This sounds like an uplifting post, doesn't it? *Grin* I have put off writing about hell, because it is such an emotionally complicated topic and because, I fear, it will only serve to highlight my neurotic tendencies! However, it's clear that I need to work through my beliefs and emotional reactions on this topic. As noted in a recent post by DagoodS, it's often hard to let go of ideas that have influenced us so strongly. Though my study of hell has largely led me to believe that it is a concept humanity developed over time in a variety of contexts, I still have lingering worries about the possibility of its existence. And this serves to impact both my and others' ability to question and reevaluate their faith. At the same time, I don't want to reject aspects of Christianity just because I don't like them. What if the truth is, in fact, a bitter pill to swallow? Pretending it doesn't exist won't make it go away. Denial doesn't work as a long term strategy. In future posts, that will become clear in my case. That being said, I am hoping, through my writing, to more fully understand and integrate my studies, personal experiences, and emotional reactions on the topic of hell to come to a conclusion about its nature and existence. This is my first post in this effort. I'll begin by giving the context in which I first heard about hell and the way I responded to it as a child and adolescent.
As a child, I was a worrier. In first grade I worried that I would fail if I didn't make straight A's. In third grade I worried about selling enough girl scout cookies. Nothing was too trivial for me to obsess about. I was serious about doing everything right, even perfectly, if it was possible. So it comes as no surprise that this carried over into my religion.
For me, Christianity was about believing and doing the right things to go to heaven and avoid everlasting punishment. This was partly due to my personality but mostly due to the denomination in which I was raised (church of Christ). Hell was an ever present worry for me throughout my childhood. And not just worry really. More like a gnawing fear that I was able to suppress better some times more than others. By 6th grade, I stressed out enough that I developed ulcers. It was during that time period that I began my persistent discussions with my parents about hell. At one point they asked me if I wanted to go talk to a therapist to help me not be so anxious. That only made me feel as if I was deficient in some way, so through tears I promised myself and them that I would get better if they would not take me to a therapist. I had been baptized in fifth grade to save me from the fires of hell, but that did not serve to quell my fears. Did I carry out my baptism correctly, or was God displeased in some way? My church taught that we were saved through baptism, but we also had to live in obedience to God. Therefore, I couldn't rest easy in my salvation.
I talked with both my dad and my preacher about whether or not I should get rebaptized just to make sure my baptism was acceptable to God. What if I really didn't understand what I was doing at the time? What if I wasn't fully immersed? What about my sinful attitude during my baptism? I remember being irritated that a "frequent flyer" came forward to repent the Sunday I also came forward to be baptized. How vain to want the moment for myself! Anyway, I didn't want any of those things to send me to hell because they rendered my baptism invalid in some way.
I had additional reasons to doubt my salvation as well. What if, during bedtime prayers, I forgot to ask for forgiveness for rolling my eyes at my mom and then mysteriously died in the night? Would I go to heaven or hell? Although my worries from childhood seem simplistic and naive, they weren't far from those expressed in church by adults. I remember Bible class discussions where church members discussed whether or not one would go to hell if there was any unrepented sin. It just didn't seem possible to repent continually while also going about my daily tasks, but I did try my best.
Of course, I didn't just worry about myself. I didn't want anyone to burn in hell forever. This made me evangelistic, despite my extreme introversion. I went on every campaign and door knocking activity our church initiated. In Jr. high and high school I conducted Bible studies with adults in their home. I started a Bible study group at my school. When my family visited my grandma up in Detroit during the summers, I would talk with my cousins about God and salvation, which prompted one to be baptized after one visit. These efforts weren't easy and I berated myself often for not being more open and bold about my faith. I felt horribly self-conscious but I also felt horribly guilty for keeping the saving truth from those destined for hell. It was especially overwhelming because in my world view, almost everyone was destined for hell. (Narrow is the way that leads to life and few there be who find it.) My church taught that only Christians who followed the Bible as my denomination did were acceptable to God. This meant that over 99% of the world was going to hell. Not an easy concept to live with. I couldn't remain content to evangelize in my country. I had to move on to the world. Especially countries where people had less access to The Truth. I determined to do mission work. I finally got the opportunity for two summers during college when I visited Hungary with a mission team. I remember being very overwhelmed with the lost state of humanity as the plane touched down the first time I landed there. It was an impossible task. Why would God create humanity only to send almost every single one of us to hell for all eternity? Yes, he sent his son to die for us but why make it so hard for us to know this and accept this gift of salvation through baptism? Why make the salvation of others dependent on the mission efforts of the few saved individuals, who mainly happened to live in America during the 19th and 20th centuries (those from the church of Christ denomination)? These are the questions I began to ponder in Hungary, when the burden of hell became to great for me to bear any longer. I'll explore my response to these questions more in another post.