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The De-conversion of a Calvinist

By John ~

My parents and grandparents were Primitive Baptists. My great-great grandfather, and his father, were pastors of a small Primitive Baptist church in West Virginia, and my dad became a Primitive Baptist Pastor later in my childhood. I grew up believing in God, predestination, election, and other doctrines of the Calvinistic Baptists.

My family didn’t just believe that God knew all things, but that he predetermined everything, down to the smallest detail, including sin. This doctrine is supported by many Bible passages, primarily from the Old Testament. I won’t take the time to reference them for several reasons: I’m tired of referencing them, few readers will look them up, and the readers who reject the idea wouldn’t be convinced by the verses anyway.

My earliest crisis of faith was related to this theology. I knew that I was a sinner, and not just because a Sunday school teacher taught me about the “badness of my heart” or original sin. I was bad for real—I got in fights, cussed, and liked pictures of scantily clad women from my mother’s catalogs. I knew that I was a sinner and deserved hell like other Christians. But, unlike some Christians, I couldn’t just say the “sinner’s prayer” and be forgiven. According to our theology, I was either one of the elect, or I was not, and there was nothing I could do about it.

As a little boy, I went to my mom, scared, sad, and angry, and asked her why God created and predestinated me to sin so that he could send me to hell; wouldn’t it have been better for him to have not made me? Even then, I saw the injustice in the belief that God creates “some for glory, and some for damnation.”

My mother gave the only comfort she had, which was to tell me that my being worried about it was a sign that I was “one of God’s people.” But what child wouldn’t be worried about the idea that they might spend eternity with fire and monsters?

I first got baptized at 15 in my girlfriend’s Southern Baptist Church. After years of feeling sorry for all those people in “other religions,” I realized maybe there was something to it. My girlfriend’s dad was the preacher (until years later when he had an affair with the church secretary), and I could understand his sermons. They weren’t about obscure verses in Ezekiel, or the finer points of predestination, but were practical. Morality, responsibility, and salvation that was available to anyone. That appealed to me. Also, my girlfriend appealed to me, and I wanted to be around her as much as possible. And I wanted her dad’s favor. So I walked the isle, answered questions, and got baptized. My conversion lasted as long as my relationship with my girlfriend, which was about a year.

I was on the rodeo team in college. Few of my friends were “good boys,” and I wasn’t the shining light in our crowd. Still, I began to embrace the beliefs of my childhood. This was comforting when I climbed on a 2,000 pound bull after watching one of my friends get knocked out or get their leg broken; nothing could happen to me unless God had predestinated it, and I couldn’t die until it was my time.

At 21, I wanted to join my parent’s Primitive Baptist church. Primitive Baptists don’t accept baptism by another church, so I got baptized again. I was born into that line, had always been considered a part of them, and it was time to make it official. It was around that age that I started reading the Bible, and I read all of it once or twice within a year, mainly concentrating on passages that supported the beliefs we already held.

While searching to prove my beliefs, though, I found plenty that contradicted them. God held people accountable. But if he predestinated everything, why were we to blame? Also, Jesus offered salvation to anyone who believed, according to the Gospels. All of this was really in the Bible. But Paul was still there, too, talking about election.

After college, I moved 300 miles from home, from family, and from Primitive Baptists. I didn’t live a Christian life, but I was still interested in theology. I kept reading the Bible, and read it through once or twice more, and spent a lot of time listening to radio preachers. They didn’t teach what my parents had taught me, and they had a much better grasp of the Bible. I read their books and commentaries, and my beliefs slowly changed.

Later I went back to college for a Master’s degree and got married. My wife was raised a Southern Baptist, and church was important to her, so we decided to join a small Baptist church we had been going to together. They asked us both to be re-baptized; my wife, because she was “too young” her fist time, and me, because I needed to repent of having been a Primitive Baptist. And so we did. I was convicted of my sin, knew that I wanted to change, and believed that this was a true conversion. We stayed in that church until we graduated and moved for work.

After several moves and lots of churches, we ended up in another Primitive Baptist church that wanted us to be baptized again, and we both reluctantly agreed. But I vowed to never be baptized again, even if it meant never joining a church again. If four times wasn’t enough, I’d never be raised in the likeness of Jesus.

