The last several entries in my de-conversion story have found themselves stuck between the years 1988-1992. These were the years of my greatest religious Christian fervor. I was on fire for Jesus as a member of Calvary Chapel of Albuquerque, at the time, billed as the fastest growing church in the United States. I find reliving these years to be distasteful, and I admit that I am growing weary of writing about it. It is so easy for me to write bitterly and angrily about my years at Calvary Chapel, and to continue on and on and on, charging the Church with the countless bogus lies they told me in support of their religion. It is easy to do, and I have spent the last couple of weeks writing page after page of anecdotes. It is too easy for me to become angry as I type, and I am trying my best not to let that anger affect my writing. The whole thing is becoming tiresome. The bad apologetics. The doubts I had after reading the Bible. The street preaching I embarrassed myself with over and over again. My singles Bible study group who regularly visited city parks and lured children with boxes of pizza, but not handing it out until they heard our quick sermons. The never-ending sexual frustration and guilt. The constant cycle of sin-repentance-sin-repentance-sin-repentance and sin again. Trying to convince myself that my prayers were being answered when in fact nothing was really happening. More fears of the unpardonable sin. The constant crying and self-loathing. The desire to be a strong Christian and to live my life for the Lord, being overwhelmed with the uncompromising need to believe impossible and ridiculous claims about the nature of reality. Thanking Jesus for the internal and overwhelming peace that I never really had.
Looking back on those years is like remembering hundreds of little, unrelated fragments of memories, and it is hard to tie them together into any theme. This is a story about my conversions and de-conversions. I wrote about what got me into Calvary Chapel and Fundamentalist Christianity. I wrote a bit about what kept me in it. Now I need to write about what finally chased me out of Calvary Chapel. As much as I dislike revisiting those years in this much detail, I must write at least two more articles about those five crucial years. This article will be a summary of all the disjointed notes and anecdotes that I have written thus far. The next article will describe what finally pushed me out of Calvary Chapel forever.
Since Calvary Chapel dogma relied on a Personal Relationship with an invisible and silent deity as the essence of belief, there was no aesthetic appeal to the senses. Instead of Mary, the Saints, statues, icons, incense, rosaries, rituals and creeds, we had The Bible. Calvary Chapel was not interested in aesthetics, rituals, hymns, or any kind of art that would transcend the worshipper into a state of the numinous Holy. It relied instead on a veneer of rationalism; lectures instead of sermons, Bible studies instead of creedal recitations and apologetics instead of faith. Calvary Chapel taught me to worship the Bible. The Bible was a paper idol. Chuck Missler placed so much emphasis on the text of the Bible that he believed, as he put it, “the Bible is an integrated message system. It is not just that the Bible has a unified message. No, it is more than that. This book is supernaturally engineered. Every number, every place name, every detail is there by the design of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus comes, every word, every letter, even the spaces between the letters, will be explained to us. It is our privilege to discover and unravel all its marvelous secrets”. So we would read the Bible with the intent of searching for the hidden clues, puzzles, codes and symbols that were hidden in the text by the Holy Spirit, as validation of its Supernatural origin.
At Calvary Chapel we worshipped the Bible. Of course, they would never put it that way, but I believe that is exactly what it was. The Bible was viewed as the ‘Owner’s Manual’, the only sufficient source of Supernatural knowledge and wisdom that we would ever need in life. Having trouble in your marriage? Malachi 2:14-16 definitely has God’s message for you, but take a look at Matthew 19:3-9 if you are tempted to divorce. Having trouble keeping trust in God? Meditate on Hosea 4:1-11. Wondering why there is so much evil in the world? Remember the Fall in the Garden, Genesis chapter three. The Wisdom of the World is foolishness next to the Wisdom of the Almighty.
Calvary Chapel emphasized the Bible, in its original text, was an inspired and inerrant record of God’s message for humanity, and if we were to understand God, and his desires for us, we had to read and understand the Bible. I had read portions of the Bible before, especially in my childhood, and I had a good idea of what was in it. Since I figured that the only way God was going to speak to me was through his Word, I figured that I had better start reading. I kept my King James Thompson Chain Reference for deep study, but I picked up a NIV Student Bible and read the Bible through in its entirety.
