My Changed Beliefs – What Happened

 
I once believed that a loving and holy God would send people to an eternal hell if they didn’t believe and accept Jesus Christ before they died. For 35 years I preached, evangelized, pastored and taught this message, and many other evangelical Christian messages, to thousands of people in S.E. Asia, Canada and Australia.

Now, many years later my beliefs have changed after confronting my doubts, boldly asking many questions and getting answers that made sense.

This change hasn’t been easy. It’s not easy to go against the grain of the religious belief system one lives in. There are people even today who are killed or if not killed then shut out for believing differently from the group. It’s a serious step. For me the reaction from some Evangelical Christians and friends has been unsettling and hurtful. But in spite of the reactions I feel better about my spirituality and have a clearer picture of what actually happened around 2000 years ago and the centuries following in regards to the beginnings and formation of Christianity. Dare I say it but what really happened is different in many ways to what I had been taught in Bible College and every Sunday from the pulpit.

These changes haven’t converted me to Atheism. I still believe in God and Jesus and aspects of the Bible but with a different understanding of who God and Jesus are and how and where the Bible came from. The God of love, life and light who can be within us, has become more real and appealing to me and won’t send “unbelievers” to eternal hell. Jesus, who was a radical young man endowed with God’s Spirit and presence knew God intimately and had compassion and love for all forms of humanity, believing in community and equality (even for women) while at the same time challenging and confronting the injustices of his day in a non-violent way. I don’t believe he was literally God in human form and became a sacrifice for my/our sins. Rather He left an example or model that I hope I can contextualize and live out for today.

Probably the most important change has been in my beliefs about the Bible. I now understand the Bible as not literal or God’s literal words but rather a collection of writings written by known and unknown writers. Together they included actual events, inspired stories, made up stories, poems, parables, metaphors and myths which all have some meaning and purpose to them and were written to accommodate their present situations. This new understanding I have of the Bible has put me at great odds with the majority of Evangelical/Fundamentalist Christianity. As I said it has been unsettling and sometimes hurtful but yet what I now believe is far better and clearer than what I believed before.

You might say that this is a spiritual journey that is on the move again. I don’t want to negate the past. What I understood to be true before certainly wasn’t all a waste of time as it taught me aspects of the loving nature of God and guided me in my moral behaviour. Now however I am discovering too many new truths about Christianity that I can’t go back to where I was before. I’m finally getting answers to those nagging questions which, I know, many Christians secretly have today. Here’s a sampling of some of those questions: Was Jonah really swallowed by a large fish and spit out three days later – Alive!?; Are the sentences/words of Jesus in the Bible really what He said?; Did God command the ancient Israelites to slaughter 50,000 Canaanites and then move onto their land?; Are heaven and eternal hell real places?; Was there a flood that covered the entire earth and only Noah and animals were saved?; Was Jesus really born of a virgin women who was conceived by God?; Are we are all cursed sinners because of what Adam and Eve did?; Why is Church becoming so boring? (The answers to the above questions are at the end of this article.)

I had these questions for years and I was too afraid to ask or to research because it would mean I really wasn’t a committed Evangelical Christian. But they wouldn’t go away and I wanted and needed answers. Eventually I got bolder and started reading books and articles written by mostly critical thinking PhD scholars and theologians, who eventually answered these questions and with those answers came my change in beliefs and continuing spiritual journey.

In this next section I want to describe some of the other important factors that guided me throughout my life to a place where I became confident enough to take that step out of Evangelical Christianity.

Here’s My Story

Mother Nature was like God

For me I would have to say my sense of “Godness” all started when I was young and a foundation was being laid. The main ingredients were; being taught there is a God and loving nature or Mother Nature as I called it which to me was like God.

My parents, who taught me honesty, discipline and hard work, sent me to a Catholic School and church where I was a mischievous altar boy. It was here that I learned about the Catholic God, Jesus Christ and Mary and I would often pray in front of the statues asking for help with my grades at school. I had a sense that an invisible God was there or that Jesus might appear like a ghost.

In the summer months my parents often went to the summer cottage on Lake Erie, Ontario. This provided a place of adventure for me and I would wonder for hours into the lush green forests. I felt close to the peacefulness of what I then called Mother Nature which to me was the same as God being there. In Hamilton Ontario, my home town, I would go bird watching in the bush on the escarpment and would marvel at all the colours of the birds. Again I had that sense of Mother Nature or God. Add to these experiences my Cubs and Boy Scouts outdoor trips and lots of vegetable gardening I had to do and enjoyed. All of these “Mother Nature” experiences gave me a sense of the presence of God. This was all before I understood any theology, but God was real and felt real.

