Never ask questions!


My recent post, 85 million unchurched Christians. Is that good?, received some 225 comments. They were extremely informing. I learned so much about why and how people do or don’t go to church. I want to thank everyone who took the time to share your story relative to church.

I don’t suppose there was ever much doubt as to why Christians—and perhaps maybe especially these days—might be inclined to stay home on Sunday mornings.

You know what? Before moving on to think about and discuss church generally, let me share with you my very first experience with church. Talk about … bad first impressions.

I was nine years old when one Sunday morning my dad announced that after we finished eating breakfast our family was going to church. I had no idea what he was talking about. We’d never been to church before.

The first thing I learned about church was that going there meant dressing really uncomfortably.

“Oh, come on,” I said. “Not these shoes. They’re so stiff they make me walk like Frankenstein.”

“Hush,” said my mother. Then she had me look at the ceiling so she could jam my dreaded clip-on tie in between my buttoned collar and my neck.

I already hated church so much.

As we sat in our usual seats in the back of the family car, I said to my sister Nancy, “I can’t breathe.” She didn’t care.

“Can you believe we’re going to church?” I whispered.

“You’re not going to church,” she said. She drew a circle in the air to indicate the three people in the car who weren’t me. “We’re going to church. You’re going to Sunday school.”

“What are you talking about? There’s no school on Sunday.”

“There is for you now.”

Her barely contained glee struck terror in my heart.

“Are you kidding?”

“Mom, Dad?” she called. “Is John going to Sunday school today?”

Over her shoulder my mom said, “You are, honey. That’s where you’ll be while your dad and me and Nancy are in the big church.”

Nancy stuck out her tongue at me. “See? Told ya.”

I was so shocked I fell back limp in my seat.

Was it actually possible that somewhere, somehow, some mentally deranged adult had decided that the one thing kids need more of in their lives is school?

I looked with maximum moroseness out the car window.

Of course it was possible. I should have seen this coming. Of course adults weren’t going to keep letting kids take two whole days a week off school. That would allow for way too much freedom and fun.

With the right side of my face pressed hard against the window, I murmured to no one, “When’s Saturday school start?”


Bending to straighten my faux-tie, my mother said, “When we’re done at the big church we’ll come to pick you up right here. Okay? Now you be a good boy.” She kissed me on the forehead before turning away and leaving me in the first Sunday school class I’d ever seen.

It looked just like a classroom at my regular school. Student desks in neat rows, chalkboard and teacher’s desk up front, colorful cut-outs tacked all over the walls, cabinets galore. All the same.

I found that pretty comforting. If there’s one place I knew my way around, it was a classroom. Not for nothing had I made it all the way to third grade.

I chose a desk near the middle of the room, and sat.

Other kids trickled in, took their seats. Pretty soon the teacher came in. A youngish woman, she was a formidable presence in her belted blue dress covered with bright flowers, and her blonde hair set hard into two swooping curls on either side of her head, the way Southern women did in the mid-1960’s. She was pretty. She looked like she smelled good.

Instead of the excruciatingly boring math or history lesson I was expecting, though, this teacher started talking about God. I’d heard of God before, sure. But I’d never learned about him in school.

She told us that God, who lived up in heaven, was all-knowing, all-powerful, had created everything, and controlled everything.

By far the most powerful person that I was aware of was Superman, who could do anything. But from what I could tell, God dwarfed Superman in the super-powers department.

Pretty exciting! This was actually something worth learning about!

The teacher told us that God absolutely, one hundred percent loves each and every one of us.

Great! I love it when people love me.

Then the teacher said, “Now, there are some people who don’t believe in God. They just don’t want to believe that he’s real. After they die, people like that are sent by God to a terrible place where they are forced to suffer the most agonizing punishment you can imagine, for all of time.”

Then she started talking about some huge flood.

I was stuck on the other thing, though. Agonizing punishment for all of time? The absolute worst I’d ever been punished was being grounded for two days. That was awful, yes—but I wouldn’t call it agonizing, and it was still only two days. I tentatively raised my hand.


“I was wondering about the thing with the punishment that lasts forever?”

The teacher smiled a little too broadly and did one blink of her big pretty eyes. “What about it?”

