The end of the world I never had the chance to know
When I reached the age of nine, I began seriously worrying about the age of accountability and the Rapture. There was no magical number attached to the former; indeed, the fact that I was old enough to worry about it seemed evidence enough that I should worry. I was obviously old enough to understand sin, and consequently was old enough to miss the Rapture. And the Rapture was coming. Of that we all were certain.
William Branham taught that only the elect, or Bride of Christ, would make it to Paradise in a dramatic snatching-away in the last moments of time. In a 1958 sermon entitled “The Sudden, Secret Going Away of the Church,” he told a Cinderella story as a “type” of the Bride of Christ awaiting the return of her groom. She was the wise virgin who filled her lamp with oil to await the bridegroom, while the foolish busied themselves with hedonism and empty religious rituals. “Lukewarm” Christians, including those who followed the Message of the Hour but did not fully surrender to the Holy Ghost, would be left behind to suffer three and a half years of unspeakable torment. Indeed, the number of people saved in the Rapture would be so small that the world would go on without noticing their absence.
The Tribulation rivalled descriptions of Hell in the most graphic of Puritan sermons. Fire and brimstone were not enough punishment for the wicked and the lukewarm alike. We were regaled with warnings on a near-weekly basis of terrible diseases as yet unknown to humanity: flesh-eating bacteria that would dissolve the skin and leave us to die fully conscious. New, aggressive cancers. The return of smallpox. Each disease was a brand-new demon to be released when the gates of Hell were broken open and Satan was unleashed on the earth. As Branham had been a young man during the Second World War, the Great Tribulation was riddled with nuclear fallout imagery as well. The lucky ones, we were told, were to be in the major cities when a small country (not Russia, Branham emphatically warned – that would be too obvious) got hold of nuclear arms and blew up the United States from coast to coast.
What happened to the rest of the world at Armageddon was anyone’s guess. The end of the world was evidently an American affair.
Although dates were proposed (1977, 1980, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2009…) Branham’s followers were generally savvy enough not to commit to such predictions. No man knew the hour of the Lord’s coming. But the Bride was to have some idea. She would sense when Christ’s return was imminent. Our pastor, Brother Jacob, taught that Christ ‘whispered secrets in her ear,’ a code that only she could understand, even though the ‘signs’ would be visible to the world at large. In this Christ showed his mercy: he gave everyone the opportunity to repent, although most of the world would have no idea what the signs of impending doom were. They had lulled themselves to sleep in sin and carelessness. We were the privileged few whose ears were opened to the warnings of the prophet. We would escape the fate of the world – if we had the Holy Ghost.
One of the signs of impending destruction was the Doomsday Clock. On April 10, 1965, William Branham prayed in his sermon The Easter Seal, “Heavenly Father, we realize that we’re coming down towards the closing hour. We haven’t too long to be here now. Not as our age, but at the time. We believe there’s a many young person setting here, will be living when this happens. It may happen yet today. We don’t know the minute or hour. But, Lord, You told us, “When you see these things taking place,” and they been taking place now for a long time. We know we’re way over, according to the scientists. Six, seven years ago, we was three minutes to midnight. We don’t know how much time that is, ticking on, but we know we’re right there.” The subsequent relaxing of the clock had no effect on Message believers, who took its 1950s setting as a sign of the end. How much closer we were, as the year 2000 approached, than they had been in the 1950s!
At my church, Brother Jacob preached that the Rapture was actually past due, and that God was waiting in his longsuffering for “the last one to come in.” This line was oft repeated. Frequently, my mother only half-jokingly accused my father of holding up the Rapture by refusing to accept the prophet. As I reached adolescence, she turned this barb on me, and it stung. I was driven into a deep and persistent panic. Despite burying myself in the Bible, despite listening to a new sermon every day, despite the long, anguished nights of trying to “pray through” and receive the Holy Ghost, my mother’s implicit disapproval meant that her spirit sensed the uncleanness of mine. I was certain that, of the approximately two million people who were chosen to go in the Rapture, she would be among them. No such guarantees followed me. I, after all, was a child of the Serpent’s Seed through my father’s tainted blood. If my mother thought I was unsaved – well, Christ lived in her. She knew. I must be unsaved.
One morning when I was nine years old, my mother turned to me in the car and said, grinning, “You know, I love you, but when Jesus comes, I’m out of here.” The chill of death seemed to seep through my body as I stared at the handle of the passenger-side door, wishing I could tumble out of the car into oblivion. I couldn’t believe she was smiling. Whoever loves father or mother, son or daughter more than me, is not worthy of me… I felt distinctly, helplessly alone.