When my wife and I joined the new church, the pastor noticed that I was interested in theology and the Bible, and he asked me to try to preach. I respected him, so I thought I should try. I put a lot of effort into preparing, which may have helped me do a little better than some beginning lay preachers. The pastor mistook this effort for a gift, and encouraged me more, so my “preaching” became regular.

I spent most of my free time studying the Bible and commentaries. At the time, I seemed very zealous. Looking back, I see that I was motivated to study to keep from embarrassing myself.

After three years, my company wanted me to transfer. The move would be a good one for my family (by that time we had two children). We were initially excited, but our church thought God wanted us to stay, and they warned us to be careful in making a hasty decision. A church leader even told me that I was running from my calling to preach and reminded me of what happened to Jonah. In other words, I might get swallowed by a whale.

So we prayed for God’s guidance. But, other than conflicting guidance from Christians who thought they knew God’s will, we didn’t get any. The experience was painful but taught me lessons—I shouldn’t expect God to give answers; I had to make decisions on my own. Also, many people think God is telling them something, but that doesn’t mean we should listen to them. The experience cast doubt in my mind regarding prayer.

Ultimately, we made the right decision and moved. We found a church and became very involved. I taught Sunday school, spoke at men’s groups, preached at the other Baptist churches in the area, and enrolled in seminary classes. I got up so early in the mornings to study and pray that it affected my health, and I spent so much time trying to become sanctified that it hurt my relationship with my wife and made me irritable with my kids. The time I prayed more, read the Bible more, and attended church more than I ever have before or since was the time when I was most difficult to get along with.

After a year or two of these extremes, I backed off. I didn’t enroll in anymore classes, quit preaching (despite warnings about preachers who run from their calling), and quit getting up early to study.

I started writing reviews of Christian books as a hobby. I was decent at it and before long, publishing companies were sending me free review copies of new books which, for the most part, I enjoyed. I kept that up a few years until I no longer liked the Christian books I read. I thought it was because they were poorly written (many were), or made bad arguments (many did). Outside of Calvinist theologians, few writers used any logic; many didn’t seem to think at all. But I slowly realized that the message, even when it came directly from the bible, irritated me. My reviews became increasingly negative, so I quit reviewing Christian books.

I still wasn’t concerned; I didn’t doubt my faith, though I did complain of going through a “spiritually dry time.”

My major concerns came when I started having problems with the clear teaching of the Bible. Some Christians would say that problems only arise from misunderstanding, and it’s true there’s a lot I don’t understand. But I read and studied the Bible more than the average church goer. I read all of it at least 13 times over a decade or more, and that doesn’t count the in-depth studying of books of the Bible and commentaries.

For a long time I knew that there were contradictions, but I had ways to justify them. I believed there were things I just couldn’t understand (which is true). But the more I studied, the more I saw things that were incompatible, and the old justifications weren’t strong enough. I stopped believing the Bible was perfect and inspired. That may sound small, but it was a big step in my deconversion. If the Bible isn’t inspired, what parts can we trust?

Reading and studying the Bible led me to not believe the Bible. But life experience has also taught me that many of the claims in the Bible are not true.Then, several years ago, I was listening to a sermon from the old testament about one of the many times God commanded the nation of Israel to kill every man, woman, and child in a certain city. This was from the perspective that the people were pagans and evil, and so they deserved it (even the babies). Also, since God commanded it, it had to be good. I accepted that in the past. But this time it made me angry. I could fill pages on the parts of the Bible that started bothering me, but those have been covered in other places by other people.

Although the Bible teaches that “God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all,” I found it unjust that he commanded his small tribe to commit atrocities. Old Testament Priests hacked people to pieces. God “hardened hearts,” and then punished those people for being hardened. And, according to the belief of most Christians in the world, millions of people were going to hell for rejecting a gospel they’ve never heard. I realized that deep down, I believed God was unjust.

