Hellfire And Damnation Essay, Research Paper
Looking back on my childhood, I have many memories shrouded in fear and self-loathing. I was raised in the Baptist church. My mother and grandmother made sure that I attended church every Sunday morning. My grandmother was from the mid-west. She carried her strict Bible belt background with her as she traveled west with my grandfather. The many lessons I learned from my grandmother and the minister at our church played a big part in how I began to see the world and my place in it.
It would seem, looking back now, that the whole basis for my teachings during those early years was fear. I had the most intense fear of going to Hell. The only thing one had to know about Hell was that it was the place where one’s worst nightmares became real. The really horrible part was that Hell was for eternity. This one life that I had to live could determine whether or not eternity would be heaven or hell. From my experience as a five-year-old, I knew that most things usually turned out wrong on the first try, so the thought of having to get it right in just one try damn near paralyzed me.
With Hell as the ultimate punishment, I began going about the business of learning how to avoid it. It seems that there was a list a mile long of things that one should or shouldn’t do that would put one in the good graces of the Lord. Do not hang out with the pagans down the street (there was a Mormon Church about two blocks down). Do not engage in pre-marital sex. Never masturbate. This is just to name a few; the list seems to go on and on.
As if the list of things to avoid was not long enough, the minister of our small congregation was always preaching about how unworthy of God’s love we were. It seemed his favorite topic. He could go on for hours about how we were all sinners. Such horrible sinners were we that there was nothing we could do about it. We were rotten to the core. We did not deserve God’s love or anyone’s love, yet God loved us anyway. That made God a really great guy.
My interpretation of this particular sermon was that I was a horrible person not worthy of love. I was a sinner and I was going to Hell. I would cry myself to sleep at night because I was so sure that I would be one of those lost souls for all of eternity. The minister talked of redemption. All I had to do to be saved and get into heaven was confess my sins and ask for forgiveness.
I was sure, however, that I had far too many sins to be forgiven; besides, I wasn’t really sorry for most of my “sins.” I could not feel bad about questioning my parents’ and the church’s authority. Most of the time it seemed that they contradicted themselves or just didn’t make any sense at all. I had a very hard time digesting the teachings of the church that included both a God who would demand killing and sacrifice and the same God who would love and protect his children. Due to the teachings I received and with so many people being in agreement, I just figured they must be right on some level, which made me the odd man out and the one destined to pay with my soul.
All I had to do was to take a look at the Ten Commandments to see that I was not doing so well in the eyes of the Lord. “You must not Murder,” I hadn’t done that. “You must not commit adultery.” I didn’t even know what that meant. “You must not steal,” I did this all the time. I would take change from my father’s change drawer. My mother was always telling me that I could not have candy from the store or small inexpensive toys because we had no money. I knew that she was lying. From the looks of my father’s change drawer, we were rich.
Which leads us to the next Commandment, “ You must not tell lies.” If my mother was telling me a lie about the state of our family’s finances wasn’t it all right for me to steal to make up for her lie? Funny enough, no one was willing to discuss this with me. “You must not burn with desire for another man’s wife, nor envy him for his home, land, servants, oxen, donkeys, nor anything else he owns.” What if his stuff is better? “You may worship no other God than me.” At an early age I knew no other God so, this was not a problem for me.
“You shall not make yourselves any idols: any images resembling animals, birds, or fish. You must never bow to an image or worship it in any way; for I, the Lord your God, am very possessive. I will not share your affection with any other god!” From a very early age I would play a game using my stuffed animals and high mounds of dirt to make sacred places, little sanctuaries, containing my stuffed animals. The stuffed animals were my special friends. I was never sure if this would send me to hell or not. I was afraid to ask because I enjoyed the game and was afraid someone would tell me I had to stop playing it.
“You shall not use the name of Jehovah your God irreverently, nor use it to swear to a falsehood. You will not escape punishment if you do.” I was not completely sure what this meant, but someone once told me it had something to do with the phrase, “God damn it.” I used this in private when I would get frustrated. I was modeling my father, who also liked this term. “Remember to observe the Sabbath as a holy day.” Sunday was one of my weekend days. How was I supposed to give it up to God and do nothing when I spent at least five days a week at school and Saturdays usually cleaning my room or something? I found this to be a very unreasonable request. “Honor your father and mother.” This meant always to listen and obey. I should never talk back or question. As one can see, I was doomed under such laws.
