TEN MINUTES into a recent flight from San Jose to St. Louis, I was reveling in a first-class upgrade and a new Margaret Atwood novel when I felt and heard a powerful thump. The aircraft, which had been gaining altitude, rocked vigorously. The man next to me widened his eyes, asking, “What was that?” Startled murmurs went around the cabin.
The plane started to descend. It didn’t nose-dive, but sank, as if it were going into a landing. No one screamed, no one spoke, no one moved.
A flight attendant bolted from her seat and lurched down the aisle, leaning over the passengers to peer out the windows. The look on her face brooked no questions. And besides, no one was inclined to interfere with her appointed duties at that moment. Bent over, craning her neck to see, she clambered toward the rear of the plane. I suspected she was looking for a fire in an engine. Seconds later, she ran to the cockpit. It’s frightening to see a stewardess run.
The man next to me pressed his face against the window and muttered, “I hate this airline. This is my most unfavorite airline of them all. And this is the model of plane I hate most of all, too. These MD-80s are too old; they’re not reliable; they fly them too many miles.”
The pilot’s voice came over the speakers. Sounding like an actor, he informed us that one of the engines had failed, but that the other one was working fine. We would be returning to San Jose for an emergency landing. Toward the end, his voice cracked — just a little.
The man next to me turned and faced me, explaining with some urgency, “I’m on this flight to go see my wife in the hospital; she had an accident. I have to go see my wife.” He went on about his wife’s injury, sustained during a fall from a horse. I said I was sorry. I was sorry. Our predicament made his wife’s plight more real to me somehow. It seemed terrible that she had fallen from a horse, and even worse that we were falling through the sky. Still, the plane seemed to be leveling off by then. It was flying excruciatingly slowly, but not going down anymore, so far as I could tell. How ironic that I’d been looking forward to this flight, because I would be in first class. The last thing my partner had said to me, as we kissed goodbye, was “Enjoy the flight!”
As the man next to me got into an argument with the passenger in front of us about the various incompetencies of airlines, pilots, and equipment, I discreetly folded my hands, lowered my head, and shut my eyes. I asked God for three things, in this order: First, I asked not to go to hell. Next, I asked God to take care of my mother. Last, I asked him — it was undoubtedly a man — to help my partner, who had lost her mother just a few months before.
Later, from the safety of a comfortable hotel room, I reflected on my terrified, praying self. I was not surprised about the fear of hell; it is my worst fear and arises whenever I am frightened. This fear has come up often in recent years, usually in the middle of the night.
THE HELL I FEAR is not a spiritual vacuum here on earth, nor the curse of rebirth into yet another dusty human body, nor eternity in a silent void. I am afraid of burning brimstone (whatever brimstone may be) and choking smoke, of desperate thirst, and, primarily, of the pain. A Christian friend once told me that the worst part of hell was separation from God. I fear spiritual loneliness, too; but, frankly, it’s the thought of my body’s burning, not my soul’s isolation, that keeps me awake at night.
I am not afraid of death. That is, I don’t think I am afraid to shuffle off this mortal coil, at least, not once it has grown less functional. I’ve left my body a few times; though it wasn’t comfortable, it didn’t hurt. I’m afraid of suffering and dementia and disability, but such worries don’t cause me to lose sleep. I worry about my death’s making some people unhappy, but that fear doesn’t make me consider renouncing my sexuality, the way my fear of hell does.
Because, if I am going to hell, it will probably be for being a lesbian. Every theologian I’ve ever known would deny this, and I would never give credence (let alone time or money) to anyone who claimed it was a sin to be gay. I love being a lesbian — until I consider the Day of Judgment.
But, then again, it’s not just lying with another woman for which I could burn. I felt just as guilty and fearful when my sex partners were men. What about my forty-hour-a-week devotion to the root of all evil? My unfair consumption of natural resources? I hope that God thinks driving a car is a worse sin than making love.
