Much – probably too much – has been recently made of a number of individuals who have announced that they now feel they are no longer evangelical Christians, or even Christians. Although it’s tempting to lump these together under the old term apostasy, the reality of what we are seeing is not a single, simple phenomenon. So, at one extreme we have a few church leaders who, after years of faithful labour, have become burnt out and tiptoed away from their ministry and the faith. At the other extreme we have men and women who, having decided to reject the Christian faith, have defiantly declared that the fault lies not with them, but with Christianity or ‘the church’. Some of these individuals are exhibiting what is being called ‘de-conversion’: they are now making aggressive attempts not just to defend their departure but to win converts to their new beliefs.
What are we to make of it all? My first response would be ‘actually, not a lot’. I believe it’s a handful of cases magnified by the noisy echo chamber of the internet into something that seems more significant than it is. The sad fact is that departures from the faith are not new. In the Old Testament we see both Elijah and Jonah running away from their calling (1 Kings 19; Jonah 1). In the Gospels we have a warning from Jesus about falling away. The letters of the New Testament give similar warnings (2 Thessalonians 2:3, 1 Timothy 4:1–3, Hebrews 3:12; 6:5–8; 10:26). That turning your back on faith is not a hypothetical possibility is demonstrated by such people as Judas, Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Timothy 1:20) and Demas (2 Timothy 4:10). History shows us other sad stories including a fourth-century Roman emperor, known to history as ‘Julian the Apostate’.
In one sense, there is nothing new here. Yet with these cases of ‘de-conversion’ in particular, there is a genuine twenty-first-century novelty. It is that those involved do not describe their action with any sort of humility or sorrow but instead portray it as some noble and heroic triumph over the unthinking Christian faith. Repeatedly we read that what they left was ‘naïve’, ‘outdated’ and ‘restrictive’.
What lies behind these departures from faith? It is notable that there seems to be no particular intellectual reason. None, to my knowledge, have claimed that they have left the faith because of fresh archaeological discoveries, newly translated texts or some devastating atheist critique. One fundamental factor, however, exists which could simply be called a ‘spiritual restlessness’. This is a virus that has