It’s not every day you hear a Christian, especially a former pastor, who challenges the traditional view of eternal hell or questions if Satan really is responsible for all man’s perils. Nor do you hear someone who’s spoken to congregations all around the world refer to the doctrines fundamental to Christianity as legalism. But when I ran across best-selling author and former pastor, Joshua Tongol’s videos on the Internet, I knew I had run across something special.
Little did I know just how special he was until I saw his healing videos. I had to find out more but had no idea what I was in store for when I began reading his latest book, So You Thought You Knew: Letting Go of Religion. Touted as honest, courageous, and a breath of fresh air by many but cursed as controversial at least and anti-christ at most, Tongol's best-selling book, raises the hard questions he believes Christians should start asking.
From his journey as a self-proclaimed fundamentalist Christian, evangelist and missionary to a spiritual thought leader that hopes to pose the questions other pastors wouldn’t dare to ask their own congregations, Tongol opens up to me in this full-length interview about why he wrote the book, what led to his decision to give up his post as pastor, how he’s lost friends after writing his best-selling book and shares exclusively with me for the first time publicly, his honest opinion about homosexuality.
Many people have come to know you from the healing videos, and that's led to a lot of opportunities for you to speak all over the world and churches worldwide. Can you tell us a little bit of a brief history, of your journey from a pre-theology student to now?
Tongol: I was interviewed by The 700 Club several years ago if people want to hear more about it. I was born with one hand. I grew up in a very charismatic kind of church, and so my whole life I was trying to seek healing by going to all these different miracle crusades. I wasn't into theology very much. I was just a simple kid going to church. Then when I was about seventeen, I reached a turning point in my life where I went to this crusade with a high expectation, and I didn't get healed. Then, I just stopped believing. I found a lot of it to be a little strange, because my whole life I was going to a church that believed in healing, and I didn't see any miracles happen. I was very skeptical.
At the same time, when I was seventeen, I started getting into theology, even before I went to seminary school. I was getting into something called apologetics, which is an intellectual kind of defense of the Christian faith; it's basically how you defend Christianity against all the other religions, trying to prove that we're right and everyone else is wrong. My methodology, at the time, was that I criticized not only other religions, but also Christians that were doing healing because of my own lack of healing and my experiences that I had growing up. Needless to say, I was really into that kind of intellectual Christianity, very critical. I would debate with people all the time.
Prior to that experience, I never really questioned anything. I wasn't mad at God; I was more saddened. I would think, maybe miracles don't happen today. Finding myself very skeptical of all the miracle claims from Charismatics, Pentecostals, and others. It led me on an eight-year journey of being a Christian skeptic. During this eight-year period, as a pastor, I would pray for people, but I didn't really heal anything because I was still very skeptical. After those eight years, I met a man who was miraculously healed that I just couldn't explain away, and long story short, I was so persuaded by it that I went on my own journey again, revisiting this whole idea of healing. I began reading all the books that I used to read; reading books that I've never even heard of, from guys that were supposedly respected by this community, and for the first time after eight years, I started to believe it again. I started praying for people and instantly seeing people get healed faster than usual. After that eight-year period, I just started doing healing and everything changed.
I was born and raised in fundamentalism, so I grew up in an Assembly of God church. I taught apologetics at a Presbyterian church, I served as a pastor for several years at a Southern Baptist church, I was an evangelist at another Pentecostal church, and I was a missionary to the Philippines. So, I've pretty much been around when it comes to the whole evangelical Christianity deal.
I want to talk a little bit about your latest book, which I finished reading last night. I really enjoyed it. It's probably one of the most honest books I've read about religion, or the spiritual experience in a long time from someone who calls himself a Christian. In fact, it's probably the most honest because you have dispelled a lot of the myths that people have thought about, but wouldn't dare say aloud but how have churches reacted to this book? Because it's pretty controversial.
Tongol: Naturally, a lot of people, and especially, the bigger institutions are not too happy about it, including those in other countries that I'm aware of, but I've also seen a very positive response, as well. I think the generation now is a lot different than my parents' generation. My generation is more into the Internet, where you can find out information on your own now; you don't have to listen to the pastor. However, there have been very opposite extreme reactions to it. It's either a love or hate kind of deal. To me, that's a good thing because it says something.
I know a lot of people who have actually read the book, some pastors, really make me wonder if they actually read the entire thing because some of the criticisms that they claim I never brought up, I actually did. I think a lot of it has to do with a loss of control because now I'm getting people within their congregations to think.
I'm not trying to wreak havoc and cause division; that's not my point. My point is for people to finally be honest with themselves. Tomorrow is the first day for my book tour, and it's going to be at a church. I haven't spoken about my book at all yet, so that's going to be my first one. In the past, when I've spoken at churches, it had nothing to do with my book.
Are there are any churches that you spoke at before, or you were invited to speak at before, who don't really want you to come this time around?
Tongol: That, I'm not sure. When I was speaking at some churches, in the past, I would mention my book in some of my messages, so I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't. Some people have told me that they wanted me to come do meetings with them again in 2014, this year, and I never heard back from them. I don't know if it's because of my book; I would just be speculating. I have lost a good number of people in my life, unfortunately, not just because of this book, but because of my teachings in general. I've had people who associated with me from the beginning who, once the first day my book was released, didn't want to be associated with me anymore.
