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When I was 12 years old, after soccer practice, a friend’s parents dropped me off at home one Saturday afternoon. I fully expected someone to be home, given the fact that we had a very large family — I was the youngest in the family, with 5 sisters. But nobody was home, and they hadn’t left a note as to where they had gone, which was a bit unusual. Given that these were the late 1970s, and there was no such thing as smart phones, there was no way to reach any of my family members to find out where they were.

On the face of it, for a 12-year-old boy coming home to an empty house on a Saturday afternoon, one would look at that event from an objective point of view and consider that this sudden chance at a few hours’ freedom would be every kid’s dream! Party time! I could watch whatever I wanted to on the TV, listen to whatever radio station I wanted to, or grab a meal-spoiling snack before dinner. And for most 12-year olds with the house all to themselves, it surely would be a golden opportunity to chill out.

But none of these fun things to do were on my mind at the time. First of all, because we lived in a fundamentalist Christian home, with parents who subscribed to the Bill Gothard model of parenting and child-rearing, we had no TV in the house. This was to protect us from the evils of the world. Second, we also were not allowed to listen to secular music of any kind; if we were caught listening to rock n’ roll, and not the “approved” Christian radio station to which the radio was always tuned, the consequence was an immediate spanking. And finally, there were no snacks in the house; my mother was a convinced health-food nut decades before it was a “thing,” so there were no sweets or cookies to be found in the house anywhere.

Therefore, rather than looking positively at my sudden windfall of a few hours of freedom before the typical large-family chaos descended upon the house, I was not happy at all. In fact, I was in complete and total panic mode.

But what was I so freaked out about?

Left Behind

Beyond dealing with the fear of simply being a 12-year old in a large, empty house (decades before Home Alone made it seem cool), I was utterly panic-stricken and traumatized. Convinced that the rapture had occurred and I’d been “left behind,” I was completely terrified.

I rushed around the entire 6-bedroom house, frantically checking every room to see if anybody was still there; I was greeted by empty rooms. I ran outside to see if the cars were parked in the driveway. One car was missing — our station wagon — which made me think for a second that maybe they’d all gone out somewhere. But that momentary thought of reassurance quickly vanished — because I had to know if my family had been raptured. They could have gone out, yes; but that didn’t solve my problem, because the rapture would snatch every Christian suddenly into the air without any advance notice. My family would be up in heaven at that very moment, while I was stuck down on earth to face the horrors of the coming 7-year tribulation.

Panic ensued.

Quickly I ran back inside and sat down for a moment, my heart pounding and breathing heavily. Think. OK. If the rapture has happened, then it’ll be all over the news, surely. I ran to the radio and scanned all the stations, listening to each for a moment to hear the breaking reports of Christians disappearing all over the globe. Nothing but the babble of DJs and normal music greeted me at every station, so I put the dial back to the Christian station and turned off the radio.

I was still unconvinced, however. Perhaps it had just happened and the news hadn’t hit the airwaves yet, I reasoned. Not having a TV, I sprinted next door to my aunt and uncle’s house, and breathlessly asked if I could turn on a TV and watch the news for a few minutes. They were very surprised to see me in such a state, and asked if anything was the matter. I was near tears at this point, but managed to hold it together; I knew that as Catholics, they weren’t “true Christians” (as my mother had informed me several times), so they of course wouldn’t have been raptured. They let me sit and watch TV for a few minutes, but of course…there was nothing on the news about a worldwide, cataclysmic event that had just taken place.

Still in total panic mode, however, breathing heavily and wiping back tears, I ran back to my house, which was still empty. Before I went inside, I scanned the traffic on the nearby road, figuring that there would be car crashes and ambulance sirens everywhere. Nothing. I watched an airplane fly across the sky, but I concluded that maybe the pilot wasn’t a believer. I went inside, sat down on the couch, and contemplated my next move. I’d been home for about an hour now, and there was nothing on the news about the rapture. But I still wasn’t entirely convinced. I didn’t know what to do, but I was incredibly worried and upset.

Just then, I heard the crunch of car tires on the gravel driveway. My parents were returning. I ran outside and stood by the car as they all piled out of our green station wagon. I shouted, “Where have you guys been? I thought the rapture had happened and you’d all been taken! I thought I’d been left behind!”

It turned out that there was a perfectly innocent explanation to the whole affair. My parents had needed to run a few errands, and my sisters all wanted to ride along, so they all piled into the car and left. In the rush to get out the door, they’d simply forgotten to leave a note on the table, which was standard practice back in the days before smartphones. You needed to let somebody know where you were going to be, and when you’d be back, because there was really no way to get ahold of anybody outside of trying to catch them on a landline. But they’d forgotten to do that, and therefore sent me into complete panic mode.

