The Famous Fallen

September 10, 2019

Over the past few weeks the Christian community has been shocked by revelations from several well-known people who gained celebrity through espousing the Christian faith now using their platforms to renounce the same faith. Joshua Harris, the author of best-seller I Kissed Dating Goodbye and a large church pastor, announced he was “apostate” and had fallen away from his faith. Most recently, Hillsong's prolific songwriter Marty Sampson announced his faith in Christ was on “incredibly shaky ground.”

What’s up with this? What’s going on? Of course I can’t say for sure. I don’t personally know either of these men, but I have observed the same scenario with lesser-known people repeatedly during the last 35 years, plus as I have led in Christian circles. In the situations I see, I recognize two possibilities: First, generally when a person has “fallen away” and owns it, a key part of the “falling” is changing a personal standard. The person’s lack of faith operates in tandem with a change in desires and standards. So usually a “falling” doesn’t even begin intellectually. It begins with considering and then doing something that person once considered sin and not in line with his relationship with God. When the relationship with God no longer becomes the central focus of life, belief begins to die.

But probably the most frequent cause I have seen of the death of “faith” is the reality that much of what people call Christian faith and Christianity is in truth simply a religious subculture. I agree with C. S. Lewis, a convincing apologist who discovered Christian faith through a search born of his disbelief and antagonism. He said, “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.” However, as a subculture, Christianity is simply a convenient religion; a political, cultural statement.

I am convinced that too many people have opted for Christianity as a religion, which is, by the way, far easier than a relationship with Jesus Christ, which all of us know takes intentionality and work. Every relationship does; especially a core relationship. When we opt for a Christian religion, it is simply consumer-oriented and “check the box.” When we check the box, when we “put in our order” and it doesn’t deliver what we think we should have experienced, what we think we deserved in the time and manner we requested it, we say we were fooled. Misled. It doesn’t work.

This kind of relationship is not limited to the masses, the run-of-the-mill uneducated “Christian.” Christianity is a big and powerful subculture, and one can use musical talents, speaking abilities, even “magic and illusionist” tricks, body-building—anything with any amount of entertainment value—to build a following, earn a living, get notoriety. Emotional reward comes along with it too. To follow Christian principles is to help people, and so there is a certain altruistic satisfaction and many emotional highs. But what happens when those stop or it's simply not enough?

C. S. Lewis famously said that courage is the “form of every virtue at its testing point.” In practical application, this means that no person truly knows if he possesses any virtue until it’s tested. Do you think you’re loving? You’ll know you truly love another person only when loving that person is hard. Do you think you’re truthful? You’ll know only when telling the truth hurts. Soldiers are familiar with this phenomenon—most men who travel to the battlefield believe themselves to be brave, but they know they’re brave only if they do their duty when their life is on the line. In the falling away of those who have been consumer-oriented, “persevering to the end” (Matthew 24:23, Hebrews 12:1) is not a natural response.

The only reason I know to remain faithful and not fall away is the One who led the eye-witness disciples to martyrs’ deaths with joy and determination. They knew that Jesus literally and physically lived and died and rose from the dead. Therefore, they had faith in nothing else, because no one else ever had or ever could do that. Their testimony is profound and simple, shared by Paul:

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. 1 Corinthians 15:1-8

Their lives are their greatest testimony:

  • Matthew – a tax collector who became a follower of Jesus and saw it happen.
  • Mark – a Greek who lived at the time and witnessed it.
  • Luke – a doctor who interviewed countless eyewitnesses and shared in the gospel of Luke.
  • John – the first person to the empty tomb. He said, “I was there when he died. I saw Him afterwards.”
  • Peter – a fisherman, saw Him before and afterward, and even gave his life because of it. He didn’t die for what he believed; lots of people through history have done that. He died for what he said he SAW. What he claimed he saw Jesus do made Jesus God, and that is why Peter was killed.
  • James – the brother of Jesus. James doesn’t even show up in the story until after the resurrection. When Jesus was teaching and doing miracles, James didn’t believe. All he could see is that Jesus was his brother, a very common man. But Luke shares with us that after the resurrection James saw his brother who he knew was dead and buried alive again. This is likely the greatest evidence. Why? Because what would it take for you to believe that one of your siblings was God? James saw the evidence and wrote a book stating unequivocally that Jesus was God, his Master.
  • Paul – who wrote almost half the New Testament and was a friend of all these guys met Jesus in person after His death and resurrection when Paul (known at that time as Saul) was persecuting the “crazy followers of Jesus.” His one-on-one encounter convinced him to the point of giving his own life. He wrote 1 Corinthians, the verses we just read, around 22 to 24 years after Jesus’ death. 

The people who saw Jesus live, die as a sacrifice, and return to life in power again, just as He predicted, did extraordinary things. Not because they were getting everything they wanted when they wanted it and how they wanted it, not because they even believed what Jesus believed. They did it because they saw Jesus. They saw that He lived and died and rose again. They gave their lives for what they saw, not what they believed

This is the greatest event that ever happened. It changes everything. It is the issue that I hope you will wrestle with for the rest of your life. The truth is, if there is no resurrection you should abandon all things that are Christian. You should follow the example of Josh Harris and Marty Sampson and others you know and quit Christianity.

Let me say it again. If there was no physical resurrection, then you should quit Christianity. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth because there were people there who thought just like people do today. They wanted to be good people and embrace the teachings of Jesus, but not believe in the resurrection. That was too crazy—it’s impossible for someone to come back to life. We get that, don’t we? Some of us here only “believe” it because we were told as children and it is part of our warm history.

But God had eyewitnesses write down what they saw. Not just one but several of them. People remembered it many, many years later in great details. Do you think a man or a woman who saw a person rise from the dead would forget about it? Or be confused about that?

The issue of faith is not feelings but an event. That event is that there was a man whose name was Jesus. He lived, died, and rose again. He predicted His death and His resurrection and did it.

Everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, rises and falls on this single truth. People want to argue about many things, but few want to wrestle with this. Many who call themselves Christians don’t base their faith on the certainty of this event. Their following is based on many other things, and when those things let them down or get cloudy, when they can’t process life, they think Christianity isn’t true.

You must have a firm conviction that Jesus died and is now alive. You must be absolutely convinced about the resurrection. Nothing else will keep you steady. If you haven’t settled this, all your beliefs are up for grabs. You are in danger of “falling away” because you never were grounded in the real thing to start with.