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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
June 2010

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:

iii Ibid.

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:

Comments (25)

Your story saddens me, I was not looking for God when I was 19 and hit rock bottom in life and the Lord and those who love Him are the reason I'm here. I still have many doubts but they drive me to trust the God who rescued me. I pray God brings the simplicity of the relationship back to your life. I know all my studies now can get the best of me and I have to be reminded of the simplicity of a relationship with Him. My heart grieves when I read stories like yours.
#1 - Ryan - 06/27/2010 - 01:08

I was hoping you would go on, as I am interested to know how this affected your family.
#2 - Danny Zacharias - 06/28/2010 - 10:07


I understand where you are "coming from," but there is no need to be sad for me. I am as happy as I ever been in my life. Realizing that "this life" is what counts and that I have to make the best of it myself without expecting divine intervention results in a certain soberness. IMO, it is better to deal with reality as it is than to "invent" a different reality.
#3 - Ken Pulliam - 06/28/2010 - 10:54


I was limited to 1500 words. My wife has been totally supportive and she de-converted as well but for some different reasons than mine. My children dealt with it well; they are both adults now and are finding their own way in life but neither are interested in going back to evangelicalism. My parents are the ones who took it the hardest. My poor Dad died last year and he had told my mother that he hoped to live long enough to see me "come back" to the Lord. He was a hard man to talk with and we never really discussed my reasons for leaving the faith. My mother, on the other hand, is much easier to talk with and she and I have had some good discussions. She doesn't want to really think through the issues at her age. Her faith has brought her strength and I certainly don't want to undermine that. She seems comfortable with the way things are.
#4 - Ken Pulliam - 06/28/2010 - 10:58

I wish you well and hope your current world-explanation continues to work well for you. However, I feel compelled to note that "fundamentalist evangelical" and "agnostic atheist" are not the only options available, even though the polarized "science vs. religion" culture war sometimes makes it seem so.
#5 - Chris - 06/28/2010 - 16:44

Anselm's atonement theory based on the feudal honor system has been increasingly rejected by non-conservative evangelical theologians who essentially argue that Jesus did not die FOR our sins, but BECAUSE of our sins with no armed resistance being interpreted as a witness to valuing human life and/or passive resistance rather than the armed rebellions against injustices and oppression that destroyed his nation.
#6 - timsolon - 06/28/2010 - 20:08


Thanks. Yes I am aware of such interpretations (modified Girardean views), however, as you note these views are held by those on the fringes of evangelicalism, and they are repudiated by conservatives such as Al Mohler and the SBC seminaries, John MacArthur, Westminster Seminary and virtually all Reformed scholars.

I also find a problem with the view for the following reasons: 1) The NT presents the death of Jesus as being planned by God (e.g., Acts 2:23; Re. 13:8, etc); 2) The NT presents the death of Jesus as propitiating God (Rom. 3:21ff; I John 2:2, etc) and 3) if the purpose of the death of Jesus was to show the futility of violence, history has shown that it has failed miserably.
#7 - Ken Pulliam - 06/29/2010 - 10:33

There is more than one interpretation of the meaning of the death of Jesus. The early Church was trying to make sense of a traumatic event. The Epistle to the Hebrews squeezed into the Canon is a sign of a long struggle to have a satisfying explanation. That God wanted it is one explanation. Why God wanted it provided others. Paul emphasizes that Jesus was a Passover sacrifice and Luke is the only one who refers to the blood of a new covenant--and, not for the "forgiveness of sins" as stated in some liturgies. The blood of the Paschal Lamb was to save from death. The evolutionary force of creation is driven by preservation of life. Religion is an extension of the nurturing of the pack. For me the Eternal Parent desires "healthy" life for the children she (Spirit) breathed life into; and, thus, one of the teachings shared through our "brother" is the possible consequence of challenging human arrogance and abuse of power that is destructive of humanity.
#8 - Tim Solon - 06/29/2010 - 19:35

