When I was a kid, church seemed pretty much like school. Adults made me go. People told me stories and showed me pictures. Sometimes they asked questions about the stories they told me, and if they asked questions it was important to tell them the right answer.
Church was different from school, I knew this, but I couldn’t have explained why. I might have even given what sounded like the right answer, "church is where you learn about God and Jesus and stuff," but it’s not because I understood what I was saying, it’s because I knew that was the answer adults wanted to hear.
You can’t tell what kids are thinking by asking them a coached question and getting the correct, coached response.
(I refer you to the story of "youngest ever evangelist" Marjoe Gortner. I watched a bit of the documentary, and one thing that struck me about it is that he never talks about his past in terms like "I used to believe, but now I don’t." It’s more like, "I used to do this stuff because my parents wanted me to, but when I got old enough to understand what I was saying, it started to kind of bother me." )
I had a weird experience very early in my churchgoing life. I became convinced that I was going to hell and went through what was, in retrospect, a fairly classic depressive episode. I was probably five or six. I had just started going to children’s church instead of daycare. They passed around what I thought were snacks: half-ounce shots of grape juice and tiny cracker nuggets just a little bigger than a grain of rice. I was confused that the snacks were so small, but I played along, took one of each.
After I’d eaten, another kid asked me, "Are you baptized?"
I said, "I don’t think so." I didn’t know what "baptized" was.
He said, "You’re not supposed to take communion if you’re not baptized."
At that point, I went cold, because I didn’t know what "communion" was either. But apparently I had just done it.
I started to get worried that this kid would get me into trouble, so I said, "Maybe I am baptized. Yeah, I think I am."
And that was the end of the conversation. But afterward, I was consumed with guilt. I had committed some kind of transgression I didn’t even understand, and since I had done it in church it was probably ultimate super-plus bad.
(The fact that I lied to that kid about it didn’t affect me at all, interestingly. I had kind of forgotten about that part of it until prodding my memory to write this.)
Doing Something Bad in church could mean only one thing: I was going to hell.
I couldn’t talk to adults about this. I didn’t want my parents to know I was going to hell, after all, I might get in trouble. I couldn’t talk to anybody at church — I mean, you don’t want the adults at church to know you’re going to hell. Just imagine.
I don’t know how long I spent convinced I was going to hell. It seems like months, but maybe it was just a couple of weeks. I think it was during the summer, because I don’t remember going to regular school, and I think I had just had a birthday. I remember contemplating a red wallet I had received as a gift, and I remember the smell of hot vinyl, and I remember a hollow sense of doom as I had the thought: this wallet made me happy just a little while ago and now it doesn’t, because I’m going to hell. This wallet can’t make me happy. Nothing will ever make me happy again. Nothing will ever *matter* again. Not toys or ice cream or television or anything.
I felt completely cut off from the rest of humanity. I envied them, in a dreary, resigned sort of way. None of them were going to hell. Nobody else could really understand what it was like to be doomed the way I was. I went through the motions of my life, but found it impossible to feel joy or pleasure in anything. I faced the rest of my life knowing that each day would be the same: get up and labor through the tedious expectations of others, then eventually die. And hell.
Now, as a five or six year old I didn’t really have the words to express most of this. It was just an emotion, but an emotion that stamped itself deep into my brain. I can unpack it now, and say, "I guess I was depressed, huh?" And I can wonder if there was some other reason for that, something else going on in my life, but the church incident is all I remember.
Eventually I did confess my sins to my parents. I was in regular church, and now I think, maybe, that was because I begged not to be made to go to children’s church anymore. The minister read that bit in one of the New Testament books where Paul tells people not to take communion just because they want a snack or something, and it was like being stabbed through the heart. I told my parents the whole thing. Tearfully. Ashamed.
