Was I ever saved in the first place?

I was recently sent the following challenging response to a previous post regarding the deconversion of those who once claimed to be Christians:

Apply your reasoning to any other area of life, and no one can ever stop believing something that they really believed in. True belief PRECLUDES assimilating newly discovered evidence which causes re-evaluation of what you once would have given your life in defense of????

So an Amazon tribal person who once believed that the sun revolves around the earth, who is shown through diagrams and scientific language he understands, then stops believing that and then believes that the earth revolves around the sun, DIDN’T REALLY BELIEVE IN THE FIRST PLACE THAT THE SUN REVOLVES AROUND THE EARTH????

It’s ridiculous isn’t it? And yet that is the same faulty logic you are applying to us former Christians (in my case, a Th.B. from Multnomah Bible College, several years as a missionary in Europe, and 46 years as a witnessing, praying, worshipping, fervently passionate evangelical.

If you apply your logic to all of life, no held belief can ever change, and if it does, it was never a true belief. The only infallible test of true belief is DEATH. If you can make it to the grave without ever denying a belief, then that proves it was “true”. There is NO OTHER WAY to prove whether the belief was genuine, according to your test of belief.

I started penning a response but it quickly grew past the size that could be comfortably included or contained within a comment field. So I’ve chosen to include my response below and post it outside of my normal post schedule. Enjoy!

You raise some interesting questions, and I’ll do my best to answer them in the following.

I think it would be a useful exercise to step back and define what we mean by terms such as belief, faith, and knowledge. Generally these terms are the concern of epidemiologists and admittedly there is not, strictly speaking, widespread consensus even among them.

Since greater men than I have been exploring this subject longer than I have been alive I must apologize in advance for any confusion I may inadvertently bring into the discussion and encourage you to, instead, seek out works by epidemiologists such as Alvin Plantinga, Thomas Flint, etc. if you seek a more academic discourse on the matter.

At any rate, I’ve written elsewhere in regards to how beliefs are formed and would like to simply cite the following from Alvin Plantinga’s “Warrant” series as the basis of how “true beliefs” are formed:

A belief has warrant (and can thus be considered true) if and only if:
1. it is produced by cognitive faculties functioning properly,
2. in a cognitive environment sufficiently similar to that for which the faculties were designed,
3. according to a design plan aimed at the production of true beliefs, when
4. there is a high statistical probability of such beliefs being true

With that definition in place I would like to turn to your underlying question of objectively claiming to have held a belief or not. Specifically I would like to examine the case of the African bushman you mentioned above.

I freely accept that the bushman held a belief in the sun’s rotation around the earth and that he believed such a belief to be true. However one factor was working against him and at least one more, I believe, likely played a part in working against him which caused his resulting belief to not be true and thus not to constitute knowledge.

1.) He lacked the epistemic faculties (or access to the proper epistemic sources, rather) required to detect the truth regarding the relationship of the earth and the sun.
and
2.) He lacked an environment that was geared towards the production of true beliefs. That is, his culture more than likely played a role in the continuation of the belief that the sun revolved around the earth. Thus the environment he was a part of was not, strictly speaking, wholly interested in the pursuit of truth and thus not geared towards the production of true beliefs, at least in this instance.

Absent these crucial pieces we can see that there was a clear breakdown in the epistemic process which, while producing many other true beliefs, failed to obtain to the production of a true belief in this case.

Now I want to apply the same criteria to the subject of whether a person who no longer believes in Christianity (or Christ moreover) ever was a Christian in the first place.

This is a fairly complex subject and I apologize if my initial treatment of the issue failed to be as well defined as it could have been.

Let me begin by saying at the outset that not being omniscient I cannot, of course, know what epistemic warrant you or anyone else who has since renounced their once-held belief in Christianity has had access to. That is, I do not know how your belief was formed, what it was formed on, or how it was sustained for such a lengthy amount of time. However I am curious since, as a person who holds Christianity to be objectively true, if sufficient defeaters were to exist (along with sufficient positive competing explanations) for the facts Christianity is based upon (specifically the resurrection of Jesus Christ) then it would stand to reason that no one ought to be a Christian and we ought to prefer the competing explanation over the one we currently hold.

Were you a believer at one time? I believe you were, and I would further concede that your actions at least appear to back up your claims. However this does not answer the question as to what your beliefs regarding Christ were or were based on. Many times I run across even professing Christians who are unable to clearly articulate what they believe much less why. If these believers were to renounce their faith tomorrow I would be hard pressed to make a case of their ever truly having held a clear and objective belief in Christ in the first place.

