Part of what makes our journey through deconstruction bearable is the presence of others who either are, or have been going through their own deconstructions as well. To know that others feel the same pain, trepidation and, often, mistrust of the ground beneath them in the same way we have felt it is both comforting and unsettling. Comforting because if others made it through, we know we shall as well. Unsettling because deconstruction is no respecter of persons. However our “faith” is deconstructed, we find ourselves hurling downward in a seemingly bottomless pit of doubt, darkness, worry and regret. It is only in the acceptance and incorporation of this downward spiral that we’ll ever see the bottom for what it is – the truest part of ourselves. And until we reach that point, we’re merely falling slowly, easily, comfortably and calling it death. For those who have hit the bottom of their fall, and discovered within that darkness that there is nothing to fear, and that they are not alone, the fall no longer seems painful.
My friend Matthew Distefano knows this well. He’s going to be a ‘guest speaker’ as it were, on the imperfect pastor for this week. His journey is one that I know will bring hope to those enduring this process for themselves. But enough from me, I hope you’ll pay attention to what he is saying-it just may save your faith, and give you a hope that something grander lie beyond all the debate and discourse plaguing our internal airwaves.
WAKING TO REALITY: A FORMER ATHEIST’S DISCOVERY OF GOD AND SELF
A THREE PART SERIES
BY MATTHEW J. DISTEFANO
PART 1: A HELLISH STARTING PLACE
“BELIEVE IN JESUS AND YOU WILL BE SAVED.”
These words were emblazoned into my mind from the time I was a youngster. At first glance, one can find hope here. Salvation, whatever that is supposed to mean, seems assured. However, here in the West, this statement often bears with it a specific, and might I say, terrifying context. For if you were to ask most Christians, “What are we saved from and should we have cause for concern if we fail to heed this call to believe in Jesus?” Without a mincing of words, the answers you will receive will probably end up looking like the following: You are saved from God’s wrath, and yes, you will burn in hell if you do not believe. And this is exactly the theology that was forced upon me very early on.
With this permanently fixed in the back of my mind, I of course chose to believe in Jesus. What child would not, given those gloomy prognostications? And while I cannot recall the exact age when I “gave my heart to the Lord,” I do know that it was fairly early on. Indeed, I cannot remember a time when I did not have this dualistic (heaven and hell) worldview. It was always a given.
End. Of. Story.
This was a terribly difficult reality to live with, as I never actually felt secure in my “belief” in Jesus. And what did that even mean anyway? Was I supposed to simply believe that Jesus was who he said he was and then go about being a kid? Or did I have to believe and then also follow his teachings, which seemed downright impossible? I mean, even his disciples could not follow him when it counted most. Prior to Jesus’ public execution, Peter denied him three times, the other disciples did not even have the chance to as they failed to show up to the event, and do I need to even mention everyone’s favorite scapegoat, Judas? All these guys bailed when Jesus needed them the most, and if I did the same thing, it was off to the big eternal underground cookout?
My mind would often wander in this way, constantly asking all the “what if” questions I could:
What if I blasphemed the Holy Spirit, would nothing else matter in my life after that point because my sin was “unpardonable?”1
What if I failed to repent of some sin I may have committed prior to death, would I not get a second chance?
On and on my troubled young mind would go…
As time went on, things only got worse. Sure, on the outside, I was just fine. I excelled at school, always had the highest or nearly highest batting average in little league, and was perfectly comfortable in most social settings. But internally, I was so fixated on death and the afterlife that it drove me mad. Perhaps that is why I had so many nightmares growing up. Some of the most memorable were the most recurrent: run-ins with the very creatures of Dante’s hell, and being forced to charge through the killing fields of Armageddon. The sleep paralysis and night terrors that accompanied the nightmares did not help my situation.
Needless to say, by the time my teenage years hit, I was pretty much a wreck. Not many people know this about me. And really, they should not be expected to. I hid things fairly well. I never made it known just how terrified I was about going to hell. And if not me, then I was convinced the “non-believers” that I loved certainly were.
- My grandfather.
- Various girlfriends I had throughout my youth.
- My friend Ryan who died in a car accident.
- Two of my classmates who committed suicide.
All of them, I believed, were hellbound. And why? Because they did not say the magical salvific phrase Christians say to get themselves into heaven. This was horrifying and there was not a damn thing I could do about it. After all, the Bible was clear on this.
But how was this fair?
How was this just?
Prominent atheist neuroscientist Sam Harris, in a debate against Christian apologist William Lane Craig, makes this keen observation:
What if Muslims are right? What if Islam is true? How should we view God in moral terms? How would we view God in moral terms, or should I say, Allah? Okay, we have been born in the wrong place, to the wrong parents, to the wrong culture, given the wrong theology. Okay, needless to say, Dr. Craig is doomed. He’s been thoroughly confused by Christianity. I mean, just appreciate what a bad position he’s now in to appreciate the true word of God. I have been thoroughly misled by science. Okay, where is Allah’s compassion? And yet, he’s omnipotent; he could change this in an instant. He could give us a sign that would convince everyone in this room. And yet he’s not gonna do it. And hell awaits. And hell awaits our children, because we can’t help but mislead our children. Now, just hold this vision in mind, and first appreciate how little sleep you have lost over this possibility. Okay. Just feel in yourself in this moment how carefree you are, and will continue to be, in the fact of this possibility. What are the chances that we’re all going to go to hell, for, for eternity, because we haven’t recognized the Qu’ran to be the perfect word of the creator of the universe? Please know that this is exactly how Christianity appears to someone who has not been indoctrinated by it.2
With these types of things running through my head as well, I thought of my grandfather, who had always been rather agnostic when it came to Jesus, yet was one of the best men I knew. When he had the full capacity of his mind, he was giving and kind. He lovingly took care of my grandmother, was a great dad to my mom and uncle, and influenced me as much as anyone during my youth. And what, he was going to burn in hell for all eternity because he could not come to a “correct” conclusion about the exact nature of Jesus Christ? Then on the flipside—and I do not mean to judge, but hear me out—folks like the Westboro Baptist Church, who, like the zealots they are, picket other people’s funerals whilst holding obscene and hateful homemade signs, are well on their way to life’s after-party in the sky because they have the secret password: J-E-S-U-S?
