“I think it probably began with a serious spiritual dissatisfaction with God and my life under His providential care (so I believed then). I started getting less and less out of church, so I wondered what I was doing wrong.”
Why assume you were doing something wrong? If we are fallen creatures in a fallen world, then we can expect life to pall over time. The aging process alone can have that effect. The loss of vital energy. The sense of diminishing opportunities. Cumulative regrets and disappointments. The sameness of it all.
It varies from person-to-person, but there’s nothing evidently “wrong” about getting less out of something you used to do.
“I tried to justify my feelings by saying, God just didn't move today.”
Once again, I think this labors under the false assumption that you had to justify your feelings. You mistakenly identify something as a problem. You then go in search of solutions. If the solutions fail, you give up.
But if you misdiagnose the situation, then the solution is bound to fail. You need to go back and question your operating assumption.
“Then I started wondering if I was praying enough. I prayed more. Then I started wondering, is there unconfessed sin in my life? None that I could think of.”
This is all predicated on the initial assumption that something must be wrong, something you must justify, if you get less and less out of church.
Consider it this way: how much did ancient Jews get out of attending synagogue? Don’t you suppose that was a fairly humdrum affair?
“I had (and this is deeply personal but probably not surprising at all to you) problems of lust and covetousness (not of money, but of social success and friendships and relationships and such), but these were ongoing confessions in my prayer life, with associated ups and downs but no real deliverance.”
Why would you expect to be delivered? Don’t people in the Bible suffer from the same problems? Isn’t that part of what it means to be a sinner? Part of what it means to inhabit a fallen world?
“I was desperately lonely and could not understand the providence of God in my life to allow not only crushing loneliness, unanswered prayers (forgot to mention, a rather big omission that) in various and numerous requests to God, but also the apostasy of near and dear friends who held devoutly to the same religion of Christianity that I held to, and the absence of saving faith in so many family members (again, more unanswered prayers) who were variously Catholic, or nominally religious at best, some not hostile but completely apathetic to religion (something I just for the life of me could not understand, especially with all the wonderful experiences in the Christian faith I had, wonderful relationships inside the church at least, at one-time a very growing and healthy spiritual life, and the like, and how could anyone not want more than the daily grind of a never-ending rat race offered by the world?).”
i) If you were desperately lonely, then isn’t that a reason (maybe the main one) you got less and less out of church? So your experience with church doesn’t require any special explanation, over and above your mundane circumstances.
It’s hard to be lonely. Of course, that’s a common condition. Emotional and social isolation is part of what it means to be fallen creatures. But it’s harder to be lonely without God, than to be lonely with God.
ii) I can understand how you’d find it painful to see loved ones leave the faith. But how is that a reason for you to leave the faith? Isn’t that circular?
If a recovering drug addict falls off the wagon, is that a reason for you to fall off the wagon?
If anything, shouldn’t you be strong for them when they are weak? Persevere for them? Continue to pray for them? Aren’t backsliders counting on the faithful to pray for them, to stick it out, and then go back for them–like a good shepherd who circles back to rescue stray sheep?
If a hiker is lost, he doesn’t need another hiker to lose his way. Rather, he needs another hiker who knows the way to search for him and find him and lead him back onto the trail.
iii) I’m not clear on what you expect prayer to accomplish, and why. Surely you don’t expect God to answer all your prayers, do you? We are shortsighted creatures who pray, based on what little we know or mistakenly believe. Given the law of unintended consequences, it would be unreasonable to expect God to answer all our prayers, or answer them on our own fallible, often misguided (if well-meaning) terms.
Likewise, I’m not clear on how you view the timing of answered prayer. I had a devout grandmother who prayed for all her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren.
Did she expect to see her prayers answered in her lifetime? How could that be? Many whom she prayed for would outlive her by decades. She was old and they were young.
I view prayer like a family farm. Something we pass on from one generation to another. One generation may sow, while another generation may reap the harvest. My grandmother planted seed which blossomed at different times, in many cases long after she departed.
Perhaps you’ll say this is special pleading. That explanations like this can reconcile prayer with any outcome. But I’m not trying to prove prayer. I’m merely pointing out how the theology prayer is fully consistent with what you describe.
And this is not an ad hoc explanation. This follows from the nature of prayer if Scripture is true. Your disappointment is fostered by false expectations. Things you’d like to be the case (don’t we all?), but for which there’s no good reason.
“I even began doubting my election in the sovereign grace of Christ, having no real proof for it with which I could satisfy myself…”
I don’t know what proof you’re looking for. The evidence of election is no different from the evidence of saving faith.
It sounds to me like you were just depressed. (Maybe still are.) That’s understandable. But that’s not a spiritual condition, per se.
“Finally (and I wish I could pin it on the calendar, for reference's sake if for nothing else) one day came the fatal thought: what if it is all bogus?”
Well, since God has endowed us with a faculty for abstract reason, we have the capacity to imagine self-delusive scenarios. But the capacity to imagine a self-delusive scenario is hardly a good reason to think you really are deluded. And if you really were deluded, then your doubts are deeply untrustworthy.
