The impact on a child of years in a hell-fire-and-damnation church can last a lifetime. I know, because I was brought up in the Southern Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1940’s and early 1950’s from the age of 16 months to 13 years. Every Sunday I sat with my parents and my older brother down front at services in which the preacher yelled and screamed and slammed his fist on the pulpit about all of us going to hell and being damned to eternity. The drama of the service made a tremendous imprint on a young child who had no way of understanding that this was a warped and severely exaggerated version of the Christian religion. Where was the loving God of Jesus Christ and the New Testament to balance this vengeful and capricious God? Yes, the Old Testament is full of God ranting and raving at the Hebrews and their neighbors through his prophets, but it is not the only picture of God in the Bible, even in the Old Testament.
My brother says that this drama had no impact on him, but he has not been a part of any organized religion since he became an adult. For me I spent the next 45 years in extreme self-consciousness and self-doubt with the feeling that God was sitting on my shoulder judging everything I said and did as inadequate, wrong or sinful. For years I wouldn’t finish projects, because no one could judge them or me if they weren’t finished. I second-guessed myself on everything I did and said, always feeling that I couldn’t succeed at anything.
For a very long time in my 20’s and 30’s I could not tolerate any Christian language. I was out of the church for years, in a cult for 8 years in which Jesus was considered the model of the best of mankind, but not the Son of God. I read widely about Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism. In everything I read I thought, “Oh, that’s what Jesus meant…that’s what Jesus meant.” Eventually I made my way back to Christianity, but it was an uneasy relationship. I still had the hell-fire-and-damnation-god like a monkey on my back judging everything I did. Still I was determined to love God and to be a faithful follower. I still hadn’t recovered until about 10 years ago when I dreamed that Ram Dass(my symbol for New Age searching) had died. In thinking about the dream I realized that my search was over, that Christianity is my religion, but that I wouldn’t let another person define what that means to me.
Upon further thought and letting go of the past I was finally able to embrace Christianity and myself without fear of failure or self-doubt. It’s not that I’ve rid myself of those old voices, but that they have little power over me now. The Lord was a big part of the healing of that childhood “god.” As an adult I felt that I had replaced the angry and capricious one with a loving God, but the new thinking was just a patch over the “god” who still ruled me through negativity. Twenty-five years ago at the Lord’s invitation I was able to surrender my life to Him. All the healing I’ve experienced, the Holy Spirit accomplished.
Today I am reading Isaiah, one of the great prophets who railed against the sins of every country and person in the ancient world. For the first time I can appreciate the wisdom of this book that so clearly speaks of the destruction we as individuals or nations bring on ourselves by not following the Ten Commandments, both the law and the spirit of the law. There is only one place to find peace: in the arms of God. Everything that the world offers is ephemeral and will not last.
What is so wrong about hell-fire-and-damnation preaching is that it paints a one-sided and particularly harsh picture of God as terribly angry and capricious. For the believer and, especially, for the child there is no respite or comfort from the perils and wounds of life. He cannot believe that the promise of the New Testament and the redemption that Christ brings applies to him. There is no parent that loves him always. There is no one to love and heal him, he is forever condemned to live in the hell that religion built for him.