I am somewhat bemused by your position. Whilst there is, undoubtedly, some measure of mystery in all God does, including PSA, there are some pretty convincing explanations for PSA, such that this needn't be an insurmountable problem causing lack of faith. For example, there is nothing morally repugnant about someone offering their life for someone else (Jesus died willingly for us). On the contrary, there is "no greater love". Also, God and Jesus are one, so God (the Father) effectively died for us. As He is also the Judge, He is taking His own punishment. Again, how can this be anything but admirable? You seem to be under the impression that Jesus was somehow made to die, but that is not the case at all. The Father and Son agreed on this before anything was created. I don't think PSA is a problem. Where the problems lie, for me, is in how God has set things up: we are born in sin (no choice), we cannot choose him unless He chooses to open our eyes first (because we love sin and only He can overcome this urge and cause us to be saved), and yet,if He does not step in, we go to hell! And, this is the crux, if you search the scriptures carefully (see Eph 1 for example), the overriding objective and aim of this entire plan, which He conceived before time was created, is to bring Himself glory. I don't want to be blasphemous, but this raises some issues for me as to the character of the God portrayed in the Bible. Could any of us conceive such a plan. On the other hand, maybe we are so limited and sinful that we just cannot understand. After all, if God is 100% good, and He gave us minds and consciences, then we could never be more good than Him, so our perception must be out if we think He is less than 100% good (!).
#9 - Timothy - 07/10/2010 - 17:15

I don't doubt your sincerity in questioning the beliefs you were taught. I continue to pray that God will reveal Himself to you because, rationalizing Him away will not ultimately give you the meaning and purpose that you write about. Were you indwelt by the Holy Spirit at one time?
#10 - Boyd Griffin - 07/14/2010 - 06:53


I certainly thought I was indwelt by the Spirit but how does one really know? Its subjective at best unless one maintains that speaking in tongues is the evidence (and then the whole problem of exactly what tongues are raises its head).

#11 - Ken Pulliam - 07/15/2010 - 10:02


I also have problems with original sin, unconditional election, eternal hell, etc. but the atonement is the central piece of Christian theology and I think the concept of PSA has insurmountable problems. Yes its noble for someone to give his life to save another. That is not the question. The question is "why must someone die before God can forgive"? That makes God look pretty petty and not much different than other ancient deities that had to be appeased. To say that God was the judge and thus sacrificed himself is also problematic. Again why was it necessary? And how could God pay the penalty anyway? First, the penalty is eternal death (separation from God), how does God separate from himself? If you say that the Son was separated from the Father, as Luther and Calvin held, then you have a split in the Trinity. Second, as Socinus points out (people need to read his writings, here is a link to an English translation of Part III of
(De Jesu Christo Servatore), if the penalty is owed by humanity, then man has to pay it. To argue that Jesus was man and could pay it, then requires one to explain how Jesus as a man could pay it? Why was his human nature able to do so when others cannot? Was it due to his sinlessness? Socinus presents the problems. Was it due to the union of the human and divine in Jesus? Socinus presents the problems.

Thus, I agree with John Hick that atonement theories developed by the Church... have no doubt helped people to rationalize the immense impact upon them of the cross of Christ, and they did so in ways that cohered with the plausiblity structures of their time. But our own intellectual world is so different, both within the Church and without, that traditional atonement theories, including their contemporary variations, no longer perform any useful function (Is the Doctrine of the Atonement a Mistake? in Reason and the Christian religion, ed. Alan G. Padgett, pp. 262-63).

#12 - Ken Pulliam - 07/15/2010 - 10:18


The reason why you lost your faith is because your frontal lobe kicked in and you started being concerned about troublesome things like ... "facts".

Facts are the natural enemies of governments and religions, needless to say.
#13 - BrunoDiderot - 08/06/2010 - 21:59

Well, Christ new that "raising the dead" wasn't enough to convince and convert all souls. His death was the greatest marketing message in history.

"In A.D. 100 there were 360 non-Christians per true believer. Today the ratio is less than seven to every believer"

Perhaps Christ new that there was only one way to both save AND convert...
#14 - Tom - 08/20/2010 - 02:48

From everything you have said, it appears that your position is exactly and entirely consistent with Isaiah 52/53 both in terms of the astonishment of the Gentiles and the unbelief of the Jews. So, you and Isaiah agree.

