A Personal History of Hell

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.

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10 thoughts on “A Personal History of Hell

  1. jes

    Well here we r again! You saying exactly what I feel. It is hard because I still believe in God, and jesus and his message, but I am like you are and not sure exactly what to think of the bible. We where taught you cant believe In God or Jesus without taking the bible as liteal. And this is where I struggle with my past. I went to a church the other week with my parents, and when I left I told my husband”well I feel exactly how I felt as a kid, unsure of my salvation, and horriable about my self. ” it is hard for me to believ this is how God wants me to feel about myself. Any way I am enjoying your journey. Thank you for your honesty. And when I say I will keep you in my prayers I don’t mean I am praying for your soul, more. That I am so glad you are on a journey.

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    1. exetazon Post author

      Thanks so much, Jess, you bring my heart joy! ❤ I truly hope you find peace and joy in your own journey. I feel like I've been through the worst of it by far and there's a lot of good on this side, with a little distance now from all the really bad parts. (That's all coming, I think I still have a lot of words left in me before I get to the present!) I hope your own journey just keeps getting better and better.

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  2. Billy Howell

    I don’t know that fear of hell was ever intended to save anyone, and I’m not a fan of the emphasis on hell in the presentation of the gospel. The reason I believe in a literal hell is because I believe in a relational God. My definition of hell is “a place completely absent of everything that God is.” By that I mean–God is love: In hell there is only hate–God is light: In hell there is only darkness–God is pure comfort: In hell there is only pure pain–etc. If in this life a person rejects that relationship {although they do not have a complete understanding of what exactly they are rejecting} is it not reasonable to assume that in the next life they would be completely and totally free from any connection to that relationship?

    Anyways, I do appreciate the challenges you bring up. I think there is far too much “preaching to the choir” without room for dissent or honest discussion, in any area, but especially in the Christian community. And I respect anyone who is willing to challenge my beliefs without being being sure of their surety.

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  3. Ashlee

    Dear Nathan,

    My name is Ashlee. I’m co-founder of the Youshare Project, with the mission to connect people around the world through true, personal stories. I recently stumbled across your blog and read the above post entitled “A Personal History of Hell.” It’s beautifully written, honest, and incredibly compelling. I think it would make a wonderful youshare, because I would imagine other people around the world feel the same way. It would give them comfort to read your story and engage in meaningful dialogue about this very important topic.

    If this sounds interesting to you, I would love to email you directly with more information and formally invite you to adapt your story to youshare and share it with the project. You have my email address and website. I hope to hear from you soon.

    Best,
    Ashlee
    http://www.youshareproject.com

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  4. exetazon Post author

    Thanks for the comment, Billy. It made me wonder, have you read “The Great Divorce,” by C.S. Lewis? What you described kinda reminded me of that book, in a way. Yes, I agree, a better perspective than the constant hellfire-and-brimstone purple-faced preaching I grew up hearing too much of. I still can’t stomach the idea of a place of eternal pure pain, so I certainly hope you’re wrong on that point. My imagination isn’t as good as God’s and I can think of all sorts of ways to get rid of the eternal pure pain part from the universe, so I hope he’s come up with something too. 🙂

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  5. Pingback: Healing | exetazon

  6. Mike Vargo

    Nathan,
    I came across your blog just today. I greatly respect what you are sharing. I’m glad that this process is therapeutic, however, bearing your soul and deepest thoughts, questions, and doubts for everyone to see and respond to can be very scary. So thank you for putting yourself out there and allowing responses.

    As I read through the three posts I could not help but reflect on my own background. In many ways our pasts parallel each other. As you know I grew up in the exact same Baptist fellowship you were apart of. I experienced the same exact preaching, judgment and condemnation you experienced. I walked through and continue to walk through many of the issues you express in these posts. Except for maybe the comments you made about the O.T. passages, I need to do more study in that area. Where we differ, and where things probably became much more difficult for you, is that you were a PK in this fellowship. I can only imagine the pressure that was put on you in that position. My father was not a pastor so I was spared a lot of what you had to endure. Where I greatly messed up is that for the first 16 years of my ministry I was one of those Independent, Fundamental, legalistic pastors. Just the fact that I was in ministry in the midst of that mentality has had life-long detrimental effects on all four of my children. It has only been within the last 10 years that I have been on this journey of moving out of the legalistic mindset that was so ingrained in me.

