Josh Zak | Blesséd Assurance?

Since I joined the post-Christian corner of the internet back in June last year, I’ve interacted with a number of people who have gone through a similar journey to mine of leaving behind their former faith.


Josh has been a particular gift that the Twittersphere has bestowed upon me. His thoughts range from the sublime to the silly, from profound insights into the nature of reality to cartoons of ants doing what humans would normally do. But above all, it’s the kindness, joy and humility evident within his words which makes his voice so powerful, characteristics which are all too often missing from dialogue around religion and belief.


In this first part of our conversation, Josh shares the story of his Christian upbringing and the inner conflicts which this forced upon him, through to exploring what he believed and embracing the mystery that he found.



What was Christianity for you growing up? Because I’m aware that it’s so different for everyone.


Yeah, that’s what I’m learning. It’s strange, because I’m Jewish – my mother’s a Jew, and she was raised culturally Jewish – but I wasn’t raised religiously Jewish. My mom married my dad and they decided kind of haphazardly on Christianity. So that’s the weird thing, I’ve learned this later in life; neither of my parents are particularly devout.


But they sent me to a standard, non-denominational, evangelical, Christian school, and had us in a church community where a lot of people were in both. And so I don’t have memories of childhood that don’t include knowing the evangelical, modern interpretation of the Bible. We were ‘once saved always saved,’ and ‘saved by faith alone,’ and very much about the sinner’s prayer and altar-call. There were no charismatic elements or anything like that. In fact, it’s amazing how much we looked down our noses at charismatic folks, and at Roman Catholics.


We didn’t call ourselves Baptist, but it was basically Baptist. And here in the States it’s the fire and brimstone kind of deal. I wouldn’t say it was fire and brimstone every week from my service, but I took it very, very seriously from a young age, because the stakes were really high. The stakes were eternity.


You said that your parents landed on Christianity somewhat haphazardly, how did that come about?


I’ve tried to get this story out of both of them. My dad was recruited for a youth group when he was seventeen or eighteen and had an experience there, but then he went off to the navy for a little while and didn’t really have any sort of religious anything. And then when he and my mom married, they moved right after I was born from the East Coast to the Midwest, and I think they were looking for a community.They were asking, what kind of format are we going to raise our kids in? They had agreed on Judaism; I don’t know why that didn’t end up happening.


What I do know is that after trying a few different synagogues and churches in the area, my mom met someone – I think she was an older woman at a mom’s group – and was basically evangelized and brought into the Church. My mom has always been someone for whom emotions are more important than doctrine, and that ended up being really helpful for me later in my life. I think she probably had a good emotional experience with this woman, someone who was being friendly to her, and they started attending an evangelical church. From there, the direction of the church was: send your kids to this Christian school which most of the kids here go to. But it was never really pressed into me very heavily by either of my parental figures. I did all that work myself!


So, you took it more seriously than your parents did?


Yeah. In fact, as a teenager I started to get really worried about my dad’s salvation, because it didn’t really feel like his heart was in it, and that’s because it wasn’t.


That’s an interesting dynamic. How did your faith impact other parts of your life?


I was very vigilant. In my particular denomination, you had to have this moment of conversion, and from thereon out you were saved for good, so it was very hard for me to tell if I had been saved or not. I guess some people can be chill about not really knowing, but I could not be, I was very scared of eternity in hell. So I was constantly evaluating: would a saved person do this? I was also evaluating: that voice in my head, the little intrusive thoughts, that must be the Holy Spirit talking to me, so if I don’t do exactly what the Holy Spirit says right now, I’m probably not saved either.


I was always maintaining two inner cognitive states: the Bible is true – and I have to do the things in there – and also, it doesn’t really seem like it.

Those were the more negative sides of it. I was a kid, I didn’t know any different. I had very few friends who were not in this church-school community. I had some. But the church and the school were very legalistic, very rules-based, and I ended up adopting that and really being a self-judge at all times. I was scared that I was doing things that a saved person wasn’t, like playing a video game that had swearing in it, for instance. As a seventh-grader I was so torn up about that!


You mentioned wondering whether the voice in your head was the Holy Spirit speaking to you; would you have considered that to be a part of your relationship with Jesus?


I wanted it to be. There were musical moments where I felt that kind of soaring, ‘Oh here is the peace, here is the connection with the divine that everybody around me seems to be accessing all the time.’ Most of the time my relationship with Jesus was just fearful. Sometimes I did have those truly revelatory moments, but those are fleeting.


What would one of those moments have felt like?