A Thief in the Night

But why did I react this way to such a fairly common scenario? It was all down to the fact that a few years before my traumatic experience, my fundamentalist church had shown, at a Sunday night service, the apocalyptic end-times movie “A Thief in the Night.” Along with this film are three additional movies that together make up an entire series of end-times terror.

The basic plot of these movies is this: all “true Christian believers” would, suddenly and completely without any advance notice, be “raptured” into heaven. In other words, they would literally disappear into the clouds, right in the middle of whatever task or activity they were doing: driving, flying an airplane, doing dishes, sleeping, whatever. They would just simply vanish into the air, snatched up into heaven by God, leaving nothing but their earthly clothes lying in a heap.

When the rapture occurred, apparently, driverless cars would crash and cause huge pileups; pilotless planes would drop out of the sky and smash into the ground; surgery patients would die on the table as the surgeon suddenly vanished; trains would careen down the tracks without an engineer to stop them, with horrific results. Worldwide panic and chaos would inevitably ensue as everyone tried to unravel the mystery of millions suddenly vanishing. For the Christians snatched away up to heaven, their problems were over; no matter about the thousands of deaths and injuries caused by their sudden disappearance. However, for the unlucky ones left behind, their problems were just beginning.

The Tribulation

For those unfortunates, the films maintain, the rapture was but the “first trumpet” signalling the beginning of the end of the world and God’s judgement of humanity’s wickedness. Following this seismic event, there would then be ushered in 7 years of worldwide tribulation, presided over by the satanically-inspired Antichrist, who would force the world to adopt a global economy and make every person take “the Mark of the Beast” on their hand or forehead. There would also be worldwide famine and plagues sent by God on the earth.

Those who didn’t accept the Mark would be pursued by the ruthless security forces of UNITE, who had all sorts of modern technology to assist them in hunting down fugitives. No matter where they hid, they would inexorably be ran to ground, jailed and violently persecuted, and ultimately beheaded (weirdly, on a guillotine).

Following the 7 years of increasingly horrific tribulation, then would come the end of the world — a cosmic showdown between Christ and the forces of the Beast culminating in the final battle of Armageddon. The bottom line, however, was exceedingly clear: if you were left behind when the rapture took place, it was too late for you.

Religious Trauma

Therefore for me, from the moment I saw the movie that Sunday night at age 7, I was deeply affected and terribly traumatized. I decided that there was absolutely no way I’d be one of those poor bastards left behind to face persecution or public execution during the tribulation. I was going to make sure I was a true Christian so I’d be one of the lucky ones raptured when it suddenly happened. You never knew when it would take place: like the proverbial “thief in the night” who breaks in when the homeowner least expects it, such would be the return of Jesus to take his followers home to heaven, and leave the rest behind to suffer torment, persecution, famine, plagues and public execution. You just had to be ready at all times.

And so I was baptized by my father a few weeks later, during a Sunday evening service. But even though I was assured by my parents and pastor alike that I was definitely saved, I still couldn’t be certain. I prayed the “sinner’s prayer” almost nightly, and re-dedicated my life to Christ at every invitation in church or at Christian summer camp each year, just to make sure that I wasn’t going to be left behind when the rapture occurred. That hideous fate wasn’t going to befall me, I decided.

But despite all of those thousands of prayers, that day when I came home to an empty house shattered all of those assurances of salvation in mere seconds. Deep down in my soul, I knew that the rapture had taken place, that I wasn’t a true believer, and now I was forced to face the awful reality of 7 years of tribulation and torture all by myself, as a 12-year old boy. I was completely and utterly shattered.

This…is a description of my experience of rapture anxiety.

Despite walking away from both the church and the Christian faith many years ago, I can still feel the visceral emotions of that day as I write these words. How does a young boy of 12 have the emotional and psychological capacity to deal with such religious trauma? Surely the showing of the film to such an audience, which included my friends too, was tantamount to religious abuse by church leaders.

It has taken many years, and a lot of therapy and education, to rid myself of such trauma. But there are still people out there like me, despite no longer believing in any of it, who can suddenly be triggered by the sound of a police siren in the distance, or — like my experience all those years ago — coming home to an empty house and experiencing that sudden pang of doubt.

Places like hell or events like the rapture may not, in fact be real; but the religious trauma that they caused in so many people absolutely is a real thing.

Written by

I’m an ex-evangelical speaking out about the dangers posed by the Christian Right, dominion theology, and Christian nationalism. Host of the MindShift podcast.

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