“Well,” I said, “I mean, what does that … I mean, how … where … where does that happen?” I thought maybe the place where all those people were sent to suffer forever was close enough to my house that I could bicycle to it, look through a window, and see what exactly was going on in there.

“It’s in a place called hell,” she said.

Instantly an electric current ripped through the room and froze every kid in place.

She’d just said a swear word. We’d all heard it. That had really happened.

When the buzz in the room slightly subsided, I ventured to ask, “What happens there?”

“I just told you, sweety. It’s a place where people who don’t believe in God find out how wrong they were about that, and so have to suffer terrible punishment forever.”

“But what … how … ?”

A kid a couple of rows to my right suddenly belted out, “Fire!”

I looked over at him. He looked insane. “People in hell burn!” he said.

I snapped my head back toward the teacher.

“That’s right, Paul,” she said. “People who don’t believe in God go to hell and burn there forever.”

Then she started in again talking about the “terrible, terrible flood”—which I imagined would not be so terrible to the people burning in hell.

I raised my hand again.

“You know what?” said the teacher. “You’re new here. And I think you’ve asked enough questions for today, don’t you?”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Just one more, please?”

With an expression intended to show that her patience had become as thin as a knife blade, she said, “Fine. One more.”

“When you say fire, are we talking, like, fire fire?” Not too long before I had seen a movie where a cowboy was tortured by being tied spread-eagle onto a big wagon wheel which was then spun atop a fire, so that first his head was burning, and then his feet, and then either of his arms. After his first full turn on the wheel the camera had panned away to show the side of a barn, but the cowboy’s blood-curdling screams went on and on. I had nightmares for a week.

“That’s right,” said the teacher. “It’s like fire fire.”

“Yeah!” said Pyro Paul.

“Now that’s the last question I want you to ask,” said the teacher.

And I really, really tried to make that the last question I asked. I did. But now I was genuinely frightened. Up until then I had barely even heard of God. And the idea of my dying wasn’t exactly far-fetched. Not a week before I had climbed up onto the roof of our house carrying the top sheet from my bed. My idea was that if I jumped from the roof while holding the sheet over my head, the sheet would form a parachute that would float me gently down to earth, the same as had happened in practically every cartoon I’d ever seen.

It’d be just like flying! That’s the dream!

That dream became a nightmare the moment I realized that all I was doing was falling. Frantic, I released the useless sheet. If I hadn’t hedged my bet by dragging my twin bed mattress out onto the lawn below me, I’d have been one dead, grass-stained pancake.

And I did stuff like that all the time. My whole life was basically one long flirtation with death.

What if I died before I was officially registered, or whatever, as believing in God? I didn’t even know what believing in God actually meant. But whatever it was I definitely wanted to do it before the worst happened.

I raised my hand again. I had to. My only other choice was to probably for sure spend eternity burning like a marshmallow dropped off a stick. Or like that poor cowboy.

“I want you to put your hand down right now,” said the teacher.

“But I only want to—”

“I do not care what you want, young man. I very clearly told you not to ask any more questions. Now you put your hand down on your desk where it belongs, and you just mind your business.”

“Well, that’s not fair,” I said, dropping my hand.

And then, whoa: here she comes. She had looked like a pretty big woman when she was up in front of the class; when she was barreling down the aisle straight toward me she looked like a locomotive wearing blonde hair and lipstick.

With a grip like Sasquatch she grabbed my arm and yanked me from my desk.

“Oh no!” I said, an admittedly weird choice.

At maximum velocity she hauled me to the front of the room. As she was dragging me toward the classroom door, I did not do what I have often since imagined myself doing at that moment, which is wildly waving my free arm and yelling to the class, “Never ask questions!”

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  • Tracey Grimes

    i recently discovered that my son, now 22, was bullied in church when he was young…….i am pissed off at church all over again

  • BarbaraR

    The only reason I ever liked Sunday School was some oatmeal cookies they served with kool-ade. Then they switched brands. Never liked it after that and still loathe it.

  • I am so glad I didn’t endure Sunday school as a kid. Instead I had to sit through the big church, which lasted two hours. I played so many games of hangman and tic tac toe while sitting on hard metal chairs….Questions weren’t allowed there either…nor on the way to or from church.

