I was a Christian for 17 years. During those years, nobody ever said to me “I don’t think you’re really a Christian”. A lot of Christians knew me very well. If anyone suspected anything, they never said it.
But I’m not a Christian now. Many of my friends still are, and some of them find my case a little confusing. Mostly guided by certain biblical passages I won’t list here, many people have simply concluded that, despite appearances, I must never have been a Christian at all.
So, Was I ever really a Christian?
My answer to this question proves that I still sometimes think like a theologian:
Before I explain my answers, let me just say that I’ve actually given up on trying to convince people I was really a Christian, and I’m not going to try again here. If I convinced one Christian my faith was genuine, the guy next to him would probably disagree. The thing is, there are so many different answers to the question, What is a Christian?
Since leaving the fold, I have been much more interested in hearing how Christians describe their religion and what it takes to be a true believer. I’ve asked dozens of Christians, and received dozens of contrasting answers. In fact, if I took any one Christian’s definition of Christianity as authoritative, most Christians would not really be Christians at all! In particular, my definition of Christianity would clash in at least one small detail with virtually any other person’s definition.
When I was a Christian, this didn’t seem to matter. I often debated minor points of theology with other Christians. Eventually, when we dropped the issue, we’d think about how great it was that God accepted us despite our differences, though I’m sure we both went away convinced the other guy was misguided.
But now I find that the slightest difference in the interpretation of a verse or doctrine is enough to bring out that triumphant and seemingly all-important conclusion: I knew it! You were never really a Christian at all!
So, Was I ever really a Christian?
First let me explain why I might answer No. In my former life, one of the most crucial elements of my definition of a Christian was Someone that has a real relationship with Jesus. Since I no longer believe that the God of the Bible is a real being, and that it is not possible to have a real relationship with Jesus, I now believe that I was never a Christian according to that definition. While I certainly used to believe I had real experiences of the God of the Bible, I am now of the opinion that such experiences were delusional and explainable by psychology. But here’s the catch. I now believe that nobody is a Christian according to that definition.
Needless to say, my current understanding of Christianity has a very slight modification built into that key sentence. Now I would insert a couple of crucial words, and speak of Someone that thinks they have a real relationship with Jesus. With this understanding, of course I was a Christian, and nobody could dispute this apart from accusing me of not even knowing what I used to believe. Furthermore, under this new definition, I now recognise many Christians I would not have recognised before.
So to the Christians that have accused me of never being a Christian at all: I can only agree with you insofar as I do not think you are a Christian yourself.
But I think there is an even bigger problem for these Christians. How could you ever know that you were a true Christian? I was utterly convinced that I would never leave the faith, so certainty is no indication of your future. If it was truly the case that no real Christian could ever leave the faith, you could only be sure that you were truly a Christian if you had already died!