Fire Out: My Journey from Fanatic Christian to Proud Agnostic

On September 23, 1998, I made a big decision I would later regret. That night, I decided to give my heart to Jesus, or in non-denominational Christian vernacular, it was the night I was “saved”. I was sixteen years old, living in Muskegon, Michigan, and this happened in the aftermath of attending youth group at the church of the ultra-repressed, super religious nut-job of a girlfriend I had at the time. I went primarily to get into her good graces, but the decision I ultimately made was for me. At least, I think it was. Sometimes we realize late that our motives were different than we thought at the time. Their youth pastor gave a deep, tear-jerking sermon, and something about what he was saying really resonated with me. I decided that I wanted what he had and made the promise to Jesus that night. That night led to seven years of church, youth group, Bible studies, prayer groups, Bible retreats, worship sessions, prayer rallies, and crusade meetings. When she asked me to go with her, I should have told her I was busy. Or I should have said I was sick. Or I should have told her that I thought she was delusional and I didn’t want to see her again, unless it was at the breakfast table with a big stack of pancakes the morning after I spend the night with her younger, hotter sister. But I didn’t say any of those things. I was a lonely teenage boy with no self-esteem who did very poorly with the ladies. I decided I was OK with sitting through an hour of church if it meant she would keep going out with me. From that night forward, Jesus would consume every part of my life, until a charlatan faith-healer set me straight years later.

Church wasn’t a new thing for me. I grew up in the Lutheran church and went most Sundays, usually somewhat against my will. The Lutheran churches I went to were very traditional: hymns, readings, offerings, Sunday school, communion, catechism, chants, rituals, prayers, etc. The average congregation member was older than Methuselah, and I spent most of the time looking at the clock. This new kind of church, however, wasn’t something I was used to. It just felt different. The banality of traditional church made this place look exciting. There was an energy I hadn’t experienced before: people appeared genuinely happy to be there and an unexplained ethereal presence made me feel part of something big. I only went to that church a few times before I got involved somewhere else; my girlfriend broke up with me several months after I got saved because “God asked her to” (nice guy, huh?), but even without her, I was hooked on my newfound religion. My best friend, Justin, had recently found God himself, and his family was attending Resurrection Life Church, a non-denominational Christian church in nearby Grand Haven, Michigan, a town in the heart of the Bible Belt. I started going to youth group with Justin on Wednesday nights and then church services on Sunday mornings, and small group sessions on Sunday nights. This was an impressive church: large rooms, even larger membership. Youth group especially, which went by the name “Urgency”, was a spectacle. It was not unusual for attendance to reach five hundred teenagers on any given week, and some special weeks brought even more. I would typically arrive at least an hour before service started to socialize. Most of the people I called my friends were there. The only girls I would let myself seriously consider courting were there. They played loud music and had video games. It was designed to be a hip place to hang out. Once service started, we would walk into the sanctuary to the music of their live band, complete with light show. This would lead us into an intense worship session, which would last about half an hour. Then typically there was a skit that was relevant to the subject matter of the sermon. Next was the message, usually done by the youth pastor, but sometimes by associate pastors or guest speakers. This led to some more spiritual matters and financial exploitati… I mean offering, before the band would play the crowd back out of the sanctuary, leaving us feeling full of the Holy Spirit and ready to go back into battle in the real world in the name of Christ.

Res Life Photo.jpg
I don’t have any pictures of Urgency, but it looked a lot like this.

Urgency was run by an extremely charismatic young man named Marcus. He was a phenomenal speaker. He was also confident, charming, and intelligent. When Marcus spoke, we believed God was speaking directly to us. Most of us would have done anything to have even a fraction of his ability to influence and persuade. His confidence in Jesus made us confident in our personal relationships with Him. He had the power to make us do anything and seemed to know it. More than anything, Urgency was everything Marcus wanted it to be, and I wasn’t alone in being extremely devoted to him and his vision. He had “it”: that thing that makes you want to be like and be around someone. However, the things that made him an impressive youth minister were the same things that also made him a very dangerous man. He had power to influence, but tremendous power to deceive and abuse. He was a master of both.

Outside of Urgency, my friends and I attempted to hold each other accountable to live a life that reflected the glory of Jesus. I certainly looked the part: I had Jesus apparel, I drove a car with Jesus bumper stickers, and I made a habit of taking out my Bible in class. While everyone else was having fun and actually enjoying high school, I was working hard to keep up this image of the perfect Christian. Those memories are now a painful source of shame and embarrassment.

I was vulnerable and an easy target for the church. I was emotionally fragile during my teenage years: I had very low self-esteem, battled depression, and lacked purpose. They didn’t have to try hard to get me. To their credit, I did feel a sense of belonging at the church that I had never felt anywhere else. That makes me wonder if I always knew deep down that it was all a facade, but never wanted to admit it because I didn’t feel like I had anything else.