Were you warned ahead of time by those close to you that maybe you should rethink about whether you need to write this book, or even release it?
Tongol: No one has really told me, that I can remember right now, not to write it. Even those people who are starting to distance themselves from me, surprisingly, never said anything about it. It's not that we were really close, but these would be people that would endorse each other on their websites, "partners" so to speak. In fact, a lot of people have told me to write my book because it's been on my heart for years.
I actually started writing my book back in 2010 when I was still a missionary in the Philippines. I was already sharing with some people some pretty radical stuff when I was preaching, what we would call, a radical grace, or this unconditional love that God loves and embraces all people. During that time, I almost finished my book, but I had more radical shifts.
That was when I started questioning the doctrine of hell. People were becoming concerned about my questioning, but I was still eventually going to pursue writing a book about it because it's so important. The doctrines that I mention in my book is one of the reasons why I wrote it. They show how it really does shape your life as a Christian, of how you view the world. For instance, if something bad happens, you will blame the devil, or f you do something stupid, you'll be afraid you're going to go hell.
You mentioned a couple of interesting things. One thing in the book, you've mentioned, is you did actually question hell, and its existence, and you also talk about what it means to be a Christian. How would you describe Christianity? Would you describe yourself as being Christian?
Tongol: If someone were to ask me if I'm a Christian, it would be hard for me to answer because it depends on what that person's view of a Christian is. I know for a lot of people, at least here in America, the view of a Christian is someone who is very intolerant, a bigot, and very judgmental; they're against homosexuality, they're pro war, etc. For me, I don't know if I fall into that category. Even if I were to give the cliché answers that a Christian is someone who follows Christ, one can still ask, what does that mean, though?
I follow the teachings of Christ the way I understand them, but I don't limit myself to just studying from Christian teachers. Back in the day, actually my whole life, I would follow the Bible and everything that was not called Christian, I would reject. But these days, personally, I don't even call myself a Christian, but I could if I wanted. If I try to explain what I mean, I don't limit myself to just the teachings of Jesus, or the Bible. I try to discover truth wherever it's found, so if I can embrace something that Gandhi said, or Buddha, or even some positives in the Quran. I'm willing to admit that I was raised in a Christian tradition, at least evangelical tradition, so I'm very familiar with it.
However, I'm also willing to step out of that box and be able to explore other traditions in order to discover truth, which could be coherent with what I believe. It's hard for me to label something Christian or not because it's all very subjective. Everyone's definition of Christianity is so different, especially when you have 30,000 plus denominations. We can't even agree with each other. As you can tell, my book is contradicting, so many of the Christian beliefs out there, or so-called Christian. This is just my experience of how I understand things, so whether or not I'm right or wrong, as I mention in the book, this is just my journey growing up as a Christian.
You also had a shocking confession in your book, that although you were a pastor, you actually don't read the Bible every day.
Tongol: I'm surprised you brought that up. Honestly, I don't. I know that sounds really bad. I don't acknowledge that to a lot of people when I preach at a church because, obviously, I usually have a Bible in my hand. I don't remember the last time I picked up the Bible, and I know that can sound bad to a lot of people. I have Bible verses still memorized in my head. I used to read the Bible because I would feel so bad. It was like getting rid of your guilt; you're supposed to read it as a pastor, so I read it. I got nothing out of it, but at least I read it, and got rid of the guilt for the day. That's how much I was stuck in legalism.
I do appreciate the Bible. I've seen a lot of atheists, and a lot of people who are ex-Christians who just throw away the Bible, and say the Bible is garbage and just filled with violence. Obviously, they're not taking the Bible very seriously because the Bible, in my opinion, is not totally off. As you've seen in the book, I do believe that there are some good treasures in there, but there are also some things that I do find problematic, so you want to read it as objectively as possible. So, if I feel like reading it, I'll pick it up.
How do Christians - traditional Christians, fundamentalist Christians - respond to you mixing the sort of metaphysical, quantum physical thoughts with spirituality?
Tongol: Like I said before, it's both positive and negative. When you watch my videos, I'm speaking at a church, but I do try to speak the language of the audience, or I try to stretch them just a little bit. If I'm more in a traditional church, I'll really tone it down. If I'm in a church where the pastor invites me to speak, I feel they must be familiar with my content, some of the things that I say, and, so, I do tend to ask for permission, "Can I say whatever I want? Are you familiar with my teaching on this and that?" And if they say, "Josh, say whatever you want," then I tend to say whatever I want. For the ones that tell me what the background of the church is, some of the more traditional, I do tend to speak a language that is very Christian sounding.
The video you saw, the How to Heal Yourself, that's in a more progressive type of church community. I'm actually speaking there again next month. Of course, when it's a big crowd, you can't please everybody. You'll have people who say, "I loved your teaching because I used to be a New-Ager but I gave up New Age to become a Christian and now you've shown me how you can bring the two and two together," and then you have another person who says, "You're just like this total anti-Christ. You're bringing New Age teachings in here or secular ideas." For me, I think that's the problem, they try to make these distinctions between the secular and the sacred, or the holy and unholy.
