When the Pastor Becomes an Atheist

Jerry Dewitt says he is the most disliked person in DeRidder, Louisiana.

All he did was to renounce his Christian faith–he’d been pastor of the First Community Church there–and become an apostle for atheism. That’s all.

Last Monday’s Times-Picayune carried the story by Bruce Nolan (a good friend and longtime staff writer for the T-P). Apparently, the atheists and humanists (are these one and the same? or do they have trouble deciding?) were having a conference in New Orleans and Dewitt was in attendance, so Bruce caught up with him.

Jerry Dewitt was a Pentecostal preacher, he says. After struggling with his doubts for years, he went public with his unbelief (he calls it “nonbelief”) last fall and has been unemployed since December.

He described his journey to unfaith to Bruce Nolan as “lonely and stressful.” For years, he said, he kept a phony public identity, preaching doctrines he no longer believed, practicing a faith that did not work for him.

What were those doctrines he could not get past?

He identified three—

–He has trouble with hell. How could a loving God create such a place in His universe?

–He doubts the authenticity of the gifts of the Spirit, which is a major emphasis in the Pentecostal churches.

–He doubts the authority of the Scriptures.

The article says Dewitt is “now out of the pulpit and public about his non-belief. He has begun to do a little speaking, telling his reverse-conversion story around the country before local humanist groups. More than that, he is the unpaid executive director of Recovering from Religion and works with the Clergy Project, a website that invites and privately counsels doubting pastors behind a password-protected firewall.”

Promoting atheism is his new ministry. He calls himself a pastor still, in his role of counseling people struggling with faith issues.

These days, he’s trying to “reinvent himself as a speaker on the atheist and humanists circuit, hoping to earn enough money to make a modest living.”

Any minister who reads this will have a host of reactions, and no doubt several questions. Here are mine.

My immediate reactions….

1) Sadness. I hate that this happens. Dewitt will find other ex-ministers in his organization. (Some Christians will want to dismiss them with, “Well, that shows they never were saved in the first place.” That’s too easy, my friends. These are very real issues, and have been from the beginning.)

2) Understanding. Every believer whose ministry amounts to anything goes through the same struggles Dewitt did, although in his/her own unique way. We have all wrestled with these same issues concerning heaven and hell, spiritual gifts, whether God answers prayer, His purpose in suffering, and the inspiration of Scriptures. None are simple; we are not asked to “live by faith” for no reason. It takes great faith to believe in and serve God.

3) Longing. I wish we could have talked when he was struggling. Now, my experience is that most people in his situation are no longer interested in sitting down in the pastor’s office to hash these things out. Once he’s gone public in his disbelief, he will feel a need to defend what he has done. I have no desire to engage him (or anyone) in such a debate.

4) Greater sadness. Dewitt says he’s about to lose his home because he can’t meet the mortgage payments, and his marriage is in trouble. He’s paying a steep price for being true to his convictions, he feels. I’m sad that, while Dewitt went through the same struggles the rest of us did, he came out on the wrong side. That road is the way of despair, believe me.

5) No judgmentalism. I hope he is not “disliked” in DeRidder, a heavily evangelical section of southwest Louisiana. However, I recall that atheist Madalyn Murray-O’Hair was called “the most hated woman in America” for her anti-Christian activities. If we Christians are faithful to the Lord Jesus to “love our enemies” (Luke 6:27) as he instructed, such a person would be showered with love, not hatred. I suspect that people in DeRidder simply don’t know what to do with a well-known pastor turning apostle for atheism.

6) Admiration. I appreciate his honesty in leaving the pulpit. I have known pastors who did not believe a thing they preached, but stayed because they needed a job and a paycheck. Their churches suffered and the people were starved spiritually. Jerry Dewitt had the integrity to admit his nonbelief and to walk away from the pastorate.

I have several questions for anyone struggling with these issues and considering renouncing his faith in Christ.

1) Did you talk to anyone?

