by John Ellis
Even though as a young child I had trouble wrapping my brain around the existence of God, accepting the existence of hell was not difficult for me. My developing brain had yet to connect the apologetics for the existence of hell with the existence of God.
What I knew and understood was pain. I knew what it felt like to get stung by a wasp, to have my finger slammed into a car door, and to somersault over my bicycle’s handlebars onto the asphalt after my poorly constructed ramp disintegrated mid-trick. I also understood the pain that comes from the rejection of friends, disappointment of my teachers and parents, and the loss of a pet. More importantly, for the concept of hell, at least, I had learned very well that disobedience brought with it punishment of the painful variety.
That being said, I’ll be the first to admit that as far as childhoods go, mine was fairly void of any actual trauma. However, as a kid, any trauma, no matter how slight from an adult perspective, seems, well, traumatic. So, pain I understood. And hell fit well into my existential understanding of the world. Hell was easy for me to believe in. Which was a useful belief for the chapel speaker when he asked my kindergarten class to raise our hands if we didn’t want to go to hell.
I, of course, raised my hand.
No five-year old wants to go to hell. And, so, as best as I can remember, my entire class got “saved” that morning.
I remember being ushered down the hallway with a several of my friends into a room with a smiling adult waiting. After a few questions that our collective Sunday School knowledge helped us ace, we were led in a short prayer. I don’t remember a whole lot about the event, but I do remember how pleased the smiling stranger appeared as she hugged us one by one.
And that was that.
To my parent’s credit, I wasn’t baptized after my first “conversion.” And since my mom taught at the school, she would’ve heard about it. Apparently, my parents wisely deduced that whatever happened that morning, it wasn’t of the Spirit.
Over the next several years, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about that morning, but I did spend a lot of time puzzling over the existence of God. And, over the next several years, hell became less and less scary.
Hell may have become less scary in my mind, but my stern, preacher father was another story.
One summer day following fourth grade, my dad stepped out of the house and with a serious tone and stern look called me into the carport. I assumed that I was in trouble.
To be fair to my dad, I was frequently in trouble because I was frequently doing things that I knew I wasn’t supposed to be doing. It’s not necessarily my dad’s fault that I would assume that his tone and gaze meant that I was about to get in trouble. In fact, chances are I had done something that he had yet to discover for which I deserved discipline.
Regardless, I shuffled into the carport under a cloud of dread.
The first words out of my dad’s mouth were strange enough to cause me even more angst. Looking back on it, I realize that his statement, “It’s time to take care of your soul,” was his attempt at being lighthearted. As a ten-year old, though, it rang in my ears much differently. It served to add to my growing fear.
Please don’t misunderstand; I love my dad. And I’m eternally thankful that he not only preached the gospel to me my entire childhood (and into adulthood) but that he loved me enough to desire to “take care of my soul.” But, the nature of fundamentalism set me up to make a second false profession of faith.
I knew the answers. I had been schooled in the gospel, Bible trivia, and fundamentalist lingo my entire life. And I also knew that answering “incorrectly” to my dad’s questions would translate into a myriad of hassles in my life.
By that point, I was old enough to be aware that unsaved kids had a rougher time in school than did the kids who said they loved Jesus. It’s not that the “unsaved” kids were any worse than the “Christian” kids; they weren’t, even though the authority figures seemed to operate under the false assumption that they were. Unsaved kids had it rougher because the authority figures watched them more closely.
And by “watched them more closely,” I mean that there was an obvious culling out within the classroom. My friends and I got the picture that the authority figures wanted to limit our interaction with the “unsaved” kids. In fact, there were times growing up when I would be pulled aside by a teacher and told, “You need to be careful being friends with so-and-so, he’s not a Christian.”
The implication was clear. Unsaved kids, when allowed entrance into our life, were viewed suspiciously by the adults. What’s more, the surest way to a hassled life was to be counted among the unsaved kids.
To be clear, even in fourth grade, there weren’t many openly unsaved kids around. And as I got older, that small number eventually dropped to none. I mean, when schools require agreement with a statement of faith, kids of fundamentalist parents don’t really have much a choice. As my school put it, “A student who does not agree and cooperate with the overall purpose and program of the school will not be admitted or allowed to remain [emphasis added].”
