"Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found, and hid. In his joy, he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field."
Appendix A, the Autobiography of a "died-again" Christian starts with a series of questions:
"Are you a Christian? Do you consider yourself to be a true Christian who sincerely believes in God in such a way that He is what matters most to you in this life? Do you truly believe that the Bible is the infallible and inerrant Word of God? Are you completely convinced that the credibility of Christian faith depends on its veracity in all matters?
If so, what would you consider as the pinnacle of disillusionment? Something that could not possibly happen but, if it did, it would shatter your reality completely. How would you feel if everything that ever mattered to you; everything that gave happiness, meaning and purpose to your existence should somehow prove to be an illusion? How would you feel if you discovered that you were nowhere closer to understanding and relating to ultimate reality that some savage who lived and died with a mind saturated by myth and superstition? How would you feel if you were a happy born-again Christian who, by some sick twist of fate, happen to discover that the God you believed in does not really exist? Do you have any idea what it feels like to be a "died-again" Christian?"
This chapter is written in part to answer these questions, but also to be a testimony to what God has done for me and why I find it impossible to ignore the reality of what He has done in my life. I know that in general it might not be considered good exegesis of Scripture to use your own life experience(s) as the key to understanding the bible, but I do think that all of us do it, to some extend and therefore would rather make it explicit. And nowadays I do believe that obedience to Scripture is the key to understanding Scripture correctly. This chapter seeks to explain how my experience of God has influenced my understanding of Scripture as well as why, even if I cannot use it to convince others of the truth of the Bible, it still makes it impossible for me to honestly consider the possibility that God doesn't exist. It also gives some insight into my understanding of revelation and inspiration of Scripture.
To answer the questions: Yes, I am a Christian according to the Biblical "definition" in Acts 11:26, "born-again" (although I believe that all true christians are born again) and trusting God in such a way that He is what matters most to me in this life. I truly believe that the Bible is the infallible and inerrant Word of God (although my understanding of this might be slightly different to the typical fundamentalist understanding: see Chapter 2 on "inspiration"). I am however not convinced that the credibility of Christian faith depends on its veracity in all matters. Rather the opposite, because I believe that the Christian faith is true (or rather, that God is true), I believe that His Word is trustworthy (credible) in all matters.
I would be shattered if I should happen to discover that the God I believe in doesn't really exist. And I know exactly what it feels like, because I have been there before (although only for about 2 weeks). In reading the story of Jaco Gericke, "died-again" Christian, I can empathize. I hope that my story may be a bit of a light, giving hope where his story appears to end in total despair.
I also grew up in a Christian environment, like most South African/Namibian Afrikaners, also in the (relatively) conservative Dutch Reformed Church. I found church boring when I was a child, although I remember one event that happened when I was about 9 years of age. The sermon that Sunday was about the calling of Peter and the first disciples. I cannot remember much more about the sermon, but I do remember that the preacher mentioned that Jesus calls all of us to be His disciples. That afternoon I talked with God (I didn't know it was prayer if you didn't close your eyes) and told Him that I also want to be one of His disciples when I grow up. Church remained boring and by the time I was about 12, I sometimes had doubts about the existence of God. I grew up with the "Afrikaanse Kinder-ensiklopedie" (an encyclopedia for children) that convinced me from childhood that evolution is true. But I convinced myself when looking at nature (and even some historical events like the Battle of Blood River :-) ) that there has to be a God. Even though I found church boring, I tried to live a life that might please God so that I could at least stand a good chance of going to heaven. I cannot remember ever discussing my doubts with any-one; perhaps because I somehow got the idea that religion is a private matter, not to be discussed or questioned.