As much as I regret how involved I was with the church, I consider myself lucky that nothing led me to believe I had an even higher calling when I graduated high school. Not that I stopped believing I had something special and was meant to do great things for Christ. I did feel that way, but I wasn’t compelled to go the bible college route, like some people I knew from that time. I was on my way to Michigan State University and thought I was meant to bring the light to the people of that school. It was a difficult adjustment for me, but I eventually was able to get somewhat into the swing of things at MSU, although I did not bring any of the confidence I was hoping I would have. I got involved quickly with Campus Crusade for Christ and tried to make as many Christian friends as I could. I started dating a woman I had met through a crusade bible study. She had a boyfriend, but he was in the army and on assignment in some foreign country, so I figured she was fair game. It did not take me long to get her to stop thinking about him. It was actually impressively manipulative on my part, the way I would surreptitiously shoot him down, while simultaneously appearing to be supportive while making myself look like the much better option. Putting ethics aside, it was a thing of beauty. We became an official couple while the breakup letter was on the way to his army base. I didn’t think I had done anything wrong, and used my religion as justification for my actions. I was a Christian and he wasn’t; I led her to believe she had to be with me. I wasn’t quite as malicious as it sounds: a lot of it was subconscious, and I honestly believed I was doing the Godly thing. I took this poor woman away from the heathen who was corrupting her, how is that not honorable? If this had been a Julia Roberts movie, I was Richard Gere and the boyfriend was the jerk nobody was rooting for. At least that’s what it looked like to me. My relationship with her, as far as I thought, reflected the glory of Christ: we avoided all physical temptation, we did Bible Study, we prayed together every night (in one of the lounge/study areas on the first floor of the dorm we both lived at), we avoided most secular forms of entertainment, etc. She and I deprived ourselves of a lot of the college experience by getting too serious too fast, and by spending such a large portion of our time and thoughts on religious matters. Neither of us made academics a priority and as a result, we both tanked our first semester. At the time, I didn’t even care that my grades were poor; I didn’t think classes were the reason I was there. My relationship with her, however, didn’t last. We broke up late in the year, but things did not change a lot for me. I kept living the Christian life, and the rest of my time at MSU went more of the same: I was preoccupied with spiritual matters while concurrently hating myself and sinking further and further into depression. I transferred to a smaller school closer to home in 2002, and slowly became less and less physically involved with the church, but kept mostly the same religious mentality, a mentality that took a long time to change for the better. Christianity cost me a lot of what I should have been doing and learning during my college years. It hurts to think about as I look back.

I could elaborate great lengths on why I believed what I did, how the church got me on the hook, and how they kept me on that hook (short version: lies), but for the purposes of this article, I would like to focus more on why and how I got out, and why I no longer believe in the Christian god. I envision a great future for myself, and that greatness will be achieved through secular means.

I do think it is important, however, to mention the two things that most kept me believing in Jesus during my seven years of brainwashedness. The first is the influence that apologetics had on me. These “real life” defenses of Christianity lead me to believe that there was no chance the religion could be wrong. The second is the Holy Spirit. The feeling of the Holy Spirit, or at least what I believed was a special feeling of God, made me believe I had a real, personal relationship with Christ. Once I came to the realization that neither of these things were what I thought they were, my faith in Christianity collapsed.

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I realized years after my Urgency days that Marcus was a liar/deceiver/snake-oil salesman, but I can’t deny that he was amazing at what he did. He spoke with a contagious enthusiasm and passion for Jesus, and glowed with a charisma that made everyone want to follow his lead. Even if I wasn’t clear on what he was talking about, I was 100% behind everything he said. He did a tremendous job of conveying a vision for his ministry and instilling it in his followers. He was the ultimate cult master. I would have done anything he had asked of me, which scares me to think about now. Even in private, I thought he was a genuinely good guy. One time during my senior year of high school, I was extremely upset with myself because I went on a date with a girl from youth group (I would rarely consider anyone outside of it), and we went to a movie and ended up making out nearly the entire time. My church friends made me feel very guilty about it (in retrospect, it’s ridiculous that I was shamed for the crime of being a teenage boy; they were great people, but it’s embarrassing how personally we took each other’s sins, and I was probably worse than they were). I called up Marcus and he agreed to meet with me outside of church. He had to have been rolling his eyes in his mind when I was sitting there in his car whining about how I couldn’t handle myself around women (again, teenage boy), but he was actually very empathetic, rational, and helpful. I left that meeting feeling much better than I did going in. It was times like that, where Marcus didn’t seem larger-than-life, that I really wanted to believe he wasn’t a deceiver/false prophet, but unfortunately, the evidence points in the other direction. I saw him prey on the vulnerabilities of too many children.

There’s a reason we always felt it was our mission to bring in as many people to youth group as we could. His sermons were so impassioned and energetic. We always felt like something big and important was happening at that church. As incredible as his regular sermons were, his occasional apologetic lectures were the ones that really set off that fire in me that churches are always talking about. Apologetics are defenses of the Christian faith. This branch of Christianity is where you most often hear the evolution/creationism debates, among other things. When Marcus was in the zone on an apologetics lecture, he was unstoppable. Everything he said seemingly made so much sense, when juxtaposed with what we were there wanting to believe. It’s very easy to believe something you want to believe. I feel silly now for having bought into it so much. These apologetics lectures were a huge part of why I was a believer, but they involved a great deal of deceptive reasoning.

Here are some of his common defenses of Christianity, with my rebuttals of them, now that the Christian blinders are off:

Apologetic Argument: NASA scientists found that Earth is a day behind where it’s supposed to be. The time of this alleged “missing day” coincides with the Old Testament Book of Joshua, where Joshua made the sun stand still for 23 hours and 20 minutes (it says “about a day” in the Bible). The other 40 minutes is accounted for in Isaiah when the sun was sent back 10 degrees, which Isaiah did to prove that he could. Ten degrees corresponds with 40 minutes. That makes a full day.

Rebuttal: Never happened, Marcus. This claim was thoroughly debunked by Snopes; it’s a legend someone made up in the 1930’s. It’s reckless and irresponsible to give credence to mythical, unverified stories and pass them onto impressionable minds that don’t know better. I simply accepted it as true, and told an embarrassing amount of people. I feel like your source for this was an email chain letter. I hope you sent it to at least 10 of your friends to ward off bad luck.

Apologetic Argument: Five hundred people saw Jesus after he rose from the dead, and it’s psychologically impossible for five hundred people to see something and it not be true.

Rebuttal: I find this one especially disingenuous because it infers that there are 500 separate eye-witness accounts of people seeing Jesus after the Resurrection. There are NOT 500 separate eye-witness accounts: there is ONE account (The Bible) that says 500 people saw him. Huge difference. If the Resurrection really had happened, it would be the biggest and most important thing that has ever happened in the history of the world. Yet, none of the alleged witnesses had anything to say about it? Were they too busy watching TV to record anything about this universe-altering event? Were they out of pens? Was nobody able to track down a rock and a chisel?

