At the Judgment Seat
The year that Jimmy Swaggart made his teary confession on cable TV, I hit puberty and decided I was damned. My reasons were both hormonal and theological, but at bottom they congealed in a feeling that I was not adequately enthusiastic about Jesus’ sacrifice for humankind. I never felt the way an evangelical should.
I resolved to up my spiritual game by responding to church altar calls. Nearly every Sunday morning over a couple of months, I heeded the pastor’s call to sinners and walked to the front of the church for prayer. Standing before our Toronto Pentecostal congregation of about sixteen hundred, I was at once terrified for my eternal soul and self-conscious that my skirt might be too short. The experience felt like standing before God’s judgment seat, except that there was stain-repellant carpeting.
Generally I was in the company of a dozen or so adults who were turning their lives over to Jesus, or otherwise ill, indebted, or desperate. Adults with problems.
Stationed around us were the prayer warriors, women and men trained in the arts of demonic warfare and human comfort. My prayer warrior tended to be an older woman of British descent, sinewy and upbeat, with a taste for georgette. She would guide me to a nearby pew and ask, “What do you want prayer for, dear?”
“I think I’m going to hell,” I’d tell her.
Invariably she was puzzled. “Why?” she’d ask. I was already saved and absurdly clean cut, a kid who would voluntarily wear blazers in high school a few years later, when grunge was taking off.
“I just do,” I said, too terrified to utter the reason.
When she finally prayed for me, my prayer warrior always gave a stern rebuke to the devil. “You leave this young lady alone!” It felt good to get angry at the devil.
What I was never able to tell my prayer warrior was that I feared I had committed the unpardonable sin. Surprisingly for a religion that emphasizes redemption for all, Christianity has a little clause tucked into three of the four gospels, which acknowledge that even though Jesus died for everybody’s sins there is in fact one sin that he did not die for. Jesus died on the cross for all sins except this one. As Mark puts it with characteristic pithiness, “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin” (Mark 3:29). Luke agrees (12:10), and so does Matthew (12:31).[i]
The question for me was, what constitutes blaspheming the Holy Spirit? The sin’s definition was painfully vague. Basically if you wronged the Holy Spirit you were out of heaven. And how could you know if you had wronged the Holy Spirit? As a twelve-year old girl I knew how easily feelings could get hurt. Embarrassed during a game of Truth or Dare? Hurt feelings! Excluded from the Muppets-meet-Madonna recess musical? Feelings hurt!
Sometimes crude insults directed at the Holy Spirit popped into mind (“Fuck the Holy Spirit,” for instance), but I chalked them up to demons planting words in my head. Accordingly, I responded with desperate strains of praise to Jesus (“Thank you Jesus thank you Jesus my Savior and Lord You are almighty amen!”).
When I spoke to one sympathetic Sunday school teacher, she assured me that it was highly unlikely I had committed the unpardonable sin. The unpardonable sin, she said, was a cold heart. To be indifferent to the Holy Spirit (and Jesus by association) was the true sign of damnation. As long as I was worried about blaspheming the Holy Spirit, I was safe. In short, my anxiety was a good sign. My anxiety saved me.
With my teacher’s reassurance in mind, I halted the altar-call strategy and instead lost myself in stories of other people’s redemption. After Sunday service I went to the church library to read Jack Chick’s comic-book tracts, story after story of lives turned around: the D&D player who gets deep into the occult before repenting at an altar call; the lonely girl who joins a satanic coven and is forced to drink babies’ blood before giving her life to Jesus; the child-of-divorce teen druggie whose LSD flashback causes a fatal heart attack, but who fortunately accepts Jesus in the hospital before she dies, thanks to a holy grandma. Most of these stories ended with the protagonist at God’s judgment seat, a mountainous throne on which sat a blank-faced deity in spotless, rippling robes. To the damned he uttered terrible words: “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels!” But to the saved He said, “Well done thou good and faithful servant…Enter thou into the joy of the Lord!” One day I hoped to hear those words. After all, I reasoned, my life at twelve was pretty clean. But maybe that was my problem. I led a clean, dull life that lacked the passion of the truly saved.
