I have written about the end of the world on many occasions but never as a memoir. This tells the short story of me as a mesmerized youth, seeking eschatological fulfillment at the limit between reality and rhapsody. It is the tale of how much my life became shaped and disillusioned by waiting for Jesus at the end of the world. If you want theological views of 666, a history of dozens of failed apocalyptic prophecies, or evidence that the world is not getting worse, you can read some of my older stuff.
I grew up in a wild and frenzied Pentecostal movement. Life within its confines was terrifying. And yet it was so vividly beautiful. My experience was enthralling and gave me immense fulfillment; I sincerely miss many things about it. And yet crippled my psyche to the point where I suffered insomnia due the fear of hell (I was the only one who actually took the idea seriously). I remember people who had the greatest of intentions, some who might have eagerly given their life for yours, or at least would have shared their last crumb of bread. I also remember people who lived in mentally constructed bunkers, walled off by the phantoms of fringe conspiracy theories or stoic religious beliefs. I remember old men who yelled at me, until I cowered in shame. I remember old women who smiled and gently tussled my hair. And most of all, I remember the prophets whose strained voices reminded us that time was short, we were on the cusp of eternity. Jesus was coming, very soon. And we were ready.
I still wonder, was it merely an ephemeral midsummer dream, or did it really happen? Did we really live through the end of the world?
On the last page in the history of the late planet earth, life was very normal. It would seem that with all the eschatological prophecies, fears, and preparations, life would be inundated with extraordinary things; and indeed it was, but still, so much seemed quite normal. The daily patterns of life flowed in unison with the rest of society. As the nonbelievers (this included the “worldly Christians”) conducted their daily routines, so did we; as the nonbelievers lived, ate, slept, dressed, shopped, crafted, sang, laughed, and cried, so did we. Although they also danced, wore worldly fashions, watched television without hiding, and probably laughed a lot more than we did.
And yet, in the normalcy of our behavior there was a transcendental angst, a furious displeasure with the world. It wasn’t the right world, there was something dissimilar, chaotic, and very foreign about it. The disorienting waves of industrial, scientific, philosophical, and technological progress alienated the older Pentecostals, and from them these ideas of social isolation disseminated down to us. In the end, many of the younger Pentecostals adopted this feeling of “not belonging” within contemporaneous society, and we were happy (in theory) to reject the world and all its delicacies. We were willing to dive into the forthcoming eschatological climax and embrace the teleological fulfillment of our lives. The rapture would equalize everything. The last would finally be the first.
We were normal, and we were odd; we were regular children, and apocalyptic warriors of the Most High. Our world was filled with our generations curiosities and experiences, like Pokémon cards and the advent of the internet, but unlike our nonbeliever counterparts, we knew about the spiritual war behind everything in reality. There were demonic movements by the antichrist to prepare the world for the Mark of The Beast and the battle of Armageddon. There were plans being enacted in the halls of the mighty, the New World Order was ready to start the final countdown. Why even the US dollar had the freemason pyramid with its NWO symbology. These powerful forces were getting ready. Satan was lurking behind every stray bar code.
As history was unfolding before our very eyes, we feverishly copied video cassettes from iterant speakers that captivated us with their dire apocalyptic warnings, telling us of secret concentration camps being built all over the world to round up Christians. We heard of NWO trucks and tanks being moved secretly around the nation, and even a secret system of reflective stickers that were being put on the backs of all street signs to create navigational markers for the NWO troopers to the nearest death camps. In the evenings, we eagerly believed it with the very depth of our being. And then in the morning we would casually eat breakfast and play outside.
The upcoming turn of the millennium unknowingly fertilized a great many apocalyptic fears within our movement. One of the greatest “discoveries” in my time, which was shared with my Sunday school brethren, was the realization that 2,000 Anno Domini must be the year of the rapture. I hurriedly told them that Adam had been created in 2000BC, Jesus came in the year 0, splitting history, and the second coming would be at 2,000 AD. This numerological approach fit perfectly with the dozens of ecstatic prophecies we heard in church, which warned us of the imminent Second Coming. Everything made sense, like a puzzle fitting into pieces. It was a beautiful theory, wrong as it were.
