Author’s Note: This is part of an outline I wrote a while back concerning reasons people might have for leaving Christianity. I’m writing this for people who doubt their faith and are suffering because of it. If you’re happy with your church, your faith, or your religion, you’re probably not going to get anything useful out of this.
Here’s the definition of a death cult:
“A fringe religious group that glorifies or is obsessed with death.”
The keyword here is “fringe.” Fringe means that these beliefs are on the outside of normal social behavior, that they’re not accepted by the community as a whole – that they haven’t made their way into the mainstream of cultural thought. When I called myself a Christian, I would have seized on that word tightly. It’s what saved me from having to think about what my own beliefs really had me dwelling on.
Christianity at one point was a death cult.
That religion had not always been acceptable to authorities or polite society. If we take the early accounts of the Bible at face value, even those claims fall within the definition of a death cult. The gospels tell of a lone rabbi teaching a different version of Judaism to a select few, persecuted by temple leaders. Jesus’s message included many themes on how to get right with Yahweh before an impending apocalypse. Most of the benefits of following the faith happened after someone would get resurrected from death.
Those teachings have persisted in some forms throughout the many different Protestant and Catholic churches here in the U.S. and elsewhere. While not every church glorifies death as a reunion with one’s creator, such notions are frequently offered in less formal settings like funerals and in times of trouble. Some ministries even go so far as to scare people about the End Times. That isn’t a new thing, and to be fair it isn’t limited to just Christianity.
I think I’ve made my point, though. Whether talking about church sanctioned histories or just listening to what some Christians are saying, there’s enough to point out that some of the teachings do get into death cult territory. I get that this is uncomfortable for former Christians especially, because it points to an unseen influence on thinking.
For me, it’s the question of how much this has influenced my thinking about death.
Sometimes I wonder if I’d be as suicidal if I hadn’t been confronted with dwelling on death, afterlives, and getting to heaven. At an age as young as five, I remember being told to pray for this deity to take my soul if I died in my sleep. Of course I tried making it make sense over the next quarter century, to different degrees and satisfaction. But is thinking about my own mortality so often something that’s healthy?
So much in my life had been promised to me after I died. Answered prayers and signs and wonders were all well and good, but the real meat and potatoes of Christianity held its value in determining where I spent eternity. Everyone who did wrong in their lives would have to account for that in some divine reckoning. I had to make sure that I wouldn’t have to be too embarrassed with how I lived my life. Whenever I got really bad depressed, I’d think even more about the existential consequences of my decisions. It kept me up at night.
Was all of it worth it? I can’t say that it was. Changing how I believed in divine beings didn’t change how I felt about stealing or murder or robbery. It did change how I felt about what I am doing with my life. Nowadays, I only think about my mortality during bad depressive episodes or philosophical meanderings as I construct fiction. Outside of that, life has become more urgent and insistent.
Mostly, I’ve developed a sense that my value as a person isn’t contained in how I die.
Most Christians (even myself 5 years ago) would disagree with this distillation of Christianity. But I still think it’s a fair one, given how important death is in relation to eternity. Acts and behavior cannot earn a place in heaven; it is by the grace of Yahweh alone that salvation is assured. Upon this bedrock I must stand, and the consequences which flow from it cannot be ignored. Salvation is critical to Christianity, the salve by which all wounds suffered in life are healed. This only happens after the life is lived, and not one moment sooner. Every miracle, sign, or wonder that happens beforehand are just pale reflections of the glorious promise.
Being free of all of that means I do not have to wonder how an eternity will sort itself out. Eternity lies ahead of me, existing without my consent or perspective. What matters is my life right now and how it affects those I share it with. I won’t and haven’t gotten it right over the past few years, but life does take practice to live well.
Why it’s important enough to leave the faith behind.
Like the other points I linked to in the outline at the top of the post, this is a bell that cannot be unrung. Once my perspective changed on this, I couldn’t unsee what I’d hidden from myself for many years. I’d developed an obsession about dying and having a good death, coloring my thoughts way more than it rationally ought to have.
If I had a time machine and could get this post to my former Christian self, I’d point out that the change in perspective is essential to healthier living. I thought about death and dying and the afterlife too much for any person to bear. In doing so, I couldn’t see the value my own life had. Such obsessions are unhealthy, and they are rightfully a sign that I needed help.
Anyone who reads this and can identify with thinking about an afterlife too much, I’d say that you might want to put it on hold, at least for a time. Enjoy something in the moment. You don’t have to think about eternal consequences for a quiet, happy moment.