March 10, 2014

Introducing the Why

How can a person—a pastor, no less—just up and become an atheist?

By now, you’ve likely heard that Ryan Bell, a former Seventh-day Adventist pastor, did exactly that. In case you’ve missed all the action, let me give you a quick recap.

In the spring of 2013 Bell was asked to resign his pastoral position because of foundational theological differences with the Adventist Church. Over the next few months Bell admittedly wrestled with his personal belief system, eventually writing a blog entry wondering if religion was “just a drug trip.”

To experience firsthand whether an active belief in God really mattered, Bell decided to explore atheism for an entire year. This meant he wasn’t going to pray, read the Bible, go to church, or hang out with Christian friends. To allow others to follow along, he registered the URL and began providing frequent updates about his experience.

A quick Google search will reveal a plethora of opinions on his experiment. While some applaud Bell for his courage, others see it as a contrived appeal for attention. Not surprisingly, the strongest views come from the two camps on opposite ends of the spectrum: Adventists and atheists.

As someone who has been blessed with a platform to share my personal journey in hopes of encouraging and inspiring others, I have very strong feelings about the path Bell has chosen to take. That being said, too much venom has been spewed. As Christians, we have to remember our end goal (hint: it should be the same as Jesus’). The best each of us can do is pray for Bell and make a conscious effort to impact people within our circle of influence, especially those who may be struggling with their faith, positively.

Interestingly, in the early days of 2014 Bell’s plight became international news. In an interview with CNN’s Brooke Baldwin, Bell said something that captivated my attention: “I think the tendency that people have is to think of religion and faith in binary categories. So you’re either all of one thing or you’re all of another thing. So you’re either completely Christian and completely sold on all the ideas about being a Christian, or you’re an atheist and you’ve completely abandoned all faith. And I think the reality I’ve discovered . . . is that the vast majority of people are somewhere between those two polls, and I’m with them in that middle space.”

Believe it or not, I struggle in that middle space.

Maybe you do too.

The apostle Paul did, which is probably why he wrote these words: “So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want” (Gal. 5:16, 17).

As sinful humans, you and I are bondservants to the lust of the flesh. According to Romans 3:12, we’re completely incapable of doing anything good on our own.

To overcome our carnal nature, we need a Savior that has the power to re-create us in His image, just as He first breathed life into Adam in the Garden of Eden.

The daily grind—the middle space—is the reality of the flesh and the Spirit colliding. We Adventists call this the great controversy.

As I read the writings of Ryan Bell, I’m saddened to see another person take his eyes off the true issue. While we are all on a journey, the solution is not to explore the desires of our flesh further. The real answer is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus every day, and through His power remove self from the equation altogether.

That’s the best way to leave the middle space for good.