This is tangential, but another big problem I have with the Resurrection story is that nobody knows for sure where the tomb is. There have been a few places where people think it MIGHT be, with the most promising being a tomb were A Jesus was laid to rest. That Jesus was also buried with a wife and children, which brings up a whole other set of problems. There is no group that is more superstitious than the religious. If Jesus had risen from a tomb, EVERYONE would know where it is. People would have been coming from all over the world the past 2000 years to see, touch, and receiving blessings from it. It would be constantly under threats from rival religions. Im supposed to believe that its location was simply forgotten?

Apologetic Argument: The probability of one person fulfilling every prophesy of the Old Testament is 1 in [insert absurdly high number here, I think it was in the quintillions]. These odds are the same as if you filled the entire state of Texas two feel deep in silver dollars, put an X on one, spun around, and then found it on the first try. Therefore, it is basically impossible that Jesus wasn’t who he said he was.

Rebuttal: This garbage comes courtesy of Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Like all of Marcus’ apologetic arguments, the driving force behind this one is the power of misleading, deceptive reasoning. It sounds impressive, and mathematically, this one might even be true, but the argument assumes that Jesus did fulfill every prophesy of the Old Testament. Putting aside the fact that he didn’t, we don’t have any historical evidence that the Jesus narrative wasn’t written to fit the prophesies. I could just as easily write a short story about how the Kool-Aid Man fulfilled all the prophesies. It wouldn’t mean that he did. Again, if Jesus was who he said he was, why was NOTHING recorded about him outside of The Bible? There’s no historical record to show he even existed, let alone fulfilled hundreds of extremely vague Old Testament prophesies.

Apologetic Argument: Jesus correctly predicted the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, a destruction he said would be so complete that no stone would be left standing. In 70 A.D., a fire destroyed the temple so fully in that it had to be dismantled stone by stone.

Rebuttal: Verdict? Cherry-picking. Odds are good are that Jesus would fulfill at least a few of hundreds of prophesies. Christians like to use this one, even though it’s a terrible example because it’s something that was foretold AFTER the event had already occurred. That part was always left out when it was explained.

Apologetics Argument: A kid throwing rocks in the 1940s in the Middle East found a cave with a series of Old Testament manuscripts. They’re known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. They’re very consistent with the information in the Old Testament, which gives enormous credibility to their content.

Rebuttal: Pretty neat discovery from an archaeological viewpoint, but is this really the Christianity game-changer you always made it out to be? Not in the slightest. The only thing the Dead Sea Scrolls are proof of is that the people who copied and transcribed the Old Testament took their job seriously. Not altering previous scripture doesn’t prove anything about the information in the scriptures themselves. Also, the Dead Sea Scrolls don’t even mention Jesus, so they do nothing for that debate either.

Marcus always built up to the Dead Sea Scrolls argument, which made me assume that they’re a much bigger deal than they are. Like the rest of his arguments, this one is misleading and leaves out important information.

He had other apologetic arguments too, but I don’t remember them. I think he had one about how only 40 lines of the entire Bible are still being debated, but that is is so ridiculous I can’t tell what direction he was misleading us. It’s probably another one of the half-truths he was so fond of. A three-second Google search shows that much more than 40 lines are under question today.

When a large portion of your faith is based on apologetics, those arguments getting debunked is going to cause your faith to crumble under it.

As much as I wanted to believe it was all true, when put under scrutiny, the Bible just doesn’t hold its own weight. The big story of the Old Testament is the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. However, there is no historical or archaeological proof that the Jews were ever enslaved by the Egyptians. Considering the slavery was allegedly for 400 years, no proof is a big problem. There is not a shred of evidence that the Jews were actually stranded in the desert for 40 years; not one historical record of any of the plagues or other supernatural happenings. Those plagues were horrible, horrible things, but yet, nobody recorded anything about them? That’s a disturbing theme I see in the Bible. Apparently in those days, nobody wanted to talk about what was going on. The big story in the New Testament is the Resurrection of Jesus, something there is also no proof of. Never has anything resembling a record of Jesus’ life (outside of the Bible) ever been found (nothing that wasn’t proven to be a church forgery anyway). The big evidence for the Resurrection is supposed to be the Gospels. However, the Gospels seriously lack credibility because they were written 30-100 years AFTER the Resurrection supposedly happened, by people who never met Jesus. They’re inconsistent legends passed down by the people who knew the people who knew the people who (allegedly) knew Jesus. They were never intended to be a historical account (they were intended to promote Christianity). We don’t even know who wrote them. They’re also believed to have been edited many times. Christians can call believing in the message of the Gospels “faith”, but faith has to at least be based on SOMETHING. I don’t see any reason the Gospels should be considered anything besides fiction; dangerous fiction that has led to the deaths of countless people, and the oppression of many more, around the globe for more than 2000 years.

I believe that most of the church leaders affiliated with Urgency were legitimately good people, ones who weren’t intentionally deceiving others, but were duped like I was. As for Marcus, that’s different. Making terrible specious arguments in favor of the Bible doesn’t automatically mean he was evil. Cognitive dissonance had led me to give credence to those arguments as well. However, there is something else that strongly leads me to believe that Marcus was an awful person who knew he was corrupting young minds for financial gain.

