January 2, 2015

Concern, Compassion, and Hope for Ex-Adventist Pastor Who Left God

, spiritual counselor, Nedley Depression Program; director, NEWSTART Global, Weimar College

Former Seventh-day Adventist pastor Ryan Bell entered 2014 with a New Year’s resolution to live the year without God. The decision generated significant media coverage and a lively discussion among both atheists and Christians from various faiths.

Now that Ryan has finished the year living as an atheist, he has announced that he no longer believes that God exists.

"I've looked at the majority of the arguments that I've been able to find for the existence of God, and on the question of God's existence or not, I have to say I don't find there to be a convincing case, in my view,” he said in an interview with NPR radio on Dec. 27. "I don't think that God exists. I think that makes the most sense of the evidence that I have and my experience.”

From a distance, I have followed Ryan’s journey from being an Adventist pastor to a self-declared atheist disappointed with what he sees as a lack of social justice among Christians. My heart has been filled with three types of thoughts: concern, compassion, and hope.

Thoughts of concern

Concern because Bell's experience with all its questioning reflect the unwelcome reality that some people, even after years of Adventist education and enculturation, will reject the faith.

Concern because many, like Bell, become confused when they attempt to intellectually grapple with “reality” through the reading uninspired notions of truth and worldview. There is a truth, "that by beholding we are changed" (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Concern because Bell's journey, while couched in religious jargon, shows all the signs and symptoms of a person struggling with major depression. "If God exists," say those who are depressed, "where is He? Why doesn't He reveal Himself?"

Concern because Bell appears to be rejecting the only source of true hope and help in a desire to truly experience "reality."

Thoughts of compassion

Compassion because many others have asked similar questions and, as a result of their "give me" attitude, found themselves in the same "far country" as the prodigal son in Luke 15.

Compassion because the "this isn't fair" mentality of the prodigal son’s elder brother also has led many with a social justice mentality to a "far country"—even though we remain safely at home by all outward appearances.

Thoughts of hope

Hope because prodigals with "give me" attitudes in far countries can and do return. I know I did.

Hope because there are father figures who, although misunderstood and mischaracterized as patriarchal and provincial, still pray and hope for the return of their much-loved sons.

Hope because the much-romanticized "experience of reality" has a way of ultimately leading us to appreciate the larger truth that the father and his philosophy that we jettisoned were not so bad after all.

Hope because we've seen others through the power of God alone turn from "give me" and “it’s not fair” philosophies to a simple yet humble request to be made one of the father's “servants."

In the end, the words of counsel that Paul wrote to the young Timothy, who was dealing with those who desired to live without boundaries, ring with truth and wisdom: “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:24-26, NIV).

May God grant Ryan and each of us in 2015 with the gift of repentance that He has promised. May God surround Ryan and each of us with “servants of the Lord” who will not be “quarrelsome” but be “kind,” “gentle,” “not resentful” and “able to teach.”

May God grant Ryan the type of experience he needs so he may see Him for who He really is.

Related link

"The Middle Space," by Adventist Review columnist Jimmy Phillips and published in early 2014, about Ryan Bell's year without God