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End Times Kids
My dispensationalist dad is a lot like your dispensationalist dad
Welcome to the first Bitter Scroll on Substack. I took the plunge and shifted over from MailChimp. Nothing will change with this monthly letter except the platform—thanks for sticking with me during the move, friends. And greetings, new readers!
The school bus swerving off the road without a driver, the empty bank teller booth, the vacant drive-through window with fries getting cold while cars wait in line. The images are clear in my mind even now, well past the decades I believed the end of the world would soon arrive. By the time I was eight, I knew the rapture was real and coming soon with as much assurance as I knew the Twin Towers were real and not just buildings I’d seen in pictures.
I’d walked up and touched the base of the South Tower on the street during a family trip from Indiana to Manhattan when I was a kid. Then, I looked down at the night street from the viewing deck up top, my forehead pressed against the cold glass. I was a Christian, and when Jesus returned, I was going to fly.
In my family, we talked about the end of the world at dinner like some people talk about football. The end times were a sport.
I used to think I was the only kid who grew up fully believing—and fully terrified—that the world would end before I could pass through life milestones like graduating high school or experiencing motherhood. It turns out many of my friends had the same fears of the rapture when they were growing up in the 70s and 80s. We remember our parents explaining that the world would almost certainly end in our lifetime. Like 9/11, we remember where we were and how we felt when our parents first told us we would be raptured before we were adults. My husband was a third grader laying in the backseat of his car in Baltimore when his dad told him about the rapture, wiping away hot tears from fear that he wouldn’t get to grow up.
Like millions of other Evangelicals of his era, my father was impacted by Hal Lindsey's 1970 book Late Great Planet Earth and the 1972 rapture film A Thief in the Night.
With Late Great’s guidance, my parents and many Evangelical families like ours accepted the eschatological belief that a tribulation period was imminent and held a “literal interpretation” of the book of Revelation in the New Testament. We identified the last things as signs—from earthquakes to the dangling possibility of a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem—that would be preceded by Jesus rapturing believers while others were left behind. Well into high school, I felt it was my duty to reveal these facts to my friends, so fewer people would remain on earth to suffer.
This stuff is weird! It was weird when I heard about it as a kid, and it’s equally strange and unusual when I think about it now. I imagine folk artist renderings of the creature with seven horns that fall off to reveal a terrifying one. I imagine the 12 gem layers of the new Jerusalem like a wobbly 12-layer Jell-o mold. Images in the book of Revelation are extraordinary and completely terrifying. The sword in the mouth of Jesus. The vampiric anti-Christ. The whore of Babylon.
For my dad and other Evangelicals who kept Late, Great next to the Bible on their bookshelf, the threat of the enemy—and of impeding desolation—became personified through end times culture. The 70s were a time of economic insecurity and cultural change, including the end of the Vietnam War, Nixon’s impeachment, the ongoing Cold War, and stagflation. It was an anxious time, and Lindsey couldn’t have picked a sweeter low-hanging fruit to feed a skittish American culture.
While my interpretation of the book of Revelation is now allegorical, many Boomers Christians maintain a premillennial dispensationalist interpretation of the end times. I was in my early 30s in 2010, when a Pew Survey found that 47% of American Christians believe that Jesus will either definitely or probably return by 2050. As my generation of rapture kids became adults, started having children, and settled into careers we were told would never be launched, it’s not surprising that we’ve questioned “literal” interpretations of the end times.
The rapture narrative plays on the way we’re wired to seek exceptionalism: When you know something you think others don’t, self-aggrandizement can quickly follow. Growing up, underneath my fear, there was excitement about how Dad talked about the end times. We were in on something big, and we knew the signs like a doctor who could spot an early onset disease. More earthquakes and floods were not the result of climate change, but a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy that said that as we move closer to the end of the world, there will be an uptick of floods and disasters.
As a kid, I expected every news report of a war, famine, or tsunami to become another piece of evidence that the end times are truly upon us. This tendency stems from a distorted desire in some Evangelicals for our personal lives to unfold in the midst of monumental change. For Dad, even the falling Berlin Wall was a sign of change that could point to a greater story God was writing about power changing hands in the end of days.
Sitting in the back booth of Atz Ice Cream Parlor in high school a couple of years later, I told my friend how the end of the world would go down while we were eating banana splits. I can clearly remember the way she looked at me, spoon suspended mid-bite and mouth open, when I spoke with confidence about the thousand-year age of peace before the final battle of Gog and Magog.
A decade before I could recite the end times order of events for my teen friends, the fear of end times had taken root. When I was six, I was bored one afternoon and traced 6-6-6 on my forehead with my pointer finger. I’d heard Dad talk about the mark of the beast, and knew that anyone who accepted it on their forehead or arm would be beyond hope.
I ran to my mom in the yard and burst into tears. “Mom! I’m going to hell!” I wallowed. She hugged me for a long time until the fear gripping me—like temporary paralysis after a nightmare—softened.
It would be years before God would unstick my fearful heart and bring me to a spacious place. But it would come slow, and it would come with my eyes open.
If you grew up with a parent who told you the world would end before you hit any major life milestones, can you share in the comments? Where were you and what do you remember about that conversation?
“Tracing my finger over the notes in the hymnal, I was in my own body and estranged from it.” I’m pleased to present a new essay, Sweetness Follows, on Ekstasis Magazine from Christianity Today.
Watch & Read
A brief history: How the Black Church reformed American Christianity [Religion Unplugged]
You really need to quit Twitter. [Atlantic]
A horn-wearing ‘shaman.’ A cowboy evangelist. For some, the Capitol attack was a kind of Christian revolt. [WaPo]
America’s evangelical church is being torn apart by culture wars [Guardian]