In High School I learned in the Student Christian Association (CSV) that we are saved, not because of any good works we have done, but by believing in Jesus (John 3:16). I have always loved reading, and when I was 16, I read through the Bible for the first time (took me the whole year :-) ). In my reading, I discovered that the lives of the early Christians were distinctly different from what I was experiencing and also from what I saw in most of my fellow "Christians" around me. The fruit of the Spirit (according to Gal. 5:22) is "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control". I had no joy in my life, at least not as a result of religion. And my attitude towards most people was one of "leave me alone and I will leave you alone". I love nature and animals, but couldn't honestly say that I loved people. I didn't have peace, or patience, or kindness or any of the other parts of the Spirit-fruit, except possibly self-control (which I learned from Karate and not in church). I tried to live a "good" life, but there simply was no power. Knowing that salvation is found only in Jesus, I tried, but never could speak even with my best friend about eternal matters. Not even with my parents could I speak about Jesus (about religion in general, yes, but not about our personal relationship with Him). In contrast, the first believers could not be silenced about Jesus (e.g. Acts 4 - "So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, "Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard."). More-over it was not the leaders, but the ordinary believers: "And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. ... Therefore those who were scattered abroad went around preaching the word." (Acts 8: 1 & 4) How was this possible? If that should have happened to our church, I just could not see us doing the same. Somehow it seemed to be connected to the Holy Spirit... as Acts 1:8 says: "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." Now I could have stayed happily quiet, finding my meaning in life from sport (especially Karate), just hoping that my friends will somehow figure out for themselves what it was all about, but the Scripture also said (in Rom.8: 9): "But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if it is so that the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if any man doesn't have the Spirit of Messiah, he is not his."
When I was first year at University, I met a group of christians that did "street work", going out on Saturday nights to preach the good news to people on the streets. I decided to find out more. The first thing I noticed when I went there, was that although they were from a variety of backgrounds, they had a love and unity that I have never experienced before. Normally a group of us would stay behind in the "Coffee room" and pray, while the others went out in pairs to speak with people on the streets. Before going out, there would be an opportunity to tell about what you have learned from God or experienced in the past week. I normally kept quiet, but was intrigued enough to come back repeatedly. On the 3rd Saturday night, the leader of the group asked me if I would go out, because there were too few of the regulars (the normal procedure was that you could go out after attending and praying 3 times). I was cornered, too proud to refuse the invitation, but at the same time knowing that there was no way I could do this. I didn't know the Bible very well (I knew the basic message, but not where what was written) and on previous occasions that I have tried speaking to people about Jesus, a single question would leave me speechless. So that night I asked God that if I have not received the Holy Spirit yet, He would pour out His Spirit on me and if I already have the Spirit, He would somehow work through me and give me the words that I did not have. I confessed my sin and asked Him to cleanse me. And He did! :-) I have never experienced God as a reality in my life before. I had believed the Bible, yes, but as something that happened 2000 years ago, not as a present reality in my life. I have prayed for the Holy Spirit before, but then just waited and when nothing happened, concluded that it didn't work for some reason. This time, after I prayed, I actually trusted Him enough to take a step in faith and go, trusting that He will keep His promise. People would ask me questions to which I had no clue of an answer. And I would (praying open-eyed in my heart the whole time) open my little pocket-bible and the exact answer to their question would be right before our eyes! I suddenly cared about people I didn't even know. Everything changed. Much like the change described by Jaco in his life when he was 12 and a half years old. God, prayer, the bible ... everything became alive to me. God wasn't only a reality, but He became the most important Person in my life. Some of my friends in the same passage of the University hostel where I stayed, complained that I talked too much! I could not keep quiet about Jesus. I truly cared about other people for the first time in my life. The joy and peace is difficult to describe to some-one who have not experienced it themselves. This experience of the Holy Spirit has forever coloured my view, also of His work in inspiring the Bible.
I made some real good Christian friends. I learned more about God in the sharing sessions before our Saturday night outreach, than in any sermon in any church. We taught each other and learned from each other. We prayed for and with each other. It was also in this time that I had my first negative encounter with theology as it is typically taught in South African theology faculties. A friend, studying engineering at the time, came to repentance and was on fire for God immediately. He decided that he would like to study theology to serve God full-time. A year or so later I heard from common friends that he was now an atheist because of the things that he was taught while studying theology. How could this be? As I grew in my "new" faith, I felt the need to take this good news to those that have never heard it before or never even had the chance to hear... but (fortunately?) I never saw myself as a pastor or felt the need to study theology full-time. This event of my friend losing his faith obviously made me very sceptical of whatever they taught people at theological faculties (to this day :-( ).
