Apocalyptic upbringing: how I recovered from my terrifying evangelical childhood

Raised under the dark bubble of religious fundamentalism, Josiah Hesse recalls a childhood filled with gloom, doom and preparing for the end of the world

The Guardian, UK/April 5, 2016

By Josiah Hesse

One stormy night in the summer of 1992, I walked down the basement steps of my parents’ house to await the apocalypse. The Iowa air was thick with humidity, the ominous green sky prophesying a tornado. My 10-year-old hands trembled as I laid out my inventory: animal crackers, juice boxes, a Bible, and every sharp knife in the kitchen.

My parents were home late and my first thought was that they’d been raptured up to heaven. I was a sinner who had been left behind to face the Earth’s destruction.

Thunder boomed as I opened my Bible to the Book of Revelation, a passage I knew well after years spent on my dad’s knee as he read it aloud to his kids. This would be my roadmap to doom: the stars falling from the sky. The cracked earth spitting locusts with the heads of lions. The beast with seven heads, the body of a leopard, and the feet of a bear will rise from the sea and be worshiped by all those left behind on Earth.

I would have to hide from the antichrist, who would force all those left on Earth to renounce Christ and receive the mark of the beast on their right hand or forehead. Anyone found with the beast’s mark after death would be thrown into the lake of fire. If I successfully avoided this and died of old age, I would be reunited with my family in heaven. (Note: There are countless interpretations of how this would all go down, but this is the one I heard most consistently as a child.)

Eventually my parents did come home. I packed up my gear, put the knives away, and never mentioned a thing to either of them. I was safe – for now.

Halloween with the Hell House

For any child raised under the dark bubble of religious fundamentalism, moments like this are not uncommon. In the evangelical Christian world of midwest America, it was normal for adults to tell children they would probably never grow old. The end could and would come any minute now.

My dad and Bob Dylan were both “born again” in 1978. They didn’t know each other, but each were caught up in the explosive trend of converted hippies known as the Jesus Movement (or “Jesus Freaks” to Hunter S Thompson). Following the cultural and political destruction of the 60s flower power crusade, thousands of dropouts were now renouncing drugs and getting turned on to the great hippie in the sky known as Jesus.

Millions were also buying a book called The Late Great Planet Earth, which interpreted biblical text through modern political events, concluding that Christ would return and the Earth would burn around 1988. The book was made into a movie starring (a very portly and probably drunk) Orson Welles and was immediately followed by several other pulp rapture films and Christian rock albums that warned of an imminent doomsday.

Born in 1982, my childhood was filled with more biblical prophecy than Sesame Street good times. The urgency of avoiding hell surpassed any trivial education the world had to offer. After all, if you’re staring down the barrel of eternal torment, who has the time for algebra?

Salvation was attached to belief, and in order to protect my belief I had to censor my thoughts. The book of Mark says that “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”. So I was careful to never even think a thought that could be considered blasphemous. This was profoundly exhausting; and while I was mostly successful at repressing my intellectual curiosity during the day, once sleep came I lost all security clearance to my own mind.

My dreams were terrorized by a wide-eyed witch who worked for the devil. She would chase me through dark corridors, cackling and insisting I’d already damned myself to hell. Soon I began sleepwalking, often waking in the darkness of our back yard. Soon I began avoiding sleep, staying awake, watching TV to stay awake as long as I could.

Teachers at school became frustrated with my falling asleep in class and daily trips to the nurse’s office. Knowing nothing of panic attacks, the constant bursts of adrenaline and nausea I experienced could only be described as “I feel sick”. Throughout my middle and high school years, I flunked more classes than I passed.

Release came only when my evangelical friends and I put on theatrical productions that frightened audiences into conversion. Those plays would happen on Easter, but the most fun came at Halloween with the Hell House. Presented as just another haunted house, crowds would be led through a series of vignettes featuring abuse, overdoses, abortions, drunk-driving crashes, gang shootings and suicides (this was how we assumed all nonbelievers spent their time), followed by the big-budget climax of hell.

Our sinners would walk through a slim, dark hallway, where unseen hands grabbed at their ankles. They’d scream, then blindly step into a cavernous, smoke-filled room where the blackness was chaotically punctuated by bursts of flames.

Once completely disoriented and emotionally exhausted, patrons were then ushered into a comfortably lit, domestically furnished room with tissue boxes and smiling counselors ready to share the good news of Jesus with them.

Looking back, I now realize that the tactics (guilt, disorientation of senses, casting doubts of their moral identity) would probably qualify as brainwashing. Perhaps I knew that at the time but rationalized it because so much was at stake. After all, the year 2000 was nearly upon us.

It may seem silly now, but you can’t overestimate the power that the Y2K scare had on the apocalypse fever of evangelicals. By this time my parents had seen more than a few end-of-the-world prophecies come and go and weren’t as easily worked up about the doomsday many thought Y2K would be. In my home, conversations about the antichrist and the mark of the beast had stopped years ago, but by my teenage years I’d become far more of a fundamentalist than my parents had ever been.

Despite living in a small town, I was a member of three different evangelical Christian churches at this time. Needing far more than just aSunday fix, I was attending about nine different religious classes a week. And then there were two different church camps each summer, four conventions each school year, and countless youth rallies, concerts, and theatrical productions. I even enrolled myself in a rural Christian school my junior year of high school. I never engaged in sports, and never listened to any music or watched movies that weren’t affiliated with Christianity. I was perfectly isolated from any outside influence.

