Why do Christians leave the faith? The surprising importance of apologetics

From Black, White and Gray.


Several colleagues and I recently finished a study of why Christians leave the faith, and we were surprised at what made a difference as well what didn’t seem to matter. In the next few weeks, I’ll be reviewing our findings in a series of posts.

To start with, let me tell you how we conducted our study. We were interested in how people who left the faith—let’s call them deconverts—explained their actions; i.e., why did they think they left the faith. In order to do this, we found a website on-line in which former Christians post their “testimonials” about their religious history. We chose 50 of these testimonials and read, reread, and reread again each one and then we discussed them as a group. Our goal was to find themes in these deconversion narratives, and several themes did emerge.

[…]All told, we found four general explanations offered by these 50 people as to why they left Christianity.

The first explanation regards intellectual and theological concerns about the faith. A full two-thirds of the testimony writers emphasized these concerns and some wrote about little else.

Some of the intellectual concerns were issues that would be faced by members of any religion, not just Christianity. For example, what is the relationship between religion and science? Does believing in one negate the other? What is the role of logic versus faith?

One man, who was a fundamentalist Christian in young adulthood, defined faith and reason as mutually contradictory, and he described his departure from Christianity as a victory of reason. He wrote: “for most of us, the battle was entirely within ourselves. It was a pitched battle between our faith and our reason, and eventually our reason just refused to be suppressed any longer, no matter what the potential consequences.”

Many other writers, though, focused on theological issues specific to Christianity. One of the issues that arose with the existence of hell and how that could be reconciled with the Christian image of a loving God. Basically, how could a loving God throw his children into hell for eternity?

A man raised as a Baptist expressed what he viewed as a contradiction between love and hell: “Would a loving father really not allow some people to have a chance and send them to hell for eternity? I don’t think so!”

One woman, who loved her grandparents, now deceased, wondered how God could condemn them for not having believed in Him. She exclaimed: “what the hell kind of jerk was God if he’d condemn people like my grandparents?”

A related theological issue regarded human suffering here on Earth. If God is powerful and loving, why is there suffering? One writer likened God’s allowance of suffering to a negligent police officer. “What if a police officer sat and watched silently as a child was murdered even though he had the power to stop it?”

Other writers attributed to God a more active role in human suffering, often pointing to His actions in the Old Testament. A former Methodist wrote of his doubts about God starting early in his life when he learned about Noah’s Ark. “The turning argument for me was actually a story that is in children’s Sunday school books – Noah’s Ark. I started to really think about the fact that God pretty much killed the ENTIRE planet.” Similarly, a former Pentecostal described God’s actions in the Old Testament as “atrocity after atrocity.”

The final frequently-expressed concern regarded the Bible and its reliability. Is it accurate? Is it believable? A former Catholic dismissed the Bible altogether. She wrote: “Science has all but proven that the Old Testament could not have happened. It is also fast proving that the New Testament is nothing but fiction.”

My friend ECM had a different take on it, commenting on Facebook:

I’m going to go out on a limb and state that most people simply don’t care.

You can refute arguments/do apologetics all day long to the run-of-the-mill village atheist, but that’s not going to do you much good in reaching the average non-believer since they’re generally apathetic about the whole project–God, etc., simply has no impact on their daily lives.

What I think would help is if *actual* Christians walked the walk a bit–I think this is, really, the crux of your problem. Too many of you say you believe in God and are Christians, but how many actually abide by the general strictures of the faith?

This has a rather disconcerting effect on non-believers and it makes people like me, who are at least open to the idea*, more wary because how can I very well take you seriously if you’re not actually practicing it? It smacks of “do as I say, not as I do.” (It also gives the media et al a hammer w/ which to beat Christians over the head with ad nauseaum, causing massive damage to credibility.)

(It doesn’t give me an pleasure in saying any of this, but there it is from someone that’s at least open to the concept.)

(And please! Please let’s not turn this into a thread on apologetics aimed at ‘showing me the light’–I know all the arguments and have gone over them a thousand times w/ the Knight via email, chat, etc., so I’m well-versed on all it.)

*I would classify myself as a small ‘d’ deist.

I should clarify: when I say “average non-believer” I am also referring to, in far too many (most?) cases, those that actually profess a belief in God and identify as Christian.

