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Friday, June 25, 2010

From Fundamentalist Evangelical to Agnostic Atheist

I was a fundamentalist evangelical Christian for about 20 years. You can read some of my story here and listen to some of it here.

Today I am an agnostic atheist. I am atheist in the sense that I don't believe in any particular deity. I am agnostic in the sense that I don't claim to know or have certainty that no deity of any description exists. Agnostic atheists are atheistic because they do not have belief in the existence of any deity, and agnostic because they do not claim to know that a deity does not exist.

Mark Elliott of the Bible and Interpretation website asked me to write my de-conversion story in 1500 words or less. It was posted on his site yesterday. Below is the post:

From Fundamentalist Evangelical to Agnostic Atheist
by Ken Pulliam

I was "born-again," as the Evangelicals term it, in 1978 at the age of 18. I repented of my sin and trusted Christ and Christ alone for salvation. My life changed dramatically and I enrolled in a Baptist college to study for the ministry. After graduating from Baptist University of America in 1981, I went to one of the most conservative Christian colleges in the nation, Bob Jones University. There I earned an M.A. (1982) and a Ph.D. (1986) in Theology. I wrote my dissertation on "Bernard Ramm's Changing Views of Scripture." At Bob Jones the emphasis was on the ancient languages and exegetical theology. It was presupposed that the Bible was the Word of God and thus inerrant. We studied Biblical criticism and contemporary theologies but only from the standpoint of determining how and why they deviated from the "truth." Protestant scholasticism rather than open-minded scholarship was promoted.

Upon graduation, I took a position as an instructor at International Baptist College in Tempe, Arizona. This was a small Bible college in the same fundamentalist evangelical tradition as Bob Jones. I taught Greek, Systematic Theology, Apologetics and English Bible classes. Sometime during my 8th year of teaching (1994), doubts that had been simmering under the surface came to the forefront. One of my concerns came from my teaching of Apologetics. I was convinced that the presuppositionalist school of apologetics (developed by Cornelius Van Til of Westminster Seminary) was right in its criticisms of the classical and evidentialist schools, which taught that Christianity could be demonstrated through rational proofs and historical evidences. As the presuppositionalists pointed out, historical "facts" have to be interpreted, they do not come with their interpretation built-in. One's presuppositions would determine how one would interpret the evidence. Thus, one would never come to the conclusion that Christianity is true unless one first presupposed the truth of the Bible. To do this, however, was simply begging the question. The real question was whose presuppositions are correct. It seemed to me that the non-supernatural interpretations of the evidences for Christianity were more consistent with our knowledge of the real world. As I began to look at the Bible and evangelical Christianity through the eyes of one not already committed to the truth of the Bible, the faith that I had held for nearly 20 years began to look intellectually indefensible.

In 1994, I remember preaching in a church in El Paso and during the course of my sermon the thought, like a bolt out of the blue, popped into my head: "you don't really believe this." The thought terrified me and almost disrupted my sermon. Later that night I went to my hotel room and prayed for God to help me overcome these doubts. I believed that they were Satanic in origin. I determined to study these issues, which were causing me doubts, until I could eliminate them from my thinking. One of the doubts that was plaguing me was the doctrine of the penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). I wondered how the punishment of an innocent person could be just. It seemed counter to man's moral intuitions and these intuitions I believed came to man as a result of being made in the image of God.

I read every book and article on PSA that I could find. I examined all of the classic works beginning with Anselm and continuing through the Reformers, the Puritans (especially John Owen), the Princeton theologians and contemporary defenders of PSA. I found that essentially there was no answer. While various attempts to justify the doctrine were put forward, most admitted that at the end of the day, it was a mystery. For example, A. A. Hodge wrote:
we confess that the divine administration, both as to the coming in of the curse through Adam, and as to the redemption from the curse through Christ, rests upon principles higher and grander than those embraced in the ordinary rules of human law. . . . But while the complete satisfaction which absolute justice finds in the vicarious sufferings of a substituted victim may transcend reason, it by no means conflicts with it. (1)