Are you trying to bear this burden alone? Doubt can be egotistical. When you start doubting the Word of God, it feels like you are raising questions no one has ever asked before.

They have.

You need to sit down with a mature and godly (and usually older) brother or sister in Christ and lay it all out. Don’t be surprised if their first reaction is to laugh, “You too? Man, I’ve been there!” Then, don’t be surprised if their next word to you is something like, “But I have good news for you. This is all part of the maturing process and there is light at the end of this tunnel.”

(The first comment we received on this blog was a question from Josh Hunt: “Where does one find such a person to confide in?” Great question. In the case of Billy Graham, who went through just such a crisis himself, three mentors helped to pull him through: Stephen Olford, J. Edwin Orr, and Henrietta Mears. Those names will be familiar to most of our longtime readers. Also, Graham’s mother, Morrow Graham, was a giant in the faith who prayed for her son daily and encouraged him.)

Where to find such a mentor? Ask the Lord. Then, pay attention. It might be someone you least expect.

2) Is it possible you were mistaken in your understanding of the Christian faith and needed to grow?

Sometimes what we are renouncing is not Christianity or Bible doctrine but our faulty understanding of it.

I’m not anti-Pentecostalism, but I know that many in that branch of the Christian faith put more emphasis on experience than knowing God’s Word and some have faulty (i.e., unbiblical) concepts of spiritual gifts as well as divine healings, prosperity, etc. To discover that your conviction in one of these areas is wrong does not mean God has failed you. It might mean you are about to grow.

3) Do you simply write off legendary believers such as C. S. Lewis, Billy Graham, Jim Elliot, and Corrie ten Boom?

This list of believers who struggled greatly in these matters and emerged as mighty forces for Christ is quite lengthy.

Does the doubter think these people were fools? Shallow? Misled by others? Deceived? or deceitful? Or does he simply ignore them?

The writings of any of these people–particularly Lewis and ten Boom–have been used of God to help generations of seekers get straight in many areas of faith and practice.

And that brings us to the next question.

4) What have you been reading?

The story of Billy Graham’s friendship with Charles Templeton, a young evangelist who was prominent at the time when Graham was just beginning, is well-known by now. Books and movies have been produced chronicling their relationship. At one point, Templeton was going through a major crisis of unbelief, even while continuing to preach. He shared those doubts with Billy Graham. It turned out Graham had some of the same questions. In time, Templeton renounced the Christian faith and lived the rest of his life as an atheist whereas Dr. Graham served God as few ever have.

“Billy,” by William Paul McKay and Ken Abraham, tells how each of the young preachers faced this crisis. Templeton filled his days with reading. One day, a pastor where he was preaching gave him access to his library, introducing him to Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, Voltaire’s The Bible Explained At Last, Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian, as well as the written speeches of the 19th century atheist Robert Ingersoll. Each is an attack on the Christian faith.

Without a theological education, Templeton had no intellectual resources to combat the fiery darts hurled his way by the enemy. In the absence of mature (and older) Christian friends with whom to consult, he bore the burden of this doubt alone in silence. (He did talk to Billy Graham about it, but Billy was younger than he was.)

Mitchell Williams, a self-described atheist in the community where I once pastored, told me that a high school science teacher had given students books attacking the Christian faith. As a result, Mitch became a convert to atheism and lived a dozen years in that unbelief. Only when he began reading the Scriptures every day and seriously thinking about them did God penetrate his unbelief and capture his heart.

Josh McDowell’s books on “Evidence That Demands a Verdict” (he wrote several variations) and Lee Strobel’s “The Case For” books (the case for the Bible, for Christ, etc) contain material every doubter needs to study and every confirmed believer appreciates..

Give the Lord a chance to use some outstanding Christian thinkers to combat the junk you are being fed by the enemy.

5) Do you have a prayer partner (or two or three)?

Pastors need prayer more than anyone in the church since everything they do affects the life of the congregation. The pastor who does not have a few choice praying friends–often in other churches, so they are not directly involved in the goings-on, and he can speak freely with them–is limiting himself severely.