To me, like I mentioned before, truth is truth. I'll stay away, to some degree, from the New Age language if it offends people, but I try to push it just a little bit to show that some of these people who are considered New Age, or New Thought, etc., have some truths that we have to be open to. I'm trying, in a sense, to bridge that gap because, there's been too much of this us-them going on and I want to show people not to be afraid to read books on metaphysics, or New Age, or something else that's very different from traditional Christian theology.
I just learned that I can't please everybody. I don't try to totally speak exactly what people want to hear, but I try to push it just a little bit because I want them to grow. At the same time, I try not to push it too hard because I still want them to hear me out. The moment you just get all crazy and you speak a different language, it scares people away and they don't want to listen to anything that you have to say. You've offended them and it makes them uncomfortable. I try to play it by ear, whoever the audience is.
You briefly mention in your book that you run across all kinds of love. Being a former pastor, what is your personal view about gay marriage and homosexuality?
Tongol: I've never gone public with this. I've had so many people ask me this question, but I've never gone public with it. My views change so much. Homosexuality is very common in the Philippines, and when I was there, we had gay friends. In fact, one of close friends is actually gay and my my wife's best friend growing up was also gay. These are wonderful people. To try to keep it as simple as possible, I just leave it up to them to choose what they want to choose. I don't understand how all this happens; are they born that way or not? Honestly, I don't know, but to me, no matter what, I accept them and I don't judge any of them; I love them. In fact, the woman who married us, my wife and I, she lived a homosexual lifestyle in the past. She doesn't do it now for whatever her reasons, for her own convictions, but no matter what she chooses, I will still love her. I wouldn't tell her to stop doing it because, honestly, I don't understand all that.
You stop short of saying that Satan doesn't exist in your book. What is your personal view of who Satan is and whether or not he really is the way that most Christians view him?
Tongol: That's a big thing. Surprisingly, I've questioned the doctrine of hell for a while, but for some reason when I question Satan it pisses off people even more. I've had people even walk out of my teachings; during the time that I would teach, because they were offended. It's hard because I'm hoping that the people who hear this interview will be able to at least read the resources that I recommend in my book because, obviously, I'm just getting people to question it, but there's a whole other way to understand Satan. When we think about Satan within just popular Christianity, we think of a fallen angel who's tempting everybody in the world, but when you look at scholarship, even today, there's a whole other way of understanding Satan in the Bible. My quick answer would be, if it's not limited to just being a fallen angel, which I believe there to be very little support for in the Bible, my understanding would be why can't something satanic be more, such as, a dark side of humanity, or fear itself, or the ego, or destructive behaviors, or people who are addicted to drugs, dealing with their demons? Why can't we look at it, especially within our culture, like that?
I tend to believe that the way Satan works is it manifests according to our culture, the way we understand the world. For example, if I go to certain parts of the Philippines, or to Africa, it's going to manifest as these somewhat crazy monsters, these crazy demonic manifestations. I've been there and I've seen all those things; not in Africa per se, but even in America I've seen people manifest all those crazy things. Usually, as I've noticed within the Christian culture, depending on the mindset of the community, it tends to manifest according to the mindset of certain individuals. We do have this whole idea of the collective consciousness of how we are as a people, the ideas that we have. You don't see an atheist manifest demonic activity because they don't believe in demons, but a Christian would come back and say, "Well, because the Devil already has him. The Devil wants to get the Christians." They come up with these really interesting theologies.
Personally, I just don't get into those kind of things anymore, that's my mindset. Whether something is a fallen angel or not, I do not deny the reality of evil in this world. There's a lot of sick and twisted things that I've seen. What I'm saying in the book is that I just get a bit tired of people scapegoating the Devil all the time, because I've seen that firsthand. People in high positions, in the Philippines and in America, after they've fallen into "sin", they blame the devil. I just find that very irresponsible of them. Maybe there is a fallen angel that's coming down on their shoulder, I don't know, but to me I just don't like the whole blame game going on. I would like for people to take more responsibility. It makes this world a better place when you just stop talking about monsters and demons.
My whole life I was afraid of demons. I was taught while growing up in a charismatic church, people saw demons all the time; people see demons on walls, and blood coming out of the mouth, and people getting choked at Bible study. Those things were happening, believe it or not, at the time when I would be teaching those kinds of things, so people want that kind of lifestyle. For me, I don't. My life, now, is just so much different. It's so crazy because I don't even think about the Devil at all. If a problem happens, I don't think it's the Devil.
Maybe I'm deceived, but if I was deceived I wouldn't know it, right? All I know is my life is better now. I take full responsibility for the choices that I make, the things that I put in my mind that are probably bad ideas, and I end up living it out. Whatever it is, I take full responsibility for. That's just where I'm at on my journey. Who knows what I'll end up believing about the Devil five years from now? It could be more than an angel, but it could be structures and institutions that are just controlling people, controlling the masses. I just don't want to limit it to being a fallen angel. I think we need to make our understanding broader.