My stepbrother and I were talking, and he asked me if I was afraid of dying. I said no, I was afraid of going to Hell. He's an atheist and I am a Christian.
Before I go any further, I need to clarify that I had a highly abusive past and suffer from mental health issues. I have this constant fear of going to Hell with any situation. I'm going to college, but if I have sex, I'm going to Hell. I had a same-sex relationship, so I must be Hell-bound. Drinking till drunk? Purgatory, maybe? Can't join the army: I'll go to Hell for killing people. Am I going to go to Hell for not being Catholic enough like my ex said? What about confession? Am I going to Hell for not receiving the eucharist? I'm going to a Baptist church, now, so am I a heretic? And on and on and on.
My stepbrother told me to just become an atheist and then I won't have to worry about it. It is incredibly tempting, but suppose he's wrong. If I'm wrong, I'm just a corpse in the ground, nothing to worry about. If he's wrong, and I become one, I will literally spend eternity in a torturous fire being physically and emotionally ripped to shreds.
I have many, many questions that NO ONE seems to be able to answer. I've tried my religion teachers, pastors, priests, books, even my school musical Godspell, based off of the gospel of Matthew. I've tried the Bible and my therapist, who was raised Catholic (I don't think he is now, though).
Auntie, what do I do?! Who do I ask?! All of my life, if I slipped up, I caught hell. I can't have God be my abusive mother, anymore. I want to follow him out of love and logic, not fear that the littlest slip-up will cause me to be cast into Purgatory, and the bigger ones, into eternal damnation!
I'm going to tell you guys a joke. It goes like this:
Once, there was a man who desperately wanted to know the meaning of life. And so he packed a bag, and set out to find the one person he knew had the answers: a Great Guru, who lived in spiritual isolation high atop a mountain in the Himalayas, and who could only be reached by a months-long trek through the most challenging terrain in the world. But the man was determined, and so he hiked hundreds of miles to the base of the mountain, climbed thousands of feet over peaks and through valleys, and scaled a sheer vertical wall to fall, panting and exhausted, at the Guru's feet.
"Oh, Great Guru!" he cried. "I've traveled thousands of miles and climbed for weeks to find the answer I seek from you! Please, tell me: what is the meaning of life?!"
The Guru opened his eyes, reached down gently, and touched the man's shoulder.
"Ah, yes," he said, sagely. "The answer is this: life is a balloon."
And with that, he closed his eyes and waved his hand to dismiss his guest.
The man sat, stunned, and then with his last bit of strength, leaped to his feet and shouted.
"Life is a balloon? What the...? That's it?! That's not an answer! What does that even mean?!"
The Guru opened his eyes, and stared at the man, shocked.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," he said. "You mean it's not a balloon?"
My dad told me this joke when I was a kid, and at the time I didn't get it—because it's not funny, exactly, and also, more importantly, because it didn't involve farts. But it does convey an essential fact that's important to this discussion. And that fact, Sparkler, is that you're right: no one can answer these questions of yours.
Because your questions, by nature, do not have concrete answers.
The fact is, nobody knows what happens to us in the afterlife—or if there even is one, for that matter. The meaning of life is an open question, and everyone on earth, from the devoutly faithful to the avowedly atheist, is only making their best guess as to what the answer is.
And you'll have to make peace with that, darling. It's inescapable. Living by a set of principles, be they religious or secular, isn't like choosing the one right answer on a multiple choice test; you can only walk whatever path feels the most authentic and moral to you, and let that be enough. Is that scary? Sure, it can be. But you can take comfort in knowing that every human being is in the same exact position: doing the best they can with the knowledge they have, including the knowledge that some things are unknowable.
What this means for you is that, starting now, you must stop looking to other people for information that you'll only ever find within yourself. Accept that no parent, pastor, therapist, or friend can tell you what you believe. And be brave enough to recognize that if you want your faith to be about truth, not fear, then you still have some work to do in overcoming your awful past. It's not a coincidence, after the way you were raised, that you've boiled this down to an either-or proposition—with the "correct" choice on one side, and an eternity of brutal punishment on the other. But faith is not an option you get just one chance at choosing; it's a lifelong journey, during which you'll probably arrive at several increasingly evolved conclusions about what you think it all means.
And to arrive anywhere, you have to move forward—which means you have to first overcome the fear of the consequences should you make a misstep.
For you, this means acknowledging that you have work to do, and giving yourself permission to do it. It's okay to believe nothing, for now. It's also okay to put your religious questions aside, particularly in therapy, so you can work on creating a better framework and foundation for answering them. Think of it as training for the long, curious journey you're about to embark on.
And when you feel ready to get moving, here's what you'll do: Engage. Think, consider, be interested, and be critical. Take your search beyond various houses of worship and into the world. Read books about religion, about philosophy, about art, about love. Watch movies that make you laugh or cry or scream. Talk to people who listen to you; talk to people who challenge you. Do yoga. Go to therapy. Take walks. Look at paintings; listen to music; study biology or geology or astronomy. Spend an hour sitting in total silence, and see where your mind meanders to. And keep attending your church—or a variety of churches—if you feel it's useful to you, but leave your desperation at the door. You are under no pressure. You're just looking for something that feels true to you in any of the million places you might find it.
Because when you find it—whether it's in a pew, in a text, or in a quiet moment that's suddenly full of clarity and comfort—you'll know. And if the conclusion you arrive at is that you are accountable to someone or something, you'll also know this: that your higher power, whatever or whomever it is, will never begrudge any truth-seeking person the path she took to find it.
Have you looked for your own answers to life's big questions? What did you find? Tell us in the comments! And to get advice from Auntie, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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