A Rapture of Terror

Steve Kornacki wrote a Salon article last week about how Harold Camping‘s 1994 prediction of the end of the world caused him to live in fear at 13 years old.

I feel his pain.

I was terrified of the Rapture as a kid. The Christianity of my youth was full of Rapture and Tribulation theology, with the Antichrist rising up to take over the world and desecrate the Temple, judgments pouring out and seas boiling and scorpions tormenting, all culminating on the triumphant return of Christ himself with a sword proceeding from his mouth to slaughter the wicked.

And me, the confused little preacher’s kid, who got “saved” at age 6 but soon realized that his faith was hollow and empty, but didn’t dare admit this to a soul—I believed the Rapture was coming, and that if it did I probably wouldn’t go. And I was terrified.

Our family attended a dramatization of the book of Revelation, and one scene consisted only of “sinners” cast into the Lake of Fire, coming on stage in gunny-sack robes and screaming in agony as they “burned” in stage-flames. I had a front-row seat. I was terrified.

When I was 13, my dad received this booklet in the mail. We all had a good laugh—after all, no one can know when the Rapture will come, so this guy was clearly a crackpot. But still, the rapture itself was real, and the Tribulation to follow it. I read the pamphlet cover to cover and soaked in every word about the Nuclear Winter that awaited the unbelievers left behind. The pamphlet assured me that if I didn’t get saved before the Rapture, then my reward for surviving these horrors would surely be the fires of hell. And I was terrified.

I had more than one Rapture scare growing up, where I found myself all alone and wondered if I’d been left behind. It sounds so silly now, but it was a real thing. I spent many years in quiet religious terror.

So when a new wave of Rapture crackpottery hits, be it the campy “A Thief in the Night” film series in the 70s, or Jenkins and LaHaye’s atrocious Left Behind novels, or the circus surrounding Camping’s new prediction for this weekend past, I have myself a good laugh…but I also remember that Rapture terror is a real thing, and that many, many children are trapped in it.

So Rapture-mongers don’t just get me laughing. They also get me angry. I am angry because of the ugly exceptionalism and perversion of God’s love inherent in the message of a chosen few saved from fiery wrath. I am angry because of the bondage of fear under which they place millions of people, especially children. I was that child. I resonate with anger and grief when when Yeshua says “but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”



13 Responses to “A Rapture of Terror”

  1. 1 oberonthefool
    May 23, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    I remember that the combination of The Screwtape Letters, and Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness series, which I read in late high school, introduced me to a religious paranoia that literally paralyzed my brain, forcing me into loops of psychic self-flagellation that kept me miserable and terrified for months. I’m fairly certain that was the beginning of my divorce from (and probably the source of a lot of my anger toward) religion.

  2. 2 Joel
    May 23, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    That sounds very familiar, Nev. It sucks that the anger remains, but I’m glad you were able to make a break that quickly. Myself, I clung to the beliefs for a long time, just like an abused child might cling to his abusers, certain that any suffering is entirely deserved.

  3. 3 oberonthefool
    May 23, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    Well, it wasn’t that quick, it took several years. Maybe as much as a decade to really extricate myself. But that was probably the beginning.

    The things I see and hear about being done in the name of religion continue to anger me, even the “good” things, because nobody should feel like they have to do good out of fear, or for the sake of a mass delusion. The evidence tells me that religion has caused far more evil and suffering in the world than good. I become increasingly unable to relate to people with religious beliefs, even friends and loved ones. Heck, especially them. It’s like having a friend who does drugs. You want better for them, y’know?

  4. 4 Joel
    May 23, 2011 at 5:01 pm

    Ah, that does sound more like my own exit speed. Though I should hasten to add that in my case I mean an exit from fundamentalist, fear-based religion, not from faith as a whole. I relate to a lot of what you’re saying, though: anger at religion, strain in relating to religious loved ones…that last one especially. Having evangelical Christian family members means a whole nest of ongoing issues, especially now that they’e the grandparents of our daughter, and naturally are hoping to instill their values in her. :(

  5. 5 oberonthefool
    May 23, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    Yeah… that’d definitely be a major Issue, if someone were trying to indoctrinate my (nonexistent) kids, no matter who they were.

