I never in my wildest dreams would have imagined I would become an atheist. Growing up in a Christian church/cult, as a pastor’s son, I was certain I was destined for the ministry or something “important” in God’s Big Plan because I was also a member of God’s “one and only true church.” I never questioned my salvation. And when my faith in God went away and I became an atheist, I never worried about my salvation either. In fact, I am quite confident that if there is a God and a “Final Judgement,” I will pass God’s entry requirements for Eternal Life with flying colors. But the standards that I believe one must meet in order to attain the “ultimate reward” of eternal life have changed dramatically. I know it may seem odd having an atheist tell you he knows how to gain salvation, but stick with me — your “higher power” may be revealing “new truth” that you need to hear.
In the church/cult that I was raised in (the Worldwide Church of God aka Armstrongism), we thought we were God’s “elect” — the ones chosen to “spread the gospel.” And what was that gospel? It wasn’t the traditional gospel of evangelical Christians. In fact, we scoffed at the idea that all you had to do was believe Jesus Christ died for your sins to be saved. How silly! We knew better than that! God expected “his people” to not just profess faith in Christ and become baptized, you had to also keep the Saturday Sabbath by resting and not working, you had to observe the Old Testament holy days, keep the Jewish food laws (even though we weren’t Jewish) which meant no pork, bacon, lobster, crab, catfish, etc. We were require to tithe 20-30% of our gross income every year and send in donations (offerings) on top of it. No Christmas, Easter, Halloween or birthday celebrations — those were all of Satan’s world. Medical intervention was seen as wrong and a lack of faith, particularly in the early years of the church. People let their children and loved ones die from curable illnesses because they believed God would be displeased if they looked to doctors for help. The list of crazy rules goes on and on and on. The sacrifices people made in our church to be “okay with God” — to gain salvation and eternal life were significant — far greater than your everyday church-goer. The sacrifices people made in our church would be unimaginable to most. Relatively few in this world have worked harder or sacrificed more for their salvation than the members of our church.
But then our church changed. And the changes were so fundamental and so unprecedented, even outside “cult-watching groups” and Christian leaders declared the transformation historical, unprecedented. No cult or church has ever done what our church did. In one fell swoop, the church tossed most all of its beliefs out as “legalism” and “unnecessary” for salvation The new leader of our church who had been handed the reigns by the founder before his passing, implemented these fundamental changes in 1995. While outside groups praised the WCG for transforming from a cult to an evangelical Christian church, more than 60% of the church’s 120,000 members left almost overnight.
The financial impact to the church would ultimately leave my father — who supported the doctrinal changes — jobless as a pastor after 35 years of service. He and my mother would pay a steep price for giving up legalism. They could have held on to the list of rules, but they felt God was moving his church into “new truth.” Legalism is another word for the many rules you had to keep to “earn your salvation” which was also seen as a”free gift.” That’s right, salvation was a free gift but it was not free. If you weren’t experiencing cognitive dissonance in our church — as I state in my book “Cults and Closets” — you weren’t paying attention.
I agreed with the changes the church was making and I stayed as well and then I watched my father lose the only livelihood he’s ever known. The dysfunction and identity crisis the church was now faced with after the big changes was something I could no longer be a part of, so my new wife (who felt the same way) and I left to attend a “mainstream” Christian church that didn’t have all of the baggage and rules — a church that believed you were “saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ.”
After a number of months we learned the church we had joined was not too different from the cult we left. They, too, had their set of “rules” for pleasing God. Doing the bare minimum to gain salvation — “faith alone in Jesus Christ”– wasn’t quite enough to be “okay with God” in the eyes of this church either. But I would learn most churches operate the same way: Here’s your list of rules; dishonor the list and there’s the door.
While attending this new church, I was now into my second year of marriage to my wife, who I had met in the church when I was 13. My dad was the pastor of the congregation her family attended. Because of the social dysfunction I felt I had experienced growing up, I could not wrap my head around the idea that I might be gay, even though my sexual thoughts almost never had anything to do with girls. Being gay in our church was no more an option than being a murderer or a pedophile. I thought the feelings I was having about guys was due to my messed up social life and feeling insecure around my male peers growing up. I figured I had “sexualized” my desire for more male friends.
I thought all those feelings would go away when I got married and started having sex with a woman like a “normal” person. Our church taught that premarital sex was wrong, so I was a virgin when I married. I figured God was allowing the thoughts in my head about guys to continue — despite my desperate prayers for him to remove them — because he was going to show his “power” and “plan” for me by removing those tormenting evil thoughts once I got married. He would reward my patience and virginity by removing the “gay.” However, I still didn’t think it was “gay” he would be removing. I just thought it was “unnatural thoughts” I needed him to “straighten” out. That’s how deep in the closet of denial I was. Two years into my marriage, it became clear God had no interest in removing the feelings or thoughts and they only grew stronger and stronger. This, and the fundamental doctrinal changes in the church of my youth, triggered my “crisis of faith.”
Why would a loving Father and all-powerful God allow me — his “child” — to suffer and be tormented all those years and then NOT help me overcome these “obvious” evil thoughts about men once I got married. Something wasn’t adding up. For the first time in my life I was pissed off at God!
What kind of insane game was he playing with me? Why, why, why would he put me through this torment? In my book I share my “big prayer” to God. It was more about my “New Deal” with God and how I was tired of looking to others for answers about his apparent will for my life. I won’t share the prayer here but what I will say is that I truly laid out for God how I had tried so desperately hard to do his will — and I had followed that will — but he never kept his end of the bargain. It made no sense to me what was happening. Either God was playing a nasty, sinister, sickening trick on me or there was no God.
Over a period of time after my “big prayer” — not more than a year — it became clear to me that I no longer had a belief in God — I was an atheist. At least I no longer believed in the God of the Bible. I still considered myself agnostic because I was afraid to believe that it was “safe” to rule out the existence of God. By calling myself an “agnostic atheist,” I could leave room for the potential existence of God and hopefully God would have mercy on me at any “final judgement” that may occur in the future. Call me crazy, but that’s how I was reasoning at the time.
But, I stopped worrying about God condemning me to “hell” at any final judgement, not because I proved God does not exist. You can not prove a negative. I can be no more sure there is no God than I can be sure there are no magical purple ponies living in another galaxy. The reason I stopped worrying about missing the boat of salvation is the same reason I believe most of the religious — even the judgmental ones — and, DEFINITELY, most atheist and non-believers don’t need to worry about it. And again, it’s not because I believe there is no God and, therefore, no Judgement Day. Hang with me here.
The reason I don’t fear God’s final judgement is because I believe that IF there is a God — an all-knowing, all-loving being — he knows my heart. And he knows yours too. And I think most of us have good hearts. I may not know your heart, but there is nothing I know better than my own heart. I know what my intentions have been from the very beginning. I know how hard I sought a relationship with God and Jesus Christ. I know how I cried myself to sleep at night, begging God to take away the “evil and unnatural” thoughts in my head. I know during my “crisis of faith” how desperately I sought answers and begged God to lead my path.
Read the entire article here: Cults and Closets, How An Atheist Can Be Saved
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