And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. – Mark 9:47-48
I live in complete and total fear of death. Not so much the act of dying, but what does or doesn’t come afterwards.
My childhood was filled with propaganda about the afterlife. Sermons yelled from the pulpit of my Pentecostal church and soft words spoken from the teacher’s podium at the Baptist school that I attended worked in unison to terrify me with mental images of flames and people screaming in unending torment. The excesses of heaven weren’t nearly as appealing as the idea of getting there meaning that I didn’t end up in that other place.
I remember my mom, dad, sister and I visiting another family when I was quite young and watching a religious film that showed people dying or being killed in accidents before being thrown into the flames of hell. Lack of television at home meant that my sister and I hadn’t been properly desensitized to such horrors, so we simply sat and sobbed uncontrollably until our parents took us home.
I could say that my religious beliefs have evolved dramatically over the years, but in all honesty, I haven’t been able to completely shake much of what I believed as a child, even though many of those beliefs now seem too convenient, too perfectly packaged, too elementary.
No matter how I try, I am unable to get beyond the fear of not meeting God’s expectations. While many would consider my lifestyle as the ultimate rejection of God’s will, I haven’t adopted a “consequences be damned” approach to my life at all. I’ve simply decided that I have to be myself and be happy in this life and trust that God will be merciful to me in the next.
But what if He isn’t? That question always gnaws at me.
There is rarely a day that goes by without something reminding me of those hellfire and brimstone sermons of my childhood. I can’t burn leaves without a quickening of my heartbeat as I consider how those flames might feel for eternity. I think of the young lady that I knew who burned up in an automobile accident and wonder if the pain stopped when she died or if it simply continued.
It isn’t uncommon to hear expressions of similar sentiments at the memorial services of friends and family members. After my cousin was killed in collision with a snow plow a few years ago, many of my family members and acquaintances made no apologies for their belief that she went straight to hell. Her own father requested that “Lost, Lost” (a song about dying without any hope of salvation) be performed during the ceremony. Thankfully, the singers refused.
I never could wrap my mind around the possibility that this vibrant young woman, this person that I loved, could somehow be punished forever just because she didn’t meet the expectations of those with a specific religious affiliation. In fact, I couldn’t help but wonder if God truly loved her more than anyone on earth possibly could, would He really send her to hell if mere mortals wouldn’t even consider doing such a thing? Surely not. But, then, how do we know?
In fact, in spite of all of our studying, praying, and believing, none of us can really be sure about anything that happens after we die. We might think we do, but until we draw our last breath and our eyes dim completely, we won’t know a single thing for sure.
And that, my friends, is enough to keep my fear of death alive. It’s my own personal version of hell. An unquenchable fire that burns constantly… inside of me.