Better to be an alive atheist than a dead Christian (Joey’s story)


Today I’m featuring a guest post from my friend Jessy Briton Hamilton, about his friend Joey and his experience being shunned by the church for his sexual orientation. 

Shortly after reading Joey’s story, I saw Julie Rodgers’ post describing her experience of rejection. It astounds me that some traditionalists were not more supportive of Julie, if what they say about holding their convictions with love is really true. As a celibate gay Christian, she’s played by their rules. She’s done everything they ask. Yet her experience at the hands the church has forced her to ask some difficult questions:

The fire I’ve come under (publicly and privately) as I’ve sought to live into the traditional ethic causes me to question whether this is about genuinely held beliefs or straight up homophobia. I say this with nothing but sadness: the kind of discrimination my friends and I have experienced as celibate gays makes me lean toward the latter.

Neither Julie nor Joey deserve to be treated this way by the church. Their stories should be a wake-up call, prompting all of us—affirming or otherwise—to pause and reflect.

So to my non-affirming friends: Are you sure you’re not at all guilty of the “straight-up homophobia” that Joey, Julie, and others have experienced? In other words, are you as loving as you think you are?

And to my affirming friends: Is it good enough to declare our churches “open and affirming”? Or to feature a rainbow-themed avatar on our Facebook pages? What are we doing to actively serve LGBTQ members of our churches and communities?

With that, here is Joey’s story, as told by Jessy…


Chillicothe is a small piece of 1955 trapped in Ohio’s forgotten Appalachian hills, at the place along the Scioto River where the rapids of poverty swell and begin to rage toward the Kentucky border. Typical of small Midwestern towns from Youngstown to Nowhere, Kansas, it’s the kind of place most people are proud to be from… but wouldn’t want to live.

Joey is an exception, embracing the raw experience of rural life, while most of his peers have already punched their tickets to Chicago, Columbus, or some other city that looks like every other city to a small-town boy. The 19-year-old college freshman studying agricultural science at the local branch campus of Ohio University has lived in these parts all the days of his life. He winces at the thought of severing his bond with the soil from which he came, but knows at the back of his pretty little head that economic factors may someday take him far from this sleepy Rust Belt ghost town.

Joey talks to me with dizzying excitement about any topic that comes to mind: cherry vanilla ice cream, his dream of someday buying back the family farm from the corporate agribusiness that pulled the deed out from under his grandfather, and his hope for a family of his own—a husband and 2.5 little Joeys, all working on the farm, of course. We talk about the president, fruity drinks with miniature umbrellas his friends want him to try, and his fear of being caught if he does. Joey talks and I mostly listen. Ultimately, I don’t care what we talk about—I’m just happy Joey is alive to wrestle with which pop star to rock out to on the way to class, or which teenage indiscretion he should or shouldn’t experience tonight.

Joey and I first met on a smartphone chat application that uses GPS technology to tell gay and bisexual men where other gay and bisexual men using the app are located. It was two weeks after his failed attempt to overdose on a cocktail of pink and yellow pills that his short profile statement caught my attention: “No longer Christian. HMU.”

One of the ministries I engage in involves the utilization of smartphone apps to find the Joeys of the world—younger LGBTs from Christian backgrounds at risk for suicide. My message to them is simple: God loves you, there is nothing wrong with you, so let’s chat. There are a sea of them, but only one of me.

My experience with Joey, and countless others has taught me that many LGBTs go through a series of stages in the evolution or disintegration of their faith. The church through spiritual violence has traditionally played the role of hastening the destruction of faith among LGBTs, as those who ultimately arrive at a crisis of faith are confronted with the reality that a fixed-facet of their being—their sexual orientation or gender identity—is said to be at odds with nature and contrary to God’s will. This crisis of faith is resolved by one of three methods:

1. LGBTs with the emotional ability, and a deep well of spiritual resources will initiate a life-long journey to unlearn the internalized homophobia inherited during their early spiritual formation.

Having undertaken the hard work of untangling God’s love from the cruel words and deeds of God’s people, they will arrive at mature spiritual conclusions, acknowledging their status as a child of God, made in his image. A personal theology that allows them to live both a life of faith and a life of integrity evolves over time. In my experience, this rarely happens the first go-round. Ideally though, this is the direction faith communities steer LGBTs. At best, however, many spiritual and lay leaders simply ignore the crisis of faith. Others unwittingly lead LGBTs to resolve the crisis via options 2 and 3.

2. LGBTs who cannot find it in their experience to separate the institutional church from God himself—and who see Christianity as a single tyrannical monolith, but know that sexuality is a fixed facet, unchangeable and good—will reach the conclusion that the existence of a loving God and their own existence are mutually exclusive.  

God simply does not exist—or if he does, he is unworthy of worship. In my experience, most LGBTs initially resolve the crisis of faith this way.

3. Those who cannot separate the institutional church from God himself—and who see Christianity as a single tyrannical monolith, but have bought the lie that their sexuality is sinful and changeable—will make several attempts at becoming that which they cannot.  

After several failures to conform to heteronormative expectations, they will either return to pursue options 1 or 2, remain in a state of perpetual spiritual torment, or having exhausted all known options, attempt to end their lives.

After a series of twisted events that began with reading an article on his denomination’s latest public rejection of LGBT’s, followed by a conversation with his fundamentalist pastor, Joey decided suicide was the only option that remained.  This was the latest episode in a never-ending nightmare of spiritual violence aimed at Joey from the people who claimed to love him.  He couldn’t see any other way—it was preferable to be dead than to be gay.

