How Questioning Changed Me
By Merle Hertzler
I learned early that I was not to question my religion. I grew up in a Mennonite home. When I was 14 years old, a liberal pastor was put in charge of our congregation. My family and I left this church to join a fundamentalist church, one that did not question the Bible. Fundamentalism became a way of life for me. Everything that entered my mind had to come through its filter. I soaked it all in, without serious questioning.
I was terrified of hell and would often lie awake at night worrying about it. Even in social settings, I would be sitting there worrying about hell. Fundamentalism offered a solution. It said that all one had to do was trust Jesus. So I did it. Did I do it right? I didn't know. So I did it again. I still wasn't sure that I had done it right. So I did it again and again in my mind. If I had counted every time that I mentally accepted Christ, I just might hold the world record. I prayed that God would be merciful to me a sinner. I pleaded for the blood of Christ. I begged for his amazing grace to save a wretch like me. I accepted him into my heart. Over and over I accepted him in any way I could think to accept Christ. Finally, I decided that Christ would indeed take care of it and tried to move on. I thought that everybody else surely had similar worries and needed to know this news of deliverance from hell.
In college, I joined an independent Baptist church, which then controlled every aspect of my life. I walked the streets of the Bible belt, witnessing to those who may have missed God's gift of salvation. Everybody at this church was told to be a soul winner. The pastor boomed his message from the pulpit, yelling at those who listened to rock music, stayed home on visitation night, gave less than 10% of their income to the church, or attended a movie theatre. We were told exactly how to live our lives, and we obediently followed. It was the only life we knew.
In my senior year of college (1978) the pastor  moved to another congregation, and the church deteriorated into disarray. I was confused. This was all I had to live for, and it had fallen apart. I saw the dark side of the church . There was chaos at some church functions. Once when we were singing Just As I Am over and over as an alter call, people became so bored that the song died in the middle of the verse and we never finished it. I had thought that we were saving the world. Now I looked at the lives that had been "saved", and wondered if it had meant anything.
Meanwhile, I watched as the story of Jim Jones and the mass suicides in the Guyana massacre appeared on TV. The story of those poor people following every command of their leader seemed all too real to me. I had been living my life much like they had. I could understand why they followed so obediently. Religion can do that to a person. Had I been deluded also?
There was something else that bothered me. I had been reading through the Bible every year since I was in 11th grade--every word of every verse--and was finding a lot of problems. Have you ever read the tales of killing, greed, and arrogance that fill the Old Testament? Do you ever question their relevance? I was not sure that I could trust the Bible any longer. As my confidence in the Bible withered, apathy set in.
I graduated from college with no meaningful philosophy of life. My Christian hope had gone. I can not begin to describe the despair that filled my life for the first two years after graduation. There was nothing to live for. I wanted to be happy, but I didn't know why that would matter. Two hundred years from now, who would ever care if the bones left behind had supported a happy person or a sad person? Probably nobody would ever care. But somehow, I cared. And I wasn't sure why. I wanted to be happy. I knew apathy, bitterness, struggle, frustration, anger and confusion.
When my Christian hope had faded, why didn't I look for something else? I didn't know there was another way. I had grown up in Christian schools, Sunday schools, and Bible studies. The Bible was the only hope I knew about, and it now seemed inadequate. I never thought to look elsewhere--such is the grip that religion can have. I wish now that somebody had told me how to live the good life without the Bible. But I would not learn that until many years later.
In desperation, I turned to Christian books. I had no intention of going back to my fundamentalist Baptist days. But I thought that perhaps a milder brand of Christianity could help. As I read, my spirit was refreshed. Was God leading me back to himself? I thought that he was. And so I made a commitment to walk close to the Lord again. I found that Christianity worked much better for me than apathy. I would often go to a park and find a forsaken place alone with God where I could lie down and pray. I would pour out my heart to God, and I would leave refreshed. I took this as proof that Christianity was true.