I was not a critical reader. I read it like a novel. I simply started at page 1 and worked my way through to the end. Every day after work, I lay on the couch with my small NIV Student Bible, and read for several hours at a stretch. Pastor Skip told me that the Bible was consistent in all its teachings. Whether we read from the Old Testament or the New, from Numbers, Chronicles, Psalms, Galatians or the Gospel of John, the Bible’s message about sin, salvation, human suffering, Heaven and Hell were all consistent and uniform. The Bible contained perfect uniformity in teaching, albeit in different dispensations. Chuck Missler told me that the Old Testament was a pre-figuring of the New, and that Jesus Christ could be found on every page of the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus fulfilled hundreds of direct prophecies and thousands of indirect pre-figurings and allusions to the expected Messiah. So as I read, I paid close attention to find Jesus in every detail of the construction of the Tabernacle, the Psalms of worship, and the lives of the Patriarchs.
I was taught that there were absolutely no contradictions in Scripture. If some non-believer were to claim to me that there were contradictions in the Bible, all I would have to do would be to whip out my pocket Bible and ask them to point some out. Since there were no contradictions, they would usually walk away in shame. Admittedly there were, to the discerning reader, apparent contradictions, but Christian scholars had always figured out the correct way of interpreting these puzzles so that the seeming contradictions disappeared. For instance, the different genealogies of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, gave the father (as was supposed) of Jesus as Joseph. But The Gospel of Matthew says that Joseph’s father was Jacob, while the Gospel of Luke says it was some guy named Heli. But I knew that the Bible was without error and with no contradictions, because this was what my Church told me was true. So I read inconsistencies like this through that filter. The Gospel of Luke said that Joseph’s father was Heli, but what it really meant to say was that Mary’s father was Heli. Luke the Evangelist wanted to use the name Mary, so I was told by Pastor Skip, but the culture at the time did not allow for female names in genealogies. Never mind that no other ancient genealogies were cited as evidence that women were systematically ignored, never mind that the genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew contained several women in direct contradiction to the proposed harmonization, an explanation was given to smooth over the inconsistency, and any explanation, no matter how contrived, was good enough for me. I knew that Pastor Skip, Chuck Missler and Chuck Smith were men to be trusted. The only reliable interpreter of Scripture, the Holy Spirit, was indwelt within them. I could trust what they said.
To bolster my faith, I bought a two volume set of books written by Josh McDowell called Evidence that Demands a Verdict. The first volume was stuffed to the brim with evidences for the Christian Faith. I had never heard of any of these evidences, or even of the desire to provide evidence, before I attended Calvary Chapel, and the whole apologetic edifice excited and challenged me. I did not have to rely just in emotional preaching to convince my friends that Jesus was the only Way, I had real sound evidence that I could present. Apologetics also made me feel secure that there were real reasons for believing that Jesus was the only way to Salvation, and that I was not relying on mere blind faith. Apologetics also demonstrated that I did have the unquestionable Truth, and if my friends rejected it after being presented with evidences for the Faith, then I could confidently assert that they rejected Christianity, not because there was no evidence, but because their own sinful and rebellious natures would not allow them to accept the Truth. As Pastor Skip often said, it was not a matter of the mind, but of the will. God ultimately gave us the destiny that we chose, be it Damnation or Salvation.
