Lately I seem to have become Answer Guy. Which is cool, of course. More than cool; it’s an honor that people write me with the stuff they do. I appreciate those of you who follow my blog sort of tracking me while I answer this stuff (and of course via the comments helping out with your own input).
When I fired up my computer this morning, I found waiting for me the email below. I think you’ll agree it’s hardly one I could ignore.
I am a 15-year-old male.
I am having terrible worries about whether Christianity is the “right” religion—what if it isn’t? What if the Jews are right, or the Muslims, the Buddhists, or whatever? Will the “real” god be angry with those who choose a “wrong” religion?
Also, do you believe there is a hell? I have seen so much stuff on the Internet about hell, that I am having nightmares and am suffering a lot of anxiety, worrying about what will happen after death.
My family tells me there is no hell, and they don’t believe there is even a god. But I am so worried, what if they are wrong? They think the Bible is something that was made-up by some people long ago, and that all religions are just trying to scare us into joining them.
Please help me make sense of it all, I am really going crazy with worry.
Dear Young Man:
First of all, there’s no need to worry about this stuff. You’re fifteen. Think of how long ago it seems since you were twelve. That distance you feel when you think of that, times about twenty, is how long you have to figure this stuff out. So you can relax. You’ve got all the time in the world to answer these questions. And you will. People who really want answers to these kinds of questions always get them.
Also, these are not small or inconsequential questions you’re asking. They’re part and parcel of The Big Human Questions, the core, driving questions that mystics, artists, philosophers, theologians, and in one way or another every single other person who’s ever walked the earth have been puzzling over since time began. It’s a marvelous thing that you even care about the answer to these questions; most kids your age are worried about their hair, or getting new wheels for their skateboard, or whatever. You’ve really sunk your teeth into some meat here. It’s impressive that you’re about this business. It bodes well for your future.
Also, I hope your parents were just giving you the short version of their fuller understanding of religion. I’m sure they were; I’m sure they understand that religion is more than just a world-wide, culturally diverse, ongoing conspiracy perpetuated throughout history by some cynical, manipulative cabal whose only real interest is in having people “join” them. Surely they grasp that religion is a genuine response to God, and that for people God has always been a deeply compelling draw. They personally may not feel that draw, but I hope they don’t think that everyone who does is basically a simpleton being duped by super-savvy marketers. The same thing that’s pressing on you to understand and know God is the same internal thing that’s always pressed on people who have felt the presence of God in their mind and soul—who are, so to speak (and to use a phrase I like) naturally religious. I’m sure (and for your sake really hope) that your parents aren’t so shallow that they’re incapable of at least acknowledging how for millions upon millions of people the quest for spiritual fulfillment is real and valid—that they wouldn’t simply dismiss those people’s spiritual needs as frivolous, or evidence that they’re soft-headed, or whatever. Because that wouldn’t be fair of them.
Maybe try talking to them about this again? I’m sure they’ll at least acknowledge that what you’re going through is important to you, that they’ll be sympathetic to the needs that have set your feet upon the journey you’re on.
As to your question of whether or not Christianity is the “right” religion.
Listen: wondering if any one religion is the “right” religion is an absolute, 100% waste of your time. One religion being right necessarily means everyone who doesn’t follow it is wrong. And from that seed of judgment great wars grow. Don’t waste your time worrying about what religion is “right.” Worry about the only thing you really care about, which is what religion is right for you. That’s all that matters: which religion answers your questions; which addresses your concerns; which brings you a God that matches up with the one you already feel resonating true in your heart. Keep your concerns there; what anyone else is doing, or why, should be none of your concern.
I don’t know if you’re a Christian or not. If you are, then that’s a beautiful thing between you and God, and no one else has any right or place interfering with that relationship. You just concentrate on that relationship, and relax. You’ll be fine. God won’t let you drown, or leave you mired in doubt. Just keep calling on him, and he’ll answer.
If you’re not a Christian, give it a try! It is one of the biggie religions, after all. Explore it. Give in to it for a while, see how it feels in your life. It won’t kill you to assume Christianity is the right religion for you—that the story of God manifesting as the figure known to history as Jesus Christ is real, that it really happened. No harm can come to you from trying that truth on for awhile. If Christianity is wrong or bogus, it’ll feel wrong or bogus, and you can move on. But be with it for a while. Meditate on it. Pray with it. Open yourself up to it. See how it feels. Trust it. Nothing bad will happen to you if for awhile you open your mind to the power of the Christian way.
As to the question of whether or not God will be “angry” with you if you choose the wrong religion. What you’re asking here about—what you do ask about—is whether or not hell is real. You wouldn’t care if God being angry with you meant he was going to give you a stern lecture, or the Ultimate Wedgie, or send you to your room without any manna. You want to know whether or not it might mean you’re going to have to spend eternity having the living flesh seared off your bones. And small wonder you do! Two nights ago while cooking dinner I barely burned my finger, and I’m still so traumatized by it I can barely get off the couch.
So here’s the deal. The question of whether or not hell is real is just like the question of whether or not Christianity is the “right” religion: it’s completely irrelevant. I know it doesn’t feel like it is, but it is. It’s an irrelevant question because it’s the wrong question. It’s asking about the end before addressing the means. It’s like a starving man stumbling into a restaurant, flopping down at a table, and crying out, “What’s for dessert?” It doesn’t make sense. That would never happen, because the only thing that person will care about is food.
I have a saying (that I made up, so it’s not an Official, Oldye Timey saying or anything), which is this: Anyone who spends too much time worrying about the afterlife isn’t spending enough time worrying about this life.
I have no idea if hell is real. Neither does anyone else (no matter how many books they might write, or how loudly they pound on their pulpits). Millions of Christians believe hell is real; millions of Christians believe it’s not. As for me, I don’t care if it’s real. I hate speculating about stuff that I know has no knowable answer. Talk about a waste. Especially since what I do know is more than enough to keep me overwhelmingly occupied.
What I do know is that I want to be good. I want to be good, helpful, honorable, charitable, generous, compassionate, loving, kind, forgiving, thoughtful, diligent, patient, cheerful, hopeful, and the best husband any woman ever had. Okay? So I’ve got my plate full. I’m busy, twenty-four hours a day, trying to do right with what’s right in front of me. Why in the world would I spend one moment of my life worrying about an abstract that might or might not happen to me after I die, when I know I’ve got tons of concrete stuff right in front of me that I know needs properly tending to?
Don’t worry about hell. Worry about your life. Worry about doing your best to be someone who doesn’t have to worry about whether or not hell is real.
You might also read my “God Can Love Me; God Can Send Me To Hell. But He Can’t Do Both.”