I can’t remember if it was a movie or a book but somewhere I once saw the question “Do you remember when someone taught you about the Holocaust?” The point of the question was supposed to be that no one remembers the moment they were taught about it, that even though we all know it, it feels like this group knowledge we all grow up being aware of. I know that’s not entirely true as I know people who do remember that moment but it was true for me and I found the question to be an interesting one. I find hell to be a similar thing. I feel like I should have some memory of the moment I was taught that if I didn’t love Jesus, he would send me to be tortured horribly for all eternity, but I don’t. Hell was just innate knowledge, something that existed and couldn’t be questioned. People who questioned the existence of hell were “liberal Christians” and they were probably going there. After all, you don’t really know how much leeway you have, how much space God gives you before you fall off the True Christian Road.
My very first memories about hell are riding in the car. I did a lot of thinking in the car. We used to have one of those station wagons with a backseat that faced backwards and I would sit there and pretend I had my own little world and I would think about all kinds of things. I remember, several times, suddenly being overwhelmed by the fear that maybe I wasn’t really saved, maybe I was going to hell. It was like the bottom dropped out of my stomach and I would just be terrified. You see, I am sure that somewhere in my very early childhood I prayed the proper “sinner’s prayer” but I don’t remember it. I have never remembered a moment when I became a Christian, when I considered myself one I always expressed it as more of a journey. But that is suspect in evangelical circles. You’re really supposed to have the moment. So I would sit there, paralyzed by my very active imagination. What if we got in a car crash? What if something happened? God was not a fully trustworthy creature, after all, no matter what my Sunday School teachers might say. I would pray quickly, “Dear Jesus, I love you, please forgive my sins and come into my heart.” I would feel a little better but not entirely. After all, faith wasn’t meant to be used as fire insurance. If I wasn’t saved before it was possible God wouldn’t appreciate such attempts. But the car never crashed and I never found out.
My first evangelism attempts started when I was only like 4 or so but I don’t recall them mentioning hell. The first one I do remember mentioning hell, I was about 7 or 8. My neighbor Jessica lived a few houses down. She was a nice little girl. She had a pet pot-bellied pig for a while until the pig bit her and then they slaughtered and ate it. I remember being sure I could not have eaten the pig although who knows – I really love bacon. One day we were sitting in her yard, on her fence, and somehow we got into an argument about Christianity. I honestly do not remember how or why. What I do remember is that I told Jessica in no uncertain terms that if she did not become a Christian, she was going to hell. We got quite heated and yelling about it. She yelled at me that she didn’t believe in God and wasn’t going to hell and I told her it didn’t matter if she believed in God, she was going to hell anyway…. I actually feel quite bad about this in retrospect. This wasn’t even like well-meaning evangelism from what I remember of it, this was just me as a kid legitimately not wanting to back down because I was sure I was right. Jessica and I weren’t friends after that and I don’t blame her.
Around this same time, I came to an earth shattering realization. My aunt, my beloved aunt, did not go to church. I had just never thought about it. My mom’s sisters were definitely the people I was closest to besides my parents, the people I saw the most. It took several years before I realized that one of them did not go to church. I don’t know. One day I came out and I asked my mother in very, very serious tones, “Mom? Is Aunt N. a Christian?” My mother said, “No, I don’t think so. I mean, she thinks she is but no, not really.” I think she was surprised at the strength of my response. I ran to my bedroom and I cried for an hour. I was absolutely devastated. My aunt, the most wonderful and kind person I had ever met, was going to go to hell. It did not occur to me to question this or to be upset that she had to, it only broke my heart into a million pieces that it was true. My mother did not come to comfort me but when I came out later, I remember her encouraging me to ask N. about it, I think hoping that my aunt might be swayed by a child. Which makes me squirm so much. The next time we were at her house for dinner, I asked her hopefully and she winked at me and just said, “Yep!” I should have felt better but I didn’t. I knew even at 7 that we were talking about different things. I knew that real Christians had to pray the Real True Christians prayer and go to church and do the Real True Christians thing and love Jesus in the Real True Christian way. It didn’t matter how kind and good and generous my aunt was – those things were all irrelevant, she was going to hell. I didn’t have the courage to argue with her, although I felt guilty about it. How could I tell my loving, wonderful aunt that someday she’d be in hell? Thank all that is holy I never pushed the point. My poor aunt.