For many apostates and former Christians, it was the discovery of contradictions in the Bible that lead them to doubt their Christian Faith. I knew of them, and I was aware of them, but for some reason they did not shake my Faith at this time. I always figured that God’s ways were just unknowable and too complex for us puny humans to figure out. I figured it was like the intellect of an ant trying to comprehend the vastly more complex mind of a human. I would expect there to be many things in divinely inspired, God-Breathed scriptures that I would find confusing or even contradictory. If I found something mystifying or contradictory, it just meant it was another mystery of wisdom for me to try and discover. So I would dig deeper into the problem to learn the deeper truths of God. I did not know it at the time, but all this was just an unwitting way of looking for any excuse to justify the problem away. God regulates slavery? Slavery really meant ‘a hired hand’. They were treated justly and fairly. God commanded genocide? But the nations whom the Hebrews slaughtered were pagans, heathens and God haters! They sacrificed their children on the glowing hot arms of Moloch! The Bible describes Earth as a round circle? Just declare from the pulpit that the word ‘Circle’ really means ‘Sphere’, and presto-chango, the Bible agrees with modern science.
I read the Bible a second time, this time in the New King James translation. The four Gospels, I was told, were either written by, or based on the reliable witness of the Apostles. Great emphasis was laid on the historical nature of the Gospels, and the witness of the Apostles was frequently called ‘Eyewitness Testimony’, as if they were reporting on the six-oclock news. The Apostles Matthew and John, who were there with Jesus when he walked the earth, wrote the Gospels that bore their names. Luke admitted that he investigated and interviewed everybody he could find to get a reliable account of what happened. I could picture him interviewing Mary the mother of Jesus, so that he could write his beautiful account of the Nativity. Mark was a young disciple of Peter, and he wrote down the account of Jesus as given to him by Peter the Apostle. I had no trouble believing any of this, and I learned seemingly endless apologetic arguments to defend the testimony of the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life. The Gospels were defended as history because of it. But I also noticed that historicity was also claimed of most of the rest of the Bible. Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible. Everybody knew that. But he was not around to witness events that he wrote about, like the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah’s Flood or the Tower of Babel. How could Moses possibly know about these events, some of which occurred thousands of years before he was alive? Moses wrote, just as David wrote his Psalms, Solomon wrote his proverbs, by Divine inspiration. No apologetic arguments were given for Divine inspiration, yet Old Testament was to be taken as just as reliable as the Gospels. If Divine Inspiration was enough for us to believe claims in the Old Testament, why did we need these constant apologetics to believe the new? Wasn’t Divine Inspiration good enough any more?
This was one of my first clues that apologetic arguments for the Christian Faith were meaningless. There were many things I was required to believe that there was no way to verify with apologetic arguments: the existence of Heaven, Hell, Demons and Guardian Angles. At some point I realized that arguing over and defending many of these theological positions was just a matter of semantics and defining terms. I had read enough Fantasy literature in my youth to understand that the ancient pagans had countless gods and goddesses. Pastor Skip used to laugh at Hinduism with their “billions” of gods, which anybody with any sense knew was ridiculous. Christianity was a religion with only One God, One Deity, albeit in three Persons. I was not yet taught how to think critically, so I could not precisely formulate a proper reason why Christianity’s claim to monotheism seemed so dubious. But I do remember thinking that somewhere proper and consistent definitions for these terms needed to be made in order to defend these positions . For instance, if Christianity had One God, but Greek religion was ridiculed for their pantheon of hundreds of gods, and Hinduism their billions, what exactly was meant by ‘god’? Didn’t Christianity have its own pantheon of demons, devils, arch-angels, seraphim, teraphim and nephelim? The deities in pagan religions were not necessarily all-powerful, they all lived in a spiritual nether world, they sometimes visited the world of mortals to interfere with the affairs of humans. These beings were all called gods. Yet the Christian pantheon of angels and demons shared all these same traits, and they were – not gods?
This kind of inconsistency bothered me, but I began to see more inconsistencies wherever I looked . Much was made of the Trinity being composed of three Divine Persons. These three Persons were each God and the three made up the Triune God. It must be that way because we know that there is only one God. That is a contradiction, and to get around this I noticed that the formula is rephrased, but only slightly. The three Divine Persons make up, not a Triune God, but a Triune Godhead. I guess that sounds better. But nobody could define God or Godhead or Person as terms distinct from one another. Again, I understood and expected that I would never be able to discern the mysteries of the Almighty. But that was not my problem. My problem was that these did not seem like mysteries as much as they seemed like mere wordplay. Words were left undefined, and their definitions changed and shifted depending on how they were needed. Hades, Loki and Bacchus? They were gods. Lucifer and Michael? Not gods. And on that mere assertion, monotheism was defended. It grew increasingly obvious to me, that many of these theological defenses were just arguments over semantics. We were making up words, making up definitions for these words, then defending those as dogma.
