In evangelical Christianity, it all comes down to THE PRAYER. Not just any prayer, either. The Sinner’s Prayer. This is the prayer that determines your eternal destination. If you sincerely pray this prayer, you go to heaven. If you don’t, you go to hell. The sinner’s prayer is pretty strictly defined, and goes something like this (with key wording in caps):
Dear Jesus, I confess that I am a SINNER in need of SALVATION and that I DESERVE HELL. I ask you to COME INTO MY HEART and be my PERSONAL LORD AND SAVIOR. Amen.
I grew up believing that praying this prayer, with its exact wording, or very close to it, is imperative for salvation. However, it may not even be enough, although technically speaking it is. But if you are sincere in praying the prayer, you have to go public with it, preferably by walking the aisle down to the front of the church during the altar call at the end of every service, ideally in tears or with some emotional display. In the tradition in which I grew up (Southern Baptist), you then have to get baptized via immersion in front of the church. After that, your life needs to show some kind of dramatic change, like you stop hitting your sister or doing meth, to demonstrate that all this “took.” Then you and everyone will know for sure that YOU ARE INDEED SAVED. But, trust us, there are a whole lot of people out there — most of them, really — who think they are Christians, but really aren’t, and those folks are GOING STRAIGHT TO HELL.
I got saved via this process when I was five, an event of which I have only half-baked memories. The main thing I remember is watching the baptisms of others in church and thinking how fun it would be to swim up there with the pastor. I loved to swim. I was also deeply covetous of the Lord’s Supper (communion for the high church types out there), which looked to me like a nice little snack in the middle of a long, boring service. You had to be baptized to get that, though. So, from what I can remember, I prayed the Sinner’s Prayer and got dunked after no doubt years of lobbying by my parents (they probably started preaching to me while I was still in the womb) in order to enjoy a swim and snack in the middle of church. Since I was five and my motives were suspect, I can’t say my life showed a dramatic change. It’s not like I laid off the booze. I don’t even think I laid off annoying my sister, but that was all her fault anyway for being so bossy, which incidentally is not a Christ-like characteristic. Her Sinner’s Prayer may not have worked either.
Due to my unconvincing conversion experience, my greatest fear from as young an age as I can remember was that I was a huge faker, that I hadn’t really and truly invited Jesus into my heart, that I had somehow said the words wrong or didn’t mean them or didn’t feel something I should have felt or didn’t exhibit enough change that would indicate I was saved. And that, as a result, I was going to end up in hell.
I was terrified of fire, ever since I had seen Bon Voyage Charlie Brown, in which the gang’s French chateau burns down, truly one of the more dramatic scenes in cinematic history. I refused to stay in hotels, only ground-floor motel rooms for me, and I demanded to inspect the host’s smoke alarms before sleeping at a friend’s house. When I was six, I told my mom that she had to give me a smoke alarm when I got married (and she did, the first time. By the second time, she probably figured that if I had chosen to get divorced, I had damn well better get over my fear of fire).
As bad as earthly fires seemed to me, I imagined hell fires were worse and also forever. Basically you would have the sensation of burning up that would never end. Also, you would be down there with Satan, who is totally freaky. Strangely, I did not imagine him with horns, a tail, and a pitchfork, as he is usually depicted, but rather as a 3D zigzag with eyes. This is baffling to me because, first, I have no idea where I may have gotten that image, and second, it’s not really very scary. He resembled some kind of living argyle sweater. Whatever he looked like though, I knew he was scary as hell, and that was no figure of speech.
So I just kept praying the Sinner’s Prayer, day after day, multiple times a day, for years and years — decades — hoping to God one of those times would make the cut. Although growing up, I did derive comfort and joy from my faith, it was all heavily underlined by foreboding. Ironically, a faith that sold itself to the outside as the source of ultimate peace and certain salvation only made me fear more.
The strange thing about The Sinner’s Prayer, and the emphasis on Jesus as one’s personal savior, is that neither concept is found anywhere in the Bible. There are stories of personal conversion in the New Testament — Saul/Paul’s on the road to Damascus being most prominent — but the term “personal savior” does not appear in the Bible. In addition, it’s clear that early Christians practiced a very communal form of religion, sharing all their resources equally and being responsible for widows and orphans in their midst. Whole families were baptized in Acts based on the faith of the patriarch.
