How to Survive The End of The World (Part 3)

Fearing the Apocalypse

Photo by Hans Eiskonen on Unsplash

Throughout 34-year-old Leo Caldwell’s youth, he contended with a breadth of intellectually and psychologically challenging questions. Caldwell is a trans person who always had a sense that he was different, and while his identity questions were difficult, he was plagued most by other anxieties. Like millions of people around the world, Caldwell was Pentecostal, a Christian denomination that largely centers on fire-and-brimstone preachings about the apocalypse. More than worrying about his future as a queer or trans person, Caldwell was vexed by thoughts of the end of days.

The apocalypse, also called the rapture, is predicted in Revelations, the final book of the New Testament. But to fully understand this event, one has to go back to the life of Jesus. In most Christian denominations, Jesus Christ is believed to be the son of God come to earth to save humanity from their sins and offer eternal life after death in heaven. The rapture refers to the second coming of Christ, when Christians believe the faithful will be transported directly from earth to heaven. Nonbelievers will be left to contend with the reign of the Antichrist. This is not a lighthearted scenario, to say the least.

So it’s not hard to see how this story, taken literally, would scare a lot of adults and certainly young children. Caldwell tells Medium that the apocalypse was a routine source of anxiety during his youth, a combination of “kid logic” and fire and brimstone indoctrination. Afraid that he would be left behind because he’s queer, Caldwell says that the idea of not going up to heaven with his mom, a devout believer, deeply scared him. “My anxiety was around being stuck on earth with all the fire and people going crazy,” he says. “My impression was that, after the rapture, the world would be complete chaos. That terrified me.”

Caldwell’s experience is not unusual among believers and ex-believers. Blogger Libby Anne, a former evangelical Christian (another denomination that emphasizes the rapture), has written about the impact of her religious upbringing on her mental health, citing worries about the rapture as at least a partial cause of her anxiety. Beyond fears of being left behind, Libby Anne blogged in 2012 that the thought of being raptured was also scary. “I was just beginning to live life,” she wrote. “I didn’t want to leave it so soon, even to be transported straight to heaven.” In other words, the idea of this event can be scary regardless of one’s fate in it.

John Rhead, a psychotherapist in Maryland and ex-Mormon, has treated many patients who are working through anxiety or trauma related to apocalyptic religious teachings. He tells Medium that preaching the apocalypse is inherently psychologically harmful.

“There are two layers” to the trauma people tend to experience in these cases, says Rhead. “And the first is the idea that I myself could go to hell because of what I do or don’t believe. That’s inherently traumatic.” The second layer has to do with the well-being of others. Rhead remembers worrying that his non-Mormon friends and loved ones were going to hell. Even if a person feels sure they will be heading up and not remaining down when the day of reckoning comes, confronting thoughts of loved ones suffering eternal damnation is, at the very least, unsettling.

Rachel Kazez, a licensed therapist and founder of the patient-therapist matching company All Along, tells Medium that it makes a lot of sense for people to feel anxious about the rapture, since the rapture is a similar scenario to all anxiety. She says that anxiety in general revolves around the idea that “something could go terribly wrong and be out of your control. In this way, the Bible could be confirming anxieties people already have” about the future, their own moral code, and questions about what happens when we die.

But Kazez says that, in general, religious people tend to hold beliefs that meet a need for them, which means the rapture likely meets specific needs for believers. “It seems like it would meet a need for hope and certainty,” she says. “If you have an idea that a redeemer is on the way, how comforting is that?” Kazez adds that the story of the rapture seems to intentionally provoke anxiety, in the sense that it prompts people to take actions that would prevent an undesirable outcome. According to Kazez, anxiety of this sort can “give people motivation to act well and do what they need to do.”

The nature of the rapture — the violent, dramatic imagery with which it is portrayed and the threat of being eternally damned — does indeed sound traumatic to Kazez. But she also says that for some people, this will simply be the norm and not necessarily experienced as trauma. For patients who believe in the rapture and are feeling anxious about it, Kazez says she would work with them to find out what the idea of the rapture helps them with. Once identified, she would suggest finding new ways to meet that need, though she says she would never try to alter a patient’s religious beliefs. Instead, Kazez says she would encourage a patient to speak with various religious leaders, so they can broaden the person’s understanding of scripture.

For post-religious people who struggle with trauma related to a religious upbringing, Kazez says that a community of formerly religious people, as well as group therapy, could be helpful. “A lot people’s lives change from childhood to adulthood,” Kazez explains, “and religion is often a big part of that.” Hearing from and relating to others who experienced trauma of various kinds could be helpful in processing feelings about the apocalypse.

As Kazez notes, much of this is the same across experiences with anxiety and trauma. While not everyone was raised believing that they may or may not be taken up to heaven in a religious event, most people can probably relate to feeling uncertain, helpless, and out of control. The religious component certainly leaves ethical questions to be grappled with: These teachings do cause harm to some. For those who experience these teachings as traumatic, therapy can be a helpful tool. For those who find the rapture stimulating in more positive ways, there’s still church on Sundays.