Before I became a father, at the age of 36, I never suspected that adopting a young child, Nathan, would so powerfully dismantle my fortress-like evangelical beliefs. Nor did I anticipate the storm of turmoil, anger, and grief I would soon experience, as I relived my own childhood and confronted the dogmas I grew up with.
Nathan’s exuberant ADHD personality challenged and enchanted me and my wife from the day we first saw him. Nathan lived most of the first five years of his life in a dimly lit orphanage in western Ukraine. I will never forget the frigid November morning we first visited him at the orphanage. Although Nathan had never seen us or had any contact with us before, he dashed toward us with raised hands, exclaiming “mama, tata!” and kissed us on our cheeks. He instantly melted my heart.
Nathan was an unstoppable dynamo. For two weeks leading up to a court hearing on our petition to adopt, we visited Nathan for two hours a day. He was not still for a moment. Two weeks after the court hearing, we were allowed to pick Nathan up from the orphanage. For the next several days, Nathan hardly slept. Exposed for the first time in his life to a world outside the orphanage, Nathan was hyper-stimulated. After an epic transatlantic journey back to the States, with Nathan kicking the airplane seat in front of him and me unsuccessfully trying to restrain him the entire 10-hour flight, Nathan was home.
From day one, Nathan’s innocence, mischievousness, inquisitiveness, explosiveness, and affection fascinated and challenged me. He was so different from me, so much livelier, so able to live in the moment, and so unstunted in his capacity to enjoy life. Yes, Nathan desperately needed to develop communication, social and behavioral skills. But I didn’t want to destroy his spark. On the contrary, I hoped to learn from Nathan how to enjoy life and live in the moment.
As I contemplated my deep parental bond with Nathan and how I ought to raise him, I began reexamining the Christian dogmas with which I was reared. Childhood memories of the dreadful dogmas I had been taught at Nathan’s age boiled up to the surface. I recoiled with bewilderment, grief and anger.
The dogmas of my childhood
One of the first memories to surface was of an eerie summer day in our little house in Tacoma, Washington. I was just five years old, and my Mom decided it was time to teach me about hell.
I was in my bedroom. A melancholy afternoon sunlight diffused through the white sheet curtains of the west-facing window, illuminating the dusty air. There, Mom told me that God hates sin—that is, disobedience—and to punish sin, He prepared a place of eternal fire and torment called Hell. When sinful people died, they went to Hell. It was God’s punishment for sin. Two thousand years ago, God sent his son Jesus to die on the cross. If I believed this, and “accepted Jesus into my heart,” I could escape the torments of hell and enjoy the promise of heaven, where I would live with God forever.
Mom told me that my older brother had asked Jesus into his heart, so He was bound for heaven. Then Mom left me in my bedroom to ponder her words. Mom wanted my conversion to be genuine, thoughtful and real.
So there I was, alone in my bedroom. My five-year-old mind pondered with terror and horror a God who hated disobedience so much that He would condemn people to a place of eternal fire and torment. I felt abandoned and alienated. I stared toward the window. The sunlight that once warmed me felt alien, hostile and cold. The sun’s rays symbolized the distant foreboding flickers of a hateful eternal fire waiting to torment the souls of the lost.
I stood there in that room all alone, condemned, diminished and stripped of all human dignity. God hated me for who I was. I didn’t stay in my bedroom long. I went out to the kitchen and asked Mom to help me pray Jesus into my heart. And so I became a Christian. But the alienation I felt on that summer afternoon stayed with me. It became the fearful cornerstone of my understanding of God.
Next, painful memories surfaced of the countless stories from Good News Club lessons I attended every week of every summer between the ages of 7 and 10. There are thousands of GNCs operating in public schools, churches and backyards. The sponsoring organization, Child Evangelism Fellowship, is the largest and most influential evangelical ministry directed toward young children, with over 700 staff members and 40,000 volunteers.
