2. Going to hell

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.


  1. Fascinating stuff. I was raised Mennonite, although my parents had left the church by the time I was old enough to be baptized, so I’m the one member of my family who will be going to hell. (The Mennonites are an “adult” baptism church, which means sometime around age thirteen, I think.) I still remember going through a conscious process of rejecting the belief in God/Jehovah in high school. Part of that process was reading Paradise Lost in a literature class and realizing that you could look at this Christian stuff as another mythology, like the Greek mythology we had encountered earlier in Homer. Whoa. That was conceptual breakthrough for me.

    1. Author

      I get the impression high school age is the big religious break for a lot of people raised in a church — my guess is that it has to do with cognitive development, although church elders would probably tell you that it’s the inherent rebellious wickedness of teenagers.

      I remember contemplating the Greek mythology and having the thought, “the Greeks were pretty intelligent people, did they literally believe in all this crazy stuff?” I was a bit too young at that point to have the thought, “modern Christians can be pretty intelligent people, do they literally believe in all this crazy stuff?”

      1. For my father, it was going to college. He even went to two Mennonite colleges, but he still got enough ideas in his head that he began to question the church dogma, although it still took him a few years to make a break with it. It has always fascinated me that the thing that really started bothering him was the symbolism, like the blood of the Lamb, which was treated as something literal by his fundamentalist peers. That’s what started looking like crazy stuff to him.

        My mom always says that to her church was a social thing, and she never thought about doctrine. It was dad who led the way out of church. Now, however, she’s a raving anti-theist and he’s sympathetic with the Religious Right. Go figure!

  2. That is awesomely interesting, so thanks.

    Two things I must now share with you:

    1) When I was around 4, I bragged to all the other kids that *my* mommy got to pass out the snacks at church. In fact, I may have yelled out just that, as she and others were serving communion. But only really good kids get to pass out snacks at preschool, and obviously that would be even more so at church. I was so crazy proud of her. :p

    2) You might find the book “Good Goats” interesting. I know some folks who find it crazy and heretical, but I liked it enough that I keep 2 copies on hand. http://books.google.com/books?id=r1ao2DMhpm0C&dq=good+goats&printsec=frontcover&source=bl&ots=Bl65LRQebU&sig=DSrPhvoCjmUu05TogzQpSXZ0DoM&hl=en&ei=I4DkSte8NZH8tQO134y1Aw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=7&ved=0CBkQ6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=&f=false

    1. Author

      Hahahahah! That is hilarious, I’m glad I wasn’t the only one with the “snacks” misconception.

      Good goats looks interesting. I think I would have derived much comfort from it as a worried youngster.

  3. It certainly doesn’t have elaborate demonologies and intricate punishments and the devil’s backstory and all that.

    More and more Christianity seems like the plot of a comic book, complete with retconned origin stories and everything.

    1. Author

      There’s retconning and also fanwanking. I’ll be exploring some of the fanwanking a bit later.

      1. Actually, the more I think about it, the more the comic book metaphor applies. Like, most superheroes are pretty cool… but in the hands of any but the best writers, their books usually turn to self-referential, self-indulgent crap after a few years. How many people can write a good Superman story anymore?

        I like the basic philosophies of Christianity, but some of the stuff that’s been piled on top of it by successive generations of interpreters could really use a good clearing.

        Marvel recently rebooted a number of its franchises with the “Ultimate” series. Maybe someone needs to write an “Ultimate Christianity”.

        1. Author

          Well, the Protestant split was that kind of cleaning out, so the concept is not without precedent.

          1. Maybe you should do it. Get some pragmatic-bordering-on-cynical artist and writer types, and do your own Christianity reboot!

  4. The serpent really got the shaft in Milton.

    In college some friends and I were having a pretty serious conversation about the Holocaust, which wandered into the question of what age children should start to be taught about it. One girl argued that “since we teach little kids about Jesus and hell, then it can’t be too bad to teach them about the Nazis.” I didn’t have a good answer for that at the time. (Godwin godwin godwin. *turns around three times*)

    1. Author

      I probably wouldn’t tell kids under the age of ten or so about hell or Nazis unless it came up.

      1. That was about my instinct, too. I’m still not sure how to talk to kids about religion in a way that challenges them to think for themselves.

      2. I had to tell Gareth about Nazis when he was about 8, because he didn’t understand the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I didn’t give him all the gory details, but I did say that while the Nazis were running Germany they tried to take over Europe and kill all the Jews in the process, and that the Ark was a Jewish artifact, so when the Nazis tried to use it, it backfired on them. D&D logic he understood.

        He’d been watching too much anime, and so when someone referred to the Ark as “a radio for talking to God”, he figured a bunch of gods would come out of it and grant the user superpowers. Since then I have occasionally thought about doing a Raiders remake anime-style, in which Hitler acquires the powers of the Ark, and Indy has to find another artifact to give himself a power boost, and it’s Indy and his whip versus super-Hitler and the Spear of Destiny (the Lance of Longinus, which the Nazis actually had at one point – you probably know that the Nazis’ real-life search for ancient artifacts was part of the inspiration for the movie in the first place…)

        OH! And you do need to see the Russian Hitler vs. Stalin comic!

    2. I don’t think it counts for the Godwin thing if, when you mention Nazis, you are actually really talking about historical Nazis and not just using them as an inappropriate metaphor for your opponent’s political or ethical motives. :)

      1. Oh, you’re just being a Godwin-enforcement Nazi.

  5. I like to refer to Infero and Paradise Lost as “Fanon”, the TVTropes.org term for stories told by fans of a fictional work so thoroughly that it’s either written in by the official writers or just generally accepted. Angels, for example, except for a couple loosely referred to as ‘messengers’, are complete Fanon. But if you do ask your pastor about angels, you’ll get a whole schpiel. I dunno at what point they were appropriated, but they’re sort of official now. So is hell. And the fricking Apocalypse in some churches, even though Revelation is only barely canon itself, and makes little sense in a modern context.
    On that note, you’d like Fred “Slacktivist” Clark at slacktivist.typepad.com

    1. Author

      But if you do ask your pastor about angels, you’ll get a whole schpiel.

      The interesting thing to me is that a lot of times I think if you actually asked your pastor, you’d get a more doctrinal answer.

      My college friend who is now a Lutheran pastor talked about facepalming a bit when one of her congregation came up to ask her about the Left Behind books. She (my friend) had to gently explain to the woman that Lutherans don’t actually believe in that sort of thing. The woman simply had no idea.

      Pastors go to school and stuff.

      Sunday School teachers on the other hand…

      1. Depends on the congregation a bit. There’s seminary, and then there’s Bible College.

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