from Issue 85
When I was eight, my mother pirated an End Times tetralogy on our VCR that my older brothers and I proceeded to watch obsessively. She had gotten the movies from our church’s library, a cave-like room with dozens of Christian movies from the 1970s and early 1980s. We went to a Southern Baptist church in Bradenton, a medium-sized city on the western coast of central Florida. We lived there until our move to Mississippi when I was eleven.
The first of the four movies was called A Thief in the Night and featured a soundtrack heavy on synthesizer. (For Baptists, nothing indicates peril like a synthesizer.) The story was a cinematic rendering of every dispensationalist’s favorite sermon: teenage girl’s family is evangelical; teenage girl falsely assumes she is born again; teenage girl eschews her weekly churchgoing obligations to carouse with tattooed singer-songwriters; teenage girl misses the Rapture; teenage girl burns in hell. In fact, the first film only gets so far as the brief aftermath of the Rapture, when teenage girl realizes (through helpful flashbacks) that she had, in fact, been warned of this precise situation. Alas, it’s too late, and she’s been left behind.
The other three movies in the series follow her as she navigates the tricky terrain laid out by the New World Order. Since all of the true believers have been raptured, she’s left with few allies. At one point our heroine ends up finding refuge from the Antichrist’s police force in an old, abandoned church, where she falls down helplessly before an old, rugged cross. From the shadows comes a man she assumes must be an agent of the Beast, but he stops her, his face covered with tears. As it turns out, he had been the pastor of this church before most of his congregation was taken to heaven. He, however, had never truly believed. But the Rapture has changed his hardened heart, and he has the book of Revelation memorized, a fortuitous coincidence now that most of the Bibles have been burned. In the third movie in the series, Image of the Beast, he pulls out a wall-sized diagram for her of what they’ll experience during the Tribulation’s remaining years. With his End Times Map in hand, they set out for the countryside, determined to stir up as much trouble for Satan as they can manage.
Most kids, I think, have a pivotal movie that forms the basis of their worst-case scenario planning. What would I do if my mom died, like Bambi’s? Could I get my parents back together if they divorced, à la The Parent Trap? Would I make it all the way home, like the Brave Little Toaster?
I, too, made these plans, only mine centered around what I would do when my family, friends, and every Baptist church were summoned to the clouds in glory, leaving me behind. Surely I wouldn’t be so lucky as to stumble across a crusty old preacher with a heart of gold and a photographic memory, I reckoned. So once all the Bibles were burned, how would I know what to do when the Antichrist came to power?
The term evangelical is a blanket term used to describe (mostly) Protestant Christians who believe, among other things, that the only way to heaven is by getting “saved,” or born again. Protestant theologians—and popular writers—have taken this assumption as the basis for their eschatological predictions, basing their elaborate scenarios on interpretations of the Books of Revelation and Daniel. The most prominent subset of evangelicals is pre-millennial dispensationalists; they believe in a seven-year period after the Rapture called the Great Tribulation, followed by the battle of Armageddon and the Last Judgment. The current idea of the Rapture was formulated in the nineteenth century by John Nelson Darby, and although the notion of the Rapture itself existed beforehand, it was Darby who popularized an interpretation that born-again Christians would avoid the wrath of the seven-year Tribulation. He codified the idea that they would be evacuated from the earth at Christ’s second coming, a notion that has been the preeminent one among evangelical Christians ever since. Anyone, then, who believes in a pre-Tribulation Rapture (this includes most American Protestant denominations) is, by definition, a pre-millennial dispensationalist. (There also exist amillennial dispensationalists, who believe that Christians will not be raptured before the seven years, but this is an understandably unpopular view.)
The idea is simple: once Christ ascended into Heaven following his resurrection, he sent the Holy Spirit to inhabit the earth in his absence (at Pentecost). At his second coming, however, he will evacuate both the believers and the Holy Spirit, leaving the earth completely without protection. This evacuation is the Rapture. The seven years following are known as the Tribulation period. Satan will know that his time to rule the earth unhindered has come at last, and he will send out his preordained Antichrist candidate to become ruler of the earth. This man, also referred to in prophecy as the Beast, will establish a New World Order of worldwide peace. This peace will be marked by one religion and one world government. The Antichrist will eventually call himself the true Messiah and demand obedience in the form of a mark on the forehead or on the right hand. This mark will be the number 666, and accepting it means eternal damnation. Those who refuse the mark (knowing it is the mark of the Beast) will be chased down and beheaded, but they will go to heaven as the greatest of all Christian martyrs. These martyrs will rule over heaven and earth beside Jesus for the thousand years after Armageddon.
