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I used to be an evangelical Christian.
There were times, growing up, when I was nothing short of neurotic about making sure I was in His perfect plan for my life. That perfect plan included the perfect man, and if sin made me blink, I might miss the whole thing.
Though my family never subscribed to some of the more wacky evangelical ideas, like going witnessing, or wearing a purity ring (I can only imagine how creepy and violating it must feel for a girl to be presented with one by her father), we believed in the necessity of being saved.
Being saved from a fiery eternal afterlife is at the core of evangelical Christianity. Evangelicals teach that we are all born with sin, and because of this, no matter what we do, we deserve to be punished with eternal death and suffering.
But wait! Because Jesus was crucified, he paid the price for our vileness, even though we didn’t deserve it. If we pray the sinner’s prayer, ask Jesus into our hearts, thank him for what he did, and accept that this is all true, we’ll be saved from the fiery damnation that we, in our wickedness, deserve—even though we’re still unworthy and always will be.
Contrary to what many people think, evangelical Christianity is not about “being good.”
Because no matter how good a person you are, no matter how kindly you treat other human beings, or how much integrity you have—all of that is meaningless unless you’re saved. Being saved is like a golden ticket; sure, you’re supposed to follow biblical teachings, but even if you don’t, you’re going to go to heaven, as long as you’re saved.
So, regardless of what Jesus taught, and regardless of what evangelicals like to say about sin, evangelicalism offers no real incentive to be kind, compassionate, empathetic, or tolerant—a good person. Being saved is what matters. At the same time, judging others, and turning one’s back on a “sinner,” are often seen as “tough love.”
Over the years, I identified less and less with evangelicalism. Those surrounding me as I grew up, though, were so confident in its “truth,” that for a long time, I did worry about hell, should I ever say out loud some of the things I’m writing here.
By the time I was in high school, I was beginning to wake up to the world outside my nucleus of the saved, and I was noticing that a lot of the people who were condemned to eternal damnation for their “wickedness” were actually very nice, good people—nicer, frequently, than those I went to church and youth group with, and who professed to “love Jesus.”
Many of them seemed happier, kinder, and even more emotionally stable, though evangelicals would say that’s just how they appeared—that they were actually unhappy people who were being deceived by the devil because they hadn’t found Jesus and true joy. In my experience, though, the evangelical life did not overflow with joy; it was often one of shame, judgment, and loneliness. Still, it has been difficult to extricate myself from some of my deeply ingrained evangelical values.
When I was in my 20s, by then the parent of a toddler, I became fast friends with a woman who had a child the same age as mine. We had come from similar backgrounds, though she wasn’t saved. She had been more successful in fully cutting the cord of her religious background than I had been.
Newly divorced, Michelle began seeing a man who turned out to be verbally abusive. In my highly-developed sense of evangelical empathy, I felt the answer was simple: dump him. (I was great at telling others what they needed to do, even though I couldn’t always apply those things to my own life.)
Then, Michelle learned that she was pregnant. It wasn’t a surprise to me that Michelle’s boyfriend wanted nothing to do with her, and even questioned whether the baby was his. As a young single parent who was already having difficulty getting child support for her toddler from her ex-husband, Michelle felt she couldn’t go through with the pregnancy.
I don’t remember what I said to Michelle when she told me, except that I assumed she was going to “keep her baby.” How could any decent human being not? I thought. And, I’ll admit, a tiny part of my leftover evangelical mentality even thought that Michelle should pay the consequences for being so “irresponsible.”
If you’re reading this now, and have already decided you hate me, I hope you’ll only hate that part of me that I was then, because I don’t like her very much, either.
Around this time, Michelle stopped calling me. She didn’t return my calls, and always seemed to be too busy to talk when I did reach her. (It was in the days before texting.) Even though I was busy with my own family, I missed Michelle.
One evening, after a few weeks of silence, Michelle called me. “I have to tell you something,” she said.