And there is that disturbing, niggling line from Revelations. A friend of mine uses it whenever he sees Jehovah’s Witnesses coming up his path: He opens the door wide and shouts to them, “Doesn’t the Bible say that only 144,000 people shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven?”
Startled, the Jehovah’s Witnesses nod yes.
“Well, then,” he roars, “you’ve already got that many, so don’t come bothering me!”
MY BELIEF in the possibility of eternal damnation embarrasses me because I feel it demeans any intelligent person to absorb and accept the type of fears that fundamentalist churches instill. Also, I’m embarrassed that my thinking on the subject of eternity is such a dead loss (pun intended). I don’t so much reason as meander around a bog of ideas: second-wave feminism; medieval imagery; Southern Baptist philosophy circa 1971; common sense; my Episcopal upbringing; catchphrases from Freud, Jung, and my counselor; lesbian separatism; New Age blather; confirmation classes; Buddhist leanings; the King James Bible; and James Joyce. No voice dominates, and they all contradict each other. This conflict goes on in my mind, consciously or unconsciously, all the time, worrying me and exacerbating my insomnia.
It’s the Baptists who begat this nonsense (if it is nonsense) — Baptists and the lax intellectual climate I grew up in: suburban central Florida in the sixties and early seventies. My British parents took me to a nice, sensible, Episcopal church maybe once a month, more often the year I was confirmed. The church had a red carpet and white stargazer lilies. I loved Sunday school, the sermons, the leaders, and the lessons. In this Edenic childhood period of faith, I was glad to study and grateful to be confirmed as an adult in the eyes of that institution. I wore a pastel pink dress with puffy sleeves on confirmation day, and, afterward, my family went out to lunch.
Unfortunately, around that same time, a friend invited me to her church’s Wednesday-evening preadolescent-indoctrination sessions, aka Christian Youth Crusaders. The Crusaders had blue-and-yellow sashes on which we sewed badges like those earned by scouts, only we earned them for things like Bible study and Christian homemaking. (I am gratified to report that I earned few badges.) There should have been a badge for guilt. At the annual badge-awarding ceremony, our tall and sincere teacher said, with raised eyebrows, “Some people were more interested in outside activities than in CYC this year.” This because, twice in ten months, I had missed meetings to play softball.
Besides guilt and fear, I learned some God-awful songs at CYC. I once sang my mother a folksy, pious little hymn, the lyrics of which now happily escape me. She closed her eyes and said, “For heaven’s sake, Jill.” My enthusiasm embarrassed her. She no doubt hoped that I would soon outgrow such piety.
One night, I sat up in my pretty pink bedroom, worrying about God. Above my bed hung a small, antique brass plaque bearing the image of a child praying and the verse:
Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.
My mother had placed the plaque there on a decorative whim, thinking it quaint. Literal-minded child that I was, however, I took the prayer to heart. I considered what would happen if I died before I woke.
If my parents were right, then I had no need to fear God, nor even to think much about him. If my friend’s church was right, though, I was in big trouble. Whom should I believe? After much thinking, arms wrapped around my knees, I decided to take the safest course of action and proceed as though the fundamentalists were correct. That way, I’d be in no danger from the mild Episcopalian God (who certainly wouldn’t mind a little extra devotion), and if God was wrathful, judgmental, harsh, and Baptist, I’d be safe, too. Since I didn’t know the truth, I’d behave in accordance with the more demanding religion. That decided, I laid me down to sleep.
My parents did not support my participation in Southern churchery, but they allowed me to go because I wanted to be with my friends. Perhaps they thought that preadolescent piety might create a more manageable teenager. If they had forbidden me to attend CYC, the attraction might have grown stronger. They did the right thing by not interfering. But I wish they had.
