Growing Up Evangelical at the End of the World

“Dad, when do you think the rapture will happen?”

“Oh, probably in the next five or ten years.”

I was eleven. Eleven. And I trusted my dad. I respected him, a lot. He was the smartest person I knew – well read, intelligent, a thinking person. You know how doctors sometimes tell cancer patients how many years they have left to live? That’s what this felt like. I had ten years. Ten. No wonder I hoped to marry and have children early. I didn’t want to miss my chance.

Any time I saw a sentence in a news article that contained phrases like “by 2050” or “in 2035” or even “around 2015,” I would laugh. Sometimes it felt like I had insider knowledge. I mean, who were these crazy people? Didn’t they realize the world wouldn’t be around in fifty years??

Strangely, prospective events like the rapture or the end of the world didn’t fill me with the joy I was told they should. Wasn’t I supposed to want to be zapped into heaven to be in the presence of God? Shouldn’t I want the world to end so that all of humanity could worship at Jesus’ feet? (Well, except for the part that would be burning in hell.) The reality is that, like any other preteen, I was more concerned about actually making it to adulthood than I was about spending my days wearing a white robe and singing hymns. (Well okay, that’s simplistic, but every time heaven was discussed it always seemed to center around singing songs of worship to Jesus, and there were definitely saints in white robes in Revelation.)

And more than that, there really isn’t much to distinguish between being raptured and, well, dying. As an evangelical Christian, I believed that if the rapture came I would be beamed straight up to heaven, and I also believed that if I died my soul would immediately appear in heaven (where I would receive a new body).

Still, watching for the rapture and the end of the world was something like a sport in the evangelical world in which I grew up. Every event and news report was interpreted through this lens. Tension in the Middle East? The end of the world is nigh. Steps made in the movement for LGBTQ rights? The end of the world is nigh. Catastrophic hurricanes and earthquakes? The end of the world is nigh. Spiritual death and moral decay? The end of the world is nigh. Spiritual revival and mass conversion? The end of the world is nigh. The formation of the European Union? The end of the world is nigh. Action taken by the UN? The end of the world is nigh.

Some of the missions publications we received were especially avid in their work to bring about the end of the world. There was a Bible verse they interpreted to mean that every tribe and language group had to have the gospel preached to them before the rapture and tribulation could begin.

Matthew 24:14 – And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

Based on this verse, I was taught that once the last people group was reached, the rapture would come. This was part of what was behind attempts by various groups to translate the Bible into every distinct language (sometimes “to all nations” was interpreted to be referring to language groups).

For us, the end of the world wasn’t something that was “out there,” something that would happen “someday.” The end of the world was something that felt close, imminent. It would come, we were taught, like a thief in the night, any minute, any day. Any time I couldn’t find someone where they were supposed to be, or any time I came upon a small pile of clothing on the ground, I feared that the rapture had come and I had been left behind. That’s where my mind automatically went.

The end of the world was like a never ending drumbeat in the background that I could never quite get rid of. The end of the world foregrounded my childhood. The end of the world was etched in my soul.

Since we were living at the end of the world, there was a lot of importance placed on making every moment — and every action — count. Every year, month, and day took on an added significance, especially when it came to winning new converts. The world was ending, but it was our mission to take as many people with us to heaven as possible. Given that I was homeschooled and only associated with other evangelical Christians (all of whom I knew through church, Bible club, or homeschool groups), I didn’t know anyone who was “unsaved,” and that bothered me a lot. I felt an almost desperate need to make converts, but I was without opportunities for doing that. That created a weird sort of tension in me.

There was another tension, too, in that I sometimes wondered why the adults around me didn’t actually act like they were living at the end of the world. My dad set aside money for retirement, and the life we lived was not so unlike that of any other middle class family (well, except for homeschooling and family size). But I didn’t dwell on that tension. Instead, I brushed it aside. I absorbed all of the rhetoric about the coming end times like a sponge, and never really doubted that the end of the world was immanent.

And so, when at age eleven my father told me that the rapture would occur within the next five or ten years, I accepted that at face value and without question. The end of the world was nigh.

Growing up evangelical was like staring off the face of a cliff.

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