Fortunately, Joey’s attempt to take his life failed. His mother found him lying a pool of his own vomit (it’s common for the body of those who overdose to reject the attempt), and he was taken to the hospital, where he eventually became conscious.

Today, in an effort to save his very life, Joey has resolved his crisis of faith with option 2: “No longer Christian. HMU.” He can’t wrap his mind around the idea that there may be other ways of approaching God that include living a life of integrity as an openly gay man. He asked this week what I thought of his choice to give up on Christianity as he understands it. While I hope that someday Joey will reconcile his sexuality with his faith, until he has the resources and support to do that, it’s better to be an alive atheist than a dead Christian.

There are too many Joeys. And only one me.

What is your faith community doing to identify the Joeys in your midst, to help them to navigate their crises of faith and arrive at a place where they truly know the love of their Creator?

Jessy Briton Hamilton lives in Denver, Colorado, and does consulting work with faith communities through his firm, Solutions by J. Briton. He attends St. John’s Cathedral, Denver.

Photo: Chillicothe by Ohio Redevelopment Projects on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

18 thoughts on “Better to be an alive atheist than a dead Christian (Joey’s story)

  1. Thank you Ben for posting this and thank you Jessy for writing it. Whenever I read something like this I am never sure if I am supposed to smile because of people like Ben and Jessy or to cry because all of these stories are just a bit too familiar to me. The fact that there are people like you in the church – even people who minister to people on hook-up apps – that is why our faith rocks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Does God hate me? and commented:
    I don’t have the appropriate words to comment on this post, but I want you all to know that this is what it is about. The choice of very flawed alternatives many LGBT christians face is too often literally a matter of life and death.


  3. There are no “living” atheists. Ephesians 2:1-3. All are born dead in Adam. The great love of God is displayed in the life He gives to the spiritually bondaged children of Adam.


      1. Ben,

        I didn’t miss the point. It’s clear you’re not operating according to a Biblical anthropology. What is “natural” in the Fall is sin-cursedness. It means that everything is plunged into sin and misery. My sexuality, yours, all – are under a Curse. The Gospel is, in part, that we once walked in darkness and bondage to sin. Our problem was not lack of information but life itself.

        God does not improve upon a created condition – He overthrows the consequences of the Fall in Christ. This does not mean that we will be freed from temptation or indwelling sin but that we are no longer slaves or citizens of this present age. We are no longer conformed to the patterns of this world.

        What Joey needed was a counselor who could explain what the Gospel really looks like. It is super-natural and, because it is, it is the power of God and what He says about us is true even if we still struggle with lust. What He is able to do in sanctification outstrips what we feel in the moment is possible. I have struggled with lust my entire life. The fact that I’m heterosexual changes nothing about the fact that lust and fornication is an artifact of sin-cursedness. God loved me enough not to leave me in that lust or to command me to just embrace it as my identity. My identity is as a man united to Christ by faith and so I am empowered to battle that sin.

        Your entire schema of man owes to the pattern of this world and so you offer no hope but the bondage that this earth offers. That is why it is more important to you that a man should continue to live in bondage as long as his heart is still beating. I pity those who come to you for Christian counsel. As Jeremiah said – you heal the wounds of God’s people lightly. Real healing is found in recognizing that God must overcome the pattern of this world. Real love is not being pressed into the “gender identity” ideas of this present age. It is the Spirit working powerfully to overcome the sin and curse we were born into and being ushered into the age to come.

        May you come to know that God is not the great Self-Actualizer who fulfills our romantic notions of self. He is the God of the universe Who has created men for His own glory, Who patiently endures a humanity that is now His enemy, and Who sent His Son to die for the sins of men and rose with indestructible life so that all who are united to Him by faith would no longer live according to the pattern of this present age but be transformed to His Son.


    1. Obviously, suicide is never an answer, but i don’t think we’re doing anyone a favor by misrepresenting God’s nature vis a vis sexuality. God loves, but not *as* we are — God loves us *despite* who we are. Certainly you don’t want to rock the boat too much for a suicidal person, but in the long run, he’ll only be served lovingly by facing the hard Christian doctrines about sexuality.


      1. Er, meant that to be a reply to the post as a while, not church elder’s comment.


  4. Ben, I love your post and its description of the inane irreconcilable hypocrisy between teachings that hold that Jesus’ love for all humanity and a homosexual’s love for his/her partner are incompatible. If only church leaders in conservative Christian denominations could get the image of same-sex genitals out of their overactive imaginations and understand, as any healthy gay person does, that homosexuality is quintessentially about love not fucking!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for the post, Ben. I reminds me of an essay I recently read by a Christian who is banning the expression “Love the sinner, hate the sin” from her vocabulary. She’s decided it’s condescending, dismissive, and hurtful in the guise of kindness. It’s not kind; it’s simply condescending, dismissive, and hurtful.


  6. I’ve been reflecting on this a bit more, and i think the we way state the problem may be a little backwards. The issue is not feeling shame for sinful tendencies, which is right and proper. Rather,i think this highlights the fact that many of us in the church have shameless double standards when it comes to different kinds of sin. A lot of the more conservative Christians absolutely whip out the fainting couch for any and all sexual sins, but yet they just shrug off things like materialism or gluttony. As a result, they have a disproportionate response which understandably makes those struggling with homosexuality to feel worse than they should. The answer isn’t to tell people that their homosexual inclination isn’t sinful, but rather, to stop putting it on some pedestal of extra-bad-sin and emphasize that they are no worse off than anyone else in the church. It’s an area we certainly need to improve on, for the sake of everyone involved.


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