MY FAMILY moved away from Florida when I was twelve, and in New Jersey, we gave up going to any house of worship. I clung to my beliefs, though, and for a while my fears became worse. But eventually the secular mores and morals of my new peers took over, and by college, I had become an atheist. I quickly decided to unbecome one, though, when I noticed that the happiest, most stable people I knew — both of them — believed in God and prayer. (I didn’t take into account that the least happy, most unstable of my friends probably prayed, too, perhaps even more fervently.) So I reached a compromise with religion even as I became a fanatic in the cause of feminism.
That held till my junior year abroad at Oxford, where I should have been immersed in complex intellectual influences, but was instead surrounded by yet more Baptists. The only way I could get to Oxford was through Liberty Jewel College in Missouri, whose student body largely comprised God-fearing, Republican athletes. While at Oxford, I lived in a house full of other LJC students, who held Bible study in our living room on — what a surprise! — Wednesday nights. I didn’t attend, but it was impossible to escape the aura of sanctity.
One night, sitting in my cold bedroom to escape from my hyperreligious housemates, I pored over a paperback copy of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The passage on hell undid thousands of dollars’ worth of secular education. He’s an awfully vivid writer, Joyce. Here’s how he describes the sermons he heard as a boy:
At the command of God, the fire of hell, while retaining the intensity of its heat, burns eternally in darkness. It is a neverending storm of darkness, dark flames and dark smoke of burning brimstone, amid which the bodies are heaped one upon another without even a glimpse of air. Place your finger for a moment in the flame of a candle and you will feel the pain of fire. But our earthly fire was created by God for the benefit of man, to maintain him . . . whereas the fire of hell is of another quality and was created by God to torture and punish the unrepentant sinner. . . . The sulphurous brimstone which burns in hell is a substance which is specially designed to burn for ever and for ever with unspeakable fury. . . . It preserves that which it burns and though it rages with incredible intensity it rages for ever.
Thus were my images of the afterlife enlarged and enlivened. Every time I accidentally touch a hot burner — or hear AM-radio preachers raving, or pass a billboard proclaiming the wages of sin — I am reminded of this passage. These things seem to happen to me more often than they do to other people, or perhaps they’re just especially salient for me. Further, I seem inordinately prone to the horrors of adolescent imagination.
I am forty now, well past the time to put away childish things. As my peers go on praying to Allah five times a day, or resting sure in the existence of a benign Infinite Mind, or driving cross-country to participate in sweat-lodge ceremonies, or dutifully taking their children to Hebrew classes or Sunday school, I remain muddled, mystified, and afraid.
It does not help to recognize that my fears are irrational. So is faith. And it doesn’t matter that I suspect my fear of judgment by a vengeful God stems from childhood fear of my earthly father, and from the oppression of queers, and from centuries of misogynistic repression of women’s sexuality. Such rational arguments don’t make any difference. When that plane started lurching in midair, I clutched the armrests and thought, God, forgive me for all my sins, over and over. Fear, that unwanted guest, stays long after reason has politely left my mind.
And, I am sorry to admit, my preteen logic still makes sense to me. Despite the sophistication I gained from traveling to other continents, attending graduate schools for a decade, taking drugs, and reading books by very smart people, I have never shaken the superstitious, childish thought: What if the not very smart people — the fundamentalists — are right? What if there is a Last Judgment, a heaven and a hell?
If they are right, then so is a tract I once found, circa 1970, in a supermarket basket. That glossy, garish, three-by-five pamphlet was the second-most-influential piece of literature — after Portrait of the Artist — I have ever picked up. The cover demanded, in lurid letters, “Where do YOU want to spend eternity?” The back had some sort of form for accepting Jesus as one’s personal savior. Naturally, I filled it in. I checked the box to save my soul.
THERAPY would seem a possible solution to my quandary, but generally I don’t even tell my therapists about my fears. I usually have more immediate crises to discuss, and, anyway, I worry they would find my hell phobia laughable. And even if I did tell them, their reassurance wouldn’t help: distrust of the spiritual views of psychiatrists was instilled in me early on, too.