“I bought and began reading atheist books. I learned to doubt the Scriptures, and see real contradictions (sorry, this is my personal view) that I could not resolve intellectually.”
i) Sorry, but I don’t understand how an ordained Southern Baptist pastor could suddenly discover a host of hitherto unsuspected contradictions in the Bible. It’s not like this is the first time you ever read the Bible. The very fact that you have this overnight revelation should be reason to doubt your doubt.
ii) I also find it ironic that at a time when we have secular Jewish literary critics like Robert Alter and Meir Sternberg who challenge the claim that many stock contradictions are, in fact contradictions; who, instead, explain the same phenomena in terms of studied rhetorical strategies, despite the fact that these critics have no prior commitment to the inspiration of Scripture, we still have folks who recycle the same dog-eared list of “contradictions.”
“I began to see other Biblical problems that made plenty of sense intellectually from a theological standpoint, but which I could no longer justify emotionally and ethically.”
That’s too vague to say much about, but again, the fact that you suddenly began to “see” a lot of things in the Bible which were there all along, which you’ve been reading and rereading for years on end, should give you reason to question the soundness of your newfound perception.
“I had for some time been secretly in heart doubting rather strongly anything in the first eleven chapters of Genesis. I could not make myself believe any longer in a global flood. Miracles or not, the operation of such seemed absolutely absurd and the reasons for which have made the Christian God in my view to be a moral monster worse than and less deserving of worship than Hitler. Christianity, according to Calvinism, is one of the most diabolically absurd and hateful systems of religion ever invented by man.”
i) I’m not clear how you link Calvinism to a global flood. Is Calvinism the only theological tradition which espouses a global flood? No.
ii) Of course, some scholars don’t even think Genesis teaches a global flood (e.g. John Walton, Ronald Youngblood).
iii) How is the operation “absolutely absurd,” “miracles or not?” Surely the possibility of miracles make a difference in evaluating the possibility of the flood, global or otherwise.
iv) How does the flood make God a moral monster? Here is the stated rationale for the flood:
“9These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God. 10And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
11Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth. 13And God said to Noah, "I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth.”
How is it morally monstrous for God to bring judgment on the wicked? How is it morally monstrous for God to rescue the godly from a wicked world?
“To think that God who could save a billion worlds filled with billions of souls in a billion different galaxies decided to save only a small remnant on a single planet in an obscure part of a lesser galaxy, and predestined these elect before time to salvation and them alone, is a horrible decree beyond my personal ability to describe.”
Honestly, I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean.
i) Are you saying God is blameworthy because there are actually billions of worlds filled with billions of hellbound souls? If that’s what you mean, how do you know there are actually billions of worlds? And even if there were, how would you be in any position to know that most of their inhabitants are damned?
ii) Or are you saying God is blameworthy because there are billions of merely possible worlds containing hellbound souls which God never created? But that doesn’t make much sense. Presumably you don’t fault God for failing to create more hellbound souls.
iii) So what are you saying? Are you saying God is to blame because there are billions of possible worlds containing billions possible souls whom God could have saved, had he made them? Is so, how does that follow? How can God wrong nonentities? How can he wrong them by not creating them? Where’s the argument?
Does a couple have a duty to conceive as many children as physically possible? Did they wrong a nonexistence child by failing to bring him into existence?
iv) Assuming that there are actually billions of worlds containing billions of souls, why assume they are fallen or damned? Why assume they even need to be saved? What about unfallen worlds?
v) And for all you know, there are alternate worlds in which everyone is heavenbound. As far as speculation goes, you can speculate either way.
However I try to interpret your objection, it comes out nonsense. Seems to me you have some inchoate emotional repulsion which you’ve attempted to articulate, but you clearly haven’t thought through the implications of your objection.
vi) What makes you think the remnant is “small”? Does Calvinism have an official position on the size of the remnant? Not that I’m aware of.
vii) Finally, assuming the remnant is “small,” how is that “monstrous” or “Hitlerian”? This is not like a capsized vessel where we have an obligation to save as many innocent drowning passengers as the lifeboat will accommodate.
Rather, a basic presupposition of salvation is that the lost are evil. There is no duty to save the evil (including you and me).
“That hell is an inescapable death camp for the eternal torture of souls created by God solely for His glory in their judgment and damnation, and according to some Calvinistic perspectives, for the enjoyment or at least spiritual enrichment of the saved elect who can perpetually view such a monstrosity of injustice and evil, and glorify God for the same, is absolutely abhorrent to me. If such a God does exist, I would never worship Him, and would gladly rebel and suffer eternally than offer so much as a hint of praise to such a monster.”
i) Is your objection to hell, or to Calvinism? It’s not as if hell is unique to Calvinism.
ii) What makes you think the damned are “tortured.”
iii) Why is punishing the wicked a “monstrosity of justice?” Isn’t allowing the wicked to go unpunished a monstrosity of justice?
iv) What, exactly, is wrong with the saints taking moral satisfaction in the fact that innocent victims will finally see justice exacted on their assailants?
Do you find it equally abhorrent when Bernie Madoff was convicted and sentenced for defrauding his clients?
“My morality such as it is, imperfect as it is, wrongly exceeds that of the Biblical God, which leads me to believe either He does not exist, or is not correctly identified by the Bible.”
What’s the basis of your morality?
If atheism is true, you have nothing to gain and everything to lose by being an atheist.
If Christianity is true, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by being a Christian.
There’s no parity between these two alternatives.
When in doubt, don’t doubt God–doubt yourself.