For me, this was also not the end of the road, but rather the beginning of a whole new life. It was in this period that the whole issue of Karate first became an issue for me. When I was in High School, this was really my favourite activity and much more than just a sport to me. Now I had new priorities and have had questions about a Christian's involvement in Eastern Martial Arts for some time. The reality was that Karate was definitely an idol in my life. So, in order to pacify the voice of my conscience on the issue, I decided to stop attending Karate practise. But just in case I might want to resume Karate in future, I still practised on my own "to stay on form". By this time I also got to know the Bible much better, so much so, that I felt confident about confronting anybody with its message. So one day I was speaking with a fellow who was involved with the "Christian Science" movement. They pick and choose which bits of the bible they accept to fit with their teachings and as we were talking, I just realised that I was not getting through to him. Usually with our Saturday night outreaches, at least one person would give his live to the Lord, many times through the witness of the least experienced believers. Afterwards, as I was praying about the reason for not being able to touch this guy's heart, it was as if the Holy Spirit told me that I was proud, thinking I was better / more clever than this guy for knowing Jesus. And the Holy Spirit cannot use you when you think you can do it yourself. I was chastised and resolved that in future I will achieve victory over this sin of pride. But I never could... just as I thought I have finally gained the victory, I would find myself proud again. I continued "witnessing" to people around me, but because I knew the Bible better, trusted in my knowledge instead of in God. As I told people of the love, joy and peace that God gives, I knew that it was no longer true in my life. Somehow, I hoped that through the act of witnessing, I would regain the power of the Holy Spirit as well. (Today I think that the "discipline" as taught in Karate, where you have to achieve everything through your own effort, and the pride I already had for my achievements in Karate, was also a big factor in my struggles). I went into a depression such as I have never experienced before in my life. It felt like a spiral just sinking deeper and deeper. I became desperate and attended more bible studies and became involved in more outreaches. So much so, that I did not keep up with my studies (I was supposedly a student after all). I fasted and prayed, but the bible became a dead book and it felt as if all my prayers simply rebounded from the ceiling (cf. Is.59:1-2). And somehow, I still convinced myself that I was some kind of "super Christian", better than all the rest.
My roommates in both years at University, were atheists and we had long discussions. Feeling as if God was far away, not experiencing anything of His Spirit in my life anymore and hearing their arguments while my own testimony of what God did in my life was somehow not convincing to them, got me to a point where I started doubting the very existence of God again. This was hell on earth, to have known God and His power and now thinking that He doesn't even exist. I continued like this for maybe two weeks. I think this was the absolute lowest point of my life. How did I get out of this hole? It was not through any great argument, but through a Christian friend who simply asked me what was wrong and then prayed with me as I asked God for forgiveness for doubting Him. And I finally got out of my pride when I failed in my studies and could no longer continue with my course.
I had to return home and explain what happened. More-over, I suddenly had no Christian friends close by to try and impress. I was on our farm, with no Christian fellowship; just God and I. It was very difficult to be confronted with myself as I really am and not as I pretend to be. And I learned that all I needed to do was turn to God and ask His forgiveness... I was too proud to do this before, but now He cornered me. My first impulse was to say that perhaps God did not want me to study Veterinary Science and therefore caused me to fail. But as I prayed, I realised that He did indeed want me to study, but that He would rather have me fail and come to my senses than pass and continue on the path I was on, thinking everything was OK (except for this small matter of pride ;-) ) while all the time drifting farther away from God. But it was also during this year on the farm in which I started to study the Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament. I tried to form a picture of the Messiah from the Old Testament as if I was a Jew from before the time of Yeshua. And strangely enough, it was these prophecies that removed the last vestiges of doubt from my heart. I realised that much the same process as I have experienced when witnessing in the power of the Holy Spirit, was true for much of prophecy.... where even the prophet himself didn't fully understand the prophecy he was giving. "Concerning this salvation, the prophets sought and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, searching for who or what kind of time the Spirit of Messiah, which was in them, pointed to, when he predicted the sufferings of Messiah, and the glories that would follow them." (1 Pet. 1:10-11) And while I realise that this is probably not the way "modern scholarship" would interpret those same passages, it is in line with the way that Scripture itself says: "And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit." (2 Pet. 1: 19-22) The same Spirit who gave the prophecies in the first place, is available to every believer to help us understand the prophecies correctly. Scholarship can help us understand the human element of Scriptural revelation, but it can not enlighten us to what the Spirit meant, especially as the majority of modern scholarship doesn't even consider the possibility of divine revelation and inspiration.