Indeed, if I wasn’t yet cold, my anxiety imagined a future self that could be. Faced with Christ’s gift of eternal life, this self would respond, Thanks Jesus, it’s nice of you and all, but salvation is not really my thing. I was terrified of this person.
Most contemporary stories of faith lost are narratives of rationality trumping emotion. The Clergy Project—an online resource for pastors who have found atheism—posts testimonies of ex-clergy’s crises of faith. Always the story culminates in reason overpowering an emotion-based faith, as pastors “try to make logical sense of the bible” or discover that “religion ha[s] so many holes in it.” Unsurprisingly, the Clergy Project is funded by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.
But even far less dogmatic atheists tend to tell the same story. One of my favorite literary critics, James Wood, has recounted his turn away from his parents’ evangelicalism via a pair of rational arguments that eroded Christianity’s truth claims. As a teenager, Wood observed that prayers often went unanswered and that suffering persisted in the world; in light of both, he could not commit to an evangelical faith.
More recently, Jerry DeWitt’s 2013 memoir, Hope After Faith, recounts a Pentecostal preacher’s German-criticism-style research into the bible’s history, and the skepticism that ultimately ends his faith. As DeWitt studied the bible, he “noticed very human contradictions and errors.” Interestingly, this passage had the second most popular highlights on my Kindle, as of August 2013. Clearly some readers feel good noting that God needs a fact checker. DeWitt goes on to cite an inconsistency about the number of horse stalls King Solomon owned, four thousand according to Kings 4:26 and forty thousand according to Chronicles 9:25. And he recounts his satisfaction in “confirm[ing]” “a historical fact” with a further book “outside the Bible, like the Catholic Encyclopedia…[to] find out that yes, that’s just the way it happened.” If one book cannot tell us just the way it happened, another one can, it seems. In the age of Wikipedia—with our faith in accessible, straightforward information—it is still possible to discover the fundamental, literal truth of what happened, but this time thanks to more books and reason rather than faith.
The reason-trumping-emotion story is too easy, not true enough to the complex experience of losing (or gaining) faith. For me, losing faith had little to do with rational argument. Until well into my twenties, I had no difficulty believing that Christ died on the cross for my sins—a proposition as basic and unexamined as my belief that the earth is round. The problem was that I felt no massive gratitude at Christ’s sacrifice and gift of eternal life, no matter how hard I tried. I didn’t thrill at the idea of Jesus conquering Satan once and for all in the End Times to inaugurate a new and perfect world. The thought of God creating my best friend down to her pinky toe and mapping out the stars did not stir great awe. The strongest feeling Christianity stoked in me was anxiety. Anxiety that I couldn’t feel in the right ways and was therefore damned.
It turns out that my anxious pubescent self was right. I now look back on my Pentecostal life with bafflement or amusement, depending on the day. Both emotions of a cold heart, my Sunday school teacher would say. I became the person I was terrified of becoming (as, indeed, many of us do).
My reasons were more emotional than rational. Instead of some Tractatus-style set of propositions leading to an inexorable win for atheism, I simply got tired of trying to be moved. Growing up in a religious culture that emphasized individual interiority and authentic feeling, I found the pretense too exhausting to sustain for a lifetime.
If anything, losing faith made possible not an efflorescence of rationality, but instead new kinds of emotion. Where once there was anxiety at uncertainty (am I damned?), now there is the bewildering thrill of living in the face of uncertainty. When once I tried to delight in God’s design, manifest in creatures great and small, now I marvel at the oddity of the neighborhood cat who hunts ants.
As for faith itself, it was not some unfortunate phase I had to pass through towards enlightenment. Rather, it posed some difficult questions I could not ignore. Did I commit the unpardonable sin? in effect raised the question how shall I live?
