I feel compelled to make clear that what follows is a personal story about Religious Trauma Syndrome in action.
It crescendos with a 15-year old me in a fetal position, rocking back and forth under a tree as I sob for God’s mercy. It is an epic night for a anxiety attack: The winds howl around me, and the night is so dark that I can’t see the moon. The only lights are the lamps strategically placed in the camp around me, all rocking in uneven banter with each other. This camp looks like it should be positively vibrant with life, yet I am alone. I am trembling, I am ashamed, I am cold, and I am just about as scared as I ever have been in my entire life.
In short, I’m a terrified child close to having a nervous break down, trying desperately to pull myself together.
I’m providing this agonizing image first because I respect the absolute necessity of being as forthcoming with my readers as I can that I am writing this piece to explore my own trauma – in hope that it will help those reading who have experienced similar abuse comprehend that they have not suffered alone. This story includes mild accounts of self harm and frank descriptions of a child experiencing psychological pain. I can’t presume to know where you currently stand on your journey, nor the history that got you there; therefore, I do not want to trigger you with the tale of how I found myself in the above predicament. If all this sounds too intense for you, return to this one when you feel a little more prepared.
If you’re still with me, thank you. Having placed you into the scene with a devastatingly frightened 15-year-old-me, I’ll lead you on the trail toward him.
Growing up as a young child, I only vaguely understood the concept of the Rapture. I knew that the whole planet was going to burn up at some point and that everyone was going to either go to Heaven or Hell – that had been deeply drilled into my psyche since before I can remember, informing so much of the way I reacted both to the world around me and my own deepening inner angst. I also knew that all of us were going to die and face judgment – except for Adam’s grandson Enoch (walked into Heaven, according to Genesis), the Prophet Elijah (rode to Heaven on a chariot), and whoever was alive when Jesus finally returned. All the adults seemed very excited about this last one, so I suppose I was too. I just figured Jesus would ride in like Santa Claus, pick up all his children, and drive them home – leaving those left behind to get on with it.
But I did not comprehend just how afraid I needed to be of the Second Coming of Jesus. How there would be no sleigh bells, but rather the mass disappearance of all true Christians as they met Jesus in the air – leaving their loved ones who refused to repent to face Satan’s terrifying reign on Earth alone.
I was ten and attending a Southern Baptist Revival in a church where my father was the minister of music. My Rapture education came from a viewing of 1972 Christian propaganda film “A Thief in the Night,” which introduced me not only to the Rapture, but also to concepts like the Antichrist, the Mark of the Beast, and the Tribulation. The visiting pastor put it on a big screen for us in the sanctuary, and hundreds of people showed up to watch it. And for the next 90 minutes or so, we immersed ourselves in a very silly, very kitschy, and even by (circa) 1991, unmistakably outdated dystopian horror film. But already being a student of the hokey – on the previous Halloween, my life had changed irrevocably with my first viewing of “Night of the Living Dead” – I sat curiously and gave this movie my attention. It was pretty rare when we got to watch a movie in church, so this was a special treat.
(Of course, I couldn’t have known that the experience was going to traumatize me. I certainly wish that this possibility would have occurred to one of the adults in the room. Perhaps it did, and that was the point – I can only tell you that I’ve never personally known any Evangelical preacher speak out against trauma if it ultimately leads to a saved soul. Let that sink in.)
“A Thief in the Night” centers on a young woman named Patty, who is given opportunity after opportunity to accept Jesus as her personal Lord and Savior. She thinks about it, clearly conflicted on whether or not it was something she’s ready to do. One at a time, many of her friends come to Jesus; now they beam when they see her, smiling and talking about how Christ has changed them. Come to think of it, Patty’s outfits show a little cleavage, and her pants are a little too tight – her friends now dress far more conservatively, proving their newfound purity in Christ. (They also now refuse Patty’s offers for beer and cigarettes.) Patty’s friends have replaced all temptation with a profound sense of urgency to lead her to Jesus – their pastor says that the Signs of the End have arrived, and that current world events make clear that the Second Coming of Christ is imminent. Patty is a little skeptical about all of that; in fact, none of this Jesus stuff actually makes any sense to her.
