Hell In Paradise

How Religion Nearly Ruined My Life

Eugenio Almodovar-Aviles

17 days ago|4 min read

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The Bible describes hell as a place where the wicked “shall be tormented with fire and brimstone” with “no rest day or night” (Revelations 14:10–11). The scene terrified me as a child and latched itself onto my psyche like a ghost. I spent the next 22 church-going years trying to avoid Revelations (the last book of the Bible) like I avoided my high school bully. However, it was a crowd favorite at the church I attended and talked about with the casualness of the morning news. The outspoken doomsayers, in particular, were one zealous step away from tattooing it on their bodies. Meanwhile, I was one more verse away from being convinced I’d accidentally joined “The Church of the Wicked Shall Burn.”

Only one topic rivaled the popularity of how all-consuming the fires of hell would be: who would be thrown into them. Some might consider how often this subject was brought up as nothing short of concerning. There were, of course, well-established shoe-ins: adulterers, thieves, and murderers. And yet, none seemed as deserving of eternal torment as LGBTQIA+ people.

And as a child coming to terms with being gay, I feared I was headed straight to hell.

Before I continue, I want to make a disclaimer: for fear of generalizing and hurting lovely people, I’m sharing what went through. Any similarity to actual persons (in your life), living or dead, or actual events, is purely coincidental (although telling).

I also take this moment to state what I want to say because I consider it imperative to do so:

The extent of trauma caused by growing up constantly being told I’d go to hell for being gay cannot be understated.

At the peak of my devotion to church and God, I suffered severe anxiety and self-hatred. I thought of death and hell daily and feared my promised eternal condemnation. In what came to be nightly occurrences, I suffered panic attacks and prayed for hours, crying and begging God to have mercy on me or work a miracle. Make me straight.

But it didn’t work, and I felt perverse when I found a boy cute. I chastised myself each time, feeling one step closer to hell. I became so fearful of dying that, to this day, I still struggle with illness anxiety disorder (IAD).

I hated going to church, but stopping would’ve meant willingly walking into the lake of fire. I found ways to cope with the horror:

  • I left midway through sermons when the topic of “the end times” and sexuality came up.

  • I feigned attraction to girls.

  • I only looked at the cute boys when everyone’s eyes were closed for prayer.

Some situations, however, were inescapable. One such uncomfortable situation occurred during a youth program. A guest speaker came to talk about topics relevant to teenagers. Some adults decided to linger and chaperone.

I was hoping he’d talk about important topics, like drugs or unprotected ***, but I should’ve known better. The conversation quickly devolved into gay-bashing. Fearful of raising suspicions by leaving, I stayed and braced myself for more abuse. The speaker regurgitated the usual: “love the sinner, not the sin,” God can cure you, REPENT, etc. Then someone said, “Our children who struggle with this sin need love, not just condemnation.”

The conversation reached its crescendo.

Another church member, her face twisted in disgust and anger, stood up and spewed her vilest criticisms. I remember the feeling of despair as I watched her demonic transformation. Just last week, I remembered, she’d told me how much she admired me and loved having me in church. Now I knew she’d meant the me that she was okay with me being. One of the mothers in attendance, who must have been obsessed with my sexuality, looked at me and smirked wryly.

After boundless more disillusions, I eventually stopped attending church. But for many years after, I still struggled with those fears. Even after starting to live “out and proud,” the idea of hell still haunted me. I tried reconciling with the idea of a loving God, but going back to those thoughts made me feel like I was walking back into the pen to see if I could escape it again.

It wasn’t until recently that the transformative realization that my fear of death was tightly bound to my fear of going to hell came to me. It was like a door opening to let light into a dark house. It took me 22 years to encounter this breakthrough. But who could blame me? I’d believed hell to be my destination since age 7. When I explained this connection to my mom (who is also no longer religious), she apologized. “I never would’ve known,” she said. “I thought I was doing the right thing, but all I did was hurt you.”

Blaming her would’ve been easy, but I didn’t think she was guilty. Many people that others would find easy to blame, I didn’t find responsible. The blame lay on foundational concepts behind traditional religion, such as the focus on punishment/correction (not love) and the reckless indoctrination of children. Besides that, I also found guilty our human desire to force everyone to be who we think they should be.

I hope to bring awareness to this topic because it’s not one I’d ever heard be discussed before. Though society is slightly more welcoming to our LGBTQIA+ children nowadays, many of them will still grow up as I did.

As for me, I’ve accepted I will die someday. I continue learning to focus on love and happiness, here and now. As a friend of mine said recently: what happens after death does not matter if you live fully and happily.

And so I leave you with the new mantra I’ve embraced:

Let happiness and love be my final feelings when I die.

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Aspiring writer and storyteller. I’m almost too anxious to function. I enjoy writing about life and love.

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