And my friend Dina wrote this:

Apologetics should be more than winning debates with athiests. Today, defending the faith ought to be more concerned with ridding the church of the crowd pleasing rot that has infiltrated it over the last century. The problem is exactly what ECM and lots of us see in professing Christians. Sadly, many many people who profess to be Christians are no different from the world, so the world views us all as either hypocrites or liars. Times may change, society may change but God and the bible does not. The bible is the only rule to direct us and while philosophy has much to offer, if it backs up the bible do we need it in the first place? If it goes against the bible, then its worthless man made opinions. The problems with Christianity started in the church, and the solution will have to start in the church as well. He did it before and He will do it again.

I replied and said that stronger, more consistent Christians are important, but I think apologetics is needed in order to build them up – because, as I’ve written before – people only act Christianly when they have reasons to believe that Christianity is objectively true.

13 thoughts on “Why do Christians leave the faith? The surprising importance of apologetics”

  1. What is interesting here is that all of the specific concerns posed by the de-converts in this article are rather easily handled with some basic, intro-level apologetics. They are not deep apologetic concerns. That tells me that the level of apologetics in the churches is nearly non-existent. It also tells me that every church needs an apologist on-site.

    One question: how sure are we that the 50 subjects chosen were truly de-converts? I have noticed a trend in the New Atheists lately toward rampant lying and posing to shore up their numbers. There’s really no Reason not to after all. They sound legit, but they also sound atheist-y, like people who never really believed in the first place. They also sound like all the reasons that one atheist gave me when he debated me. :-)

  2. Unfortunately for many the answer is not very complicated but it is very sad. God has already answered that question in his word. Someone who denies the faith was never in the faith.
    It says in 1 John 2:19
    19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us. (KJV)

    We are thankful that God has made a way for us to recognize those that who were never really converts. There is no such thing as “deconverts” only deceived, maybe even to themselves.
    I am a great believer in using Apologetics. But I do not believe that Apologetics is primarily a tool for evangelism. I believe that its purpose is primarily to strengthen believers. I see two objectives in evangelism with the first being far less than the latter:
    1) Helping the seeker to “count the costs” before making a choice to follow Christ. As it says i the Old Testament … “Come let us reason together.”
    2) Strengthening the believer to resist the wiles of the devil and be able to give an answer to every man a reason for the hope that lies within them.

    The first item listed above is an invitation that God has given. He forces it on no man.
    The second item is a commandment that God has given to all believers. We may not choose to disregard that commandment and still be obedient to God.

    One of the worst things that can happen, in my opinion, is when we give, especially our youth, an attenuated version of the gospel and in so doing inoculate them from the truth, making a true conversion, much later in life, that much harder.

  3. By the time a person actually turns their back on God, it is probably too late for apologetics. Underlying the “intellectual” arguments – the rationalisations on the part of apostates – there is usually some kind of moral issue, which really boils down to rejecting the Lordship of Jesus Christ over their lives, if he ever was Lord of their lives. There are many people who want to be saved (“easy believism”), but are not willing to “count the cost” of allowing Jesus to be Lord, so when the crunch comes, self wins out. Jesus dealt with this in the parable of the Sower and the seed. They want their will, their way, and therefore reject his will regarding some decision or behaviour, and they begin to fall away. They may then accuse those who try to bring correction, of being unsympathetic, judgemental, etc., and later claim that they were hurt by the church. (I’m not denying that there are people who have experienced “spiritual abuse” – sad to say, that also happens – but if they truly belong to Jesus, they find another spiritual home along with healing).

    Satan loves to sow doubt (it began in the garden of Eden!), and people can allow doubts to gain a foothold, perhaps when they hit what has been termed “the betrayal barrier”, when God doesn’t do something the way they want it (e.g. allowing someone to die). These are the cases where compassion plus apologetics could forestall apostasy. Again, it’s a “my will versus God’s will” situation.

    I’ve seen the wilful descent into apostasy happen so many times. Such apostates usually want autonomy over their lives so that they are “free”.to do whatever they like, not realising they are actually in bondage to their sin-nature (and maybe worse). The Christian principle taught by Jesus of choosing God’s way / will, of taking up our cross, goes against the sin-nature’s wilfulness. Dying to self becomes abhorrent.

  4. I think apologetics is helpful for addressing some questions and strengthening the faith of those who already believe, but whether we are saved or not boils down to faith from God. If we dont have true faith, then we arent saved – even if we look like we are saved and believe we are saved.