I remember once asking my father with a very furrowed brow how God could send people to hell who had never heard of him. Was there an exception for them? It seemed very cruel and unfair that he could do that, send them to such an awful place for something they literally had never known about. My father pointed out that’s why we had missionaries and I said sure, that was nice but what about before they got there? My dad told me that the flaw in that logic was that, if God had an exception for people who hadn’t heard about him, then shouldn’t we not send missionaries? After all, in that case they were better off never having heard about him. I didn’t know but it ate at me and was one of the first times I ever thought that perhaps God was not just unpredictable, perhaps he was not entirely just. This wasn’t a thought I entertained much, of course. Part of the paradox with the God thing is that God creates just, he creates fair. God cannot be unjust or unfair because he created those concepts and therefor can’t exist outside of them. Still. It bothered me.
Those are most of my actual childhood memories. There are a few from high school. I remember a drama in high school youth group very clearly. Two kids in a car together and the car crashes. One of the kids was a Christian and the other was not and when the demons come out to drag away the one who was not into hell she screams and screams and screams at the Christian kid “Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you tell me?” Because of course, that was the point. If you believe that hell is a real and true place where people go if they do not love Jesus, then to not tell them about Jesus is a profoundly unloving and cruel act. You should feel tremendous shame and guilt for not wanting to tell everyone you know all of the time about Jesus because what if the Holy Spirit was going to use that moment, that exact moment, to get through to them and you failed to provide it? What if they get hit by the proverbial bus tomorrow and go to hell?
Along those lines I remember that once we were doing an outdoor movie with my youth group and I had gotten up to go to the bathroom. I had struck up a conversation with a girl around my age and she asked me what I was doing out tonight. I told her that we were watching a movie but I didn’t tell her I was with my youth group, didn’t tell her it was anything to do with God. I didn’t invite her to come back with us. And I remember just being so overwhelmed with shame. I had been “ashamed of the gospel of Christ.” I couldn’t do something as simple as tell her that I was with a church group because I wanted her to think I was cool. She was clearly not a Christian. She was going to hell and I had just helped her along by being too much of a coward to be honest about God.
Imagine living with that all of the time. The feeling that you can impact someone’s eternity, that God is counting on your help in this. Now, I will say that at some point in early high school at camp, I heard a sermon preached by a speaker who mitigated this for me somewhat. He talked about how when we freaked out about how we had not done everything we could do to save someone, that we were putting ourselves in the place of God. He talked about how we didn’t save anyone and although we should always do what we could to bring people to Jesus, God wasn’t about condemnation and it wasn’t a thing to beat yourself up over. That sermon actually had a really positive impact on me and I did start worrying less that I was single-handedly sending people to hell. Still, all the way into my 20’s I wondered about how I had never actually led anyone to the Lord. I wondered at times if I was a terrible Christian. In my very darkest moments that I didn’t talk about at all, I would wonder again like when I was a very small child if it was true, if I was a Christian at all, or if all the safety prayers didn’t work. After everything I had tried to do I still worried maybe I would go to hell.
I started moving away from the concept of a literal hell before I moved away from Christianity. It just… didn’t make sense to me anymore. The idea was completely incompatible with the idea of a loving God. Either it went or I did. As it turned out, both did but I didn’t know that yet. That said? I still worry about it on a really deep level sometimes. I think that kind of training is hard to undo, that level of fear is very difficult to logic yourself out of. After all, there’s no way to know. It’s always possible that I could die and find out I was wrong about all of it, find out God is going to send me to hell. The difficult thing for me in that now is that I’ve realized that even if I knew with absolute certainty that was true, I couldn’t be part of worshiping that God. I could be afraid of him or her but I couldn’t love him or her. How could I love someone who would commit that kind of atrocity and say “Hey, this is justice. I know, cause I created justice”? That means, for example, that if a little girl is sold into sexual slavery and spends a fairly brief lifetime being raped by men before dying… she goes to hell. Except, let’s be honest, she’s already been in hell. She never had a chance to “know Jesus.” There’s no justice or morality in a stance like that. There’s no love. And obviously that’s only one possible example of millions. If God exists and that’s who he is, I can’t be part of it. I guess if that means I’m condemning myself to hell, I’ve decided it’s the stand I have to take. It’s the only thing I’ve got.