I was raised in a particular theological framework, which taught that all people above the “age of accountability” (not a specific age per se, but rather the age at which a child is aware of right and wrong and can be held responsible for sin – those who never develop the mental capacity for this being considered infants for theological purposes) have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, as it states in Romans 3:23, and have therefore merited eternal damnation in the literal fires of hell – or, more precisely, the lake of fire, which is worse than hell, hell being the jail before the white throne judgement at which the sentence to the eternal prison of the lake of fire is given. It was often taught and preached that all sins are equally bad, because every sin is an affront to God, and none is worse or less offensive than another. The only way to escape hell/the lake of fire is to be saved, to be born again, to ask and trust Jesus to forgive one’s sins, believing in his resurrection and publicly confessing him as lord and savior.
My father, having narcissistic personality disorder and getting into arguments with the board of deacons of his church when I was between the ages of 10 and 12, subconsciously got back at them by preaching publicly that many people – including some deacons and Sunday school teachers – thought they were saved/born again but really weren’t and, when they died, would “split hell wide open” – a favorite frequent phrase of my father’s. And he preached this on Sunday and Wednesday nights, the services that the devout attended. Those who only came on Sunday morning could easily be seen as lost (the term for the unsaved) – but that those who came on Sunday and Wednesday nights as well might go to hell was a testament to the seriousness of the sins churchgoers committed.
Of course, there was only one person who was “convicted” by such preaching and worried about his own salvation and who therefore came down the aisle during the invitation during one of the 57 verses of Just As I Am – and that was me. My father was clearly surprised, and you could tell I wasn’t the one he was trying to get down the aisle – my mother tried to convince me there was nothing to worry about, while my father encouraged my doubts and tearful prayers, but also said those who worried about their salvation were the ones who really were saved – it was the complacent who didn’t worry about it who were actually damned.
Sometime after that I came down the aisle again, at age 10 (we were in that particular congregation when I was between ages 10 and 12) – this time not in tears doubting my salvation, but “surrendering to the call to preach”, ready to dedicate myself to be a preacher and maybe a foreign missionary. An elderly deacon died not long after that, and as we were on the church steps waiting for the coffin to be taken out of the church, I remember telling my mother and another woman in the church that I knew how I wanted to die – my mother nervously said “you want to be raptured, right?” – but no, I wanted to martyred in a foreign land, killed for the faith of Christ as had been the Southern Baptist missionary Bill Wallace whose biography I had read from the church library for a foreign missions book challenge the church held. I have no idea what the other woman thought of this exchange.
Around this time, I got a Gideon New Testament with the plan of salvation – and I marked it up with the scriptures that one could use to lead someone to Christ – and began haranguing my classmates, er I mean witnessing to them about the necessity of salvation. (I was 11 by this point, as I remember being in sixth grade with a teacher who had been a football coach who dipped snuff in front of the class, spitting the tobacco juice into a coffee cup.) I think I convinced one classmate to go through the process – I doubt that it had any lasting effect, but some of the older boys in my Royal Ambassadors group (the youth group for boys in Southern Baptist churches) commended me for this “soulwinning” success.
So it is against this theological backdrop that I started thinking about the death penalty and how it was a horrifying injustice, because there might always be some hope, however slim, that a convicted murderer or the like might nonetheless find his way to repentance and be saved. Given that our whole life was devoted to the task of saving as many people as possible from the horrors of eternal conscious torment in hell/lake of fire, it made sense to me that the death penalty was completely at odds with the gospel (as I understood it from my parents) and that therefore Christians should want to abolish it. If God had mercy on us enough to send his Son Jesus Christ to die a horrible death on the cross as an atonement for our sins, then surely the least we could do is do everything in our power to bring everyone, including prisoners, to salvation.
I vividly remember being in the back seat of the car with my parents when we went shopping, and I told them this – and was shocked at the reaction. My father started railing about how horrible murderers and child molesters were and that if someone were to attack me he would absolutely kill them (oblivious to the difference between acting in self-defense and someone in prison for life). My mother agreed with my father. And they saw my views as an attack on the “biblical” mandate of capital punishment. I could not understand the absolute thwarting of any possibility of salvation that the death penalty would impose – and the cognitive dissonance between my parents’ teaching of the utter gratitude we, as miserable sinners, ought to feel at the salvation we received although utterly unworthy – and the rejection of giving that mercy to others. I also did not understand how, in one context, all sins were the same, yet in another context they were not. I don’t know that I made the connection at the time, but Jesus told the parable about a servant who was forgiven a large debt by his master who then refused to show mercy and forgive a much smaller debt owed the servant by another servant – when the master learned of this, he turned the servant over to the tormentors – we studied this parable in “Training Union”, a Baptist Sunday evening version of Sunday school – we even acted it out, and a girl in the class wanted to be a “tormentor”, which made the teacher laugh because it was obvious she didn’t know what the word meant.
They did not convince me – and this was the beginning of my move away from their theology. That someone could be sent to hell, God’s hands completely tied because of the sinful behavior of his Christian followers, seemed to me to be utterly unjust – and ultimately this began my road to a universalist theology.