Pastor Ryan Bell’s recent announcement that he would suspend his “belief in God to see what atheism is all about” surely must have startled his Hollywood congregation. He went on to tell his fellow Californians that he had decided to spend 2014 “as if there is no God.” He would forego the typical things Christians do such as attend church services, read Scripture and pray. Not only that, he would even interview avowed atheists and devour the writings of mockers of Christianity such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Dawkins.
The first thing that came to my mind upon reading the CNN article applauding this man’s disastrous decision was to wonder how a Christian pastor could come to such a place in life. The answer became crystal clear as I continued following the story. According to CNN, over the years Bell “had advocated for the church to allow gay and lesbian leaders, campaigned against California’s same-sex marriage ban and disputed deeply held church doctrines about the End Times.” In other words, if he ever truly had faith in Christ, it had long ago been dashed to pieces upon the rocks of worldly thinking.
Before I go any further, I should mention that this man did not receive his ordination papers from some sham online organization. He is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary and so impressed the faculty of this prestigious evangelical school that he was invited to join their ranks as a teacher.
One might expect the faculty to have quickly distanced themselves from the heretic, but that is surprisingly not the case. Kurt Fredrickson, associate dean of ministry at the seminary, temporarily relieved his “friend” of his duties while he sorts out what he actually believes. “From an academic standpoint, and even as a personal journey, I’m really excited about what Ryan is doing,” Fredrickson gushed. “There is no honest person of faith who doesn’t have doubts, and Ryan is being courageous enough to take a step back and assess his life. This is bold stuff.”
Rather than applaud his friend’s descent into the dark abyss of apostasy, Fredrickson might have pointed out that there is nothing new about unbelief or atheism. Three thousand years ago, David said, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” (Psalm 14:1). He might have exhorted his wavering protégé with what the apostle Paul had written to his protégé: “…fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith” (1 Timothy 18-19) He may have even pressed Paul’s warning that in the last days “there will be men who abandon the true faith and allow themselves to be spiritually seduced by teachings of the devil” (1 Timothy 4:1 Phi).
As I considered this troubling story, another question came to me: “What kind of spiritual system do we have in America that men like these can be instructors in a prominent seminary without anyone taking notice?”
But just as I began to work myself up into an impressive rant against this backslider and his undiscerning mentor, a most troubling thought stopped me in my tracks: “I am a product and member of the same religious culture that produced Ryan Bell.”
I have read the same versions of the Bible he used to read. I have enjoyed some of the same worship music he used to enjoy. I have listened to the same radio preachers he has listened to. And perhaps more telling than any of these similarities: I have been affected by the mixture of worldly prosperity and the Christian message like he and every other American Christian has.
These thoughts hastened my mind into an even more disconcerting thought: “What makes me so sure I won’t one day abandon my faith? After all, didn’t Paul say, ‘…let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall?’” (1 Corinthians 10:12)
As I pondered the frightful reality of this notion, my mind went back to my salvation experience. I was not saved into the American Evangelical Movement; I was saved into Jesus Christ—the One who sacrificed Himself to appease God’s righteous fury against my sin; the One who pulled me out of the hell of my own making; the One who has loved me, and disciplined me, and guided me, and revealed Himself to me on countless occasions.
Having quieted my personal fears, my mind returned to this wayward pastor. “How is it possible for someone who has truly been born from above, to entertain the idea that there is no God?”
“I can’t imagine that being possible,” was my conclusion.
Then I considered the multitudes of people who are very much like Pastor Ryan—only don’t realize it. Perhaps their churchgoing has so masked their underlying unbelief that they never think to follow the apostle Paul’s instructions to the Christians of his day to “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves!” (2 Corinthians 13:5) Surely if they did this with any earnestness they would have to admit that their lives don’t reflect the belief that there is an Almighty God perceiving their thoughts, discerning their motives, watching their secret words and actions.
It was then that it came to me: Perhaps the secret of the Apostasy is found in each person’s entrance into Christianity. The faith of those who have a genuine encounter with the living God is founded upon a vibrant relationship with a Person. It is a profound union of their spirits with the Spirit of Christ; a marriage that has occurred at the deepest level of their souls.
In contrast are those who have wedded themselves—not to Jesus—but to a religious system they call “Jesus.” Yes, their emotions have often been stirred by rich worship and heart-tugging sermons. Their minds have been stimulated by intellectual teachings. But beneath the realm of their emotions and intellects—deep down in the recesses of their hearts—their souls remain unmoved, unaffected, unconverted. (For a stark reminder of what the Redeemer is really like, view The Radical Jesus video clip.)
Truth be told, it is only a matter of time before they too become so disillusioned by this religious system that their “faith” ends up on the rocks. How could they possibly endure when their belief system is built upon nothing more than a fleshly commitment?
There is coming a great shipwreck of souls such as the world has never before witnessed. Pastor Ryans by the millions will one day openly abandon and renounce their Christian faith.
But none of this will move me because my faith is not built upon a corrupt religious system but upon a living Savior who has never failed me nor forsaken me.