Editor’s Note: Quite often we hear testimonies of how people come from unbelief to faith and from atheism to belief in God. However, in the last several years I noticed the opposite tendency taking place in Slavic Evangelical churches in North America. Youth and young adults are leaving churches and actually making a journey from faith in Christ to atheism. Yuriy Stasyuk has a Slavic background. He comes from a devout Christian family with a long line of ministers. He immigrated to the United States from the former USSR together with his parents. Yuri received his education in the United States. Through this interview, I wanted to find out why Yuri is now an atheist and what was his journey from faith to atheism like.
Yuriy, thank you so much for agreeing to talk and discuss issues of faith and atheism and your personal journey from faith in God to unbelief. First, tell me a bit about your background. Tell me about your family and childhood. How did it happen that you and your family ended up in the United States?
Oleg, first off I would like to express my gratitude for the opportunity to participate in this dialogue. My hope is that it will serve as a productive and insightful discourse for both of us, as well as the readers. Now, onto my background: I was born in Ukraine, into an devout Evangelical family with deep roots into Slavic Christianity. Both of my grandfathers were ministers. This mantle was passed to my father and his brother, who are also pastors. While we lived in the Ukraine, my father was an itinerant evangelist and director of evangelism at the largest association of Protestants in Ukraine. This often led him to leave our family for weeks at a time as he traveled on evangelistic trips, though sometimes, I would join him on local preaching trips. So, even as a child, I was already involved in missionary work. Eventually, when I was seven we moved to the United States to seek better life and enable my dad to minister at a local church and spend more time with his family.
How did you come to Christ? Which church and denomination did you join? Do you remember that day? What did your conversion mean to you back then? Did you embrace Christian faith willingly and consciously or was it more like passing of the torch from your parents? Was Christian faith an entirely new and life-changing path for you?
I had quite a tumultuous journey. I spent my childhood and teenage years being a reluctant Christian. I wanted to be moral enough to make it to heaven without having to give up my worldly affections (sports, television, reading novels, playing video games). At the age of 17, I was baptized at my Slavic Evangelical Pentecostal church and, while I sincerely believed in the existence of God, the veracity of the Bible, and the deity of Jesus, I wasn’t very devoted to my faith and continued living with one foot in the world. I was frequently told that I would become a preacher, but I hated that idea and wanted nothing to do with church or ministry.
Yet, at the age of 18, during a severe bout of the flu, I began to seek God more intimately. I still remember that moment, I was laying in my bed, wishing to be healed, so I decided to search the Scriptures in hopes of finding something to help my prayer. As I began to read the words of Isaiah, something profound happened. I felt pierced at the heart. I felt as though God was actually speaking to me through the Scriptures. I was overwhelmed with a sensation that the God of the Bible actually knew my name and wanted to speak to me. All my hopes of being healed were forgotten. The only thing I wanted was to know and honor this God. A year later, I was a youth minister, preaching regular sermons, leading worship, conducting numerous bible studies, and hosting prayer meetings.
However, my journey was not complete. Because of my Pentecostal background I was constantly pursuing perfect “holiness” and, as a result of failing, I was often questioning my identity as a Christian. After a few years of struggling with this, I accidentally discovered the sermons of John Piper and his passionate preaching eventually led me to reevaluate my Pentecostal doctrine.
The pivotal moment happened when I was sitting in my church, and, instead of listening to the sermon, I was simply reading the book of Romans (chapter 8). I remember that my hands began to tremble, my heart began to race, and suddenly I felt as if everything made sense! I wanted to jump up and interrupt the church service, to share this revelation with everyone! At that moment, I felt that I had finally understood the point of the cross, the weight of my sins, the depth of my depravity, and the redeeming grace of Christ. I had discovered and embraced what is known as “the gospel of substitutionary penal atonement.” The sensation of accepting this doctrine was so overwhelming, I eventually called it “the gospel” and I would spend years teaching this idea as the foundational core of Christianity. That day, I wholeheartedly experienced belief that I deserved hell, yet Jesus chose to save me by atoning for my sins, and nothing could ever pluck me from his hand.
For the next few months, I literally could not stop smiling and was beaming with joy. My friends and acquaintances would often find me at local coffee shops, preaching and expounding the grace of God to anyone who would listen. Two years later, I left my Slavic church, where I was youth pastor, and joined Mars Hill, a large English-speaking (American) church pastored by Mark Driscoll, where I began leading home groups, performing outreach preaching ministry, and apprenticing with the lead campus pastor to be ordained as one of his assistant pastors.