And so we waited on the edge of eternity, but there were many false alarms. Moments in which I was convinced that the rapture had occurred, or was in the process of occurring. Each of these marked an instantaneous burst of adrenaline through my body as panic, fear, and desolation tore its way through my naïve brain. One time, during a passionate Pentecostal prayer meeting, the frantic cacophony of voices , all of whom were shouting in glossolalic speech (“tongues”) at the same time, began to do something unexpected. Members of a local family that were considered highly spiritual (and often had their own private Pentecostal prayer meetings) began to shout louder than the rest of the congregation, and their cacophony became a symphony, disorderly shouts became an ordered chant. My pulse stopped and my face paled. This new glossolalic chant stole my breath, I was sure this was a sign of the rapture, and those who chant in this new “speech” were being selected by God for the rapture. I began to weep and repent, asking God to forgive me for my teenage hormones and secret video game habit, I began to try to imitate this new glossolalic chant. I opened my eyes, slowly regaining my confidence, and quickly glanced at my father, only to find him praying in his own form of tongues, he did not join in the new harmony. I sighed in relief, for I knew my father was a deeply devout spiritual man, and there was no way Jesus would neglect to rapture him. And thus he became my “rapture barometer.” I knew that if he was still remaining, then the rapture could not have happened. And then as abruptly as it began, the prayer dwindled down, and nothing happened. There no rapture.
Alas, my father was not always present (as every sad story goes) and often took long church related trips, before the age of cell phones. Perhaps it was during one of these trips (the exact circumstances have long dissipated from my memory) that the sun began to turn dark. I overheard a frantic telephone call from one of my mother’s friends, and we were rushed outside to see a dark circle forming in the sky above.. I frantically looked for my father, surely God would not leave him when the rapture came? But he was not there! I was petrified! Perhaps the rapture had taken place, and we were all left behind? I wasn’t sure whether my mother was holy enough to be raptured (though she would have probably spanked me if I had told her that back then, so I kept quiet). The sky was turning red and a dark shadow began to loom over the face of the sun. The sun will be darkened and the moon turned to blood. The caller had told my mother the end was coming, Jesus was returning on the clouds, and so we waited, in fear and trembling, outside our home. Later I realized this was the total solar eclipse they mentioned in school (though I had never seen one before).
Memories like these were once many, but alas, are now vanishing into the deep abyss of time that has engulfed many eras and epochs. One thing I do remember is that I sincerely did not believe I would have time to grow up, get married, and live a normal life. Some of the friends who grew up with me, would deny this, but that would only be retroactive rationalization. We all expected the rapture to be imminent, we were all inundated with dozens of Pentecostal prophecies where trembling older women, purportedly channeling the Holy Spirit said “be ready, I am coming very soon” in a dire ecstatic voice. We heard the sermons that taught rapture readiness, some of us even read the Left Behind books and watched the 70’s rapture films showcasing the silver guillotines killing backsliding Christians who didn’t get raptured. We devoured apocalyptic predictions and distributed illegal VHS copies of lousy talk shows that told us bar codes and computer chips were the coming mark of the beast. We were ready to be raptured, but not all of us were ready to live.
And then over time, some of us realized the world was not ending,. We had to explain why Jesus did not come, after all. Some of us died, never knowing, like many in the early church who waited and yearned for an imminent second coming that did not happen. Or perhaps like the Montanists who had Pentecostal-like prophecies of the impending apocalypse, but died unfulfilled. Some of us may have been even more disappointed, like the Millerites who were so convinced of the rapture on October 22, 1844, that thousands spent the day on their knees only to experience the great disillusionment of their faith, aptly known as the “Great Disappointment” (though many simply created a new theology to explain away the fact that Jesus did not show up as prophesied.) Regardless of which incarnation of apocalyptic prophets we imitated more, some of us joined the long lineage of hundreds of sincere Christian groups who believed Jesus was returning in their era and were disappointed.
And yet others began to evolve “sophisticated” theological views to account for this missing rapture. Some became academically attracted towards complicated doctrines like partial preterism, saying most of the apocalypse texts refer to events in the past. Others formed simpler answers, like “God can come today or in a thousand years, we shouldn’t speculate.” Certainly such careful thinking was not the popular theory during those frenzied prayer meetings as we listened to prophetic utterances declaring the end is “very soon” or as we read prophecies hand-copied and disseminated to local churches.
Eventually many began to think and say “oh, we didn’t really believe THAT, you’re confused, it was just the general idea, that we should be “ready,” just in case.” For we as a people have traded in our memories of that frenzied time where eternity hung on the cusp of a divine intervention for something more reasonable. We began to backfill memories with a more normalized version of how things were. Like a modern camera stabilization system, which takes a shaky video recording and creates a smoother image by removing the shake, we too “stabilized” our recollection. We traded in old and embarrassing ideas for updated and revised editions. And it was somewhere during this this transitory period of ideas, as the Slavic Pentecostal movement matured, that I became disillusioned with Pentecostalism and could no longer say “we.”
I have many more efflorescent feelings about that time when we danced with eternity, my memory yet scintillates with beautiful nostalgic imagery from that faint twinkle in time. And even if everyone forgets the rapture which never happened, I will always cherish the deep anticipatory longing we once had. I will always remember those fleeting moments when we lived at the end of the world, on the edge of infinity.