It should come as no surprise that the Rapture happens at the top of the third act of “A Thief in the Night.” All the hip young Christians are mowing their lawn, eating a hot dog, working on the church’s front sign. A couple of camera tricks later, they’ve disappeared – leaving Patty behind to face the apocalyptic horrors of the Tribulation all on her own… except for those friends who’d convinced her not to accept Christ. Those friends have taken the Mark of the Beast. Soon these left behind “friends” work for the godless communist government operated by the Antichrist, and they are all hunting Patty. Her only ally is a pastor left behind – an intellectual who preached skepticism of the Rapture, now tortured by his miscalculation. But he is soon found with a bullet hole in his head.
It turns out, all of this is Patty’s dream. That’s right – this whole thing was a cop-out, with one additional twist: Patty wakes up to realize that the Rapture has just actually occurred – that it is indeed too late to come to Christ. The film ends with her sobbing in a fetal position, trembling and alone as an excruciating cover of Larry Norman’s Rapture Day Opus “I Wished We’d All Been Ready” plays over the end credits. When the lights went up and the pastor stepped out from the big screen that had projected this film, he somberly informed us that he hoped Patty’s fate would not be ours. As the piano played (probably my Mom, actually), he invited us to come to the altar, take his hand, and make the call to Jesus.
Of course, I wasn’t going to go up to take his hand. I’d already accepted Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. I’d said the prayer, anyway – and I’d meant it as sincerely as I could, believing at the time that Jesus would save me. And Southern Baptists have a Done Deal Policy – once saved, always saved. But I was always trying to wrap my head firmly around the struggle between what I knew and what I felt. Because for all practical purposes, I was pretty sure I was saved. I’d done everything I was told I needed to do – admitted that I was a sinner, confessed that Jesus was Lord and Savior, asked him to come into my life and to guide me closer toward Him for the rest of my days, believed for the duration of this prayer that Jesus would keep His promise and enter into my heart. This had all been explained to me when I was five, when it made perfect sense to me.
But with that message, so too had Hell been described to me. It had always been a real place – just accepted, like Grandfather’s house up the road. Has anyone else raised in the Christian faith ever noticed how we devote far more attention to Hell than Heaven? Honestly, Paradise was just presented as this very bright place where Christ’s light shined over us for all eternity as we sung His praises forever. There’s vague talk about mansions, which made me wonder if we praised God in shifts. Once you get past those Pearly Gates, there seemed to be some routine to it that we glossed over.
Even in 1992 when I barely understood the “sins” from which Jesus had saved me, Heaven’s whole set-up sounded woefully boring compared to all of the terrible punishments that were waiting for us in the Lake of Fire. Pastors loved to get really creative with those descriptions, pounding on and on about the demons that will peel the skin from your body, filleting you against the burning coals while they whisper, “Forever,” into your ear. (I heard that very description as a child from a visiting pastor named Bailey Smith, once president of the Southern Baptist Convention.)
By the time I’d heard that description (which now I’m pretty sure had been lifted from a Hellraiser movie), I already had a pretty firm understanding of what to expect from Hell. I remember my Grandfather once sitting me down in his lap and waxing some pretty terrifying horror stories about the goings on down there – the agonizing flames, the abandonment, the endless anguish and absence of God’s love. I remember listening to him preach about it from the pulpit, as every member of my family up and down this pew sat in commanded attention. Hell was where all those drowned souls went when God’s flood saved Noah – and you can still hear them boiling down there.
I hurt my body sometimes in preparation for Hell. It started by trying to see how long I could hold my fingertips to a candle’s flame. I spent some time exploring my body in such a way, acclimating myself to increasingly extreme heat – just in case. No one noticed that I know of, ever. I didn’t even start talking about it with close friends or family until I was in my 30s, when I started working with traumatized kids and could objectively look back and identify what I did as self harm. Never assume you know someone so well that you have witnessed their whole journey.
