This Isn’t How They Told Us It Would Be

It seemed easy to believe in Christianity when I (Jack) was surrounded by friends who were all devoted believers. My youth-group years taught me to believe that Christianity was transparently true; doubt was portrayed as an embarrassing and possibly deadly disease. So, if we had doubts, we kept them to ourselves. None of us wanted to be seen as a project.

Of course, we knew people who weren’t Christians and had heard some of their objections, but these were hardly to be taken seriously. We were told that these objections had been answered, and we were reassured that Christianity was right and they were wrong. Anyone who was willing to look at the evidence could see as much. After high school I enrolled in a Christian college and joined another community that reinforced this kind of never-doubting belief. It all seemed to “work” just fine.

Until it didn’t.

Little did I know that those years—filled with worldview retreats, purity pledges, and jeremiads about “the culture”—were setting me up for some serious disappointments. Faith isn’t nearly as easy as I thought. And as it turns out, I’m not the only one who learned this the hard way.

When I was in high school, Jim was one of the most active members of my youth group. He attended every gathering and was friendly with everyone. Wise, honest, and full of conviction, Jim was the perfect picture of a faithful Christian young man. We lost contact with each other after high school, but I recently reconnected with him through Instagram and learned that he no longer considers himself a Christian. He had, apparently, first experienced doubts while attending our youth group. As far as I know, he never told anyone. Perhaps he was worried about the social stigma; maybe he was tired of hearing the all-too-familiar arguments as if they were enough.

When he went off to college, Jim’s seedling doubts grew into something he couldn’t ignore. He began identifying as bisexual. In the church environment we grew up in, there wasn’t much of a positive sexual vision on offer. Instead, we were taught rules and a certain sensibility: being gay was simply wrong and gross. Little more was said about it. I guess it isn’t very surprising that Jim isn’t a Christian after more than eight years in that environment. Christianity didn’t seem to fit Jim anymore.

Ashley was, like Jim, a professing Christian. She grew up attending a private Christian school, and her entire childhood was steeped in a particular brand of Christianity. Her parents kept her from dating, bought her a purity ring, and sent her off to a Christian college to—presumably—find a nice Christian husband. They didn’t quite get the outcome they hoped for.

As Ashley began to reflect on her childhood, one word began to dominate her memory of it: abusive. Not abusive in a physical or sexual sense but abusive in relation to her intellectual and emotional freedom. Her beliefs had been forced on her, and her freedom of thought had been restricted. At first, she thought her parents were an anomaly, and she explored other forms of Christianity. Yet the succession of Christian authors she encountered only frustrated her faith. Each of them seemed so confident, and they all wanted her to believe exactly what they believed. They were like her parents. Ashley wanted to be a Christian, but the whole structure of the religion felt tainted. The whole thing just seemed to be about power. This feeling was exacerbated as she began to see spiritual leaders—the same ones who had taught her to “keep herself pure”—rally their congregants around proudly immoral politicians. I’ve pleaded with Ashley that Christianity is broader and richer than the specific kind of parochial Christianity she grew up with. I’ve tried to show her that the failures of particular leaders don’t demonstrate the failure of Christianity itself. But for Ashley, Christianity just doesn’t seem good anymore.

Taylor, like the others, came from a Christian home and grew up in a conservative environment. She had been voicing doubts for a long time before she arrived at college, and it seemed to her that no one had satisfying answers. Taylor was particularly concerned with how Christianity and modern science related; she wanted to know how Christianity explained the data that led so many people to accept evolutionary theory. The desire to answer these questions and solve her doubts was so strong that Taylor pursued a minor in apologetics.

Taylor’s search seemed to work—at first. She would find a satisfying answer to some issue—say, criticism of the New Testament’s historical reliability—and would be certain of the Christian faith for a while. Eventually, however, a new argument challenging Christianity would present itself in some YouTube video or Reddit thread. The new argument would throw Taylor into another season of doubt, and the cycle would continue. Eventually, Taylor lost the motivation to remain a Christian. It was too much work; there were too many arguments against Christianity. At least for now, Taylor has given up on trying to banish the doubts that have plagued her for so long. She has deconverted.

As I have watched these friends and others struggle with their faith, I have become convinced that I was misled. Don’t misunderstand me: I still believe Christianity is true. But neither Josh nor I believe what we were once told growing up—that the Christian faith will always appear obviously true to anyone who looks at the evidence carefully.

The Christian faith isn’t always so easy.

So, let’s get this out of the way right here at the start: If you are no longer sure if you can believe in God, or if you’re beginning to doubt Christianity, we don’t assume you’ve lost your mind. We assume you’ve thought things out, and we respect your willingness to grapple with doubts and the problems within the community you’ve grown up in. Grappling honestly with these doubts often leads to “deconstruction”—a prolonged process of examining and replacing previously assumed belief structures. While deconstruction sometimes leads to deconversion, it doesn’t have to.

Content taken from Surprised by Doubt by Joshua D. Chatraw and Jack Carson, ©2023. Used by permission of Brazos Press.