Growing in Grace Testimonials
Ruth Jacob Finally Freed from Living a Hellish Life
Here is my story, or rather the bit that relates to hellfire terrors:
When I was growing up, my understanding of God was that it was very important to believe that the world was created in six 24-hour days and that if you didn't believe that and have a conversion experience you would go to hell to be tortured forever. I was taught that God loved the world, but simultaneously that he would torture most people forever. I was taught that I could be assured of salvation, and yet also that I could lose that salvation if I didn't repent adequately, or committed "the unforgivable sin" (whatever that might be). There were dire warnings that if we "resisted the Holy Spirit", i.e. delayed for any reason committing ourselves, we could die in the mean time and go to a "lost eternity" in the flames of hell. This meant that people were rushed and terrified into making a decision, instead of coming to it maturely and solidly. I now believe that if God is drawing someone, he is not going to let them be bumped off by accident in the middle of that process.
In fairness, it ought to be realised that whatever I was taken to, or told, was done with the conviction that I was learning about God's love.
There was someone in my life, however who taught me not to be afraid to examine fully any claims to truth, no matter how sacred.
When I was eleven, I went to a funeral for the first time. The man had been a neighbour and he and his wife had had a profound effect on my artistic and individual development. I knew that they didn't believe what they were "supposed" to believe and I wondered, when I could bear to, whether he had "gone to heaven". For years I had a dream in which his face would appear, half-lit, just before me, and I would wake up screaming.
At nearly fifteen I had a conversion experience. I remember feeling an urge to commit myself to God but delaying because I didn't want my conversion to be merely an attempt to escape hell. In the end it seemed impossible to avoid that implication and I more or less shrugged and gave in anyway.
As soon as I had announced my conversion there were expectations of me that there had never been before. I knew from comments I'd heard in church that now I wasn't supposed to do this or go there or wear such-and-such or listen to so-and-so or use certain words or read particular kinds of books. I got the impression I shouldn't take my mind off God long enough to be interested in anything at all. The teaching was that God gave you a new heart, God changed you, it was God's work ... but if you didn't change in certain ways, or quickly enough you were in trouble. A few years after this conversion I was interested in going to art college, but when I started working on my portfolio I didn't feel free to concentrate on it enough to do really good work or to put in the necessary time. In the end, I ditched the idea because I felt so frightened that it would draw me away through my fascination in visual art and creating it myself.
My maternal grandfather believed in the ultimate reconciliation of everyone to God, through the achievement of Jesus, but he had been banned from the pulpits of his denomination for refusing to keep it out of his sermons, and somehow the subject wasn't discussed much at home. His final speech, made at a family gathering a few days before his death, was along the lines that God would achieve what he set out to, and would bring everyone to salvation and reconciliation with himself in the end. I was sixteen at the time. It didn't sink in for many years.
At seventeen I started having night time terrors about hell. These would happen almost every night for several months and they continued intermittently well into my early twenties. I believed that if I died and was found not to have repented properly, which to me seemed likely, I would be sent to hell.
When I went to bed I would read for as long as I could. Even when my head started nodding I would force myself to go on reading until I felt physically nauseous with tiredness. Finally, thinking I was bound to fall asleep quickly before I could have any real thoughts, I'd turn off the light. If I was unlucky, and I mostly was, the ghastly fantasy would start before I had quite drifted off.
I vividly saw myself, tiny, in front of a huge throne with an enormous figure on it. Jesus stood to one side and there were some angels there. The figure on the throne was saying to me that I hadn't repented and that I was going to hell. The angels came forward at his pronouncement. I turned to Jesus, appealing to him, begging him to remember that I had asked him to save me, giving the date and even the time. He would say, "I never knew you," and turn away. I stared at him in cold horror, hardly believing what I had heard, thinking, "but you said, them that come to me I shall in no wise cast out." He ignored me and the big entity on the throne displayed no emotion. My last chance gone, the big figure signalled to the angels. They took me by the arms and dragged me to the edge of a cliff, below which there were flames stretching as far as the eye could see. It was a long way down, but I could hear some of the cries, and occasionally an arm or a head would appear. I knew that next the angels would throw or push me down there and I would never emerge.
At this point, tired though I was, I would sit up in bed gasping, my heart pounding, my eyes staring wide. I'd turn on the light and the still room seemed strange and almost unreal for a few moments. I desperately needed to reorientate myself. Finally I really would be too tired to stay awake. But of course, in the morning I would be totally exhausted from repeated nights like this.
During all those years I never told anyone about it. I had been told that God was just and that my sin deserved the ultimate punishment - everlasting torment. I couldn't see it myself but I accepted it fully. It never occurred to me that there would be any escape from this dread apart from never breaking any rule on that long list we were supposed to adhere to.