J. I . Packer argued that Reformed theologians have made a mistake in trying to explain or justify PSA using reason. He says that in an attempt to answer the objections of Socinians and other rationalists, they unwittingly gave up "home field advantage" and played on the Socinians' home turf of rationalism. He wrote:
The almost mesmeric effect of Socinus’ critique on Reformed scholastics in particular was on the whole unhappy. It forced them to develop rational strength in stating and connecting up the various parts of their position, which was good, but it also led them to fight back on the challenger’s own ground. . . . They made the word of the cross sound more like a conundrum than a confession of faith — more like a puzzle, we might say, than a gospel. What was happening? Just this: that in trying to beat Socinian rationalism at its own game, Reformed theologians were conceding the Socinian assumption that every aspect of God’s work of reconciliation will be exhaustively explicable in terms of a natural theology of divine government, drawn from the world of contemporary legal and political thought. Thus, in their zeal to show themselves rational, they became rationalistic. (2)

Packer says that at the end of the day, PSA is a mystery and all attempts to understand it or defend it rationally will fail.

If we bear in mind that all the knowledge we can have of the atonement is of a mystery about which we can only think and speak by means of models, and which remain a mystery when all is said and done, it will keep us from rationalistic pitfalls and thus help our progress considerably(3).

While I could accept the notion that PSA transcends reason, I could not accept the fact that it contradicts reason and our sense of justice. If it is self-evident that it is unjust to punish an innocent man, then how could the righteous and holy Judge of the Universe accept that punishment as the means by which his wrath against sin is propitiated? Could man's redemption be based on an unjust act? I could not resolve this problem. I realize that there are other theories of the atonement besides PSA but all of them base man's salvation on the death of an innocent man. I also firmly believe that the best and most competent exegesis of the biblical text yields the PSA. This is clearly demonstrated, I think, in the work of Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross.(4)

So, after struggling with this issue and others, my faith slowly evaporated. Sometime around the fall of 1996, I admitted to myself that I no longer believed. This was not an easy thing to do. It is very traumatic psychologically and emotionally to admit to one's self that one has devoted his life to an error. To acknowledge self-delusion is difficult. In addition, I had the practical concern of how to support my wife and family since all of my education and training were geared towards being an evangelical Christian minister. I had no marketable skills for the real world. It was, therefore, tempting to keep silent and continue on in my role but I could not do that. I could not live with myself knowing that I was living a lie and pretending to believe something that I honestly no longer did. I was in a real dilemma.(5) Fortunately in my case, I was approached by someone who wanted me to help him start a business. This person, although a family member, had no idea of the intellectual turmoil that I was experiencing. We started the business in January of 1997 and it was successful. I had a new career and I felt relieved. For the first time in a long time, I was able to sleep at night. In the nearly 14 years that has transpired since my loss of faith, I have had no regrets. Sometimes people will ask me if I have doubts today that maybe I made the wrong decision and I can honestly say that I don't. My life is good and I have found meaning and purpose apart from my former faith.


1. The Atonement (Nabu Press, 2010), p. 200.

2. "What Did the Cross Achieve: The Logic of Penal Substitution," Tyndale Biblical Theology Lecture, Delivered at Tyndale House, Cambridge, on July 17th, 1973, published by Tyndale House, 1974. Available on-line .

3. Ibid.

4. Tyndale Press, 1965.

5. I can definitely sympathize with those men in Daniel Dennett's study of unbelieving Pastors. See "Preachers who are not Believers," Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola, Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University, March 15, 2010, available on line .


  1. Ken, I wonder what or who influenced you to become a born-again Christian at the age of 18?

    Also you do not have to call yourself an agnostic atheist -a simple atheist will do, as atheists do not necessarily believe they can absolutely prove there are no types of dieties- they only believe them to be very, very,very unlikely. I am using the word "believe" in the non-Christian sense. Atheist means a-theist -a lack of theism, not necessarily a-deist.

    1. Clare, I believe it is a rather foolish thing to presume that an individual possessing a Ph.D. in Theology to be mistaken in his application of terminology as he sees fit to describe himself.

  2. I really appreciate your blog and all the insights you give us. What do you know about this website that asked you to write this? I looked at some of their essays and wasn't quite sure what their beliefs are.

  3. Clare: I like to think of myself as a functional atheist - based on the available evidence, I live my life as if there are no gods. If asked, though, I stick to plain old atheist, it is less pretentious. Closer to the truth would probably be former christian since my upbringing and culture have embedded in me certain underlying subtle Christian prejudices.