#15 - Ed - 08/21/2010 - 14:31


Thank you so much for your story. I converted from evangelicalism almost 2 years ago as a college sophomore. I felt betrayed by my upbringing when I realized that the creation science I'd been brought up on was nothing moree than lies and propaganda. Then I ran across Rom 9, and I was disgusted. I could no longer go on missions trips to share the "good news", because I felt there was simply nothing joyous in the gospel.

I'm havinng a really hard time dealing with my parents, especially my hard headed, bju attendee dad. It is painful time for everyone in my family, and I know my parents will never be okay with it. But I couldn't live a lie.
#16 - Kristen - 08/28/2010 - 14:30

Thanks for your story. It's interesting to me that problems with a particular theory of the atonement would be a major step toward agnostic-atheism. I lean toward Robin Collin's Incarnational theory of the atonement myself, which avoids the problems you raise. He makes a biblical case for it, but if you don't think his case adds up, then this could be one more reason to give up inerrancy (as C.S. Lewis did). Going from there to no longer believing in an atonement or even in the existence of God is, from where I'm standing, to leap light years. To me, this is a testimony to the problems with Christian education that flows out of a single school of though.
#17 - Josh - 08/28/2010 - 16:35

"Thus, one would never come to the conclusion that Christianity is true unless one first presupposed the truth of the Bible." I believe this is where your seeds of doubt were sown. If we cannot come to find the truth of the Bible objectively, then we cannot objective find any truth. Though it may be true that some people are drawn to Christ through their presuppositions, it's another thing to think there is no objective truth or people are not drawn through other means. The whole pursuit of knowledge in all disciplines is based on the instinctual idea that there is objective truth and we can find it. Paul was an evidentialist - "But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, "Lord, who has believed our message?" 17Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. But I ask: Did they not hear? Of course they did:
"Their voice has gone out into all the earth,their words to the ends of the world." (Rom.10:16 and Rom. 1:20) Paul says of coure they did, through nature... it's a language that speaks! General revelation gets us to God, special revelation tells us who he is! Jesus says, "Your word is truth" (John 17:7) This is not some subjective truth that he pressupposes, it's objective and anyone can discover it. Ours is not an intellectual problem, it is a moral problem, a sin problem that decieves us, even into thinking that our wisdom can bring us to understand God completely. Doubts are not necessarily bad, I would be concerned for a person who never doubted. John the Baptist doubted and Christ pointed him to the miracles he did. Another thing about your conclusions about PSA is you seem to be suggesting that God is subject to the same laws as you and I are under or that your (or my) sense of justice is the justice God is under (by the way, where does this sense of justice that we can both applead to come from?). Redeemed humanity is a love gift, a bride, to the Son from the Father. The Son lays down his life as a love gift to the bride (us). To view this as purely a justice issue is to miss the greatist point. "Mercy triumphs over justice"
#18 - Paul - 09/23/2010 - 15:12

In my experience with atheism, it is not so much a logical or rational argument, but more of an emotional response to God. It is not that we cannot intellectually come to know God, let alone know Him relationally, but that we simply do not like Him. I have yet to hear one decent intellectual argument to defend the atheistic point of view. Most atheists assume that atheism is a neutral position, or even that agnosticism is somehow neutral. What atheistic (or agnostic) argument persuaded you to abandon your faith, or was it simply presuppositionalism? Job comes to know God, apparently, with no exposure to Scripture. Cornelius, a Gentile Centurion, also comes to know God under the same conditions. Even though the Gospel was preached to him, the point is that if a person seeks God, He will reveal himself them just as the Scriptures promise. The passage in Romans that I quoted earlier seems to suggest more than just the knowledge of God. Paul says the Israelites heard God’s message, which is the Gospel. Job heard this message apparently through nature. So as I said earlier, ours is not an intellectual problem, but a sin problem. Is it really that you just cannot come to believe that the Scriptures are true or that there is a God, or is it really that you just do not like who God is? It burdens my heart to hear your journey. I am praying that God will help you find your way.
#19 - Paul - 10/05/2010 - 00:04