As time went on life became more and more difficult at home so I left home when I was 15 and eventually travelled to western Canada where I learned the hard knocks of life. Then when I was 21 I met my beautiful wife, Deborah, at the Banff Springs Hotel, Alberta. Her wonderful character began to smooth the rough edges in my life. We enjoyed the nature and beauty of the Rocky Mountains by hiking, climbing, canoeing and biking as much as we could. Once again I was close to Mother Nature and had that sense of the presence of God.

We eventually moved to Peterborough Ontario and a young couple introduced us to Jesus Christ and Christianity. In 1976 I became an evangelical Christian and Debbie a year later. As a young Christian I did struggle a bit with the concept of the cross and Jesus dying for us but felt confident in God’s Love for humanity. After a few years of meeting with other Christians and developing good friendships along the way I began to understand and believe the evangelical Christian message.

What I Was Taught

I was taught to give my life to Jesus and commit wholly to God and to the Bible, which was considered God’s Word. Any doubts or disbelief meant that I wasn’t really walking by faith or committed and therefore not close to God and if not close to God then I wouldn’t be blessed by God or be able to hear clearly from God. Yet secretly, I did have some doubts, especially about some Old Testament stories.
My message to others then was how God loved us so much that God became a man in Jesus Christ, who showed us the ways of God and then took the punishment we deserve for our wrong doing (sins, which all of humanity has inherited from Adam and Eve) upon Himself by dying on the cross in order to appease the wrath/just punishment of God. Another illustration I used was that God was 100% pure and nothing impure could come into His presence, except through Jesus Christ who was like a filter that washed away our impurities or sins when he died and shed his blood for us. Those who didn’t accept this belief remained impure before God and couldn’t come into God’s pure presence and therefore would be in eternal hell. So in a nutshell the Holy God loves you, died for you through Jesus, accept and believe, or go to eternal hell. The God loves you part is definitely still true for me today but in a different context.

This all made sense at the time within the traditional Christian environment I was living in. There were many times, though, that I fell short in my own commitment to God or even reading the Bible. It was during these times that I felt guilt and needed to confess my sins, which I did, many times! Thankfully because of my love for nature and the outdoors I would sometimes overcome this guilt by venturing into my garden or walking/cycling outdoors. Nature brought me close to God. It was a bit of a Catch 22, I just offended God yet felt close to God in nature.

Saving and Helping the Lost Overseas

Then in 1981 a man visited our hobby farm in Valemount British Columbia and challenged me about the needs of the many poor and disadvantaged people in other parts of the world and how I could help them physically while at the same time sharing the message about God’s love and saving them from hell spiritually.

This challenge grew within me while I was walking the forests and mountainsides of B.C. as a forest technician, until I eventually decided it was time to really do something about the poor and needy. So I began to prepare the family to go overseas and live amongst them. At this stage of my life my beliefs had this, “Us” and “Them” mentality, “Us” going to heaven and “Them” going to hell. So we needed to save them.

After Bible College, Tech College and some University training in 1985 our family of three daughters and my wonderful wife who followed the same beliefs, left Canada for a needy country. This was the beginning of an 11 year journey into 5 Asian countries in which we helped thousands of people with their physical needs and shared the evangelical Christian message to many people, of which many then believed.

It was during these 11 years in Asia that I began to ask myself questions about my beliefs and the Bible. I saw and befriended many people of other beliefs who were doing incredible things for humanity. I began to secretly wonder if God was going to send them to hell. I also saw many Christian missionaries who lived like kings amongst the local poor people (even poor Christians) and this didn’t match with what I knew of Jesus’ life and his teachings and what his followers did back then. My understanding was that we were to bond with the locals and live as close as reasonably possible to them and this, we as a family, did. I was beginning to wonder if some of the “Us’s” were really going to go to heaven and began to have “secret” doubts about whether those people of other faiths were all going to hell forever.

So after 11 years overseas, in 1996 we briefly moved back to Canada where we applied to emigrate to Australia so our eldest daughter could commence her University studies in Perth, Western Australia.