I was introduced to the writings of C. S. Lewis, and I found them absolutely fascinating. His philosophy made sense to me. The best aspect was that he did not merely quote Bible verses to establish his points. One could see that he had actually thought about these things himself. I integrated his writings with the fundamentalist teachings I had heard in the past, and formed a philosophy of life.
Basically I saw myself and others as rebellious sinners. I believed that I had rebelled against God, and that this had brought on the two years of depression. When people did unkind things to me, my philosophy "explained" it--it was because they gave in to their evil, sinful nature. I would get bitter at those who had followed their inner sinful nature, sometimes snapping at people and letting them know how bad they were. I found religion helped me to keep my mouth shut. Instead of snapping out in anger, I learned to hold the anger inside, for I believed that it came from my fallen nature. And I did not want my fallen nature to express itself. I wanted only my new positive nature, as produced by the Holy Spirit, to come out. So the old, angry words were constrained. I believed that my "old self" was bad, and that every day I had to die to this self. So I set out to surrender my basic wants and desires to God.
These teachings may look strange when compared with the teachings of many of today's Evangelical churches, but I remember when this was the standard fare at many Evangelical churches. One of the most influential books in my life at that time was The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis. He writes:
A recovery of the old sense of sin is essential to Christianity. Christ takes it for granted that men are bad. Until we really feel this assumption of His to be true, though we are part of the world He came to save, we are not part of the audience to whom his words are addressed, 
Lewis assumed that we are bad people, and that God was angry with us for being so bad. And he thought that Christianity offered hope only to those who knew they were bad people. Lewis suggests that some Christians might ask, "What call has God, of all beings, to be angry with us?" Lewis declares that to be a blasphemous question. He responds:
Now at the moment when a man feels real guilt--moments too rare in our lives--all of these blasphemies vanish away... At such a moment we really do know that our character, as revealed in [some sinful] action, is, and ought to be, hateful to all good men, and, if there are powers above man, to them. A God who did not regard this with unappeasable distaste would not be a good being...When we merely say that we are bad, the "wrath" of God seems a barbarous doctrine; as soon as we perceive our badness, it appears inevitable, a mere corollary from God's goodness. 
Guilt is far too rare? Try saying that in a modern church! Modern Christianity is all about acceptance and self-esteem. You will look long and hard to find anybody who still teaches that guilt is too rare. But I remember when this view was prevalent. Lewis was not merely telling us that our actions are bad, but also that our very person is something that God hates. He was saying that God ought not only to hate our sin, but he ought to have wrath on us because at our very core we are worthless. He goes on to explain that we are vermin because of Adam's sin. Can God blame us for Adam's sin? Look at his response:
Theoretically, I suppose, we might say "Yes, we behave like vermin, but then that is because we are vermin. And that, at any rate, is not our fault." But the fact that we are vermin, so far from being felt as an excuse, is a greater shame and grief to us than any of the particular acts which it leads us to commit. 
So we find that we are vermin, through no fault of our own, but because of what Adam did. And Lewis says that it is a shame and grief to us that we are vermin, even though we were born that way. What is the Christian to do? Lewis continues,
Now the proper good of a creature is to surrender itself to its Creator--to enact intellectually, volitionally, and emotionally, that relationship which is given in the mere fact of its being a creature... In the world as we know it, the problem is how to recover this self-surrender. We are not merely imperfect creatures who must be improved: we are, as Newman said, rebels who must lay down our arms. 
Hence the necessity to die daily: however often we think we have broken the rebellious self we shall still find it alive...The human spirit will not even begin to surrender self-will as long as all seems to be well with it. 
Do you get the picture? Lewis describes both Christians and unbelievers as vermin, as nasty rebels who need to stop fighting God. He says suffering is the tool that God uses to accomplish this change. This book was the biggest influence in my philosophy of life at that time. I could have found a number of scripture verses to support this low view of humanity. (E.g. Job 42:6, Is 64:6, Lu.17:10, Rom. 3:10-19).
