My Ever Disappearing Fear of Hell
I’m scared I’m going to hell. I don’t mean that allegorically. I literally mean I have a deep-seated fear that has regularly prevented me from changing beliefs and behaviors that don’t serve me. Intellectually, I don’t believe in a physical place called hell. I’m more inclined to a Buddhist type philosophy that we create our own heaven and hell on earth through our actions. And for the most part, the philosophy of karma makes sense to me. But way down inside, I still hear “believe in Jesus or else,” “follow all the rules or else.” As if there is some point when we no longer get to rectify mistakes in our life, and I keep trying to cover my bases.
I’ve Tied Perfection and Belief to Being Loved
This fear made itself apparent in the second week of a prayer retreat called “inner peace and divine love.” I wrote last week about the first week of the retreat, in which I had come to the beautiful realization of how loved I am by God, even amidst my mistakes, doubts, and disbeliefs. By extension, I gained a greater ability to love myself. The second week though, triggered all my shame and fear buttons around Christianity.
The first day of prayer for the week focused on abiding in Jesus’ love. A phrase that had me fighting my flee response. What I heard in those few words was, not love, but messaging I received growing up in the church: if I didn’t believe that Jesus was God, died as a sacrifice for my sins, and was resurrected, I’d go to eternal hell.
Making my flight instinct even stronger was the prayer text from John 15:9-11 that included the phrase, “if you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.” My body and chest tightened up. All I heard was – “be perfect and only then will I love you.”
At the direction of the prayer exercise, I asked God to bring me into the Last Supper before Jesus’ death. We first tried this exercise during the weekly group meeting, and I, true to form, fell asleep. When I attempted it again on my own, however, I still couldn’t conjure the image. By the third day, however, I realized that my challenge came from striving to create the scene I thought I was supposed to see instead of letting it come to me. So on the third day, I asked God to show me what She wanted me to see.
Learning the Truth From the Source
Low and behold, I found myself walking into a room in the upper floor of a large wood house with thick, exposed roof beams. Oil lamps sat on a long wooden table and joyful people, both men and women, sat around it on benches, clinking glasses of beer, talking loudly and with much laughter. Jesus, sitting at the head of the table, looked up at me and waved me over to join him. His mother Mary and Mary of Magdalene were sitting on either side of him. And he held Mary of Magdalene’s hand. I had previously told Jesus in prayer, “I really need a woman here as well; I just can’t deal with the overwhelming male domination of the bible telling me how I’m supposed to live my life.” Since then, one or both of the Marys were always present in my prayers.
So there I am, imagining the hippy Jesus from the pictures of my youth, with long hair, flowing robe and birkenstocks, and I’m telling him, “I don’t believe in you.”
Then, just to make things more awkward, I told him, “And frankly, I really resent the constant refrain that I’m only loveable if I follow all your commands.”
Jesus smiled. The Marys smiled. Their eyes suggested they saw me with compassion, not frustration. Jesus told me, “you’re hearing these ideas as you understood them as a young child when everything seemed black and white. God’s love is unconditional. The only command that matters is to love God and love others. The rest all stem from those. Notice how you tend to pull away from God when you’ve done anything you perceive as bad.”
He was right. Whenever I worried I wasn’t a good person, I felt disconnected from God. But I had blamed God for leaving me. He corrected me. “God forgives you for your mistakes and wants to be there to help you through it. She loves you. You may still face consequences and you may need to make amends and resolve what led you to that action, but God is still there. If you trust in God, you’ll find a path to make the changes you need. But sometimes you don’t need to change. You just need to rest in God’s love.”
As to my disbelief that Jesus is God, he referred me to the prayer text from John 17:20-24 in which he stated that he is in God, God is in him, and asks that the world may also be in them. He elaborated for me, “We are all connected. God is in me, just as She is in you. God led my mission on earth, but I wasn’t mistake free as a human. My death was for all of you because it was the best way to spread my message. In that way I am in anyone that hears those words.”
When I continued to resist the Jesus as God idea, however, he pointed out that I’ve found it easier to pray talking to Jesus and the Marys because it’s easier to imagine a conversation with people rather than with an ethereal God. “In the same way it’s easier for some people to imagine they are loved by me, a man, that can relate to how they feel and suffer, than an incorporeal God. That you don’t believe these things doesn’t make them less true for those who do.” He concluded, however, that “there is more to the story, but you’re not ready for it.” I ended the prayer more relaxed than I had started.
The next day the prayer exercise asked me to imagine being in the room where the disciples gathered after Jesus’ death. The room was loud when Jesus walked in, and everyone grabbed at him, but he pulled me into a corner to talk. “I know you don’t believe in my physical resurrection, but it doesn’t matter. Something happened that inspired my followers to keep preaching in my name.”
“But,” I told him, “I don’t understand why your death had to be portrayed as a sacrifice for our sins. If God is as loving and powerful as you describe, She doesn’t need a sacrifice to love us.”
