May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
February 27, 2020
“After the rapture, are you gonna serve the beast?” my older sister, Katie, asked.
I was only half paying attention, coveting her room instead. Hers was prettier, I thought, her sheets and coverlet pale peach, with gray tulips and a scalloped edge. My butterfly-patterned comforter was boring.
She didn’t even use them much, I thought. Why should hers be prettier?
The house was quiet. Steve, our older brother, was off caring for his steer at the Future Farmers of America barn. Mom was in the office at the other end of the three-thousand–square foot house; Dad, at work at a savings and loan in downtown Tucson. Katie and I might have been alone in the world.
I pondered her question, mulling over the unfamiliar words. “What’s the rapture?” I finally asked.
“Don’t you even know?”
Her triumphant older-sibling air made me wince. I hated that she knew something I didn’t, though being only ten to her thirteen put me at a disadvantage. “No,” I said, pretending I didn’t care.
She leaned forward. “The rapture is when God is going to take all the born-again Christians to heaven all at once. And after that, there’s going to be a bad leader called the beast, and he’s going to make you swear to follow him. He’ll give you a mark on your forehead to do anything, like buy or sell food. Like a credit card. And if you don’t swear to follow him, you’ll starve or have to hide in caves or something.”
I stared at her, my eyes wide. I had no idea what she was talking about. It sounded like a plausible Star Wars sequel. We’d been raised Presbyterian, but now our family never went to church. “Rapture” was a foreign language.
Whatever this story was about, Katie seemed sure it was real, which terrified me.
“I’m born-again,” Katie said with sleek, catlike satisfaction. “I’ll be safe with Jesus.”
She’d told me about becoming a Christian on her last visit from Sunshine Acres, the faith-based children’s home in Mesa where she now lived. This surprised me, since I’d thought our family was already Christian—though how could I be sure given our truancy? Having Sundays free felt dangerous to me, like one more symptom of how our family had lost its way.
“I bet you’ll get the mark of the beast.”
We’d been fighting a lot that day. Fighting was normal this late in her visit.
I always looked forward to her coming home, as if her homecoming were Christmas and my birthday rolled into one. When she’d first arrive, we’d play for days without arguing, creating soap opera plots with stuffed animals, just like old times. It was strange but lovely to not feel lonely, a wish come true to have her by my side again.
But I wasn’t used to so much company two years into her exile. After a week or so, I would feel overwhelmed, and I’d disappear for hours to read. Why can’t she be OK by herself? I wondered. I forgot that our house was no longer her home. She had no friends to call and only a duffel bag of her things to entertain her.
Tomorrow she’d leave until Christmas, which was six months away. I hated that every time we said goodbye I was ready for her to leave. A better sister would be more hospitable. A better family would not have sent her away in the first place. Our family had gone wrong, and as much as I tried to figure out how or why, every answer I considered only filled me with despair and bewilderment.
“I won’t serve the beast,” I said. My eyes were filling with tears, and even as I protested, I believed she had every right to judge me. “I’d hide in a cave.”
“Maybe.” She shrugged, clearly skeptical.
Looking at her sitting there so calmly, just a foot away from me, her face haughty with power after the first time she’d gone to the Acres, I felt—so viscerally—that if judgment came tomorrow, I would not have a leg to stand on.
Remembering the day my sister scared the bejesus out of me, I wish I could laugh about it. It’s not unlike the usual torture that older sisters inflict upon their younger, more credulous siblings. But laughter comes hard.
Had Katie not been sent away, not heard about Jesus at the Acres, she would never have told me about the rapture, and the two of us would not have been terrified about the state of our family. But she was sent away, and the rapture story that she told on her fraught return took the gulf between my beloved sister and me and made it seem preordained. It formalized the chasm I assumed lay between me and God. Rapture theology made me responsible for my own alienation, promising all of the terror of hell without any redemption.
And yet, strangely, I feel like her story helped me, too. It named that things were not right. I already felt the not-rightness at the bone, but like many families, ours coped with our problems by pretending they did not exist.
