Growing up in a Pentecostal Christian household in the United States, I was very familiar with hell. If it wasn’t stressed enough at church, being surrounded by Catholic kids who were also very familiar with hell filled in the gaps. We were all one step away from eternal damnation. Still, for such a foreboding word, it was used with incredible frequency. Hell’s bells, hell in a hand-basket, mad as hell, bat out of hell. Bored as hell, raising hell, scared to hell. Hell! There was so much hell it was a miracle we got any sleep at night.
Hell was reserved for non-Christians, sinners and, of course, homosexuals. My hell was going to church three times a week. All that time sitting in a pew gave me ample time to think. I began to deduce that if only 1/3 of the world were Christian, hell must be a very, very busy place, nearly filled to overflowing. It also dawned on me that Christianity was only a few thousand years old, so everyone who was born, lived and died before that was surely in hell. That was a helluva lot of people.
Sitting in church one Sunday morning, like only good teenage rebel, I began to wonder just where the hell did two-thirds of the human race go when they died. Certainly it wasn’t to the pearly gates, but what a waste of all those foreign people to go straight to hell just for being born in the wrong place. One idea led to another, and soon, teenage logic dictated that these strange foreigners might have their own concept of heaven and hell. I glanced around devilishly for thinking such blasphemous thoughts. The next day, I secretly shimmied off to the library and began to dig. These were the days before the Internet and Smart phones, so I got my information (and later porn) the old-fashioned way: books.
What I found out was Christianity had NOTHING on other religions. Those foreign kids must be scared out of their minds! Zoroastrians (whoever the hell they were) believed the dead were forced to eat corpses. Tibetans had sixteen hot and cold hells. It went from bad to worse. Hindus had at least 25 different hells. Buddhists had a hell where people had to reside for trillions of years. You could be killed, and then reborn in the same place. I went home a little shaky after looking at so many pictures of eternal damnation and suffering. The librarian must have thought I was a mass-murderer in training.
The next Sunday, I was back in the same pew. It’s amazing what you can dream up when you’re a young teenager trapped at a religious service. Like the light that goes on (hopefully) in some people’s heads, it dawned on me that, maybe, hell was a metaphor, not a real place. I realized what mattered was to be good, and kind, and human. Many years later, hell yeah, I was right.