This all already happened a while ago... in the meantime I did my BSc degree by correspondence, finished an MSc in Conservation Ecology (still love nature and animals! :-)) and after a stint as Computer Programmer, and then researcher with the Cape Leopard Trust, recently started work at the Cheetah Conservation Fund. During all this time I have grown to know God better, learning that obedience and not "head" knowledge is the way to understand and grow in understanding the Scriptures, learning that my capacity to sin is far greater than I thought, but also that the grace of God is even greater. I learned some Hebrew in order to read the Tanach in its original language(s) (my Aramaic is still pretty much non-existent :-) ). I have found that I can trust the Bible as the Word of God. I have talked with some atheists that afterwards gave their lives to the Lord and learned that in most cases it wasn't intellectual problems, but "reasons of the heart" that kept them from God.
For this reason, I find Jaco's story so interesting and sad. It appears to me as if he is at the same place as I was, when many years ago I stopped believing in God's existence for those 2 weeks, but through a whole different route... according to him only because of intellectual reasons. While I will never again think that it can never happen to me -- after all, the heart of man is deceitful above all things -- I also had the distinct feeling when reading his thesis that as the "devil's advocate" he was too uncritical of the "liberal" viewpoint and much too ready to rather doubt God's Word.
So maybe looking at some of the areas of difference between our experiences could give us a clue to the reason for the different conclusions to which we came. One of the first places where our experiences differ, is that Sunday school never was of any spiritual significance to me. On the contrary, I found it boring and after coming to God, the only use that I had for Sunday school, is that it gave me a little basic background to the different biblical characters (I first realized this when sharing the gospel with some Zulu people that did not grow up with a christian background and finding that I could not simply use examples from biblical narratives to illustrate some point, because they would not know who I was speaking of). Fairly early after coming to God, I already realised that many things we were taught in Sunday school were not quite true and Sunday school overall had even less impact on my life and view of God than the church. Of course, this might simply be because I came to faith later in my life than Jaco. This was at least one shock less to my system. :-) One lasting impression from a Sunday school camp, however, was a pastor (dominee) who taught us to always check in our bibles everything that is preached from the pulpit and only accept it if it actually agrees with what is found in the Bible.
Another difference that I can see between the experiences of Jaco and me, is his early love for dogmatic theology. Early on, after being filled with the Spirit, I read all the spiritual books I could find. But then I realized that they didn't always agree and sometimes even used the same scripture texts to defend opposite viewpoints! And I didn't know the Bible well enough to know who was right. This made me a sceptic of any human doctrine early on in my Christian life. Dogmatic theology has always given me the feeling of trying to fit God's Word to my dogmatic system, rather than really giving His Word the chance to mold my doctrine. For a few years, I refused to read any christian books except the Bible, hoping to get to know the Bible well enough to distinguish error from truth. This might be a reason why some things found in the Bible, that could be a shock to somebody with a specific evangelical/fundamentalist dogmatic outlook, were less of a shock to me as I became more willing to change my "orthodox theological view" to what the Bible says... e.g. Chapter 3 in the thesis which for me doesn't really count as an argument against the reality of YAHWEH as depicted in the Bible. Moreover, he might also have confused the "Biblical" viewpoint too much with the "fundamentalist" viewpoint. All reading of Scripture involves some level of interpretation. And while is generally correct to read the apparent simplest meaning of the text as the meaning of the text, it is not always correct, especially when not considering that the straightforward meaning of the text in the time that it was written might not correspond with the "straightforward" meaning of the text as we read it today. All too often, "fundamentalist" theologians still shoe-horn the biblical texts to fit their doctrine.