    As I came to the end of this post and read your “P.S.” obviously I was taken back for a moment. Since I am the pastor you are talking about, I honestly had a myriad of initial emotions and thoughts that flooded through me. Of course I read it more than once and as I did I reflected back to the conversation I had with my wife after the service. The first thing I said to her is “why did I go there?” Her response was very honest as she always is and she agreed that the statements you reflected upon and a few others that I brought out at the end of my message were not necessary. As I am writing this I was also texting a pastor friend of mine about your comments, and had to confess that old habits are so hard to break. You see I agree so much with your concerns in these types of comments in sermons that I have been on a year long journey in trying to change the way I preach. I obviously still have a long road ahead of me. Everything that I have been taught and the indy, fundy, judgmental preaching style that I was so accustom to, unfortunately came into play in last Sunday’s message. I also agree with you that the joking was out of place. The passage I was using to make the point was Phil. 3:18-21, in hindsight verse 21 was not needed to make the point I was trying to make, unfortunately when I read the verse my mind simply went with it, making things very awkward. The second I got to that point, I knew that the transition was wrong and that the point was confused, but had no choice but to continue on. For that I apologize, all this reflects is unpreparedness in this area on my part, and for that I was wrong.

    I make no excuses for the concerns you listed in this blog, as a matter of fact I could not agree more with your comments and conclusion. I thank you so much for your honest assessment and comments and will take them to aid me in becoming a better communicator, with the goal of extending God’s unconditional grace and not my legalist judgment.

    I am concerned for you though. As I have read your blog my fear is that you are at a point of completely walking away from God. I hope this is not the case or I am overly concerned. You need to know that you are not alone in the concerns and thoughts you have in all of the areas you wrote about. I too, have struggled in all of these areas and have struggled to reconcile them in light of a Holy, Loving God. I certainly do not have all the answers and I know I have many more questions. However, I would love to walk with you in this journey if you would allow me to. I am so thankful that you, Nicole and the kids attend our church. You and your family are a wonderful blessing to me, my family, and our church. Please know that I love you and your family in the Lord and am willing to help in any way you will allow me to.

    Blessings!
    Pastor Mike

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  7. exetazon Post author

    Thank you — sincerely –for your love and concern, Pastor Mike. I didn’t intend a personal affront; I just saw the occasion as illustrating the continuing existence in the church of that ineffable struggle for Christians to be able to treat hell with anything like the seriousness it warrants. I know we’re all trying to grow, in many ways, out of the imperfect people we’ve come to realize that we are. I’m glad you show interest in wanting to continue to grow together.

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  8. Anonymous

    I’ve been struggling a lot too. In fact, I’ve been rather “cool” towards our congregation and treating the pastorate more as a job than a ministry. (Heidi corrected me on this. I hated to hear it, but she had a very good point.) I know I need to make a change, but I also admit freely that I understand 100 percent why so many people are disenchanted with the Church. They think it’s all fake, and the truth is that they aren’t completely wrong. (How else does one explain the people who are always in church but are known as being complete jerks to everyone outside of the church on Monday through Saturday?) but in spite of this, as a a pastor, my job is to believe that everyone in our church, including me, is a broken person who is still learning to grow and mature as God continues to work on all of us to become more like him. Again, is church sometimes fake? Absolutely. But my hope and prayer is that God isn’t finished working with people who are sometimes insincere on a Sunday morning.

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  9. exetazon Post author

    Yes, I definitely see and feel your point. The thought it sometimes brings me is, “Maybe humans just weren’t designed to live in a manner truly in keeping with such fierce doctrines. Maybe somewhere along the way we missed the point and our good religious impulse got all tangled up with the bad luggage we picked up over the course of generations struggling through a bloody history.” For what it’s worth, in my experience people who are making such honest assessments as you’re making above always seem to be part of the solution, catalysts for needed change. So don’t be discouraged. It’s people who have been in situations such as you’re describing that have been helpful to me in the past (and present), and I’m sure you’re helping lots of people right now, even if you don’t always know it.

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