The Christian Atheist
- 2010 27 Apr
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from The Christian Atheist by Craig Goeschel (Zondervan).
Hi, my name is Craig Groeschel, and I'm a Christian Atheist.
For as long as I can remember, I've believed in God, but I haven't always lived like he exists. Today my Christian Atheism isn't as large of a problem as it once was, but I still struggle with it. Like a recovering alcoholic careful never to take sobriety for granted, I have to take life one day at a time.
You might think it's odd for a pastor to struggle with living like there is no God. However, in my corner of the world, Christian Atheism is a fast-spreading spiritual pandemic which can poison, sicken, and even kill eternally. Yet Christian Atheism is extremely difficult to recognize — especially by those who are infected.
My story illustrates the symptoms. I was born into a "Christian" family. We believed in God and attended church when convenient — and always on Christmas or Easter. And when we did attend, it was always boring. Some older man wearing what looked like a dress would stand at the pulpit for what seemed like forever, talking about stuff that didn't make any sense to me. I remember counting how many times the preacher raised one hand in the air — fifty-three in one sermon may still be the world record.
Even though I never carried a Bible to church, we did own a yellowish-gold Bible that was the size of a small U-haul truck and sat prominently on our living room coffee table. The pictures gave me warm, tingly, spiritual feelings, but the words were an impenetrable web of thees and thous.
Two of my friends' parents always made us pray before meals: "God is great. God is good. Let us thank him for this food." It always bothered me that this prayer didn't rhyme, even though it seemed like it should, and wondered if it bothered God too. At my grandparent's house, we prayed, "Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let this food to us be blessed." Neither prayer mattered to me, but at least the second one actually rhymed.
When I was eight, I attended a backyard vacation Bible school. I was a little nervous, but the games, prizes, stories, and unlimited animal crackers with grape-flavored Kool-Aid won me over. The kids seemed normal enough, except for Alex, who wet his pants twice in one day. (Alex, if you're reading this, you owe me big time for leaving out your last name.)
Turns out it was all a setup for the final day, when the teachers brought the spiritual heat. Like Nolan Ryan's ninety-five-mile-an-hour fastball, they brushed me back from the plate. "Close your eyes. Bow your heads," said Grownup 1, her tone deadly serious. "I don't want anyone looking around." She paused dramatically. "If you were to die tonight, do you know for certain that you'd spend eternity in heaven? If you're not sure, please raise your hand."
Still buzzing from dozens of animal crackers, and certainly not certain about my eternal destiny, I raised my right hand. Suddenly Grownup 2 joined Grownup 1, and they picked me up underneath both arms and carried me to the back of the garage. One escape route was blocked by the garage itself, another was blocked by a chain-link fence, and the grownups' glares completed the triangle.
I was trapped and completely unprepared for what came next.
"If you don't know for sure where you'll spend eternity, then if you die, you'll go to hell."
Hell! Hell? At that moment, hell seemed like the safer option. Looking back, I'm certain these caring adults had nothing but pure intentions, but at the time they scared the animal crackers out of me. Taking my cue from the Little Rascals, I crouched down and darted between Grownup 2's legs, then sprinted faster than Forrest Gump all the way home. Still terrified of that nasty devil and the sulfuric fire he had reserved for kids like me, I barricaded myself in my closet and cried out to God, "Please don't send me to hell!"
Unquestionably, I believed in God. I was certain there was a heaven — although I didn't want to go there anytime soon —and a hell. I'd accidentally burned myself with matches before, so any place filled with fire, smoke, and sulfur was a place I never wanted to go. For years I prayed at night, "God, please don't send me to hell." I'd repeat those words over and over, until finally I could drift off into sleep.
In the morning, occasionally I'd awaken and realize that I'd neglected to sign off to the Judge of my eternal destination — no "amen," no "over and out," no "10-4, good buddy." I'd left God hanging. I didn't know all ten commandments, but I was pretty sure proper prayer protocol had to be one of them. Afraid that I was a sinner in the hands of an angry God, I'd pray, "Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen." Sometimes I'd even multiply them: "Amen times amen times amen times amen."