Michelle told me she’d had an abortion. “I knew how you felt about abortion, so I just couldn’t tell you. But you’re my friend, and I needed to talk to you about it.”
And instead of being her friend then, I suddenly needed to go. It wasn’t that I no longer liked her, or didn’t want to be associated with her…it was, quite simply, that I was judging her.
Still breathing the fumes of my fading evangelicalism, I couldn’t support such a “vile” act as abortion, and I didn’t know what to say to her, so instead, I “righteously” turned my back on her. It was easier for me than opening my heart and supporting my friend, regardless of how I felt then about her personal decision.
You’re probably aware that abortion is one of the biggest hot buttons for evangelicals. I’m not sure how that issue came to be more important for them than observing Jesus’ teachings on how to take care of those who have made it out of the womb—something about “tough love,” I suppose.
More than two decades went by before I came across Michelle again. She had found me on Facebook through a mutual friend and sent me a friend request.
In the years between, I had fully come to the point where I could no longer live inside the narrow worldview of evangelical Christianity. So many of the people I liked best, admired most, and could relate to on a deep level were not evangelicals.
I was no longer afraid to admit to myself or others that I had begun to see the evangelicals’ God as someone who resembled a nasty, abusive, game-playing human, and I could no longer subscribe to a belief system that provided such narrow access rules to his kingdom. In fact, I wasn’t even sure any more if I believed in a being called “God” at all.
I had thought about Michelle over the years, wanting to reach out to her, but afraid of how she’d respond (and feeling that I deserved any angry, hurt response she might hurl at me).
Michelle had moved to another state, but was coming to our city to visit, and wanted to meet up with me. Her message sounded excited to have found me again, and she couldn’t wait to catch up, she said.
We met up at a local pub. It was a little awkward at first.
“Michelle,” I said, “I need to say something to you. I am so sorry I cut off our friendship before. I was in a different place than I am now. You needed a friend, and I wasn’t there for you. I was a judgmental asshole, and I have hated myself for doing that. I’ve wanted to find you and apologize, but I was so afraid you wouldn’t want to talk to me. I’m sorry, and I hope you’ll forgive me.”
Michelle took my hand. “You know, that was a different time. We were all in a different place. We’re both, no doubt, different people now. Stop being so dramatic. I’m glad we found each other again.”
And just like that, forgiveness. Forgiveness for my “righteousness.”
Years before, I had confused judgment with “tough love.” But Michelle was extending real love.
Michelle had forgiven me long ago. She already knew what I was still learning then: that forgiveness is not really for the transgressor—it’s not to keep something bad from happening to them. It’s for the one who forgives. It’s saying, “I’m letting this go, because I’m no longer going to let it have any power in my life.”
Still, feeling Michelle’s forgiveness helped me to begin forgiving myself. In turn, it crumbled the wall that I had put up between us all those years.
I no longer believe in the evangelicals’ hell, a place where people—even good people—go, simply because they missed that one small magical step: getting saved.
I believe that hell is the walls we put up with our “righteousness”—our judgment of others, our lack of empathy, and our inability to forgive others or ourselves. Hell has been interpreted as being out of relationship with God (whatever your idea of God is), but hell is also the state of being out of relationship with our fellow human beings, and with ourselves.
To the evangelical, being saved from the ethereal fiery hell of the Bible is the most important goal. As I said earlier, no matter how good a person you are, no matter how kind you are, or how much integrity you have, to evangelicals, all of those things are meaningless unless you’re saved.
But those things are exactly the things that prevent our lives from being meaningless.
I don’t want to dismiss the truly kind, good people—many of whom I love—who are evangelicals. But as for me, I’ve learned that evangelical Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on forgiveness, kindness, or empathy. And rather than value being “saved” from a fiery afterlife over developing as a good human being, I choose to focus on the moments I have now, on tearing down the walls and building relationships, and on the good I can do on this earth.