Goodbye, End Times
Issue 4, October/November 2021
I can only remember one time when I prayed for the Rapture to happen. Sort of. I could only muster something to the effect of, “Lord, if the Rapture is going to happen sometime soon anyway, now would be a good time as far as I’m concerned.”
I was a high school junior at Heritage Christian School in Indianapolis, Indiana — an interdenominational evangelical K-12 school — and I felt insufficiently prepared for the physics exam I was about to take. Being a grade-grubber, I figured that if the end of the world was around the corner anyway, I’d be cool with God sparing me the hit to my ego and GPA. Of course, Jesus didn’t sweep anyone up into the sky that day. (I also did okay on the test.)
As a kid, I was mostly quite uncomfortable with the belief that Christ would be returning to earth “soon.” And that discomfort was a problem. I was the kind of scrupulous, anxiety-ridden teen who once became convinced I’d committed an unpardonable sin by failing to keep a promise to God to stop masturbating, so naturally I harbored guilt over not being happy about growing up in the end times.
Jesus returning to take us “real” Christians up to Heaven before the rest of humanity was subjected to the horrors of the Tribulation was supposed to be a good thing, after all. You were supposed to want Christ’s return, to long for it. That I was unable to do so left me questioning my salvation, which bred anxiety about finding myself “left behind” — abandoned to face the apocalyptic horrors that those who were taken up would be spared. As I’ve learned since, I’m far from the only exvangelical to have experienced an overwhelming dread when I couldn’t immediately find my parents where I thought they’d be, figuring that the Rapture had happened and I hadn’t made the cut. And yet, in my “rebellious” little heart, I wanted to grow up, have a career, have interesting and meaningful human experiences, get married, and have sex (as a good Christian kid, you’d always imagine those last two happening in that order).
Tell me more about Pipe Wrench.
Growing up evangelical in the 1980s and 90s meant a lot of time worrying that I couldn’t get myself to feel the way I was “supposed to” about any number of Christian things. Eternity was a somewhat frightening concept, and the Bible’s descriptions of Heaven didn’t exactly make it sound that great. Literally just worshiping God forever? Wouldn’t that be a colossal bore, even if you were surrounded by streets of gold and pearly gates and mansions? Was Heaven going to be some Stepfordesque mashup of The Wizard of Oz, the ultimate gated community, and endless church? Yikes.
Hell, however, was absolutely terrifying. If your choices are being physically tortured forever or attending a bougie church forever, obviously you take the bougie church. The notion that I might be tormented for eternity — that I’d deserve to be — led to nights of tears in early childhood, praying “the sinner’s prayer” over and over, never quite sure it had “taken.”
The worry that there was something fundamentally wrong with me continued to eat away at me from the inside. It would take decades to understand that the cultivation of severe self-doubt in believers is a feature of high-control religious communities (popularly called “cults”), which exhibit classic authoritarian and abuser dynamics. After all, what tool could better serve to keep people in the fold than one they thoroughly internalized? Mired in crippling insecurity and self-loathing and enough fear so that playing along seems like a safer option than questioning the faith, it’s no mean feat to reject the religion you grew up with. The matrix of disciplinary mechanisms, internalized and/or externally imposed (and conservative Christianity has both kinds in spades), is nearly impregnable.
I suppose I first began to be skeptical that Jesus would return “soon” in middle school, perhaps in part because I got to spend time in a public school where I was taught evolution and exposed to “normal” sex education, as opposed to the fear-, shame-, and disinformation-heavy version I got in Christian school. I was also increasingly frustrated with my relatives shutting down the concerns about the environment I had absorbed from reading Ranger Rick magazine, with comments that amounted to “The world will be ending soon anyway, so what’s the point?” I owe my semester at Timberview Middle School in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to the fact that my dad took a job as the music pastor at a “hip,” “seeker sensitive,” church he’d been recruited for. Moving in the middle of the school year meant Mom giving up her teaching job at Heritage and not getting a new Christian school teaching position until the next academic year. Presumably, my parents couldn’t afford to pay the tuition that in those days was generally waived for teachers’ kids — these days it’s usually a discount that increases with seniority — so off to public school my sister and I went.
The next fall, however, despite begging to stay in public school, I was forced to attend Colorado Springs Christian School, where Mom had gotten a job. I started seventh grade in 1993, and it was common at school to encounter speculation that President Bill Clinton was the Antichrist who would, somehow, use the United Nations to establish a one-world government as supposedly predicted in the book of Revelation. Something about that rubbed me the wrong way.
