I began my spiritual life in a fundamentalist environment and embraced it whole-heartedly. However, over time I questioned one "truth" after another, until I would be labeled by most people now as somewhat liberal in my theology. How did this happen?
My spiritual awakening occurred in a Free Will Baptist church when I was seven years old. I had been attending church for awhile and enjoying it, but one Sunday night when the preacher gave the altar call I was gripped with a sudden sense of need. It was personal. I said to my grandmother, "I think I should go up there."
"Then go," she said.
I did, and from that moment religion and truth were the most important things in my life.
My journey is marked by doctrinal milestones. Over a period of more than 40 years, I have contemplated and struggled with a variety of issues. Here are ten major milestones along my spiritual journey. These stories focus on my struggles with truth and specific beliefs. Elaboration of issues and details supporting my changed views are beyond the scope of this brief description, although I hope to deal with each at length some day. Two longer articles already available are Dispensationalism and Satan.
Creation and Fall
Does God Exist?
Who Is Jesus?
1. Legalism – Is our legalistic code of behavior biblically valid?
Fundamentalists of my day were very legalistic. There were many rules that set us apart from other people. The one that impacted me most as a child was mixed swimming (males and females together.) In both sixth and seventh grades, my public school teachers took us to Sanlando Springs on the last day of school. I attended both, but the first year, while the rest of my classmates were swimming together, I spent my time walking along the forest trails, fully clothed, with my fundamentalist friend, Jerry Creel. The second year I was alone.
When I was in my late teens and began to "do theology" for myself (that is: to evaluate my beliefs), legalism was a big issue. My question was whether my rules were in line with my authority, which was the Bible. I did not think in terms of legalism generally, but rather of specific applications, but after working through a few of them, I concluded that Christian living is not a matter of keeping “holy” rules, but treating people right.
My first practical issue was attending movies. I recall seeing several movies when I was a young child: Tom Thumb (1958), Ben Hur (59), Legend of Tom Dooley (59), A Hole in the Head (59), which included the song High Hopes about rubber tree plants, North to Alaska (60), and a Ghost Riders in the Sky type movie for which I cannot find a title. But once we became involved in the church we quit going to movies. It was not even an option. At 17, I worked through the arguments and supporting biblical principles that were applied, and after considerable struggle concluded that the prohibition against movies was not biblically valid. Christians were free to attend movies.
This was not rebellion. It was theology. In fact, I had no great need for movies, but one day after work when I was almost 18, I stopped by a movie theater on my way home. I saw a delightful movie called My Side of the Mountain (69). Funny thing about tradition: Even though I was 100% convinced that there was nothing wrong with watching the film, my conscience still tried to yell, "Guilty!" I felt as though I were sitting in a den of iniquity. Sometimes you have to tell your conscience what to do.
Over time, I abandoned legalistic rules about hair, women wearing pants, mixed swimming, Sunday Sabbatarianism, tithing, alcohol, and others.
2. King James Version – Is the KJV the exclusive word of God?
To us the Bible meant the King James Bible. What do you think of Bible-burners? Well, we were Bible-burners. Occasionally, a Bible of another translation came into our hands. It went straight to the trash pile to be burned. We were impelled by Revelation 22:18, 19, "If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life." We did not want the plagues, and we did not want to be excluded from the book of life, so we stuck firmly with the King James Version of the Bible.
A positive impact of the KJV on me was preparation for Shakespeare. In school, I never had any trouble with Shakespeare. When footnotes to the text explained a word or thought, usually they seemed to me to state the obvious.
By the time I was in Bible College, I knew that the Revelation passage had nothing to do with English translations of the Bible, but by then arguments for the KJV were more sophisticated. The King James New Testament is based on a group of Greek manuscripts representing the Byzantine text family. It is sometimes called the Received Text or the Majority Text (because there are more Greek manuscripts in this family than any other.)
It was a fierce struggle. On the one hand, I wished for a translation that was easier to understand, because I worked with children and was also doing a lot of evangelism. Children and new Bible readers find the KJV very difficult. On the other hand were warnings against false Bibles based on manuscripts other than the Majority Text. Which Bibles were those? All of them. Turns out that only the KJV and Luther's German edition were acceptable, and a German Bible did not help me much.
