Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Beginning: Fear, Hell, and Deterministic Philosophy

Disclaimer: Writing about this section of my life has brought back a lot of memories and emotions. Indeed, I contemplated deleting this entire post and creating a summary of it for my upcoming college experiences post. However, I think this part of the story is beneficial, and I stand by it, despite being not proud of a lot of the person I was.

Like all stories, this one has a beginning. This is the closest thing my fragile memory can deliver to that beginning.

I was raised in Conservative Evangelical Christian subculture. I said the Sinner's Prayer at age 7 because I was afraid of burning in hell because of a sermon from the Fundamental Independent Baptist Church I went to at the time. For those not aware, the Sinner's Prayer is a fundamental admission of guilt to God and accepting of Salvation in a prayer. Some believe God hears no prayers of anyone until the Sinner's Prayer. My understanding of reality at that time was that I was probably going to die at any moment, and if I didn't say this prayer, I would suffer for eternity, and there would be no way to stop it.

I vaguely remember having a few thoughts after that experience, such as wondering why God would do such a thing, what made me such a terrible person, and wondering what hell was like and why it existed. I even had a dream about hell once. I thought I was in heaven, and then I discovered that this beautiful celestial (stereotypical) heaven was not what I thought it was and that I was actually in hell, at which point I was thrown into a void and ceased to exist.

The thoughts of a child are powerful, illogical, and often-times they shape who they are. For me though, this was only the beginning.

Besides this underlying fear, I don't remember a huge amount of my life before age 15. I remember having friends in elementary school, moving schools in the 7th grade, and then moving states from North Carolina to Georgia in the 9th grade. Note that all of these schools were Private Christian Institutions, and I'd moved from a more Fundamentalist institution to a standard Southern Baptist one in the 7th grade. I then went to a standard Evangelical high school. I figured I'd be the popular and happy person I was in my new school.

I was totally wrong. I could not have been more wrong. I spent the first week of high school being made fun of and made to feel like an outsider. I didn't dress correctly, I didn't fit in, most of the teachers were angry about one thing or another, and I generally came to believe I was scum and no one liked me. I came home after the first week crying saying I hated it, but for one reason or another I stuck it out. I had one good friend in the 9th grade (who is still one of my best friends to this day), and the rest were either acquaintances, tormentors, or didn't care that I existed. The only other exception to this is someone I met in the 10th grade who strongly influenced me, who I will get to in a moment.

We were required to go to Chapel every Wednesday at this school. One Wednesday after my 15th birthday a guest speaker came and gave a message about hell and encouraged fear. He called himself prophetic, and was accusatory and derogatory in every sense of the word. I was once again seized by fear, thinking my decision was not genuine enough when I was 7 years old, that I didn't understand enough and didn't know enough to really be saved. So he gave an altar call and I performed. I gave an emotional display and prayed to be saved. People were happy for me. He came back when I was in the 12th grade and gave the exact same message and I thought he was an emotionally manipulative jerk. But I digress.

Nothing really changed for me that first year. I hung out with my one friend a lot, and he eventually left the school, along with a lot of others. I made another friend in the 10th grade, and he challenged me over the next several years in every possible way. The rest of my high school experience was basically meaningless, as it was an endless attempt to deal with not fitting in. I became involved in a few music scenes, got very angry, and expressed that a lot by acting out, as a teenage boy who doesn't know his place is prone to do. My parents are incredible for putting up with me, especially the "I will listen to hate-filled angry music all the time and be a jerk to everyone" stage.

As you can imagine, with all of these circumstances and changes going on my theology and purely emotional religious convictions changed a good bit. I became Reformed and believed in 7 point Calvinism, having been inspired to do so by one of my teachers. For those who don't really understand what 7 point Calvinism, it is the TULIP anagram with two extra clarifications. Total Depravity - man is incapable of any moral or spiritual good and is completely broken. Unconditional Election - people are chosen by God according to His good pleasure to be part of the elect. Limited Atonement - Christ's sacrifice on the cross paid only for the elect's sins. Irresistible Grace - the elect will choose to be saved and cannot resist doing so. Perseverance of the Saints - once you are elect, you will persevere to the end and cannot possibly fall away. Double Predestination - God predestines all who are not elect for Hell, and they have no choice in the matter. Best of all Possible Worlds - God's absolute sovereignty over history is exercised to display his glory to the fullest, and he governs every detail to this end.