  • Bob

    They must have been Baptists or Catholics.

  • I believe it was an Episcopalian church. (And today I’m an Episcopalian! So go figure.)

  • Lamont Cranston

    My first church experience as a little kid was in “big church” – no Sunday school where I was! I didn’t get in trouble, but I was seriously angry when they passed around crackers and juice I wasn’t allowed to have any.

  • James Walker

    we had Sunday School first, then the main worship service in “the Big Church”. the infants and toddlers stayed in the nursery if the church had one.

    I didn’t realize until much later how much latitude I got in Sunday School due to my privileged position as the son of one of the church leaders (actually two, when you consider my mom was either the pianist or organist at every church where my dad served). I was an insufferable know-it-all (who would have guessed?) who had fully absorbed that I was one of the “elect”. I talked down to everyone. I wasn’t quite as fascinated by other people burning in Hell as “Pyro Paul” in your story, John, but I was pretty sure most of the people around me weren’t “True Believers(tm)” like I was.

    I only hope that people weren’t so turned off by their experience with young me in Sunday School that they were turned away from God for life.

  • Celeste Rothstein

    I grew up Catholic. There was no Sunday School; we had to attend the Big Church with everyone else on Sundays. And we had to go to catechism on Saturday morning. So I actually did have Saturday School.

  • Andy

    Ugh, there are so many things wrong with that.

  • James Sutton

    Sunday School is the one place where all questions should be welcome. It should be the SAFE PLACE where questions are not ridiculed and where all voices are welcome.

  • Leia Jex

    Am I the only one who had universally positive experiences with Sunday School? I grew up Presbyterian and we went to Sunday School before church, then the little kids went down to the nursery and the bigger kids stayed in the sanctuary. We made crafts, learned Bible stories, sang songs, and memorized Bible verses. The only mention of Hell was that Jesus died to save mankind. The classes were taught by my old kindergarten teacher, who had to be the nicest woman in town. I’m so sorry more people didn’t have the same experience!

  • Andy

    My Sunday School experience was reasonably positive. It was also Episcopalian, and I went for probably 3 years. I don’t remember them talking about hell much.

  • Maria Jones

    But it’s not.

  • James Sutton

    The Sunday school class I teach is.

  • Bones

    Sorry but teaching of hell to children is child abuse.

    Actually it’s abuse to anyone.

  • biscuitdave

    People who grow up in church can have the exact opposite problem, and have zero questions to ask. When I was little, I used to fill out the blanks in our Sunday School workbooks before class ever started. I’d heard ten times over every story that anyone would trust a kid with. Often, even adult Sunday School classes are filled with ideas we’ve mastered (or rejected) by the time we were six. After I started teaching studies myself, I swore never to teach anything that could be classified as “a good reminder”. Of course, it gets me in trouble for daring to bring up the hard stuff. Can’t win sometimes.

  • JenellYB

    My lifetime experience have been all evangelical. Does Presbyterian or other denominations NOT hold the doctrine that any and all not “saved” through personally “accepting Christ” will by default suffer eternal torment in hell?

  • Cat Rennolds

    Well, let’s see, there was my dad, who at 9 or so was wandering around loose in cut-off shorts and not much else (abuse and neglect both). One Sunday he saw a church, wondered what was going on, and went up to the door. We can guess what happened. Then there was my son, who at 4 came up to me and said, “Mom, we can’t go to this church (Methodist) any more. They keep talking to me about God, and they just don’t KNOW!”

  • Lance Schmidt

    It happens. I grew up on a farm where we often had burn piles to burn trash, lawn clippings or even just a fire for a summer evening hot dog picnic. As far back as I can remember and without fail our grandparents or my Dad would take us close to the fire once it got roaring hot and have us stand close while they lectured us about what it was going to be like in hell.

  • Bones

    The hell I remember was being taught was eternal loneliness and absence from God.

    The hell theory has had to evolve as we know there’s no fiery pit and that made God out to be more of a demon..

  • Sean Shenold

    Well . . . clearly not everyone’s Sunday School experience was the same as yours. Mostly what I remember of mine was boring, punctuated occasionally by doughnuts, and conducted mostly by kindly little old ladies. But enough of it stuck that it saw me through a 27-year hiatus of being away from the church in any significant manner. It took a loooong time for those spiritual seeds those little old ladies planted to sprout, but in the fullness of time (i.e., in God’s time) they did.