Now, to switch gears slightly.

So far I’ve dealt with this issue primarily from an epistemological and philosophical standpoint. However I would like to turn to the theological standpoint since I believe it also has some bearing in this discussion. After all, Christianity is not merely about the cold acceptance of facts, but also work of a being we hold to have objectively occurred at one point in history which opens the door for a real relationship with this same being.

I’m speaking, of course, about Jesus and his work on the cross. Now I’m not sure where you’ve come from theologically, but what I am going to outline I believe is a fairly orthodox position ascribed to by most of the major creeds down through Christendom.

What saves a man?

Is it merely our mental assent to a cold hard fact? While I believe such a mental assent and acceptance of at least a bare minimum of facts is required (such as the ones outlined by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8), I do not believe that our mental assent to the facts alone is what saves us or brings us into relationship with Christ. What saves us is the righteousness imputed unto us from Christ in such a way as to be irrevocable . Such an event, I would maintain, is also an irreversible event in time in much the same way as the decision to jump off of a cliff or walk through a door.

So the question becomes: Could you have been imputed Christ’s righteousness at one point in the past and still be saved even though your current belief structure no longer affords the same degree of warrant you once held? Possibly.

You see, one of the curious things about mankind’s ability to form, change, and reform beliefs is that while we do grow in our epistemic capacity and acquisition of new beliefs (and rejection of previously held beliefs) we don’t reject ALL of our beliefs. If that were the case we would never be able to grow at all since we would merely be in a constant state of flux.

The same holds true when it comes to Christianity and it all hinges on how our beliefs in Christ were formed and what our basis was (if any) for the rejection of those beliefs.

We must also keep in mind that when 1 John 2:19 was written, there weren’t such things as cultural Christians who had grown up on the church. Believers in that day, for the most part, either accepted or rejected the claims of Christ’s objective historical actions and claims. In John’s case the people who “went out” were (according to the context of the letter) not even claiming what Paul proclaimed as a minimum criteria of one being a Christian in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 and were, instead, attempting to essentially hijack the Christian religion for their own ends (and we later see from the Gnostic movement that many were unfortunaly successful in their efforts).

So, the answer to “was I ever a Christian in the first place” is a lot more complex and more often than not it cannot be answered by a simple “yes” or “no”, even by the person asking the question. The evidence of a person’s present state of unbelief, while making it very hard to accept that the initial state of belief hard to accept, is ultimately not a question that is of no import if asked of a fellow human.

You see, the final question here must be directed at God.

It is his answer that ultimately matters and if you no longer believe that he exists then I suppose you will have to wait until you meet Him (or not) after you die in order to ask Him.

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37 responses to “Was I ever saved in the first place?

  1. Excellent post!

    I appreciate the honest attempt to answer the question about whether my/our belief was geniune or not. I sense a backing off from your position I was referencing, that we ex-evangelicals were never true believers in the first place.

    The main concession that we ex-evangelicals want from you folks that still believe, is that we were once true believers in every classical sense of the word, according to Plantinga's four points that you listed. Many of us never were cultural christians (my parents were gave their hearts and lives to Jesus in their early 40's out of alcoholism and non-church culture, and I gave my life to Jesus shortly after I witnessed the change in them).

    The argument does not hinge on the object of belief, it's existence or veracity (does God exist, is Christianity true, etc), but on the NATURE of belief: Was that belief genuine, regardless of whether the belief itself was true or not.

    I trust you christians WILL accept as authoritative words from the author of Hebrews, whoever that might be:
    Hebrews 6:4: For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost,
    5 And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come,
    6 If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.

    The author had no doubt that it was possible to believe, to have tasted, to have once been enlightened, and experienced it all, and yet to FALL AWAY, making it "impossible to renew them again unto repentence".

    If the author of Hebrews believed that it was possible to believe in Jesus, and then fall away without hope of salvation, then you christians should be able to believe it as well. I know I do.

    However, with all due respect, if past experience is anything to go by, I expect that this passage from Hebrews will be taken by twisted exegesis and turned into something that says the opposite: that once having tasted and experienced, it is impossible to fall away. I will be very interested to see how these 3 verses will be explained away . . .

  2. A few more questions, for example, to show my point:

    1) Is it possible for a solid, doctrinaire Democrat to become a Republican?

    2) Is it possible for a solid, doctrinaire Republican to become a Democrat?

    3) Is it possible for a genuine, ideological agnostic/atheist to become a Christian?