Multiple times a year, the school administration, particularly the seemingly larger-than-life and intimidating man who had founded the school, would let us know that attendance at the school was a privilege, not a right. Dr. “Founder” would then cast his menacing gaze around the room and rumble, “If you’re not happy here at ****, stop by my office and let me know. I’ll be more than happy to help make you happy. We can part as friends.”
That was easy for him to say. It was next to impossible for us to actually take him up on his offer, especially for those of us whose parents were in full-time Christian service. The amount of turmoil and upheaval that would’ve been caused by an honest admission that “I don’t agree with the overall purpose and program” was unfathomable.
Because of that, no kid, that I was aware of, during the “moment of truth” had dared to voice the doubt, much less belief, that he thought the whole thing, Christianity, was a sham. I wasn’t going to be the first.
Earlier that year, the class bully, a redhead kid named Snapper got saved (I don’t remember if that was his real name or his nickname … we lived in the Florida panhandle, it very well could’ve been his real name). In fact, my dad was the one who led him to the Lord.
What had happened was that Snapper had made fun of me, using some dirty words. Knowing that I would lose in humiliating fashion if I physically defended my honor, I did the next best thing. I threatened to tell on him.
Snapper, of course, after some angry bluster, broke down and told me that he couldn’t help using bad words because he was a sinner. To this day, I don’t know if he was genuine or just really really street-smart. I never saw him again after that year. Whatever his motive, I was unsure of how to respond to this change of events.
I said the only thing I could think. I asked him if he wanted to talk to my dad.
My dad, who also worked at the school, was more than eager to talk with Snapper. I watched as my dad led Snapper through the plan of salvation and then prayed with him.
So, when my dad called me into our hot, muggy carport, I knew how this was supposed to go.
When my dad asked me if I knew I was sinner, guilty before God, I knew the answer was, “yes.” When he then asked me if I knew that the wages of sin is death, I also knew that the answer was, “yes.”
I dutifully prayed the prayer, asking Jesus into my heart. The following Sunday, I was baptized.
My parents were elated. In their minds, I was on my way to following in my uncle’s footsteps by becoming a foreign missionary.
For me, over the next couple of years, as my elementary school years came to a close, fundamentalist Christianity was nothing more than the lifestyle in which I was raised. My “conversion” didn’t change my life, much less my heart of stone. In fact, throughout most of my schooling, I didn’t really think of myself as a Christian or as not a Christian. It was simply a lifestyle adjective that was attached to me. Increasingly for me, though, that adjective began to be revealed as shackles.
There’s one more “conversion” left in my story before I finally repented of my sins and submitted in faith to Jesus. A very dramatic “conversion” that happened during my freshman year at Bob Jones University. But that part of God’s story of bringing me to Himself belongs in another chapter.
My childhood “conversions” were a product of my environment and not the work of the Holy Spirit. My goal wasn’t to be dishonest; my goal was to survive. Unsaved kids in my immediate environment were unicorns. They simply didn’t exist. It was only the few outsiders that the authority figures allowed into our broader fundamentalist world that were unsaved. And it became obvious that their headaches, hassle, and overall rough time at church or school would be ours if we aligned ourselves with them. And those unsaved kids were never around for long.
Getting saved was the default position, and it took an extraordinary amount of courage to be honest about not wanting to participate.
My conversion stories and experience of being treated as a Christian while I was a heathen as well as the many similar stories of my classmates are the genesis for this project. This past summer, I visited my old school for the first time in years. As I stood in the hallway that contains all the names of the graduates, my heart broke. It seemed like name after name represented a broken life still struggling in sin.
In their fervent desire to see us trust Jesus, the authority figures unwittingly created an environment that didn’t allow us to do otherwise. Most of my classmates entered adulthood beset by sin that our authority figures didn’t know about, with doubts they had never voiced, and hurting and confused. And many of them entered adulthood trusting in a prayer that they had prayed when they were five or ten or even a teenager. Their trust was quickly swamped by the roiling waves of adulthood. Unlike Peter, many of my classmates didn’t have Jesus in their life to keep their eyes on during storms.
For me, though, and in an odd way, thankfully and mercifully, I entered adulthood attempting to do battle with my demons and struggles solely in my own power. I knew my conversions were a sham. It’s the adults in my life who insisted that I was a Christian.
Lord willing, the next chapter will talk about what it was like to grow up a heathen in a fundamentalist church and high school that treated me as a Christian.