The Bible doesn't provide a vivid description of Hell. All we get in the New Testament is that it's a place of "eternal fire." As someone who keeps the air conditioning blasting throughout the year and enjoys Frappuccinos, even during a New York winter, I always knew Hell wasn't the place for me. So, when I was younger, the slightest possibility this lake of fire might actually exist was enough to mentally paralyze me.
As a gay boy coming of age in Bible Belt Texas, I was taught that my lifestyle was a sin worse than adultery, alcoholism and even drug addiction. I didn't question it. In my mind, just like you went to jail if you committed murder, you went to Hell for being gay.
Like Pascal's Wager, I reasoned it was better to be safe and avoid going to Hell, just in case it actually did exist. If it turned out it Hell wasn't a real place, then I only suffered a small loss. If it did, then I'd face an eternity enduring six-degree burns. So, I decided not to act on my attraction towards other men. What followed was the most depressing period of my life. I felt so low that I often contemplated suicide. But as much as I thought about it, I'd never kill myself because, apparently, that was also a surefire way to go to Hell. I was screwed.
In high school, I met a gay friend named Nate, who worked at JC Penney's after school and on weekends. I'd sometimes go to the mall just to visit him. He was so cute. I loved his dimples and he had the best smile. Eventually, we started hanging out outside his work hours. My favorite moments were when we'd grab food at Sonic, park somewhere and just talk about nothing and everything.
Naturally, I developed feelings for him. Those late night fast food runs became one of the highlights of my week. After some time, he asked the question, that terrible question I wanted to avoid. We were sitting in car, seats as far back as they could go. He looked me in the eyes and asked, "what are we doing?" I gulped and thought about how to respond. I loved him. Maybe not as a boyfriend, but as a friend and a person. But I couldn't get past the thought of going to Hell. Anything but that. I asked Nate if we could just be friends. It hurt not to date him, but I didn't want to lose him either. He agreed to continue hanging out but, from his disappointed expression, I could tell things would be different. He stopped picking me up, giving excuses like that he didn't want me to get in trouble with my religious mom. He became more elusive on the phone as if I were some telemarketer. Eventually, he stopped talking to me altogether. It hurt like a breakup but that was my cross to bear.
The year I graduated college I was still stuck in that mindset. I'd moved to LA in the summer and was lonely because I didn't yet know anyone. I ended up meeting this nice guy, David, who I liked a lot. He was attractive, funny, and fun to be around. Great hair, too. Blame it on my love for Dragon Ball Z but I have a thing for spiky hair. I ignored those hellfire thoughts in the back of my mind and let myself date him. Soon I could no longer ignore them. It was Nate all over again.
As an avid Star Wars fan, the last scene from Episode III provided me the vivid imagery of Hell the Bible lacked. While dating David, I'd have nightmares of Mustafar from the film, where Darth Vader burned to cinders. I became distant with him and eventually told him things weren't going to work out. This would make a lame romance novel, right? "I can't be with you because I might go to Hell." How anti-climatic.
At first, he was quiet and acted like it wasn't a big deal. One morning, days later, while I was in my classroom preparing for my worst-behaved class, he called me and let me have it. I hung up with him because class was about to start. On the verge of tears, I somehow managed to push through it. It's interesting how students give you a break when they sense something's wrong. They were the best they'd been all year. From that point on, I threw myself into my work, trying to find a way to ignore the emptiness inside.
I can't identify the exact moment I overcame my fear. Years after breaking up with David, I conversed with friends, pored over Christian and non-Christian texts, and questioned my own beliefs (and cried a lot) until I reached a point when I could no longer deny my feelings. I believed that if God loved me then he would want me to be happy. To affirm who I am. Though I'm no longer a Christian, I maintain my deeply-held belief in love and being true to one's self.
I'm not saying these relationships were otherwise immaculate and that I'd be tying the knot with one of those guys had it not been for my hadephobia. I'm simply saying I was robbed of truly experiencing life. Perhaps I robbed myself. Whatever the case, I don't blame Christianity either but the twisted way in which it's practiced sometimes. Didn't Christ teach love above all else?
Now I'm passionate about teaching my students and everyone else around me to question their beliefs and find the truth for themselves. I won't tell you what to believe, but the man in the pulpit shouldn't either. That's how cults get started.