The best argument (if you can call it that) that atheists put forth to try to disprove God’s existence is the existence of evil. Something like, “If God, who is good, exists, yet evil exists, how could a good God allow evil to exist”? (or something along these lines)To me, this is not a philosophical argument so much as it is an emotional argument disguised in philosophical language. Alvin Plantinga dismantled this notion by saying the only thing this argument demonstrates is that we don’t know why evil exists! This argument is more of an emotional response, or better, a complaint, about how we don’t like the God who is, at least based on how we understand things. Steven Hawkings recently made headlines stating the big bang, or the beginning of the universe wasn’t caused by God, but that it caused itself to come into existence! Oh really? This coming from one of our greatest minds of modern day science! The words of Festus to Paul in the book of Acts 26:24 come to mind, "Your great learning is driving you insane."
#20 - Paul - 10/07/2010 - 00:51

I don't know what to think about your "de-conversion" as you call it. I became a Christian when I was 20. That is 28 years ago. During that time, my life has gotten worse in many respects, not better. I battle at times with all kinds of doubts and even all out rejections, at times. But I always come back to the reality of the sufficiency of the Biblical message, not necessarily the complete tidied package I would like. But heres the thing. Nothing explains existence, personality, purpose, meaning and truth, like the Christian worldview. Not perfectly, but sufficiently. Funny how the Atonement was such a problem for you, whereas it was a necessary element in the "system" of biblical theology I believe. My hope is that you may in time doubt your doubts, Brian
#21 - Brian Corr - 10/07/2010 - 06:40

I can't say I have your experience with atonement theories, but as a Catholic I was raised/come to a much dissimilar view of divine recompense.

The murder of a son calls not for the death of the murderer, but that they replace what they have taken, and become the son in their stead.

The death of The Eternal Son gives us an object to our recompense, His Passion is the culmination and summation of the evil we have done against God, and so the incarnation of our sin.

He is the object that we are called to restore by becoming adopted sons and daughters of God. Jesus is fully God, infinite eternal life, and the worst that we can do to him he not only survives but turns to the object of our salvation.

And the beauty of this is that nothing is forced, not even love of the Father (for that would not be love.) Thus Sin, thus Christ's "not My will but Your will be done", thus our choice between complete unity with God or complete separation from God.

I'm articulating this off the cuff, so if there are somethings I'm forgetting or being blind to, I would welcome any critiquing.

P.S. I wonder if you might be able to (in the interests of finite time and my slowness in reading) direct me to the portion where Socinus argues against the dual human-divine nature of Christ.
#22 - Benjamin Polak - 10/11/2010 - 22:20

I think it was Cornelius Van Til who said the greatest proof for the existence of God is men's hatred of him.
#23 - Paul - 10/27/2010 - 00:32

Ken, sorry to hear of your loss of faith. I am struggling myself in the faith walk, mainly due to the lack of communication in my prayer life. Things I pray for do not always come to pass and I would really love for God to talk to me personally, not through the Bible or preacher. However, I really do want there to be a God, I lived for 15 years without faith and without morals. I also find that the people I really admire and respect are true believers and I wish I could believe the way they do.

I find it hard to just let the idea of a God go, because I am an artist and the world around me is so spectacular that I find it hard not to think of a God that is an artist as well and made all this. I know what it is to design and recreate what I see, working with simple things such as paint and paper to reflect the beauty of color and form. And others love it as well and are willing to pay for the privilege of owning it. Not that my art is making lots of money.

I cannot let go of God, because of that reason and also because of the fear I have of dying without salvation. I do not want to spend eternity in a hell of whatever kind there may be. There is enough of a hell on earth for me to realize that even a continuation of that would be terrible.

I need GOD to help me and cannot bear to not have HIM as part of my life. I have tried to live without faith and morals and that way of life was totally unbearable and led me to excesses that I still suffer from today.

Hope that we both will receive a revelation of his personal affection and love again and that we will live with HIM and His family forever.

Many regards, Bert
#24 - Bert - 11/24/2010 - 08:42

For anyone who doesn't know Dr. Ken Pulliam passed away on Oct. 30, 2010. He has been sorely missed.
#25 - Anthony - 11/05/2011 - 23:45

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