    I think most christians would say yes to all these examples (and more that I could give) and that there is no reason to doubt that the former belief wasn't as genuine as the new belief. And to go one step further, I know that christians would do all they could to affirm that the ex-atheist was as genuine an atheist as could be.

    And yet the one exception you folks make is this: no genuine, real, born-again christian could ever turn into a non-believer. Why the inconsistency? Why make an exception for this one, single area of life? If God grants us the ability and freedom to chose to believe in him and the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross (it's called Free Will), then why not the freedom to change our minds? If we lost the ability or freedom to dis-believe, then we become ROBOTS.

    It's not about who is right or wrong about faith and god and miracles. It's about you folks admitting that we could have been geniune christians at one time. Hardly any of you can bring yourselves to admit that. And that is what mystifies me.

  3. I wonder if you're not making this too complicated. It seems to me that it's still reasonable to think that "true belief" is unchangeable. If a Christian accepts the Scriptures as axiomatic truth, then everything is judged in the context of Scripture. But, if someone judges the Scripture to be false, then they must be judging it according to some more fundamental standard. This being the case, someone who believes something is more fundamental than the Truth, then they can change their minds when this more fundamental thing is in error. I'm inclined to think that the Scripture is foundational to a Christian's epistemology, otherwise they make themselves judges of God.

  4. No, you're missing my point. And not meaning to sound disrespectful, but I think it is the christians who are making this thing far too complicated. If any of you had known me during my christian years, you would have heard my testimony (and I myself led several people to a "saving knowledge of Jesus Christ"), discussed theology with me, worshipped and prayed with me, waited expectantly for Jesus' return, and basically would NOT have for a second questioned whether I was a genuine christian.

    But now that I have turned my back on my former belief, you (without knowing me) assume that my original belief was somehow faulty, flawed or not real like yours, or else I could have not denied it.

    THAT is the sticking point: can you admit I was a christian, or not? You guys won't, or can't, admit to that. Like Paul said, "I was a pharisees' pharisee". I was an evangelical's evangelical. Yet you deny that my evangelical faith was real. That's what bugs me.

    I am not discussing whether WHAT I believed in was true or not. That is what you guys seem to be stuck on. I'm just saying I used to be a real believer like you, and you say that's not possible.

    Read my lengthy previous reply very carefully again, and don't skim over it. Hopefully you will see that it's a very simple thing I am asking for!

    Wes, thanks for answering my question point-by-point, and especially your comments on those verses. Although I think that Paul's (or whoever) mention of the Holy Spirit – given on the day of Pentecost – makes it problematic to think that these verses apply mainly to pre-messianic jews. Anyway, I think maybe the key here is your mention of eternal security. It logically follows that if one believes in eternal security then a de-conversion like mine is much more problematic. An arminian approach could much more easily cope with de-conversion than a calvinistic view.

    As far as answering your further probings into weaknesses in my own conversion experiences (such as implying that MY conversion wasn't as motivated as my parents, that somehow theirs was more dramatic and genuine), I find condescending and trivialising. It sort of confirms my point in all these discussions: somehow you folks are going to find a flaws in our conversions, making them faulty and defective, and therefore easy to eventually "prove" that one cannot de-convert from a geniune conversion. Thus it's waste of my time to further elaborate on the theology and experience of my own conversion, because nothing will ever convince you that it was a genuine conversion.
    Regards,
    Wes from Portland

  5. My point was made to Mr. Widner. If I made a point to you, it would be that Scripture makes it clear that Christ doesn't lose sheep. So I don't care how real you thought your conversion was, it wasn't. All real conversions are permanent in the Bible's view.

  6. All real conversions are permanent in the Bible's view.

    And herein lies the rub. It's because you believe this proposition that all de-converts MUST NOT have been true believers in the first place. Rather than taking the existnence of many real deconverts as a reason to re-evaluate that Biblical claim, you pre-suppose it true and thus try to gerrymander a rationalization for the existence of de-converts.

    For Wes:

    I think you are missing a crucial piece if you think the argument does not hinge upon whether the object of our belief, the proposition of truth, is not, in fact, true.

    You have yet to demonstrate that what YOU believe is true. So, why do you get to claim this special status in your belief whereas de-converts do not?

  7. Thanks BigHouse, you stated it perfectly. They want to have their cake and eat it too.

    Shfengoli: thanks coming right out and stating it without apology: that no "real" christian can ever de-convert.