It’s doubtful early Christians, or most Christians throughout history or even around the world currently, would recognize or identifiy with the Christianity of white evangelicalism, with its romantic notions of Jesus as the end-all, be-all relationship of one’s life, as expressed in countless praise songs and Bible studies and books and sermons that speak of falling in love with him and finding the fulfillment of all one’s needs through a “personal relationship” with him.
All of this is a pretty recent expression of Christianity. Its earliest origins date back to the First Great Awakening — 1700 years after Christ walked the earth — when individual faith became elevated as the basis of Christian belief and practice. The timing is not surprising, given the broader cultural/intellectual context of the Enlightenment, when the concept of individual rights took the world by storm, exploding the notions of monarchy and eventually social hierarchy and sparking the American Revolution among others. Similarly, the Second Great Awakening took place in the 19th century as individualistic economic systems and enterprise were gaining steam and political democracy advanced even further. Over the next century, an individual, personal, and increasingly emotional expression of faith became the dominant strain of American Christianity. But it wasn’t until the 20th century that all this became distilled in The Sinner’s Prayer and other evangelical shibboleths, the must-pass tests of faith.
These days, The Prayer itself seems to be the subject of reexamination and debate within the broader evangelical community, but the narrow definition of Christianity and the use of certain tests to police its boundaries persists. I grew up being told that a whole host of people who thought of themselves as Christians weren’t in fact because of how they conceived of their faith, what their particular views were on a variety of issues, and various “tells” in their personal life (mostly how they behaved sexually). Catholics and non-evangelical Protestants weren’t real Christians because they lacked a concept of a “personal savior,” preferring “meaningless” rituals over personal piety. On top of that, Catholics idolized Mary. Black Christians weren’t real Christians because, as a culture, they were far too sexually permissive. Almost before I heard about the specifics of his work for civil rights, I heard about MLK’s sexual indiscretions. White evangelical missionaries went to proselytize in overwhelmingly Christian countries because the people there weren’t the right kind of Christians. More recently, being a Christian has been defined in evangelical circles by a list of political viewpoints. Others’ faith is questioned based on their positions on issues that don’t feature in the Bible at all, such as abortion, gun control, climate change.
My point here is not to question or delegitimize an evangelical version of faith, which has brought deep meaning and joy to millions of lives. For many, the Sinner’s Prayer is truly a catalyst that changes their lives for the better.
But it’s not a measuring stick. It’s not a billy club. It’s not a cookie cutter. It’s not the ultimate test. The truth is, American evangelical Christianity is a fairly new way of understanding and internalizing the gospel. And for some, it’s a powerful and effective way of doing so. But it’s not the only way.
To be honest, it never really resonated with me. Try as I might — and believe me, I tried as if my eternal life depended on it — I never could quite understand how to have a personal relationship with the God of the universe. Yes, He assumed human form as Jesus, but he wasn’t human, or anything of which the human mind could fully conceive, and I still needed other humans to experience and demonstrate his love. No matter how many “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs I sang and books I read, I still wanted an actual boyfriend. Despite belting out “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” I was still lonely in the absence of deep friendships. A daily “quiet time,” the de rigueur ritual of evangelical faith, didn’t magically fix everything. If I’m honest, the extra sleep I got when I skipped it did much more for my character. I experienced God much more profoundly in watching a sunset or gazing at the stars or reading about scientific discovery or having a raw and honest conversation with a friend.
As I’ve lived more of my life outside an evangelical context, I’ve experienced God profoundly through the experiences of the marginalized, in the perseverance of those who struggle, in compassion for the weak, and in my own failure and doubt. When I believed I had to stay within narrow lines to save my own soul, when I believed there were questions I couldn’t ask and things I couldn’t say and stories I couldn’t tell— fear crowded out most everything else. Pushing it out — actually trusting that God is good and loving to bridge any gap in the paths I take — has split my heart wide open. I’m not afraid anymore. It feels like freedom.
I have a hard time believing that the God of the vast, incomprehensible universe, of time and eternity and history and all that is or has been or can ever be, who is the energy that holds all things together and the love that binds hearts and the light in all souls, that THAT God would demand a faith that comes down to the exact wording of a prayer, the precisely correct answers to questions that have lived to be asked over and over from the beginning, the absolute certainty about things for which there can be none, the total assent to a particular form of church or movement or political party in a particular time and place. Maybe you can believe that, maybe it gives you peace to believe that, and maybe you’re right. But I have a hard time believing that.