I had read about Christians being persecuted in totalitarian countries and I wanted to get involved with helping them. It is only now that I can see the close parallels between those regimes and the God who, I had learnt, himself had dissidents tortured.
In the group I belonged to, we were going out every weekend telling the people in the street that God loved them but behind the message was always the thought that if they didn't respond they'd be sent to this endless torture, and it didn't fit together. And of course, I knew it didn't fit together, so I simply couldn't say both - "God loves you and he's quite prepared to torture you forever"!
Over the course of seven years I worked in two Christian organisations. It was here that I met Calvinists (Reformed theology). They called me an Arminian, which I had never heard of, and said that God's salvation was unconditional but limited to only some individuals and that it was predetermined who those individuals would be. I had a hard time understanding why, if this were true, God had bothered to make anyone apart form the chosen individuals, since all he wanted to do with the rest, according to this theology, was to condemn and torture indescribably and forever people who, according to the Calvinists, had no choice in the matter. It seemed to me utterly unjust that the elect, who also had no choice, were to be rewarded while the rest were to be punished - and all without any deserving or choosing it any more than anyone else. Once when I remonstrated with one of them about it, he explained thus: "it's like this - humanity is like a bunch of arrows all shooting towards hell, and what God does is to reach into those flying arrows and snatch some of them from danger." My immediate response was, "Why does he only snatch some of them?" "He chooses to snatch those ones." "But he's God, he could snatch all of them. Why doesn't he choose to do that?" The man looked at me as though I had just uttered an unspeakable heresy. After all, I felt, if people had a real choice about whether they went to hell, there might be some justification for some of them ending up there, but if there was absolutely no choice, and God created them expressly for the purpose of torturing them forever, then he was an unmitigated monster.
In both these organisations in turn, things deteriorated to a point where I could no longer work in them. In the first case, lies were told and covered up and other things were not right. In the second case, there were also lies and other dishonesty, as well as other very destructive things going on. Pillars of the church made excuses for the person responsible because he was doing work they believed no one else could do. Jesus had said God could raise up descendants of Abraham from the stones, but they didn't believe that God could provide another person to do that work, so they took no action to right the wrongs that had been done.
Slowly, the rest of us dispersed. I was feeling very disillusioned by now and went into secular training but continued attending Christian meetings. At one of these I put a difficult question to a former colleague. For me it was a burning issue. She turned to me and said, "Ruth, if I asked questions like that, I would lose my faith." I was horrified. The woman was a missionary, yet she didn't even believe in it herself. That seemed to be the final trigger for the trap door. Really, the sensation was almost physical. Something seemed to drop away from underneath me and I felt myself starting to fall. For weeks and weeks I felt as though I was falling down a bottomless pit. The feeling gradually wore off only after a long time.
I moved and never found another church. I cut myself off from everything Christian as much as I could. I had a strong suspicion that what I had been taught about what God was like, and about the meaning and nature of the Bible was wrong, and that I had been somehow brainwashed. I knew that in my current state I would not be able to sort it out, but I was also convinced that until I had investigated it I would never be able to lay it to rest. And so I pledged with myself to put it all aside, for years if necessary, and come back with clear fresh eyes.
Now I started looking around. I had a lot of time for contemplation because I was on long-term sick leave and could do very little physically. I questioned whether I really believed in a god, a creator, at all, especially one who was interested in the individuals of his creation. I looked into Buddhism and went to a Buddhist meeting but, while some of the principles appealed to me, as a whole it seemed empty. (Buddhism is an atheistic religion.) I dipped my toe in some New Age stuff. I had some healing treatments which were more psychologically healing than anything else - yes, they were helpful and I believe I was safe, even though many orthodox Christians would have doubts about them. I trusted that if there was a God who cared about me, he would keep me from danger. I had started to believe in God again by then, but I was doing the Romans 1 thing - trying to determine his nature through the creation and the way he has put happiness in our hearts and the way we wish for connection with him and with each other. This seemed a lot more likely to give true, even if limited, results for me at the time. I do think there is something to be learnt that way, and gradually, over several years, I concluded the following: Happiness is the thing by which we define the worth of our life. Are we happy, is our spouse, our child, people the other side of the world, are the animals happy? Even, is God happy? Without it life becomes unbearable. You may say love or being loved are the purpose of life but what is love but wishing and taking steps to achieve the happiness of the loved one? The two are inextricable. Faced with paths leading in opposite directions, you choose depending on whether you are going for ultimate happiness or immediate gratification, but your choice carries the intention of achieving happiness of some kind.
God created the universe for his own pleasure. He said it was very good. He liked it. He created us in his image, able to create and enjoy pleasure. I think people feel this joie de vivre when they are particularly hopeful, or at a reunion, or they get it from a feeling of connection with the creation or the Creator.