Now you do not belong to the church. Which moment in your journey from belief to atheism was crucial? What (or who) influenced you in a profound way? Did your conversion to unbelief happen because of your conscious pursuit?
My journey away from Christianity started with a book. Most people expect it to have been one that was authored by a famous atheist like Richard Dawkins or Friedrich Nietzsche, instead, the book that led me away from the faith was much closer to home. It was the Bible.
Before I dive deeper into this intriguing statement, allow me set the stage by answering one question I am frequently asked: “Were you upset or hurt by Christians or the church?” Being a young English speaking leader in a Slavic speaking church was certainly difficult at times, and I did have some conflict with some of the more culturally conservative elders who wanted to slow down the Americanization of the youth. Likewise, Mars Hill was home to a scandal about finances that eventually led to the lead pastor resigning. Yet, my “deconversion” was firmly planted between these two negative events, and at the peak of my ministry. I was absolutely happy with my church, my fellow Christians, and my leadership. I was nearly finished with my pastoral program. The plan was to ordain me at the end of one year. I was writing one of the most popular Slavic Christian blogs in my community. I had spent a decade debating evolutionists and atheists, and I sincerely felt I had won every debate. My church was full of friends and people who respected me. But most important of all, I was committed to the Gospel, with all of my heart, mind, and soul. I loved Jesus more than words can express.
In early 2014, my wife asked me if I wanted to join her in re-reading the Bible. We had been doing so much ministry, writing, praying, preaching, traveling to conferences, that we felt we needed a break to feed our own souls. I decided to re-read the Bible, not realizing that this would unfold a series of events that would slowly drain my faith. I had read through the Bible before a number of times, though I had read the Old Testament it the way many Christians it, I read quickly and did not visualize everything. I had read it in an abstract manner, not taking much time to seriously contemplate and reflect on some of the obscure parts.
I owned a few Bibles with the New Testament, Prophets, and Psalms vigorously highlighted, in numerous colors. I had preached hundreds of expository sermons, and even completed a few sermon series through complete books of the New Testament. I had been trained in proper exegesis and sound hermeneutics. I read thick systematic theology books for fun. If someone could find blame in me, it would not be for a lack of theological or biblical knowledge. And yet, when I re-read the Bible with mature eyes, taking the utmost care to pay attention the each tiny detail, it changed my life, and not in the way you normally hear in testimonies.
I dove into the Bible, into the very first chapter of Genesis, eagerly reading each word, hoping to find edification. I would begin each day with a sincere prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to open my heart and illuminate my mind with the Scripture. As I read, I found myself thinking deeply about all the characters in the stories, and wondering about their backgrounds, struggles, fears, desires, and motives. I found myself paying careful attention to the strange rituals and regulations. I began to ask myself deeper questions about the frightening atrocities, murders, and violent actions seemingly condoned by God. I had noticed them before, and even taught an apologetics course on how to justify them, but this time, I observed them with a compassionate heart.
And finally, I began to perceive that the inconsistencies and contradictions between various biblical authors were not as easy to explain as I had taught others. This was all very troubling. I sincerely didn’t want any of this! I was a preacher who loved “God’s Word!” I would be willing to die for this book, so why was it becoming so confusing and repulsive? I loved the Bible so much I was enrolled in one of the top Evangelical seminaries, starting a Master’s degree in Biblical Studies, so why was I feeling such disillusionment when I read the Bible? Why was I seeing so many problems, atrocities, and contradictions? I wanted to read a text that miraculously conveyed supernatural truth, that shook me to the core, that aided me in repenting for my sins and glorifying God. Instead, after one month of reading the Bible for one hour per day, I was heartbroken and doubting. But I did not yet give up on Christianity.
I began reading a 600+ page book that claimed to have answers to biblical contradictions, written by Norman Giesler, former president of the Evangelical Theological Society. It was my last hope, I wanted to find answers to my questions, I longed to save my faith, more than anything I had ever wanted in my entire life. Halfway through the book, I closed it, and never opened it again. I felt nauseous, sick, and thoroughly disenchanted. After a few hundred pages of distortions, logical fallacies, and blatantly dishonest “answers” I could not take it anymore. I wanted my faith back, but I would not accept such dishonest arguments to have it back. I wanted help, but I was too afraid of the consequences to tell anyone else. And so began one of the most difficult and depressing periods of my life.