It’s that moment when you’re so deep in the passion, or so connected to the moment that you’re not thinking about time. I’ll sit down at my little bedroom studio and I’ll look up from making music and three hours have passed. It’s like that; it’s just being lost in it. And when I was at a Christian camp and they were strumming a guitar around the fire, and we were all singing songs and people were coming in with harmonies, I was completely lost; it was transcendent. That’s something I really appreciate about my upbringing, as an eighth-grader I was having transcendent experiences, which is crazy. I don’t think most middle-schoolers get put in the position where that’s happening to them. And I obviously then interpreted that to be God.


Did you have anyone outside of that church-school community bubble?


My oldest friend grew up Roman Catholic, but then I invited him to our vacation Bible school and he kind of had a conversion experience, so I was really pleased that he was not going to believe the Catholic doctrine anymore! But I did, yeah, and I was always very tentative to engage in ‘worldly’ behaviour. I tried to keep it at arm’s length, I was ‘in the world, not of it,’ that’s what I was going for. Eventually, when I was fifteen, my parents decided to move me out of the Christian school into public secondary school, and that was awesome. That was one of the bigger turning points of my life, because I started to meet people who were not straight, and I started to meet people who said bad words and drank sometimes, and were still really, really wonderful people.


From fifteen to twenty, I was always maintaining two inner cognitive states: the Bible is true – and I have to do the things in there – and also, it doesn’t really seem like it. The voice inside me, the true voice, feels like it is okay to enjoy life, it is okay to go to rock concerts, it is okay for people to love people of the same gender. That was the obvious truth within me that I had to hold at the same time as this other one for my eternal security.


Did any of your internal battle become more external? When you were spending time with your friends, did your differences in views ever come up in conversation or cause any difficulty?


My friends knew I was Christian. I never swore. I was a theatre nerd in high school, so there wasn’t a lot of partying, but the occasional times when there were parties I was the ‘mom friend’ taking care of people. I still am, even though I’m a bit of a partier myself now. So there was the general understanding. My best friend from high school to this day, I’m so grateful to him, because he has just been my friend throughout all these times when I had held harmful beliefs. So it was definitely more of an internal conflict, but the grace I was shown by non-Christians was awesome.


Were you trying to convert your friends at the time? Or was it more that you were just trying to work out what was going on?


There was a strong evangelistic part of my internal struggle. It didn’t come out very often, because it did not feel very good to evangelize, but I did do a decent amount of inviting to church. My best friend even entertained it and came with me a few times and was very non-demeaning about it. I remember sitting in youth group and our youth pastor said, ‘People are dying and going to hell, and we don’t care.’ So that was the internal pull.


My grandmother, who’s passed now, she was a Jew, not particularly religious, she lived in Israel and would visit very rarely. I was young, but I think one of the reasons I didn’t have a full relationship with her is because I was always so scared for her soul. I remember giving her Bible tracts; her twelve-year-old grandson is giving her Bible tracts before she flies back to Israel! I’m sure that was just such a strange experience for her, and it was obviously not fun on my end either.


When you say that evangelism didn’t feel good, what was it that made it an unpleasant experience?


It’s funny, because I’m kind of evangelistic now about things that are obviously not the Bible. If I get really into an artist, I’m going to share them with all my friends. Or if I get really into a show or something for instance, I talk about what I like, a lot. Christianity brought me no internal peace and joy. I wanted it to, but it didn’t, and so it didn’t feel right to share it with people.


That’s a really interesting point; I think there’s that fear to evangelize, because you don’t want to give someone a poisoned chalice, especially if it’s someone that you care about. You mentioned earlier that you were concerned about your dad’s faith, how did that play out?


The time period in which I started to worry about my dad and I was also still a Christian was pretty small, and there were some things going on where we just weren’t that close as a family unit, so I never evangelized to my dad, but I did have a period of fear. I had always had an underlying current of anxiety about eternity and about my faith, and when I was nineteen and twenty I started expressing some of this stuff to my mom. My dad heard that was going on through the grapevine, and he’s expressed to me now that one of the reasons he didn’t reach out to me in that time was because he didn’t know what he believed, and he didn’t want to confuse me further. It was not a good time in my life. I’m fascinated by Christians commenting on deconversion stories, and they always seem to just gloss right over it, but it was absolutely horrible to deconvert; it did not feel good at all.


How long did that process of deconversion go on for?


I was nineteen or twenty when the big shift happened. Like I mentioned earlier, my mom’s relationship with spirituality has always been emotions before doctrine, and I actually love that. If she ever had a belief in hell, I think it crumbled when my grandmother died, because she simply couldn’t believe her mom was in hell. When she expressed that to me – in different words – it’s like the floodgates opened; this person that I know is seeking God can believe that hell isn’t real as it’s described or understood by modern evangelicals. Once I gave myself the freedom to disbelieve in eternal conscious torment, that was the turning point.


