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What the Hell?

By Anti-Theist Josh ~

This is not meant to offend anyone, or serve as an ultimate proof against theism, or against Christianity, but is merely my own personal experience with religion. Theism has been battered by more eloquent and qualified critics than myself and there isn't much I can add to the argument. People like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennet, John Loftus, George Smith, David Hume, Thomas Paine, Stephen Hawking, Bertrand Russell and Stephen Jay Gould have all done more than I could in this short testimonial. Suffice to say I am well read and somewhat well versed in the many criticisms of religion, though by no means an expert.

“Have you received Christ, son?” The answer held in my throat. I had received Christ three times up till now. Maybe a fourth time was in order, just in case? “Sure have, Pastor Tim.” He seemed genuinely relieved to hear it.

His shoulders sagged with relief, “That’s what we’re all about boy, telling people the Good News.” I felt guilty at that point; I hadn’t really been sharing the Good News to anyone. It seemed like some pretty Good News too. Believe in Jesus and you get to go to heaven!

Pastor Tim usually made the rounds during the greeting time. My dad (Dan), mom (Debbie), sister (Katie), and I were four services in, and I already knew the routine of everyone. The previous three churches had all experienced violent rifts, which had forced us here. We’d made the mistake of sitting in a regular's pew, which drew irate stares from the dislocated family.

This church seemed much the same as the last. A brisk, upbeat worship song would start us off. A song or two later an assistant pastor would stand up to make announcements. At this point greeting time would commence. This consists of shaking the hand of the person next to you and exchanging pleasantries over the weather. The Pastor would mingle among a different section of the church each week, being sure to contact everybody in each section. After greeting time, a slower song usually follows, with gradually more contemplative songs. At this point a few hands are raised in the air, and people bow their heads as the lights slowly dim. After the last slow, instrumental song the lead singer of the worship team would pray gently, “Dear Lord open our hearts (quietly strumming guitar) and let us hear the sermon we are about to hear.”

As Pastor Tim opened in the book of James, I began thumbing through my copy of the Bible. It was a newer version of the Macarthur Study Bible, replete with theological commentary below. Sermons were always boring to me. They typically built up to some easily seen conclusion that was a topic that could be explained in a few short sentences. And it was the over long sermons that kept me from having the traditional nice lunch after church.

My thumb slipped past Paul’s Epistles, III John, Jude and eventually landed on Revelation. Revelation always drew me in, but not because I enjoyed reading it. My parents told me these were predictions, prophecies that would actually happen. My Sunday school teacher had mentioned a few years ago how it was 2,000 years before Christ, and it was only a few short years until 2,000 years after Christ, and God sure does love symmetry. What if Revelation happened when I was alive? I was scared of Hell; it was a place of eternal damnation, torment and never ending gratuitous pain. I couldn’t grasp eternity, but an eternity doing the same exact thing, let alone being tortured was frightening enough. It is here the unsaved are cast off into a burning, smoldering lake of fire, where their entire flesh cracks and burns only to replenish eternally. I would lay awake at night wondering how someone could be sure their name was written in the Book of Life. What if you got up to heaven, God looked down at the Book and shook his head solemnly. Another sinful soul condemned to hell.

While sitting in that pew, and as Pastor Tim was entering the conclusion of his sermon, I began to wonder what happened to the people who weren’t evangelized. What about the people in China or the America’s who went hundreds, even thousands of years without hearing the Good News? And if it was such Good News, why wasn’t it more popular? I was scared though, that image of Sheol was like a looming red light over my head, it was always there, and something I couldn’t shake off.

I remember reading a small Bible track one day while waiting in the lobby for my parents to stop socializing so we could go to lunch. It was the story of a young rebellious teen having fun at a party. While there he is told by his born again friend how Jesus died on the cross for his sins, Salvation was his, if only he would repent. Scoffing, the young rebellious teen shut down his well meaning friend with some worldly wisdom. He would repent on his death bed, but in the meantime live it up, get the most out of life. The young rebellious teen was drinking heavily that night, and probably shouldn’t have gotten behind the wheel. A few of his friends were in the car with him. He neared a rail road crossing. The lights began to flash in the dark night. The young rebellious teen’s foot mashed the pedal to the floor; he wasn’t going to stop for anyone, even a train! The train neared the crossing; the car was hurtling towards the tracks. They converged, time slowed down; the car exploded into a sparking, shrieking, tangled puzzle under the train. The young rebellious teen slowly drew breath; he knew his time had come, but not enough time to repent. He looked down and saw an opening maw, with fire licking the edges.