I was a sophomore in high school and back at Heritage when I read the entire Bible for the first time, sparking an intellectual crisis of faith that wouldn’t fully resolve for nearly twenty years. But even before, I think that, on some level at least, I began to wonder what was taking Jesus so long with that whole second coming thing, and why so many people had predicted its timing incorrectly.
Which brings me back to the physics exam. I was full of doubts, intellectually, and yet still full of fear, emotionally, from what I’ve now come to view as an inherently abusive form of Christianity. And I remained in that state for a while, developing clinical depression in the process. I graduated from high school in 1999, somewhat nervous about Y2K and a possible apocalypse. By the time I graduated from college in 2003, I knew I was no longer evangelical, and that I could no longer sustain many of the beliefs I’d grown up with, but I wasn’t sure exactly what I did believe.
By 2011, when Harold Camping insisted the world was going to end on May 21 and a lot of people put their life savings toward helping him get out the message, I was almost finished with graduate school, and I most certainly did not believe in the Rapture, or the virgin birth, or even the resurrection. I occasionally attended Episcopal services and tried to hold on to a sort of cultural Christian identity, mostly because I didn’t want to rock the boat with my family, even though that identity was hanging by a thread. Irrationally, I still felt considerable fear that Camping might be right, and was relieved when May 21 passed and nothing happened.
Early childhood socialization is hard to shake, and that’s part of what makes indoctrinating children into high-control, fear-based, authoritarian religion abusive. At this point, I’ve mostly finished processing my experience. I’ve grieved the childhood and youth that were stolen from me, filled with religious trauma and inner turmoil instead of just being a kid and developing normal relationships.
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Revelation is, of course, not to blame for all of this, or even most of it. Rapture anxiety is only one factor in my experience of religious trauma, and sacred texts are what religious communities make of them. And while Revelation is the only full apocalyptic book in the Bible, there are other extensive apocalyptic passages, including in the gospels of Matthew and Luke; Revelation isn’t the only source of end times paranoia.
In all honesty, I don’t even especially dislike Revelation, as ancient literature. I rather enjoy some of the “trippy” imagery, as far as that goes. But — and this may be a bit of a contradiction — I do strongly dislike apocalypticism, which is why I can’t bring myself to like Jesus anymore.
Even many progressive Christians believe there was one actual Jesus of Nazareth, and that the gospels aren’t all that far removed from him; I find it much more likely that the “historical” Jesus is a mythologized composite figure rather than any one person, and I don’t suppose the gospels give us much access to an actual historical person at all. But when it comes to how Jesus is represented in the gospels, well, I see a controlling, narcissistic, apocalyptic prophet, one who demanded his followers devote themselves to him entirely, even at the expense of family ties and obligations. One who openly stated explicitly that families would be divided because of him. And that Jesus is a literary character I find extremely unsympathetic.
Of course, I’m no longer approaching this topic from the perspective of a believer of any kind. “Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater!” I’ve heard so many liberal-ish to progressive Christians implore. But for me, a transgender woman who is now happy as an atheist, there never was a baby.
Maybe that’s exactly why, when I encounter discussion about the possibility of kicking Revelation out of the New Testament, or even reinterpreting it, I find myself feeling mildly offended. Christians should have to own Revelation precisely because of how much human harm it’s fueled. I have no interest in “redeeming” the book (or the genre, unless we’re all safely agreed that we’re talking about fiction, in which case, sure, bring on the post-apocalyptic drama).
The reading of Revelation as anti-Roman propaganda is almost certainly what the text was originally meant for in the context of its own time, but, when you step back and look at Christianity from a historical, sociological, and anthropological perspective, Revelation is what Christian communities make of it. The use of Revelation to read the “signs of the times,” to tell us about the future, to teach generations of kids that they will probably never get to grow up — that reading is just as properly Christian a reading as any other. And that’s just one reason I find myself much healthier and happier now, having “left behind” all that.
Chrissy Stroop is (with Lauren O’Neal) co-editor of the essay anthology Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church. A senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches and a senior contributor for openDemocracy, Stroop’s writing, most of which deals with religion, politics, and society has also been published in The Boston Globe, Playboy, DAME, Foreign Policy, and others. Stroop has a PhD in modern Russian history from Stanford and has taught classes in both Russian and American universities. She came out as a transgender woman in 2019 and moved to Portland, Oregon, where she currently resides, that same year.