I believe the craziest moment of all of this was arguing in front of my class that babies go to hell if they die because of original sin, predestination, and their lack of saying the sinner's prayer. If you're not horrified by that, I can still feel plenty of horror over it for you. At the time, it made perfect sense because of God's sovereignty. I had a very deep problem with people in general at that time, so I did not care if anyone hated me for my beliefs or thought I was terrible, citing that "true Christians" are persecuted.

I was basically reformed until I graduated from high school. During this time, I'd had a falling out with the friend I met in the 10th grade, but we became friends again after I graduated. He had gotten into some things I could not agree with, and we kind of went opposite directions. However, once we began associating again, we started a Bible Study group about the fundamentals of Christian faith. Prooftexting the Bible, we talked about who God is and some of the core beliefs, seeking to educate people. I then went to my first college and discovered it was not what I wanted to do, and left after one semester.

At this point we restarted the Bible Study, but with an entirely different tone, one that I feel really changed my direction from where I had been religiously. I recall the exact moment of this change vividly, because my friend was the first person to ever tell me that the Bible is not inerrant.

As you can imagine, I argued with him immediately. My religious world not only had its' foundation kicked out from under it once I realized he was right, but everything else crashed down, got set on fire, and I was stuck in the middle trying to figure out what was going on. I was then even more angry and did a total 180 right before attending another Christian institution. Readers may be forced to ask at this I ever learn? The hard way, always. My college time is a whole other post, and I will talk about the shift my personal philosophy and religion took in that post as well.

So, to sum this up. For the first 19 years or so of my life, I was intensely afraid and often felt alone, angry, or both. The exceptions to this were my family (always) and the one really good friend I met when I first went to high school. This time was full of thinking about hell and God's wrath and sovereignty over all things. I went from one church to another, but essentially the core of my beliefs was centered around these things. I don't see it as a coincidence that I was Reformed in high school, as it was a method of not only rebelling, but also of trying to hold onto something solid (God's sovereignty) in a time when I didn't know what to do and felt powerless. In retrospect, it didn't help that much.

Upon initially drafting this post, I began to talk about why I disagree with Reformed Theology and Determinism. I don't find that to be a helpful direction to go at this point (if you would like me to talk about this, please say so in the comments). I didn't make the decision to be Reformed for any logical reason. I did so out of a need to rebel because I was afraid. This tone of fear in my life would continue until it was addressed, but what I find interesting is that my philosophy became one that made everyone powerless. Just as I was powerless to stop the injustice I faced on a daily basis, I decided everyone else is powerless too. I clung to the God of vengeance and anger and when I was treated unfairly, I believed that God would get revenge on them for it and that they also could not stop it. One might accurately observe at this point that my God was really myself, and I was plotting deterministic vengeance, using theology as my grounds.

Determinism. The view that choices, actions, and events are a natural and inevitable result of an initial cause. Theologically, God is the initial cause, and all choices and all of history are illusionary and destined from the beginning of time. Psychologically, a person is who they are due to their first 3-5 years of their life, and can be no one else.

In contrast to this view, I believe that a person is shaped continually by their view of truth, just as much as they shape it. Our actions are not determined by our initial experiences, but by our continual interaction with life and the choices we make in it. One could probably argue that my high school experience made a lot of sense in light of my initial experiences with religion, but I would hope that you the reader do not think this as you continue to read this series. That's your call though.

Regardless, my view of truth in high school made me a very angry person, and I imagine that while a lot of my problems were due to ignorance and the atmosphere I was surrounded with, I believe that I caused just as many of them with my divisive beliefs and my hateful attitude. When my beliefs came crashing down after high school, it was one of the best things that had ever happened to me. I was free from needing to justify myself to anyone, and I was able to move beyond the foundational philosophical framework of Conservative Evangelicalism and explore some other beliefs.

I would come back to my origins as I moved onto college, but suffice it to say, it was apparent to me at this point that I had learned more in spite of my experience with religion than through it. If only I had known what would come next...


  1. I'm excited to read the post for college. Definitely tag facebook when you get to that point.

  2. I never knew the full extent of those years. Thanks for being courageous make yourself vulnerable in these posts. You are an awesome dude.

  3. You were a seven point Calvinist? *flabbergasted*

    It's incredible to me how much of your history resonates with my own and how differently our initial beliefs unwound while making some of the same basic assumptions/decisions. Really fascinating.

    Thanks for posting, of course.