  4. Clare,

    I was born in the middle of the Bible belt. My parents brought me up in the Baptist church and although I believed in God from as far back as I can remember, I did not receive Christ as my "personal savior" until I was 18.

    Yes, I could just call myself an atheist and sometimes do but perhaps because of my academic background, I like to be specific. I am not a "strong atheist" who says definitely that there are no god(s) of any kind. In my opinion, that is saying more than what one can legitimately say. There may be a god or divine force or something that is beyond our human comprehension. What I am definite about is that I don't believe in any of the god(s) that are postulated by the various religions.

  5. Cerbaz,

    I am not positive but I think its a site for critical, secular, understanding of the Bible. There are articles on archaelogy an other historical matters. I know they have published articles by Hector Avalos who is an atheist.

  6. Ken, you stated " There may be a god or divine force or something that is beyond our human comprehension"
    If that is the case, this god would be totally irrelevant to us. I think that is what is sometimes referred to as the "absentee landlord" view of a god. Maybe he created the universe and then disappeared for 14 billion years. (I do not believe that myself, as we are very close to complete understanding of the origins of the universe- forget string theory.)

  7. Clare,

    Yes, I doubt very seriously that there is any divine force or deity in the universe but if there is, he/she/it is drastically different than the one the major religions portray.

  8. Ken--

    I have not read as extensively on PSA as you have, but I do accept it as Biblically and morally valid. Is it unjust for an innocent man to willingly accept the punishment for the ones he loves? For example, in our civil law, an innocent person may pay the fine for a crime committed by another.
    -- Ed Clark

  9. Ed,

    Paying a fine is not the same as suffering incarceration or execution for a crime. This is something that would never be allowed. Take a look at the following posts.

    It is Unjust to Punish an Innocent Person ( Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart FivePart SixPart SevenPart EightPart Nine, and Part Ten)

  10. Ken-

    I have now read the ten parts of your thesis, and will not revisit the old arguments which have already been stated by various persons.

    I am curious, however, as to whether you believe the story of Job is plausible? In other words, do you accept the possibility that the apparent contradictions could yet be resolved by further revelation, and that the Divine Being could in fact reveal these to you at some point in the future?

    -- Ed Clark

  11. Ken,
    Thanks for sharing your story. I admit I have certain moments where I wonder if I believe the doctrines that I've held to and (now) have been preaching. I suppose what helps me is the realization that my faith is not my own, but is a gift of God, and that I am given the time and patience of God to be a doubter even as one who has been awakened to faith.
    Concerning the content of faith itself, I think your atheism is a result of your fundamentalist heritage, which should be rejected. If you have a chance, I would read Christopher Morse's book: "Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Christian Disbelief." It provides a kind of Christian atheistic outlook, by positing what Christians should NOT believe about God. Some of the things you mentioned are targets by Morse, but he provides alternatives that are far more compelling and biblical. And regarding PSA, I think substitutionary atonement ultimately has its power only when viewed from a Trinitarian standpoint. That is - Jesus was not just an innocent man, but the innocent Judge himself. God's act of reconciliation is a mystery because there's no "reason" why the Judge should judge Himself in our place. According to natural theories of justice, this is a scandal. According to the Gospel, it is the supreme act of love, which defines what true love is. Without the Trinity up and running (and thus, the confession that Jesus was fully God as well as fully human), it amounts to divine child-abuse. The only way this can make sense by confessing it as a fundamental fact of reality by faith. If you want to read more about this, I highly suggest Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics IV/1, especially the section called "The Judge Judged in Our Place."

    Sincerely yours,
    Chris TerryNelson

  12. "Is it unjust for an innocent man to willingly accept the punishment for the ones he loves? For example, in our civil law, an innocent person may pay the fine for a crime committed by another."

    Terrible analogy. In your belief, god is the omnipotent rule giver. The point is that HE CREATED THE RULES BY WHICH HE/HIS SON HAD TO PLAY.

    The question is why? Why a sacrifice? Why not just forgive?

  13. Magx--

    First, God did not "create" the rules. The moral law of God is the expression of God's inherent nature, which cannot change or bend.

    Second, God does not owe forgiveness to anyone, and if He did provide unconditional forgiveness, it would be taken for granted and would produce no repentance on the part of the sinner. To the extent that the pentalty for sin is severe is the extent of the value of the gift of forgiveness.

