My first experience with God wasn’t a happy one.
It was in a CCD class. My teacher was going over the experiences of hell. Some woman had gone to the depths of the inferno in some dream and came back to tell people what it was like. She was some sort of inverted prophet.
The teacher told the story as though she was recalling a memory about a past storm. She described the fire and how the flames burned hotter than coals.
I don’t know why, but her talk got to me. I was only about 12 or so. Since I’d been born, God and the devil and heaven and hell were nothing more than theories, beings who were out in some ethereal world that had nothing to do with me.
But that day, the reality hit me that my actions did matter. Somebody was watching and keeping tally. I didn’t look at it though, from the stance that I had heaven to gain by doing good. I became all about avoiding hell. For all I cared, I could get stuck in some dentist’s lobby for eternity as long as the fiery coals weren’t sticking to my skin.
How did the talk from some volunteer Sunday school teacher get to me? It wasn’t as if she were a nun or a priest. She was just some mother who was trying to get through to a group of teenage kids.
I never shared with anyone that experience and how it thumped my soul into action. I started sitting closer in the front pews, while my parents stayed in the back. I paid attention to the homilies and the gospel readings.
Profound effect. Still didn’t know why.
I looked at ways to avoid hell. Someone told me if you died wearing a scapula or a rosary, you were guaranteed refuge in heaven. Then they taught me about confession and how if I died after confession my soul would be cleared and I’d be safe. Others told me to lead a good life and do good things and God wouldn’t condemn me. The inferno and my escape from it was always on my mind.
What bothers me now is I never questioned it. I never tried to investigate the teacher’s claims or ask myself why I got so scared.
Since then, I’ve come to believe that it was because of my first memory as a child. When I think back as far as I can, the first thing I remember happening to me was burning my hand on a barbecue pit. I was at some family get together, some second cousin’s graduation or something. I was walking around and I remember my hand sticking to some 55 gallon drum cut out as a pit. Searing pain, that’s what stuck with me. It burned and wouldn’t stop. Family members scrambled around me, some relative grabbed a bag of ice and put it on my arm. I’m not sure if it helped or not.
That’s it, that’s all I remember from that day, that moment. Talking to my mom about it one day, she was surprised that I remembered that, I was only about 18 months old, she said. She told me she kept bandages on my hand for a long time, even had to put a sock on it to keep me from hurting it again while there was raw skin exposed.
Maybe my mind connected hell with burning my arm. Maybe it’s bullshit. I don’t know.
It’s taken many years but the effect of putting hell off has waned, though not entirely.
Now, 34, I don’t know how God works and how people go to heaven or hell. I see good people, great souls, who don’t go to church or tout any religious ideology. I’ve met righteous muslim people and Jewish There are good “church-going” people, judgmental, narrow-minded, who have no business being rewarded for their intense dislike of things that are different.
I do believe there is a God but I think He’s more of a mystery to me than that day in Sunday school.
So, at a crossroads now, not knowing where I’m heading or what to do about it. Boat listlessly drifting in an open sea.
I’m not an atheist but I now see where they’re coming from. There is so much unfathomable evil in this world and this God that believers describe doesn’t seem to fit with that reality, or reality as we know it.
How can a God who drowned the whole world let genocide go unchecked? I mean a vile genocide, like Rwanda or Cambodia. People hacked to death, heads cut off in public. Women raped. Outsiders tortured. But no God.
Athiests see so many people utilizing religion as a channel to dominate and justify heinous activity. I see now how evil the institution can be and how they really believe that it’s ok to kill, rape, torture and destroy those who think different.
How can you blame someone for thinking that no divine would let these things happen?
Sure there are testaments, Bible passages, inspirational stories that are offered by ardent believers that there is something great and unknown.
I can’t say I don’t believe in that ideal. What I can say is, I’ve slowly shed off the memory of the day I became firmly entrenched in the idea of hell. I’m awake now. The afterlife is uncertain again and I can’t go back to sleep.