Frantic, I devoured every sermon I could find on the mystery of receiving the Holy Ghost. I was alternately taught to go through the stages of Justification and Sanctification before I could receive the Baptism of the Holy Ghost. The first two meant accepting Christ as my saviour, then getting baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (that exact formula only would do, as “demons travel in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” and “they’re just titles – not a name”). After that I was told to “work until I could rest” like Old-Testament Ruth. This meant coming as close as I could to perfection until Christ crowned my efforts with his seal of approval – his Spirit. On the other hand, there was nothing I could do to “earn” the Holy Ghost, so I just had to wait and “stay in the Word” (read the Bible and the Message sermons daily). None of this assuaged my panic. The world was ending – what if God didn’t give me the Holy Ghost in time? Three or four times, I thought my all-night prayers had been answered. I collapsed on my knees with my sobbing face buried in the carpet. I felt release as my body succumbed to exhaustion and I thanked the Lord, weeping, for touching me with His Spirit – but the euphoria never lasted more than a day. I found myself alone again in the mirror, waiting for my mother to vanish and the bomb to fall.
On more than one occasion, my mother went out to the store without me. Quaking with horror, I squashed my face against the glass of the door, straining to see our car in the driveway. If it was gone, I sank against the door in a wave of relief. She was probably still on earth. Still, I couldn’t feel completely relaxed unless I had her in my sight. Now and then, she left the car behind, taking a solitary walk. It was then that the fear struck deepest. I dialed her cell phone, only to hear it ring in the next room. I ran down the stairs. The basement was empty, lights were off. Upstairs. Outside. Panicked, I walked briskly around the house, trying to conceal my fear lest I stumble upon her and betray myself. I couldn’t let her see my fear. The yard was empty. I ran back inside, took several ragged breaths, and dialed her best friend’s number. Surely, if the Rapture had come, Rachel would be gone, too. The trill of the telephone was abruptly severed by the jarring voice of the answering machine. I hung up, sweating profusely. “Mom?” I called, experimentally. Silence was the rejoinder. “Mom!” I screamed. “Mom! How can you just leave me here?” My knees buckled. I sobbed reflexively on the kitchen floor, feeling nothing except my own impending death.
I heard the screen door swing at the back of the house, and scraped myself hastily off the floor, racing to the bathroom to hide my tears. My mother had walked back home, calling goodbye to the next-door neighbor. I stared at my blanched face in the mirror, hoping she wouldn’t notice.
A nagging thought pierced my mind.
If I had to leave everyone I loved behind, I wouldn’t want to go in the Rapture. I would tell Jesus I wasn’t going without them.
Meanwhile, the signs kept coming. When the movie The Lost World came out and billboards advertising it popped up across the country, it was one of God’s attempts to show the world its condition. The Passion of the Christ was yet another reminder to repent. Still more obvious to the people of the World were the Left Behind series: yet another wake-up call from God. Each new development in technology was evidence that knowledge had increased, and people were running to and fro in ever-faster cars and planes. Every earthquake was a sign of Nature groaning in travail to be delivered of the curse and purged with fire in the Tribulation. I ceased to listen to the news on the radio, switching it off the instant I heard an anchor’s voice. I fled the room when my father turned on the news on the TV. Death was coming. I didn’t want to have to see it first.
I used to sit in church and imagine the floor cracking open with a roar and engulfing me as the world, quite literally, failed. Other times I envisioned moments of sudden silence among the empty folding chairs as the whole congregation (except me) was caught up in the Spirit to another dimension. I barely controlled a rising scream of panic when I felt the emotion of a song surging around me at the end of a service, wondering if everyone else would get so inspired that they’d simply leave the earth. Wait for me! I cried inside my head. Occasionally, someone spoke in tongues, and still more rarely, someone would yield to the gift of interpretation or prophecy. These messages always, inevitably warned that the end was at hand, and Christ was on his way. He had already left the Mercy Seat… his blood was gradually dripping away. When all of it had dried up, there would be no more mercy. I watched the drops of glistening red blood slip from the corner of the altar in my mind.
Sometimes my midnight prayers turned to racking sobs of anger. Why had I been born at the end of the world, when I could have no hope of growing up and experiencing life? I would never see my twenties. I raged against past generations, the carefree secular youth of my parents, and my own destitute future. Why couldn’t I have grown up normal and then been saved? The world had decayed beyond repair; I would never get to know it. I would never have the chance to grow up.
The signs seemed to grow more frequent. In the early 2000s, the Lord of the Rings trilogy was released, year by agonizing year. Each title was prophetic. The Fellowship of the Ring referred to the gathering together of the Bride under the Message of the Hour; on a small scale, it represented the gathering of our own little church. The Two Towers was released just a year after 9/11, suggesting that Tolkien had possessed prophetic insight when he wrote the original books. The World was allegedly too “blind” to make the connection. But we knew that this was to be the last milestone in world history, because immediately following The Two Towers was The Return of the King. By the time the last movie was released, I was living constantly poised for a flight to nowhere.
Sierra is a PhD student living in the Midwest. She was raised in a “Message of the Hour” congregation that followed the ministry of William Branham. She left the Message in 2006 and is the author of the blog The Unspoken Words: A Non-Prophet Message.