I remember them seeming kind of… compassionately amused? There’s a certain attitude parents get, when they’re able to reassure their kids, "that thing you were terrified of? it’s not real." Parents like being able to do that, I think. They tried to explain to me what the passage really meant, and I think they also tried to explain to me the concept of being forgiven, that as Christians we didn’t have to assume that we were one tiny mistake away from an eternity in hell.
There are a lot of things about this incident I find odd, in retrospect. First, the fact that, in spite of being raised in the church, by religious parents and super-religious grandparents, I didn’t know anything about communion, baptism, or forgiveness. Yet I already had a firm grasp of the concepts of hell and mortality. My concept of mortality turned out to be bang-on, but my concept of hell was really peculiar. Why was I so quick to assume I was going to hell over an innocent mistake? Why did I assume that I, and I alone, was going there?
I don’t really know. Except, kids are weird.
It’s probably tempting — to those of you down on religion in general — to say, "oh, well, that’s the evil of religion — they told you that you were going to hell and then you were psychologically tortured by this." But I don’t think that’s quite accurate. Nobody told me I was going to hell. I kind of made it up. In fact, I’m pretty sure my concept of hell didn’t come directly from church at all. The churches I have experience with don’t tend to talk about hell much when they instruct little kids. Church instruction for little kids is big on Colorful Bible Stories, low on confusing and horrible metaphysics. Also, it’s hard for me to imagine that I would have been directly taught about hell without also being directly taught about forgiveness and baptism.
Because, think about it — when you tell people a hell story, it’s in order to make them afraid, so then you can scare them into doing whatever you hold out as salvation. But if you tell kids about hell without also offering salvation, all you get is a bunch of depressed and paranoid little nihilists.
I think I picked up my concept of hell the same place that kids who aren’t raised in church pick it up — from the culture around me.
(Cartoons with a hell sequence still freak me out.)
That’s something important to keep in mind about religion, that only a portion of what religious people believe is actually taught as official doctrine. The rest of it is just — absorbed, in a kind of cultural osmosis. Even people who go to church regularly are prone to this. They’ll tell you things are in the Bible, when they’re not. Because they just sort of picked up this idea that they were.
The upshot is this: if you aren’t a Christian yourself, there are probably things that you imagine are an essential part of the Christian religion that really aren’t. Sometimes these things aren’t a part of the religion at all, sometimes they are a part, but a fringy, non-essential part.
And if you are a Christian, it’s the exact same thing. There are probably things that you imagine are part of your religion that your pastor would tell you are not. And you probably don’t know that, because it never even occurred to you to ask your pastor about it.
Sometimes these non-doctrinal ideas become so prevalent that they become doctrine. I don’t know what the earliest Christians thought about hell, but I know the concept really took off during the Middle Ages. They didn’t have the Saw movies back then, so they invented elaborately tortured demonologies instead. Eventually they wrote notable works of literature about hell: The Inferno and Paradise Lost.
(okay, it seems that Paradise Lost was actually written during the nearly modern era, 300 years after Dante. Which still makes it 300 years ago.)
Writers and artists like to play with hell. It’s fun. So the concept, once introduced, had a self-perpetuating aspect. Writers were inspired by other writers, artists by other artists.
Most of our concepts of hell are not very well-supported by the actual text of the Bible. Milton might have thought he was being pious, writing to "justify the ways of God to men," but there’s no denying that Paradise Lost is a work of literature. It’s a made-up story. And it’s made up based on some pretty scanty evidence.
The Bible doesn’t have a lot to say on the subject of hell. And it’s difficult to tell if what is said is intended to be entirely literal. It certainly doesn’t have elaborate demonologies and intricate punishments and the devil’s backstory and all that.
And, all through my time in the church, even when I was a believer, I never actually thought anybody but me was going to hell. The worst I could bring myself to believe in was a kind of purgatory.
God was supposed to be the ultimate good in the universe. The ultimate good in the universe wouldn’t send people to eternal torment with no hope of reprieve. Period. If he would do that, he wasn’t good.
That’s what I believed. But I was just a kid and sometimes I worried that I might be wrong.