In Watership Down the rabbits allude to it, how too much fear can sometimes make a rabbit lay inert. I’ve heard shepherds say that too–that a sheep that is terrorized too much by a predator will sometimes just “lay down,” and there quietly wait for death. I know what that’s like. I’ve felt that kind of fear, and I couldn’t move on from Christianity till it had finally been burned out of me. Today, I’ll tell you what happened the night I finally lost my fear of Hell.
(Originally published in Ex-Communications on May 8, 2015. I’ve greatly edited it from the original. For some reason, though, my post editor is really acting up today — it’s gone haywire! It is currently not allowing me to insert links or new photos, nor to do extensive formatting. So please forgive this tidied-up rerun. Hopefully, the PTB will have fixed things by tomorrow. ETA: Post thingie is working again, but this is done now, so I’m running it. TY for your patience!)
The Many Glorious and Bountiful Wonders of PTSD.
Somehow, the “wonder-working power” of Jesus had left me with a crippling case of anxiety as part of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Some interesting stuff happens neurologically with PTSD–it’s like the sufferer’s brain gets rewired, to an extent. Those affected often become hypervigiliant. In plainer words, they notice potentially threatening cues a lot more easily and quickly than other people do. And they interpret those cues as being way more threatening than other people might.
In the absence of actual dangers, a PTSD-affected mind will often just create dangers to fear. A slightly-faster heartbeat becomes chest pain and a possible heart attack. A slight creak in the floorboards at night becomes an intruder bent on mayhem.
Years after escaping religion and getting therapy for PTSD, sometimes I find myself laying in bed waiting for the inevitable crushing fist of pain in my chest, or quaking in fear of who might be in the next room over.
PTSD is not a fun game to play. Nope.
Learning to Manage Fear.
Like countless other PTSD sufferers, I find myself figuring out how to practically assess dangers. For example, I learned how to accurately read my own pulse. So now, I know that an anxiety attack may feel like a real live heart attack, but if my pulse feels normal then I’m (probably) just fine.
Likewise, when I’m scared of a home invasion, I can look to the cats sleeping on my bed. If they seem perfectly content, then there can’t be strangers in my house because they freak out whenever anybody comes through the door.
(My current cat, Bother, growls and runs for the hills whenever someone gets within 20 feet of my front door. Often, she’s my first sign that someone’s approaching at all. She’s gotten to know a few frequent visitors and somewhat tolerates them in her home, but she will never be one of those super-friendly, outgoing cats who just love being taken on outings so they can groove all over random delighted strangers.)
Thankfully, I haven’t had an actual panic attack for years. But I sometimes feel the other symptoms of a minor bout of it. Or perhaps someone close to me mentions that I seem particularly irritable lately or brings up how poorly I seem to be sleeping.
Whatever form this checks-and-balances input might take, it’s my cue to get back on track with rest, good diet, exercise, and calming activities. In addition, healing usually involves disconnecting from the internet and taking time out to sew or read for a while. All of these measures have me getting back in touch with the real world. It’s a sort of three-fingered reset for my spirit.
I’ll never be totally over PTSD, but I’ve learned to mitigate its worst effects.
An Impossible Reset.
However, you can’t really manage the fear that religions can produce. Religious threats like Hell are all based on stuff that can’t be demonstrated at all, so managing such fears becomes much more difficult.
I tried, indeed, to soothe myself with various Bible verses advising that fear shouldn’t be part of a Christian’s emotional landscape. And I tried to tell myself that if I was afraid, then obviously I was Jesus-ing wrong because TRUE CHRISTIANS™ shouldn’t ever be afraid. (Long ago, before extremist evangelicalism took ahold of me, I wasn’t afraid like that!)
But these attempts at self-soothing did not ever work because at its heart, my fear wasn’t centered on anything real. There was always that anxiety thorn: “Yes, yes, but what if you’re wrong?”
For that matter, nothing about theology or doctrine connects with the real world in any meaningful way. That’s the whole point of it being theology and doctrine.
I mean, I reckon if anything about Christianity really connected to the real world, it’d be some branch of science.
And Now, My Last Night of Religious Fear.
Back then, though, I sure didn’t know any of this. Fear eventually ruled my life as a Christian, especially as an evangelical. I had no defense against it and no way to mitigate the effects it had on me.
One night, after years of seeing demons around every corner and being terrified of being “left behind” in the Rapture, I lay in bed after a particularly momentous Bible study.
I’d been studying prayer, you see. So that night, I wanted to figure out if what my religion as a whole taught about prayer matched up with what the Bible said — and what reality actually delivered.
In that study, my group’s beliefs matched up pretty well with the Bible, sure.
