I went to a little church in a little town just a few miles from the house that I grew up in with my parents and my little brother. I was the only one in my family who went to the church. Oh, sometimes my brother would go, but he didn't much care for it and so only went now and then. My best friend and his family went to the church, and I went with them.
We rode on the "Joy Bus," an ancient school bus which my friend's dad, and probably a couple others, somehow kept running enough to travel the gravel and the narrow asphalt roads of the county every Sunday. When the Joy Bus dropped us off at church, we would go inside to Sunday School filled with Bible stories (from the REAL Bible, you know, the one old King James put together). After Sunday School there would be the main service in a big, clean, comfortable room with carpet, the walls clean and uncluttered by decoration, save a thermostat.
We would sing a few songs from the big, old, heavy hymnals. I couldn't really read the notes in varying shapes, some squares or triangles or rectangles. I knew my part though from listening to the other men. The singing was a cappella, not because the church couldn't afford instrumentation but because they didn't do instrumentation.
The 30-minute sermon came after that. The preacher would riff on a few passages taken from his big Bible, and he would pepper his talk with bits of ancient Greek, bestowing added authority to his point. He would talk of sin and temptation, the need to keep one's mind free of sinful thoughts, and to regularly repent of all the bad things one was constantly doing and thinking. He spoke of the ways that wives and husbands and children must act and the roles they must play.
He spoke of how people were punished for sins and used his King James Bible and ancient Greek to give examples. I remember him saying that some people who'd died in a recent tragedy had been dancing, yes, dancing. The way that one must follow was very plain and humble, very narrow and demanding. He spoke of what awaited everyone who didn't accept and follow our way.
I had been asking questions for a while. Oh no, not out-loud, usually, I didn't think others would respond very well to them (and a few years later when I had the guts to routinely ask them out-loud that hunch was confirmed). But I asked them to myself, and I thought that there were some strange things that I was being told to believe and was honestly trying to believe. Some things weren't adding up and some things seemed just plain awful and mean.
Then my grandfather died.
I wasn't that close to my grandfather; he could be a difficult person. He was very opinionated and temperamental and swore profusely and creatively. He loved me in his way I know, but his way could be gruff and kind of scary to a kid. He believed in a god that he referred to as "The Man Upstairs," but he didn't go to church. I don't think he prayed, not regularly anyway. And when he died, I knew what that meant.
Sure he had his faults, but he didn't deserve to be outrageously tortured forever. He had very little education and a very difficult life – didn't that count for, I don't know, something? Well I damned sure knew what my theology had to say about it, and I had to make a decision. There was only one option, really.
If he's going to Hell, then I'm going too.
That was the statement, declared only to myself when I was 14, that started me on my current path. I wasn't an atheist yet; there was a part of me that thought what I'd been told might still have been true, but it wasn't right and the only right thing to do was stand against it. So I did.
I knew that where you went after you died was extra extra bad if you had once been among the saved and then fell. I knew that I was asking for it big time. That just didn't matter.
I now know that these things are just myths, they can't REALLY hurt you. Or can they? It sure as hell hurt at the time. I know, too, that I'm not the only one. Countless kids and trusting people, who took seriously what they were told by authority figures have been put through similar things. They still are.