6) Are you willing to walk by faith? To leave some matters with the Lord and go forward without the answers? Or do you require that the Christian faith be simple and easy?

Ultimately, Billy Graham had to decide one way or the other what he believed about these issues which were destroying his friend’s soul and ministry. The authors of “Billy” write: When it came to believing that the Bible was completely true, that it was the divinely inspired Word of God, Charles’ (Templeton) questions were softballs compared to the curves Billy threw at himself. Could he accept all of the Bible as the Word of God and preach it with honesty, authority, and conviction if there were portions of the Scriptures that presented him with intellectual difficulties, dichotomies that he did not have the knowledge or wisdom to resolve?

Eventually, young Graham arrived at a conclusion, one vastly different from the one Charles Templeton had settled on. As far as Billy was concerned, if Jesus believed the Bible, quoted it, and attested to its veracity, why couldn’t he?

It came down to faith. Billy Graham chose to believe.

7) Have you considered the testimony of Psalm 73?

The psalmist (Asaph? Surely not the wealthy King David) had some of the same spiritual questions as the rest of us: Why do the wicked prosper and the righteous have things so hard? The wicked take advantage of the people around them, have no guilt over it, ignore God, and live long lives of success and prosperity. They drive their big cars, live in mansions, and send their children to the finest schools. If they have a medical problem, they have the money to take care of it.

Meanwhile, God’s children–followers of Jesus Christ who are struggling to tithe their income to the Lord, who prize honesty and integrity, who study the Word and spread the gospel and lead their families–often seem to have more than their share of illnesses and setbacks.

The wicked taunt us, they mock our faith, they scoff at our efforts to evangelize. They make jokes about our churches, ridicule our convictions when we take them into the public arena, and write us off as ignorant holy-rollers. Take a public stand for righteousness and you will be vilified as a fundamentalist and a threat to the public safety.

It feels awful. In fact, sometimes (the Psalmist says), I wonder if it’s all worth it. (73:13)

As I reflected along these lines, I came close to sharing my doubts with the congregation. I’m so glad I didn’t. In doing so, I would have betrayed this whole generation of believers. (73:15)

Even so, I still could not see how God could let this happen.

Until, I went down to the House of God to worship. (73:17) That did it.

“Then I perceived their end. Surely Thou dost set them in slippery places; Thou dost cast them down to destruction.” (73:17-18)

What I saw there changed everything. When the wicked die, their troubles have just begun. Don’t envy unbelievers. They may seem to do very well without God, but we’re only looking at the front end of the picture. When you see the whole story, you will be glad you stayed true to the Lord. (You will recognize that we are adapting Psalm 73, bringing it into our situation.)

Pastors have told me that Psalm 73 sustained them through troublesome times when they skirted close to the edge in doubting the Lord.

8) Why did you start preaching in the first place?

I’ve heard preachers say, “I’ve sometimes doubted my salvation, but I never doubted my call.” I suspect that was because their salvation experience happened early in life, whereas the call to ministry came in adulthood and thus was clearer, stronger, fresher.

If a man knows beyond doubt that God called him into the ministry–as I write, I’m remembering the Tuesday night in April, 1961, when the Lord fingered me with the words, “I want you in the ministry”–that in itself could well sustain him in moments of doubt. He will not easily be able to shake the awareness that the living God intervened in his life, called him by name, and gave him a mission. Paul said, “Therefore, since we have received this ministry, as we have received mercy, we do not lose heart (and quit)” (II Corinthians 4:1).

If we enter the ministry for any lesser reason–ambition, personal fulfillment, it’s a good way to help people, money, ego, or to please our parents–we’re in trouble from the first.

9) What will you do if you find out you are wrong now? After all, it takes a great deal of faith to be an atheist.

That’s actually the title of a thought-provoking book I recommend: I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist! Norman Geisler and others are the authors. They make a great point. To be an atheist–one who “knows” there is no God–would require one to ignore voluminous evidence for His existence–the order in the universe, for instance. German rocket scientist Werner Von Braun used to say that alone convinced him of the existence of God.

