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Aunt Agnes, the Atheist

By undercover agnostic ~

I’ve recently been writing short memoirs from my childhood as a way to reflect on and better understand how religious indoctrination shaped my beliefs and behaviors for 50 years. In this story about the death my Aunt Agnes, I identify a defining moment where I had to exercise cognitive dissonance in order to worship Jesus and accept that my aunt was burning in hell.

Mama’s brother, Richard, left home as a young teen, lied about his age and joined the army because his stepmother, Marie, was unbearably cruel. Marie represented Christianity to Uncle Richard and he wanted no part of it. She played the organ at church and acted like a saint in front of other believers, but the minute she stepped foot in the house, she was violent and abusive, stomping around, throwing things and beating the children. So, it isn’t surprising, that Uncle Richard found a good atheist to marry, an English woman named Agnes.

 I had never known anyone who openly professed a lack of belief in God. I had relatives who were “backslidden” but everyone knew that they would repent and come around someday. But Aunt Agnes was different. She wasn’t even the slightest bit embarrassed to admit that she had no fear of the afterlife because she was convinced that once she was dead, she would turn into dust and that would be it. As friendly, intelligent and articulate as she was, the only thing I could ever think about when we went to visit her and Uncle Richard, was, "Aunt Agnes is going to Hell."

 I tried to do my part in evangelizing her, but to no avail. I remember one time, our Suburban had gotten caked in mud from the road trip from our hometown to Boise, where they lived. The grimy windows provided a perfect slate for inscribing in the dust. I dutifully wrote a “Christian message” like John 3:16 or something, to advertise for God. I felt embarrassed doing it, especially knowing what Aunt Agnes felt about spiritual things, but I knew she NEEDED to hear the gospel and I was God’s messenger. Of course, when Aunt Agnes discovered the temporary graffiti, she laughed the most mocking and condescending laugh imaginable and it was clear that my message had not penetrated her cold stony heart. To save face, I wanted to renounce my faith then and there, because it was obvious she thought I was a naive religious idiot. But I imagined her writhing in pain from being tortured alive for all eternity and decided my hurt pride was a small price to pay to try and save her soul.

 I suspected, my bold witness in the face of ridicule had earned me another jewel in my heavenly crown.

 I was in Bible College when I got the call that Aunt Agnes was no more. A dreadful knot formed in the pit of my stomach. Poor Aunt Agnes, a woman whom I genuinely loved had met her eternal fate.

 I tried, for a few minutes to think about her screaming in agony, but my mind wouldn’t let me dwell on it because it was simply too unbearable to comprehend. The only way I could make myself feel any better was to repeat, like a mantra, “She deserved it because she rejected Jesus.” I reminded myself that “God is good, and he only does what is best, so if Hell is necessary, then who am I to recoil in fear and grief for my dear sweet Aunt?”

It was then that my brain created a safe little compartment to hold this doctrine, insulated from my emotions and protected from scrutiny. If I could tuck it away and not think about it, I could let Aunt Agnes burn in peace, while continuing to love and worship Jesus for his awesome goodness.