At night, when my wife would go to sleep, I would crawl out of bed and pray, weeping desperately, hoping that there was something more than the ceiling above me. At times, I had to take the pillow with me, because I was weeping so uncontrollably, I had to hold it to my face to muffle the sounds not to wake up my wife. I begged, screamed and pleaded. I whispered until my lips refused to move anymore. All I asked for was one sign from Jesus, that he was real and I was not making him up in my head. Just one small sign by which I could reliably know it was all real. I promised to give away all my wealth, my life, my finances, my hobbies. I bargained, I begged and cried, and yet, all I heard was silence. I really wanted to believe, in fact, I still do today, but after hearing only silence I secretly admitted to myself that I was an agnostic atheist. Over the next few months the disillusionment and depression faded, but my interest in these topics did not, I began to study philosophy and biblical history, and I continued to blog, albeit from a critical perspective. I can’t say whether or not I was happier when I believed I had an eternal paradise waiting for me, but I can confidently say that I am truly happy and sincerely at peace.
Did the fact that you are residing in the United States influence your decision to leave the church? Maybe you had a sort of identity crisis not understanding who you were – Russian or American? Maybe you just got fed up with the “religion of your parents, “the old-time religion?”
It’s very difficult to pinpoint how much of an influence my immigrant status had on my worldview. I can’t think of any direct way that this impacted my deconversionю However, I am certain that it did help me develop stronger critical thinking skills when it comes to religion. First, I had been exposed to multiple versions of Christian tradition and had observed how many cultures tend to create sacred rituals that they claim come from the Bible, which are instead cultural observances.
Second, I read the Bible in multiple languages. In the past, when I had read it in Russian, the phrasing was already memorized and sounded “sacred,” which made it difficult to visualize. Perhaps the ability to read passages in two languages may have influenced me to think more viscerally about the content.
Finally, as an immigrant I had learned to evaluate my positions and change my mind about my identity and beliefs. I learned that statements like “Slavic people are the best,” towards which I felt strong emotional affinity, were not necessarily true. Being an immigrant taught me to admit that I was prone to make errors, and that sometimes my previous positions about culture and identity need to evolve. It’s quite possible that this epistemic humility was part of what enabled me to change my mind.
How did those around you, your parents, pastors, friends, react to your doubts concerning the Bible and existence of God? Did anyone offer a helping hand? Was there any dialogue? What about pressure? Did you experience any?
Oleg, let me say that this is one of the most disappointing things about my story, the reaction of people around me were often unkind. However, knowing a bit about psychology, I can mostly understand why people reacted the way they did, in their minds, perhaps subconsciously, they felt that I was betraying someone they loved dearly. When I began writing things that were critical of the conservative evangelical theology, I began to see three kinds of responses from my friends, family, and acquaintances. (1) Silence, (2) anger, and (3) request for dialogue, listed in order from the most common to the least.
The largest group were the silent Christians. The vast majority of my former contacts started completely ignoring me. Some of them even deleted me from social media and refused to answer my phone calls, emails, and text messages. I wrote a few of the closest friends who disappeared from my life, asking if I had offended them, and only one replied, saying he wanted nothing to do with me if I was no longer a believer. Most people, however, didn’t explain what or why, they simply became distant. Whenever I see them somewhere and engage them in conversations, they are usually polite but after a few brief words, they quickly disappear. I’m certainly no longer invited for tea and long intimate conversations.
The second largest group responded with anger. From them I received many phone calls, voicemails, emails, and messages condemning me. Some attempted to come across with well-intentioned, but highly condescending warnings, but many just told me I deserved hell. Others didn’t warn me of hell, but speculated about the reasons why I left Christianity. I was accused of hiding secret sins, of being a despicable person who only did this to live a carnal lifestyle. I was reproached for being hateful towards God and Christians, for being brainwashed by atheists, and even indicted of supporting the Soviet persecution of Slavic Christians (ironically I am a pacifist).
On three occasions I was even threatened with physical violence (one of these came from a minister at a large Slavic church, who threatened to punch me in the face when he next saw me). Even though it’s been over two years, to this day I frequently get angry messages from former acquaintances that accuse me of serving the devil, having an evil heart, being too stupid to properly understand the Bible, and intentionally trying to deceive Christians so that I can justify my own wickedness. Likewise, from time to time, I will hear of some sermon that mentions or alludes to me in an unflattering way. Fortunately, the people who respond this way are not the majority.
The final group, which is composed of a small handful of people, are Christians whom I still value and cherish to this day. They remained steadfast and faithful friends throughout my deconversion. They joined me in coffee shops to hold long and kind conversations about Christianity. They were grieved that I left the faith, but instead of trying to manipulate me, frighten or shame me, they remained friends and family. It has been years, but I still remain close with all of these people, and a few of them who have become more progressive in their own Christian views, remain my dearest friends. The only bad thing I have to say about people from this group, is that there are too few of them.
Photo: Yuriy Stasyuk
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