For every person you can find with a testimony on how atheism put a purpose and joy in his life, I can lead you to a hundred who say the opposite: Their unbelief was destroying them, but Jesus Christ made them whole, cleansed their souls, and gave them a new, exciting, purposeful life. It’s not called conversion for nothing.

I can’t read Psalm 40:1-3 without putting it in the context of a follower of Jesus Christ praising the Lord for saving him: I waited patiently for the Lord and He heard my cry; He brought me up out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry clay; and He set my feet upon a solid rock, making my footsteps firm. And He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and will trust in the Lord.


I have a number of friends in the DeRidder, Louisiana area. One man who knows Mr. Dewitt casually said to me that his denomination (the Apostolic Pentecostal community) does not believe in formal theological education. They see it as a subversive threat and the quickest way to liberalism. They think raw scriptures read by a believer in isolation will always prove to be a reliable guide.

He is confident that Dewitt had never been part of a group that had wrestled with doubts about hell, spiritual gifts, and the Bible like this. Because he had so totally isolated himself, when the doubts arrived in force, all he knew to do was to struggle with them the best he could until he finally caved in to them. Sad, sad, sad.

7 thoughts on “When the Pastor Becomes an Atheist

  1. 1Cor 10:13 No temptation has taken you except what is common to man. God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted above what you are able, but will with the temptation also make the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

    Sadly, it is easy to dismiss the real struggles people have with such issues, especially the struggle to continue in faith in the face of such temptation to disbelieve. If there is any encouragement, my experience has been, “Believing is Seeing.” At some point in the struggle, we have to decide if we’re going to believe in our limited understanding or expect God’s revelation. Joe, your advice is good and Biblical: Phil 4:8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

    Phil 4:9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me-practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

  2. I understand that there will ALWAYS be unanswered questions. I will NEVER reach a point that I will have ALL the answers. This is the same for all people. Paul struggled with it and teaches us in Romans 6, 7 and 8.

    I always come beck to prophecy. No other book has been as completely visionary and completely fulfilled what could have been fulfilled, up to this point in time.

    THAT, for me, is proof, in the absolute sense, that God exists, that he is honest, that he does care, communicate and reveal himself to us.

    I have to, in all honesty fall into one of two camps, one of personal arrogance, thinking that IF a certain thing is not explained to ME (as if I have ANY right to demand anything from God) in the way I desire and fully expounded all the concepts that I have decided to have importance, then I will just refuse to continue in faith

    Or the second camp, where I accept what IS true, what I can understand and realize that my limitations, not God’s, are the reasons for my inability to understand everything.

    If your heart betrays you, God is greater than your heart.

    Satan plants all kinds of foul seeds, doubt, illusion, false knowledge, anger, feeling of inadequacey and many many more

    I cannot envision myself falling away, because the faith I have is securely built upon a sure foundation.

    Perhaps many others build with wood, hay and stubble on something that is not as sure as they pretend.

    Some may build up their faith in ther heads and not their hearts.

  3. I went through an agnostic period in college when I was troubled I couldn’t answer all the arguments of disbelief. Yet I had a basic and solid knowledge that God had called me into ministry. That call has been at the center of my being since I was 11. I doubted God, but never doubted He called me! (You had to have been there.)

  4. We cannot understand Judas who was with Jesus and saw the miracles and was taught by our Lord and still rejected Him. We have all seen people on fire for the Lord and then fizzle out. When we look at mankinds’ sin and our own sin we should experience emotion of the marvelous grace that He has given us. We see the forgiveness and extreme love that only God can give. We cannot understand how Judas or Jerry could not see and understand. Our emotions get in the way and cannot transfer their actions to our understanding. Jerry did not understand His justice. It also occurs to me that Jerry did not exalt God as God, Creator and Maker and much more higher than us. He has all the power and we have none outside of Him.

    Dr J

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