Christianity brought me no internal peace and joy. I wanted it to, but it didn’t, and so it didn’t feel right to share it with people.

I started talking to ‘God’ more, actually, and took on a fairly mystical form of Judeo-Christianity right away, because at that time, my grandfather – who’s actually a Rabbi now – was starting to become more spiritual, and more invested in his Judaism, and was sharing that with my mother, and she was in turn sharing it with me. While I still probably would have considered myself a Christian for the next year or so, it became very, very agnostic. I was not committed to any specific interpretation of Christianity, and I also lost belief that the Bible had anything to offer me greater than a very compelling historical text.


Was there a point at which you felt like you’d left it all behind?


What’s weird is, for about three years I forgot about it. Christianity took almost zero spot in my brain, because I wasn’t living like a Christian; I was enjoying, and exploring, and being a college student, and as soon as I was allowed to let go, I did. But it wasn’t a very healthily put away thing; I pushed it away and just lived for a couple of years. I vented occasionally about what it had done to me, but in 2019 I found the ex-Christian subreddit on Reddit, and my jaw dropped. I realised there are so many other people out there that have been through this.


I had secular friends, I had friends that were still Christian, but I knew no one in-between. As soon as I started thinking about it, and as soon as I started reading about other people who had been through the same thing as me – or a similar thing – this is when my deconstruction actually happened, and it was several years after my deconversion. My deconversion was very emotional, and the deconstruction in the last two years has been where I’m academically, intellectually dissecting what Christianity is.


What are some of the things you’ve been working through in the last couple of years?


Not every issue, but most of them. What I’ve been witnessing is that nobody can agree on shit; that’s been the greatest takeaway. It’s very easy to argue philosophically why there has to be ‘Truth’, but I’m looking around and it’s obvious to me that nobody can agree what that is!


More specifically, when I get into discussions with Christians, I’ve been pushing that if Christianity is true, Calvinism definitely is. I would honestly say that the Bible affirms Arminianism [the belief that we choose God], but I would say physics would affirm Calvinism [the belief that God chooses us]. My personal experience would also affirm Calvinism, because I begged, but it seems God’s grace is not sufficient for me because I was not predestined. I’m unelect and I believe in Calvinism.


Theology and philosophy try too hard to make concrete what unfortunately cannot be. It’s a great playground for it, but it’s reaching at nothingness.

It’s a very interesting discussion for me, and I think it has caught Christians off guard lately, my brother and sister-in-law in particular who are quite devout. I know so much more theology than I did a year ago, and they’re like, ‘Wait, you’re not a Christian now, but you’re debating Calvinism and Arminianism?’


The other thing that’s been big for me – I really like Unbelievable? with Justin Brierley, and when I first started diving into this stuff and deconstructing, I watched some of the talks about good and evil. And I’ve landed on what feels like a desolate reality at first – that there’s no such thing as good and evil – but when you look a little closer, you get amazed at humanity. When I hear, ‘So murder and rape are not objectively wrong?’ I’m like, no, they’re not! We looked around and said, ‘That hurts people, so we’re not going to fucking do it.’ It comes from human empathy, which is awesome!


So you’ve had debates around Calvinisim and Arminianism, and you’ve looked into where morality comes from; are there any other major areas that you’ve been working through?


Strangely, one that I haven’t been too focused on is the particular contradictions of scripture. I bought a Bart Ehrman book, Lost Christianities, and I couldn’t get through it. Not because he’s not a great writer or a great thinker, but I know that the Bible is not the inerrant word of God, so I don’t really care that much about the particular discrepancies. Similarly, wondering if Jesus actually rose from the dead or not – he probably didn’t, right? Not hating on anyone that believes that – it’s super integral to the Christian belief – but because I’m not a believer, it doesn’t interest me to hear reasons why he did or did not.


What I have been interested in is the broader philosophical topics, the Aquinas ‘Five Ways’ [arguments for the existence of God] for instance; I think that’s interesting and compelling to a certain extent. I really like theism versus atheism discussions, because that’s getting closer to mystery. I really like thinking about the huge sweeping topics, the things that make my mind just hurt. I like when I’m thinking, ‘Oh man, something must come from something; something can’t come from nothing, so maybe…’ But theology and philosophy try too hard to make concrete what unfortunately cannot be. It’s a great playground for it, but it’s reaching at nothingness, and so I get frustrated when people get really pedantic or invested in certain arguments, because it’s like, great, that’s a good argument, and logically it may make sense, but that’s as far as you can go.


Becau