For a number of weeks he was possibly the most high profile Seventh-day Adventist on the planet, although I am not sure if he would still consider himself an Adventist. I’m talking about Ryan Bell. Bell was previously pastor of Hollywood Adventist church in California. He was asked to resign from ministry in 2013 due to a range of differences with the Church. This made him well-known in Adventist circles but little anywhere else. This all changed as 2014 began. Bell announced to Facebook friends and followers of his blog that he would be trying a “Year without God”. He explained he would take a journey into atheism. He would immerse himself in atheist literature, talk to atheists, study them, seek to think as an atheist, and live his life as if he was an atheist. No prayer, no devotion, no worship, no God.
To Bell’s surprise his announcement caught the attention of sceptics and the media. His story went viral. Within days some of the biggest TV and radio programs in the world were seeking interviews with him. He even made an appearance on the Australian TV morning show Sunrise. Atheists greeted this experiment enthusiastically. Although it’s fair to say that some viewed it either as a stunt or naïve; after all, they reminded Bell, you either believe or you don’t. Unbelief is not something you can pretend to have.
But the tragedy is now in the ordinariness . . . he will retrace a path that is so familiar to anyone in Western culture.
Christian reaction was far more diverse and passionate. Almost all were shocked. Some were angry. Most were concerned. Many were heartbroken and sad. Large numbers voiced their commitment to pray for Bell. Strangely, some celebrated the decision as brave and encouraged him in his undertaking (but what of the spiritual risk and danger?). The more intellectual either assembled apologetic responses or expressed curiosity about the outcome. Meanwhile, Bell, while moved, was certainly undeterred. And think about it, what could you say, to a pastor no less, that he had not either encountered before or thought about already?
For unbelievers, Bell was trying on a new philosophy, ideology, a bit like testing a different culture. It was significant but not ultimate. But for believers there was no minimising what was really taking place. A year without God is like a year of ignoring your spouse. It’s like denying the existence of your parents or your child for a year. It’s unthinkable in the deepest sense. No believer could ignore the sobering words of Jesus, “Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32,33).
Some have tried to psychoanalyse or figure Bell out. They have tried to get behind his motives. In the wake of his resignation he had not attended church and prayed very little. He was struggling with faith before his announcement. Was he already an atheist? His journey had been one of extremes, from highly conservative Adventist young man to prominent and very liberal pastor, and now from theist to (functional) atheist. Was he unstable? And yet meet Bell, as I have, and he is anything but extreme. He is engaging, clearly intelligent, very articulate and eminently likeable. It’s beyond us and forbidden for us to judge the heart (Matthew 7:1). Any such analysis must beware lest we cross over this line.
Leaving aside Bell’s heart and motives, I’ve tried to reflect on the meaning, at least to me, of his strange journey. What eventually struck me was, bizarrely, the utter mundane and pedestrian nature of it all. Not pedestrian to me but to our era. In our secular society profoundly shaped by three centuries of rationalism and philosophical materialism, myriad believers have travelled the road from faith to doubt. In a culture in which countless free-thinkers, sceptics, and atheists have penned novels, published treatises, composed poems, scripted films, constructed philosophies, cut sculptures, produced paintings and performed plays championing a godless world view, Bell’s journey is one that has played out again and again. We do not lack for stories of those who have lost faith. We all know some. Such stories reflect tendencies, whether it be our autonomous individualism, radical scepticism or anti-authoritarianism, that are deep in Western culture. This realisation is no comfort to us. It’s tragic. But the tragedy is now in the ordinariness. So Bell will immerse himself in the thoughts of the sceptic. He will imbibe their arguments and reasoning. He will retrace a path that is so familiar to anyone in Western culture. True he is going to try and see unbelief from the inside. But when so much of it surrounds believers, it isn’t hard to feel you are inside it anyway.
What I appreciate in all of this is that it highlights that we are all seeking out a journey worthy to retrace or emulate. Our lives naturally mirror others. We can find parallels in other people and their stories. Survivors of suffering experience a profound connection with fellow sufferers. We love meeting people who have travelled to the same places we have and swapping stories about our trips. We actively seek to imitate our heroes. Few things are as comforting or challenging to find than that our lives have been tracing a course eerily similar to another’s.
For us believers the Bible is alive partly because we discover that we, too, are a Judas in danger of betrayal, a Thomas struggling with doubt, a Moses being disciplined in the desert. We relive the peace of the lady about to be stoned by the mob and hear the words, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more” (John 8:11). We, too, feel the healing touch of Jesus removing the shame of some modern leprosy, opening our blind hearts and raising our spiritually dead souls to new life. Our various journeys are not isolated by an unqualified uniqueness. They are connected by shared experience and circumstances. Paradoxically, our unique life journeys are always paralleling paths or pilgrimages already taken. So why trade the path of Samuel or Sarah for Sartre, King David for Dawkins, or faithful Hannah for Hitchens? Why immerse yourself in the mind of Daniel Dennett when you could see and even experience what the apostle John did when he gazed, touched, talked and listened to the Word of Life himself (1 John 1:1-4)? What journey do we retrace?
But there is something even more significant. There is a journey like no other—that of Jesus Himself. Here is the biggest journey ever, undertaken on behalf of a fallen and helpless race. What a journey! It involves the dizzying descent from adored Deity, worshipped by angels, to despised Teacher, harassed by authorities. Down and down He comes, from the untouchable haven of divine majesty to the scary confines of humanity, vulnerable to pain, violence, suffering, trial and temptation. He plunges from the highest heights to the lowest abyss of betrayal, denial, and God-forsakenness on the cross. He re-travelled over the failed journey of Adam and Eve, the story of every man and woman, to give it a new end. He bore every life-destroying sin and goal-terminating evil in His own body. And then He tore up the grave in order that His saving journey might become the redemption of all our failed ones.
Finally, and most marvellously, we can become part of His journey. Not just by reliving it in a reading of the gospels. More than that, God credits the journey to those who believe. By faith it is as if we are like Him, without sin, not condemned, beloved, forgiven, and God’s very own child (Romans 5:1,2,8,9). Such is justification! What’s more the power of the journey is imparted to us and the Architect of it lives in us, renewing and guiding us each day (Romans 8:1-17). Why would anyone trade this offer of a saving journey which places life on an eternal plane to instead learn to re-think the thoughts of the atheist? What are the conjectures of a finite sceptic worth in comparison to the world-changing work of the Lord Jesus Christ?
Sadly, Ryan Bell is rehearsing a set of ultimately futile journeys. All the while God is still offering the chance to have an entirely different journey replayed in his life. We are all going somewhere. Where will our journey end? A year without God? Or an incomparable eternity with Him?
Pastor Anthony MacPherson is pastor of Plenty Valley and Croydon churches, Vic.