From Fundamentalist Evangelical to Agnostic Atheist
In 1994, I remember preaching in a church in El Paso and during the course of my sermon the thought, like a bolt out of the blue, popped into my head: "you don't really believe this." The thought terrified me and almost disrupted my sermon.
By Ken Pulliam
Former Bible College Professor
I was "born-again," as the Evangelicals term it, in 1978 at the age of 18. I repented of my sin and trusted Christ and Christ alone for salvation. My life changed dramatically, and I enrolled in a Baptist college to study for the ministry. After graduating from Baptist University of America in 1981, I went to one of the most conservative Christian colleges in the nation, Bob Jones University. There I earned an M.A. (1982) and a Ph.D. (1986) in Theology. I wrote my dissertation on "Bernard Ramm's Changing Views of Scripture." At Bob Jones the emphasis was on the ancient languages and exegetical theology. It was presupposed that the Bible was the Word of God and thus inerrant. We studied Biblical criticism and contemporary theologies but only from the standpoint of determining how and why they deviated from the "truth." Protestant scholasticism rather than open-minded scholarship was promoted.
Upon graduation, I took a position as an instructor at International Baptist College in Tempe, Arizona. This was a small Bible college in the same fundamentalist evangelical tradition as Bob Jones. I taught Greek, Systematic Theology, Apologetics, and English Bible classes. Sometime during my 8th year of teaching (1994), doubts that had been simmering under the surface came to the forefront. One of my concerns came from my teaching of Apologetics. I was convinced that the presuppositionalist school of apologetics (developed by Cornelius Van Til of Westminster Seminary) was right in its criticisms of the classical and evidentialist schools, which taught that Christianity could be demonstrated through rational proofs and historical evidences. As the presuppositionalists pointed out, historical "facts" have to be interpreted, they do not come with their interpretation built-in. One's presuppositions would determine how one would interpret the evidence. Thus, one would never come to the conclusion that Christianity is true unless one first presupposed the truth of the Bible. To do this, however, was simply begging the question. The real question was whose presuppositions are correct. It seemed to me that the non-supernatural interpretations of the evidences for Christianity were more consistent with our knowledge of the real world. As I began to look at the Bible and evangelical Christianity through the eyes of one not already committed to the truth of the Bible, the faith that I had held for nearly 20 years began to look intellectually indefensible.
In 1994, I remember preaching in a church in El Paso and during the course of my sermon the thought, like a bolt out of the blue, popped into my head: "you don't really believe this." The thought terrified me and almost disrupted my sermon. Later that night I went to my hotel room and prayed for God to help me overcome these doubts. I believed that they were Satanic in origin. I determined to study these issues, which were causing me doubts, until I could eliminate them from my thinking. One of the doubts that was plaguing me was the doctrine of the penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). I wondered how the punishment of an innocent person could be just. It seemed counter to man's moral intuitions and these intuitions I believed came to man as a result of being made in the image of God.
I read every book and article on PSA that I could find. I examined all of the classic works beginning with Anselm and continuing through the Reformers, the Puritans (especially John Owen), the Princeton theologians and contemporary defenders of PSA. I found that essentially there was no answer. While various attempts to justify the doctrine were put forward, most admitted that at the end of the day, it was a mystery. For example, A. A. Hodge wrote:
We confess that the divine administration, both as to the coming in of the curse through Adam, and as to the redemption from the curse through Christ, rests upon principles higher and grander than those embraced in the ordinary rules of human law. . . . But while the complete satisfaction which absolute justice finds in the vicarious sufferings of a substituted victim may transcend reason, it by no means conflicts with it.i
J. I . Packer argued that Reformed theologians have made a mistake in trying to explain or justify PSA using reason. He says that in an attempt to answer the objections of Socinians and other rationalists, they unwittingly gave up "home field advantage" and played on the Socinians' home turf of rationalism. He wrote:
The almost mesmeric effect of Socinus’ critique on Reformed scholastics in particular was on the whole unhappy. It forced them to develop rational strength in stating and connecting up the various parts of their position, which was good, but it also led them to fight back on the challenger’s own ground. . . . They made the word of the cross sound more like a conundrum than a confession of faith — more like a puzzle, we might say, than a gospel. What was happening? Just this: that in trying to beat Socinian rationalism at its own game, Reformed theologians were conceding the Socinian assumption that every aspect of God’s work of reconciliation will be exhaustively explicable in terms of a natural theology of divine government, drawn from the world of contemporary legal and political thought. Thus, in their zeal to show themselves rational, they became rationalistic.ii
Packer says that at the end of the day, PSA is a mystery and all attempts to understand it or defend it rationally will fail.
If we bear in mind that all the knowledge we can have of the atonement is of a mystery about which we can only think and speak by means of models, and which remain a mystery when all is said and done, it will keep us from rationalistic pitfalls and thus help our progress considerably.iii
While I could accept the notion that PSA transcends reason, I could not accept the fact that it contradicts reason and our sense of justice. If it is self-evident that it is unjust to punish an innocent man, then how could the righteous and holy Judge of the Universe accept that punishment as the means by which his wrath against sin is propitiated? Could man's redemption be based on an unjust act? I could not resolve this problem. I realize that there are other theories of the atonement besides PSA but all of them base man's salvation on the death of an innocent man. I also firmly believe that the best and most competent exegesis of the biblical text yields the PSA. This is clearly demonstrated, I think, in the work of Leon Morris,The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross.iv
So, after struggling with this issue and others, my faith slowly evaporated. Sometime around the fall of 1996, I admitted to myself that I no longer believed. This was not an easy thing to do. It is very traumatic psychologically and emotionally to admit to one's self that one has devoted his life to an error. To acknowledge self-delusion is difficult. In addition, I had the practical concern of how to support my wife and family since all of my education and training were geared towards being an evangelical Christian minister. I had no marketable skills for the real world. It was, therefore, tempting to keep silent and continue on in my role but I could not do that. I could not live with myself knowing that I was living a lie and pretending to believe something that I honestly no longer did. I was in a real dilemma.v Fortunately in my case, I was approached by someone who wanted me to help him start a business. This person, although a family member, had no idea of the intellectual turmoil that I was experiencing. We started the business in January of 1997, and it was successful. I had a new career ,and I felt relieved. For the first time in a long time, I was able to sleep at night. In the nearly 14 years that have transpired since my loss of faith, I have had no regrets. Sometimes people will ask me if I have doubts today that maybe I made the wrong decision and I can honestly say that I don't. My life is good and I have found meaning and purpose apart from my former faith.
i The Atonement (Nabu Press, 2010), p. 200.
ii "What Did the Cross Achieve: The Logic of Penal Substitution," Tyndale Biblical Theology Lecture, Delivered at Tyndale House, Cambridge, on July 17th, 1973, published by Tyndale House, 1974. Available on-line at: http://www.the-highway.com/cross_Packer.html.
iv Tyndale Press, 1965.
v I can definitely sympathize with those men in Daniel Dennett's study of unbelieving Pastors. See "Preachers who are not Believers," Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola, Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University, March 15, 2010, available on line at: http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/Non-Believing-Clergy.pdf.