It’s not the sort of thing I’ve ever been willing to say out loud, except maybe confiding in shushed, trembling tones to trusted bible camp counselors after an emotionally manipulative revival service: but yes, I’ve spent a good portion of my life utterly terrified of hell. It actually feels good to get that off my chest, but I feel an explanation is in order.
I grew up being taught something horrific, not just by my parents but by every adult that was ever permitted to speak into my life. I was assured in all seriousness that every person ever born (exception clause to come) would live for what seemed like the briefest moment, then be plunged into an eternity of hellfire. I have a hard time expressing the emotional terror those warnings stirred up in me. Let me try by describing a typical ploy that one of the many fundamentalist preachers or revivalists of my childhood would use.
Some preacher would start by giving the “true” story of someone who was brutally disfigured in an imaginative and incredibly painful way. The injury was so severe that the person eventually died and went to hell. It was pitch black, he was free-falling forever through literal flames, completely cut off from any other human but surrounded by literal demons chewing on him with their teeth. Then, miraculously, the victim revived and got a second chance on life. He personally spoke to the preacher and told him in the most amazing string of superlatives about how infinitely more painful one second in hell was than all the long, agonizing months of torture that the original accident on earth had caused. Then, the evangelist would go to some bible passage about eternal hellfire and spend the rest of the time creatively getting us to understand the concept of eternity, reminding us often along the way of how that was where we and everyone we had ever known were destined to go by birthright.
Of course there was the catch at the end – you could escape by saying the sinner’s prayer in true faith, which I prayed right heartily so many times that it was my automatic impulse to do so silently whenever anything startled me, for many years. The loophole in that exception, however, was that if your faith wasn’t really genuine it wouldn’t do you any good (and lots of evangelists were really good at getting you to doubt the sincerity of your faith). Try telling that to someone already prone to self-doubt and it will make a hell in his mind of constantly wondering just how genuine his faith is. Because after all, nothing less than a literal, eternal, conscious torment by fire is on the line.
As I said, that was what I was always taught, and I truly, literally believed it. I believed it because my parents were so serious about it, but also because it’s what the bible teaches. And the most sacred and unassailable truth of my whole childhood was that the bible is the inerrant word of God himself. It absolutely terrified me. I’ve never been able to separate what I believe in my mind from how I feel my emotions and live my life. I used to be secretly jealous of all my peers, who seemed able to do that.
I also had a lot of empathy as a child, and that was almost as hard as my own terror. We had certain family members who were not part of the same Baptist fold; and faithfully, every night, we would desperately pray for God to save them from the terrors of hell that they were soon to plunge into. I remember certain other siblings emotionally distraught over the thought, knowing that these beloved family members were about to die and slip into hell. And then, of course, some of them did die. I hope I never again feel as much sorrow for anyone as I’ve felt upon remembering my lost loved ones being unspeakably tortured, even at that very moment I was thinking of them, only they would never wake up from it or have their attention turned away from the agony. At least I could fall asleep and stop thinking those thoughts. Them? Nope, never.
Many of those preachers and evangelists would also preach that if we ever failed to tell one person we had ever met about the good news of Jesus, then when that person went to hell, their blood would be on our hands. They would look right at us before God cast them in and ask us, “Why did you never tell me?” One pastor actually made a giant set of hands covered in red, and would only uncover them every week as the congregants dutifully shared the gospel with enough people. For a person filled with shame and self-doubt, who had absolutely no social confidence, that burden of being expected to enter serious conversation with others was crippling. I just couldn’t do it, and I carried the guilt of being responsible for the eternal torture of others, some of whom I knew and loved. I truly believed all this, remember, and it was an agonizing burden to bear.
As I said, I’ve never shared this with anyone. I wasn’t very social and would wander for hours alone. Shame and guilt overwhelmed me. By the time I was in college I was having what I suppose are panic attacks. I’d become inexplicably terrified and run blindly into the forest, in no direction in particular, just run through the trees as fast as I could until I could run no longer. I drove too fast and never stopped at railroad crossings because I wanted to die but I knew it couldn’t be by my own hand. Otherwise, hell would await me, and did I say I was terrified of it? Yeah… this is getting kind of dark, so I think I’ll stop here for now.
I’ll just conclude with an observation. One of the reactions I’ve been getting to my change is amazement. People will say something like, “But I remember how passionate you were, the tears and emotions with which you preached!” Yes, I was passionate and no, it wasn’t feigned. I spoke with all the passion of a man who believes that eternal torment hangs in the balance. Yes, I did believe it. Because, say whatever else you will, the bible teaches it. And it’s terrifying.
I feel like I should say so much more. Sharing something like this makes me vulnerable, and I want to protect myself with a whole litany of provisos and addendums and clarifications. But they’ll have to wait until next time. Until then, I cast myself on all your good graces.