There were plenty of apologetic arguments that I did find convincing though, and these helped convince me that I dare not stray from the True Faith. For instance, I found C.S. Lewis’ famous Lord, Liar and Lunatic argument to be very powerful, and Pastor Skip also made great use of it. It was originally aimed at liberal Christians, or as I would have said at the time, liberals who merely called themselves Christians, who denied the supernatural aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry. Do not patronize Jesus by saying that he is a wise man, a great leader, or a revolutionary social reformer. Jesus claimed that he was God. Jesus claimed that he was the Way. The Truth. The Life. Jesus said that He and the Father were one. No man claims these things for himself without being called a madman, or just a blatant liar. So call him mad. Call him a liar. Call him a poached egg if you must, but do not call him a mere teacher. He is either any of these things, or he is Lord. Pastor Skip would often add that we are left to face with and deal with his claims.
There was no getting out of the logic behind this argument. This made too much sense. How my friends and family could hear this argument, either as presented by myself, or from Pastor Skip him self on audio cassette, and ignore it or laugh it off simply astounded me! These people, good people in all other respects, people who I knew to be otherwise perfectly rational and reasonable, were so blinded by their sin and pride, so deceived by Satan, that they dared look at Jesus and purposefully reject all that he did for lost humanity. Such unbelievable temerity! The nerve and audacity that pride instilled into the lost human race! I thanked Jesus every day that he allowed me to see his truth, and that he gave me the discernment to recognize and reject the temptations of this lustful world.
I was concerned about Pastor Skip’s constant harangues against the Theory of Evolution. As I have already written about, I was taught the Theory of Evolution as a youngster, and it has always made sense to me. I could see it in action during my frequent hikes in the desert. None of these Calvary Chapel pastors seemed to understand what the Theory of Evolution really was, and they were constantly misrepresenting it. I understood why they did it, because a literal reading of Genesis directly contradicted Darwin’s theory, but I just figured that was a problem with how we understood Scripture, not a matter of denying science. Calvary Chapel taught me otherwise. Pastor Skip told us that there was no scientific evidence to support the Theory of Evolution, but even if there were, it would be outweighed by the evidence of Scripture. The fact that Genesis declared that God made man in His own image out of the dust of the earth, by default, debunked the Theory of Evolution. Evolution taught that mankind descended from apes and monkeys, and ultimately from primordial ooze. The Theory of Evolution taught that the complexity of mankind formed by itself from a chemical soup, which was less likely to occur than a 747 forming itself from a tornado rolling through a junkyard. Hitler and Stalin, I was told, were confirmed and committed Darwinists, who killed millions in order to fulfill Darwinism’s ultimate conclusion, the Survival of the Fittest.
These misconceptions about the theory of Evolution were just as prevalent in 1990 as they are today. Pastor Skip and his fellow Evangelical pastors were relentless in their bogus misrepresentations of the theory. I had learned about the Theory of Evolution via natural selection at a very young age, through books, television programs, and just my own observations of nature during my frequent desert hikes. I understood that it had nothing to do with me descending from a monkey. I understood that likening Evolution to a tornado in a junkyard was a terrible analogy, despite that analogy being extremely popular. Maybe Pastor Skip was just mistaken. Maybe neither he nor my Calvary Chapel friends understood what the Theory really was. Maybe they were misrepresenting out of their own ignorance. Surely they would not purposely misrepresent. No, they would never willfully lie to us. They were filled with the Holy Spirit after all. But I dared not tell or attempt to educate anybody what the Theory of Evolution really was. It was heresy, and I believed it. My secret heresy, all through my Calvary Chapel years, was that I secretly believed the Theory of Evolution to be true, based on the evidence that I had seen and read about. My burden was trying desperately to reconcile Evolution with the Book of Genesis, which I also believed to be unquestionably true. I never told anybody about my secret heresy.
