I stared at my dad in disbelief. The man who cooked
me dinner and coached my soccer team had been replaced by someone every bit as
diabolical as the super-villains on TV. My mom must have sensed my fear. She grabbed my hand. “Your dad’s just pretending to be Satan,” she whispered in my ear. Even if he was pretending, I still couldn’t believe he was even capable of laughing like that. Then he started telling the disciples that they were going to join him in hell. “Why does Satan hate Jesus so much?” I asked my mom. “And what’s hell?” The story of Jesus seemed more complicated than just a nice man living inside my heart. “Don’t worry about it, honey.” She patted my hand. “It’s a place you don’t have to worry about.” She was right. I didn’t have to worry about it for a few more years. In high school I sat in the youth room of our church, posters of Christian rock bands taped to brightly painted walls. “Telling someone they are going to hell is never easy,” my youth pastor said as she tucked her shoulder-length hair behind her ears. “But it’s easier than watching them burn in hell.” She paused for effect, looking out at forty tenth graders seated on folding chairs in the church basement. I raised my hand. “How many Christians are in the world right now?” “Great question Nathan, about one billion.” She paused with her index finger in the air. “If you count Catholics,” she said, more to herself than to me. “But even if you don’t count Catholics, there are more Christians than any other religion in the world.” We had just finished watching a made-for-church movie about four teenagers who died in a car crash. The driver was a Christian about my age who had never told his friends about Jesus. But after he dies, he is sent on an elevator ride from heaven down to hell and sees his friends shouting at him. Why didn’t you tell us what would happen? Flames danced behind them as their faces melted like plastic toys under a magnifying glass. I had heard about hell before. It was a regular topic of sermons, but it had always been in the abstract—pain, weeping, and gnashing of teeth. But watching teenagers’ faces melt off was when hell became a real place, a fire-prison where my non-Christian friends were going to get fire-tortured. I left church that night determined to save as many of the five billion hell-bound souls as I could. But at sixteen years old, my options were limited. I tried to tell a few of my non-Christian classmates that I was concerned they were going to hell, but they were less than receptive. And after a couple interventions, non-Christians started avoiding direct eye contact with me. So I decided to enlist as a Bible camp counselor in the north woods of Minnesota the next summer.