At one point, my parents were starting to get concerned that I was involved with a cult (I should have listened to them). The timing of these concerns worked out well for me because Urgency was throwing a “Parent’s Night” in the near future. Urgency went all out for it: the lights, the music, everything was dressed up into extravaganza mode. For them, it could not have gone much better. I invited my parents and they bought into what Marcus was selling. They even told my sister (who is two years younger than me) that if she went to Urgency four weeks in a row, they’d let her get something pierced (which never ended up happening). I thought it was pretty cool that “God” had “spoken” to them, and I told Marcus what had happened. Then, in a future service, he re-told the story to the church. However, his story was a MUCH exaggerated version of the truth. In his story, my parents were ruthless dictators and after going to Parent’s Night, they promised my sister multiple piercings and tattoos. There was no reason for Marcus to have exaggerated the story so much. The conclusion I came to is that he makes a habit out of telling tales and doesn’t care how close to the truth he is. I should have realized it at the time, since he told us lies every Wednesday night. If I could go back in time and not have met one person, I would definitely choose Marcus. I (and many, many other good people) am much worse off for having known that evil cult-leading fraud.

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On the subject of fraud, another form of religious legerdemain I would like to address is a phenomenon I call the “Individualized Message Illusion”. This is one of the more common deceptions unsuspecting people fall for in church, and I was no different. During the height of my brainwashed days, I would occasionally have this conversation with a friend of mine, after youth group/church sermons:

“Wow, God was really speaking to me through that message today!”

“I know, it feels like that sermon was just for me!”

One of the chief presuppositions among those conversant with neuro-linguistic programming is that “the map is not the territory”. What this means is that everything we see only has meaning in what we attach to it. No two people are going to have the same “map” of the world. The “territory” is what is actually there, while the “map” is our perception of that territory. Religious leaders have a cunning way of taking advantage of this: vagueness. How often have you heard sermons based on broad concepts like love, faith, leading, servitude, etc.? The more a message is open to interpretation, the better. It’s a brilliant strategy because few pieces of literature are more vague and open to more interpretation than The Bible. The pastor delivers the sermon, our brain, in turn, interprets that message the only way it knows how: based on what has already been put into it; our values, beliefs, experiences, etc. The message gets molded to fit our internal map (through deletions, distortions, and generalizations), and combined with the pastor’s suggestion that God is speaking to our hearts individually, we leave believing that the message was for us. We heard what we wanted to hear. It’s diabolical because it personalizes the experience. Biblically, Jesus was the master of this. He spoke vaguely and largely in metaphor, leaving it up to the subconscious mind to make meaning of his parables. Story-telling has been effectively used as a brainwashing technique since the dawn of time: stories put us into a trance, and as a result, the subconscious mind becomes more vulnerable to the power of suggestion. Our conscious minds are busy processing the words and making connections while the meaning sinks in deeper. It’s brilliantly evil.

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In regards to the faith I once had, the beginning of the end occurred in the fall of 2002. Urgency was in its crepuscular age: a once booming institution, now under new leadership (Marcus moved on to start some other ministry) had dwindled down from a weekly attendance of hundreds to a small handful of faithful followers, kept afloat by the few disciples of Marcus who weren’t ready to jump off the sinking ship. Perhaps in a bold attempt to offset these fledging attendance numbers (Urgency had been re-branded as “Livewire” at this point), the new leadership threw something of a Hail Mary one November weekend: they brought in a faith healer. This putative tool of God’s healing powers was an older man of Paraguayan descent (I’d guess he was in his early 60s) who went by the nickname “Captain Bob”. I know there’s a story behind that name, but I don’t recall what it is, and all traces of him have mysteriously disappeared from the internet. He also had a partner/sidekick: a submissive caucasian man in his 20s named Will. Captain Bob put on a show like I had never seen in a church. He would walk around the room during worship, asking people about their ailments. He would then put his hand on the forehead of the inflicted individual, which would cause a reaction where they appeared to lose consciousness and fall to the floor (always backwards, where Will, who also conducted many of the “healings”, was waiting to catch us). Captain Bob would declare that Christ was freeing us from whatever our ailment was. I had heard of faith-healing like this before, but I had never seen it in action. I’m embarrassed to say, I ate the whole thing up. I fell to the floor when he touched my forehead and had convinced myself I was unable to move. I was filled abundantly with what I believed to be the Holy Spirit. I thought I was witnessing the miracle healing power of God. In hindsight, it was a ridiculous scene. Without the Christian blinders on, all I was witnessing was a con-man and his sidekick making people fall over using the power of suggestion, At one point, I was standing in the front of the room, shaking violently. Why was I doing that? I have no clue; it was an intense experience and that is probably what I thought I was supposed to be doing. Anyway, he walked up to me, put his hand on my shoulder, and proclaimed (loud enough for everyone to hear) that I “have what he has”, which I took to mean that I had the ability to use God’s healing powers myself. In the moment, I thought I had some special anointing. At another point during the night (or maybe it was during the weekend lessons, it was a while ago, and the sequencing of some of these events might be slightly off), he had me speaking in tongues. I know now that I wasn’t speaking Hebrew, like Captain Bob suggested I could do, but it WAS some pretty eloquent smooth-flowing gibberish. I’m actually kind of impressed that it came out so easily. I thought this was a life-changing night, and was extremely excited that he was going to be at the church through the weekend, and was giving lessons on how to use the powers that he apparently had the authority to pass onto us (most of the crowd was in the 15-20 year-old age range). The weekend was a lot more of the same: worshiping sessions and “healings”, combined with less formal lessons where we got in groups and practiced the techniques on each other (I missed an Ohio State – Michigan football game for this, which if you know me, you know that’s a pretty big deal). There was one last big worship session on Sunday, and we were all sent on our way, led to believe this wouldn’t be the last time we would see Captain Bob (it was). I found the weekend to be extremely fulfilling, and couldn’t wait to start using what I had learned.

