Fun fact about me: I have a fear of The Rapture. If ever I come home and find The Little Woman missing, her coat, keys, car, and shoes still in the house, I get a little wobbly. My first thought is that she’s been raptured, taken up into the sky by Jesus who has returned to claim the faithful. I, on the other hand, have been Left Behind. I don’t know why TLW would get to go and I would be left behind. After all, when it comes to being sinners, we are pretty much on a par, I think. But, logic has very little to do with The Rapture and my fear of being Left Behind. Generally, TLW is only at the neighbors’, but that doesn’t stop me from breaking into a cold sweat when I can’t find her.
When I was a kid, between the ages of five and 18, my family attended a series churches that, over time, became increasingly Pentecostal. My parents, one a lapsed Catholic, the other an indifferent Lutheran, seemed an unlikely pair for conversion. But, at some point near my fourth birthday, my father got a wild hair that he wanted to live on a farm in the country, and he moved us from an affluent Seattle suburb to a tiny mountain logging town that straddled a state highway. Not long after arriving we began attending a Southern Baptist church, the result of my parents being swept up in the Jesus Freak movement (they could have just become hippies, but noooo).
Eventually my parents became Born Again, baptized (their previous infant sprinklings were deemed insufficient—these were the Baptists after all), and saved for all eternity from the eventual hellfire and brimstone that would one day rain down on earth. When I was ten, I too walked up the aisle at the church during the altar call hymn after the sermon to ask Jesus to be my personal Lord and Savior. My salvation had more to do with the fact that my best friend had gone forward that day at church than with any inner desire on my part to invite Christ into my heart. Nonetheless, I too was baptized, in the Wallace River, on a sunny September afternoon by Pastor John, the Baptist minister.
Not long after my immersion (during which I fully expected a dove to land on my head though this did not happen), the Baptists and my parents parted ways. Details are lost to history, but if my child-memories can be trusted, I think the separation had something to do with theological differences. I remember loud conversations when my parents came home after church business meetings, angry phone calls, and extracurricular activities, like trips to evangelical meetings where devotees waved their arms in the air, spoke in strange languages, and regularly fell out of their chairs. Even as a child, I could sense that the Baptists disapproved of such behavior. My parents on the other hand began adopting these behaviors and sought out a likeminded worship community.
That is how we ended up in the windowless cinderblock building on Sunday mornings, listening to a twitchy pastor in a cheap suit who had only recently left the streets himself. We kids perched impatiently on the cold metal folding chairs and let our minds wander. As the adults sought redemption, my eyes searched the empty walls, tracing patterns in the bricks, looking for some sign that life might again make sense. The hours wore on and the grown ups babbled and writhed, speaking in tongues and dancing this new and strange dance in the aisles. It seemed dangerous.
Church wasn’t just confined to Sundays. On Wednesdays we again congregated in the soulless room on our folding chairs for Family Night. I know we attended many Family Nights, but only a handful stand out—the movie nights. Someone found a way to tack a once-white sheet to the cinderblock walls and someone else started the Super 8 movie projector. My nightmares began with the threading of that projector. They’ve continued for most of my life.
When we hung out with the Baptists, the adults socialized around Sanka in the kitchen while we kids scrunched all cozy and sweaty-happy into the family room where we watched The Wizard of Oz or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, happy fun family movies. That all changed when we left the Baptists. In the cinderblock church, movie night wasn’t about cartoons or Disney or anything quite so benign. Instead we were treated to movies designed to literally scare the hell out of us.
The Thief in the Night series of films came along in the mid-1970s and followed the story of Patty, a young married woman who somehow forgot to accept Christ as her personal lord and savior. One morning she wakes up to the sound of an electric razor rattling around in the bathroom sink, her husband gone. We can hear sirens in the background and on the clock radio in her bedroom we hear the frantic announcer describe chaos around the world—people are missing everywhere. Drivers have vanished from cars, children from families, teachers from classrooms, doctors from operating rooms. (We had a bumper sticker on our camper that read “Warning: In case of the rapture this vehicle will be unmanned”).
As the movie progresses, we learn that the rapture, the second coming of Christ has occurred and soon evil government forces led by the anti-Christ (interesting side note, when I was a kid, I heard much speculation that Henry Kissinger was the anti-Christ) are forcing those unfortunate enough to be Left Behind to take the Mark of the Beast. This mark enables people to conduct basic transactions such as buying food and gasoline. At least at first. Eventually, as the movies (there are four total) progress, the mark is required. Period. (Interesting side note, I remember my grandparents thinking that debit cards were akin to the Mark of the Beast–this thought still occurs to me whenever I use an ATM).
To refuse the Mark of the Beast is to invite certain and unpleasant death. This theme is the gist of the fourth and final movie in the series. We have followed Patty through the first three movies as she wrestles with her new reality and tries to decide if she will accept Christ as her savior or accept the mark and the ease it offers those who take it. Once those Left Behind take the mark of the beast, they will not be allowed into heaven. To take the mark means eternal death and damnation—hellfire and brimstone. Literally living for all of eternity in unimaginable agony. To escape this end, Patty and her friends will have to withstand the period of time known as The Tribulation and await a third coming of Christ—when he returns to collect those who have remained faithful in the face of great pain and suffering.
In short, Patty must decide if she will suffer for a short time on earth in exchange for an eternity in heaven. She finally decides to accept Christ into her heart, to eschew the Mark of the Beast and to accept whatever suffering the Anti-Christ and his henchman have to mete out. Patty is herded along with the others into a church sanctuary. We can hear screams coming from outside the church and the faithful are given one last opportunity to avoid whatever awfulness awaits them beyond the sanctuary door. They can take the mark and live out their remaining days on earth in peace, free from pain and suffering.
As Patty waits in line the screams intensify and a few weak souls ahead of her change their minds, hold out their hands and get the mark tattooed onto their wrists. Their relief is palpable as they walk away. Patty remains stalwart in her decision and the door to her fate draws closer—the faithful faint and are carried out the door. When Patty crosses the threshold, we see what awaits her: a guillotine. Those who have refused to take the Mark of the Beast, those who have remained faithful to Christ and have chosen great agony now in exchange for eternal life, are being beheaded. And they are strapped to the guillotine face up.
You can bet your communion wafers that I toed the line in church after watching those movies. And it’s no wonder I have an unnatural fear of guillotines and a slight issue with anyone touching my neck. I do not want to be Left Behind. Even if we are only going to see the neighbors. Take me along or at least leave me a note.