When I quit believing, I was beginning to sit down on my couch at home. By the time I pulled my legs up beside me, the terrible and foreign realization came to my mind that I didn’t believe. I don’t know why, but as I began to think about God, Christ, prayer, and all those things that form the normal spiritual backdrop to my thoughts, they had been robbed of their primary fuel—belief. I simply did not believe. There was this sudden realization that it was all false. Covering my life like a dark coroners blanket was a new belief: the belief that my whole life I had fooled myself into believing in something that was not true. I did not believe that God was real.
I remember the first time I realized that my faith was slipping away. The thought popped into my head, out of the blue, "how can a person dying 2000 years ago have any relation to me and my sins today?" I pushed the thought out of my mind and went on about my business (I was working on my swamp cooler on top of my home in Arizona). The thought came back though and I realized that I needed to study the matter of the cross and the atonement more. I decided to file this doubt under "unanswered questions," while I continued teaching in the Bible College where I was employed. Occasionally, though, the thought would come back and it was like part of my brain was telling me that "this doesn't make sense" and "it can't be true." I chalked those thoughts up to the devil, thinking that he was trying to cause me to doubt. As I read various theological works on the subject, the doubts got bigger. I began to realize that this was not a matter of doubting some minor doctrine (such as the mode of baptism or type of eschatology) but it was the central doctrine of the Christian faith. That Christ died for my sins is the heart and soul of the gospel message. If that is not true, then nothing else in Christianity is true.
In Patton's case, his faith returned two days after it left. He explains:
I was on the elliptical machine at the gym. I was hoping that some exercise would help. While sweating away, I was reading a book about faith. The book did not really help, it is just part of my memories because of what was about to happen. After 35 minutes of elevated heart rate, suddenly, in a moment of time, it was like I could access the part of my brain again that was responsible for belief. Like a foot is awakened due to renewed blood flow, I felt the same relief in my brain (odd to say, but it felt like the right side) and in my soul. One minute I did not believe, and the next I did. My faculties returned to me and my faith was completely restored as if it never left.
Patton believes that this was some sort of test from the Lord. He says:
Since my “two days as an atheist” experience, I have had a lot of time to contemplate on what happened. I don’t have all the answers, but I am firm in my conviction that God was teaching me something through experience that I already believed in theory: Human effort is not ultimately responsible for faith, God is. In my ministry, I suppose this is important.
He mentions another evangelical leader who told him in private that he had experienced a loss of faith for 3 months. This leader never shared it with anyone publicly.
Well, my loss of faith has lasted for about 14 years now and I don't expect it to return. I felt the same type of mental anquish and emotional turmoil that Patton described for about a year or so. After becoming settled in my conviction that evangelical Christianity is not true, I have never looked back. I can honestly say that I have not had one doubt about my de-conversion. I have never thought, "well maybe Christianity is true after all." Although de-conversion was a painful experience, I can say today that I am glad it happened and I feel very liberated. At this point, I can agree with the words of Jesus: "You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free" (John 8:32).