    Has the seed fallen on good soil or not (Mt 13:1-23)? If the soil is not good soil, then the seed of the message of God will not produce fruit.

    1. The question is, how does one become good soil? I consider apologetics to be primarily “tilling the soil” to make people into good soil so that the seed of the Word can take root and grow. Apologetics can also be used to “water,” as someone who has heard the gospel may have some intellectual hangups that need to be addressed in order for them to accept Christ. And apologetics can also, as you say, be used to strengthen the faith of believers. However, the primary reason for apologetics is to prepare hearts to hear and respond to the gospel by addressing why the Bible is true and the evidence we have for the Christian faith.

  5. The most important reason why we must do apologetics and worldview training goes back to what JI Packer says: the more we know about God, the more we get to know Him.

    Ultimately the endeavour to learn facts about the Bible, about creation and about the metaphysical world that we live in is an endeavour to learn about the character and personality of our Creator.

    Apologetics does a lot of great work to move sceptics, strengthen the faith of believers and to help those going through doubt. But we must do apologetics because as we learn more about the world, we learn more about God and the more we love Him. It is the fuel for the relationship that we will have for eternity with Him.

    That is why the Apostle Paul says, “But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” Philippians 3:7

    Those who ignore apologetics and the training of the mind are not only ignoring those who walk away from the faith. They are failing to equip believers to grow in their faith.

  6. The title is a bit of a misnomer, as those who are truly born again do not and cannot leave the faith.

    That said, some of reasons given here reflect a woeful ignorance of what Christianity actually teaches. For example:

    “One man, who was a fundamentalist Christian in young adulthood, defined faith and reason as mutually contradictory, and he described his departure from Christianity as a victory of reason.”

    Where did he get the idea that faith and reason are mutually contradictory? Reason tells us that things like buildings and cities don’t just pop into existence with no intelligence behind them. So how could the universe with its infinitely greater complexities be a product of the unguided forces of time and chance? Reason tells us the world operates according to certain fixed laws – how can that just exist, with no one to design it that way? All of this is in line with biblical teaching.


    “Basically, how could a loving God throw his children into hell for eternity?”

    He doesn’t. Biblical teaching is that we are all God’s creation, but we are NOT all God’s children. We must become God’s children through being born again:

    John 1:12-13
    “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, the gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”

    And God doesn’t throw anyone into hell, as though he gave them no other option. The option has been provided for people not to go there. They just choose not to avail themselves of that option and suffer the consequences.


    “Would a loving father really not allow some people to have a chance and send them to hell for eternity? I don’t think so!”

    He doesn’t. Romans 1 (and other biblical passages) make it clear EVERYONE knows God exists. People are without excuse.

    Also, people are not judged because they didn’t hear Jesus’ name. People are judged because they are sinners.


    “She exclaimed: “what the hell kind of jerk was God if he’d condemn people like my grandparents?”

    Were her grandparents morally perfect, having never committed one single sin? Then, you have your answer. God’s standard for heaven is moral perfection. NONE of us can attain that. ALL of us need Christ to achieve that and impute His righteousness to us.


    I could go on but I won’t.

    These so-called arguments are just silly. They assume things about God and Christianity that aren’t even true, and then complain about it as though they have merit.


    As to living the walk, that’s another poor excuse. Many Christians DO walk the walk. I’ve known tons of them.

    We need apologetics because Christians need to know how to refute these (again, weak) objections.

    The horrifying thing is that many Christians – maybe most Christians – wouldn’t be able to do what I’ve done here in just a few short minutes, off the top of my head.


    “people only act Christianly when they have reasons to believe that Christianity is objectively true.”

    Absolutely right.

  7. I agree with many of the posts on here. Mo, Alien & Stranger, Richard Palmer, etc.

    We as Christians many times are so anxious to get someone saved that we have people say a (rote prayer) without first asking them to count the cost, and thus they go away deceived into thinking they are saved when they have not repented or made Jesus Lord. Many want a Savior, but only a few want a “LORD”. I grew up in a church that was guilty of promising salvation without turning away from sin.

    Ezekiel 13:22 Because with lies you have made the righteous sad and disheartened, whom I have not made sad or disheartened, and because you have encouraged and strengthened the hands of the wicked, that he should not return from his wicked way and be saved [in that you falsely promised him life],

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