  6. May 23, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    Once upon a time, I called myself a Catholic. I invested a lot of my personal identity into that title. And it made me say some awful things to people, which I regret to this day. I started reading the Bible quite a bit, which ultimately led me away from Christianity, but not before the Book of Revelations had thoroughly terrified me. I found it a bit odd when I first read that apocalyptic literature in the Second Temple period (a whole genre that goes far beyond just the Revelation of St. John included by the Synod of Hippo) had offered comfort to those communities. Comfort? Really? How had they found comfort in such terrifying visions? It took me a long time to really grasp the complete faith that people can have that God will certainly include them among the select few—only those other people, those people that we don’t like, will suffer these fates.

    Joel, you know Willem, so I presume you know where I come from when I say that I don’t consider civilization a sustainable project. Since we can’t sustain it, I expect it to collapse, and probably sooner rather than later. A few years back, I blogged a lot about this—the causes of it, the roots of it, what I expected to come from it, and my best thoughts on how to deal with it. My current project, The Fifth World, continues to address this in the best way that I know how. But it does often bother me when I notice that, though the words have changed, I can still hear the same melody: the way we live now will end, amidst great strife and suffering; the virtuous will find a new world, and the wicked will perish in their sinful ways. Sure, I point to historical examples instead of Bronze Age poetry, but you and I know the power of the story, so surely it means something that despite all the other things that have changed for me, the story that preoccupies me hasn’t really changed at all.

    One kid in particular found that blog that I used to write. He had some problems. He used sock puppets to make it appear like many different people shared his questions and concerns. He would sometimes absolutely flood me with questions and comments. It would take me days to answer everything he asked. Eventually, he wrote to me directly by email, confessing about the sock puppets, telling me about the personal problems he faced, and asking me for answers. The things I’d written really frightened him. He begged me to ban him from my site, because he didn’t think he could stop himself. I did. Eventually, his father contacted me—he wanted to condemn me for frightening his son.

    I think a lot of the problems we see today—from the big social problems to the intensely personal—come from a breakdown of our relationship with a more-than-human world. I can hardly turn a blind eye to that. I can’t ignore the signs I see that the current state of affairs can hardly continue on much longer, either. But I shuttered that old blog a few years back so that I could spend more time on The Fifth World. I found the points I made there filtering out even through the mainstream media at times, so it seemed like the world didn’t need “the facts” nearly so much anymore. I thought of that kid, and his terror. It seemed to me then, and it still does now, that we don’t need new facts nearly so much as we need a new story, a new way of understanding those facts. That kid looked at the facts and saw the story of fire and death waiting for all but the select few, chosen by forces beyond our control or comprehension—the same story that terrified me in my own youth. I want to share the story I see now, and academic writing has never really worked very well for that. So instead, I’ve spent my time trying to hone the right kind of art. I want to share this story of a beautiful future that lies ahead of us, for anyone who wants to take a chance on it—a story that can offer some real comfort, instead of just more terror.

    At least, I tell myself that whenever I start to wonder if I’ve just wasted my time over the past five years.

  7. 7 Hans Chung-Otterson
    May 26, 2011 at 10:46 pm

    My mom rented & showed us some of those “Thief in the Night” videos, and they terrified me as well. There was a very distinct period in my childhood where I was also terrified of the Rapture. I didn’t think anyone else was, but now I’m realizing: maybe a LOT of kids who grow up in bible-believing Christian homes are scared shitless of the Rapture? I know that as a kid I was even scared of heaven. The concept was so mind-boggling, whenever I’d close my eyes and think about forever and gaudy golden streets I’d nearly get a panic attack and have to open my eyes gasping, and run outside into the sunlight or something.