Then some time passed. I started to ruminate on the events of that weekend, and a number of things about it seemed slightly off. First off, Captain Bob had stories. Lots and lots of stories. Most of these stories involved paranormal things happening during past sessions of his; crazy things like people literally flying around the room. I wasn’t closed off to the idea of tangible supernatural occurrences, but nothing like what he was describing had taken place at our church. He video-taped all his sessions, yet wouldn’t show us any of the visual proof of his stories. At first I thought that might have been a privacy thing, but he had no compunction with discussing them in detail or playing audio recordings of other people talking about what they allegedly saw happen. I was also unsettled by something that had occurred during the last big session. The session started with Captain Bob missing, and the rest of us in an auxiliary room worshipping during music, a standard practice at many churches of this kind. During the last song of the opening session, Bob came walking in followed by a group of 4-5 children. The children had wild, unkept hair, wore dirty, ragged clothing, and both looked and smelled like they hadn’t showered in months. It was conspicuously over-the-top, and the fact that he brought them in at the perfect time to be noticed by everyone was fishy. The inference was that these kids were homeless. Their look was not the only thing that was overdone, as they spent most of the next hour huddled up and crying, acting exceptionally moved by God’s presence in that room. At the time, everyone was eating it up, but I struggled thinking about it later on. This was wasn’t Detroit, Chicago, or Atlanta. You don’t see kids like that in Grand Haven, Michigan, a relatively affluent town. It didn’t add up. Heck, Grand Haven’s high school has a polo team.

These thoughts were enough to start putting pangs of doubt into my mind about what I had witnessed during those few days, but something happened a month later that blasted a kill-shot straight to the hull. I was in Florida over Christmas break, and one night, as we were winding down, I happened to catch an episode of NBC’s Dateline. It’s not often you can say that a TV show changed your life, but this episode opened up my eyes in a way that few have. This episode had a feature on the ministry of famous evangelical faith-healing extraordinaire Benny Hinn. Dateline absolutely eviscerated Hinn and his ministry, exposing him as a deceitful, duplicitous, manipulative, avaricious fraud. He has a history of making promises, giving people false hope, and then running when he gets his money. He took donations from unsuspecting followers for a monolithic healing center, which there was never any actual plans of building. He solicited donations for an orphanage that was never built. He constantly claims faith-healing, but could not come up with even one verified medical case where someone was healed at one of his events (they submitted five cases to NBC, and in each case, further digging showed no actual healing. Some of them were even dead from the illness they sought healing for). He bragged behind closed doors about conning people out of their money. He lives in a multi-million dollar mansion funded by his followers, and leads a very lavish lifestyle through gross misuse of ministry funds. The feature detailed his transgressions and methods and made an unassailable case that Hinn is not who he claims. In a vacuum, it wasn’t a big deal to me; this wasn’t the first time I had heard about a scam being perpetuated by a religious leader. However, what stuck with me most was how much the footage of Hinn’s events looked exactly like what I had witnessed during those days with Captain Bob. It was almost like Bob was Hinn’s apprentice. Disturbed by Dateline’s revealing feature, I sent Bob an email. The reason for this was that Bob had told me that Will, his right-hand man, was leaving his ministry to take a job with… yep, Benny Hinn! Being as embarrassingly naive as I was, I thought the ol’ Cap would be worried that someone he’s close with was going to be working for a double-dealing scam artist who had been completely exposed by Dateline. The response I got back from him was short: he said that he had not heard about the Dateline special. I sent him a transcript, which he said he would look over and get back to me. Over a decade later, I’m still waiting on that email. It bothered me that I had expressed deep, legitimate concerns to this man, and he basically ignored me. He didn’t care if this incident shook my faith: he had already been paid for his time at our church. Strangely though, the first emotion I felt wasn’t anger, it was guilt. I didn’t like that doubts were creeping into my mind about Captain Bob. Maybe he really was this great man of God, and I dared to question him? I felt guilty and ashamed, but I was never able to shake those doubts. The more I thought about it, the more I felt like I had been duped. Not just by Captain Bob, but as I would realize years after this, by all my past religious teachers and role models. Everything eventually came into focus, and by 2005, it all had finally “clicked” for me. As more time passed, I spent significant time learning about how and why I believed what I did. All these years, I had been seeing and hearing what I wanted to see and hear. Everything that had happened to me from the time I was “saved” until my de-conversion, I distorted and molded to fit the narrative that I had wanted, this narrative that I was this ultimate warrior for Jesus who had a special anointing on his life. I’ll never get back those years I wasted in church. It took me a solid decade to fully decondition myself of the damage the church did to my subconscious mind. It’s only in the past few years that I have been able to admit it to myself and speak about it to others.

Hinn
Hello, my name is Joel, and I actually fell for this.

This Captain Bob mess brings about one of the biggest lies I had been told repeatedly in church: that the feeling that comes during service, that deep spiritual connection, is God being in the room. I bought very much into the “personal relationship with Jesus” angle. It took a long time for me to admit, but that feeling is the exact same feeling I have in any situation where I am in touch with nature. The only difference was the label being put on it. It’s not an exclusive feeling that only God’s myrmidons can experience. It’s something anyone can feel. When the service started, the music would come on, the lights would be dimmed, and our subconscious minds were put into a trance, at the mercy of the worship leaders. It was mass hypnosis. Our minds were in a state of heightened suggestibility, and combined with the suggestions that God was in the room, we assimilated anything we were told; mostly feelings of submission. It was an extremely dangerous cycle. Lies came in, lies came out.

I don’t know where Captain Bob is today. A few years after my weekend of enlightenment, I looked him up and saw that he was running a church in South Dakota. A few years later, I looked him up again, but found no traces anywhere. Maybe he’s back in Paraguay; I don’t know. If I ever seen him again, though… I’d like to shake his hand. By being so blatantly, indisputably, over-the-top full of crap, I was able to see organized religion for the pernicious farce and drag on humanity it is. If it wasn’t for Captain Bob, I might have never escaped that life. I owe him a debt of gratitude.