Around the time that my doubts were growing, I had a chance to take a three-week mission trip to Africa. It was a medical mission, so there would be plenty of work for me to do, and I wouldn’t have to be involved in spreading the gospel or preaching. I was excited to help real people in need, and I hoped that the trip would end my doubts and my spiritual decline.

The trip was positive and life changing, as they say, but not in the way they usually mean. It changed my world view, which had become more liberal, and became more so after the trip. I loved helping people, providing something they needed, and getting to see a different culture. But I did not like the underlying goal of trying to convert them. The trip made me hate, even more than I already did, the idea that millions of people who never heard of Jesus, or who believed differently, were going to hell. And it made me more discontent with western Christianity along with all of its money, productions, and dazzle. These people on the “dark continent” were full of love and happiness, while they seldom had shelter or adequate clothing or food. Yet we came to convert them. We could give them Bibles but were discouraged from giving them bottled water.

The Bible says that God draws near to those who draw near to him. If we seek and accept Jesus, he will never leave us. If we resist the devil, he will flee from us. If we pray for help, we will receive it. But my doubts grew stronger and stronger against my will and despite my efforts. If I wasn’t a true believer, then belief means something other than what I thought. When I began having doubts, I prayed hard and often that God would remove them. I wanted to believe. But my doubts grew, and while I was seeking Him, He drifted further away.

Reading and studying the Bible led me to not believe the Bible. But life experience has also taught me that many of the claims in the Bible are not true.

I prayed long and hard and often to overcome certain sins or faults which I never could overcome, sins that God should have wanted me to overcome. I’ve changed throughout my life because I’ve gotten older and learned from my mistakes, not because I became progressively sanctified. I prayed long and hard for guidance in different areas, and still often made the wrong choice. And I prayed long and hard against my unbelief while only seeing it increase.

If a sinner only has to believe to be saved by God’s grace, why does God allow the same person to quit believing? And if a person can quit believing and therefore no longer be saved, who is safe? Can a person choose to believe or not believe? If so, how do you fall into unbelief against your will? And if we can’t choose, why are we held accountable?

A Christian response to my questions would be that I never really believed in the first place. I thought I “truly” believed, but maybe I was wrong. I know that I wasn’t faking. But what does “belief” mean if someone can think they believe something but really, unknowingly, not believe it?

A Calvinist will also say that only the elect believe. Whether they admit it or not, that is the same as saying that God predestines the others to hell, and that in itself is enough to make me reject the whole package. If God brings people into this world to live a few years, possibly in misery, and then die only to end up in hell, I reject the teaching that he is good. Some people may praise him for sending millions to hell, but I cannot.

Others say that I must have fallen into sin and didn’t repent. If I’m guilty of rebellion for refusing to preach, or not wanting to be baptized a fifth time, or laughing at the choir, then it’s true that I don’t repent. I have been painfully aware of my struggles in other areas and I know that I’m far from a saint. But if being perfect is a requirement of keeping the faith, I don’t know anyone who would still have it. And as far as morality is concerned, since I’ve quit believing I am still “convicted” for my faults—impatience with my children, discontent, anger, saying bad words—than I was before, but I am more open minded.

In case anyone thinks my problems would be solved if I found the “right” church, I have tried Primitive Baptists, Southern Baptists, Independent Baptists, Presbyterian, Church of Christ, non-denominational, liberal, conservative, reformed, Calvinistic, hyper-Calvinistic, and anti-Calvinistic. My experience in going to all of these different groups has helped me get where I am today. When each of them teach that the others are wrong regarding their interpretation of the Bible and worship, it follows that most of them, if not all of them, are wrong, and together they do a better job of casting doubt on the Bible than all the atheists in the world.

I don’t “reject” Jesus, as I would like to be like the Jesus in the gospels. But I don’t believe that the Hebrew Bible is the word of God, nor do I believe much of what it says. I can no longer call myself a Christian, nor do I want to be associated with much of what Christianity stands for. I do not deny the possibility of a god; to do so would be arrogant. But I have examined the evidence for one, and I don’t find it compelling.

As I continue to lose my emotional bonds to the church and Christianity and am able to look at it more objectively, I’m no longer sad that I can’t believe anymore. Instead, I feel more at peace with myself, the world, and the people I love.