Truth was more important to me than convenience. If the KJV was the exclusive word of God, then I would continue to use it. Most scholars, however, supported a Greek text other than the Majority Text, but KJV advocates warned me to not be deceived. The alternate text had been tampered with by those villains Westcott and Hort, whose agenda was the destruction of the God's word! I approached my college Greek professor, French Arrington. When Dr. Arrington preached, he used no English translation. He preached directly from the Greek and translated as he went. But his was not the Majority Text. He took my question seriously and shared his opinion that arguments against the Greek text used in other translations were unwarranted.
Dr. Arrington's opinion was helpful, but not sufficient to settle the problem for me. I had to be right on such an important issue. I read books on Greek manuscripts and the translation of the KJV and other versions. Before finishing my first year of Greek, I had my answer. The arguments against other translations did not hold up. I abandoned my familiar KJV, because it was so difficult to share with others, and searched for a replacement. For awhile, I used the Living Bible, then the Good News translation, but when the NIV became available I was ecstatic, and the NIV became my translation of choice.
My conclusion was that the KJV (or Majority Text) is not exclusively the word of God, and is in fact inferior to some other English Bibles (and Greek texts.) At first, I deprecated the KJV, but that moderated. Practical differences among the various Greek texts are small, and any current English translation of the Bible is a more or less accurate reflection of the original.
3. Dispensationalism – Is the dispensational worldview biblical?
Most fundamentalists are also dispensationalists. The dispensationalist worldview is so integral to everything they believe that many cannot grasp that there is any other valid view. There was a discussion at my Bible College led by two professors. One supported the standard dispensational view, and the other proposed a mid-tribulation view. There was heated discussion leading up to the question from one frustrated theology student, "Is Dr. Bullock a heretic?" The group could not conceive of toleration of this small variation. Dispensationalism was a matter of absolute orthodoxy to them.
What is dispensationalism, you ask?
My apologies! Dispensationalism is a view associated primarily with prophecy by most people, but it is actually a system of interpretation that involves all aspects of theology. The most well-known feature of dispensationalism is belief in a secret rapture, where all Christians who are ready for Christ's coming suddenly disappear! This is followed by seven years of tribulation for those left behind. The Antichrist is a major player in this scenario. See a fuller explanation at Dispensationalism. Dispensationalist often consider their view to be the only valid interpretation, even though most Christians do not hold this view and though it was unknown prior to the mid-nineteenth century.
I embraced dispensationalism, but came to have two big misgivings. First, I could not reconcile the view, that God's plan was for Israel to rebuild the temple and re-institute sacrifices, with my clear understanding that the work of Jesus brought the system of sacrifices to an end. Secondly, as a dispensationalist, I was called upon to support the nation of Israel unequivocally, while I was concerned about the way Israel oppressed the Palestinian people.
Though I was an avid Bible student, I had never actually studied prophecy. In fact, I was reluctant to undertake such a difficult study, but I knew I had to, so in 1982 I began. Over the next four years, I immersed myself in the topic, and took relevant seminary courses, since by this time I had graduated Bible College. I determined that the two pillars upon which all dispensational theology rests are BOTH invalid. The first principle is interpreting the Bible in a literal way even when the context calls for a symbolic or metaphorical understanding. The second is the concept that God has two plans for the world--one for Israel and a secondary one for the Christian Church. I explain this more fully in Dispensationalism.
At the end, I was convinced that not only is the dispensational worldview not biblical, but it is a serious theological error. Results of my change of belief were loss of anxiety regarding the mark of the beast, the secret rapture, and the antichrist; and withdrawal of support for Israeli oppression of Palestinians.
4. Satan - What do we know about Satan’s origins?
Sometimes the thing that calls a belief into question is simply studying the Bible. My study of prophecy included an investigation of the Book of Revelation, during which I realized that the passage in chapter 12, which I thought reflected the fall of Satan, was about something else entirely. It tells the story of a dragon that swept a third of the stars from the sky. I was taught that these were the angels that fell with Satan. Instead it is an apocalyptic story about forces that tried to thwart Jesus' mission and later opposed the church. So this passage tells us nothing about the fall of Satan.