————————————-

While it undeniably did tremendous damage, it would be wrong to blame everything bad that has happened to me on organized religion. I didn’t need the church’s help to screw up my life with a shameful series of unbelievably poor decisions between 2008 and 2013, when I thought I needed to make up for all the experiences I had deprived myself of. I did that well enough on my own. That being said, it’s difficult to not play the “what if?” game. What if I hadn’t been duped? Maybe I would be a role model instead of a cautionary tale. Maybe I would be a decade-plus into a successful career, instead of being on the bottom rung of a job I could have gotten directly out of high school (except I wouldn’t be drowning in the kind of prodigious student loan debt that comes from eight years of mostly out-of-state college). Maybe I would occasionally smile. Maybe I would have made at least one friend in the past ten years. Maybe I would be able to have a conversation without being overwhelmed by an inferiority complex. Maybe I wouldn’t have lost years of my life to the catastrophic OCD and alcoholism that arose from feelings of intense guilt. Maybe I would have chased my dreams instead of chasing the attention of a non-extant deity. Maybe I would have dealt with my depression and self-esteem issues in a healthier way than “giving it to God” and hoping I’d be deemed worthy, despite spending all my time immersed in a religion that told me I wasn’t. Maybe I would have put the correct amount of focus on my education, instead of believing that spiritual matters were of greater importance. Maybe I wouldn’t have so many regrets of things I missed out on. Maybe I’d be much happier.

I don’t know for sure that things would be better had I never gotten involved with the church. I have an addictive personality, and can’t say definitively that I would not have ended up with a severe drug problem and dozens of baby mamas. Even if I had ended up that way though, at least that would have been real. I was never lost and needed to be found. I was never a sheep needing a shepherd. I have always been good enough to accomplish great things; I just needed to believe it.

You don’t get what you desire by laying at the feet of God and surrendering your will. You get it by surfeiting your conscious mind with thoughts of that thing, until it’s assimilated into your subconscious mind. It is seeing the thing you want and feeling it as if it’s already yours. This wires your subconscious to construct and direct its automatic programs towards that thing. The purpose of our subconscious mind is lifeward: it works in a way that promotes life. If we let it do its thing and make sure what we put into is positive, positive things will show tangibly and intangibly in our lives. Everything we get out of it is based on what we put in. If we choose to have them, health, happiness, and prosperity are all attainable goals.

I’m lucky. I got out while I still have life to live. Worldwide, the news is also good. Church membership has been declining, and younger generations are becoming more likely to label themselves as non-religious. Unfortunately, I still see too many jammed church parking lots on Sundays. I am sick of seeing good people I care about inflicted with this illness. I am sick of seeing religion being relevant in political decisions. My heart hurts for the hundreds of millions of well-intentioned people around the world who haven’t been as lucky as I have. There’s an amazing world and universe out there that we don’t know enough about, and we will get the answers we need if we believe in our ability to find them.

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11 thoughts on “Fire Out: My Journey from Fanatic Christian to Proud Agnostic

  1. Holy fuck that was long, I think my head hurts now….of this gets published anywhere I need some money for having my name mentioned several times. But seriously a lot I didn’t know is in here and I’m both shocked and sorry to hear mostly. While I don’t agree with some of your thoughts I do attest to most of your experiences within the “cult”. I now have a lot less involvement in the church, but still believe in God, Jesus and everything just not like people would nessisarily think I would. Although religion is an extremely tough write, read, and conversation this writing furthers my belief in your abilities as a writer and never will understand why you got out of that it’s truly your calling man.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Joel, I wish we had known each other sooner. Yeah, we went to the same high school, but, you graduated quite a few years after me. I’m sorry you went through all that depression and what not. I loved working with you. You were so funny! You always made me laugh when it came to customer service and you always had such great stories. I was so happy to meet Karin and to attend your wedding. You two make such a great couple! And now you have a little girl….oh, she’s just so adorable! I just wanted to let you know I’m not mad at you or anything. The Bible says there will be false prophets. And we need to discern between who is and who is not a false prophet. This is hard to do because of what we have seen happen….people like Rob Bell…my sister attended his church for years and now he doesn’t believe anything he taught to others in the past. But I must tell you my husband and I have been members at Resurrection Life Church of Grandville for 16 years, and (this church) used to be affiliated with the RLC in Grand Haven. Our senior pastor’s son-in-law became the senior pastor at the RLC in Grand Haven, and I think the name has changed. I am a member of the RLC (of Grandville) worship band, and, I can personally tell you, it is NOT all about the show. Our senior pastor will also say that there is no perfect church, even ours. But we do everything we can to bring God glory. I miss you, my friend. –Molly

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the kind words, Molly. I liked and miss working with you also. I’m glad you’re happy at Res Life Grandville. That life stopped making sense to me, but I know that doesn’t mean it’s wrong for everyone.

      Funny that you mention Rob Bell. I went to his church for a few months about a decade ago. He seems to have a bad reputation outside the church, but I don’t remember him saying anything all that controversial. I’ll have to research him a little sometime.

      Also, thank you for your nice comments on Karin and my little girl. We’ve been making a nice life for ourselves being back in GR!

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  3. JJ, this is so wonderfully articulated. Your narrative ability is definitely a gift.

    I remember you going through this all to well. The church had alienated you from everyone and anything that was a value to you. I have seen those churches and they scare the hell out of me. They are sheeple blindly following someone who is in the business of religion for power, not to truly teach. Quite honestly, it sounds like Captain Bob and his minions need throat punched to see if they can heal themselves in Jesus’s name.

    I’m still good with Jesus and God. While I identify myself as a Catholic, my religion and faith isn’t dictated by guilt, rules and regulations. It’s between me and God.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. That is a really well written, articulated and personal blog post. It’s obvious that you gave it a lot of time and thought. I can appreciate the writing skills even though we may not agree on the content and final conclusions. First I would like to say that I’m sorry these guys you mentioned did wrong by you. I don’t know Marcus or Capt. Bob so I won’t comment on their motives or behaviors but I would agree that anyone who manipulates people (in the name of the Lord or otherwise) should be suspect. Mankind will always disappoint. There will always be people like Benny Hinn, Marcus, fake faith healers and the like who use people’s weaknesses for their personal gain. We live in a broken world and sinners abound and I’m no better than anyone else. But for me, that is WHY I need a savior. I read your article carefully and nowhere in it did you say that God or Jesus let you down. As much as I love Lynn, my kids, my granddaughter and the rest of my family, God always comes first in my life because He never fails me. He doesn’t lie or deceive or demand anything from me.