It was a terrifying story, but I was already terrified, and I had no words for why. When Katie named my terror, that gulf that I felt between me and goodness, it was not a relief, but perhaps it was a first step to doing something about it.
As a child, I took Katie’s Bible interpretation quite literally. I did not know it had a fancy, polysyllabic name: premillennialist dispensationalism. I did not know where it came from or who invented it. I did not know how it spread to the United States and beyond from a little-known sect in the United Kingdom. And I did not know that it would one day be used to justify evangelical support for Donald Trump.
Why this story? What does it say about me that I believed in the rapture so easily, even before I understood what born-again meant? What does it say about us as a nation that this story of destruction is the most popular story that we have about Jesus reigning forever?
The end-times plot that frightened me at ten is, of course, one of many possible Christian endings to the world. If eschatology is a giant ice cream shop, premillennialist dispensationalism is only one flavor. Not only that, but if you wanted a quick dessert and researched Yelp reviews for all the options—historicist and historical, amillenial and postmillennial and premillennial, preterist and futurist and idealist—and if you compared timelines showing the inclusion and sequence of tribulation, rapture, millennium, and resurrection of the dead, you might choose Froyo instead.1
John Nelson Darby, an Irish-Anglican parish priest turned evangelist, pioneered premillennial dispensationalism, primarily because of his deep disillusionment with the institutional church in Ireland.2 His theology combined two ideas. First, there’s premillennialism, the idea that Christ’s second coming—with the trumpet sound and the rapture—would occur before the idyllic thousand-year reign of Christ. And second, there’s dispensationalism, which is the division of human history into segments, or dispensations, usually seven of them. For example, pre-fall Adam lives during the dispensation of paradise, whereas the dispensation of the Spirit runs from the cross to the rapture. In each era, God offers a new revelation, humans attempt to live up to the revealed covenant, and humans inevitably fail, which then leads to the next dispensation.
Darby helped found the Plymouth Brethren, a pietistic denomination famous for its intentional lack of liturgy, formal governance, and perhaps unsurprisingly, an abundance of schisms. He made six trips to the United States and cultivated a relationship with, among others, the evangelist Dwight Moody. Then, Moody’s Bible school, in turn, trained Cyrus Scofield, whose Reference Bible became the rock on which generations of fundamentalists stood. Scofield wove premillennial dispensationalism into reference notes on each Scripture page. Reading Scofield’s Bible, “readers often could not remember whether they had encountered a particular thought in the notes or in the text.”3
As it stands, the list of institutions and preachers who have helped sow dispensational ideas around the world reads like a Who’s Who of evangelicalism: Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Dallas Theological Seminary, and Moody Bible Institute. Even if you’ve never heard of Darby or the Plymouth Brethren, you’ve heard of Left Behind. Long before the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, premillennial dispensationalism was a cultural British Invasion.
But regardless of its influence, the scriptural basis for Darby’s cosmology is thin. Even now, I’m shocked at how many liberties premillennial theologians take with the Bible and traditional teaching.
Consider the whole idea of a “rapture,” which Darby developed less than two hundred years ago. It hangs mostly on a single verse, 1 Thessalonians 4:17: “We who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” Even if read literally, the timing of this moment isn’t at all clear from the context—and it mentions nothing of the beast, the tribulation, or forehead credit cards, imagery that is taken from Revelation, a book of the Bible that was written by a different person, probably decades later.
How could Darby cherry-pick from so many eschatological verses those bizarre and unclear images and manage to create a confident narrative for thirteen-year-old girls to parrot to their impressionable younger sisters?
The arguments about how to read these verses are as old as Christianity itself. As far back as the second century, Origen lambasted literal interpretations of such scriptures, preferring an allegorical reading.4 But allegory would not have sold nearly as many copies of Left Behind.
And yet I understand all too well why we cobble together plausible, authoritative, mutually exclusive narratives from inadequate facts. After all, I was an eyewitness to my own childhood, my parents’ choices, my relationships to my brother and sister. I can give you timelines and facts, not to mention dozens of subjective memories. But like Darby’s theology, the story I weave them into is not the only possible interpretation. Confident as I feel, even I sometimes wonder whether I have gotten the story wrong.