But as it turns out, I discovered that neither my beliefs nor the Bible’s teachings matched at all with reality.
I was now facing the difficult choice of going with reality or drilling down on my religious beliefs.
And I was so scared. Just the memory of that fear makes tears flow down my cheeks, decades later. I thought I was the only person who’d ever been in this situation, who’d made this exact discovery. Just imagine feeling that alone..!
Why Fear Overwhelmed Me.
Like most Christians, I believed that life or death hung in the balance here. Thus, my decision was huge, urgent, and important. Making the wrong decision could earn me unthinkable punishment and pain.
(Pro-tip: Watch out for people who tell you anything like this. They’re likely trying to sell you something. Whatever their product is, it will not be anything you need. If it was, they wouldn’t be trying to sell it with outsized threats.)
But here I was, running through in my mind all the “miracles” I’d heard of and all the “divine blessings” I’d been told about — and yes, the ones I thought I’d experienced myself. I was beginning to see them as hollow — as either coincidences or as the results of effort on someone’s part, hardly divine in any way, and thank goodness for that considering the many people who needed miracles more than I ever had.
But Hell has a way of seizing the mind, and so I felt utterly gripped by terror.
You see, I was dancing on the edge — teetering, really, even windmilling my arms over it — of deconversion.
If I lost faith, then I was going to Hell. It was that simple. That’s why the fear had hit such a fever pitch in me that night.
Why Christian Leaders Need the Flocks to Fear Deconversion.
Before that night, I could soothe myself somewhat with mantras and talking points. I could pretend that I’d just misunderstood something or that I was doing something wrong. And I told myself all of these things.
If I lost faith, though, that pretense was gone. Shot. There was nothing past it. I’d never be able to soothe in these ways again.
Now it would be years before I even realized that this exact situation was deliberately created. Christian leaders deliberately make things scary like this for their flocks. If the fear is strong enough, then doubting Christians might recover their balance and back away from that edge; they might drill down on their beliefs and come out of the experience possibly even stronger and more stubborn–and more afraid–in the end.
But sometimes that tactic backfires.
It produces a fear so strong that it burns itself out through its own sheer heat.
And Then, I “Laid Down.”
And that’s what had happened to me. I’d become so afraid that I’d completely exhausted myself. I’d wept every tear I had, and I’d cried aloud all night long for help that never came.
All I’d gotten for these efforts was aching eyes and a cracked throat, and sore knees…
… and a fugue state of mindless terror.
Like the rabbits, like the ewes chased to the cliff’s brink by predators, though, I finally “laid down.” Metaphorically and literally, I laid down. I’d had enough.
As I lay in bed, I remember how fast my breathing was, how cold my skin was in the late-night air. Exhausted, I thought rather than prayed:
Let it come, let it come. Whatever it is, whatever it does to me, fine: just as long as this fear is done with at last.
Moving Past the End of Fear.
Then suddenly, just like that, I ran out of energy to fear. One moment I felt consumed by terror. The next? My fear was just GONE.
I’m serious. I felt it burn out of me like a candle finally sucking up all the last of its wax. The flame of my terror whittered and sputtered and then died away.
Whatever happened, it was going to happen. I just had no more energy at all for fear.
And I could confront the cold reality in that darkness: I no longer believed in Hell, or in the Rapture, or in the Judgment, or in any of the rest of it either. What now?
If anything in Christianity was real, then I could do nothing about it. I didn’t believe in its claims anymore.
Examining the Claims for the First Real Time.
Realizing that, I ran over all the reasons to believe that there was a literal Hell or a literal Rapture or a literal Judgment. As I considered these claims, I saw nothing there worth spending my emotions on anymore. They weren’t true.
Exhilaration swept through me then: a sudden rush of wild freedom, like the moment a captured hawk realizes that its bonds have been loosed jusssst enough to allow escape. For one moment, for just a heartbeat, there’s just shock and tense stillness as the hawk takes in this startling new development. And then, the bird shoots up into the air like a cannonball, faster than the eye can even perceive its path, and it’s gone forever.
Gone forever, yes.
I’d spent literally years of my life not only terrified of these threats for myself, but terrified that my loved ones would face them. That fear had made me do so many stupid things; it’d brought about so many stupid decisions. Fear had made me ignore the facts and do a lot of things that were working way against my best interest.
And now I simply had no more fear to give these ideas. Even today, I have no emotional energy to grant any of it anymore.
It was there once, this fear, and it was strong. But now it is no more. There’s not even a tombstone left in my mind to remember it anymore. I have slipped the surly bonds of earth just like a once-captive hawk. There’ll be no capturing me again.
The Path to the Wall Can Be Complicated.