    You laid out your “argument/rebuttal” statements very well. I really don’t want to go tit-for-tat on each point but there are some rebuttals that don’t add up. You say “However, the Gospels seriously lack credibility because they were written 30-100 years AFTER the Resurrection supposedly happened, by people who never met Jesus. They’re inconsistent legends passed down by the people who knew the people who knew the people who (allegedly) knew Jesus.” The apostles John and Matthew wrote two of the four Gospels. Both men were handpicked by Jesus. There is strong evidence that the disciple Paul (Saul) who wrote most of the books in the New Testament may have met or at least heard Jesus preach. Remember, Saul’s mission was to destroy Jesus and His followers as he was a Pharisee on the Sanhedrin. He was not someone who was weak and blindly followed Jesus. In fact he was well educated, wealthy Jew and a strong follower of the Law. And then there is that’s whole “Road to Damascus” story where they met after the Resurrection… but I know you have serious doubts about that event. So I’d say that there were a number of men who were contemporaries of Jesus that wrote most of the New Testament.

    The whole ‘the sun stood still for 23 hours’ story…to be honest, I’ve not read that account so I don’t have a lot to say on that. But you are using Snopes.com as your reference source to prove or disprove Bible stories?! Come on, you HAVE to do better than that! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Damn Bob, you came to play! I respect that. I posted my blog to two ex-Christian messages boards before putting it on Facebook because I wanted to make sure my arguments were clear before opening them up to friends and family, and the only criticisms I got were “It’s too long” and “you shouldn’t refer to religion as a disease”. I’m currently at work and only have access to this site through my cell phone, and it’d take forever for me to respond that way, but I’m going to write up something when I get home. In the meantime, you’ve given me a lot to think about.

      Like

  5. The Resurrection is the centerpiece of Christianity. And I agree that it is a really hard event to believe at face value. But if you believe that Jesus died on the cross and was placed in a tomb, who would have moved His body? The Jews that convicted Him? No way. That would give credence that Jesus did raise from the dead and shows them that he WAS the Messiah. Totally contrary to why they wanted Him crucified. They would be the LAST group that would move His body. The Roman guards that were instructed to keep people away? They would have been killed for disobeying orders. The apostles and disciples of Jesus? They scattered like scared children after the crucifixion. But you are correct; we do not have 500 sworn and notarized statements from people who saw Jesus after he was raised. But if there were such documents, would you believe then or just chalk it up to more lies, myths and legends?

    There is one other thing that leads me to believe in the Resurrection story. Imagine for a moment if all of this was fake and staged by the apostles and disciples. Let’s say the snuck in during the night, got past all of the heavily armed Roman guards and took the dead body of Jesus away. Then they concocted a story that He appeared to them and got hundreds of other to say they saw Him as well. All of this was just an elaborate scheme to promote Christianity. My first question would be “WHY?” Why go through all of that? What did they have to gain by making all of that up? Fame, fortune, notoriety? They received none of that. But my biggest argument in favor of the Resurrection is why would they allow themselves to me martyred is such horrific ways to perpetuate a lie??? If someone was about to dip me in boiling oil, or roast me on an open barbecue or nail me upside down on a tree until I die for the sake of a story that I KNEW to be a lie…I’d confess that it was all BS and go on my merry way. But they didn’t because they were there and saw it with their own eyes. Every one of them except John died a terrible death for the sake of the Jesus story.

    So for me my belief in Jesus is based on reading Bible stories with my eyes wide open, on my own logic and somewhat on ‘facts’. I don’t see myself and other Christians as gullible lemmings being lead off a cliff or mindless mush brains that can be manipulated. But above all I have faith. And there is nothing wrong with having faith. In fact we all have faith in something. We have faith that God is real or we have faith that there is no God. The theories of evolution and Big Bang are just that. Theories. No hard proof. If they were proven then it would be the LAW of evolution and the LAW of the Big Bang, much like the LAW of gravity. And isn’t choosing to believe those stories (theories) just trading one religion for another? It’s just a bunch of ‘smart’ people that you choose to believe. (The same ‘smart’ people from another century who KNEW that the world was flat and the sun that revolved around the earth!)

    So where is my ‘proof’ in Jesus, God, the Resurrection and Eternal salvation? A changed life if my proof and it is my faith guides me. So my final question to you is this…what if it’s all true?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bob,

      Thank you for the kind words about my writing. I just recently started doing it again after a long absence, and was worried I had lost my touch, so it’s very nice to hear people respecting my work, even if they disagree with the content.

      You’re right, I don’t feel that God/Jesus has let me down, but I don’t have any reason to believe He has done anything for me either. There’s nothing I can look at and say, “that would have never happened without the Christian God.” I don’t know that’s even a bad thing. The Christian God is a God that tells me to love my neighbors, yet sends all his enemies, which were created in his image, to hell to burn in a lake of fire for eternity. It’s a God that claims to love us unconditionally, yet doesn’t see a problem with slaughtering innocent children in a plague because the pharaoh he created didn’t do what he created him to not do. That makes no sense to me. My main reasons for believing were based on logical arguments that were debunked and on feelings that I can’t prove were Jesus-based. “Faith” was enough for me for a long time, but I eventually reached a point where I needed that faith to have some kind of basis in fact and evidence. I just don’t see it.

      The Gospels you referenced were not actually written by Matthew and John. They’re the gospels according to Matthew and John. They were passed down for decades before being recorded by writers who didn’t put a name to their work. I was under the impression that Paul had never actually met Jesus, but I’ll have to do more research on that.

