Christian Belief: “How Weird It All Was”

An ex-vangelical star on TikTok

For a while, after my book was published in 2016, its Facebook page attracted attention—and elicited comments—from Christians. Much of it was on the hate/rage end of the spectrum, with predictions that I’m headed for hell. But one of the most common reactions was that I never really had been a Christian, despite my upbringing by in a conservative Methodist home and my nine-year stint as pastor of two parishes.



Oddly enough, I have some sympathy for this accusation. I had never been a fundamentalist, and my pious mother had no use for evangelical Christianity—as represented by Billy Graham, for example. In fact, when I went away to college I bumped into fundamentalists for the first time, i.e., members of the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship Years, and was puzzled by their strident version of the faith. “When are they going to grow up?” was my reaction. But, of course, I learned that their immaturity had considerable staying power. Years after my deconversion, I met a fellow raised in an evangelical home, and he recalled one of the favorite forms of greeting among these folks: “How is your walk with the Lord going today?”  


So, yes, it’s true, I was never a Christian if that meant being friends with Jesus. But there is irony here: some of the best ex-Christians are in fact those who were once these true Christians. As an aside, by the way, it would be handy if the secular world knew the criteria for qualifying as a true Christian. There are more than 30,000 Christian brands because all these followers of the faith can’t agree. One fellow I know, raised as Southern Baptist, was brought up to believe that Catholics are not real Christians at all. 


Dan Savage has said that he didn’t lose his faith—he saw through it, so some of the true Christian do grow up. The rigid indoctrination invites resistance from those folks who are inclined to put their brains in gear. One of the more famous cases is Nathan Phelps, son of Fred Phelps, of Westboro Baptist Church fame: 


“On his 18th birthday, Phelps left his family home. Still in internal conflict, he abandoned his family and the WBC, despite his then deeply-held belief that this meant he would go immediately to hell. In great fear of having his escape interrupted by his abusive father, Phelps made a clandestine nighttime getaway in an old car he had bought specifically for this purpose, with little plan or preparation beyond this. He slept the first night in the men's room of a nearby gas station.” (Wikipedia)


That was 1976, and now, in the age of the Internet, there is far more support and encouragement for people in these oppressive, restrictive environments. This New York Times headline recently caught my attention (12 April 2021):


A Pastor’s Son Becomes a Critic of Religion on TikTok

“John Piper is one of the most influential theologians in America. His son Abraham calls evangelicalism ‘a destructive, narrow-minded worldview.’”


“Abraham Piper became a sensation on TikTok nearly overnight. He posted his first video in November, and he now has more than 900,000 followers, many of them young people who thank him for capturing their experiences so precisely. His unlikely path to online stardom: irreverent critiques of evangelical Christianity aimed at others who have left the faith. ‘If you just want to roll your eyes at how weird it all was, that’s what I’m here for,’ Mr. Piper said…”


In the article, Ms. Graham draws attention to a couple of Abraham Piper’s superb slams of basic Christian doctrine:


“How are you going to take your family to Outback after church while millions of people are burning alive?”


Good for Abraham! Christianity deserves scorn and ridicule for some of its terrible theology. How can anyone have a nice Sunday lunch after being told at worship that those who don’t measure up are being “burned alive”? The concept of hell—eternal torment as punishment for evil deeds or thoughts—is abhorrent, and has no place in any compassionate system of belief. But evangelical Christians have become so used it, and fail to notice its barbarity. 


Moreover, Jesus encouraged this grotesque concept, in fact heightened the severity of it. Christians don’t seem to notice the bad theology of Matthew 25, because they are so caught up with these famous verses in the Last Judgment scene:


“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’   (Matthew 25:37-40)


But then there are those who are not so lucky:


"You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”  (Matthew 25:41-46)


This absolutely fails as great moral teaching—blame whomever you want, Matthew or Jesus: Not being compassionate enough gets you tossed into eternal fire. Why don’t the folks in the pews head for the exit? Jesus makes no mention of those who might be considered better candidates for this fate, e.g., slave owners, child abusers, murderers, rapists. 


Matthew 25 is big-time defective scripture, one of hundreds of examples that could be cited. And what an outrage that conservative versions of the faith insist that their “holy” book is actually without error. 


Abraham Piper also slams obsessive devotion to the Bible:


“While other kids are learning to read with comics or whatever normal parents have around the house, here fundie kids are—6, 7, 8 years old—devouring stories of Jezebel being defenestrated and then eaten by dogs.” The Bible, he said is “basically ‘Game of Thrones,’ except if you don’t read it, you go to Hell.”


The world had experienced far too much hell because the defective morality of the Bible has been taken far too seriously. If Abraham Piper’s ridicule prompts young people to ignore the Bible—which so many Christians do anyway—then he’s doing a good job. A devout woman once remarked to me, “You don’t want children to be Biblically illiterate, do you?” Yes, that is exactly what I want—unless the Bible is studied as an ancient curiosity.


Scholar Hector Avalos stated the reason why Abraham Piper is right:


“Biblical studies as we know it must end. We should now treat the Bible as the alien document it is, with no more importance than the other works of literature we ignore every day. Biblical studies should be geared toward helping humanity wean itself off the Bible and toward terminating its authority completely in the modern world…One day, the Bible might even be viewed as one of the curiosities of a tragic bibliolatrous age, when dependence on a text brought untold misery and stood as an obstacle to human progress. We might then study the Bible as a lesson in why human beings should never again privilege any book to this extent.” (Hector Avalos, The End of Biblical Studies, p. 29)


I invite you to reread this quote carefully. There’s not one false note in it. We grieve that zealous Gideons have privileged the Bible to the extent of giving away more than two billion copies. 


The broader problem, of course, is that an ancient cult that offered formulas for eternal life did not die out; other ancient cults that made similar promises faded away. But Christianity, by quite a few accidents of history, prevailed and gained power. Its bureaucracy grew and pushed the idea that its survival had been a god-ordained miracle—and that an ancient book, so imperfectly cobbled together as we now know, was miraculously inspired. 


In other words, superstition triumphed. We are now in the post-Darwin, post-Einstein, post-Hubble world; serious thinkers have moved on, yet far too many people remain emotionally invested in ancient cult beliefs.


We can hope the Internet will do some good, but evangelicals have brought their missionary zeal there as well. John Piper, Abraham’s father, has a million followers on Twitter. But bravo for the son, who now has a million followers on TikTok. Here’s a hopeful comment in Ruth Graham’s article:


Abraham “…is also tapping into the growing appetite online for accounts of rejecting one’s evangelical upbringing. If the New Atheist movement of the early 2000s devoted itself to intellectual combat with the claims of Christianity, the more recent ‘exvangelical’ movement elevates personal stories of people who have walked away.”


“If you just want to roll your eyes at how weird it all was, that’s what I’m here for.” Yes, there’s plenty of weird out there: astrology, anti-vaxxers, the-earth-is-flat, alien abductions, Scientology, fortune-telling, tarot cards, ouija boards—and worshipping a savior who, once upon a time, was resurrected, and advised his followers drink his blood. 


How do any of these superstitions deserve our respect?  


David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.


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