A few years later, I undertook a study of the Old Testament prophets and encountered a similar situation. Two passages, one from Isaiah 14 and the other from Ezekiel 28, appear on the surface, and out of context, to describe the origins and fall of Satan. But read in context, each passage obviously refers to something else. Neither is about Satan. See a more detailed review in the longer article What Do We Know of Satan's Origins?
These three passages together seem to give a lot of detail about Satan, and I am not the only one to have thought so. This is the popular understanding and is supported by some scholars. But to bend these passages to that interpretation requires ignoring the plain meaning of each one. Without these three passages, there is no support whatsoever for the detailed scenario most of us understand about the rebellion and fall of Satan. No archangel Lucifer; no Satanic competition with God for power; no war between loyal angels and rebellions ones; no Satan cast out of Heaven.
With this discovery, I searched the Bible for other information about Satan and demons, and there is almost nothing of substance there. We know very little about them, and it is possible they do not exist at all. As a result, I lost my fear of the devil, developed an increased awareness of human accountability, and lost interest in ‘spiritual warfare.’
5. Hell – Is our understanding of Hell biblical?
To most fundamentalists, Hell is simple fact. It is the final destination of Satan and his demons and of all those humans who do not accept Jesus as savior. The horribleness of Hell is reflected in the common pulpit declaration, "Hell is hot, and eternity is a long time."
I do not want anyone to burn forever. Who does? For God to have ordered this to be so, he must have a perspective beyond my comprehension. The two things I most firmly believe about God are his justice and his righteousness. Some theologians and preachers tell us that righteousness is the key to understanding Hell. The argument is that God takes sin and rebellion seriously, so that eternal damnation is a necessary punishment to meet the offense. His grace extends to exempt those who accept Jesus as savior, but that option expires upon death. Punishment applies to everyone, even if they have never heard of Jesus, because we all participated in Adam's sin and therefore are born guilty. Most people who have ever lived will exist eternally in a burning Hell.
This made me sad and uncomfortable, but I believed it because I believed the Bible to be God's word. But is this what the Bible says? Early on, I realized that the English word, Hell, translated various biblical words, like sheol, hades, gehenna, and tartaros, that conveyed different ideas. In the Old Testament, the concept of afterlife was a vague, dim, shadowy existence in death. Hell often meant no more than death or the grave.
The idea of a place of punishment is not an Old Testament idea. This idea developed in Jewish apocalyptic literature about two hundred years before Jesus was born, and probably was influenced by Persian ideas encountered by the Jews during the captivity. By Jesus' time these ideas were part of Jewish religious thought.
Detail regarding eternal torment is found in Jesus' story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16. There is disagreement, however, even among very conservative scholars, whether this is an historical event or simply a story. Indications are that it is a story to make a point.
Jesus used many such techniques to deliver his message. Often, especially in Matthew, he referred to Gehenna, a valley in Jerusalem once used for child sacrifice. It was a place of evil association and had become a trash dump that was almost constantly afire. Most English Bibles translate Gehenna as Hell. Jesus used the familiar image of Gehenna to describe the state of separation from God. Was his use metaphorical, or did he intend to state doctrinal facts about eternal punishment? I think metaphorical use is consistent with Jesus' method of teaching.
My survey of Hell in the Bible reinforced another development. As much as I tried, I could not imagine God as a torturer or as tolerant of torture. God cannot be so different from us that he can condone eternal torture, while we are universally horrified by it. Torture is associated with inhumanity, not the highest in humanity. I cannot conceive of an even higher perspective where torture becomes appropriate.
My conclusion is that Hell is a metaphor. If a place exists in eternity for the ‘unsaved’, it is not a place of fires of punishment, but a provision of God’s mercy to allow the recalcitrant a place. More likely, the recalcitrant will be extinguished. With this conclusion came a release of tension caused by conflict regarding the character of God.
6. Salvation – What is the nature of salvation and of mission?
One author wrote that fundamentalism is the combination of dispensationalism with Princeton theology. This is true, but I believe there are other essential elements. Keswick holiness is a third movement that stamped the character of fundamentalism. German pietism is another, specifically through its contribution of the crisis conversion model.
The crisis conversion model was apparent in the various national awakenings and revivals that formed part of the fundamentalist religious heritage. Among fundamentalists, at least those to whom I was exposed, it was important to know the moment (or occasion) of one's salvation. Otherwise perhaps one was not saved at all.
