My story inevitably provokes this question and it's almost always phrased the same way, "How in the world does a Pentecostal preacher become an Atheist?"
It's a simple question, but as you would expect, not a simple answer. The answer took a lifetime to live and it has taken an entire book to detail. As I traveled the country explaining it to people, I've realized that the only way my journey from believer to ardent non-believer can be explained is through a series of steps. I realize I don't have much time here, so I will keep those steps brief. (I was gratified to see even the prominent philosopher Daniel Dennett work my steps into his presentation at the Global Atheist convention in Australia.)
The understanding gained through the following steps ultimately led to a confident theist becoming a humble atheist at the age 42:
1. God LOVES everyone:
Influential Person - My Pentecostal grandmother.
Despite the fact that the Pentecostal doctrine is judgmental and exclusionary, my grandmother was an example of inclusion and unconditional love very early in my life. My grandmother set an example that few people ever lived up to. Because of which, I joined the church, ministry, and mission that came closest to the lofty vision my grandmother created for me. The church and its message were simply called Grace. And it wasn't until I became actively engaged in the ministry that I realized being "Christ-like" doesn't mean the same thing to everyone.
Biblical verses, such as John 3:16 "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
Theological View - Grace.
"God's Righteousness At Christ's Expense". Unlike most of my fellow Pentecostals, I was starting to believe that our good works weren't good enough and that instead Jesus' death had completely paid the price for our sins...not just the sins of the believer but the sins (actually "sin", singular) of the whole world, if only the whole world would believe it!
Transitional Concept - Eternal punishment.
Whatever comfort I received from believing that God loved the whole world was morally challenged by the question, if he loves them, why doesn't he save them? And for that matter, why allow them to be "lost" in the first place? During one of my more insecure childhood experiences, I was overcome with jealously when my dog answered my friend's beckoning and not mine. Could the creator of the universe be as needy as an eight year old boy?
2. God SAVES everyone:
Influential Person - William Morrison Branham.
A cassette tape containing one of the late Brother Branham's messages was the very first time I heard a minister challenge the idea of Hell, and it wouldn't be the last. Though Branham didn't teach that God ultimately saves all souls, he did do away with the notion of eternal punishment, and did so while remaining the foremost Pentecostal of his day. For me this was a wining combination. Of course there were numerous versions of the concept of eternal punishment, but almost all of them were proposed by non-Pentecostals. This voided their relevance to me in the earliest days of my ministry. Later, I would grow out of my prejudices and would allow myself to be exposed to the works of Universalist from every ilk.
Biblical verses, such as 2 Corinthians 5:19 "To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation."
Theological View- Universalism.
The idea that every person whom ever lived would ultimately share in and enjoy the bliss of a heavenly residence seemed to muffle, if not in some small way justify the suffering displayed in the bible and in the real world. Admittedly, it was a stretch, but it was the best and most humane explanation I had at the time.
Transitional Concept- Sonship.
"Sonship" is a doctrinal expression referencing the family-like union between God the father and the saved individual. The sinner's justification is so complete that his standing in God's eyes is equal to that of Christ's, the only begotten "son" of god. Thus the use of the positional title, Sonship.
The original questions, though somewhat shelved by Universalism, still remained but were temporarily eclipsed by more technical questions. Questions such as how and when does God "save" everyone? Are they saved at death or were they saved before they were even born? Will they get a second chance for salvation in heaven or were they simply saved when Jesus died on the cross? What about those who died before Jesus' crucifixion? When does Sonship technically begin?
3. God is IN everyone:
Influential Person- Bishop Carlton Pearson.
Much like Brother Branham, Bishop Pearson is not only a theological renegade rejected by mainstream Christianity, he's also very much a pure-blooded Pentecostal. During the course of Pearson's lifelong endeavors, he built a world-class ministry only to watch it disintegrate after publicly renouncing the doctrine of Hell. Bishop Pearson didn't stop with moving beyond the traditional view of external punishment, he eventually left much of traditional Christianity far behind.
Biblical Verses, such as Acts 17:22-28 "Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars' hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, To The Unknown God. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you. God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; Neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring."
Theological View- Inclusion.
The doctrine of Inclusion in Bishop Pearson's own words: "The Gospel of Inclusion is the exciting and liberating news that in the finished work of the cross, Jesus redeemed the entire world to God from the cosmic and organic sin imposed upon it by Adam, the original man. In effect, the world is already saved, they just don't know it; and, unfortunately, most Christians don't believe it.
First Timothy 4:9-10 says, "...we have put our trust in the living God who is the Savior of all men, and especially those who believe." Jesus did not just die for Christians, He died to redeem, reconcile, and ultimately save the Cosmos. Jesus was not a Christian, He was a Jew. God, however, is Spirit and cannot be confined exclusively to any particular religion including Christianity. He's not Jewish or Christian or Hindu or Buddhist; yet, He is all of that if we want or need Him to be, while at the same time, none of it conclusively, because He can't be and, in fact, is not limited to a person's or culture's perception of Him. He loves everybody, He understands everybody, and He has a covenant with everybody-again, whether they know it or not. Every human being in the history of the planet was created in the image and likeness of God. Anything else is an impersonation. God sees Himself in everybody, in every belief system, in every icon, perhaps even the devil. The devil can't subsist on his own. He came from God, has a specific assignment, and carries it out well." - beliefnet.com
Once I had moved as far from mainstream Christian as Inclusion, there simply wasn't anything that wasn't on the table and thus questionable. What I was soon to learn was that once you out-grow of your religious traditions, your superstitions may be soon to follow.
The gospel of Inclusion turned the majority of my investigation inward. No longer burdened with making sense of the God, the Bible and religious contradictions, I became interested in the nature of reality and particularly in human nature.
4.God is everyone's INTERNAL DIALOGUE:
Influential Person- Joseph Campbell.
While reading everything I could find that dealt with the nexus of religion and Human nature, I came across Joseph Campbell. I found Campbell's teachings on comparative religion to be both refreshing and explanatory. For the first time in my studies, questions were actually being answered without the creation of more questions.
Power of Myth and The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
Deism, moving towards Agnosticism.
Biological Evolution and Evolutionary Psychology.
5. God is a DELUSION:
Influential Persons-The Four Horsemen.
Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and the late, great Christopher Hitchens.
The God Delusion, Breaking the Spell, The End of Faith, and God is Not Great.
Secular Communities and how to build them.
As you can see, I didn't suddenly wake up as a nonbeliever. In fact, the seeds of my atheism were inherent in my religion from the beginning. I was pulled--or drawn--along my transformation by exploring the knowledge and boundaries of each step.
I know that many of you are struggling with this right now and I wish you the best. We're each at different steps and I look forward to meeting with you when you reach the end.
Jerry DeWitt is an American author, public speaker, and leader in the American atheism movement. He is a former pastor of two evangelical churches, who publicly converted to atheism in 2011 after 25 years of Christian ministry. He is the author of the upcoming book Hope after Faith: An Ex-Pastor's Journey from Belief to Atheism, to be released June 25th.