Jesus agreed, but said, “some people need that sacrifice; they find it helpful to believe that a price has been paid to make up for their humanness.”
“But,” I continued, “then they turn it into a yardstick for heaven and hell. They’ve used their belief to do horrible things.”
Jesus responded, “yes, people do horrible things, and they’ve used me as an excuse, but, for example, you don’t judge all Muslims based on the actions of ISIS. You recognize that they aren’t representative of that faith tradition.” And he was right. My issues around Christianity were less about the awful ways it had been misused throughout history, but because of how I believed it hurt me.
Give Me a Sinning Role Model
No matter how hard I tried to follow Jesus’ lead, I screwed up. I suspect I would resent the idea of Jesus less if people didn’t say he was without sin. I had an idea that he was a perfect human that I had to strive to be exactly like, instead of just seeing him as a role model who was human and struggled as I did. How could I relate to and follow a perfect person?
I prayed to be more patient, more loving, and less angry, but it never happened. I had this idea that if I had enough faith, God would flick Her magic wand and I would have the answers and know just how to be. When it didn’t happen, I beat myself up both for not having enough faith and for my perceived failures. What I’m finally learning is that sometimes I don’t need to change; I’m wonderful just as I am. But when I do, it takes a lot of work. And sometimes those changes feel selfish and self-centered. My deep-seated fears around both these words can feel an awful lot like my fear of hell and keep me rooted where I am instead of making the change I need.
I believe God is in that change, but more in guiding me to the tools and opportunities to achieve it. Disappointingly, I’ve often found that I have to go to very dark and difficult places before I start to learn my lessons. But my compassion for myself is increasing. “Progress, not perfection” is a mantra that I came across in a book and repeat regularly.
Most of what I heard Jesus say in my prayers was not new to me. I had come to these beliefs through reading, conversation, and experience around the various spiritual and faith traditions, the historical Jesus, codependency, shame, and others. But somehow I found these lessons took on more meaning after I imagined Jesus saying them to me.
Opening Up About My Struggles Has Helped Me Love Myself More
I shared my experiences with the group at the end of the week and although the other members were Catholic, not one judged me negatively. Most shared their own struggles. Growing up, adults in my church would talk about doubt as an inevitable event in a faith life. But they never talked about what that doubt looked like for them. And I see now how much it would have helped me avoid this irrational fear of hell.
That is not to say that people do not express disagreement, or even judgment. Or that I don’t judge myself. And I still bristle at people telling me that Jesus loves me because it feels like someone trying to impose their beliefs on me. But the more I share my doubts, my true beliefs, and my struggles, as scary as it is, the more I discover that I’m not alone and the more secure I feel in who I am and what I believe, reducing the sting of the judgements of those who disagree. They are entitled to their opinions, just as I’m entitled to mine. I’d like to believe we are all acting out of love, but I know that many, if not most, of us are operating frequently out of fear. And knowing that, can make a big difference in my reaction both to other people, but also to how I view and treat myself. Sharing is showing me, what I already knew in my heart, just how expansive God’s love is and how expansive my own heart can be.
After the love-fest of the past two weeks, however, I had another difficult anger situation arise that I’ll talk about next week. As painful as the experience was, it led me to start truly learning to manage my anger, and to what forgiveness and grace look like. Concepts that I have never understood. But I am likely going to be a work in progress until I die and I’m very slowly learning to accept that and maybe even love it.
For those of you coming to me via finding this post, I’d love to know what brought you here and what you might like to hear more about either via the comments below or through my contact page.
My own fear of hell has had a significant impact on my life and my ability to truly follow God’s path for me. I spent so much time worrying about what other people told me I was supposed to believe rather than trusting the love God put in my heart that it kept me from what God was calling me toward. It also kept me from ever really feeling loved because I could never be good enough or certain enough. And this blog is all about my journey this year toward discovering what it looks like for me to feel loved and to listen to God’s voice. If you’re interested in hearing about my journey, I recommend reading from the beginning post – like a book. All of these places are steps in the journey and in some cases, my beliefs have changed as I’ve moved further into the journey, but I’ve realized that they were necessary steps to get me where I need to go. If you don’t have the time to start from the beginning, but are specifically interested in my faith journey, I recommend a few posts in particular: Loving the Kid, Not the Temper Tantrum (this was the moment I actually realized God loved me unconditionally), How Much Love Must I Receive to Believe I am Loveable (this is where I started to see how God kept trying to show me She loved me), Leap of Faith, Lost and Found, Faith: It’s a Choice, Trust Me. I’ve Got You, Discovering and Living My, Not Others Truth (these last six specifically talk about my growing faith and the struggle to stay true to myself in the face of continually worrying that I may be getting it wrong). In any case, I would love to hear from you.
Also published on Medium.