When the Faith Non-Denominational Church of Hyndman, Pennsylvania, handed out salvation, I did not attend. We weren't regular church-goers when I was young; the fact that I ever attended at all is somewhat of a small miracle. So it isn't surprising that I would have missed the day the Sunday school teachers had chosen to lead the children through the Sinner’s Prayer, committing their young lives to God. I remember sitting on the lap of one of the teachers, some weeks after the other children had been rescued from the eternal fires of Hell, when she asked them how they felt to be saved. I asked her what this meant.
"They won’t go to Hell when they die," she said.
Now, I had seen artists’ renditions of Hell. I don’t remember any other illustrations from my mother’s family Bible except the one of sinners’ souls being thrown into the lake of fire. I believe I may have gulped audibly.
"Can I be saved?" I asked.
What happened next may be imagined, and in this woman’s defense I hope it is, but I distinctly remember her responding to me with a certain amount of relish:
"No, honey," she said, "You’ll have to wait until we do it again next year." She plucked me off of her lap. "Make sure you tell Mommy and Daddy to bring you to Sunday school every week from now on."
Panicked, I scrambled around the classroom, badgering the other children for information on how to be saved. I spotted Corey, the boy who lived down the road from me. We made mud pies together, so I felt sure he’d help me.
“Corey, were you saved?”
“What did you have to do?”
I grabbed his shoulders.
“Corey, I’m going to Hell. Please tell me what I have to do.”
Finally, he relented. "Just say that you love Jesus and stuff."
I was incredulous. That was it? Say that you love Jesus and stuff? My fears were partially allayed. Certainly God would grant me some clemency if I told him I loved him every day.
Armed with this knowledge, I committed myself to earning my salvation. I sang little ditties about loving Jesus. I recited his name like a mantra. I scribbled “I-heart-Jesus” on all of the paper that I could find. After a few weeks, confident that I had dispensed with my obligations, my fear of damnation began to fade.
But old fears are quick to be revived.
The timeline is fuzzy now, but some time after my initial complications with getting into heaven, I was introduced to the concept of baptism. I was mortified to learn that my parents—apparent atheists at the time of my birth—had failed to baptize me, leaving me in a precarious state of spiritual limbo. Since I had already taken the side door to being saved, I couldn’t risk not being baptized, too. So when my mother had planned to be baptized by immersion in a nearby river, I begged her to ask the preacher to include me.
He sat opposite us in our living room, sipping iced tea while he considered the request. My mother talked. He sipped. She talked some more. He nodded. Finally, he told my mother that I was too young to know what I was entering into. My heart sank.
The world had conspired to send me to Hell.
From that moment on, I was obsessed with dying, a fear that gave birth to some very peculiar rituals. I still remember—though I’m not sure of the genesis of this belief—thinking that my index fingers were always pointing in the direction that I would go when I died. If I were to die with them pointing downward, off to Hell I’d go. With this in mind, I made a habit of placing those fingers together in front of my face, pointing them to the heavens. People would occasionally ask what I was doing, but even then I was at least partially aware of the absurdity of this practice, so I never gave an answer.
If there were pediatric mental institutions back then, I probably belonged in one. Some of these behaviors were borderline psychotic. For a while, I was convinced that my saliva was poisoned and took to spitting it out whenever my mother wasn’t looking. Poisoned saliva was the perfect crime, a murder plot of such genius only God could devise it. I was utterly convinced that the Almighty would try to take me precisely while my soul was still in jeopardy, and looking back now, this particular fear was not entirely unfounded. After all, there was a lot of smiting going on in the Old Testament, and God was not always especially kind to children.
Even as an adult I think about salvation from time to time, wondering how my young mind could have so grossly distorted a belief system designed to bring spiritual peace, not mortal terror. Sometimes I think about the preacher who denied baptism to my dying grandmother, claiming that it wasn't necessary, that God knew what was in her heart. She said nothing, but her eyes mirrored my own old fears. What harm could have come from a few words, a sprinkle of water—earthly things to soothe the mortal mind? My own baptism later in life practically erased my fear of Hell, though—admittedly—my fear of death remained. True belief will overcome that fear I've been told. But the fundamental problem of faith is just that—faith. Faith in the knowledge that you know the unknowable. And that's a leap I've just never been able to make, despite my efforts to do so.
Nevertheless, God finally looks down on me rather kindly, I think. Now that I've been baptized and married, my opportunities for mortal sin are on the decline. There's some security in that belief, however tenuous. But sometimes, just in case, I still point my fingers to the sky and hope for the best.
This essay was originally broadcast on A River & Sound Review in November 2006.