I was raised in a Christian home. I accepted the tenets of Christianity ever since I was old enough to understand them. But this is the account of how I explicitly, officially "converted" to Christianity. It's not your average conversion story.
I became a Christian because of a Disney movie.
In 1996, when I was seven years old, I saw the animated film The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The main antagonist is a judge named Claude Frollo. He's certainly not a sympathetic character, but throughout the film, he agonizes over his actions and worries that he will suffer everlasting punishment because of them. At the end Frollo dies by falling into a fiery pit that clearly represents hell. Having gone to Sunday school, I was familiar with that doctrine, but that scene was what made it real to me. I couldn't get it out of my head: the Latin chanting, Frollo's unshakable guilt, and that eternal bubbling inferno.
I was familiar with what was necessary for becoming a Christian. The oft-quoted verse from Romans 10 says that "if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved." I took that verse quite literally. But even though I sincerely believed and "confessed the Lord Jesus" privately dozens of times, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was still bound for hell. Could I really be sure that I had met all of the requirements? It seemed like it, certainly, but because the stakes were infinitely high, even the tiniest chance I was wrong was cause for alarm. This was my one profound anxiety at the ripe old age of seven.
I tried to comprehend what endless suffering would be like, but I just couldn't wrap my head around it. It made me dizzy. I would lie awake in bed imagining as long a period of time as I could and think, surely this is long enough? But I realized that no matter what length of time I imagined, it would not even begin to represent the amount of suffering experienced in hell. So, although I had nominally met the requirements for Christianity, the sheer magnitude of hell was absolutely terrifying to me. The idea that I had somehow missed one was enough to consume me with worry.
I remember flipping a cardboard coin I got at Chuck E. Cheese and mumbling to myself, "heads I go to heaven, tails I go to hell." If it came up heads I tried to convince myself it meant something; if it was tails I rationalized it away as a silly game. I remember going to the supermarket with my mother and helping her load groceries onto the conveyor belt at the checkout counter. I would pretend that I was "packing for hell." I realized that no amount of supplies would be enough, but I continued doing so anyway out of some twisted desperation. I knew I had to do something to quench my uncertainties.
A couple of months later I went to the Harvest Crusade with my mom and dad. At the end of the sermon, they had the altar call, and I told my parents I wanted to go down onto the stadium field to be saved. I remember my parents being pretty surprised—they probably figured that I was basically a Christian already, so it wasn't necessary—but they took me down anyway. Someone walked me through the sinner's prayer, and I got a little illustrated "Ben Born Again" pamphlet. A wave of relief and warmth washed over me. As I walked out of the stadium, holding both my parents' hands, I was beaming ear to ear. The lights in the parking lot shone brilliantly, as though ushering me into salvation. It was one of the happiest days of my life.
In the days that followed I read through the little booklet several times. I got a form letter from my church congratulating me on being saved. I wrote a letter to Jesus on broadly-lined school writing paper thanking him for his sacrifice and expressing my hope that the devil would step on a nail. At the top I wrote "I want to go to heaven with God and Jesus"—I don't think I was aware of the whole "trinity" thing yet. I thought about just going outside and letting it blow away in the breeze in hopes that God would eventually make it float up to heaven, but decided against it since I wasn't sure if he did things like that.
Those were simple, untroubled times for me. Life went on as usual, and for quite a while I was at peace. I can recall being on the elementary school playground, gazing at the empty swing set, thinking, Very soon, when the Rapture comes, this is what the world will look like. When I imagined my future, I basically assumed that I would never make it to college, let alone get a job. When I thought about what I would do when I grew up, I was only half serious. Jesus would surely come back before then. It was a calm, surreal sort of feeling, as though this world were just a fleeting illusion.
On the one hand, I could view the things I did as a Christian at age seven as quaint and naïve. But when I really think about my behavior, I find much of it to be pretty disturbing. I was fixated on the terrifying possibility that I might suffer forever in a place that doesn't exist. I played weird mind games with myself centered around this notion. I asked forgiveness of an imaginary entity, and wrote a follow-up letter in gratitude—and such sentiments were actively encouraged by those around me. I welcomed the Rapture completely at the expense of my life on earth. This is how religion warps the thoughts and beliefs of an innocent child. And although Christianity brought me great happiness at times, I can't look back on it now and say it didn't harm me.