Here are the facts about my family, then, as brief and unbiased as I can make them. My parents adopted both my siblings as infants, first my brother in 1970 and then my sister four years later. They were adopted from different sets of birth parents, and I think all of us would agree that “attachment”—that bugaboo of hippie parents—never really took hold between my mother and my siblings, especially Katie.
Our house radiated with unhappiness when I was little. My mom, in her anger, alienation, and bewilderment, grew violent, and my siblings, to put it mildly, struggled. Why is a chicken-and-egg problem. My parents say that Steve and Katie together in the same house made everything in our family worse; they blamed my sister for leading easygoing Steve astray.
I was the biological baby my parents thought they couldn’t have. From a very early age, I tried to be good enough that Mom’s anger and our family’s sorrow would not grow worse.
When Steve was thirteen, our parents sent him to the Acres, an institution for kids whose parents were dead, sick, or struggling. They told me he needed the social interaction and even that they were concerned about saving their foundering marriage. Decades later, they also admitted they were afraid that Mom would hurt him seriously if they didn’t do something drastic.
But things didn’t get better after Steve’s exile. Dad once described Katie and Mom as oil and water. Mom said Katie was manipulative, pitting one person against another. A year and a half after Steve left, Mom and Dad sent Katie to the Acres, too. She was eleven at the time.
Steve returned for his last two years of high school; Katie came back for half her senior year. But the five of us never lived together in the same house again.
“What did I do that was so bad?” Katie used to ask me on those long afternoons toward the end of her visits. Her eyes darkened with anger as I recited what I knew: oil and water, divorce, manipulation. I could not point to a single event that justified the exile, and as I looked into my sister’s eyes, the words I spoke felt like dust in my mouth.
Sometimes the explanations we are most familiar with make no sense at all.
But even now, the puzzle of interpreting my family’s past dizzies me. Is my family a story of failed adoptions? Reactive attachment disorder? Fetal alcohol syndrome? Is my mom mentally ill? Did my father enable her abuse? Did my parents singlehandedly screw up perfectly normal kids? Or given the paucity of resources for adoptive families in the eighties and the many therapists who blamed mothers for any illness, did they do the best they could?
The biblical text and its harshest interpreters slap labels on those who err: unbeliever, pagan, left behind, beast, antichrist.They divide people like sheep and goats.
But as I learned as a six-year-old, casting people—people who have hurt you, people you love—into the outer darkness does not just shame them. It shames you, too. Our love connects our fates.
That’s another reason my sister’s story of destruction resonated so deeply with me. As a child I assumed I was implicated in my family’s unhappiness, though I did not detach, act out, adopt, or send away. I felt instinctively that when it comes to judgment, none of us gets off scot-free.
I don’t think I was wrong. We in the white Christian church focus on individual sin and individual repentance, but in my experience, sin is a net that traps whole families, people groups, and nations. It’s not enough to whisper it wasn’t me.
When evaluating the effect of Darby, Scofield, and Left Behind on American Christians, scholars usually talk about passivity. In his book, Surprised by Hope, N. T. Wright shares the response to a series of lectures he gave in Thunder Bay, Ontario, about Jesus. Nearly all his audience’s questions had to do with the environmental destruction around them and whether rapture theology meant they didn’t have to care—or do anything—to save the earth. Specifically, his audience wanted to know if protecting “trees and water and crops” mattered given the coming apocalypse. “If God was intending to bring the whole world to a shuddering halt,” they asked, “what was the problem?” Indeed, Wright notes that his audience did not care “if General Motors went on pumping poisonous gases into the Canadian atmosphere.”5
Historian Paul Boyer argues that Christians holding to premillennialist dispensationalism are not wholly passive but limit their action to religious spheres. He writes that the “premillennialists remained faithful to their larger sense of divine omnipotence and human powerlessness: apart from assuring our own salvation and trying to win others to Christ, we are helpless to shape history’s course.”