  • Skip Johnston

    When I was three my mom took us to a little church where everybody had to go to the service. Even three year olds. The service could run two or three hours so she brought pencils and crayons and paper for me to use. People walked up and down the isle wearing robes and carrying candles and sticks with heavy jewelry on them. The music was great because you didn’t have to make stupid hand movements about the wheels on a bus and so on. The pastor talked for a long time. So I drew and colored a lot. He talked quiet at first. I didn’t know what he was talking about. But pretty soon he was talking louder, then he was yelling and waving his arms and the veins were popping out in his head.

    It was really cool!

    I grew up to be an artist.

  • My church was so kid-friendly. Art projects, plays, choir, potlucks, little gift KJVs with a new construction paper verse bookmark every week. And church itself invited questions. It was old-line Presbyterian, so the sermons were cold and cerebral, but they were ten minute open-ended question monologues.

  • Gotta love your toddler perception of church. I suspect watching the popping veins was almost as fun to watch as coloring.

  • KB

    In second grade I was yelled at by my Sunday school teacher, who threatened to tell my parents on me, because I had the impertinence to answer her question with “yes,” instead of “yes ma’am.” My family is from the north, I wasn’t taught to use “sir” and “ma’am,” which meant I sat there befuddled as she went on about how my parents must have taught me better than that. It’s literally the only memory I have of second grade Sunday school.

    That came on the heels of my experience two years before, when, on the first day of kindergarten Sunday school, my teacher decided that my little homeschooled self wasn’t really in school and snuck me back down to the preschool class with the intent to bring me back in time for my parents to pick me up so they wouldn’t know. My parents discovered it as they ran into me being returned to the kindergarten class and wanted to know what was happening and why I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. That is one of only two or three memories from that year, and I will always remember both the sneakiness and how a grown adult thought nothing of making a four year old stand out and be told she didn’t belong.

  • My experiences were good, too. Mostly for the crafts and artsty stuff. I always had something to take and show my mom after church. I learned all the stories and I knew about hell, but it wasn’t dwelt on.

  • Rev. M. Vernon Hunt

    Happened to me, too. I was called names and beaten up in the parking lot. After that, I refused to go again.

  • I literally grew up in the church or a least the manse. And since my father was the minister I thought the church was part of my home. My father was always open to my questions about God even when I asked if it was true that God drove a flying saucer. The only time I ever got I trouble for asking questions about religion was in the Religion and Life class in grade 5. Life lesson never question “The statement that we know the Bible is because the Bible tells us it is True” if the class is taught by a fundamentalist unless you want to be sent to the principals office. When my dad found out he bought me a book of Bible Contradictions. I also remember the time a girl I went to high school asked my if God would get her get if she did something bad. My dad told her that was not how God acted and that nothing could separate her from God’s love.

  • paganheart

    My Sunday School experience was actually relatively benign, given that I grew up in a Baptist church. (Our Sunday school director also ran the local Head Start preschool, so maybe that was why.) Mostly I remember “story circle” where we read Bible stories simplified for kids, or used felt storyboards. Then there was “singing circle” where the teacher played guitar and we sang “Michale Row The Boat Ashore,” and all those sorts of songs (loved that.) I remember doing a lot of crafts, and of course we put on a Christmas pageant every year. I usually played an angel, although in my last year I got to play the innkeeper’s wife. Go me! 🙂

    In junior high I graduated from Sunday School to going to “Big Church,” in which I was generally bored to death until we got to sing. (Singing was the only part of church I ever really enjoyed.) After church I went to youth group, where it seemed like mostly we went on supervised trips to the skating rink or the local bowling alley, stuff like that.

    Then I started confirmation classes in high school, and that’s when things changed. Those classes were run by the youth pastor, who liked to pepper his lessons on scripture and church history with lectures on the evils of drugs, rock and roll, and sex. Especially sex. One day he decided to lecture us on the importance of saving yourself for marriage, especially if you were a girl. We were given those analogies of a person who had sex before marriage being like a cupcake with all the frosting licked off, or a chewed piece of gum, something “yucky” that no one wanted. He also pointedly told all the females in the class, “any girl who isn’t a virgin on her wedding night shames herself, shames her husband, shames her family, and shames God. She might as well punch her ticket to hell.”