A family member gave us several old GNC lesson books, the same ones I had read as a child, for the purpose of teaching Nathan. A year after adopting Nathan, I began to review the lesson books. I also checked out a half a dozen other GNC lesson books from an evangelical library. The lessons present all of the familiar (and many not so familiar) Bible stories, about Adam and Eve, the Serpent and the Fall, Noah and the Flood, Abraham and Isaac, Lot and Sodom, Pharaoh and the Ten Plagues, and many others. But GNC presents these stories with terrifying, unmitigated detail. These are not whitewashed versions suitable for young children.
Lessons about God’s commands to Abraham to sacrifice his son (Gen. 9) and to Saul to slaughter all of the Amalekites (I Sam. 15) exemplify God’s demand for total obedience. Lessons about Lot’s wife being transformed into a pillar of salt for stealing a last glance at Sodom (Gen. 19:26), of Aaron’s sons being consumed with fire for offering strange incense to God (Lev. 10:1-3), of Uzzah being struck dead for reaching out his hand to stabilize the ark of the covenant (2 Sam. 6), and of 42 children being mauled for mocking Elisha’s bald head (2 Kings 3:23-25) exemplify God’s terrible punishment for even trivial sins. GNC even tarnishes the more endearing stories, like the story of David’s adoption of Mephibosheth, a paralytic, with commentary on sin and punishment.
Almost every GNC lesson intones that sin—“anything you think, say, or do that breaks God’s laws”—must be punished. The worst sins, of course, are thought crimes: doubt and unbelief. The punishment for sin is death and eternal separation from God. The lessons repeatedly admonish children that they deserve death. One typical GNC lesson text states: “God hates the sinful things you do, like pouting and complaining, or hitting someone. He says you deserve his punishment, which is separation from Him forever in a terrible place called Hell. Have you been set free from the death you deserve for your sin?”
Another recurring GNC lesson theme is about the basic depravity of human nature. One GNC lesson text informs children that: “your heart, the real you, is sinful from the time you are born.” Says another: “[t]here was nothing in me, nor in you, that should cause the Lord Jesus to want to love us. All that is in us is sin and selfishness and pride and hatefulness.” And another: “Even the good things you do aren’t good enough. The Bible says those things are like filthy, dirty rags.”
GNC’s repeated themes about sinfulness and unworthiness are always “balanced” by reminders of God’s “love,” manifested by the opportunity that each child has, through submissive “belief” in the dogmas with which they are being indoctrinated, to be saved. Children are admonished that even though they are undeserving of love, Christ died and suffered on the cross for them, and so they owe God their worship and whole-hearted surrender. One GNC lesson text intones: “Do you love and honor Him for what He did for you? Because of the sin in our lives we are selfish, unkind, disobedient, always doing the things that are wrong instead of right. But the Lord Jesus gave his precious blood on the cross. Dying there, He was taking the punishment for our sins. We owe all that we are to Him.”
GNC’s dark emphases on sin, depravity and obedience are thoroughly Biblical and embraced by the evangelical mainstream. The concepts that all people are conceived in sin (Ps. 51:5), that “nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature” (Rom. 7:18), that the natural self is so flawed as to have “become worthless” (Rom. 2:12), and “by nature [an] object of wrath” (Eph. 2:3) are pillars of evangelical doctrine.
Assessing the damage
As I read through the GNC lesson books, my childhood memories of those stories, and the terror and shame they inspired, came flooding back. For the first time, I recognized how evangelism artfully harnesses the phenomenon known as the Stockholm Syndrome. Named after a famous incident in 1973 in which robbery victims held hostage for six days grew emotionally attached to their captors, and defended them after they were freed, the Stockholm Syndrome frequently manifests when a captor strips the victim of all forms of independence, self-worth and dignity, alternately terrorizing and offering kindness to the victim. The victim embraces the kindness and views the captor as giving life simply by not taking it.
Evangelical Christianity employs the Stockholm Syndrome to full effect. God gains obedience and worship by reminding humans of their utter unworthiness, dangling them over hell, and then “saving” them, in exchange for submission, from the very torments he threatens.
