On Friday night, Justin Vollmar, a self-proclaimed preacher of the “Virtual Deaf Church” Facebook group, released a video blog (“vlog”) declaring his departure from Christianity to Atheism. As he explained in the vlog, this denouncement marked the “culmination of four long years struggling with contradictions in the Bible and with Christianity.” He blatantly rejected the cardinal doctrines of Christianity (i.e., the Trinity, Jesus as the Son of God, the authority and veracity of the Scriptures, &c.). Near the end, he has declared his intent to create additional videos to attack Christian doctrines so that people can be freed from “the shackles of religion,” as some Atheists might describe it. He also joined the Clergy Project, a support group for 556-plus active and former professional clergy/religious leaders who have renounced Christianity.
As a result, this video created a mini-firestorm on the Internet, and it even appeared on several prominent websites (American Atheists, Inc. Facebook page, Patheos, CNN’s Belief Blog, Christianpost, to name a few). There has also been a wide range of reactions from Christians, atheists, and skeptics. On the one hand, most Christians expressed shock, grief, and even anger over his video. Some who may have known Justin Vollmar and followed him over the years may sadly yet somewhat nonchalantly say, “I saw that coming a long time ago!” On the other hand, atheists have welcomed his “coming out” with enthusiasm and even used this as an opportunity to deride, sneer, and mock Christians. The rest have chosen to remain silent about this revelation for various reasons, possibly out of indifference, uncertainty, and fear.
Regardless of one’s response to this bombshell revelation, all Christians (myself included) have been impacted by this vlog. Yet this episode is nothing new; it has played out countless times throughout the history of Christianity. One question has nagged me ever since that happened, and it is the same questions all Christians – especially pastors and lay leaders – have wrestled with at least once in their lifetime, especially when something like this happens:
“How ought I respond to a Christian-turned-Atheist?”
Here are five ways Christians can respond to a Christian-turned-Atheist in a God-honoring manner without tarnishing the Gospel message of hope and reconciliation:
1) We ought to grieve.
When we hear about or witness something completely unexpected, such as a crisis or sudden death, we experience initial shock, often manifested through denial, emotional numbness, and even anger. Once the initial shock wears off, we enter into the grieving phase because we lost something of personal value – whether a loved one, a close friend, a valuable possession, a sought-for job, a dashed dream, or even a beloved pet. It is not a matter of “if” but rather “when.”
Within the Body of Christ, God’s people grieve on different levels whenever someone apostatizes from their faith. Individually, Christians are pained when someone we know and love chooses to blaspheme the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and reject the very Creator God who zealously longs to have a relationship with every single human being. Collectively, Christians mourn when someone we know fails to honor and give thanks to him. This person exchanged the infinite glory of the Living God for the transient glory of mortals (Rom. 1:23). We also lament deeply because, as Jonathan Edwards famously coins it, we know that a sinner is now in the hands of an angry God. Hebrews 10:31 also tells us, “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” In short, it is necessary and healthy for Christians to individually and collectively grieve!
2) We ought to pray.
Jesus told his disciples to never stop praying (Luke 18:1). Just as Paul exhorted all believers living in Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 5:14-22), Colossae (Colossians 4:2), and Rome (Romans 12:12), Christians nowadays ought to devote themselves to faithful and persistent prayers on the behalf of all people – whether for a saint or a sinner. The same principle applies for a Christian-turned-Atheist.
But how can you pray for someone who has forsaken the One whom he had loved (Rev. 2:4)? Pray that this person will freely receive and fully experience the astounding grace and lavishing mercy of God. Pray that this person will recognize their utter dependence on God, their inescapable condition as wretched sinners, and their pressing need for a Savior. Pray that God will continue to demonstrate his kindness so that this person’s hard and impenitent heart may be softened and led toward repentance (Romans 2:4-5).
3) We ought to love.
Jesus, responding to a Pharisaic lawyer’s challenge regarding the greatest commandment of the Mosaic law, declared that one must love God first then their neighbors (Matthew 22:34-40). One of the hallmarks of Christian faith should be love forged through a loving community of believers (Gk. koinonia). However, this love should never be exclusive toward other Christians but rather exercised toward all people, even those who are “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18). God will bless us if we impartially love and pray even for our enemies (Matthew 5:43-45).
How can we truly love our enemies when they only want to harm us? Paul explained in Romans 12:20-21: “‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Love and goodness triumphs over hatred and evil. Always.
4) We ought to beware.
Jesus warned his listeners and disciples throughout the Gospels to watch out for those who might lead us astray from our faith. During his famous Sermon on the Mount, he declared, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-16a). In Matthew 24, he explained to his disciples that “many prophets will arise and lead many astray […] [and], if possible, the elect” (v. 11, 24; Mark 13:22). Those who fail to hold fast to the Scriptures and their faith, and also maintain a good conscience before God and men, will end up shipwrecked in their faith (cf. 1 Timothy 1:19). Beware of anyone who opposes Christ and the Gospel message, or even proclaim a “watered-down” Gospel; that person is essentially a false teacher and prophet, and their destructive heresies must be avoided at all costs (cf. 2 Peter 2:2).
5) We ought to persevere.
Suffering in this world is a given, not an option. As Christians, we must constantly encourage one another to persevere and not give up, no matter what might happen (1 Thessalonians 5:11; Luke 18:15). To the leaders: “keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16). Here’s a promise to those who persevere in their faith to the very end: “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.” (James 1:12)
The writer of Hebrews exhorted his readers in chapter 10:35-39:
“Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For, ‘Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.’ But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.”
My fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, don’t lose hope or give up fighting the good fight of faith, even if anyone – even a Christian-turned-Atheist – fall away from their faith and deny our Lord Jesus Christ. Instead, be sober-minded and realize that the same thing could happen to you if you are not careful.
Regardless of what happens in this lifetime, no single person or being in heaven, on earth, or even in the deepest pit of hell can snatch us out of God’s hands, steal away the joy within our hearts, and separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:31-39). We belong to Christ, and we are united to him through his death and resurrection. Keep pressing forward in this great race of our lifetime with eyes fixed on the glittering crown of life awaiting us in heaven through Jesus Christ (Hebrews 12:1-2). In the meantime, continue loving one another boldly and fearlessly as we await the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
May we courageously proclaim before the entire world the great mystery of our faith:
“Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again.”