This concept was clear to me. I was "saved" when I went down to the altar at seven years old and "prayed through." This idea of conversion was promoted through personal evangelism techniques. I got involved in personal evangelism when an old Free Will Baptist minister visited my Dad's church and preached on missions. I told him that I was going to be a missionary. "That is good!' he replied, "How many have you led to the Lord so far." "None," I said.
He shared with me a simple salvation formula, but I soon graduated to a more elaborate formula, called the Roman Road, that I picked up from prominent fundamentalist, John R. Rice. I used this method very successfully to win a number of individuals to the Lord. During Bible College, I was exposed to the Evangelism Explosion technique of James Kennedy and had considerable success with it.
The underlying principles of all these methods is dotted-line salvation, and the separation of all people into black and white categories of "saved" and "unsaved" or "lost." Even children raised in our churches were expected to have a conversion experience at some point. Early in my witnessing, I encountered an older Methodist couple who did not know when they were saved. They had faith in Jesus from their earliest childhood memories. This gave me something to consider.
Because of the importance of evangelism in my life, I deliberated other practical questions. What is the fate of those who never heard of Jesus? The teaching was that they are lost, but not as badly as those who hear of Jesus and do not accept him. What about the heathen who do not fully understand the gospel because of its delivery or because it is mixed with cultural baggage? Or what of those who think they are Christian, but hold false doctrines? What about Christians who continue in sinfulness?
The teaching was that the road to Heaven is narrow and the road to destruction broad, meaning that most of humanity will be lost. But I came to believe that God is not capricious. He does not require from us some specific code of beliefs and actions, and then hide the code so well that only a few can figure it out or be lucky enough to stumble upon the secret. I came to believe that God is expansive with his mercy, and that fundamentalists (and evangelicals) will be surprised at whom they find in heaven--the many who failed their black and white categories.
7. Genesis – Is Genesis chapters 1-11 meant to be understood historically?
Conceptually, I have always been comfortable with the creation account, the fall of Adam, and the Flood. It is plausible. It does not seem strange or silly. If God revealed details of these earliest times, I can believe them. I did so from elementary school until well into my forties. However, there came a time when I felt a need to investigate the historicity of first eleven chapters of Genesis.
I had read creationist literature since high school, partly because I intended to write a creationist biblical novel. I saturated myself in creationist material until the material itself gave me pause. Much creationist writing claims to be solid science as opposed to evolution, which is faith-based.
This is a comforting claim, but the integrity of the creation-science became suspect in my mind as the literature continued to focus on the unnecessary and untenable issue of the young earth. This is the claim that the earth is only a few thousand years old, which flies against an array of sciences that have nothing to do directly with faith in evolution. These creationists insist that man and dinosaurs lived together until the flood, fewer than 5,000 years ago. Bones and rock dating to millions of years are due to faulty dating techniques and scientific guesses.
Insistence on this unimportant point, and the poor supporting argument, caused me to entertain doubts about their entire scientific case.
A second question grew in my mind. Geographic and racial variances in human physical characteristics are quite significant. From art and written descriptions, we can see that those characteristics have not changed in more than two thousand years. It seems unlikely that humanity spread over the earth and developed these characteristics in the 2500 years between the birth of Noah's sons and the birth of Christ, while there has been no such development in the 2000 years since then.
The basis of my beliefs was the Bible-not science, so in late 1993 I began a study of Genesis, using both creationist and non-creationist resources, in order to see what Genesis 1-11 really had to say. My conclusion was that Genesis 1-11 is not history, but a series of theological reflections from a Yawist perspective against a background of Babylonian polytheism. However, this Yahwist perspective is an important development leading away from idolatry and toward an understanding of the one God who cares about humanity.
I discarded the doctrines of original sin and the fall of man, because they are based on the historicity of Adam. But, even though I was open to alternatives to fiat creation, I did not resolve the creation question. That these creation stories are not historical does not mean that fiat creation is disproved. Nor does it mean that evolution wins by default. I do not profess to know how we arrived here, but it was likely something similar to evolution.
8. Inerrancy – What is the nature of scripture?
Soon after I began to abandon legalism, I probably ceased being a fundamentalist, because a big part of fundamentalism is an attitude of denunciation of, and non-cooperation with, other Christians, and I began to lose that attitude. I was more properly an evangelical. Evangelicals can be thought of as fundamentalists without the attitude.