Now: By all definitions and every standard by which we were taught to measure it, I was saved. But when you are a child expected to process the promise of eternal damnation from the hands of a Loving God if you do not accept His Free Gift, I guarantee you that some time is spent really, really, really hoping that you got it right. I’ve never met an exvangelical for whom this was not the case – which leads me to suspect that it is also true for most evangelicals. You can be pretty sure that your Sinner’s Prayer took like it was supposed to – that you’ve indeed got a one-way ticket to Heaven, to sit at the Lord’s banqueting table. But so long as there is room for doubt, you do not forget the promise of eternal Hellfire. Especially when you are a child, having all of this explained to you in your living room.
Sometimes, I thought I even heard the physical voices of those demons hovering close to my bed as I pulled my sheets up over my head and counted to five over and over again while pressing my sore fingertips against my pillow one at a time. I cursed myself for doubting, I hated my weakness for it. The Demons – they knew I doubted. They relished in it. “Forever,” they’d torment again and again.
Doubt is something an evangelical rarely admits out loud, because to do so exposes our own weakness against spiritual warfare. I’ve never heard an evangelical confess doubts about salvation without every counseling pastor answering the same way: God or Satan is testing us for something, and we must remain strong and embrace that even though we may not feel saved, we can KNOW that we are saved because the Bible guarantees it. I always came away from those moments of vulnerable confession ashamed for not feeling stronger, for still doubting, for smiling at everyone else and pretending that I was fine – that this all was fine, that we were all fine because we’d been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb.
So that was my constant head space when I watched “A Thief in the Night.” Technically, of course, I knew that the previous Halloween’s viewing of “Night of the Living Dead” had been a superior cinematic horror experience on every conceivable level. On the other hand, that movie’s bleak ending also hadn’t come with a pastor insisting that all of it would actually come to pass. Needless to say, all of this festering Hell trauma was now compounded with the Rapture – the promise that anyone who had fucked up with the Sinner’s Prayer was going to face the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse on their own, without our loved ones (who all hadn’t fucked up the Sinner’s Prayer) with us. Our only choice then for salvation would be to weather the Antichrist’s reign and be hunted and tortured for refusing to take the Mark of the Beast.
To reiterate: I was a child.
I had my first nightmare about the Rapture that very night. I woke up all alone, my family taken into the air to meet Jesus. In the dream, I walked around my empty house and gathered the supplies I’d need to face the End Times. I woke up so relieved that it was just a dream, and so terrified to go back to sleep.
Suddenly in my waking life, I was paying fierce attention to the End Times – the wars and rumors of wars always promising Jesus’s immanent return. I’d listen to the way my Dad talked with his siblings about how the Lord was clearly coming fast. I’d wonder what it might be like to have the Rapture take place and get left behind – what I would do, where I would go, how the hell I would survive. I had some idea about hiding down in the sewers, living off canned goods and making people think I’d been raptured too so that they wouldn’t come looking for me when the Mark of the Beast started its official registry.
These obsessions consumed my thoughts for years. With them came the shame that I would ever possibly fear the Rapture, because it reminded me that I was doubting my own salvation again – doubting that Jesus’s free gift currently extended to me, and breaking his heart – bruised first for my sins – for doing so. I wondered with increasing anxiety whether anyone else doubted their salvation as much as I did – why no one ever talked about it. I wondered if I was alone, if anyone else had nightmares about the Rapture as rich in detail as mine.
I spent hours upon hours of my childhood trying to push these fears to the back of my mind. When I couldn’t, sometimes I would harm my body a little bit more to keep myself distracted. I learned here that “coping skill” is not synonymous with “healthy coping skill.” But the heat worked, so that the fear of the Rapture would come and go in waves – usually at their worst when someone started talking about them, and I remembered all my nightmares.
And then came the fucking LEFT BEHIND craze, and literally everyone was talking about the goddamned Rapture.
When Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye struck gold with that LEFT BEHIND book series in the 90s, I didn’t touch them. EVER. I’d had quite enough fantasies about the missing out on the Rapture, and they occupied enough of my mind. But that damned series stirred a big enough interest that the Book of Revelation was the flavor for a spell, and pastors across the land (especially TV land) were quick to point out how the godless liberal takeover of America was just one of the many signs of the swift arrival of Jesus: Round Two, and accepting Christ promised us front seat tickets. LEFT BEHIND had Bible-study companions, merchandise, comic book adaptations, and an official soundtrack. DC Talk even covered Larry Norman’s “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” and we sang it in our youth choir.
At some point during this craze, my youth pastor wheeled out “A Thief in the Night” to couple with our weekly, ongoing deep read of Revelation and how it applied to our current times. Turns out, it had three sequels – all covering the trials of the apocalypse in their grisly, graphic, hokey detail. We were going to watch them all. Of course, I feigned excitement. Of course I talked about how fortunate we were to be covered in Christ’s blood, so that we would never have to worry about ever facing any of these terrible tribulations. Of course I kept all of my doubts buried deep within, because everyone else looked so goddamned sure that this was simply a time coming that they’d never have to face. They were absolutely certain of their salvation. I watched them all beaming in that certainty and enviously pretended along with them.
One day, I got to talking to a fellow in my youth group. One of those guys who was completely sure. Somehow the topic turned to the Rapture. I remember him looking really thoughtful more a moment before telling me, “If I ever DID get left behind, I’d just turn myself in and tell them to get on with it.” I admired his courage – I knew I’d run like a coward. It didn’t occur to me until much later that he’d thought I was completely sure too, and that he’d also been thinking about that he’d do if he wasn’t really saved.
I’ve come to realize that this is one of the Church’s greatest sins: It offers such confident assurance that it makes doubting so fucking lonely. But it wasn’t that kind of loneliness I felt when I was 15, on the night I sat under that tree, ignoring the winds while trembling nonsensically. That loneliness was panic upon realizing that I’d probably just been left behind.
We were on a summer youth group retreat. One of those where the youth pastor and some parents come out into the woods with a couple dozen of the kids in the church’s youth group. Barbecuing, swimming, praying, worshiping, intensive Bible studies were all on the schedule. They were a place where cliques are born, like little micro versions of high school dynamics. We all came together for the religious parts, but otherwise stayed divided by popularity – which meant that me the nerdy cisgender boy was watching all the cute cheerleaders being preyed upon by the sporty guys, while praying God’s forgiveness for nailing His Son to the cross again because I kept harboring impure thoughts about them.
The kids whose parents were part of church leadership usually hung out together, and we almost always were the nerds. Honestly, they were my favorite company, because we all shared eccentricities that came with the PK trade that no one else could quite understand. That night, I’d been hanging out with the youth pastor’s step-son and talking about superhero movies when I was told that the shower up the hill was now available. It was my turn – and I was glad. I was always terribly insecure about the way I looked – and being a teenager now meant I had to be aware of how I smelled too. I was having to figure out hygiene as I went – the emphasis in our home was soul-saving, not how to apply deodorant.
I went up to the camp sight’s shared shower area, quickly washed up, and paused long enough to look at myself in the mirror while trying to imagine any attractive quality that a cheerleader might notice. Ten minutes, tops. Still drying off, I trudged back down the hill toward my youth group’s camp. By now, the winds had picked up – the lanterns were all still on along the tents and picnic benches, flickering about so that it flashed just about all of the camp in unsteady glimpses. I approached, still damp from my shower, with increasing trepidation. By the time I’d made it to my tent and looked around, some heavy weight inside my chest plummeted into my gut. “Hello?” I cried out.
I was alone. I’d known it as soon as I’d made my approach, and I confirmed it when no one answered my call.
If I have told this story well, it should not be any wonder where my mind immediately went, or why it immediately went there. The chronic nightmare that had just come true, an accumulation and worthy punishment for a life spent in perpetual doubt of the salvation for which I’d so humbly asked, so sincerely wished, so desperately believed as I’d first uttered it. Everything I’d feared had been true – including all my instincts telling me that no one who doubts this much could possibly have ever actually been saved. No – I’d done it wrong after all, and every moment I’d spent in paralyzing, perceptual fear since first hearing of Hell’s wretched and eternal details had been warning me of the truth. And now it was too late to get it right – too late to actually figure out the correct frequency and tone in which the Sinner’s Prayer was supposed to be uttered for Jesus in his perfect grace to actually save my soul.
