As an impressionable youth under the auspices of a religious education, I had a deep and abiding fear of God. His wrath was the monster under the bed, my feelings of unworthiness in the night, and I lived in fear of him taking me away one day. I was terrified of being punished like Lot, tested like Job, marked like Cain, and made to suffer like Abraham. This was the God who flooded the world and declared “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Romans 12:19). There was no greater threat to my young existence than the angry man upstairs who apparently got in moods and could end the world as we know it.
Religious episodes of The X-Files such as “All Souls” and movies like Bless the Child were horror films to me, and would leave me nearly shaking in fear. I’d sit in religion class and feel my palms itching, wondering if they’d start bleeding from stigmata holes. As I got older and got a healthy dose of Evangelical interpretations of the Book of Revelations, the Rapture became a bleeding sore I couldn’t stop scratching at. I was consumed with the simultaneous fear over being taken and being left behind. Both seemed horrific and bound to leave me separated from everyone I love.
I feared God in a way I never quite worked up terror at the Devil. To a young child my logic was simple: be bad, go to hell. The Devil’s agenda was pretty clear cut and accordingly didn’t recreate the same level of paranoia. God however, was tricky. According to the rule books I was being taught from, there were a lot of hoops to jump through. It wasn’t enough to listen to your parents and try not to kill someone. He cared about your intentions, the state of your soul, and how much weight you put into the voices whispering to you in the dark.
For a kid that spent a lot of time lying awake at night filled with self-doubt and thinking rotten thoughts that I was never allowed to voice, I was pretty convinced I was in Heaven’s reject pile. I’d try praying while I laid there, asking God to help me with my childish woes, to make me good enough. Good enough to be loved, to be liked, to be accepted. To want me enough so that one day I might see my Grandma Katie and my cat Joey again. And I never felt anything. I’d done as I’d been told and tried offering my heart to God, and I only ever felt like it was a gift he had no interest in.
In many ways, these youthful fears about God were probably an indicator of a future of anxiety over not being in control. I feared an unknown entity being able to punish me for things I felt I had no control over. I couldn’t argue or work my way through the problem by getting better grades or being nicer to my parents. All I could do was plead to what felt like the locked door of the principal’s office who didn’t care if I passed or failed.
And so I built God up to be the bogeyman. He was the one whose rules made no sense. Who asked too much. Who had a frankly absurd ego if he required mass worship and sacrifice. As I got older the fear turned to anger. I spent most of my adolescence mad at God, religion, and the religious. I despised the illogic of the premise; that these rules I’d been swallowing and fearing all my life were made by fallible men on Earth about an unknowable entity. I abhorred anything that came with a premise that the faithful were more or less cast in the role of Tennyson’s Light Brigade, “Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do & die.” It’s a hard concept to swallow when you’re 17, trying your best to be fearless, and being inundated with the concept that the point of life is to live to die. It felt like signing up for a life in which every moment of everyday was a test graded by an irritable advisor based on contradictory rules. So I stamped myself an atheist and decided to be done with it.
I managed to walk away from religion for a while, but the fear of God lingered. When my mom got sick and railed at me that I needed to pray for her because she was dying, there was a loud voice in my head whispering that maybe my faithlessness was killing her. It was both an egotistical thought—that I mattered so much that an omnipotent and omniscient being, he’d seek out me to punish—and one that filled me with terror. And so as a self-proclaimed atheist adult, I found myself once again filled with the fear of God. That night I got on my knees against my bed, doing my best to remember the words in Latin, and prayed for my mom to get better. It was quite literally my Hail Mary pass.
I don’t know whether that “Oh shit, I better pray or God will kill my mother” moment had anything to do with her getting better. It’s in my nature to doubt it, but I figure like crossing my fingers for luck, it may not do anything, but it also couldn’t hurt. God and I remain in a tenuous, rather agnostic relationship. I still have an irrational fear and skepticism of him, but like a sinner on her deathbed I fear the repercussions of not believing in him. It wouldn’t be enough to get me into heaven, but maybe it’ll keep God from getting real pissed off and teaching me the meaning of the verb to smite.