    Third, if you should ask why not just forgive those who truly repent, the answer is that without the sacrifice, there is no assurance to the repentant sinner that forgiveness has been granted. The cross of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, and the explanation of it given beforehand in Isaiah 53, give us the assurance that forgiveness can be received without minimizing the severity of sin's penalty.

    -- Ed Clark

  14. Hi Ken,

    What filters through in your article is that you are of the opinion that Christians have presupposed the truth of their religion and the bible, therefore lacking objectivity. Your turning point came when you began to look at things through the eyes of one not already committed to the truth of the bible.

    In life things are not always one way traffic though, surely the other way round happens too! Many people are born in non religious homes and grow up being exposed to the philosophies of secular society that young impressionable minds easily accept as truth. Things like, we descent from monkeys and this life is all there is. And how many would really investigate to what extend the presupposition of someone unknown to them might have preinterpreted their worldview? In many cases peoples thinking is subject to these ideas, so aren’t they presupposed or rather predisposed to follow a way of life in which there is no place for the possibility of God speaking to them in this world?

    Suppose they started to have doubts and like you began to look at their world through the eyes of one not already committed to the truth they had always believed. What then if the kind of thinking they had entertained began to look intellectually indefensible? That’s what happened to me. I wasn’t brought up in a religious home, but at some point in my life I became increasingly dissatisfied with just plodding along like it didn’t matter why we were here. You could say that I was puzzled by the world in general, it didn’t make sense to me.

    Much later, I heard about Jesus and intellectually everything fell into place for me. I understood that this world is not like him and that’s why he came. We have had so many thousands of years of civilization and we still can’t get it together, look around you! What this world needs is a cross through it ( kind of crossing it out ) and then start allover again through being resurrected, not the presupposed way, but the predestined way!

    Kind regards,

  15. This was a very well written article. I, too, am a Christian. I was saved in April of 2002 and baptized in August of 2004. And up until very recently, I believed everything my pastor preached and never doubted anything. However, while I wouldn't trade my Christian faith in for anything, I, too, am now having doubts. For an example, I no longer believe in the 1000-year Milenium, because I just can't see where the heck it would fit after the Rapture and the 7-year Tribulation. If only Christians get Raptured, and the Battle of Armageddon is supposed to destroy all evil as we know it, then why release the Devil for a short time towards the end of this so-called 1000-year Milenium? Why not destroy Satan and his demons at Armageddon, too? Also, as you mentioned in your article, this thing about punishing an innocent person whose only crime was unbelief, while a person who has done evil things can repent and go to Heaven. I don't understand that, either. It seems to leave the impression that God is a wrathful, unforgiving Being who takes pleasure in punishing you just for being imperfect and for having a lack of understanding of Him as well as the Christian faith. I don't know! I love God, and I always will. Absolutely nothing will change that. I just wish Christianity was a lot simpler than it really is, and that it allowed all decent, law-abiding, perfectly human people, whether they are saved or not, to go to Heaven. And Hell should be reserved only for those who are truly evil and unrepentant. Know what I mean?

  16. Joey,

    Ken is - most unfortunately - not around to answer you, though I'm sure that if he were he would be very glad to hear from you.

    I don't have any particular help or advice to offer you, but you're far from the only one who hears certain sorts of preaching and thinks, Wait a minute, that's not how I was taught that God's supposed to be...

    I don't find the entire "future history", including the entire concept of the Rapture, to be particularly Biblical. But I'm not a Christian, so by all means take that with a large grain of salt. And, um, that's really all I have to say, except to wish you well.

  17. Sorry, Ken, but I find your "agnostic atheism" a contradiction in terms. Language. in this instance, matters. Agnostics, as you yourself have said, believe the existence of god is "unknowable," and, therefore, allow for the possibility of god's existence. Atheists flat-out do not. Nowhere do the two overlap as you suggest.

  18. Ken, I really appreciate this post. I too am a recovering fundamentalist. My story is a little different. I converted later in life at the age of 30. My reasons for my "falling away" as Christians would put it, were not rational, but entirely irrational. This personal God that Christians claimed to know so well was entirely absent from my life, the Councilor and Comforter that John speaks of offered no Council nor Comfort, Seek and ye Shall find was entirely untrue. It only took three long years for me to realize that my prayers were going into an empty void, and instead of providing solace and respite, only provided frustration. Check out my story in more detail if you wish.