In the course of bringing me up to be a reasonable, vaguely Christian person like themselves, my parents inadvertently enrolled me for sixth grade in a rather religious private school. Now, to my parents’ credit, the school was the least fanatical of several in the area, and they had no way of knowing that my “science” teacher was going to spend the year denouncing “atheist psychiatrists” and what he called, thumping fist into palm, “the theory of evolution.”
At the end-of-year speech contest, I delivered a seven-minute oration on the power of the Creator in our country. (It began: “ ‘In God we trust.’ Does that sound familiar?”) Only after the contest did my mother understand how backward my education was. Wide-eyed with horror, she said, “As many times as I heard you rehearse that speech, I never until now noticed what it said.”
Shortly after that, we moved to New Jersey, where the children were godless and fast talking. I had to stop tying yarn ribbons in my hair and learn to wear pantyhose. I alienated the cool clique by refusing cigarettes and by asking over lunch, “Don’t you ever talk about anything except boys?”
So mixed up was I, so fearful of a wrathful God ready to send me to hell if I sinned, that I thought that making a factual error in speech or writing amounted to lying. A wrong answer meant “bearing false witness.” After a conversation in which I had dared to say, “I’m going to Sean’s party on Friday,” or, “My father drives a Ford,” I would pray for forgiveness, in case I didn’t make it to the party, or my father had switched vehicles without my knowing. By eighth grade, in order to avoid the sin of false witness, I stopped making any definite assertions. I began or ended every statement I said, wrote, or thought with the words “I think.” This addendum to every utterance made me appear a little strange, so, half the time, I would just breathe the “I think” part, or mumble it quietly, so that only God could hear.
The strain of having both to qualify every idea and to avoid drawing attention to my disclaimers made me absurdly awkward. I often became so focused on hiding my mumblings that I couldn’t pay attention to what other people were saying. In this mess of misguided reasoning, I even began to doubt my doubtfulness. It wasn’t enough to say, “My father drives a Ford, I think.” Because what if I only thought I thought my father drove the Ford? What if, subconsciously, I really thought he drove something else? If I didn’t know what I really thought, then how could I avoid telling a lie about my thoughts? And so, to please God, I doubled the incantation: before or after every statement, I said, “I think I think.”
At this point, with “I think I think” tacked on to every remark I made, I could no longer hide four syllables by mumbling on an intake of breath. I decided, with what little rationality I had left, that it was all right just to think those words, rather than say them out loud. So, in my mind, I began to doubly doubt every word I said: an internalized litany of self-doubt.
That sort of assault on one’s self-assurance at an early age is not easily vanquished, nor does it retreat of its own accord over time. At age fourteen, if asked to name the capital of England, I’d have said, “London,” I think I think, even though I’d been there many times. Now, twenty-six years later, I can make myself state the obvious without disclaimer, but I would not feel comfortable asserting, even in casual conversation, how many times I’ve visited England. Whereas most people would estimate the number, I’d say I wasn’t sure, or maybe I’d offer to look it up in my passports. Whatever my response, I would not say something I didn’t know to be true. (At least, not usually. Maybe sometimes I do, though I’m not quite sure. . . .)
IN JUNIOR HIGH, I also worried deeply about giving an incorrect answer on a test. I felt that claiming the capital of New York was New York City might banish me to hell as surely as murder. To avoid untruths, I answered my seventh-grade math quizzes like this:
When my teacher showed this bizarre notation to my mother, they attributed it to my “insecurity,” and I let them think that. But I wasn’t just insecure; I was becoming insane.
One often sees “crazy” people roaming the streets, muttering about hell and damnation. What they’re doing is not so far from what I sometimes feel late at night, when I am tired and anxious, or when I’ve heard something on the radio or read something that sparked that old fundamentalist feeling. And, like those people with their matted hair, bruised faces, and alarmed eyes, I have no hope of salvation.