By the time I entered middle school, I had about forty-seven jillion amens stored up, along with a growing case of spiritual fear and insecurity.
High School Hypocrisy
When I was sixteen, I decided one Sunday morning to go to church by myself. (Okay, perhaps part of it was that I had just gotten my driver's license and gladly drove anywhere — but I sincerely did feel drawn to church.) Pondering what it means to be "right with God," I strolled up the church stairs and sat in the third pew.
Cue another sermon that spoke right past me. I headed out, disappointed. The pastor had strategically positioned himself at the main exit, shaking people's hands as they left. Seizing my opportunity, I asked him if I could make an appointment to talk to him about God.
That Wednesday after school, I found myself sitting in the pastor's study, which I quickly realized was also the scariest place on earth. I wondered if he could hear my voice trembling as I asked, "How do I know if I've been good enough to get to heaven?"
Although I don't recall everything the pastor said, I remember advice about not being a hell-raiser, not chasing girls, and not drinking beer — in other words, all bad news. All my friends were beer-guzzling, girl-chasing hell-raisers, and while I wasn't their general, I was certainly a lieutenant with legitimate promotion potential.
I left his office determined to stop sinning. It was time to find religion and get myself right with God once and for all. Armed with a new calling, I attacked my next week at school with a spiritual fire for good living.
Then Friday night rolled around.
It wasn't until years later that I discovered Paul's words in Romans 7. He said that the things he wanted to do, he didn't do. And the things he didn't want to do, he did. His story was my story. I wanted to live righteously, but I couldn't seem to get it right for more than five minutes. I believed in God, but I still cheated in school, drank the cheapest beer available, lied about what I did with my girlfriends, and hoped to find the occasional misplaced Playboy.
"God, please don't send me to hell. Amen times amen."
My First Great Awakening
When I was a junior in high school, my church youth group voted me to be their president. Apparently the qualifications for office had nothing to do with living like a Christian, and before I knew it, my one-year term "earned" me a partial scholarship to a Christian university. With athletics covering the rest of my room and board, I embarked on what I hoped would become a new, God-pleasing beginning.
I set off with a carload of clothes, Bic pens, my Cindy Crawford poster, and lofty dreams. Instead of being surrounded by young Billy Grahams and Mother Teresas, however, I was bombarded by miniature Lindsay Lohans and Kanye Wests and quickly pulled into the party scene.
Sin is fun — at least for a while. But it never fails to come back to haunt you, usually when you least expect it. Like a sneeze, sin feels good at first, but it leaves a huge mess. By my sophomore year, several of my fraternity brothers got busted for grand larceny, putting our whole fraternity at risk of being kicked off campus. Around the same time, because of a major hangover, I slept through tennis practice, which placed me exactly one mistake away from losing my athletic scholarship.
And many people on campus despised me because of how I had treated a few girls. Feeling lower and lower by the second, I decided to look up toward God — again.
I decided to start a Bible study in our fraternity house. I sold this unusual idea to my frat brothers by explaining that it would be great PR to help our sullied reputation. Truthfully, I wanted to learn about God. Since church hadn't really helped me in that department, I thought I might as well go straight to the Bible to see what I could discover for myself.
On the Tuesday morning before our first Bible study, I was strolling across campus between classes when it dawned on me that I didn't have a Bible. (I left the family's gold Bible at home.) On my way to my world literature class, an older gentleman introduced himself to me, saying he was a Gideon. He asked me if I wanted a free Bible. I wasn't sure what a Gideon was, but as far as I was concerned, he might as well have been one of God's angels.
That night, a handful of us started reading the Bible in a small, sweat-soaked, party-stained room in the Lamba Chi Alpha house. We started reading in Matthew, chapter one, and once we moved past who begat whom, the pace picked up. At the end of our rookie Bible studies, we prayed the only prayers we knew: "God, protect us as we party. God, keep Joe's girlfriend from getting pregnant. God, don't let us get caught cheating on the American history test." They weren't the typical prayers prayed at Baptist student unions, but they were honest. We were a bunch of guys who believed in God but didn't have a clue who God really is.
