I have gone to church my entire life. For a good chunk of my life, I made winning at church one of the sources of my self-esteem.
Winning at church meant that I knew all of the answers in bible class and that I never misbehaved in a way that would embarrass my parents. When I was nine years old, winning at church meant that I needed to be baptized. This made me, for about a year when another kid got dunked, the holiest person in my class.
Sometime around early high school, I stopped winning at church. I decided that the doctrine of Hell didn’t make any sense. And, because I’m me (I was on the debate team in middle school and high school), I interrogated my Sunday School teachers about it. I figured that, if God was all powerful, he didn’t have to send anybody to Hell. And, if he actually loved people, then he wouldn’t set them on fire for eternity. I couldn’t understand why temporal sin (even murder) merited eternal punishment.
I concluded that the bible was contradictory (it said God loved the whole world, but it also said that sinners would burn forever), and that God was a hoax. And this, more than winning at church, fed my new self-esteem project; it fed my desire to be a Thinker and a Questioner.
* * *
One day, the new youth group intern asked me to stay after bible class one Sunday (there was, by the way, no “I’m not going to go to church” business with my parents; I didn’t even try it). He explained his understanding of Hell which, later in life, I realized that he lifted from C.S. Lewis, a la “Hell is locked from the inside.”
That was new. Somehow it had never occurred to me that Hell, perhaps, involved a violation of God’s will. I had just presumed that God was a big bully who sent people to Hell who didn’t do what he said. But, according to this guy, people in Hell chose to be there, and they could leave whenever they wanted.
I decided that this sounded okay. I didn’t know how God went about offering the choice (my own sense of ethics required the choice be conscious and knowing), but I accepted that he did. This conversation ended my streak of teenage rebellion (yes, my kind of rebellion involved disagreeing about Christian doctrine; I didn’t smoke until I was 18, drink until I studied abroad in Germany, have sex until I was married, or do illegal drugs ever).
* * *
By the time I was sixteen, I wanted back in. I wanted the youth group to accept me. I wanted church to mean something. I wanted friends who had the same faith language that I had.
I chose, one February, to skip the state debate tournament (where I was poised to advance pretty far) in order to attend a Houston area church youth rally. At this rally I heard a speaker describe the human condition as the desire to “get all we can, can all we get, and sit on the lid.” While he went on to describe a Jesus who could save people from that, I got stuck on that phrase.
* * *
I wanted what I wanted. I wanted validation and affirmation. I wanted love and acceptance. I wanted pleasure and freedom from pain. And all this wanting, all this horrendous longing to be loved, all this winning at church–this was Hell.
I understood: Hell is like being on fire and never being able to put it out. Hell is like being eaten by worms from the inside. Hell is the natural consequence of selfish acts, of our self-esteem projects.
Hell is believing in a postmortem torture chamber where a creator God would send his (or our) enemies.
Hell is believing in the scarcity of love, in the finitude of grace.