Doubts and Questions

The period between 1996 to 2010, which included 4 years back in Canada, was a bit of a roller coaster life with many ups and downs. Coming out of Asia where there were so many needs and into a western lifestyle where there is an overabundance of things wasn’t easy to get used to. I put together two city wide Missions Festivals, which introduced me to the climate of the church in Perth. Even here the western influences made going to church a challenge for me. Gradually attending church became stale and boring and I began to fall asleep especially during the sermons.

As my questions and doubts about my Christian beliefs increased I carefully began to ask some close friends for answers to my questions. The answers were usually very shallow or they didn’t know how to answer. If anything the default answer was, “It’s God’s Word so if it said it then it happened. God can do anything, besides he wouldn’t have errors in his word.” Another common answer was, “We can’t understand all the mysteries of God. Therefore we must have faith”. I always felt uncomfortable with their answers and it only made me want to dig deeper. Then around 2010 I found what is called a “House Church” in which people met in homes and together studied the Bible, asked questions, learned, had fellowship, shared food and even went out into the community and helped those in need. It was a great experience and I felt we were doing something similar to what the early Christians did, before Constantine. I kept my doubts and questions at bay during this time since I felt we were doing something more in line with early Christianity. As you can imagine this way of doing church was not accepted by most other churches. How does the pastor get his salary in a House Church system and where is the pastor?

During this time I experienced my first theological confrontation with an evangelical Christian friend who quite hotly defended his “fundamentalist” beliefs on Noah and the flood and the Bible being God’s Word, both of which I had great doubts about. It was a bit of a shock for me as I began to realise how “religion” and religious beliefs can indeed cause major conflict WITHIN Christianity. It seems the stronger one holds to a belief the stronger they will defend it. I had now exposed my doubts and yet there was a sense of relief as I had finally overcome the fear of being exposed. This led me to carefully engage in discussions with other Christians about my doubts and discovered that some of them had doubts too, but, they still wanted to hold onto their traditional Christian lifestyle.

In 2013 Debbie and I moved to Yangon, Myanmar for a two year contract with a secular volunteer organization. This country was a very conservative Buddhist country and they weren’t overly influenced by the western world, yet, except for the wealthy few. I learned many good things about Buddhism, although I still don’t agree with the reincarnation bit and that’s OK. For the most part our Myanmar friends were devoted to doing good being kind and generous through their Buddhist traditions. We were taken to many pagodas/temples and they would do their religious activity which was their way of doing good and I would squat nearby and pray/meditate to God. I couldn’t imagine that God would send them all to hell if they didn’t accept Jesus Christ. So after some deep seeking for an answer about their destiny, I came to one possible conclusion which was: God and/or Jesus would meet with them after they died saying something like, “You didn’t know this, but I am the way the truth and the life. Enter into fellowship with me.” And because of Gods’ radiant love they would choose Fellowship with God. For those who were really bad they couldn’t stand the radiant Love of God and would go to wherever, I don’t know. This was my new revelation at the time and it sounded good to me, but I didn’t openly share it with other Christian expats in Yangon. I should add here that my wife, Debbie, wasn’t on a similar journey and she enjoyed the expat English church services so I kept a lid on my changing beliefs and attended church with her. Both of us enjoyed the fellowship and chatting with other expats after the service. It was the best way to find out what was happening in Yangon and Myanmar.

The Study and Research

Then in mid 2014 I was asked to share my life’s journey at the Yangon Christian Men’s breakfast. By now I was feeling more confident to share my changing beliefs. So when I got to my new revelation, there was silence and shock on many of the men’s faces. After I finished there came the backlash from a few of the more fundamentalist men who basically said this was impossible because it wasn’t in God’s Word. Thankfully the meeting had time constraints and soon ended. After the men’s breakfast a young gentleman from Holland came up to me and said that he and his wife agreed with what I had said and gave me a book by Rob Bell titled, Love Wins. I didn’t know it at the time but Rob has been “tarred and feathered” by many in the Christian community because of this book and his others as well. Rob also doesn’t believe all unbelievers will go to hell. What a relief to finally find some other Christians who thought as I did and were on a similar journey themselves. This book was the beginning of my research and studies about the history of Christianity and the Bible.