      I never accused anyone of moving Jesus’ body, so I don’t know how to respond to that. My argument regarding the tomb was my confusion about how it was lost. If the stone was moved from the entrance, it means they once knew where it was. I don’t see how it’s possible for the people to have forgotten where it was over time. That would go against human nature.

      As for the documents from the 500 people, I don’t know if I would believe them because they don’t exist. If they did exist, we know a good deal of how to verify their authenticity. What these five hundred people allegedly saw would be the most important thing that has happened in the history of the world. There would be writings, drawings, sculptures, and statues all over the middle east created by these people. We have none of that. Maybe some would have been destroyed over the past two thousand years, but they’d be considered way too important for all of them to have disappeared.

      I’m familiar with the “Why would the apostles die for a lie?” argument. Heck, I used that argument when I was a Christian. Today, I have the same issue it that I have with the Gospels: lack of credibility. The “evidence” of the apostles’ deaths are legends from non-historic, unverifiable sources that were each written over a century after the apostles allegedly died. Those same sources also contain stories of things like talking dogs, flying magicians, people summoning earthquakes, and human males being pregnant with frogs. There is also weak/no evidence that the apostles were given the opportunity to recant their claims of the resurrection in order to avoid their slayings. We just assume they were given those opportunities, but why? Those Roman emperors didn’t exactly have reputations for being reasonable dudes.

      What if Christianity is true? There are thousands of religions you could ask the same thing about. You can’t follow them all.

      I wish it was all true. A lot of horrible, terrible things happen on this planet and it brings comfort to think that the good will be rewarded and the bad will be punished, but we don’t know for sure that it actually works that way. I believe that’s why a lot of people are inclined to believe in religion without evidence. It’s comforting, but I need more than that. It’s not true because we want it to be true. This stuff is too important, and if I’m going to commit my life to it, I don’t think it’s too much to want proof that I’m not giving that life in vain.

      Like

  6. Don’t think I forgot about this conversation….;)

    You bring up arguments for the ages. I haven’t a clue as to why God would allow, even order the slaughter of innocent children to prove a point to pharaoh. It makes no sense to me either. But is it any different today? Disease, abortion, famine, war, abuse, human trafficking …all things that cause death to children in 2016. All issues within our power to allow these things to happen or not. Some argue “this proves that there is no God because He allows _______ to happen”. We use evil in the world to disprove God. Consequently then, all evil is mankind’s doing and therefore it disproves mankind? It’s the same circular argument. Why do allow these things to go on for centuries? It is easy to take credit when everything is going great (i.e. ‘I don’t need God’) and then point to God and ask ‘why would you let _______ happen if you’re a loving God?’

    Proof from the 500 witnesses – Drawing, writings, statues, artwork depicting the vision of the resurrected Christ? My guess is that these were not the wealthiest people of their times and couldn’t afford them. In fact, very little was written. But I would challenge you before you discount that oral history as not as valid as written history. In fact, all of the old and new testaments were passed down before someone could get them on paper. But if someone was telling a story that was passed down from their fathers and they decided to change one word, someone else would stop them and correct them. Oral history can be very accurate. If someone told Ella “Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as paint”, someone would jump in and say ‘snow’ to correct it. It’s just how we are wired. (And don’t get me started on the accuracy and legitimacy of the ‘written’ word today! Search the internet on ANY subject and you will get confirmed written word on everything from fake moon landings to Elvis sightings. Written does not guarantee accuracy).

    Killing of the Apostles – It’s pretty well documented that the early Christians were persecuted and killed. Nero in 54 A.D. killed anyone who claimed to be a Christian in Rome by crucifixion, burning alive or throwing them to the lions. Roman Emperors regarded themselves as gods and as you can surmise, anyone who considers himself a god has no patience for anyone who follows Jesus claiming He was the Son of God. It wasn’t until 313 A.D, 259 years after Nero, did Constantine I embrace Christianity and make it legal to practice. So logic tells me that it wasn’t a good time for the Apostles. The Roman Empire was not a tolerant, open society and ruled it with an iron fist. These twelve did not die from old age.

    The lost tomb of Jesus – Early Christianity was a fledgling group at best. It would have been unlikely that they would have put up a neon sign saying “Here’s the tomb!” As far as lost artifacts… six of the seven Wonders of the Ancient World are long gone. The Holy Grail, Ark of the Covenant, even most of Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawings and manuscripts are missing…and that was just 450 years ago! It doesn’t mean that weren’t real, just lost over time.

    Needing fact based proof of God – You know where I’m going with that. Proof is the opposite of faith. God wants us to have some skepticism, doubt and wrestle with Him. Just like you cannot ‘prove’ that someone loves you. You can give examples of loving things that they do but when you boil it all down, you have to have faith that they love you. You say “It’s not true because we want it to be true”. Conversely it’s not untrue because you want it to be untrue. It’s like someone whose family has lived in the Arctic Circle for generations and have never seen pineapples. He can say he’s heard about the “legend of pineapples” but has chalked them up as nonsense because no one he knows has ever seen or tasted one. If he doesn’t have 100% proof, then he has no faith that they exist and his mind is now closed to the possibility of pineapples.

    Proof and faith, faith and proof. That’s what attracts me to Christianity more than anything. Think about all of the great cities and civilizations of the bible. For me, Israel is proof that God exists. Cities like Babylon, Cannan/Bethel, Zoar, Babel, etc. were the centers of the universe. Now they are gone, wiped off the map forever. But God chose Israel and its people as the chosen ones. 2700 years later and after all that nation and people have endured, Israel still exists. Right there in the same place as biblical times. Maybe it’s just coincidence or maybe it’s the hand of God. He leaves that open for us to decide.

    I realize that a few ‘back and forths’ posts on a blog isn’t going to make you change your mind. Just keep digging with an open mind.

    Like

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