Theologically, evangelicals come in a wide range of flavors, but the commitment that most consistently represents evangelicals is inerrancy--the belief that the original manuscripts that make up the Bible are God's word without error. What inerrancy means varies among evangelicals. The most comprehensive inerrantists believe that every word of the Bible is inspired by God and that there are no discrepancies. Even minor comments on history or science are 100% inspired by God, and therefore true.
To this point, all my conclusions are consistent with the evangelical view. The final basis of my conclusions is the Bible as the inerrant authority. However, I parted with the strictest inerrantist in several ways. Due to my studies in prophecy, I respected literary devices for what they were. Metaphor is metaphor, apocalyptic is apocalyptic, and parables are parables.
In addition, I had come to understand wisdom literature better. For example, The Book of Proverbs is not a collection of "Promises of the Bible," but common sense wisdom. In my use and study of the Bible, I gravitated to biblical theology over systematic theology, and I abandoned proof-texting in favor of contextual study.
An interesting development of the doctrine of inerrancy is the emphasis in commentaries on resolving apparent scriptural discrepancies. The apparent discrepancies can be between a scripture and science, between scripture and history, or between two scriptural passages. A number of entire books were produced to address and resolve these discrepancies. Many considered a proven discrepancy to be faith-shattering, but such would not have shaken me unless it involved something like the resurrection.
My conclusions on Genesis were not necessarily at odds with a broad inerrantist view, if genre is considered. But they are a problem for Paul in the New Testament, who accepted the fall of Adam as historical and constructed his view of original sin upon it. For Paul's doctrine to be based on a grave error of interpretation is irreconcilable to an inerrantist view, and the implications are tremendous.
In the 1970s, some evangelicals suggested a broader view of biblical authority than strict inerrancy and created a crisis within the movement. Evangelicals wrote on both sides, but mostly in defense of inerrancy. In the minds of many, Christianity was at stake. I was involved in other issues at the time and did not follow the discussion closely. In fact, I assumed the inerrant position to be correct, and it was not until after my Genesis study that I tuned in. I began reading in late 1994 and found the more persuasive argument to be against inerrancy.
I found a new appreciation for the human element in writing the Bible. I now saw the Bible as a wonderful, progressive collection of human insights about God based on various degrees of inspiration, culminating in the clearest understanding of God in the person of Jesus. Perhaps the more important practical results were my reduced emphasis on creedalism, and an even greater interest in biblical theology over systematic theology.
There was one other result. My new understanding of the creation stories led directly into a personal crisis, but it did not occur at once. The loss of the creation stories as historical, and the attendant possibility that man may have evolved from lower forms of life might have impacted my view of man as a spiritual being who could interact with God, but it did not.
But my views of salvation, based on Paul's understanding of the fall of Adam and original sin, required adjustment. My first urgent problem was to recover from the shock and spiritual vertigo resulting from the implications that Paul got it wrong, when what he wrote in the Bible should be inerrant. Thus my studies in inerrancy. I approached the subject of inerrancy with dread, but hoping for a way back to certainty. There was none, although the answers I found were sufficient to halt my free fall in regard to the Bible.
My second issue concerned the loss of Paul's doctrine of the fall and original sin. Without that foundation, how do we explain man's separation from God and the presence of evil in man? And what is nature of salvation? From what are we saved if it is not original sin?
These reflections led shortly to a resurgence of the problem of evil: God is either able to eliminate evil, but does not care; or God wishes to eliminate evil, but is unable. God's granting of free will to Adam and man's responsibility for his own sin through Adam were supposed to be the answer to those who proposed the problem of evil. But if the fall of man in Adam never occurred, the problem of evil stared me right in the face.
I could not imagine God as uncaring about evil, so the fear that gripped me was that God was insufficiently powerful to vanquish evil. If he were not all-powerful, what else had I misunderstood about him? Was he not eternal? Was he not above and outside the universe? Was he not the origin of all things?
These doubts gave way to deep anguish and grief arising from the possibility God did not exist at all. For many long months, I groaned in deep despair. I mourned the loss of God. I have not experienced such a dark time before or since. However, I never was sorry for a single step of the journey that brought me there. My objective was always to follow truth wherever it took me. Truth that hurts is preferable to the false security of wishful thinking.