I began to devour books and watch seminars and debates on Youtube and soon realised that, especially in the debates, the Bible was always used as a reference point by the evangelical debaters. So if the Bible was the main reference then I needed to study the history and origins of the Bible to see how accurate it really is. I decided I would study from PhD authors and scholars who themselves had been traditional Christians but now are like progressive Christians and professors at universities or writers. Scholars like NT Wright, Peter Enns, Marcus Borg, Brain McClaren, John Dominic Crosson, John Spong, Diane Butler Bass, Bart Erhman and many others. A lot of my free time was now spent on reading books and listening to teachings and debates. My questions were finally being answered and I was learning so much and realising that I was not alone, there are so many others on this same journey. It was exciting to finally know what really happened or probably happened back then and why Christianity is where it is at today.

The Painful Part of this Journey

In March of 2016 I received a SKYPE call from an old friend in Mongolia, who wanted me to edit a Christian book. I had to tell him what my new beliefs were and he was shocked and probably disappointed as well. It became obvious that I couldn’t edit his book and then came his shocking statement, “You’re like a heretic!” Oh, that hurt. My friend was bewildered telling me the Bible was God’s word and that I was wrong. Well the call was short lived as any amount of reasoning wouldn’t have gotten us very far. As more friends heard that I had changed my beliefs there come two reactions. One, negative – the majority, they are concerned for me, angry, hurt, praying for me, unfriending from my FaceBook and two, positive – only a few, they wanted to know more as they have many doubts too. The negative reactions and even silence, are somewhat painful as now I didn’t fit in very well with their traditional Christianity.

Yet despite the challenges I know I am on the right track. I can now accept some of the different beliefs of other people and not judge them as “lost”. I don’t have the “Us and Them” mentality anymore. I can now sit/kneel with Buddhist friends in a temple and pray or meditate while they practice their religious traditions. I can sit in a mosque and pray my prayers while they pray theirs. If any of these people were to ask me what I believed, I hope they would listen non-judgmentally and glean the good from it as I would do from theirs. And I can sit in a Christian church service and understand where they are coming from and why, because I was there. Overall I am freer, not as judgemental, and closer to a different God, One who is all Loving, One who doesn’t send all non-believers to hell and One whom I can still find in the beauty of Nature.

I have a different message now which is quite different from the one I had before. Here are some basics:

* That God, who is neither male nor female but the Creator of the universe, is Love, Light, Life and full of the Fruit of the Spirit – Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Generosity, Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self-Control.

* That this God will shine through me (if I allow God to) to as many people as possible in order to make a positive impact on the world around me.

* That I should model the life of the Jesus who accepted, loved and fellowshipped with the least, the outcast, the disadvantaged, the rich, the poor, the sick, the healthy and spoke strongly against the injustices within the religious, worldly and political systems of his day.

* That I should share or give where it is needed. Not in order to receive merit, good karma, Godly favour or a tax deduction in return. But to give and share unconditionally expecting nothing in return.

* I should live in fellowship with others of any nationality, religion or orientation and if possible in community.

* That I must take authority and overcome bad spirits with the Light and Love of God.

* That I must take care of this earth and support others who want to do this as well and let us non-violently oppose those who don’t care about this fragile earth.

* That I must remember that God loves all of us unconditionally and is even present with all people of other nationalities and/or religions and with all those who are presently suffering.

* That I can still read the Bible as a source of inspiration where inspiration and truth is to be given and also to be open to inspirational Godly truths from other sources.

* That I must meditate in quietness and give to God my everything and receive from God love, inspiration and guidance.

I should mention something about healing as well because I have experienced it and am still researching it. The following might sound a bit weird, but then so are some Bible stories. At this point in my life I have come across what is called Quantum healing or Energy Healing which is basically the energy (or Spirit) of God available for healing. I use this when I need healing and also when I pray for others healing by asking for the healing energy of God to line up with me and my faith onto the area that needs healing. I actually visualise the healing energy working as it lines up with the affected area or person to be healed. I also ask Jesus to be part of this process. Does this always work? No. Why not? I don’t know, I’m still learning.

Conclusion

God or Mother Nature as I called it and to a degree the Catholic Church certainly had an influence on what I started to believe when I was young. This is to be expected of all children growing up the cultures/religions of the world today. Then as a young adult I embraced traditional evangelical Christianity which I was convinced was the true religion until I began to question some of the stories and beliefs. This eventually led to my change in beliefs and to where I am today, a freer man, more informed and still learning and still walking with and Loving God and modelling Jesus as best as I can.
It’s OK to step out and not be afraid to have doubts or ask questions about our Christian beliefs or to question what the preacher is saying. Challenge the teachings and doctrines. Do the research and study the origins of Christianity and the Bible but from non-fundamentalist/non-evangelical critical thinking scholars. Get to the root of it with the help of God’s Spirit.

