The Road to Hell | Finding Freedom Beyond Religion: The Journey From Fear to Liberation
I’m to create a bridge from the phrase “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” to the practice of being spiritual but not religious.
No one told me I had to do that. It’s just one of those things that happens. I’ll often awaken in the early morning hours with a spiritual nudge for a writing. Sometimes it’s just a few words, or it’s a memory of a lived experience that is asking for light. This morning, it’s this phrase.
I don’t recall the last time I said it or even heard it. It has lost its power and meaning on this life-after-deconstructing journey. The journey I also call living spiritually without religion or being spiritual but not religious.
I hadn’t realized that the phrase had been neatly boxed away, along with the other phrases from my religious heritage that were used to warn against evil lurking around the corner. The faithful were to remain vigilant, always on-guard, always resisting temptation lest we fall under the influence of the devil, for “he was actively seeking to destroy us all.”
“Stay vigilant. Do not give the devil a foothold in your life. Submit to God and resist his influence.”
I never knew how much power those words held over me until 1994, when my then fiancé and I were looking at churches to attend. Both of us were raised in Christian homes—he a Presbyterian and I a Southern Baptist. Even though I wasn’t aware I was deconstructing from my religious heritage (most people aren’t aware of it in the beginning), All I knew was that I had no desire to attend the churches with Southern Baptist affiliation. I had had enough of the sermons dripping with fear-based theology and the weaponization of scripture that affirmed their belief in my value as a woman being less than that of a man’s.
As we were sitting in the church waiting for the service to begin, the clergy began to process up the center aisle. It was my first hint at how different this service was going to be. One of the ministers processing forward was a woman.
To say that I was a little gobsmacked is an understatement.
On one hand, I’m embarrassed that at 33 years of age I had never been in a church with a woman minister. On the other hand, what did I expect? Although I was already rejecting some of my religious heritage and its marginalization of women, I had never been in a church where women were actively in leadership.
My breath literally caught in my throat, and my heart started to pound. I simply could not process how a woman had been elevated to the highest level of authority in the church and was preparing to deliver the sermon.
What did this mean for me?
How was my soul being compromised?
If I continued to sit in this pew and willingly participate in the service, was I condemned to hell?
All of these questions were running through my mind and so much more. The sermon was lovely. She spoke in a beautiful, melodic voice that was calming and meditative. It did nothing to quell the fear rising in me that I would be struck by lightning the second I exited this church building—regardless of the fact that it was a sunny day in the 80s!
God works in mysterious ways, and God certainly was so fixated on my life that he’d* be bringing lightning to rid the world of my tragic life that was most certainly a threat to all of humanity.
Yep—that sentence right there sums up the impact fear-based theology has on a person.
Fortunately, lightning didn’t arrive that day. Even more fortunate is that I didn’t succumb to that fear that arrived that day. We joined the church, were married in it and remained active members for many years as the church served our spiritual well-being.
Until it didn’t, and that’s a story for another day.
I’ve told this story several times over these past few years. But what I hadn’t realized on that day was how mucked up my theology was. In my head, the devil was tempting me by putting a woman at the pulpit, but somehow God would then punish me for succumbing to the devil’s temptation?
Did God actually actively participate in tricking people? Apparently on this side of religious indoctrination, he does.
It was during my active phase of deconstructing from Christianity after I had left church that I began to critically examine how toxic this theology was.
The devil tempts, and God punishes. For the love of all this holy, who does that?!
Apparently, a benevolent, loving, all-knowing and all-encompassing God? Who, if he is actually all knowing, knew before I did, that I’d plant my booty in that pew and listen to that woman preach even though I was scared and feared eternal damnation because of it?
Make it make sense.
Because you can’t.
The theology that had a chokehold me on that day in 1994 is the one I had been wrestling with my entire life. It’s the one who said that I, as a woman, had limits on my ability to serve in the church. It’s the one who said that I was being ungodly if I didn’t answer to a man. And it’s the one who taught me that no matter the abuse I suffered by those charged to care for my soul, my body or my mind, I was to be silent.
They were fighting their own battle with the devil, and God would deal with them. Vengeance, and apparently accountability, wasn’t mine to deserve.
See how that serves the white, Christian male patriarchy?
It’s warped, toxic and it has harmed millions for centuries.
“The road to hell”—at least for me—was literally found in church, where leaders taught me that whatever the offense, leaders were unapproachable because their ordination made them so, and patriarchy protected that veil of sanctity.
That is the reality many of us faced in these high-controlled churches who knew how to weaponize scripture and Christianity’s favorite sayings to control the congregants.
If I found success outside of the church’s control— “Careful, sister Karla. You’ll fall for the devil’s tricks.”
If I wanted to educate church leaders on care of the animals as an act of ministry—a sermon preached the following Sunday on priorities that take your focus off the needs of the church.
If I asked questions or pushed back on questionable decisions made by church pastors where no other leadership was invited to participate— “Sister Karla, you have a spirit of offense.”
“God’s gonna get you for that.” Because God is modeled as a deceiving yet loving patriarchal father.
“Watch for the devil’s tricks.” Because people can’t be held accountable for their actions—it has to be something outside of them that causes bad behavior.
“The road to hell” simply became another weapon used by the church to convince us that God is always watching, and the only certain path to salvation is staying as close as you can to those church doors.
Except none of it is true. As is the case with anything, you can spin the scriptural narrative to say what you need it to say. That is an option for your spiritual path if that serves you.
But it no longer serves me. In fact, I find it degrading, dangerous and incredibly problematic.
Apparently, I’m not the only one. The Southern Baptist convention reported it has lost hundreds of thousands of memberships since its hard turn right into Trump’s arms.
I’m sure that “falling away” is being spun as a crisis of faith for those leaving.
I’m sure those “falling away” tell a different story.
I no longer care, because I know how the game is played. What I care about is this—for those who find themselves here after leaving church and trying to make sense of a lost faith and a path forward….
I’ve got you.
You won’t find weaponized scripture that convinces you that you have made a mistake. Instead, what you will find is affirmation that spirituality outside the constrains of toxic theology is freeing, healing and sacred.
We look to scripture for inspiration.
We don’t anchor our “truth” to words that were written thousands of years ago and call the story complete.
We instead see that they were continuing a story that we are being invited to continue to tell.
And it will continue long after we are gone.
It’s the story of people as they become aware that something exists outside the human comprehension, and we’ve been struggling to define it and describe it.
Instead, we choose to contain and control it for the sake of power and greed.
The road to hell is a metaphorical path that reminds us that consequences follow bad decisions. Bad decisions come from not listening to sound advice or pausing to reflect on what the outcome will be once a decision is made.
The Holy can be invited into that discussion in meaningful ways, not to trap you.
But to inspire you.
Beloved, I wish I could wave a magic wand and tell all of us how our story ends. Life doesn’t work that way, but I do know this.
Finding freedom in life after religion makes the path away from religion worth the journey.
But it is indeed a journey.
The only road to hell is the one for the poor soul who is sitting stagnant in the pews, knowing that the theology being preached no longer serves their highest good. For in that scenario, that soul can never be fully nourished and empowered.
Leaving church showed me how much I had been living in fear.
My road to hell became my road to liberation.
I’m forever grateful I made that decision.
*I told this story in the language I would have used in 1994. I no longer believe in an anthropomorphized, patriarchal god sitting on a throne waiting to zap me. But I used “he” in this context to reflect my thoughts. I now see God differently, and she’s divine.