Calvary Chapel prided itself on being non-denominational, that is, it did not rely on formal creeds and traditions like Lutherans, Methodists or Presbyterians. We occasionally had guest pastors speak from various other Calvary Chapel churches from across the country. I noticed long ago, that for a non-denominational church, which did not rely on creeds or formulas, all the guest pastors were surprisingly similar. They were all young, all handsome and charismatic men, all about the same age, and all spoke exactly the same way and about the same things as Pastor Skip. As I wrote about in previous articles in my story, I have always been good at picking up on patterns and regularities in my surroundings. I could tell, even as a fervent believer, that all these Calvary Chapel pastors were in lockstep with each other. It was as if there was no independent thought among them. They all spoke as a collective. Calvary Chapel, the church started by Chuck Smith in Calvary Chapel, the church that spread across the country during the hippie Jesus Movement in the early 1970s, was by 1990 a brand name. Calvary Chapel is a denomination.
Calvary Chapel, after about 5 years of attendance, was becoming too crowded for me. It was growing at an alarming rate. I already felt old attending the singles services, which were filled with beautiful young women in their late teens. I got uncomfortable and left the singles group when it also began to fill up with balding, middle-aged men. I was no mind reader, but I knew why those older men were there. This in turn made me, a 25 year old, question what I was doing there! Calvary Chapel was bursting at the seams. It was becoming a mega-church, before I had ever heard the term. I began to itch for a smaller congregation.
I wanted to attend Sunday Evening service at a small Assembly of God church near my apartment. I asked several friends of mine if they would go with me, just to visit and check the place out. They all refused. They all told me that it was probably not a very good idea to go shopping for another church congregation because there were so many heretical churches out there. Presbyterians and Methodists were too carnal and worldly. Catholics were no better than pagans and were certainly not Christians. My friends told me that they would feel better just sticking with Calvary Chapel. Their closed minds and lack of curiosity dumbfounded me. I just wanted to visit another Christian church for a single evening, and nobody was willing to leave the safety of Calvary Chapel with me. I discovered that my friends had a very cultist mentality. But they were still my friends, and I could not help but let their opinions influence me. So I stayed at Calvary Chapel.
Small home groups, Bible studies and prayer meetings were very important to Calvary Chapel, and Pastor Skip encouraged everybody to join one. My group of about 20 young people met weekly. We prayed for our lost and deceived friends and family who had not received Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. We took turns reading Bible verses and discussing them. “What does this verse mean to you?” Free ideas and opinions were ostensibly allowed, but in reality, no deviations from received Calvary Chapel dogma were tolerated. Once somebody suggested that we could loose our Salvation if we backslid far enough, and committed the unpardonable sin. The Unpardonable Sin, the Blasphemy of the Holy Ghost that terrorized me as a child was redefined in Calvary Chapel as simply not receiving Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. Although this interpretation of the Blasphemy of the Holy Ghost never made any sense to me, I accepted it, because I knew that meant I never had to worry again about committing it. But one person in our small group questioned that idea. We quickly objected and laughed him off. No deviations from received Calvary Chapel dogma was permitted. Our interpretations of the Bible and Christian Dogma were becoming just as lockstep and uniform as they were with the numerous Calvary Chapel pastors.
