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How and Why Christians Abandon Their Faith

Recently a spate of internet articles and some personal experiences have led me to think about Christians losing their faith.  Of course, apostasy, the technical term for abandoning one’s belief, is not a new phenomenon.  It is as old as Judas, the disciple of Jesus who betrayed him, and Demas who “in love with this present world” deserted Paul (2 Timothy 4:10).  Nevertheless, as the secularizing tide of American culture is rising, the problem of apostasy will become a growing concern.

I should state at the beginning that I am not dealing with the issue of whether an apostate was ever a Christian.  As important as the theological questions of election and perseverance of the saints are, the subject of this post is an analysis of the process by which Christians lose their faith and the reasons for it.

What strikes me first of all is that apostasy is normally the result of a process over time.  We tend to think that faith is lost in one dramatic moment.  The light goes out (or from the atheist’s perspective comes on) with a single flip of the switch.  However, the evidence suggests that abandoning the faith takes time.  After all, Judas had been stealing from the disciples’ money box before he betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver (John 12:6), and certainly Demas did not fall in love with the world overnight (2 Timothy 4:10).

What motivates Christians to abandon their faith—a faith that at one time was so important to them?  There are several possible reasons, but I’d like to examine three categories: the intellectual, the ethical, and, for want of a better word, the relational. While distinct, these three categories can and do work together to lead to a loss of faith.

By intellectual reasons for abandoning the faith I do not mean that a person sees that Christianity is false.  I am a committed Christian; so I don’t think that Christianity is false.  What I mean by an intellectually based falling away from the faith is persistence in a doctrinal error that results in undermining one’s faith.  This would appear to be what happened to Bart Ehrman, the prominent New Testament scholar.  As a teenager he converted to Christianity.  Unfortunately, he had the notion that for the Bible to be God’s word, God must have protected the original texts from errors of transmission.  Of course, there is nothing in the Scriptures that promised this, but by holding onto this false conviction Ehrman moved on to liberal Christianity and currently to agnosticism.

Examples of more common faith-threatening errors are the prosperity gospel and perfectionism.  According to the brand promoted, the prosperity gospel promises financial success and physical health to Christians and ignores, downplays or just plain denies the biblical teachings on suffering.  Those who do not experience the promised prosperity are taught that their personal faith is not strong enough.  Finally, in disappointment and bitterness many turn their backs on the Christian faith, not realizing that they have been sold a bill of goods.

Perfectionism teaches that the Christian can attain sinless perfection in this life, and in some cases that society itself will be transformed into a Christian utopia of justice.  The inevitable frustration with the persistence of personal and societal failures leads the perfectionist to give up on a faith that does not produce the desired results.

In all of these intellectual errors the person clings to a false teaching because he wants something that God does not promise, whether it be the security of a pure biblical text, a life of unmitigated material blessing or even perfect holiness in the here and now.  Usually, deep down, there is some kind of rationalistic principle that rebels against the ambiguities of the life of faith this side of eternity.

There are those who profess the Christian faith but struggle with some besetting sin.  They are unable to escape from the clutches of some sinful habits that have become compulsions, such as sexual sins or a drug addiction to which they have willingly enslaved themselves.  Repeated resolutions to abstain from the sin are followed by repeated failures to overcome it.  Finally, hope vanishes. God doesn’t seem to care or be able to help.  Perhaps, it is thought, there may not even be a God to help.  By a cruelly ironic twist of fate, those who take most seriously such ethical failures are the ones most affected by them.  Tragically, such devastating despair can lead not only to abandoning the faith but also to suicide.

The third category of reasons for abandoning the faith is relational.  Although not the example that first comes to mind, persecution is a relational reason for apostasy.  I believe that it is a mistake to think that many Christians forsake their faith because of intense brief physical persecution, unless, as our Lord says, their faith “has no root in themselves” (Mark 4:17). Denials of Christ under torture are most likely neither sincere nor, it is to be hoped, enduring.  However, persistent extended pressure from those who oppose them, the isolation felt because of rejection by those near and dear and the constant humiliation of ridicule can wear down a faith that is not deeply rooted in God’s grace.

What led me to write this piece, however, is another kind of relational problem that results in apostasy.  A Christian is very busy with family, with his job or with all the daily routine of life.  He begins to neglect prayer and Bible study.  Perhaps he has had difficulty finding a church that he believes meets his needs or he just needs a break from the hustle and bustle and takes a few Sundays off from worship.  He may even have become somewhat disenchanted with churches and decides to pull out for a while.

The danger of this slow drifting away from the faith is that it is almost unconscious.  Slowly, leaf by leaf, stem by stem, root by root he has killed the plant of faith.  One morning he wakes up and finds that God is no longer real to him.

Such a drifting away into unbelief is quite common.  It often happens to those who have grown up in a Christian home and are on their own for the first time or those who were converted in high school or college, enjoyed and profited from campus ministries but never quite integrated into a church after graduation.  It can also happen to those who have been practicing Christians for years, but who have allowed their relationship with God to stagnate.

What can be done to avoid apostasy?  The essential point to remember is that the Christian faith is primarily a relationship with God and that, as in any relationship, there are certain ways to preserve and deepen that relationship.  From the beginning of the faith these ways have been what are called the means of grace—conversing with God in prayer, listening to God in the reading of his word, meeting with God in the community of believers to hear his word, taking his sacrament and worshipping him. Every one of these are ways in which God’s Spirit ties our heart to his in love.  Whether you want to deepen your faith or need to restore your relationship with God, there is no other way to do so than by taking advantage of the means God has ordained to foster a flourishing relationship with him.  Not to do so is to shipwreck your faith and fall away from the source of life, abundant life now and abundant life in eternity.

4 thoughts on “How and Why Christians Abandon Their Faith

  1. Hi Mr. Isley:
    Very impressive blog. I was glad to see an entry with a 2015 date as most seem to be from considerably further back. Ran across the blog while Googling secondary sources on Till We Have Faces, one of my favorite books. I enjoyed your commentary on it and hope you carry it past Chapter 8 sometime.
    Thanks and best wishes,

    1. Paul,

      Sorry that I didn’t respond earlier. For some reason, I’m not getting these comments sent to my email. I’ve just finished the school year; so I hope to complete the Till We Have Faces study.

  2. It seems like there are a myriad of ways people lose their faith. My sister wants to get back to church since she feels empty inside. What church would you recommend for her?

    1. Thank you for your comment, Mr. Hooper. Yes, there are many ways people lose their faith. I tried to highlight what I consider to be three categories, which cover a multitude. I am sorry that your sister is feeling empty inside but am glad that she want to go back to church. I attend an Evangelical Free Church, which is a solid Christian denomination. Much depends upon your sister’s needs. A church that is faithful to the gospel is crucial but if she feels the need for close spiritual relationships, sometimes a small but still lively church is best for a newcomer. Thanks again for your comment. I hope that your sister finds a church that will help her.

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