Toward the end of the first half of the Tribulation, God will let loose his anger on a sinful world, sending plagues and various judgments in sets of seven. The first seven of these judgments are called the seven seals; the first four of these are commonly known as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The Horsemen are only the introduction to an exciting time: there are three other judgments from the seven seals to follow, followed by a second set of seven plagues called the seven trumpets. The trumpets each bring a plague more deadly than the last, including earthquake, famine, falling stars, and thousands of horse-sized locusts with tails like scorpions.
Once the first three-and-a-half years has ended, the judgments intensify. God’s angels now pour out the next seven judgments, called the seven bowls, each of which offers a fun new plague: boils; seas of blood; rivers of blood; intensified, scorching sunlight; and, finally, earthquakes stronger than ever before witnessed. The Antichrist then summons his armies to Armageddon for the last stand, where Jesus returns once again (the rarely-discussed Third Coming) with the armies of heaven and defeats Satan and the Antichrist. They are cast into the “pit,” and Christ and the martyrs rule for a thousand years (the “millennial” in “pre-millennial”). Once the thousand years has ended, Satan is released for a short time, at which point he tries to gather up an army against Christ again. This foolishness is short-lived, however, and he is finally cast into the Lake of Fire, along with Hell and Death. Following this is the long-awaited Last Judgment; anyone whose name is not written in the Book of Life is also cast into the Lake of Fire. Finally the new heaven and the new earth are open for business, and the New Jerusalem descends from God like “a bride adorned for her husband.” Eternity ensues.
Pre-millennial dispensationalists believe that once a person misses the Rapture (because he or she was not “born again”), the only way to avoid eternal damnation is to die as a martyr for Christ. The preferred means of death for these martyrs, according to the book of Revelation, is beheading.
My mother owned hundreds of books when I was growing up, seventy-five percent of which related to Biblical prophecy of the End Times. She also had a series of voluminous commentaries on every book of the Bible, and they all had a special section devoted to End Times eschatology.
Long before watching the End Times films with my brothers, I was completely taken with her collection. I would sit in her office and peruse books with titles like Approaching Hoofbeats or What to Do If You’ve Been Left Behind, always looking for some new insight into the coming end. But after seeing the movies, my main concern changed to learning everything I could about the seven-year Tribulation because I’d have no time to study up once it hit.
The way to avoid being left behind, of course, was by getting saved. I did this when I was five years old. My mother had sat me down a few days before to tell me how I could be certain I’d go to heaven.
“Just tell Jesus you love him and that you’re thankful he died for your sins,” she counseled. “Then ask him to live in your heart forever, and you’ll go to heaven.”
She promised that once I accepted him into my heart, I would feel—at last—freed from the heavy shackles burdening my five-year-old heart. Best of all, the angels in heaven would rejoice. If I listened hard enough, she hinted, I’d even be able to hear them singing. It sounded promising.
A day or so after, I was sitting alone on the couch and decided it was as good a time as any, so I invited the Lord to live in my heart. I was young, certainly, but I knew how to follow directions. After saying the magic words, I listened intently for celestial choirs, heavenly bells, wind chimes—anything, really. The only thing I heard was Wheel of Fortune blaring in the next room. I took this to mean only that the TV was too loud, not that God had a voice like Pat Sajak’s. By the time I had turned eight, though, I was having my doubts. Had I felt “freed” when I got saved? Had I truly been unburdened of my earthly shackles? Wasn’t I still weighed down by troubles and doubts after all? I couldn’t remember the moment well enough to know if it felt like I’d actually been saved or if I’d somehow done it wrong. I would have to ask again, just in case.
Every night before going to sleep, I’d pray for my family, for my teachers, for my friends. Shortly after watching A Thief in the Night for the first time, though, I added something to my repertoire. I asked Jesus to save me, repeatedly. I was hopeful that at least one of these nightly requests would get through, should the others have failed, and I figured the sheer volume would get me on the List: Please God save me and let me go to heaven please God save me and let me go to heaven please God save me and let me go to heaven. On and on. Had there been a God actually listening, surely he would have said No out of spite.
I would watch the End Times movies in long stretches with my brothers, and since we had little else to bond over, we spent a lot of time discussing them. Wasn’t it terrible that Mr. and Mrs. Welch, across the street, would be left behind? Will they get marked by the Beast? What about Brian, their son—will he remember how we warned him and remain faithful to Christ? Will his parents cry when he’s beheaded in front of them by the Antichrist’s military police?
