If I go up to heaven, you are there.
If I make my bed in hell, you are there. Psalm 139:8
In 1974, I sat on the couch and stared out the window at the neighbor kids playing on London Lane. One thought pervaded my 6-year-old mind: Those people are going to hell.
They were Orthodox Christians and they didn’t celebrate Christmas on December 25, but rather in January. Therefore, they were going to hell.
Growing up, I thought an awful lot of people were going to hell. In 4th grade, Sandra Rodriguez was going to hell. She was my good friend and the very best student at Kermit Elementary in West Texas, but when she prayed, she prayed to the Virgin Mary. She was going to hell.
And, Cindy Williams, who lived down the street, was going to hell. She was Baptist and believed once-saved-always-saved.
Darla Smith was Church of Christ and she was going to hell because she thought her church was the only one going to heaven.
In junior high, my grandmother was going to hell because she smoked; my uncle, because he drank beer and my brother because he got a tattoo. In high school, Robin was going to hell because she was a Latter Day Saint and added to the Bible with the Book of Mormon. Still, she was my friend. We cashiered together at the Family TG&Y in Bartlesville. She was bound for BYU. She dreamed of meeting a Mormon boy and having a temple wedding. She was the most Christ-like teenager I ever knew, but she was still going to hell.
It’s hard to say or maybe admit how I came to all these unfortunate conclusions, but I did.
For a long time, I struggled to accept my own convictions about God. This really began in 1979, when my friend up the street, Linda Wilson, handed me a copy of Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. To this day, it is one of the top 100 books most frequently challenged at American Libraries. In the book, 12-year-old Margaret, who has no religion, decides, after many prayers (mostly about adolescent woes), to become a practicing Jew. In her pursuit of God, she chose Judaism over Christianity. Sadly, she was going to hell.
As the years passed, hell-on-earth led me to a deeper understanding of God’s love. This allowed me to exchange the worthless currency of hell-talk for the powerful currency of love. Ironically, this makes some Christians uncomfortable. In fact, now I am the one going to hell.
But, of course, I am not, and neither was Sandra, Cindy, Darla, Robin, my grandmother, my uncle, my brother or Margaret.
These days, I do not spend my time thinking about hell, where it is, how you get there or who might be going. I think instead about the darkness that so many people crawl into in an effort to find some light, to find some love.