    Now at the time, there was much scandal and gossip in town concerning a man who had just gone to prison for admitting that he molested his step-daughters. One of those step-daughters was a girl I knew; we weren’t friends, just had a couple of classes together. But I thought about her and asked the pastor, “Does that include girls who were raped before marriage?”

    The pastor looked horrified for several seconds, then replied, “well, yes of course it does, unless she begs Jesus and her husband for forgiveness. God intends sexual relations to only be between a husband and wife, no matter what.”

    Now it was my turn to be horrified. Even at 15 I knew there was something very, very wrong with expecting rape victims to “beg forgiveness.” And I told him so.
    That was a mistake, he told me to leave the class.

    This continued on for a few more weeks. My rebellious streak was up and every week, I started peppering the pastor with questions. Did all the Jews killed in the Holocaust really go to hell because they didn’t know Jesus? Why would God send people to hell who had already suffered so much? Why did missionaries in Africa focus on converting people to Christ first, instead of feeding and clothing them and treating their diseases first? Wasn’t that more important? The pastor didn’t like my questions much; in fact, he did not like anyone’s questions too much. His answers almost always boiled down to some version of “because the Bible says so and because I SAY SO!!!” (Yeah he yelled a lot.) Eventually after a few weeks of my rebelliousness, he told my parents I was no longer welcome in his class. My crime? “She asks too many questions.”

    That was the beginning of the end of my relationship with the church, one I am barely, and very reluctantly, starting to rebuild 30+ years later. Sort of…..

  • Leia Jex

    We may have talked about Hell a little bit, but when I asked questions (and I was definitely the questioning kind), our pastor was quite clear that Jesus wasn’t in the business of damning people to hell.

  • Sheila Warner

    I am aghast at your story. Because if that teacher really thought that people who don’t believe in God go to hell, she should have jumped at the chance to allow you to “get saved”. So, not only was the theology poorly stated, she failed to do anything about it. Which begs the question–did she secretly hate kids?

  • Giauz Ragnarock

    What I liked most about Sunday School was that people had a chance to say more than ‘amen’ and ‘bless him, Lord’ (for the longest time I thought the deacon who usually said that was saying ‘messing hole’, some weird oath).

    My most memorable time in Sunday School (by the way, I only ever went to adult Sunday School not the youth version, as when I entered HS was the first time since before the age of five we had gone to a church with any regularity) was when in 2012 or 2013, the Secretary of the state of Ohio came to my church to teach it. The Secretary talked about scripture that pointed to how zealousness had driven David to suffer so that he could serve God. He made a comparison to Jesus with a quote in which Jesus said something like, “Lord, your zealousness hath eaten me up.” His interpretation was that the Scripture referred to the twos’ own zealousness against the un-/less-godly. I asked if the zealousness could refer to the priests who sided with Saul/the priests, scribes, and pharisees who believed themselves led by God to call Jesus out for just punishment (seeing as “eaten me up” sounds like horrifying imagery). I was soundly told, “Well, today, we’re sticking with the other interpretation.”

    I have other Sunday School memories, but that one I remember most clearly.

  • sguilford12

    My experience in Sunday school was good. I hated dressing up, and that was probably the most stressful thing about it (my parents eventually allowed me to wear jeans instead of dresses). I remember doing crafts, hearing the bible stories with those awesome felt pieces, and of course there were snacks and koolaid. During the evening service I would go because my mother sang in the church choir, but I would sit with my best friend, the pastors son, ( who is now my husband) and we would make paper airplanes and paper fortune tellers and color. So my time in my childhood church, which I returned to after I married my husband, was an amazing experience. Hell was rarely talked about (although I learned through my husband that at the AWANA program hosted through our church, there were some instances where hell was used to frighten boys). Now, church camp….that is another story.

  • Mario Strada

    I remember my catechism class before Communion. I must have been a tough customer because my memory starts with the priest telling me to sit on a chair in an empty room and pray about God. Let God spirit get into me.

