It was my evening routine.
Brush my teeth.
Put on my PJs.
Say goodnight to my family.
Lay in bed.
Pull the covers over my head.
Pray for the souls of every single person who was going to die that night to make sure they didn’t go to hell.
Apologize to God for every slight or sin, intentional or otherwise, I might have inflicted against Him.
Sing the chorus of “Did You Hear the Mountains Tremble?” over and over in my head until the terrifying image of Satan--specifically the one from The Passion of the Christ--left my mind and I could go to sleep. Most of the time that song worked...sometimes I would just have to wait until exhaustion took over.
It started when I was 12. It was 2002. And this was my routine for years, I think. I block it out sometimes--the amount of fear I had--but I can remember doing this in different homes, signifying years and years of this routine. I remember sometimes, as an older teen, forgetting and feeling guilty about it and praying more fervently and becoming even more terrified of the looming image of Satan screaming in a burning hell.
I think there is something very significant about being 12, or thereabouts, in 2002. Two things happened while we were preteens that were significant.
I don’t want to make light of this situation, or discuss it like I was someone who was a direct victim of these attacks. It did affect all of us though. I remember it vividly, watching newsreels on my grandmother’s television. Everyone was afraid. I was 11 years old. And adults were saying things. Things they probably shouldn’t have said around me. But I get it. They were scared. They started talking about end times and antichrists and tribulations and hell.
I was 11 years old. And I was scared.
Then, The Passion of the Christ was released. Like all good Christians, we went to the movie theater and saw it. I am not casting judgment on anyone who made the film, and I am sure that a lot of people had positive reactions to the film. I did not. I left the theater feeling the most intense guilt that Jesus had to go through all of that graphic torture for me.
And also, I was terrified of Satan. Like, horribly, debilitatingly terrified. Months after I saw the film, when I closed my eyes, I would see him--her, very interesting now that I think about it that the role was played by a woman. And even after it didn’t find me every time I closed my eyes, it would still find me in the dark, at night, when I wanted to sleep.
I was so afraid of hell. So afraid of God’s punishment. I felt so undeserving of any forgiveness and it didn’t give me peace. It made me feel guilty. And it’s interesting because I know a lot of people who were in my age group who felt the same way well into their teen years.
Hell sucks. The entire concept of it is dumb. I am very specifically talking about the Dante’s Inferno, fiery punishment torture den that we have constructed. When I was a little kid, the local Pentecostal church would put on this annual production: Heaven’s Gates, Hell’s Flames. And it would show different stories of people dying and where they would get to go depending on how they were in life. Cute Christian families on their way to church got in car accidents and they all got to go to a heaven made out of tin foil, with angels in white bathrobes, and a silent, smiling Jesus. Drunk teenage kids would get in a similar car accident and the lights would turn red and a man with flames painted on his face would command demons to send the kids into hell.
And then there would be an altar call. Don’t you want to be a Christian now?
I don’t want to be mean to people who did this. I don’t think their intentions were malicious. I believe that they wanted people to “get right with God.” And that might be a very noble thing to want people to do.
But as someone who was so crippled by fear of hell, I can tell you that being afraid of the wrath of God is not a healthy relationship with God.
Scaring someone into the Kingdom is going to give you a person who stands in the corner, apologizing for everything, always looking behind them because their secret sin might be the thing that allows Satan to grab them by the ankles and drag them into hell.
But here’s the thing. Hell isn’t a sure thing. We say things like “sure as hell.”
I sure as hell don’t know that hell is anything like what we paint it to be.
I could go through and discuss the entire theology of hell: what the Bible does and doesn’t say about this place that takes up so much space in the Christian psyche. But that would take a lot of time--entire books, in fact. But I would love for you to take a look at it yourself and decide what you think.
Here’s what I think: it doesn’t matter.
Here’s what I think: I don’t care what happens to me when I die.
My faith isn’t about getting a lollipop and a pat on the head when I die. It also isn’t about getting saved from torment. It’s about relationship with the Trinity. It’s about relationship with a God so big and so good, equally all powerful and all vulnerable, who died on the cross, submitting Himself to the pain and suffering of this world because we hurt and we have pain.
No longer can I look at God in my grief and pain and say, “You don’t understand.”
He understands me. He wants relationship with me. I don’t care what happens when I die. And I mean it. If I bet on the wrong horse, I was wrong. (Which, by the way, I could be wrong. That’s faith. Believing that this life I am living is the truth without any evidence proving it is). And I die and I don’t get the tinfoil heaven promised to me by so many religious leaders, that’s just fine. I wouldn’t change my life on this earth for anything. I wouldn’t change my choice because it is no longer motivated by fear.
So, here’s my new routine:
Brush my teeth
Get in bed
Speak the Priestly Blessing over myself and then speak it over everyone
Express gratitude to The Trinity for the outpouring of goodness I am invited into right now. Express my gratitude that I do not have to wait for this to be my truth.
Hope that all will see that they are in this outpouring