In The Shadow of Hell

And I say unto you my friends, Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear; Fear him, which after  he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him-Luke 12:4-5 KJV

Hell. Jahannam.  It is to be the final abode of the wicked, a place where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched according to some sects within Christianity. In Islam, the evildoers in Jahannam will be tortured in multiple ways-they will drink boiling water which will eviscerate their insides, their skin burnt off only to grow back and be burnt again and so on. Those who believe in the concept of hell state there will be no reprieve for the lost. Year after year after year billions of human beings will experience agonizing pain, not because of what they did or how they lived, but because of what they believed.

I did not know about hell until I became part of the church. My mother never taught me that anything happened after death. It was at church that I learned death was just the beginning. There was a horrible place awaiting all who died without accepting Jesus Christ as their personal savior. And for the first time in my brief life, I learned what it meant to feel terror. As much as I was told about Christ’s limitless love, love was not what kept me up at night with worry. Fear did. There were times when I was scared to go to sleep because I wondered where I would go if I died that night. What if there was some sin that I’d failed to repent of? And even if I thought I was ‘saved’, how could I be assured? Now I belonged to an OSAS(once saved always saved) congregation. But that wasn’t enough to assuage my fears. How could I really know? I mean the answers would only be made apparent after I died, and if I was wrong about anything it would be “everlasting too late”. So even though the Trinity made no sense to me, even though I questioned the story of Genesis and the concept of Original Sin, I had to push those thoughts out of my mind. Whenever skepticism arose, I told myself it was the “devil” trying to lead me astray. I can remember being fifteen years old, browsing through the religion section at a bookstore. I came across a book written by a former Baptist pastor and picked it up. The jacket detailed his journey from hardcore fundamentalist to atheist, how his discovery that much of the Pentateuch was nothing but a plagiarism of older Babylonian mythology caused him to question and abandon what he believed. My interest was piqued-but so was my fear. I wanted to read it…but I didn’t want to allow myself to. A debate started in my head:

Looks like an interesting read…NO, that man is LOST and on his way to hell, you can’t read that…but it’s just a book…NO, it might lead you astray, do you want to end up in hell like him? 

I put the book down and went to look at Bibles instead. Just the thought of hell was enough to make me literally run away from that book.

From the time I was ten years old until I was thirty, I lived my life in the shadow of hell. And even though I no longer believe in it, I find that it is often presented as the trump card in discussions on religion. For those who believe in it, faith in hell becomes a justification for almost anything under the sun. A parent/guardian shoves Islam/Christianity onto their kids? Oh that’s okay because the parents believe in hell and think they are saving the child. After all, violating the free will of another human being is a much smaller evil than the child going to hell for disbelief. Armies conquering in the name of their faith? It was the will of God and  for the benefit of the heathens anyways. Knocking on doors and disturbing people, accosting people as they go about their own business to tell them they are wicked sinners in need of salvation? Completely acceptable because you believe you know what’s best for them. Telling homosexuals that they must repent of their desires or face judgment by an angry god? Well you are doing out of love and concern for their eternal soul, not hate. Informing someone who believes in god(but not the same one as you) that they will go to hell unless they join your team-you believe it’s your duty as a______.

In the shadow of hell, there is no such thing as going too far. I once had someone tell me that the slaughter of Canaanite children in the OT was really an act of mercy by Yahweh, as these infants and toddlers were ‘spared’ the fate of entering the hell that would surely await them had they been allowed to grow up as pagans. So no matter what you say, no matter what you do, no matter how you hurt or offend people in the way you share your faith, it is okay. For this life isn’t the real story anyways. As a muslimah told me when I apostatized, “sister it’s all about the afterlife!”

When I recall how I held onto hell for so long, and how so many others still do, I can’t help but feel melancholy. I can’t help but feel little progress will occur in my lifetime or even that of my daughter. As long as we live our lives in the shadow of hell, I fear that humanity will neglect to do all that it can with the only thing we can be certain of: the present.

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A native Seattleite and East Coast transplant, I have been interested in politics, religion, and race from the day I saw “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” on the bookshelf belonging to my BFF’s mom back in 1991. While my zealotry has thankfully diminished with maturity, I remain the deep thinking, passionate, and humble woman I have always been.

5 thoughts on “In The Shadow of Hell

  1. Hell billed as a place you go after you die is sad. Really, really sad. It’s tragic that young minds get bound up in such fear.

    I like to riff on these concepts, see them as psychological or spiritual metaphors, expressions of the collective unconscious. Somehow that has helped me wiggle free of the stranglehold they once had over me. A while back I wrote a piece on what I thought (that morning) heaven was, what I thought hell was. It’s on my blog, it’s called “Plenty”. Anyway by the end of it I realized Hell is kind of like another country with borders all its own; it is a forbidden land full of strangers and people we don’t understand. Maybe overtime, as our world continues to shrink and more and more people get a chance to share their world views, maybe humanity will begin to relinquish it’s grip on the usefulness of banishing The Other.

    Oddly enough, being around people who believe in hell has taught me a lot about hell. In their presence I get it, I really really get it:).

  2. I am pretty certain I’ve said it before, but sometimes I feel like you are writing my thoughts for me.

    Hell has played a HUGE role in my sticking to religion as a child and as a young woman. I’ve come far, but I feel that I still have a further distance to go. I used to be terrified about hell, demons and evil spirits.

    I grew up in a church that taught that evil spirits and demons were all around us and everywhere, so I’d be scared to go to sleep or be by myself because they were there and they were out to harm me. I’d lay in bed with my hands folded praying so hard or just saying “Jesus Jesus Jesus”, so so scared I wouldn’t dare to move.

    This is not healthy, and this is not concepts that you should be teaching a child.

    1. “I grew up in a church that taught that evil spirits and demons were all around us and everywhere, so I’d be scared to go to sleep or be by myself because they were there and they were out to harm me. I’d lay in bed with my hands folded praying so hard or just saying “Jesus Jesus Jesus”, so so scared I wouldn’t dare to move.

      Becky I did the same on many nights as a teenager. Sometimes I would put on gospel music and try to fall asleep to it. Adults are so wrapped up in “saving” the young that they don’t even think about the psychological harm and terror that they are instilling by teaching such concepts! But then again these adults are just doing what their parents did to them. It’s a sad cycle.

      1. Oh yes, I did that too, I actually think to a certain degree my Mum was just as scared, I’ve fallen asleep to gospel or other Christian worship music many many nights as a child. And I don’t hold it against my Mum, I know she did her best.

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