    I don’t recall my emotion at the time, but since I was the only pupil treated that way, I must assume my questions and/or general behavior were a bit wanting.

    So I sat in that room and although I was only 8 or 9 years old, I was already a big astronomy buff and I knew quite a bit about science and cosmology (I remember explaining to a farmhand of a factory my family owned that the Sun was a star like the others only very close to us. He would not believe me).

    Anywho, there I am sitting and trying to imagine the same god from the Sistine chapel (I was born in Rome and this is where I was going to Catechism) superimposed to the spiral of our galaxy.

    Then I tried to imagine nothingness. Then nothingness with God in it. Then I got rid of God, brought back the galaxy and that looked pretty good to me.

    Eventually the priest came back and asked me if I had resolved the issue I had with God. I was honest when I said that I had.

    I have been an atheist ever since.

    Epilogue: I did take “First Communion ” to the delight of my Grandparents. A few years later they asked me if I wanted to attend class for confirmation and I said no. It wasn’t brought up again.

  • cajaquarius

    I have always gotten the distinct impression that there is a contingent of Christians who relish the idea of they and their families getting saved while others burn. They are the type that hope they will get to watch the unbelievers and the wicked burn in hell, I suspect. Unsurprisingly, these same people tend to favor extremely punitive measures against criminals in this world as well, in my experience.

  • cajaquarius

    Beaten up by the other kids, like bullies, or by the teachers/reverend and adults? Why? That is all kinds of messed up either way, of course, but especially sick of this was adults doing it.

  • cajaquarius

    Children are the measure by which theology is best tested. I had a similar issue though a more kind teacher. I could never reconcile eternal torment. I held onto that to adulthood. Many don’t. The wise are fools and the fools are wise, I guess. If heaven is made for children then I doubt that convoluted legalisms, bible quoting, and endless theological debate are the means of getting there.

  • Rev. M. Vernon Hunt

    Other kids, but in view of adults who pretended not to notice.

  • cajaquarius

    Wow, that is rough. I have similar background but it is always hard when a kids first view of adults being untrustworthy is something traumatic like that. Sorry that happened to you. Hopefully you haven’t been too held back by it in life.

  • Antiphon411

    So, it sounds like the author was raised in a non-religious home and had a very poor formation–or perhaps he was totally ignorant of the faith. Then he had an inept Sunday school teacher, who was no doubt equally ill-informed. His parents never expected him to dress in nice clothes or wear shoes, so they made him uncomfortable. And his parents seem not to have expected a harmonious, supportive relationship between their children.

    I can’t see what this has to do with religion or the Christian faith. My children dress nicely everyday in what we call “going out” clothes. And we have encouraged them to build a close and supportive relationship ong themselves. They help eachother through difficulties rather than taking pleasure in the other’s pain.

    We have also taken care to form them in the Faith. They have been going to Mass since birth. Our two-year-old knows most of his basic prayers. The older ones have a good understanding of sin and know about hell in its proper context.

    Raising Christian children at any time is difficult. It is sad when parents don’t take their children’s formation seriously. I can see why many turn away from church, but that is no reflection on Christianity itself.

  • I’m curious about just what you are trying to say here. I entirely miss the point about what dressing nicely has to do with religious. I have known more that one pastor that has “scandalized” his flock by dressing a pair of ratty old sneakers and a moth eaten sweater. People are sometimes taken aback because they didn’t look like a pastor but once they got to know him they couldn’t imagine as anything other than a pastor. I agree that raising children is difficult especially when ones Christian values conflict with a consumer society that often places material things above spiritual things. As a parent and grandparent I’ve always tried to encourage a supportive relationship between my children and grandchildren. I also try to teach them how to deal with conflict and settle their differences in a peaceful if not always harmonious fashion. Finally, and I am speaking for myself here I see a huge difference between church and Christianity as I understand it. The church is merely a building where some Christians gather and being a Christian means that one has chosen to follow Jesus. That said I believe that it is only through community that we can understand God.

  • Rev. M. Vernon Hunt

    Hell, if I were still clinging to every instance in which I was bullied in the past, I’d be a quivering shell hiding under the bed at this point. I don’t consider it to have been terribly traumatizing to me, personally. It’s just something that happened.