I believed that God performed miracles. I believed the Bible when it said that we could perform miracles with just the faith of a mustard seed. I also believed that angels existed, and that they occasionally walked among humans unawares. I always imagined that one of the homeless men that I often witnessed to was actually an angel, present on Earth to test our hospitality and perhaps even protect us from harm. We were told that these creatures existed, both from the Bible and from the pulpit. I had witnessed plenty of healing miracles when visiting traveling tent revival meetings when I was a boy. But I could not honestly say that I saw a true miracle while I was an adult. True, we prayed to God constantly, and expected answers to our prayers. I prayed mostly for the salvation of my friends and family and for the strength and guidance of the Holy Ghost before witnessing to friends. I knew some people in church had real problems with their health, sometimes even cancer, and we often prayed to the Great Physician for them to receive a full recovery. I prayed for divine intervention whenever I occasionally had a terrible head cold. There was another man who attended our small group meetings who suffered from ALS. He was wheelchair bound, needed constant supervision, and always struggled mightily just to speak a simple sentence. I did not notice it at the time, but nobody ever thought to pray for him. Nobody asked the Great Physician to heal the poor sufferer of ALS and petition the Lord for his miraculous recovery.
I doubt I ever truly believed in the miraculous power of prayer, but then again, I am not sure anybody else I knew did either. When we had trouble believing some fabulous tale from the Bible, like the talking ass of Balaam or the floating ax-head of Elisha, Pastor Skip would always remind us that God could do absolutely anything. “That is God you are talking about! GOD!” And of course, I most definitely believed that Jesus Christ had died for my sins. I figured that it took great Faith to perform any miracle, and the further removed one was from Jesus, the less likely that Jesus would honor a request that would require miraculous power. After all, Jesus himself who had infinite Faith could do practically anything he wished. The Apostles, once removed from him, could also perform mighty deeds, like healing via anointed handkerchiefs, their shadows, or even raising the dead. But our modern believers were so far removed from Jesus that empowering Faith was a constant struggle, so miracles were extremely rare. I also figured that most of God’s miraculous power came in the form of changed lives. I was Exhibit A. God had saved me from a life of Sin, misery and hopelessness, to one of purpose, meaning and overflowing joy. Or so I was told.
One evening, in a small prayer meeting that was held after the main service, Pastor Skip lead a group of about 50 of us in prayer. He then asked for testimonies of Faith. He wanted to hear some of the good news of answered prayer that God had blessed us with. A smattering of hands went up. One lady had painful back spasms vanish. Thank you Jesus! One man’s mother had cancer that had suddenly gone into remission. Praise the Lord! One man, whom I will call Mac, told us that he was a veteran of the recent Gulf War. A buddy of Mac’s had his hand blown off by some kind of explosive device. Mac told the Calvary Chapel congregation how he had prayed for his buddy’s hand, out there in the deserts of Iraq, and he saw the hand grow back, right there before his own two eyes! It was a true miracle, an instant regeneration of a severed limb! Mac was emphatic and excited, and he wanted to tell us about some more miracles he had witnessed….
…Pastor Skip interrupted and smiled, “OK, well we are running out of time for the evening…” and immediately stopped taking testimonies from the congregation. There were plenty of hands still up, willing to tell of God’s power in their lives, but after listening to a breathless story about a regenerated limb, Pastor Skip decided to end. I never heard any of my friends speak of that evening, but I never forgot it. I confess, I did not believe Mac’s story, and it was immediately obvious to me that Pastor Skip did not believe him either, and decided to end the proceedings before the testimonies turned into a mockery. That was one of my first realizations that neither I, the congregation, nor Pastor Skip really believed in miracles. I could discern it from my reaction and from Pastor Skip’s. Why was it that we could only believe in the most mundane of miracles, and could not believe in genuine miracles that required a true leap of logic?
Those tiny hairbreadths of doubt were piling on each other. At the time, I did not even consider them doubts. I was just becoming dissatisfied with Calvary Chapel. I longed to serve Jesus, to serve my fellow human. I wanted to be a mighty servant for Jesus, and while I found apologetic arguments fascinating, they also left me cold. I did not want to enroll in Calvary Chapel’s new school of ministry, just learn yet more ways the Tabernacle pre-figured Jesus. I wanted to serve. I wanted the meat of the Word, and I figured if I wanted the Meat, I would have to hit the Street.
The perfect opportunity came in August of 1992. God, in His providence, sent a Category 5 Hurricane to southern Florida. In the wake of that disaster, He had provided my opportunity to serve. I felt that my prayers were finally answered and that my calling had finally come.