I look at it now, and do not think that I had a very healthy perspective. But this philosophy was mild compared with the Independent Baptist tradition that I had come out of. And it certainly worked better than apathy. This outlook gave me a reason to live. I assumed that it worked because it was right. (I now think that it worked because it gave me a purpose.) I had found this one great pillar to support my faith--Christianity must be true because it works, at least it works for me.
There was a second great pillar on which I based my faith. This pillar had stood firm even during the days of despair. I was quite familiar with the teachings of Henry Morris and the young earth creationists. I thought that this was the most logical explanation for how the earth began. They argued that the earth was created about 6000 years ago, just as the Bible said. During the time of Noah, a great flood supposedly covered the earth. This flood buried many animals, I was told, and these became the fossils we see today. I listened to this side only, and was convinced. Other things in the Bible may have been difficult to believe, but I had these two great pillars of my faith--a belief that Christianity as I knew it worked, and a belief that Genesis was the best explanation for how we got here.
In 1987 I moved to the suburbs of Philadelphia, and found an exciting Evangelical church. I met many wonderful people and quickly became involved in many aspects of the program. I had found a home, and was happy. I talked to God every day, and developed in my personal relationship with him.
Some of the Christians at this church came from a range of religious backgrounds. This was new to me. Some people disagreed with the way I understood Christianity. A few believed in evolution, or at least that the earth was billions of years old. Others told me that my religious philosophy did not work, that other philosophies worked better. There were big differences. I thought that we should despise our evil inner self--they thought that we should love ourselves. I thought that we must work hard to keep the evil anger inside of us from coming out--they thought that evil was there because we had not vented our anger, so we had better just let it all come out. I thought that we were evil on the inside--they thought that we were good on the inside, and were wearing masks that made us look evil. I thought that the big problem was overestimating one's self and overconfidence--they thought that the big problem was low self-esteem and a lack of self-confidence. I thought that we were to die to ourselves--they thought that we need to discover ourselves and self-actualize. I thought that many or our thoughts and desires were evil, and God made us feel guilty about that--they thought that these desires were natural feelings, and that it was the devil, not God, that wanted us to feel guilty about having such feelings. I thought that God allowed people to mistreat us because that was his way of molding our character and causing us to "die to ourselves"--they thought that mistreatment did not always help, but often damaged our psyche, often requiring counseling to overcome the effects. They told me that my philosophy was depressing.
Do you understand why this was a difficult pill for me to swallow? This was the one great pillar of my Christian faith--the belief that my Bible-supported philosophy worked. Now here were Christians telling me that it did not work. What did they mean it didn't work? Of course it worked! It worked far better for me than the depression I had been in. And I had scripture to back it up. It was not easy for me to accept that my way did not work. So I prayed about it and read the Bible. It seemed that God was telling me that I was doing the right thing. Seriously, who was I to go against what God was saying?
My experience and prayers told me that my philosophy worked better; their experience and prayers told them that their philosophy worked better. Who was right?
I was soon to have my eyes opened to many other philosophies that supposedly worked best. I would soon meet believers in Mormonism, Islam, Bahai, Judaism, Wicca, and Atheism. Each was sure that his way had worked for him, thus proving that it was the best. And I was going to hear of many psychological solutions, again with testimonials for each claiming that it was better than other techniques. I was not the only one who had claimed that my experience proved that I was right. Lots of people were claiming that they had tried something and this made them feel better. Do all philosophies work? How can everyone claim that his or her way wins? Some researchers had looked at this state of affairs and asked, "Is it true that 'Everyone has won and all must have prizes'?" 
I met these people of many religions in the CompuServe debate forum. I began to participate in the religion section, and actively debated these issues with anybody that wanted to discuss them. This was to become the focus of my spiritual life.
