My early childhood years were normal, except for a series of dreams and spiritual experiences that deeply defined my view of the world.
I grew up in a conservative, midwestern, protestant, reformed Christian household. For the most part I remember loving it, and presuming that the things I was taught were true. We had the truth, we were happy, and the rest of the world was lost in sin and going to hell. It was a simple perspective.
My earliest days in the church were deep and spirit-filled. I can remember one Sunday when I first understood the basics of the classical protestant gospel. I must have been around the age of seven. Christ was the replacement for me and His love was the foundation for my life. Upon this realization, I sang out in church like I had never sung before until an older lady behind me congratulated me on my strong singing voice.
Later, I remember reading in the Bible about Solomon asking for wisdom and I told God that I too wanted wisdom in life. I was sincere in this prayer, but I was not really sure what I was asking.
On another day when I was probably ten, I had a dream in which I saw Jesus. In my dream, I was on a river bank near a park and was playing with neighborhood children. On the embankment there was a small blacksmith where the devil lived. There was a line drawn on the ground between the park and the devil’s workshop. If any of us children crossed the line the devil could come catch us and do whatever he wanted to us, but he was not allowed to come into the park. Rather foolishly, I enjoyed teasing the devil by crossing the line into his territory, waiting for him to chase me, and then running back across the line back into the park right before he would catch me. Each time he would sulk back to his blacksmith more and more enraged.
In my dream we were allowed to play as we wanted until sundown, but I intuitively knew that after sundown the devil could cross this barrier line into the park. My justification for this was that teasing the devil was fun and surely we would go home before sundown so I was at little risk of actually getting caught. But as you can imagine, sundown came suddenly, and I could see the devil walking straight toward me and with an evil grin on his face he stepped over the line that had kept me safe and grabbed me. I was quite terrified.
As he grabbed me, my dad ran over and began arguing with the devil to let me go. The devil stated that the law clearly said that he was allowed to cross over the line to come and grab whoever he wanted after sundown, and since I had been teasing him so much, he wanted me. Somehow I knew that the devil was right.
At this point the dream transformed. It was dark, very dark, and it was just the three of us: me, the devil, and some man facing away from me. The man’s shirt was off and his back was bloody, as if sweating drops of blood, and I could not see his face. I heard him say to the devil, “Don’t take Josh, take me instead”. And then I awoke.
One day I went to my dad and asked him the classic question “Dad, how do we know our version of religion is the correct one?” My dad responded by pointing to some apologetics books and telling me that smarter men than both of us had studied this intensely and concluded that the resurrection of Christ did actually happen. After a brief attempt to comprehend what Josh McDowell was saying in the classic book Evidence that Demands a Verdict, I concluded that I was just going to have to trust that the apologists were right. And I was very thankful for their hard work and a small seed was planted that maybe someday I too could learn enough to be like them.
For a couple years, all was fairly normal. I had a happy childhood and my parents were doing well to raise us as good Christian children. Then as I entered my teens the darkness started, and it was not a normal adolescence.
My dad’s cousin Anastasia was killed by a bullet to her head in the middle of a cemetery in Kansas City in what appeared to be some sort of pre-planned Satanic sacrifice when I was around maybe 10 years old. Her funeral was bristling with spiritual heaviness. There was a solid divide between the funeral attendees. On the one side were many Christians and on the other were the members of Anastasia’s group of “friends”. Her friends were all heavily dressed in gothic attire and hovered around a man who seemed to be their ringleader. He was attractive, smiling far too much for a funeral, and surrounded himself with young women. The atmosphere at the funeral was surreal and there was a palpable sense of evil that even I, at that young age, could feel. I distinctly remember some of the girls giggled and smiled as they walked away from viewing Anastasia in the casket.
As the ceremony was getting ready to start, I sat down near the back of the sanctuary on a pew by myself waiting while others were talking. The ringleader was about three pews in front of me, and seemed to enjoy his friends who were seating themselves around him. As I looked at the back of his head I was thinking “that man seems to be very evil”. Instantly, he turned around and stared straight at me. At first I thought that he must have been looking at someone behind me, so I turned around and there was nobody there. So I looked back, and he was staring at me and he shrugged as if to say “what do you want?” Dread crept over me. Somehow he seemed to know I was thinking about him while he was looking the other way. Who told him? Did anything tell him? This was too creepy. I shrunk down into my pew seat while he continued to stare at me. Finally he turned around.
Shortly after, although I cannot 100% correlate it to this incident, I began to be filled with horrid doubt about hell and whether I was actually a Christian. Every time a preacher did a classic “altar call” I was seized with fear. Each time a preacher would give communion and talk about taking the body and blood of the Lord I would have a full-blown panic attack. These panic attacks continued for years, hundreds of times, until eventually I could barely sleep. I would have waking nightmares where I was almost asleep, but not quite, and in my spiritual eye I could see Satan in front of me, staring me down. Then I began to experience an evil presence in my room when I was generally going to sleep. It was there, just watching me.
I went to pastors and elders and other spiritual leaders dozens of times to discuss this and unfortunately never got any permanent answer as to what was going on. They all told me that it appeared from my life that I was bearing fruit for Christ and I was probably being attacked with doubts by Satan and I should pray and trust God. Sometimes I was told this must be happening because of some hidden sin or arrogance on my part. These suggestions drove me deeper into despair.
Around this time I had another spiritual dream. In my dream it was pitch black, very similar to the darkness in the show The Stranger Things when the demogorgon would appear. It felt like the absence of God. Out of the darkness a grotesque face of a dog appeared, lunging straight at my face. Just as it was in front of my face, I heard a metalic snap and saw that it was on a chain. I awoke in terror and a small voice said “Josh, no matter how far the devil may go, he can only go so far”.
I kept hoping and praying, over and over, that God had a plan for this time in my life, because I could see nothing good could come of this depressing period.
One time I told God I was going to flip a coin five times and if it was all heads all five times, then I would know I was “saved”. Five heads later, I was shocked at the result yet somehow the darkness prevailed and the doubts still did not go away. Eventually I just learned to ignore the sinking doubts and force myself to live a Christian life and put on a smile.
As I approached twenty, I was quite involved in teaching several Bible studies and even leading some people to become Christians. At this point I had completely read the entire Bible a dozen times. But as the dark presence became less common and I learned to ignore doubts about salvation, my doubts now shifted into questions about doctrines and the foundations of the Christian faith. In a way, I began revisiting the question I had asked my dad when he pointed me to apologetics. How was it that so many churches were so different if there is no division in Christ? Why were some churches focused heavily on the Spirit and others were focused on doctrines and creeds? If the Holy Spirit is found in all believers, why did the organization of all believers seem so chaotic? If the Bible is the Word of God, why was the interpretation of it so messy across the thousands of denominations in the Christian church? What about evolution? What about the paranormal experiences of other denominations and even churches? What about atheism?
Atheism perplexed me the most.