I GATHER that my comfortably Christian friends don’t fear hell, either because they don’t think it exists in any literal way, or because they are confident that they will not end up there. (Most people who do believe in hell feel sure it is not their final destination.) Of course, I wouldn’t make friends with anyone who espoused otherwise. When I hear a raging minister on the radio, I turn the dial. If a new acquaintance mentions belonging to an evangelical church, I mentally turn away. Anyone who believes in hell, I find, also believes in hateful ways of avoiding it. Fear of hell tends to make women into victims, men into bullies, and everyone into line-toeing robots. Find me a hell-fearer who also fears limits on abortion rights, and I will befriend that person.
BACK IN MY preteen days in Florida, I once attended church with my friend Suzy. Her parents weren’t there, and I don’t know what sort of service we were attending; I suppose it was a “revival.”
In this huge, newly built church, the pastor wore a suit, not robes like my Episcopal minister. The jacket and trousers made the preacher seem businesslike, worldly, and intimidating. He wound into his sermon with a rising pitch and volume, and after half an hour or so, he was fairly spitting faith. Then he began asking for people to come down the aisle to the front of the church and do something — I didn’t understand what. Underneath his invitation, the organ began to play, soft but melodramatic. Slowly, one or two people walked to the rail and knelt. He praised them, blessed them, and exhorted the rest of us to follow. People were crying — I was crying. Suddenly, I understood that these people were being saved. They were now freed forever from the fear of hell, just by walking to the altar. The preacher asked anyone in the audience who felt the pull on their soul to come down, come down. I was out of my seat and bound for heaven faster than Suzy could ask what I was doing.
After I’d knelt and been prayed and sung over, the service ended. A woman gathered me up, along with the one or two other young people who had just committed their lives to Christ — so that’s what I’d been doing! — and hugged us and took our names and addresses and gave us candy. After that, no one seemed to know what to do with me, so I returned to Suzy, and we went out to the golf course and practiced kissing boys — and each other.
But the act of floating tearfully down the blue-carpeted aisle to the altar had been liberating. After that first excursion into the world of blessed immunity to Satan, I began to see and hear opportunities for salvation everywhere. In the branches of trees or stuck between fence posts, I found those shiny, threatening tracts, with forms to sign to devote oneself to Christ, thus ensuring that he would save you a seat in heaven. From the basket on the front of my bike, my little transistor radio carried great, deep men’s voices and great, deep organ music, calling me to God, calling me to make this huge leap, this lifetime commitment, to find a new beginning — which I did at least weekly for years.
At no time did any of these messages or messengers specify what I ought to do with this new life given to me by Christ Jesus, Our Lord and Savior, the Son of God. Apparently, once I’d relinquished my soul, the rest would follow naturally. But I didn’t know what to do next; I knew only suffering and sin and fear and then salvation. So I searched for my next fix of salvation, that dramatic moment of renewal, rebirth, and reassurance of being sinless and good in God’s eyes — at least, for a few white-gold minutes.
Hungrily, I began to create my own opportunities for “salvation.” I found I could enact the drama of commitment and change in my own mind at any time. I knew you had to do something — call the radio station, kneel at the altar, sign on the line — to show God your intentions, so I began to imbue my everyday actions with such significance that they became hardly bearable. Going downstairs to get something for my mother, I’d think to myself, When I cross the bottom step, it means I am giving my life to Jesus.
When I walk out the door, I will be born again.
God will take me into the Kingdom of Heaven if I reach out and touch that tree.
In retrospect, this may not have been a bad way to live, being ever mindful of God. But after that initial sigh of rebirth, after that moment of crystalline clarity and faith that my skin would not, after all, burn forever, in the very next breath, my sinful mind would betray me. Without wanting to, I’d think something terrible like I hate God or Fuck Jesus, and those words, meaningless as they were, would once again damn me.
FOR YEARS, I envied Catholics, with their quiet confession once a week, the money-in-the-bank assurance of salvation if you did not commit mortal sin between the last confession and death. I could live with a week’s worth of sins on my conscience; with such a relatively small load, I might get off with purgatory.