Now that I’m damned I’ve discovered a new capacity for wonder. I was never able to feel the right kind of awe at the thought of God creating my best friend down to her pinky toe; the scenario felt at once too grandly calculated but also trivial, scripting God as some conscientious plastic surgeon of the cosmos. Now I marvel at having met my best friend in the first place, despite our disparate backgrounds and lives. Wonder has become a riskier, more provisional business, less a preview of eternal magnificence than the fleeting, local emotion of a mayfly striving in early summer before it dies.
We need more kinds of stories of faith lost or reconfigured. Not just stories of reason’s triumph over emotion, but also stories about the kinds of emotions possible before and after faith. In his study of nine ex-believers—from George Eliot to James Baldwin—scholar David Hempton contends that they did not simply repudiate their faith. Instead, Hempton writes, “[s]ometimes it is not entirely clear what they ended up believing and practicing, for one of the benefits of repudiating evangelicalism was not seeing the need to produce a clear statement of faith or to defend a codification of dogmatic principles.” Not to need the clear statement: it sounds weak but also freeing, a recognition that humans can improvise in the face of uncertainty, adapting to new and particular conditions as they arise. In lieu of a new dogma of rationalism (“Behold the fact!”), we find an openness to surprises and—we might say—miracles.
Indeed it is telling that in Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth—a title that advertises wonder—the most wondrous lines come not from Dawkins but from that notorious ex-believer, Charles Darwin. While both Dawkins and Darwin were raised in the church, Dawkins was a settled atheist by his mid-teens, whereas Darwin characterized his own turn from belief as “slow,” and at seventy conceded that “my judgment [about God’s existence] often fluctuates.” It is not the staunch Dawkins but the wavering Darwin who writes prose that stirs wonder, such wonder that Dawkins quotes and analyzes it at length in his own culminating chapter. Darwin famously concluded Origin by asserting the “grandeur” of an evolutionary view of the world, where “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”[vii] Darwin’s words stir wonder not only because they establish what we know, but also because—with that final shift to the present tense—they evoke what we do not yet know. We do not yet know forms now in the process of evolving; we have not yet determined and marshaled their appropriate facts. Darwin’s final lines thus leave us with a mood of curiosity towards what is yet unknown. By contrast, Dawkins is too busy being a clear-headed ringmaster of known (if often surprising) facts to induce deep wonder in his readers. Ultimately the unbeliever who experiences residues of belief can stir valuable emotions that the staunch atheist cannot. Better to have believed and lost than never to have believed at all.
What if we had different kinds of stories of faith lost today, beyond the usual narrative of rationality trumping emotion? What emotions would become possible then? Awe—without the undergirding dogma of the evolutionary biologist or a purpose-driven God. Gratitude—to nobody in particular. An aliveness to a changeable and often uncertain world as it is, at this very moment.
I sometimes imagine meeting God at the judgment seat. After all my years of atheism I will die and find myself surprised by an enthroned, gleaming deity like the one in the Jack Chick tracts.
“Wow, I was wrong,” I’ll say. “Again.”
If I am not mute with terror I will probably talk too much. “But I mean, I shouldn’t be so surprised that I was wrong about the afterlife. I was wrong about a lot of things on earth, too.”
If God asks me why I fell away from the faith, I’ll tell him that I tried but couldn’t fake it, not for a whole life. The stories of Christ’s sacrifice and His final triumph over Satan—they never moved me enough to transform me.
“But life on earth, God, now that moved me.” I will try to remember to thank God for my godless life.
If time permits, I’ll ask about the unpardonable sin.
I don’t know what God will say. Maybe He’ll tell me what it amounts to, and why it’s in the Bible, and even whether I committed it, and if so how. Or maybe he won’t give me an answer. Maybe when He responds—however He does—I will be moved in new ways and believe again.
[i] Luke reiterates: Luke 12:10: And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. The windier Matthew informs us (12:31): “And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”
Michelle Syba received her Ph.D. in English from Harvard, where she taught courses on religion and literature in the college’s writing program. She now teaches at Dawson College in Montréal.