When I was a kid, I woke up at 5 a.m. one Christmas morning, joined my siblings in yelling at our parents to get out of bed, and rushed downstairs to cuddle my stocking full of candy and trinkets in anticipation.
I stared at all the gifts waiting to be unwrapped, imagining what they could be – and then it happened.
My excited shivers slowed, my smile waned, and I stared at the ground beneath the Christmas tree. I saw and felt in my mind a clear image, almost physical; a black hole opened up beneath the tree – beneath me. I was about to fall in. I was gripped by the fear of falling for all eternity, alone and never dying. I was convinced that no matter how long I avoided it, it would catch up to me, and I would be alone.
The black hole came back at the times I felt happiest, which maybe is why the first time it happened was on Christmas. Depression and anxiety crept into my daily life. I don’t know if my vision was an expression of a disorder I already had or if it was the spark, but either way, the black hole of endless loneliness became the core image for my depression.
Why the Evangelical versions of Heaven and Hell appealed to me
Around half a decade later, the boy who converted me explained the evangelical versions of Heaven and Hell as primary tenets of his faith. Little did he know that his description of Hell gave an old fear of mine a new face – I assumed I was going to suffer eternal loneliness one way or another, and he only confirmed this. He tapped into a fear that I had never admitted aloud.
Then he cast me a lifeline: “If you believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, you will have eternal life in Heaven.”
I grabbed on for dear life.
The cost of salvation
Heaven became my unconscious motivation for following every rule of evangelical life.
First I internalized the unspoken rule that if I believed the Bible was not 100 percent accurate, my faith was weak and I didn’t fully believe in Jesus. If I followed that train of thought long enough, I became convinced I would go to Hell.
This led in turn to the rule that, unless my actions reflected my belief in Christ, I must not really believe in him either. The actions that would prove my faith included: submitting to my future husband, rounding up evidence for a young earth, proving other religions wrong, being sexually pure, and converting others to the faith.
I felt as though the promise of Heaven was just a few steps away. These were concrete things I could do. I could taste security.
Yet I kept failing. One day I wasn’t sexually pure. Another day I didn’t do my devotional. Another I didn’t pray, and another I doubted, and another I failed to tell someone about Jesus. I caved to the weakness of my flesh daily. Heaven was turning out to be more elusive than I had expected.
There was one major problem with living the way I was: It was all about me.
I was focused on personal purity, or living my personal life the “right” way. Reading my Bible, protecting my sexuality and so on. Even behaviors like “loving my neighbor as myself” came from a concern for my personal safety. Everything I did was motivated by the goal of escaping Hell through good works.
But if the prophets of the Hebrew Bible were right, personal purity means far less to God than service to others. What he wants is for people to care for the widow and the orphan, to feed the hungry, and to welcome the stranger, for their sake, not ours.
A different way
One morning I woke up on the top bunk of my dorm room at college while it was still dark out, and I panicked – the black hole was back. I suddenly knew it had never left.
I finally admitted to myself I was using the idea of God so I could feel safe. Smart woman who I was, I didn’t think that a personal feeling of safety was a great argument for divine existence. And since it had been my unconscious motivation from the start, my faith was feeling pretty shaky by the time I got out of bed.
So I set up a meeting with a mentor. I sat down in his office and told him I wasn’t sure I believed in God anymore.
“Good,” he said.
And proceeded to tell me the black hole I faced was the “void.” Otherwise known as pain, uncertainty, gray area, and general lack of control.
I told him the void was the source of my suicidal thoughts in high school. I didn’t want to go back. I was afraid eternal loneliness was all there was and everything else was just an illusion.
But even as I looked for my mentor to show me an easier way, something inside me was deciding to face the void. I was tired of running.
And over several years, I did face it. But I did not conquer it.
I befriended it.
The black hole was tied to years of neglecting myself. Maybe I was cold. Maybe I was dehydrated. Maybe I was hungry. Maybe I was angry but trying to force it down. Maybe I felt trapped and needed to get out of an abusive relationship. Maybe I was buying into the belief that men were entitled to my body.
It took depression sending up distress signals in these situations for me to get the help I needed. Depression became my dash light telling me to go to the mechanic. (The mechanic was often my therapist, who had tools like talking and medication.)
Slowly but surely, I understood the black hole of eternal loneliness wasn’t the afterlife. It was a preverbal, wordless terror of abandonment. And nobody was coming to rescue me.
So instead of waiting for rescue, I unabandoned myself. I took care of myself. I drank water. I ate three meals a day. I set boundaries. I rejected abuse. I refused to be pressured sexually. I asked friends and mentors for help when I couldn’t handle my life.
In my self-love, the Holy Spirit carved out a spot for herself. She loved me when I couldn’t and encouraged me to love myself. And out of that self-love came genuine love for others. I wanted others to be warm, drink water, eat three meals a day, set boundaries, get out of abuse, ask for help – all the things I wanted for myself. I wanted to empower others the way I was being empowered. That gave new meaning to the commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
I began to see Heaven and Hell as ways to live instead of ways of to die. Heaven was connecting with others and myself in empathy; Hell was disconnecting from my own needs and consequently from others’ needs.
I don’t really know what the afterlife will be like. But I do know I want to love myself, and love my neighbor as I love myself – today.
Note: There’s a dialogue on this topic in regard to specific Scripture passages. Here are some voices in the mix: N.T. Wright in “Surprised by Hope,” Rob Bell in “Love Wins,” Francis Chan in “Erasing Hell” as a rebuttal to “Love Wins,” and probably a pastor near you.
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