Why I Tell My Daughter There's a Heaven Even When I'm Not Sure, Part 1
A few days ago, Eleanor came across a dead rat under the oak tree in our front yard. It was covered in flies and most of its head had been eaten or decomposed, revealing the skull and vertebrae. "Its skeleton is showing," she observed, her voice uncharacteristically soft. A little while later she came in from playing in the backyard, brow furrowed. "Mama," she said, "I can't stop thinking about the rat. I keep seeing it dead with its skeleton out, and now I'm seeing myself dead with my skeleton out."
I've written about being caught off guard by my daughter's Big Questions before, so you'd think I'd be a bit better at this by now, but there really is a Murphy's Law principle to this stuff--on the day when you were most hoping to autopilot parent until bedtime so you can binge watch Black Mirror while eating the gummies you bought for your kid's school lunches, that's the day they're going to break out the existentialism. And in my case it's also always when Marc is at work because if there is a God, then They're getting a real kick out of forcing me to confront all my theological unknowns while playing with kinetic sand and shoveling avocado into a baby's mouth.
So we talked about it. The rat, the scared feelings, death, and pain. I explained that the rat wasn't hurting anymore because it was dead, and when you die your soul leaves your body and your body doesn't feel anymore. We worked out that what happened to the rat wasn't going to happen to her because it probably got eaten and then dropped by an owl and owls don't eat little girls (they find them much too gamey). I tried to circle-of-life it up by focusing on how bodies decompose and feed the soil which then makes new things grow and how cool is that?, but you can't pussyfoot around forever. That's what happens to the bodies, Mama, but what happens to the souls?
What happens to the souls?
I was raised in a religious culture that used the threat of hell and the promise of heaven as a battering ram at the gates of people's hearts. It was woven into every part of our existence. It was evident even in the way that we defined ourselves: when you became an evangelical Christian, you "got saved." Saved, as in, from hell. Hell was explained to me as a real, tangible place full of unfathomable suffering, and a place where all of humanity was doomed to go when we died because our sin nature separates us from the holiness of God. To avoid hell, you needed to believe the right things about Jesus, namely that He was God incarnate and that his death and resurrection is the only way to receive forgiveness for our sins and be brought back into a right relationship with our Creator.
If you're more of a visual person, there are about a thousand iterations of this cartoon that I was shown in Sunday School to help drive the point home:
Hell was terrifying to me. So terrifying, in fact, that it completely overshadowed the goodness of God and the glory of heaven that I was supposed to be focusing on. There's a lot to ruminate on here on another day and another post, but for now we'll just fast forward to some undefined point in my mid-twenties when I realized that I did not actually believe the right things anymore. In fact, there were an increasing number of "right" things that directly contradicted my deepest inner convictions, that still quiet voice that I associated with God long before the church told me differently. I was clutching desperately to Evangelical Christianity in a way that felt less and less purposeful with each hard-fought admission to myself or honest conversation with a friend. Eventually I whittled it down to this: I was pretty sure I believed in God, but the only real reason I was still subscribing to the Evangelical Christian version was because I was scared to go to hell when I died.
Lots of Christians would tell you that that's a perfectly fine reason. In fact, there are entire "ministries" centered around leveraging exactly that fear. (<--TW: theatrical depictions of gun violence) But for me, it wasn't enough. I couldn't continue worshiping a God simply out of abject fear of punishment. Certainly if God is real and good then They wouldn't want that either. And if They did, well...I'm sorry Pascal, but I can't take your wager. I'll take my chances on the God that rings true in the meat and marrow of my soul, because that connection is the the most divine thing I've ever felt and it compels me to see meaning and beauty in the world and strive to love the other humans inhabiting it, and isn't that the whole fucking point?
In Part 2 of this series, I'll talk about reconstructing my idea of God and the afterlife (spoiler alert: I'm still doing it), and choosing what spiritual stakes to put in the ground with my children.