Underlying these family discussions was an unspoken assumption that we were true Christians, immune to any of the punishments awaiting the unbelievers. When we’d talk about it as a family, I was certain I had nothing to fear. But when I was alone, everything changed.
Sometimes my mom would let us watch twenty or thirty minutes of one of the movies after dinner, a kind of ice cream sundae for the soul. Then I’d head off to my bedroom, thinking of the movie’s heroine sobbing as the police readied the guillotine for her execution, all my confidence in the state of my soul melting away with every step. Those nights I would also pray that I’d be spared from nightmares of the violent, creative plagues envisioned in John’s Revelation and displayed so vividly on our television. But my personal terror each night was the vision of horse-sized wasps that flew in by the thousands under a red sun, the horrible scream of their wings so enveloping that it was impossible to discern which way to run.
No matter how often I prayed for salvation, I couldn’t shake the message of my nightmares: I still wasn’t saved. The only conclusion, it seemed, was to learn as much about the Tribulation as I could, while I still had the chance. In addition to her many books, my mother also had a six-foot-long glossy chart that showed the timeline of the seven years after the Rapture. This chart was folded to the size of a regular pamphlet, so that when you unfolded it, the enormous timeline spread out in a slow, dramatic reveal. The bright yellow and green background gave the black and red text a sense of foreboding immediacy, but it was the frequent italics that were, for me, the most chilling. My mother would talk me through the chart, pointing out with solemnity the verses corresponding to the chart’s predictions.
“Think about this,” she’d say, reading a favorite passage from Revelation. “‘And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them.’ Aren’t you glad you don’t have to go through that?” I sure am, I responded dutifully. Her mini-sermons heightened my sense that I should memorize the glossy charts as best I could. On days of seeming lucidity, though, I considered waiting. After all, couldn’t I just grab the charts once my family had been raptured away? Surely it couldn’t be considered stealing if I were the only available next of kin. I figured I could just throw them in the knapsack that carried all my remaining possessions, then head for the hills to await Armageddon. But the heroine’s flight from the police reminded me why this would never work. The Beast’s forces would eventually find me, as they’d found her, no matter where I was hiding. And they’d probably frown upon a large, laminated foldout chart titled MAP OF THE TRIBULATION.
You’ve been left behind
Although A Thief in the Night is centered on one specific teenage girl, the director wanted to provide as chilling a portrait of the moment of the Rapture as possible. We’re given multiple scenes around the country where unbelieving friends and family members realize, with a synthesizer-punctuated shock, that their loved ones have disappeared.
There’s the trendy young woman who wakes to a radio report that thousands—possibly millions!—of people have simply vanished. She calls to her recently-converted husband, always in the bathroom at this hour, to come listen to the shocking news. When he doesn’t answer, she runs to the empty bathroom, finding the water running, his razor fallen carelessly into the sink: she’s been left behind.
There’s the ten-year-old girl who, we learn, had been a stubborn and recalcitrant child. She comes home from school to find her house empty, an abandoned pot on the stove overboiling. She searches through the house frantically before realizing that everyone is gone: she’s been left behind.
Then there’s the sinful wife who had been cheating on her husband with the neighbor. She’s making sandwiches for lunch when she looks out the window to check on her husband, who had been dutifully mowing the lawn. She sees the lawnmower is still running but with no one guiding it as it ambles toward the neighbor’s house. She knocks the sandwich into the sink in a frenzy as she runs outside: she’s been left behind.
The trope of the sinful woman punished by God escaped my eight-year-old brain, but the fear of suddenly realizing one day that everything had changed definitely got through. Those who have been left behind realize quickly that they’ve missed the Rapture they’d laughed about in years past, and only now do they finally believe. But these Johnnies-come-lately can’t simply repent their unbelieving ways. The truly penitent ones remember the warnings they sloughed off: a now-vanished mother’s tearful request that her daughter quit drinking and come to church, or a since-raptured husband begging his wife to pray with him. The chorus of the movie’s theme song plays softly behind these melancholy remembrances, the last line pure Shakespeare: “There’s no time to change your mind/The Son has come, and you’ve been left behind.”
