I was told today that I could not possibly have been a Christian if I later became an atheist. I must have merely been a “professing” Christian, so this person claimed.
Ironically, I would agree with that claim if posed in a certain way. After all, I don’t think anyone is a true Christian under a certain definition of the term, since I don’t think there is any everlasting Christ out there with whom you can form a relationship. But that isn’t how the person meant it. Rather, he meant that you would never actually leave a true relationship with Christ. Once you experience it, I suppose you would undergo a life-changing effect that you couldn’t realistically improve upon or set aside. It would be like Lyle Lovett leaving Julia Roberts (wait a minute…).
The biggest problem with me trying to consider this suggestion is that he and I are approaching the issue from completely different perspectives. He is operating under two very big assumptions—first, that God exists, and second, that his own particular theological commitments are the correct interpretation of this God’s desires. So, this would obviously not be something I would accept without compelling arguments to cover that vast territory. Furthermore, I favor examining the evidence and letting that shape my commitments, to the extent possible, rather than having a pre-existing commitment and then only viewing all potentially contrary evidence through that lens. To do otherwise seems to ignore the convincing evidence that confirmation bias is a factor when potentially contrary evidence is presented.
But those are all typical topics that have been discussed at length here and elsewhere. What I’m interested in right now is whether there is a case against this particular theological commitment that can be made without rejecting an assumption that God exists or that scripture is generally reliable. I had what I think is an interesting idea, so I’ll toss it out there. I’m calling it The Problem of Judas.
1. The relationship that Jesus formed with his disciples was incredibly personal and compelling.
2. Judas was among the disciples of Jesus.
3. Judas rejected his relationship with Jesus in an extreme and harmful way.
4. Thus, a very personal and compelling relationship with Jesus does not guarantee that one will not later choose to end that relationship.
I can’t actually imagine a Christian rejecting any of the three premises. In fact, I think they can be made even stronger. You could include in a discussion of (1) that not only did Jesus have such a relationship with his disciples, but that this relationship was even more personal and more compelling than anything possible today just given our inherent limitations. Consider for a moment what kind of impact actually living with and walking and talking with your savior would have. Now I know people will say they can do that today in some sense, but I think we all really know that this sort of in-person experience would have a much more profound impact on our lives. Second, I think premise (3) brings up a point that can be brought out more. Not only did Judas reject a relationship with Jesus, but he went so far as to place Jesus in harm’s way and deliver him into the hands of the enemy. Do people realize just what an extreme reaction this would be for someone to do this to God in the flesh?
So, we have a relationship in place that was in all likelihood stronger than anything possible today. For someone to suggest otherwise would mean that actually walking next to God and learning at his feet would not be more powerful than what we can achieve today. And we also have a reaction that not only rejects that relationship, but inflicts serious harm on the other person in the relationship. It’s much more than simply walking away for good.
If these are correct, then why should we think people today cannot truly have a relationship with God and later abandon that relationship? This does not require any particular theological commitments; it only requires a pretty straightforward reading of the text and some pretty mundane assumptions about relationships. It also focuses on one interpretation of the claim that we cannot step away from a true relaionship with Jesus. Some might quibble with how I’ve presented that, but I think similar problems might also be raised for altered versions.
Is this convincing? I’m really not sure, but I do think it’s interesting and probably deserves some further consideration.