Here are the basic answers to the questions I listed earlier.

Was Jonah really swallowed by a large fish and spit out three days later – Alive!?

I believe this was an ancient story created in order to teach the people of that time guiding principals from the God of their understanding. It literally didn’t happen.

Are the sentences/words of Jesus in the Bible really what He said?

Some of the “Jesus Sentences/Words” are what he probably said or would have said, but others are what the writer has heard from oral tradition handed down over the decades after Jesus’s death. Some sentences are what the writer wants Jesus to have said.

Did God command the ancient Israelites to slaughter 50,000 Canaanites and then move onto their land?

God did not kill them or command them to be killed, but that ancient tribal group of that time thought their God told them to do it.

Are heaven and eternal hell real places?

Yes Heaven is something, but not streets of gold and mansions. There have been too many life after death experiences from people who were dead for a few minutes to a longer time and all experienced an out of body experience, where they actually saw themselves as they were leaving to another place or long tunnel with light at the end and more. Every experience was different. Some explain this as a neurological reaction but then there are those who reported seeing their relatives or seeing someone they knew but didn’t know had died earlier. I say there must be some truth to this. Rob Bell and NT Wright say heaven is here on earth. Where ever it is, I believe there is a place somewhere.

As for hell I don’t believe there is an eternal pit of fire. Gehena in the bible is literally a burning garbage pit out of the city. But is it possible that on the edge of this heavenly realm is another dark place for very evil people who after some time they begin to see their darkness and make their way to the Light and Love of God. This is just me speaking, based on another book I read from 1924 by a man who died and came back to life who said he saw this. I heard a preacher talk about annilation for very bad people. Is this a possibility too?

Was there a flood that covered the entire earth and only Noah and animals were saved?

A great flood did cover the Euphrates around three thousand years ago and for the people there at that time, the flood covered the whole world as they knew it. This particular flood, over time, became a story about God’s judgement on all humanity except for Noah and family and the animals.

Was Jesus really born of a virgin women who was conceived by God?

No. At the time of Jesus a similar story was circulating, that one of the Roman leaders, Caesar Augustine, was born of a divine and human conception, thus was like God. So this wasn’t something new. The Christians of the day and decades after Jesus’ death, wanted to make Jesus more than an ordinary man.

I don’t think God literally was the biological father of Jesus. Rather I believe Jesus who was close with God, understood the presence of God, was an exceptional man with divine powers to heal and speak boldly.

Are we are all cursed sinners because of what Adam and Eve did?

We are all loved by God and are special people with a measure of the Light and Love of God within each of us. By measure I mean each person on earth has a choice as to how open they are to the Light and Love of God. Some who are very evil people have very little light while others shine brightly. So we are not cursed with sin from Adam and Eve. This is another ancient story which carries a meaning for that time in history.

Why is Church becoming so boring?

I can only answer this for myself because there are others who find church wonderful. So for me it has become boring because I feel it is speaking from a book, the bible, which I now understand has a different meaning to what the church or pastor believes and teaches. To tell unbelievers that God loves them, died for them and to accept Jesus into their hearts because if they don’t they will go to hell, has become so misleading to me that it’s difficult to listen to this. And there are so many other teachings as well that I can no longer accept as truth. Of course the fellowship and snacks after the service I do enjoy.

Conclusion

So I’m still learning new things about God, Jesus, the bible and spirituality in general. The answers I’ve given here are just what I know at this moment and some of these can change in the evolving journey of my life.

What is most important to me is to walk a life close with God, shine/share the Light and Love of God to as many people and situations as I can and be an example of the Fruit of God’s Spirit while at the same time modelling the life of Jesus in today’s context as best as I can. Also to be a good steward and protector of the earth on which I and we live.

I hope you enjoyed this.
Cheers, Albert Gentleman

Review & Commentary

  • Randall Wehler

    The Changed Beliefs personal essay by Albert Gentleman was something I welcomed seeing as a resource. He writes from the heart and by the Spirit that threads through all of us in connection to the Divine. It is written in what seems to be a very honest way, he having overcome any “What will people think if I write this?” reluctance. Thanks Al and PC.org for sharing it!