The biggest lesson I learned during these computer bulletin board debates was how to form an argument. It was not enough for me to state that Jay Adams, C. S. Lewis, or Thomas Szasz had written something that agreed with me on a particular point. After all, one can find somebody who will agree with almost any religious viewpoint that he expresses. I needed a more effective argument. My favorite source was the Psychoheresy Awareness Ministry of Martin and Deidre Bobgan (offsite link). Their philosophy closely matched mine. They referred to psychological experiments to support their arguments, and often quoted scientific journals. I found that when I described experiments people often listened to what I had to say, and were less likely to attack my writings. I developed a love for scientific experiments and the scientific journals that described them. And so began a regular series of trips to the Philadelphia Public Library, and later, to the University of Pennsylvania. I would make lists of articles that favored my positions, and would go to the library to get more ammunition for my side.
These trips became time-consuming, and so, in 1992, I subscribed to my favorite journal, The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology . At $247 a year, this represented a major desire to learn the truth. Having made the commitment, I was determined to learn something from each issue. I began to read articles, whether I thought they agreed with my position or not. This was a change for me. I was not merely reading to prove I was right. I was reading to learn. And I read some articles that were disturbing. I read that trying to suppress thoughts can make them stronger.  Were my efforts to keep my true thoughts under control making those repressed thoughts stronger? I learned more about the function of self-esteem. Was my viewpoint of myself as an evil sinner harmful? Slowly, microscopic cracks began to develop in the first great pillar of my faith. It was slow and subtle, but the cracks were beginning.
A strange twist of fate put me right into the middle of the creation-evolution debate. That was not where I wanted to be, for these fights were often quite nasty. I couldn't believe that I was there in the middle of it all. But I was not about to leave a good debate. I decided to let people know that evolution was a bad idea.
I made some progress arguing that the complexity of genes made evolution difficult, but somebody wanted to know where all of those fossils had come from, if not from hundreds of millions of years of evolution. I suggested they might have been caused by Noah's flood. My argument was defeated in one round. I was asked to explain how it is that we find rocks made of wind-blown sand in the midst of all these rocks under the earth. I had no answer. Wind certainly wouldn't be blowing sand around under the floodwaters. I told myself the problem was that I was not familiar enough with the issues. So I avoided the subject of the flood until I could find better answers. But I never did find a satisfactory answer to this simple problem, nor to many of the other problems with Noah's flood. So I concentrated instead on problems that I perceived with the mechanism of evolution. I describe this struggle elsewhere, and need not repeat it here. ( Click here to read that story.) In eighteen months, after the dust had settled, I had switched to the side of evolution. It was a complete change. Now many have survived the switch to evolution, and they still have faith. But the switch to evolution was traumatic for me. One great pillar of my faith was gone.
Meanwhile the other pillar of my faith--the one that said conservative Christian philosophy worked--was severely cracking. When I had met people offering all kinds of psychological cures for the condition of the human heart, I had argued that some researchers had found that it was not the specifics of the cure that helped people, but that it was the caring, nurturing relationship with a friendly helper that was building hope and helping people.  One day somebody turned that argument on its end. He asked me how I knew that Christianity worked. Perhaps people were helped within Christianity because they were in a nurturing relationship with caring people, not because of the specifics of the Bible. I had been caught by my own argument, and I had no answer. I knew I could not be sure that it was Christianity that made the difference.
I was finding an even bigger problem. I saw skeptics on the forum arguing that the Bible commanded massacres (e.g. 1 Samuel 15), praised terrorism (e.g. Psalm 137), and allowed slavery (e.g. Exodus 21). I knew I had no chance against their arguments. I had known such things were in the Bible ever since I had read the Bible years before, but I had learned to ignore the faults. But it was no longer possible to ignore them. My faith was crumbling.
I began to incorporate new ideas into my mind. I did my best to piece together a progressive philosophy of life that would keep my faith in spite of these problems. I experimented with ways to include evolution, an errant Bible, a higher view of the self, and even humanism into my Christianity.