I don’t remember how I made it to the tree on the edge of our camp, rocking myself back and forth as I sobbed and sobbed and begged God for forgiveness. But at some point, I pulled myself together – simply resolving myself to the fact that now it was time to face the Tribulation alone. I was going to have to figure out how to drive one of those vans out of here, to gather supplied without being seen. I was going to run from the number 666 for as long as I could before the Antichrist’s liberal communist army finally got me, at which point I would pray for strength to endure any torture I must in order to refuse the Mark of the Beast. I calmly resolved that I would now have to do it without any of my loved ones, who had all been so sure. I tried to summon the courage to stand, and I just couldn’t anymore.
I gradually willed myself to wake up out of this increasingly numb haze of despair. I knew I’d been crying, that I’d been rocking, that I’d been numbing myself to all the pain. Now, I was just surrendering to my fate while that there was something deeply, deeply at fault within me for getting it all wrong. I remember almost feeling relief, to just admit that I shouldn’t have been afraid of my fears. After all, they’d all been true. Even as a child, I comprehended how easy it is to surrender to self-hatred, because we’re taught to do it the moment we are told that we deserve Hell.
I simply remember being found by the youth pastor’s step son. He approached from the darkness, his shadows jumping about his face in the rocking lantern light. By the time my friend found me, all of the panic was past. I could have been five minutes or an hour – I suspect somewhere in between. But when he reached me, I was calm.
I wasn’t thinking clearly, and his presence just confounded my confusion more. I should have been elated to know that two preacher’s kids were going to face the Apocalypse together. I just remember thinking he looked awfully calm too, for someone who’d just found the only other sole person in the youth group who hadn’t been worthy for the Rapture. He just cocked his head to the side and frowned at me. “You finish your shower?” he said.
I nodded, because I wasn’t sure what else to do or say.
“Oh, okay,” he said. He casually motioned into the darkness, farther down the hill.
“Well, we’re all down at the lake. Sorry, I was gonna stay here and wait but they needed me to carry some lawn chairs down. We’re roasting marshmallows. You ready?”
“Everyone’s down there?” I said.
He seemed shocked that I was so skeptical. “Yeah. Why wouldn’t they be? Hey, are you okay?”
I realized my legs were working. Standing was all that it took to get back into character. It’s always been a super power of mine to get into character when people are around. It was the power I needed on the moment that I realized that I’d been for now been spared. It was like waking up from my first Rapture nightmare – I’d just gotten up, started my day, and resolved to never tell a soul about my doubts. My certain smile was the mask I’d trained myself to always wear – covering up all the shame I felt for nailing Jesus to the cross again for all my doubt. “Yeah, I’m fine,” I answered.
We walked down the hill together, so sure of our salvation, and found the rest of our friends and parents and youth pastors, all beaming with the same gentle decay of the character we had all been collectively trained to play.
Post Script: When I finally realized, a quarter of a century later, how many of us have experienced doubt like I have spent this tale describing it, it felt like I could breathe for the first time. The more we talk, the more we realize the terrible truth: Our salvation is MEANT to be doubted, even as we are told that to do so is to doubt the Lord Himself. The eternal flames of Hell guarantee that salvation will be doubted – because you cannot tell that story to a child without instilling a deep, gaslighting, and abusive fear within them that can lead to the kind of trauma that I experienced. To be an Evangelical Christian is the act of learning how to suppress that doubt: First to all the ones around you so that they will not know how weak you really are; then to ourselves, until we dare not speak of our fears even when we are alone, lest we nail Jesus to the cross again.
I don’t know if it’s funny or tragic how much we doubt our salvation far more than we doubt the existence of Hell. I just know that the indoctrination of both of these concepts is child abuse.
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