Fear, Trembling, & Tribulation: Notes from a Raptured Childhood

Before I was a San Franciscan, I was a Southerner, and every reformed Southerner knows a thing or two about the Rapture. As a child in a strict Southern Baptist household in Alabama, I was fed a steady Sunday diet of Revelations and lived in fear of the day that Jesus would return, the graves open up, and the skeletons of the saved start rocketing skyward. I pictured the waking dead like puppets on strings, a grisly group dancing its way toward eternal life. Of course, it wasn’t just the dead who would suddenly be lifted heavenward. The living born-again would also be among the raptured. Rapture was a noun, but it was also a verb. To be raptured was divine, to be left behind was hellish.

One of the ironies of the Rapture is that it’s supposed to be a celebratory moment for Christians, the moment when all of their spiritual dreams come to fruition, the moment when they are rewarded for their belief and their evangelizing. But I didn’t know a single child who looked forward to the Rapture, and I always suspected the adults were just pretending. Because there was always that nagging question: what if I am not among the raptured? What if I’m left behind? (The creepy Left Behind movie/book juggernaut has cashed in on precisely this question.)

We all have our childhood rituals. Some people went to Tahoe, some to Panama City, a lucky few to Europe. I, on the other hand, went to Vacation Bible School, and to lock-ins at DauphinWay Baptist Church in Mobile, Alabama. The pizza was great, but the entertainment was a downer. At some point in every lock-in, the lights went off, the movie projector ticked and hummed, and some low-budget film about the end times began to play.

One scene in all of these movies, one that haunted me for many years, was the scene in which the cars start crashing and careening off the road, as unsuspecting drivers disappear from behind their steering wheels. I had nightmares of suddenly being alone in the backseat of a speeding car as my mother went the way of the righteous. Other nightmares involved waking up in the morning to find the house empty. Left to my own devices, I wondered, would I submit to the Sign of the Beast – the numbers 666 stamped on my forehead? It was a choice that anyone who was left behind would have to make. Accept the Sign of the Beast, and burn in hell forever. Refuse the Sign of the Beast, and meet a horrific worldly fate.

Every year or two, we hear the doomsday scenarios about the coming end times, usually predicted for a certain day (remember poor old Harold Camping’s botched May 21 prediction?) Those who weren’t raised in the shadow of the Rapture may not know, however, about the Tribulation. I asked my husband, who is the product of many years of Catholic schooling, and he’d never heard of it. The Rapture is supposed to be followed by seven years of hell on earth following Christ’s second departure: war, famine, misery all around. During the Tribulation, those who have been left behind have the opportunity to repent and publicly announce their belief in Christ. Doing so, refusing the Sign of the Beast, means you can’t buy groceries, find work, feed your children. You’ll probably be tortured by the heathens, and there’s a good chance you’ll go to prison. But at the end of the seven years, you get to go to heaven.

As a child I was not allowed to watch Star Wars, on account of it being too graphic and possibly frightening, but I was steeped from an early age in the blood-curdling imagery of the Rapture and Tribulation. My mother was a product of her own childhood. As the daughter of a Southern Baptist preacher, there was no room for debate on matters of the Bible; she considered it impregnable, our instruction in it as much a part of her maternal duty as feeding and clothing us. Darth Vader was off-limits, but the Devil was real and dangerous, and we better be prepared.

Aside from moving to San Francisco, ceasing to believe in the Rapture is probably one of the most radical things a Southern Baptist girl can do. But I am here, and I’ve traded the ghosts of my childhood for more practical concerns. The Rapture now seems to me as outlandish as any other religious myth, a grand narrative of fear meant to keep the followers in line. But there was a time in my childhood when a bolt of lightning or a coming tornado would have me looking skyward, wondering if this was the moment, and whether I’d stay or go.

One more thing you should know about those doomsday predictions: Aside from a tiny group of radicals within the radicals, the vast majority of people who believe in the Rapture think Harold Camping and his ilk are nut cases. One of the basic tenets of the Rapture, according to Revelations, is that no one can know when it will happen. It will be preceded by an Antichrist (a certain faction loves to point to President Obama), a human who convinces millions around the world that he is the Messiah. Evangelicals believe that there will be earthquakes and tornadoes, plagues and pestilence, but that anyone who claims to predict the date is to be viewed as a false prophet. Jesus promises to come “like a thief in the night,” when you’re least expecting it. You don’t get to save the date, and you don’t get to dress for the occasion or turn on the TV at 6 p.m. to watch the earthquakes roll toward you. The Rapture may be televised, but it won’t be scheduled.

I sometimes wonder if this steadfast belief in the Rapture is what leads a large percentage of evangelicals to take a slash-and-burn approach to everything from the environment to foreign relations. If you believe the world is about to end, you don’t worry too much about the oceans. If you’re about to be whisked up to heaven,you don’t mind dropping bombs whenever someone looks at you the wrong way. The Rapture, with all of its attending self-righteousness and brutality, is just one more reason to keep religion out of politics.

Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling author of Golden State, The Year of Fog, and other novels and story collections.