our concerns for our own perseverance, but also with regard to our concern for our family and friends, particularly those who seemed, for all outward appearances, to have made a genuine profession of faith. We thought their profession was credible, we embraced them as brothers or sisters, only to find out that they repudiated their faith.

            What do you do, practically, in a situation like that? First, you pray, and then, you wait. We don’t know the final outcome of the situation, and I’m sure there are going to be surprises when we get to heaven. We’re going to be surprised to see people there who we didn’t think would be, and we’re going to be surprised that we don’t see people there who we were sure would be there, because we simply don’t know the internal status of a human heart or of a human soul. Only God can see that soul, change that soul, and preserve that soul.”

            So perhaps, BJ, you should leave it up to God to determine whether or not I was ever truly a Christian. Best regards!

  2. I’m a year late to this discussion, but I’m not coming from the new school, the old school or any school, rather, I’m coming from the arena of ideas and I can say with full confidence to both Zach and BJ that in the arena of ideas discussions like the one above has little-to-no relevance with the younger generation.

    The resounding question that young people continually ask is “why should I care?” and no where in the discussion was that question ever asked or answered.

    Discussions about how the church should deal with new atheism and how new atheism is a complex and engaging issue has no relevance to those in their 20’s who are going to be graduating in a few years with crippling student loans, lousy job prospects and equally nonchalant peers.

    Zach pities Christians who bemoan atheists and I pity Zach for the amount of time he spent writing this blog post and arguing with BJ.

    From the arena of ideas I can say to you both that the up and coming generation has less interest in thinking and more interest in being entertained.

  3. I find your assessment of the “new atheist” interesting. Even Christopher Hitchens says “there’s nothing ‘new’ about the new atheist, it’s just [that] we’re recent.” https://youtu.be/FofDChlSILU?t=41m50s
    There are welcomed conversations where the “Missing Apostates” are NOT missing. There are conversations where they ARE MISSING. But this is true also with atheists. Food for thought. My two cents haha.

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