One day after school, I came home to my usually-full house and found it portentously empty. Naturally, I was afraid I’d missed the Rapture. In a sudden panic, I had only one thought: Check the stove! If a pot had been left boiling unattended, my fate was sealed. I rushed in to find the kitchen quiet and free of any signs it had been abandoned supernaturally, but this didn’t satisfy me. Why would my mother be cooking at this hour anyway? Wouldn’t she be in her office instead, studying? So I ran there, thinking Check for fallen pens! My mother would never let a perfectly good ballpoint fall to the floor without picking it up, excepting, of course, for the Rapture. I looked all around her chair for any sign that she’d met up in the air with the other believers, but finding nothing, it occurred to me that she might yet have been in the shower when it happened. I rushed up the stairs toward her bedroom, slowing down as it dawned on me that she might actually be in there. The sound of running water wouldn’t offer proof either way: the shower would still be on if she had been spirited away to glory, and she probably wouldn’t hear me knocking if this was all a false alarm.
I paused on the stairs as I considered my options: face seven years of the Tribulation or barge in on my mother in the shower? Stare down falling stars and rivers of blood or burn nude-mother-shaped holes in my eyeballs? I remember feeling very old at that moment, the way children do when they have to consider something tremendous and larger than themselves, like death, eternity, or their mother’s nakedness. In the end, my fear of being beheaded won out, so I forged ahead, knocking loudly on her bathroom door without even bothering to listen for the sound of water. No response, so I charged in to find it empty, the shower dry and unoccupied. My sense of relief quickly faded to abject terror: Where else could she be?
It was clear: the Rapture had finally come. Why hadn’t God saved me, after I’d asked so many times? I moved to her room and lay in the bed, smelling the perfume on her pillow. As much as I’d feared this day, I hadn’t expected it to feel so bad. How many days would her pillow still smell like her? How long before I’d forget the sound of her voice? How could Hell be any worse than this?
I couldn’t stay there much longer, I knew. I could stay for maybe a month, but by then I’d be out of food and the Antichrist would already be on the rise. In the movie, the officially unexplained Supernatural Crisis had been met with a UN-declared international state of emergency, and the American government was hastily dissolved to join with the worldwide nation-state led by the UN Secretary-General. This took less than a week, and by the end of two months’ time, there were UN troops in every small town in America. I’d lost my family, the American government was about to be dissolved, I’d have to be beheaded before long, and the UN was invading. It felt like a low point.
I was too scared to turn on the TV, so I lay in her bed a while, unable to stop thinking of what my brother had told me, back before he’d risen with the dead in Christ and gone to meet them in the air. My oldest brother was in high school, and he swore that his science teacher had told him that a human can remain alive for up to thirty seconds after having his head cut off. The worst part of being beheaded, he warned, was undoubtedly that thirty-second eternity of conscious bodilessness. Even knowing that Heaven and my family were on the far side of that thirty seconds couldn’t stop me from crying. This level of fear was new, even for me.
After crying for a few minutes, I realized that I needed to get to work. With my mother and the Holy Spirit taken from the earth, I could now rely only on myself. I had a few weeks left with the Tribulation charts before they would be officially banned, I reasoned, so I got out of bed and headed slowly downstairs to my mother’s office. On the way down, I saw through the window above the stairs that our driveway was empty. He even took the minivan! It was too much. I sat on the top stair sobbing, the disappearance of our three-door, faux-wood-paneled van amplifying the grief in a new way.
Only slowly did I realize that the New Testament actually has nothing to say about cars. Would God have really raptured our minivan? Why was there no mention of this in A Thief in the Night? Hadn’t the faithful husband’s lawnmower been left behind, after all, along with the harlot wife? What would Jesus do with appliances, anyway?
Bit by bit I retraced my steps. My mother hadn’t been in the shower, nor had she been studying in her office, nor had she been cooking. What if she hadn’t been in the house at all? Was that why the van was gone? Maybe she was just out shopping and the Rapture hadn’t actually happened!
I jumped up and ran to my parents’ TV, praying hard that it would report on a foreign war and not on the disappearance of millions of people across the world. I flipped through the channels for the news and finally got to CNN. They were talking about some war in Bosnia, with no mention of any supernatural events. I watched apprehensively, praying silently that they’d keep reporting on the carnage and wouldn’t interrupt with a breaking news bulletin about hundreds of plane crashes caused by an inexplicable mid-flight mass disappearance of pilots. I watched for several minutes until the newscaster calmly sent me to a commercial break. She didn’t seem worried at all. She looked like she was having a nice day, even. That’s when I realized it must be true: the Rapture hadn’t happened after all. I lay down on the floor, overwhelmed with gratitude, and I decided to add something new to my nightly prayer routine: Thank you God for that war thank you God for that war thank you God for that war!