All of a sudden all of my evidence, arguments, facts and real world experience didn’t seem to matter. It’s a pretty hard thing to disappoint anyone, especially your family. When you are driving, you have to look at where you are going. If you are looking at the telephone poll on the side of the road, odds are you are going to start drifting towards it. I kept looking at the young rebellious teen. I wasn’t overly rebellious as a teen. I attended Christian schools my whole life, my rebellion wasn’t drinking or drugs, though I did both. It was in asking questions. My parents were called to school on a regular basis. I was marked as a student who couldn’t be quiet in class. I’d ask questions of every history and bible teacher I could. I’d ask them all the questions that had plagued me. Were mentally ill people going to hell? What about young children? What about the unevangelized? What about good people in other religions? Why are there so many other religions? Why are there so many denominations? Why are there so many versions of the Bible? Why did God allow evil to happen to humans and animals on a daily basis? Why didn’t God reveal himself? Why weren’t women equal? Why didn’t God condemn slavery? Why was God against gay people? Why was God for genocide? Why don’t Christians perform miracles today? Why doesn’t prayer work? How could God be omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent? Why, how and who?

I’d question my youth pastor’s ontological arguments, my pastor’s teleological arguments, and my teacher’s cosmological arguments. None of it made sense, but the more I questioned the more that specter of an opening maw widened and darkened.

“Why don’t you go to church anymore?” My mom was sincerely concerned. Ever since moving out two years ago my Church attendance had tapered off to about once or twice a year. We were at Cool Hand Luke’s a kind of nice BBQ restaurant. My parents had offered to take me out for my birthday; free dinner is a hard thing to pass up when living paycheck to paycheck.

I knew this question had been brewing for some time. I almost felt it would be safer to just come out lie and say I was gay, rather than the real reason. “I’m not a Christian anymore, I don’t believe in a god.” Somehow that July heat chilled a bit.

“See this is what happens, he goes off to college takes a few classes from some liberal professor and becomes some flaming, godless atheist” My dad’s reaction was predictable. The hardest part in “coming out” was my mom’s. She couldn’t understand why I had rejected something as obvious as believing in Jesus. Jesus had helped her so many times in getting past her marriages problems, her hardships and her doubts.

“But, I don’t understand why not?” All of a sudden all of my evidence, arguments, facts and real world experience didn’t seem to matter. It’s a pretty hard thing to disappoint anyone, especially your family. How could I begin? How do you explain what equates to a mountain of reasons all in a hushed voice over dinner in a somewhat nice restaurant? This was a decision, an evolution really, that had taken years and years. How do you summarize that?

I left dinner that night feeling oddly disappointed but also invigorated. It was a feeling of severing ties with a past that was an anchor on my life. I remember sitting in the last church service I ever attended, thumbing through the bible provided in the chair before me and reaching the Book of Revelation. That familiar feeling of fear and guilt wasn’t there anymore. The words had no impact; they no longer conjured images of a gaping fire tinged maw with flailing arms reaching forth. The words and stories now seemed almost silly and juvenile. People actually thought this was best seller worthy material (Left Behind)?

I had escaped a feeling of impending doom, and instead found a feeling of invigoration and independence. There was no longer this intimidating sense of dread, this weight of so many heavy questions that overwhelmed me and my faith. My faith had been battered over the years not by outside sources but rather by myself. I always had a desire to know what and why I believed what I did. The reasons I found were not sufficient in the slightest. None of the reasons ever were, frightening though they had been.

In the time since I have met with three pastors and read every book my family has handed me. In every single one I have found not one good reason, but only backpedaling, semantics, and excuses, though often very eloquent. This relentless drive for the actual truth drives me towards one other goal in my life, the desire to seek out the reality of something, the desire to experience it, the desire to see something for truly as it is. This desire and passion gives me a drive to report things as they are, to write about things as they actually happen and to understand myself as much as possible.

I don't feel I know everything, or that there are experiences that can't be transcendental. My family so far has been somewhat accepting in my beliefs, and they usually state I am being prayed for by numerous bible studies and friends. I suppose that is nice in a way, but it also can be infuriating at the same time. In talking to various atheists, agnostics, deists, and non believers of every age I have found that those who are young and hold these beliefs are chalked up to youthful rebellion, a phase really. Those who profess a non-belief in the middle part of their lives are chalked up to a mid-life crisis. And those who profess non-belief the older they get are chalked up to senility. At first I was discouraged by the remarks and motivations ascribed to my non-belief but realized no matter my age (mid-twenties by the way) an excuse will be found.

This new intellectual freedom is liberating and I profess that finding new ways of thinking and reasoning is captivating. It's refreshing to read many different arguments and debates and weigh them for their merits and not against a framework of religion.

Thank you for taking the time to read my testimony, I would like to leave you with one of my favorite quotes.

"Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man." Bertrand Russell