Twenty-five years after Boyer’s book, and ten years after Wright’s, that passivity seems to have morphed into something else altogether. White evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump by huge margins, and they justify their choice with their eschatology close at hand. For example, citing the president’s decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, many premillennialist Trump supporters say the move will help usher in the second coming of Christ, given that a unified, strong Israel is one of the end-time prerequisites in Darby’s theology.6
When I talk to loved ones and friends who voted for Trump, they all express some level of disdain for our governmental and societal institutions—they’re ready to be done with traditional media, political parties, and norms in order to revitalize and reorient our national trajectory. They don’t necessarily cite Revelation, but they do, consciously or not, mimic its revolutionary tone.
In other words, they’re eager for a kind of American end times.
There’s something about believing the world will end that makes us both careless of upheaval and wary of responsibility. Burn it all down, we say, while also believing we can do nothing to affect the conflagration.
Much as that apocalyptic nonchalance frustrates me, I recognize it in myself. Seeking any kind of change, even for the better, means being willing to face the end of the world as you know it.
When I was forty, I went to get therapy for the first time in twenty years. Not long before, our family gathered together at my house, our first reunion since I got married at age twenty-five. I served cold cuts on a ceramic tray with small rolls to make sandwiches. As I got ready, placing the meat slices on the serving dish, I felt my stomach twist.
I hoped my family might sit and eat sandwiches together on my couch, chatting companionably, but I knew that was wishful thinking. The gathering, I saw with prophetic certainty, would be awkward, exposing the cracks between parents and children, between me and the people I loved, without any kind of fellowship.
But even worse, I realized an hour later, while I chewed my sandwich without tasting it, I had done nothing in my power to forge peace.
As a child, I had worked to shore up the status quo, to explain reality to my siblings, to be so good we might all keep pretending we were fine. Now, almost forty, I had not changed. I called Jesus Lord but lived with a knot in my stomach, slave to old habits and terror. And sharing Jesus with my family wouldn’t change much—except for Steve, all of us were born-again.
Serving cold cuts and biting my tongue when my brother asked me, cuttingly, when our parents would leave, I could not believe this was the best we could aspire to.
I presented two faces to my family. To my siblings, in private, the few times we were together, I affirmed that our parents had made a mistake in sending them away, that Mom had been violent, and that our family history deeply troubled me. To our parents, however, I said nothing of the kind. I avoided conversations about my siblings, wincing when my mom complained that they didn’t call enough but never saying what I thought, which was what can you expect?
With my family, I was quintessentially passive, hedging my bets, keeping all my bases covered, avoiding offense while never loving well.
I had once prided myself on staying close to my parents and siblings so my children could have an extended family, but the older I got, the more that seemed like a cop-out, not a virtue.
At that gathering, I finally saw my cowardice for what it was.
Yet the idea of dropping the mask, of naming my questions and interpretations aloud, made me feel white-hot queasiness. The end of the world had nothing on that terror. How do you look your mother in the eye and say you were not enough? How do you tell your father you believe his choices were mistakes? How do you tell them the years of their greatest grief, their bewilderment and calamity, ended poorly? That you believe the story they’ve told to help themselves survive is not the whole truth?
I called a therapist. Pulse quick, I asked her how to be honest, saying, “It will kill them.”
“You love them, don’t you?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Then invite your parents to really know you,” she said. “Invite them to go deeper. Ask if you can trust them with your full self.”
I stared at her as if seeing the world in full color for the first time. Beyond my fear of betrayal and recrimination was a kind of intimacy I could barely comprehend. I was so afraid of ending the relationship I had with my parents that I had forgotten to wonder what kind of wholeness might take its place.
The end of the world, much as we fear or speculate about it, is not the point. The point is the other side, when nothing separates us from the love we’re desperate for. That’s true for my family, but it’s also for us as a country. The divisions we’ve papered over haunt us: the complicity of Christians in propagating slavery and Jim Crow, the structural inequality, the glorification of violence, the unthinking nationalism, the divide between rural and urban, coasts and heartland, rich and poor. We have refused to name them, to own them, to collectively repent.