Some questions that I have concerning Jaco's story: 1. How sure was he originally that God called him to be a missionary? 2. If God called him to missions, by what right did he decide that he might become a systematic theologian instead? Is it possible that he was disobedient to the Lord already when he decided to pursue systematic theology (and thus put himself in the same kind of situation that I was in when I lost my faith temporarily)? 3. Did he still experience the Holy Spirit and hear God's voice daily in his personal prayer time when he first began to have doubts? I find it difficult to believe that somebody who is experiencing the power and love of God in his life on a daily basis, can start to doubt the existence of God at the same time. Surely something must have first disturbed this relationship with the Lord?
I also find it interesting that John MacArthur was one of his favourite scholars, simply because I never considered him as a scholar. A man of God and faithful to scripture, yes, somebody with some deep spiritual insights, but not a scholar. This might be because I never really read theological scholarly material, but only those books by MacArthur with more of a practical spiritual christian bend. I never read any apologetic material by MacArthur or any scholarly debates on the authorship of Torah for instance, but mostly books where the Bible as the Word of God was simply assumed (not defended) and its practical implications explained. (This is not meant as a slur; I still like his books, but for spiritual edification, not scholarly debate. :-) )
I am sure that I didn't read as widely or as deeply from the theological literature as Dr. Gericke. However, It still seems to me that the primary source, the only real "facts" (outside archaeology, about which I did read a fair amount and also did a Biblical Archaeology course through UNISA), still remains only the Biblical text. And to that I also have access, as good as any (critical) scholar.
Let me say upfront that I still don't have answers to all the problems in the Bible. However, I have found answers to many problems I thought at first to be insoluble. And because God is a reality in my life, I trust Him that there are good answers for those problems for which I don't have an answer yet. Maybe because I come from a scientific background where new knowledge almost always lead to new (and more) questions, the fact that there remains some questions at present, doesn't bother me that much. This might be an important point of difference between our stories, because it seems to me (and I might interpret his story incorrectly here) as if Jaco really wanted final answers to all his questions and biblical "problems" before he would be able/willing to believe in God. If that is really what he wanted (and still wants), then I know that this little anti-thesis of mine is never going to satisfy him. It is interesting that when God answers Job, He still doesn't explain the why of what happened to Job. Instead, He rather revealed something of who He is, before changing Job's circumstances. If there is any answer to Job's circumstances, it is found in the beginning chapters of the book, but God doesn't refer to it at all when answering Job. Why? Do I totally miss the point if I think that somehow our personal relationship with God is more important to Him than understanding everything He does? That trusting Him, even when we don't understand everything, somehow leads to new answers that could not be found in any other way?
From the Appendix (p.481):
Doesn't that rather indicate that there was a real problem with his "own stereotypical conservative evangelical theology" rather than with the Bible? After I was first filled with the Spirit, I realized that the reason why many critical scholars didn't believe the Bible was because it didn't agree with their experience, so they concluded that the Bible had to be at fault. For me the great revelation was that all the time when I was thirsting for and not experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit, it was not the Bible that was at fault, but me and my understanding of faith. Could this be a factor in Jaco's life story as well? Could it be the problem that Frank Viola is talking about here?
From p. 485 in the thesis:
And yet, my reading of the same Bible, has lead in the exact opposite direction!
As for the reformed Confessions, I agree that they are the creations of their time, with a very peculiar interpretation of Scripture and in no way inerrant. To me they also seem to divide Christians, rather than bind us together. While I accept the Bible as the inerrant, inspired Word of God, I cannot grant any human interpretation (not even my own :-) or that of the fundamentalists) the same level of infallibility. And while I do think that they represent some progress from Roman dogma (using Scripture as ultimate earthly authority instead of church tradition), Scripture alone (yes, even minus most of modern critical scholarship), still seems to me a better choice (I really like this quote from Kierkegaard).
“The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any word in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. ‘My God,’ you will say, ‘if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?’ Here in lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”