Although we didn't know what we were doing, our little Bible study started to grow. Apparently many of our party friends bore a similar spiritual curiosity. The more Bible we read and the more prayers we prayed, the more people showed up and the more God seemed to do.
After finishing Matthew, we discovered that Mark, Luke, and John had several of the same stories. Three chapters into Acts, we got bored and skipped to Romans. Midway through Romans, I got so excited that I started reading ahead. When I reached Ephesians, I encountered two verses that would forever change my life: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast." Could this be true? We're saved by God's grace and his grace alone? It's not by our works? Why didn't anyone tell me?
I felt like a caged animal and had to escape that tiny room. Someone was sitting in front of the only door, so I slipped out the closest window and dropped to the ground. Sensing something important, I dashed to a nearby softball field, needing to be alone with God. What happened next is hard to explain and even harder for me to believe. The presence of God became real to me.
I always thought that only wackos actually hear from God. Sure, you heard God. And there's a teeny angel on your shoulder right now telling you what to do next, right? Well, that evening I became a wacko. Kneeling on the grass, I heard a voice. It wasn't audible — it was actually way too loud to be audible, too present inside me. "Without me, you have nothing. With me, you have everything." I knelt and prayed the shortest, most power-packed, faith-filled prayer of my life. Not so much whispering as mouthing the words, I said to God, "Take my life."
That was it. I had knelt down in the field as one person, and I stood up as a completely different person. I had the same body, the same voice, and the same mind, but I wasn't the same. I'd later learn that I'd become what the Bible calls a "new creation" (2 Cor. 5:17). The old was gone; the new had come. I had finally transformed from a Christian Atheist into a Christian.
For the first time in my life, I believed in God and began to live like he is real.
Mission Not Accomplished
Since I was a new person, I became aware of a new mission: to spread the gospel into all the earth — starting with my roommate. No one was immune from my infectious faith. Not my fellow athletes, not my fraternity brothers, not my party friends, not my professors. To say I became a fanatic would be an understatement. I started collecting converts to Christianity like Michael Phelps collects gold medals. The more that God did, the more I began to understand that God was calling me to give him my whole life in full-time, vocational ministry.
As if on cue, when I was twenty-three, God opened a door for me to work at a historic downtown church. My dream-come-true slowly turned into a spiritual nightmare. What started out as a good thing quickly became an obsession. My service was never enough. And as my love for ministry burned hotter, my passion for Christ cooled.
My mission had become a job. Instead of studying God's Word out of personal devotion, I studied only to preach. Instead of preaching messages to bring glory to God, I preached to bring people to church. I promised hurting people I would pray for them, but I usually didn't follow through.
At the age of twenty-five, I was a full-time pastor and a part-time follower of Christ.
Does any of this resonate with your experience? Was there a time in your life that you were closer to God than you are today? If you're like me, your spiritual drift didn't happen on purpose. Like a tiny leak in a tire, slowly but surely, your spiritual passion quietly slipped away. Maybe it has just become clear to you. Instead of a fully devoted follower of Christ, you've unintentionally become a full-time mom or full-time student or a full-time bank clerk — and a part-time follower of Christ.
Maybe like so many, you're a member of a church, but you're secretly still ashamed of your past. Perhaps you've heard about the love of God, but you're still not convinced that God totally loves you. Or though you're convinced God exists, your prayer life isn't what you know it should be. Perhaps like many other well-meaning Christians, you know what God wants you to do, but you still do whatever you want. Or you genuinely want to trust God as your provider, but you find it so hard to actually do. Possibly you believe in heaven and hell, but sharing your faith with others is still foreign or simply way too intimidating for you. Or you may believe in God but don't see much need for the church.
I'll be honest with you about my struggles, and I hope you'll be honest as well. And together, with God's help, perhaps we can learn to know and walk with God more intimately.
The Christian Atheist
Copyright © 2010 by Craig Groeschel
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