The root of the word apocalypse in Greek means to uncover, to reveal. And without a clear-eyed, mutual revelation of painful history, how can we possibly move past it and toward each other?
I had never spoken my fear and shame to my parents. And even if the world ended if I did, its end would be more real than the world I propped up with silence.
Maybe our longing to burn down our system is, at heart, a desire to heal. We long for the end of the world if only because we are weary of pretending it has not ended many times before without us acknowledging it.
The problem is that it’s easier to name destruction than wholeness, easier to tear than to mend.
Oddly enough, I think we long for judgment. We long for wrongdoers to get their just deserts. We only fear that we are among them—the justice that attracts also terrifies.
But nothing can be set right without real holiness showing up, holding our hands, and leading us toward a wholeness bigger than our twisted insides.
When I began the conversations with my parents about the past, when I began telling them my rogue interpretation of our family’s story, it did not go as I hoped. It was indeed an apocalypse for our relationship in all the meanings of that word: an end of the world of our old relationship, an uncovering, a revelation.
One morning, my mother came over to my house in a rainstorm. My kids were home. I was doing everything I could to not let the tension with my parents spill over and affect my daughters’ relationship with their grandparents. So Mom and I sat out in the garage in my car, safe from little pitchers with big ears.
The air between us tense with hurt and grief, she asked me what I saw when I looked at her. “Mother?” she asked, her voice trembling. “Or monster?”
I could hardly bear the pain of her question or the judgment it implied, the way it left no category for mothers to make fatal errors and be anything other than fiends. And yet I understood her black-and-white thinking. Had I not believed myself monstrous, back when Katie told me about the beast? I thought my shame and fear only qualified me to be banished, left behind, hiding in a cave.
In an essay posted on Medium, Jonathan Martin writes that “in our absurd blame of people who are not like us, people we deem as other, we actually consort with dark spirits. . . . We are not able to actually demonize anyone else at all, even when we vilify them. We finally only really demonize ourselves.”7 What I wanted to tell my mother that day as the rain came down over our heads was that I was tired of exile, tired of dividing sheep and goats, tired of imagining that only bad people did bad things. I was tired of defining good in a way that kept me silent and terrified. Tired of worrying that if I were honest with her, she would no longer be my mother.
Truth, after all, does not change the fact that she birthed and raised me, even if it remakes our mother-daughter relationship into something neither of us anticipated.
What I wanted to tell my mother was an apocalyptic story, a clear-eyed, revealing story, that uncovered the roots of our family’s sorrow as a way of actually healing them. I did not want apocalypse to burn down or cast out but instead to begin planting something new.
But I can’t do that on my own. Forget judgment—I am no more equipped to heal my family than I was able, as a child, to understand the story my sister told me.
In the end, my critique of premillennial dispensationalism is not that it frightened me too much but that it promises too little. The melodrama of beast and rapture is simply not compassionate enough to capture real wholeness. I don’t want to get whisked away from unpleasantness, leaving behind those that don’t have their ducks in a row. If apocalypse means this tender green earth is made only for destruction, if all we aspire to is a kind of gnostic salvation of our souls, we need better revelation.
Salvation isn’t an individualistic toggle switch. It needs to work its way into our affections, families, communities, and governments, into our pasts and futures, into our way of seeing our human family. Whom we each will serve is a very good question. Who we will become together is just as important.
The day my sister asked me if I’d serve the beast, I think she wanted me to admit that the world we were living in was not OK, that there was something broken at the center of it, that she was right to be angry. And I think she wanted me to say no to that world, to finally insist I would not continue pretending to be good, pretending to be fine with everything as it was.
But past a simple yes or no, I think she yearned for the tear at the heart of our family to be woven back together.
Heather Caliri is a writer and editor whose work has appeared at Relevant.com, (in)courage, Harpur Palate, and Brain, Child Magazine. She dispenses awkward Christian advice at HeatherCaliri.com and lives in San Diego with her husband and two daughters.