    You have just proved my case, if your position is true, that once a person is a true convert, he becomes a ROBOT. God no longer allows that person the free will or ability to his mind. (By extension, his ability to reason and analyze is also turned off completely . . . except for maybe arguing the finer points of christian theology, like how many angels can dance on the head of a pin).

  8. You were never a "true christian evangelical believer" unless the objective truth claims of Christianity were, themselves, true.

    Then you are currently NOT a true Christian believer either unless these claims are true.

    Do you think Christianity can be objectively known as true by humans today with certainty?

  9. I feel this discussion has veered into absurd semantics. From dictionary.com:

    Believe: To have confidence in the truth, the existence, or the reliability of something, although without absolute proof that one is right in doing so: Only if one believes in something can one act purposefully.

    Plantinga's defintion sounds more apt for the word "know". Given God supposedly currently resides on a plane outside of ours, who is it possible to establish the truth of his existence to the degree required by this absurd definition of "believe"?

    I believed in Santa Claus when I was a kid, because many parents whom I trusted more than anyone in the world told me he was real. Thousands of others kid/parent combinations and mainstream culture ratified this believe. To day may belief wasn't "true" is to bastardize the real process I went through to arrive there and the real position I had staked on the matter.

  10. BigHouse, you're fighting a losing battle! "Absurd semantics" is exactly his game. As long as Wes can make up his own definitions for words, it will be impossible to hold a rational conversation with him. He's got his own precious definition for "belief", for "truth", for many other words. He does not see or agree that it is possible to believe anything that is not true. It is the weirdest definition for "belief" I have ever seen. According to his definition, no one ever "really" believed that the earth was flat, or that the sun revolved around the earth, or in Santa, etc. etc. Belief in something has nothing to do with whether the object of belief is true or not. And ESPECIALLY in the case of religious belief: empirical evidence is just not available to know whether there is "truth" behind the claims. There is nothing in the world more subjective, than religious belief. You won't know until you die whether what you believed in was true or not. Not possible to prove it with any conventional modern scientific methodology. Though in his own religious bubble, it is the most real thing in the world (and it was to me at one time as well).

  11. "The notion of going from belief to disbelief entails the notion that you have come into awareness of facts and evidence that has not only disprove such factual claims as the resurrection, but you've also come into awareness of good competing alternative explanations and sufficient defeaters with which you ought to be able to persuade all Christians to abandon their faith provided they are looking at objective facts (as Paul was when he said our faith was "in vain" if Christ had not been raised form the dead)."

    This pretty much says it all…

    It is of course by no means established that Jesus was resurrected any more than it is established that Mohamed ascended to heaven and toured hell and spoke with Jesus. Nor is it any more established than Xenu's placement of billions of people into volcanoes. Nor is it any more established than the various reincarnation claims of Hinduism. I find it altogether equally or more plausible that Athena truly was Odysseus's guardian.

    So, no, you don't get the right to demand disproof of such extraordinary claims without first offering more convincing evidence than the writings of one leader of a cult movement who was writing decades after the relevant "history" occurred. And a shout-out by Josephus isn't exactly convincing. I see your Josephus and raise you a Homer and an Ibn Kathir.

    And finally, what makes you think that an absurd thesis needs an alternative? My core claim is that there isn't any phenomena to be explained outside of human fallibility, dishonesty, and greed. We have plenty of charlatans alive right now that claim (and give demonstrations!) that they are born of virgins and can walk on water and have survived death, to say nothing of similar claims at any point in history. And when exposed, these people are invariably crazy or crooks. In the famous words of C.S. Lewis:

    "I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God.' That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to."

    I agree, and add an additional alternative: fictional. Without stronger evidence, I think it most likely that Jesus was a liar, a lunatic, or fictional. Why not call him what we call anyone else who claims they can do what he claimed to do?

  12. Wes, again, where are you getting the support for use of "true belief" in this way? I believe standard parlance puts "true" in this context on par with "sincere", not the way you are using it.

  13. Wes, you are strongly begging the question then. Do you think the truth of Christianity is as clear to the average person as if it were a headline in the newspaper? Do you think it wholly unreasonable for anyone to doubt it's truth for good reasons? How can you have a "true" belief for something which definitionally will come to fruition after one dies and thusly, well after a "last chance" of then believing in it?

  14. Logical conclusion from Wes' and Shfengoli's statements:

    "True" believer = can never de-convert = no free will = robot

  15. I been pretty confused too about whether or not I had ever been saved. I thank you for sharing, but I must go back and read the gospels soon.

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