I’m not afraid of Hell anymore.
I’m what, almost thirty-two years old? And at last I’m not afraid. It’s taken this long to shake the fear, the implied threat lurking on the other side of God’s love. It’s taken this long to stop thinking of my salvation in terms of Jesus saving me from God, like a mother rushing to stand between the abusive Father and the child who has angered Him.
When your religion tells you that you are fundamentally broken and unlovable, that only an utterly undeserved act of immeasurable grace stands between you and eternal bodily suffering — when the God you know is the God of Jonathan Edwards, and “there is nothing that keeps [people] at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God,” pleasure that could change on a whim, pleasure that He is under no obligation to maintain; “The wrath of God burns against them, their damnation does not slumber; the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage and glow. The glittering sword is whet, and held over them, and the pit hath opened its mouth under them” — when you grow up thinking that the only thing standing between you and this wrath of God is praying the Sinner’s Prayer as fervently as possible, really Believing It In Your Heart, then you pray that prayer again and again, hoping beyond hope that when God looks at you He will finally see not your own brokenness and be angry, but Christ’s protective covering and be appeased.
And so I prayed the Sinner’s Prayer dozens of times, hundreds. Every night as a child I would recite those words, lying in bed and telling God that I believed in Jesus and I invited Him into my heart and so please, please don’t let me go to Hell – over and over again, repeating it like an incantation, obsessed with the idea that I might have done it wrong all the times before, that the pit still yawned open beneath me and the only thing that could keep me from falling into it was to say the magic words, again and again. Only by invoking Christ could I be saved; but if I was so inherently broken, how could I be sure if I was invoking Christ correctly, or if I had left a loophole open wide enough to fall through into the flames below?
I knew that there was nothing I could do to earn salvation, that we were saved by grace, not by works — not like those Catholics, who thought they had to do rosaries and confessions and Hail Marys to be saved; we were Protestants, and we knew better. I was supposed to be comforted by this, but secretly I envied the Catholics, who at least knew where they stood, who didn’t have to depend on something as nebulous and uncommunicating as intangible grace. The only Work I had in my arsenal, the only exception to (and in fact, requirement of) the saved-by-grace rule, was to Believe In The Lord Jesus Christ And Ye Shall Be Saved; so I believed with all my might.
I only attended private Christian school for four years, and only spent a year and a half at the worse of the two schools, the tiny, fundamentalist Faith Christian Day School. We used textbooks from Bob Jones University Press and had Bible classes five days a week plus chapel services every Tuesday and Thursday, during which a parade of men would tell us that we were sinners, that if we had sinned it was evidence that we were backsliding, that we couldn’t lose our salvation but if we shall know them by their fruits and our fruits were sinful then perhaps we were never saved in the first place. These men, local pastors and our Bible teacher, himself a preacher too, told us over and over how unworthy we were of God’s grace – as if to make us appreciate it all the more because of our undeservingness.
This has stayed with me.
We had family friends whose adult son had left the church, announced he was an atheist. Our friends said that he was still saved because he had been saved as a child; my school taught that people like him were never properly saved to begin with, or he wouldn’t have stopped believing. I believed in Jesus as hard as I could, afraid to doubt or question or wonder, afraid that if I stopped believing in all the things I was taught for even a second that I would prove myself never to have been God’s child at all.
But I still sinned. Even when I couldn’t think of any sins I’d done I knew I had sinned, because they told us that we were sinners, that there was nothing good and unbroken in us. And so always I was afraid there was something I’d done that I couldn’t remember, that there was “unconfessed sin in my life,” and that its presence was evidence of my godlessness.
And so I was nearly thirty before this fear let me go. It took that long for God to shatter the icicles of unworthiness that had frozen over my heart and shout, I LOVE YOU! You are my child, my beloved! You are not unworthy; you and all humankind are made in My image, and what could be more worthy of love than that??
So I’m not broken anymore, and I’m not afraid. That thing about perfect love driving out fear? God’s love is perfect and whole and we don’t need to be afraid.
But I wasted years, I spent years terrified of the God Who loves me to the depths of my soul. And I mourn those years. I weep for the girl who was broken and afraid.