I was familiar with a variety of "proofs" for God, but with my own beliefs about God in question, proofs did not mean much. None of them were convincing to me in demonstrating that God existed. I did not know whether I would ever recover.
A book called God and the Philosophers came into my hands in March of 1995. Here was a group of thinking people who, like me, could not claim absolute certainty about God's existence, yet they were united in holding that, despite the lack of proof, it is reasonable to believe that God is. It occurred to me that what they meant was--Faith! I thought I had faith all my life, when really what I had was inner certainty.
This was a window out of my despair, but I was not yet healed. I reflected on why I believed in God in the first place. It was not because of creation stories; it was not because of stories about God in the Bible or because of proofs. Essentially, I believed in God only because of Jesus. Yet, with the story of Jesus being written by human hands, how could I know for sure the story is trustworthy? I could not, but when I read the gospels, the person of Jesus was such that I trusted him. And if my trust was misguided, there was no other person, belief, or idea to trust. My trust in Jesus was complete. I trusted him with no safety net.
Thus I stood. No proofs. No certainties. I had only faith in God and trust in Jesus alone. These are such common Christian phrases--but they were transformed to me. I wonder how many have faith in God and trust Jesus alone.
10. Who Is Jesus?
From my childhood, I have been interested in Jesus, but in my twenties I wrote adult Sunday school curriculum on the Life of Christ, and I was hooked! My fascination of the person of Jesus has never diminished. I have studied the gospels repeatedly, and I have read scores of books about Jesus.
Who is Jesus? The view shared by most Christians, whether Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox, is that Jesus is the pre-existent son of God, the second person of the trinity, co-eternal with the Father and the Holy Spirit, who became a man and reconciled us to God through his death and resurrection. I was born at a good time. Over the last century or so, several periods of special interest in the historical Jesus occurred, and I have access to all of it! Results range from proposals of Jesus as a mere middle-eastern peasant to defenses of Jesus as God in the flesh.
The rise of critical scholarship brought many assumptions about Jesus into question. Some challenges are that Jesus was not pre-existent, that he did not perform miracles, and that he did not claim to be divine. Many hold that the facts of his life are complicated by the theological agendas of the gospel writers. Some think we know almost nothing about Jesus' life, while others contend that every word of the gospels is true.
One author wrote that the virgin birth is the central doctrine of Christianity. I thought, "It is not. The resurrection is the central doctrine." I am no longer certain of Jesus' pre-existence. I do not "understand" the trinity nearly as well as I did in my younger days. How much did Jesus understand about himself and his mission? I do not know. But I do believe that Jesus was more than just another man. He had a special relationship with God and accomplished something tremendous for us in his death and resurrection.
What did he accomplish? I think he secured our salvation in both this world and the next, and I believe it likely that the vast majority of humanity is already redeemed whether they know it or not, and do not need to be "saved." Jesus also gave us the clearest understanding we have of God.
What then is the purpose of mission? To tell the good news of salvation. Salvation from what, if there is no sin of Adam to deal with and no Hell to avoid? We are saved from such things as fear, superstition, emptiness, hopelessness, and despair. The work of Jesus has provided all people with wholeness and access to God. Evangelism and mission is to let them know about it so they can benefit from it more fully.
These are the high points of my journey. Some may identify with my journey. Hopefully, some will be encouraged in their own journey. I am sure others will say, "Yep, I knew it! As soon as he started down that path, he was bound to become a heretic!"
If you are wrestling with your beliefs with a sincere search for truth, do not be afraid. I believe God honors the sincere seeker of truth even if the seeker gets it wrong. You may hear these two arguments from your more traditional friends.
1. Don't be deceived by the devil. What seems true to you is only deception.
2. If you are right and we are wrong, then we have lost nothing. But if we are right and you are wrong, then you will burn in Hell forever.
Neither of these is a valid argument. The first disallows logical thinking if it produces the wrong results--meaning results that vary from accepted belief. The second is just silly. It can apply to any superstition. "If I avoid black cats and there is nothing to my "superstition," then I am no worse off, but if I am correct, and you do not avoid black cats, then you will have bad luck."
I wish you a happy spiritual journey! Email me at email@example.com ~Tim Chastain