Moreover, what about my friends who struggled so strongly with depression that they felt they had to take their own life? Why, instead of healing these sick people, instead of delivering them from the bondage they were so held in, would God torment them forever? Any human being who did this would be considered fit for an insane asylum and pumped full of psychotropic medications, and yet that is exactly what God was going to do to people I cared about? Why? Well, I was given all sorts of reasons, the most common being that his justice demanded such. That is to say, sin deserves punishment, and all are guilty of sin (see Rom 3:23). And if anyone did not accept the whoopin’ Jesus took, then they would receive their just desserts.
“Some great ‘father,’” I would mockingly think.
Yet, in spite of this cynicism and sarcasm, I clung to these “traditional” views for many years. Allow me to correct myself, for in all reality, they clung to me. And I did not know what to do. This was just the reality of the universe, derived from the “difficult truths of the Bible,” as I was often told. Sadly, the one difficult truth of the Bible that stuck out to me was that God was an asshole.
The Bible was clear about this.
First, turn your attention to Num 25, where is a plague on Israel because God is mad that some of the people have started making sacrifices to other gods. So what he does is instructs Moses to “impale them in the sun” so that he does not have to be angry anymore. After a Midianite woman is “brought in” by an Israelite man (code for “gettin’ it on”), Aaron’s grandson Phinehas does just as God instructed—he rams his spear through their bellies. Hurray! This pleases God, so the plague of vengeance, which killed twenty-four thousand Israelites, is lifted. Because of Phinehas’ great zeal for the Lord, he is given a “covenant of peace” and a “covenant of perpetual priesthood.” Now, let me reiterate that in case it did not sink in: Phinehas is given a covenant of peace, by God, for murdering an interracial couple who were said to be partially, if not fully, responsible for a divinely-mandated plague that ended up killing twenty-four thousand people. The Bible makes this clear, and it is a “difficult truth” to accept indeed.
But wait, there’s more!
Head over to Deut 20. Here we have some rules for how Israel was to properly conduct warfare while taking back the “promised land.” What God makes clear is that he does not like the Canaanites nor a few of the other “-ites”—not even the cute, chubby-cheeked little children. In fact, he wants them all dead—every man, woman, and yes, child. We have a word for this: genocide. And this is not the only place where we find evidence that God is a bloodthirsty, genocidal maniac. In fact, that depiction is littered all throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, primarily in books like Joshua, Judges, and the aforementioned Deuteronomy.
Yet, in spite of this brutality and bloodlust, the story that really got to me—and in fact is the one that broke the camel’s back for my faith—is the little tale about Onan, and it comes from Gen 38. Here is the brief synopsis: God murders a wicked man named Er (we’re off to a smashing start, are we not?). This makes Er’s wife a childless widow. As was the custom, Onan, the brother of the slain Er, was to bear a child with Er’s wife. However, Onan was not having any of it so “pulls out” early, ejaculating on the ground. God then gets pissed and kills Onan too, leaving Judah with two dead sons (as well as a bunch of semen and blood to mop up).
I can recall asking my pastors about the meaning of this passage, only to receive the stock “difficult biblical truth” answer. And because they could offer no better explanation, that was it for me. I was done. I simply could not comprehend how God could do this to poor Onan, or to poor Judah, or to poor Er, or poor Er’s wife. Why them and not me? Certainly, my shower can testify to how much “seed hath been spilled” during my teenage years and I never once had a lightning bolt crash through the skylight. Nor did I have any mysterious heart attacks after my many porn sessions. Nor was I smitten any of the other countless times I disobeyed and spat in God’s face. But Onan was. Just like that. Murdered. For pulling out early.
This was the God I was told was true, yet this was the God I could no longer worship. I tried, and I failed. While most of my family, friends, and pastors seemed content to sing praises to this murderous deity, I was not. I could not. It was physically impossible and no matter how many of the motions I went through, no matter how many Sunday nights I spent leading others in worship, no matter how much I read my Bible, it was literally impossible to sincerely worship God.
So I walked away from the faith. But where I was walking to I had no clue. Agnosticism? Atheism? Who knew? In front of me was only a barren desert, with just a few cacti scattered throughout the landscape and one or two tumbleweed gently rolling by—daunting to say the least. I knew I could not go back though. There was nothing to go back to—nothing of value anyway. Only an angry god pointing his angry finger at me, his other hand ready to toss a thunderbolt my way. The choice was simple then, into the desert I went.