Growing up in the Southern Baptist church, I experienced a peculiar type of dread that only those with a similar upbringing will truly understand. I recall vividly a time I came home to find the whole house dark and eerily silent. A sudden terror gripped my heart. “Oh shit,” I thought to myself. “The Rapture!” Eventually, my fear subsided when, one-by-one, my family members returned. My brother Andy was out playing basketball. Dad had a late meeting. Mom was at the grocery store. To my relief, not a single one of them had been called up to the bosom of the good Lord Jesus, leaving me behind to face the unfathomable suffering of the Tribulation.
Years later, I told my brother about this and found out he would get the same sinking feeling whenever he came home to an empty house. Why were we afraid? We were both “saved.” We came forward as the organist played “Just As I Am” and professed our faith. We said the prayer. We put on white robes and got dunked before the congregation.
These rituals were supposed to bring us peace, but they didn’t.
I don’t remember precisely what was going through my mind at the time I decided to ask Jesus to be my “Lord and personal Savior.” I was very young— maybe 10 or 11—but I do recall there was fear involved. The anxiety I felt afterward is a bit more clear in my mind.
What if I didn’t do something right? Could I go to hell on a technicality? The preacher had said “say with your mouth and believe in your heart that Jesus is Lord.” I had certainly said the words, but it was the bit about my heart I wasn’t sure about.
Had I just gone through the motions because it was expected of me? Did I really believe? An all-knowing God could surely see the doubt that was inside me. He would know that it was a fraud. It didn’t feel real, but the fear of hell was.
The dictionary definition of a “God-fearing person” is one who respects God and keeps to his moral commandments. “The fear of the Lord, the gift of the Holy Spirit, doesn’t mean being afraid of God,” Pope Francis explains, “since we know that God is our Father that always loves and forgives us.” However, the scripture is quite clear that it also involves fear in the literal sense. In Matthew 10:28, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, fear the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
One necessarily precedes the other. You learn to be afraid of God before you respect and obey Him. Evangelical churches focus their efforts on the very young. A 2004 study by the Barna Group found that 43 percent of born-again Christians are saved before the age of 13, while around two-thirds make that commitment by the time they turn 18. After the study was published, the concept of the “4–14 window”—a sweet spot for winning youth to Christ—gained currency among evangelicals.
But the data only affirmed what was common sense among evangelicals. Children are more impressionable, yes, but more importantly, they have yet to experience the demystification of the world that comes with adulthood. The concept of hell—and by extension, the fear of it—is more real.
Among Southern Baptists and other evangelical sects that emphasize punishment, this neurosis is especially severe, born from a fire-and-brimstone tradition with deep roots. Contrast Pope Francis’ description of what it means to “fear” God with the sermon of 18th century preacher Jonathan Edwards titled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God:”
O sinner! consider the fearful danger you are in! It is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath that you are held over in the hand of that God whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you as against many of the damned in hell.
The mechanism of Christianity finds an analogy in the world of music, where tension is created and then resolved. A state of fear is induced and then ameliorated. The pastor talks generally about the various sins you may have committed, then offers absolution. As the lyrics of the hymn “Amazing Grace” go: “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.”
But ironically, the very fear that brought me into the fold was the loose thread that caused the unravelling of my faith when I tugged at it. The world of magic I inhabited as a child started to give way to one of rationality, and I began to grapple with the same paradoxes of Christianity everyone struggles with, such as the Problem of Evil. Usually these contradictions can be dismissed by the faithful by referring to the mystery of God’s inscrutable will.
Still, the conundrum that kept me awake at night was the idea of hell. I reckoned that even if God’s will was unknowable, one could then get a rough estimation of it by taking one’s own sense of morality and imagining a more perfect version. An eternity in a lake of fire seemed harsh for even the greatest of crimes.
Billions of people around the world weren’t “saved” and most never even had an opportunity to be. And if they had, their own religions and cultures would predispose them to reject Christianity. In my own limited, mortal sense of justice, it seemed obviously unfair for folks to be sentenced to suffer forever for simply being born to a non-Christian family.