Meanwhile, I moved on to other interests: country dancing, movies, and romance. Ah yes, romance. I fell in love with a very special lady, who has become my best companion in life. She has supported me through some tough times, and I am very grateful to her. She has a compassion and concern for others that I can only dream about. After 38 years, I had found somebody that I could love with all of my heart. We were soon to be married. (She has not agreed with where my skepticism has finally led me, but she is always my best friend.)
I had drifted away from participation in church. I now made an effort to find my place again. There had been a radical change in my thought process. I was no longer the most conservative thinker on the block. Now, I was the most liberal thinker at church (as far as I could tell). I persuaded myself that I could still fit in--after all it was the liberal element at church that started me on my journey--but I found it increasingly hard to identify with the church program. And I asked questions that surprised everyone.
There is no stopping the mind set free. It is like that first leak of water through the dam. It reaches a critical size, and then bursts free. My thoughts refused to stop--the dam had been broken. I read books that were critical of the Bible. I read the Bible from a whole new viewpoint. I found skeptical sites on the Internet. I asked many questions--many of which can be found at this site. I found it harder and harder to identify myself as a Christian Even the label of "Liberal Christian" was losing its appeal. I could no longer believe the basics of Christianity.
In 2002 I decided that I should no longer identify myself as a Christian. What am I? If you need a label, you could call me an Ex-Christian, a humanist, or a freethinker. In September 2002 I created this web site to explain what had happened to me. I hope that it helps you to understand me.
I have not chosen an easy path. It is not easy to tell people that I no longer believe that this message is true. But I find the evidence overwhelming. If the weight of the evidence were marginal, I would follow the believing crowd and not raise the issue. I do not like to be different. I prefer to follow the crowd. All of my life I have been a follower. I have always wanted to fit in. But there are just too many problems with the Bible. I simply cannot unlearn what I have learned. Knowing what I know, I cannot be a Christian. So I choose the road less traveled.
I am not asking you to follow me. You have a mind of your own. You can decide for yourself. But perhaps you could learn from me.
I now have a different perspective in life. For instance, I no longer see people as evil. If somebody hurts me, I no longer think they necessarily do it because they are evil. Now I think they may well do it because, from their perception of the circumstance and their knowledge of the world, it seems best for them to act that way at that time. It was hard to forgive hateful vermin who did hateful things. It is easy to forgive confused but well-meaning individuals who do hurtful things. This change in perspective works wonders. Instead of concentrating on bridling the tongue, one can concentrate on understanding the person who did hurtful things. Rational questioning changes perspectives, and changed perspectives change lives.
I find that I am far happier without the bonds of religion. It is an amazing thing to set the mind free, free from the need to fit everything into a predefined bias.
I hope that neither you nor I will ever stop questioning.
Two and a half years have passed since I first created this site. I could not have imagined the adventure that this would lead to. I have added further developments to the site, and have engaged in active debate with Christians on the Internet. It has been a deeply satisfying experience. There truly is no joy like setting the mind free.
Click here to read a debate of this story with Jeffrey Wilson.
Notes1. I have since read on the Internet that the pastor, Rev. Terry Smith, was later convicted of shoplifting condoms in 1982. In 1989 he was convicted of sexually seducing a woman that came to him for pastoral counseling. The link is no longer available.
2. This church was one of many modeled after First Baptist Church of Hammond, which was led by the late Dr. Jack Hyles. To learn about the ruined lives that were left in the movement's wake, read these testimonials. Also, Glen Draeger tells a stirring story at his site about life as a fundamentalist baptist entitled How Few Are Shaken.
8. Luborsky, Lester, Barton Singer, Lise Luborsky, "Comparative Studies of Psychotherapies: Is it True that 'Everyone Has Won and All Must Have Prizes'?," Archives of General Psychiatry 32, Aug 1975, p 995
CopyrightÓ Merle Hertzler 2002, 2004. All rights reserved.
Merle Hertzler is a licensed professional engineer and has a lifelong interest in the study of Christianity.