    Me & God & Christianity & Jesus & Whatever are in a limbo place these days, and its not being able to process or let go of shit like the above that makes me want to stay in limbo.

  8. June 3, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    My hometown church was a place of strangeness for me on so many levels. But i do remember asking questions of the people there about Biblical facts and interpretations. It wasn’t until later, in college, where i took a handful of Biblical courses that i really learned to appreciate how wonderful the people of my old church were.

    When i asked about the end of the world, or life after death, or doubting my faith, they all responded with a pretty calm, pretty compassionate, ‘I don’t know.’ It was a pretty fear-free place. As a result, when i hear people talk about Revelations, or judgment of any kind, really, i skip over most of my formal religious training and education, and return to those folks i grew up with. I just shrug my shoulders, and admit that, to me, it’s relatively irrelevant. The questions i concern myself with are about Love, and loving people. And when i hear about anything coming from a fear-based perspective, i step aside.

    • 9 Sky
      July 22, 2011 at 2:08 am

      I like your perspective graypawn, I have a few respect worthy, loving, down to earth and wise Christians in my life who are, like yourself, busy loving people, not freaking them out. Fear is from below anyway, it’s the opposite of love and God is love so I can’t even believe some churches would scare people like that. It’s a contradiction and very sad. My church would never dream of it. I hope people continue to pursue God regardless of human stupidity and I’m genuinely sorry some of you have been through that. That must have been terrible and it shouldn’t have happened. Given what I know about Jesus I’m sure he would not be impressed with it either.

      • 10 Joel
        July 22, 2011 at 11:30 am

        It’s a funny thing, Sky: my parents truly believed they were loving me by presenting the Rapture to me in the most terrifying form possible. Because if you love someone and they’re in danger, you need to warn them, right? There’s no room for a delicate approach or sparing feelings when a child’s trapped in a burning building, and to my parents (and to thousands of other Evangelical Christian parents) the danger of hell was no different.

        So long as the belief in Hell exists, this is an intractable issue. No fire and brimstone Christian will EVER relent in spreading that message of terror, not in spite of their love but BECAUSE of it. The only thing that will alter that impasse is a total perspective change and the realization that eternal punishment in Hell is incompatible with a loving God.

        Here’s some further reading on the subject. First an article by Chad Holz, who lost his pastorship by espousing beliefs like this:

        And Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, which I can’t wait to get my hands on:

  9. 11 malcolmpdx
    November 1, 2011 at 2:16 pm

    I was asked to preach at my church right around the most recent go around with this, and I joked about it. “Lovely to see you all here” or something like that. I joked because I really didn’t know what else to say about it. Perhaps, I shouldn’t have.

    Not having been raised in a tradition that has much emphasis on that sort of theology, I find myself trying to understand it, and failing. I get closest to understanding it when I hear it coming out of contexts of liberation, where the apocalypse is a righting of wrongs, justice rolling down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. That makes some sense, at least as an aspiration. I can get behind the hoping for a better, more just world.

    Reward and punishment theology disgusts me.

    The idea that God will come and destroy everything, except a few deemed righteous, goes against everything I believe. At the heart of it, I don’t believe that God does anything other than love the world, and everything in it. In fact, I believe that this love is extended to even the most evil, the most hateful. Many ask “how can God allow such terrible things to happen” but I tend to ask “how can God stand looking at what we do?” I don’t know, but that rattles me to the core, the idea of that kind of love. That little thing might just be the reason I still have my faith, and might just be the core of just about everything I aspire to.

    Thanks for posting this. It gives me a lot to think about, and insight into how those who come out of far different traditions were raised to believe.

  10. November 2, 2011 at 11:15 am

    Thanks for the link to my blog….good article here.

    You might enjoy a poem I wrote the night before Camping’s prediction this summer. It’s called, Twas the Night Before Rapture. Grace and peace.


  11. 13 Joel
    November 2, 2011 at 11:40 am

    Chad, I’m glad you found your way here! “What I lost losing Hell” was tremendously inspiring to me.

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