So I looked to other views of the afterlife from different traditions and discovered the Jewish concept of Gehenna. Most references to hell in the Bible, including the aforementioned verse from Matthew, are translations of the word “Gehenna.” It’s a punishment in the afterlife, but it’s not eternal, and the “burning” referenced is poetic description of an intense spiritual suffering. It’s something akin to Purgatory.
This came as a great relief to me. I could accept that God was real, but that hell, as it was understood by most Christians, was not. It was a tough sell for my classmates, though. I told some of my football teammates about my newfound beliefs. One of them brought it up in the middle of a huddle at practice for some reason: “Ward doesn’t believe in hell.” My coach responded “The Bible says there will be ‘great weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”
This compromise allowed me to go on believing, but it was the crack in the dyke. My days as a Christian were numbered. I started questioning other aspects of my faith that didn’t make much sense, in particular the existence of Satan. I would often ignore the sermon and amuse myself by scouring my annotated study Bible in search of odd stories. There were plenty: Elisha and the bears, Onan, that time David paid a dowry with a big ol’ heap of foreskins.
I eventually set out to find the account of Lucifer’s fall, a story we were often told, but no such luck. In fact, there really wasn’t a lot about Satan in the entire Bible, which seemed somewhat odd for a figure who played such an outsized role in Christian theology. I asked our inappropriately old youth minister David, a 50-something man with a bad toupee and a thin John Waters mustache, where in exactly in the Bible could I find the story. He was evasive: “I’ll have to get back to you.”
After doing some more digging, I came to find that Satan didn’t play a big role throughout much of Christian history. The figure we call “The Devil” is largely a composite character cobbled together by John Milton in Paradise Lost. Again, I turned to Judaism for answers, since after all, Christianity was ostensibly founded on it. As was the case with hell, Jews had a different take on Satan. The Jews didn’t believe in a personal omni-malevolent force. Satan was just a way of referencing yetzer hara, the natural inclination to do evil.
As my adolescence progressed, each of the pillars of my Christian faith fell one after the other. I started calling myself a “deist,” then agnostic and finally, at around the age of 18, an atheist. Thankfully, though, I gave up my beliefs before New Atheism became a trend, and I never became one of those obnoxious neckbeards with a copy of The God Delusion in one hand and a mug that reads “Theist Tears” in the other.
Some of the most insufferable “militant” atheists are former Christians, who treat no longer believing in God as if it were some great intellectual accomplishment. However, having gone through the process, I understand why it might seem that way. Every argument against the existence of God was old hat 100 years ago, but it’s no small feat to relitigate the question within oneself—to make all the old arguments once more against the part of you that wants to believe.
But this feeling of triumph over one’s superstition can lead to a cringey smugness among atheists. They look down on people who are in exactly the same position they were in not long ago. Ultimately, they’re deriding themselves—or rather who they used to be when they still believed in the “Flying Spaghetti Monster.” It’s a part of the process. Making a clean break with the past.
As for me, I don’t pity people who still believe or mock them or consider them lesser. In many ways, I envy them. While I fear death much less now that I know there is no chance of damnation, I probably live with more fear in my daily life than the average Christian does.
Marx’s famous quote about religion being the “opiate of the masses” is often taken out of context. Opium was used as a painkiller. He meant that religion was a salve—“the sigh of the oppressed,” he also called it. There’s a great deal of comfort in being a “lily of the field” and in times of despair being able to say “it’s in God’s hands.” Marx also said that the more stock a person puts in God the less they put in themselves. The thought is both paradoxically liberating and oppressing. We are free to choose our destiny, but the weight of that responsibility can be crushing.
The subtitle of that verse from Matthew I mentioned earlier is “Fear God alone.” Religion is parsimonious that way. Things become simple. God is all you have to fear. Immediately after all that stuff about hell, Jesus continues:
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.