I suffered from constant anxiety that the end of the world was coming, along with judgment day. My fear was reinforced by sermons and movies covering the topic of the end (I was sure that it would come in the form of nuclear war. It was the early eighties and the cold war was the big news story). I was sure that I would be one of those poor people that suffered greatly in the Book of Revelation. After all, I was a sinner and unworthy of God’s love. I knew that God could read minds, and when he read mine he would know without a doubt that I did not believe in him with all of my heart. I knew that I had too many questions for God to find me fit for heaven. I never spoke it aloud, but I thought that God was a very mean man. Besides all that, I had a feeling that I would get bored in heaven.
My father and I often discussed the matter of the end of the world. I think he was also waiting for nuclear war to make the Book of Revelations a thing of reality. I was still too young to really know what was going on, but I did know what the diagrams showing Russia’s ability to launch missiles and have them land on U.S. soil meant. It meant death and destruction of the worst kind. I would often say to my father, in the spirit of the blanket-over-the-head defense, “If there is a nuclear war I will just go live in Antarctica; there I will be safe.”
My father was not a man who allowed his children their fantasies to make them feel safe. I think that he wanted us to feel as afraid and confused as he did. His reply to my fantasy was “When the nuclear war happens, there will be no place on Earth that will be safe.” With complete terror I would stop all conversation. I was doomed, then.
How could a good, kind, creative God let his children suffer? If I were God I would never let any of my children suffer. What about the unconditional love that the Bible sometimes spoke about? Unconditional love and grace contradicted Hell Fire and punishment, didn’t it? How could an almighty God stand for both? It was questions like these that never got answered. It was questions like these that I thought would send me straight to Hell.
I battled with myself and my parents and the church through my childhood. Why did everything that came to me naturally have to be a sin? How could everything that felt good and right be bad? The older I got, the more I questioned. The more I questioned, the less got answered. The power of Hell began to fade. I began to investigate the world around me. I no longer took the word of the adults in my life. The results were surprising.
I had the feeling all along that something with Christianity was not quite right. The first time I remember really becoming aware that Christianity was no better than any other form of religion or myth system was when I was in the seventh grade. We began studying Greek mythology. I couldn’t believe that a whole group of supposedly educated people would believe such wild and crazy myths. Then I began to recall the stories from the Bible. Why were Zeus and his pals any more far-fetched than Moses parting the Red Sea or talking to the burning bush? These simple questions were enough to shake my foundation. I came to the conclusion that one religion was just as right as the next. If I had been raised in a different land, then I would just as easily have been raised with another religion. I would then hold firm to those beliefs and all others would be wrongs.
There were people who belonged to other faiths who believed different ideas, ideas that I found to be more reasonable. Of course, Christianity would say that these people were all going to Hell. I could no longer believe that God would want me to go along with anything that went against my heart, so I began searching with my heart. I used my own inner guidance to determine what was right and wrong. I figured that this had to be a better system than listening to a third person tell me how unworthy I was and continue making myself miserable.
After all these revelations, I came to the conclusion that I had to search out the truth for myself. This was the answer I was looking for. There would be certain undeniable truths hidden among all religions, and I would have to find those truths for myself. In so doing, I was to create my own belief system. I wanted a belief system that would give me a firm foundation and the strength to face life. I did not want a belief system that was going to paralyze me with fear.
I still, to this day, do battle with the imaginary demons that were placed in my head as a child. My feelings of being unworthy sometimes surface, but more often than not I feel confident and free following my heart. I feel that God would much rather have me happy and spreading happiness than miserable and spreading misery. Christianity to me these days is just another institution set up by those few who want to take advantage and control the weak and tired majority. I can no longer live in fear, so I must stand up and refuse to listen to anyone claiming to know what’s best for me. My heart is my only true guide.
Hell Fire and Damnation
28 April 1999