My dad, however, had renounced church altogether, and my mom only went on Sundays, so for the most part my zealotry was self-imposed. I judged their lack of commitment and often stopped speaking to them for stretches of time. Unlike drug use or listening to gangsta rap, no parent worries about their kids spending too much time at church. But looking back, my overdosing on religion was becoming a serious problem.

The Y2K scare was a huge focus because it was both imminently close and so mysterious even the nonreligious believed it was a legitimate threat.

At church camps and youth conventions, we cried, wailed and beat our chests in shame, begging God to forgive us our sins and never leave us behind. In the years of my adolescence, I shed enough tears to fill an Olympic swimming pool.

As 2000 approached, my panic attacks grew more severe. I pondered the nature of eternity nearly every minute of the day. Whether torture or paradise, the concept itself filled me with existential dread. Eternity. As in, forever. And ever. And then more. And more. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it.

Spoiler alert: nothing happened on the first day of January in 2000.

Like the Jesus Movement’s disappointment at the world not ending in 1988, our faith was silently cracked when the world kept on turning into the new millennium.

A sunset epiphany

I finished school and began a life on the road, traveling aimlessly around the country, working an endless series of construction, restaurant, retail, factory and day-labor jobs. I stayed in hostels, on couches and in short-term rentals, making new friends and slowly becoming the thing I’d always been taught to avoid: worldly.

Yet despite the drugs, sex and foul language that now consumed my daily existence (a not-uncommon lifestyle for young Christians away from home for the first time), my faith in God remained on life support. There was too much at stake to flippantly reject it, no matter how many unanswered questions rattled in my brain. If salvation is tied to belief – as I believed it was – then I couldn’t allow any seeds of doubt to take purchase in the soil of my mind. I clung to the idea that the rapture was still imminent, but my conviction was weak and I was desperate for something to keep my beliefs afloat. I adored intellectual Christians such as CS Lewis and Francis Schaeffer, and secular musicians who identified as Christians such as Moby, Bono and Johnny Cash. If they could live in The World and retain their faith, why couldn’t I?

My early 20s were spent desperately reading as much as I could get my hands on about the Bible and why it was intellectually viable. Believing I needed to be able to refute all arguments to the contrary – even my own – I read secular works by those who despised Christianity, such as Tom Robbins, the Marquis de Sade and Christopher Hitchens.

Then one evening in San Francisco in 2006, while watching the sun set over the Pacific Ocean, I quietly said to myself: “I don’t think God exists.”

My breath stopped. Cold sweat raced down my back. I winced, half expecting to have a heart attack. Or a giant beast to rise from the water.

But nothing happened. The world kept turning. Just as it did in 1992 when my parents eventually came home and proved the rapture hadn’t occurred. Just as it did in 2000 when society did not collapse from Y2K. My entire life I’d been holding my breath, anticipating a scene of mind-shattering horror that simply never arrived.

I am now 33 years old and am often asked if I’m bitter about how I was raised. First, I’d say little of the blame belongs on my parents’ shoulders. They were young, idealistic Christians when they had me, and like so many religious parents, only had the best of intentions of rearing me in their faith.

“When you’re young, things seem a little more black and white,” my mom recently told me during a phone conversation. It was Easter Sundayand I asked whether she regretted exposing me to the terrifying prophecies of the Bible at a young age. “Regret might be a bit harsh. Would I couch things differently today, and not have them be so hellfire and brimstone? Maybe.”

I asked my dad if he’d known about the intense anxiety I’d suffered throughout my childhood. “I knew you were afraid. You were such a scared little boy. I didn’t know what to do.”

I would say that some of the most emotionally rapturous moments of my life were had in Pentecostal church services, where the loud and hypnotic music, speaking in tongues, primal dancing, shaking and collapsing to the ground, caused explosions of sensory transcendence in my little body. I’ve since had glimmers of these moments on a dance floor, a rock concert, or moments of exceptional sexual climax, but nothing has come close to the indescribable high of a frenetic religious service laced with an uncut dose of pure belief.

At the same time, I’ve never been able to shake the deeply rooted conviction that it’s hopeless to plan for the future. Home ownership, marriage, kids and retirement savings all require a faith that tomorrow will be here in the morning. While my head can rationalize that one year will probably follow the next, my heart cannot handle anything more than one day at a time.

I am still plagued with chronic nightmares, which my therapist says are a common symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. Before entering therapy, I’d never heard of the term “religious abuse”. The idea that an extreme religious upbringing could be a form of psychological torture was new to me. When reading the horror stories of other evangelicals who grew up under the constant fear of rapture (some of whom had the same experiences I had of believing they’d been left behind), it felt right. After all, I could think of several ex-Christians I’ve known who have had extreme drug addiction and emotional disorders that fit the bill of someone with PTSD.

In some respects, I feel like I got off easy. I’m in a loving relationship, enjoy a strong circle of friends, and have built a reasonably successful career as a writer.

Yet any time I come across a news story about global warming being worse than expected, or that the economy is on the verge of collapse, or that some demagogue running for president is leading us toward a nuclear showdown with religious fundamentalists in the Middle East, a familiar voice whispers through my mind, reminding me that this is it, what we’ve been waiting for all these years, the end has come, you were right to never start a family, because the world is about to be plunged into a thousand-year darkness of torment and chaos, so grab whatever supplies you can get your hands on and head out into the wilderness, because a fate worse than death awaits those caught unprepared.

Then I take a deep breath, reminding the frightened child inside me that he is safe, that the world may be full of uncertainty and pain and confusion, but we are here, now, and there are no locusts with the heads of lions likely to come out of the Earth any time soon.

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