I don’t know how to tell someone else how to reach the wall like I did, though.
Sometimes the fear just has to putter itself out. I think education helps a lot–the more one learns about the history of Hell and that other stuff, the less likely it all sounds. Thanks to that exact learning, there is literally no way I can be afraid of Hell now. I know exactly where it came from, and I know there is no way it can exist–especially not in a cosmology headed by a good deity, which is why we’re seeing more and more Christians reject the very idea of Hell.
(Of course, one doesn’t have to reject all of Christianity, or all religions period, to reject the threats most flavors of Christianity make. I did, but nobody has to do things exactly the way I do them. <— I still think this, six years later.)
Further, I know that thousands of other cultures have their own afterlife ideas, many strikingly different from the Christian conceptualization of it. They cannot all be right. But they all can be wrong! The other threats Christianity makes fall along very similar lines.
But Hell isn’t a rational fear. It’s put into us when we’re very young and largely helpless against those sorts of threats. You can’t use rational reasoning on an irrational fear (or person). Don’t expect reason to get you out, or to get anybody else out.
Some people spend years afraid of this stuff. I know. I’ve bashed myself to pieces trying to lead them to a place where they can finally see there’s really, truly nothing to fear. I’ve got nothing but sympathy for these folks — and anger for those who put that fear into them.
A Long History of Fear.
Remember, Christianity has had 2000 years to hone its terrorizing message. As a result, its salespeople are very good indeed at selling fear as a message. So when you stand up against that attempt to terrorize, what you’re really doing is standing up against 2000 years of concerted manipulation and deliberate fearmongering.
(Now, imagine how silly Christians’ very first attempts to terrorize must have sounded! Nobody hits the exact right manipulation tactic the first time. So those first attempts were likely gloriously, spectacularly bad.)
Maybe some of the Christians fanning the flames of fear do so out of the very best motivations. Maybe. But the results are the same: millions upon millions of people terrified of various fake boogeymen.
When we stand against that engine of fear, the salespeople of Christianity are going to take it as a personal insult and challenge. They’re going to want us to feel that fear again. And they’re going to take whatever measures they think necessary to get us afraid again of the very things they fear. They won’t believe that we simply don’t fear what drives them to terror.
And yet we will still stand against all of these attempts to terrorize us.
The First Morning of the Rest of Your Life.
When you’re finally free of that fear of Hell, you’ll look back and wonder how you spent so long afraid. It’ll all seem so childish and so small and silly, like listening to kids explaining why they’re utterly terrified of the demon hand lurking under their bed.
When that day comes, I know you’ll be as gentle as you can to those who are still afraid.
And I’ll tell you one more thing: when I realized my fear was totally burned away, I didn’t feel poured out anymore.
That night, as fear drained away from me, I was exhausted, sure. And yet now I quivered in anticipation of whatever was to come next. I could tell that I would soon be filled by something new. Though I did not yet know what it was, I knew it was coming.
As dawn crept through my window, courage flickered very softly inside me — still rosy-pink and new like the light, like a newborn baby’s fingertips. As small and tentative as it was, though, it would only grow.
That was my last night as a Christian.
It was also the very first morning of my new life.
Fear is the Little Death; It Will Wash Over You and Pass Through You.
Nowadays, I can’t even remember what it was like to feel that visceral terror. I know I felt it once, but it’s difficult to connect personally to the memory. It’s like it happened to someone else entirely.
That can be you.
There may be a lot of folks reading my words who still fear and don’t know how to rid themselves of it, or who don’t know if they will ever be free of it.
You will. Keep doing your best. Learn what you can and educate yourself. Test your ideas to see if they’re true. Seek professional help if you need it.
The fear of hell eventually passes. You will still be here, though, long after it becomes nothing more than a faded memory.
NEXT UP: LSP! Then, hopefully, our post about female pastors. Cross your fingies and see you tomorrow!
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While I was going through all this stuff on that fateful night, my bombastic then-husband Biff was off at his stupid fake women’s clinic trying to talk vulnerable women into having babies they absolutely could not afford and didn’t want. When he got home, I pretended to be asleep. He got into bed with no idea what had happened. Nor did he ever find out that the Bible study about prayer itself had been prompted in the first place by me discovering and reading his fake women’s clinic handbook (it was a “Pearson manual” that teaches right-wing Christians how to properly emotionally devastate, control, and manipulate the women who make the dire mistake of seeking their fake clinics’ services). One thing led to another, is all, and here we are now.
It’s just absurd, the whole situation. Even now, life really stuns me with how preposterous it can be. Seriously, we all get there how we get there. What’s important is that we do, indeed, get there eventually.