I was taught that once a person was old enough to understand the basic gospel message, that person needed to “be baptized for the remission of sins.” Had to be total immersion in water, had to be with full understanding of what sin is and a desire to repent, had to be in Jesus’ name. God is apparently very picky about these things.
Given how important one’s state of mind is to this whole process, I didn’t want to do it until I was sure I was really on board with the whole belief system. The thing is, I often found myself thinking the whole story didn’t make a lot of sense and seemed to be at odds with observable reality. I would occasionally ask questions about the parts that just didn’t compute, but those questions were rarely well-received. The clear, unspoken message was a simple one: shut up and believe.
My father was one of the few people who didn’t immediately shut down my probing questions. He always said that he wanted me to have my own faith, rather than just parroting his. Even in his view, though, not believing was still not an option. Questioning and doubt were fine, even encouraged, but they were always supposed to eventually lead me back to Christianity.
I wanted to take my time and see if that was really the case. I wanted to read, ask questions, learn, explore, and then decide if the Christian faith made sense to me. After all, if it was true, it ought to be able to withstand scrutiny; if it was false, then I didn’t want to believe it. Careful analysis seemed like the right way to go about it, but it wasn’t an option.
After all, I could die any minute. Or, for that matter, Jesus could return any minute. If either thing happened before I was baptized, I was out of luck. If you’ve never believed in hell, or never believed in this no-second-chances scenario, I don’t know if you can ever fully appreciate the sense of urgency it creates. Especially when you’re constantly being reminded that a young, healthy person like yourself could still walk outside and get hit by a bus any time.
Still, at first I decided to take my chances. Hell might not even be real, Christianity might be a myth, one of the other religions might be the right one, or they could all be wrong. I owed it to myself to investigate all of the possibilities.
I thought that until one day during the spring of my seventh grade year. While I was at school, a nasty storm started brewing. There was a tornado warning, and we were all packed into the gym waiting for it to end. From the classroom windows, we had been able to see it getting dark outside. Once we were in the gym, the power went out. It was all fun and games until the girl next to me said, “The bible says it will all go dark right before Jesus comes back.”
If that was true, I was screwed. I looked around and waited for other signs. I wondered if I should pray, or if it would do any good. The power came on just a few minutes later, putting me a little more at ease. However, the whole event convinced me that I was on borrowed time.
I began investigating more earnestly, but far less objectively. When a biblical passage or a Christian argument didn’t make sense, I would simply rationalize it any way I could. I hadn’t heard much about heaven, and I didn’t have any great desire to go there. To be honest, I would have been fine with simply ceasing to exist after death. That wasn’t an option, though. And while I wasn’t necessarily sold on the whole heaven thing, I would have taken pretty much anything over eternal torment.
I actually didn’t have more than a handful of nightmares about hell, spread out over the course of a few months. The ones I had, though, were unbelievably terrifying. I actually wondered if these were from God, trying to convince me that I needed to repent and be baptized. Of course, if that’s the case, he’s also warned me about learning to fly and losing the ability while over a busy highway, having to retake all of my high school classes so my graduate degree doesn’t get revoked, and showing up naked to the final exam for a class I didn’t even know I was in. But the nightmares about hell were so real, so detailed, and so visceral that I couldn’t seem to shake them.
Finally, one Sunday morning, I decided it was time. I convinced myself that the Holy Spirit was moving me to get baptized, because that sounded a lot nicer than abject terror. At least if I got hit by a bus after being dunked in the water, I wouldn’t have to worry about hell. Unless I said a bad word or thought something terrible or otherwise sinned somehow just before impact, of course. But at least I had a chance now. Even if that chance had been one in a million, it still had to be better than no hope at all.
My parents were thrilled. I was mostly just relieved. Of course, the hard part wasn’t over; now that I’d made the commitment, the rest of my life would be spent trying and failing to live up to an admittedly impossible standard, praying for forgiveness, rinsing and repeating. Oh, and trying to convince other people to believe the same thing so they didn’t all go to hell. Except most of them would anyway. Including other Christians, because they were doing it wrong. And if I didn’t warn people about that, their eternal suffering would be my fault. So I was in for a pretty shitty rest of my life, but eternity would be great. Or at least I wouldn’t be tortured, which is great by comparison. Sucked for the overwhelming majority of the world’s population, though.
In hindsight, I really can’t believe I ever worshiped a god like that. I mean, seriously? Sure he was supposed to be all powerful, and rebelling against him wouldn’t do any good, but what kind of sniveling coward agrees to constantly stroke the ego of someone like that while affirming her own worthlessness in exchange for nothing more than a relatively slim chance of not being tortured? Me, apparently. Eww.
I spent the next few years trying to somehow spread the “good news”* without being so off-putting that people avoided me (which I was, of course, totally concerned about because I needed to be able to reach them and warn them of their impending doom and not at all because I was a teenager who wanted to have friends and be liked and get invited to parties and generally not be a social pariah). Ever tried being a non-obnoxious fundamentalist? I’ve actually seen a few people who come close to pulling it off, but it’s not easy. It’s not even encouraged by most of the people I went to church with. The usual strategy is to annoy people for Jesus, and then get persecution bonus points when they don’t like you.
Basically, I spent my teenage years feeling intense guilt over practically everything I did, said, felt, or thought. Every night I would apologize to God for everything I’d done that day, including any sins I didn’t realize I’d committed or didn’t know were wrong. If I couldn’t think of anything I’d done wrong that day, I begged God to forgive me for the sin of pride. I felt guilty when I was tempted, and I felt guilty when I wasn’t (clearly the devil already had me in his clutches and didn’t feel the need to tempt me anymore). It was absolutely a no-win situation, and things didn’t start to get better until college. Even then, though, I had a long way to go before I finally found peace.
*Am I the only one who is incapable of reading the phrase “good news” without mentally hearing it in Professor Farnsworth’s voice? “Good news everyone! If you try to follow all of these impossible commands, you have a preposterously slim hope of not being set on fire for all eternity!” Just curious.