There are Catholic nuns, whole black-and-white convents of them in the dusty hills of Mexico or the remote villages of Ireland, who spin out their lives on rosary beads, praying for souls burning in hell, asking for their redemption. I hope that their pious work goes on forever; maybe Sisterhood is powerful. Sometimes I pray for the relief of souls in hell, too, though I don’t know if this action is insurance or a lottery: if I pray for them now, will someone pray for me later?
At this point, mere relief from worry seems like salvation, and trust itself as desirable as heaven. It feels good to forget the fear of hell for a while, to act like a sane, earth-loving human being, not worrying about what will happen after death. I have done far more than walk downstairs or reach out and touch a tree for a few days of such relief. I moved to California for it. I lobbied against Proposition 22 (a homophobic, Christian Coalition–backed bill). I religiously recycle every scrap of material I can. I made a New Year’s resolution to be nicer to my sister. I’ve thought about God, if not with every breath, at least with every crisis. Sometimes, faced with a problem, I consider which course of action is the most loving, and I take that one. Some days, I try not to drive my car. That is as good as it gets, as good as I get, these days.
It is, of course, not good enough to guarantee me a place in heaven. If the Baptists and Bible-thumpers are right, then I am going to hell. In the meantime, I hope for reincarnation, for enlightenment, for the shades and shadows of preadolescent angst to fall from me. I pray for my friends and enemies on earth, and for anyone in hell, if there is a hell, in case the nuns and the nuts are right, and on the off chance that God listens. How many prayers does it take to redeem one soul? How many to redeem myself? Mainly, I pray that, someday, this torment might end.
SOMETIMES I reflect on one of the promises I heard every time I was “saved.” I was given to understand that, having accepted Christ Jesus as my personal Savior, I was guaranteed the good afterlife. I also recall some suggestion that Jesus intervened on behalf of sinners: “Jesus loves me, this I know.” Could that be true?
After all, to return for a moment to that frightening flight, we landed safely. My worst fears were not realized. Something — or Someone — sustained that plane through a safe landing. Maybe God was our copilot. Firetrucks, a crash crew, and TV reporters rushed to meet us on the runway, but we all survived, just a little shaken, a little quick to step in line for the bar or the bathroom. So those moments of petrified, private, faith-based initiatives of prayer were only temporary insanity, perhaps. On the other hand, perhaps it was prayer that landed us safely. No one knows.
Thinking back to my time at Oxford, I remember a twenty-year-old pastor-to-be sitting in the cold brown living room of our rented house, shaking his head over my anti-God arguments and saying, “Belief is a choice; it’s not rational. You can’t think about it logically. It’s a leap of faith.” His smug refusal to engage in rational argument impressed me, but that same emotional, irrational outlook now plagues me. If irrational belief in God works, then so does irrational belief in hell. Sure, you can argue against its existence, but we believers don’t need proof.
This memory, however, leaves a slight opening for hope. It has come to me, after many nights lying awake and many hours crying in counseling, that, just as faith in God is an irrational choice, so is the choice of what kind of God to believe in. Some people cheerfully choose to place their faith in a God who will not condemn them. Maybe I, too, could take that leap of faith and decide to believe only in a loving God. If the fundamentalists are right, I risk eternal damnation; but if they are wrong, I risk wasting a lifetime.
Either one is an awfully big risk, though, and this line of thinking is so alien to me that it doesn’t take firm hold. I consider changing my concept of God, and it sounds good for a while, until the plane shudders and suddenly loses altitude, or an SUV sideswipes my car, or I get a high fever in the middle of the night.
Then, faster than you can say, “What if they’re right?” I’m back in CYC. I promise: I am not going to play softball anymore. I will not kiss anyone anymore, girls or boys. And I won’t miss any more weekly meetings, if I can just, just, please, earn that badge of Salvation and sew it forever onto my sash of Righteousness, even though that sash hasn’t fit me for a long, long time.