I pondered these dogmas with the newly acquired insight and sensitivity of a father. As a vulnerable child, these dogmas had repeatedly attacked, and ultimately destroyed, my self-image and sense of intrinsic value. As early as my pre-teen years, I struggled with low self-image, depression and suicidal ideation. Now it was unmistakably clear: my religious upbringing was the cause.
For the first time in my life, I understood how abusive, degrading and destructive those dogmas had been. All of my indoctrination, prayers and Bible study had not made life any fuller or more enjoyable, or my character any more empathetic and soft-hearted. Rather, the shame with which I was indoctrinated robbed me of the ability to enjoy life at an early age. It had made me super-sensitive to perceiving “sin” in myself and others, hardened me to much of humanity, and made me quick to misjudge outsiders. The fear of hell and the devaluation of earthly and present things made it impossible for me to live in the moment.
Yet I, like so many victims of abuse, became an ardent defender of my abusers. I had sublimated my suppressed rage into Christian activism, intent on doing battle with the “world” and fiercely defending the faith. As an attorney, I even waged legal battles on behalf of Christianity, including— ironically—defending the “equal access” rights of Good News Clubs to public elementary schools.
Using the hammers and cudgels of fear and shame, the pedagogues of my youth had shaped me into a “believer,” at war with myself and at war with the world.
Now, as a father, I cringed at the thought of someone inflicting the same terror and sense of shame on Nathan. Imagine the soul-murdering effect that telling Nathan, whom his own birth parents had abandoned at birth, that his natural self was “worthless” (Rom. 2:12), and that nothing good lived in him (Rom. 7:18).
I also recoiled at the “holiness” of “God the Father.” God, we have all been told, cannot tolerate sin in his presence. That’s why he created hell. But I could not imagine any good father hating his child for acts of disobedience. I could not fathom how “justice” would move a father to torture his child in hell.
Reflecting on my love for Nathan, I imagined myself a five-year-old again, like him. I became angry and depressed that my parents had inflicted such painful dogmas on my young psyche. Why had my parents, neither of whom were raised in fundamentalist households, embraced and imposed these dogmas on their own flesh and blood? Why didn’t their own parental instincts anticipate, and recoil in horror at the damage those dogmas would cause? I felt betrayed and wounded.
Recovery and Healing
It took me more than 30 years to begin consciously processing the damage I suffered as a child. Nathan has not yet begun that process. Although Nathan knows he is adopted, he does not yet know the tragic details of his first years of life. It is incumbent on me, as a father, to continually love and affirm him so that he develops a secure enough sense of identity and value to weather the facts he will eventually come to know.
Sometimes I gather Nathan into my arms, and look into his eyes. I tell him: You are precious; you are beautiful; we longed for you before we ever saw you; before we ever knew who you were, and in the month you were born, I was thinking of you and composing a melody for you; you enrich our lives, and the lives of so many others, with your presence; we will always love and cherish you. Nathan just soaks up the love, and then gives it back. As I tell Nathan these things, I tell them to my inner child too. As I gather Nathan into my arms, pressing his cheek against mine, I embrace my inner child too. As I comfort him, I comfort myself.
Recovery takes time, and lots of love and understanding. Expressing the love of a father is powerfully self-healing. By adopting Nathan out of an environment of neglect and into an intensely nurturing environment, my wife and I have transformed Nathan’s life. In showering me with his innocence, enthusiasm and love, Nathan has brought me back into touch with my inner child, and transformed my life.
Bill Moeller (a pen name) is an attorney and former evangelical Christian. His story was gathered for an anthology in process by Dr. Marlene Winell, human development consultant and founder of Journey Free, and author of Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion. The upcoming anthology, Happy Heretics: Journeys of Recovery from Harmful Religion will feature stories from “reclaimers” discussing experiences they found powerful in their journeys out of fundamentalism.