God loves his creation and didn't create anything or anyone for the purpose of suffering. If we go through suffering, it is so that we learn from it, and gain more from it than we could have had any other way.
Some years passed, then one day I suddenly thought, "this is it. The brainwashing is gone." I took out two very different versions of the Bible and read them through, summarising each book as accurately as I could and with as little bias as possible. The idea was to get an overview of the message(s), and get everything in its proper context. I didn't like some of it, other parts I found inspiring and moving.
Once I had finished it, and read it through for the first time, at first, I was overcome with loathing for the parts I felt were barbaric - for example, quite a lot in the books of Moses. I felt disappointed with the results of all my careful work but I kept the summary around and read it or referred to it from time to time. It all still seemed inconclusive, although there were some things I found to have been misconceptions. It took time for the implications of these to sink in fully, but when they did I found the overwhelming message, particularly of the prophets and the New Testament, was that God can be trusted to put everything right. He has won over the forces of evil, and made that public through bringing Jesus back to life. He is going to restore everything, he is going to resurrect everyone. He wants to and is going to save everyone and reconcile everyone to himself.
I somehow mentioned these findings in great trepidation to someone who directed me to a webpage which had a lot of relevant material, but for me the most significant was "100 scripture proofs that Jesus is the saviour of all mankind" and a language lesson, which gave the real meanings of the original words our translators have rendered "hell" and "everlasting" and their synonyms. This got rid of the conflicts I had perceived between parts like the "100 proofs" and the "hellfire" passages. I also read some church history, such as the fact that the doctrine of eternal punishment was not introduced into official church teachings until at least 540 AD and had therefore never been part of church teaching among the early Christians; also where these ideas came from - Egypt and Babylon, where the heathen clergy kept the laity in fear and subjugation by means of these horror stories. These two civilisations are of course bywords in the Bible for heathenism and anything antagonistic to God, his people or his purposes. So no coincidence there, I felt sure. Also, the Hebrews had spent 400 years as a race in Egypt, Moses had even been brought up by Egyptians for the first 40 years of his life. They, especially he, had full exposure to the doctrine of hell, yet Moses does not once dignify it with so much of a mention, let alone an endorsement.
Over the course of a few months, I began to feel more confident that I'd finally hit on the truth, but kept having doubts. However, by now my only doubts were, either none of anything was true, and that left blind chance, particles knocking around meaninglessly in a universe with no God, OR this was true, and God was in the process of saving and reconciling everyone and planned to restore the whole universe to its full potential. There seemed no other alternatives. Some people might say, "What about other religions?" but I had got past all that. All religions, including the vast majority of Christendom, rely on the efforts, achievements and/or virtue of the adherents - even if that is the requirement to pray the sinner's prayer - to attain salvation/enlightenment. Yet the truth is that God is the initiator from start to finish, at every stage. Because it is all God's work, it doesn't depend on our faith, and God doesn't have to wait for us to come to him in order to save us. This is what makes it different from any other spiritual path, even those which appear almost identical. So far, though, I was not completely convinced.
Despite these doubts, I still found myself smiling every time I thought of it. And also despite the doubts, in a sense I had no more to worry about. Whichever was correct, I had no more action I needed to take. For the first time in my life, I knew there was no urgency or worry about deciding what I believed.
You may begin to get an idea of the mental torment I had been through when I tell you that the idea of there being nothing worse than oblivion at death made me cry with joy, or that when I saw television footage of a forest fire I had a flash-back and burst into uncontrollable weeping.
This all happened in the summer of 1998, and my confidence that God will win everything and everyone by his love has grown into certainty. Previously I used to feel I ought to "witness", or I'd want to do it so that they would be saved from eternal torture, but now I'm itching to say, look, everything's going to be all right in the end. He's the God of creation, not just a little god for Christians: he's going to revive, he's going to bring back to life, he's going to restore the whole creation, he won't fail to save and reconcile everyone because everyone from all time and from everywhere is whom his salvation was intended for. He is God, and we are not little gods who can spoil his plan by sending ourselves to hell forever.
This revelation of God's nature and purpose has totally changed the way I perceive everything. Even through the darkest times, when I have nothing to offer him, I know he is there, that he continues to love me, and that nothing can change that. And, at last, I have stopped crying out in my sleep.
God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not charging their trespasses to them
(2 Corinthians 5:19)
In other words, the action of reconciling the whole world and not charging them with their wrongdoing has been completed. Like a rock pushed over a cliff, the action is completed, the result is inevitable, even though all the effects are not yet evident.
God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not charging their trespasses to them,
and he has given to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:19)
Our message is not one of terror: "or else;" it is "be reconciled to God, make friends with God, he wants to make friends with you." Love doesn't threaten, or give deadlines or ultimatums; Love "suffers long, and is kind ... thinks no evil".