The Way the World Ends: What if Jesus Doesn’t Come Back to Save Us?

treeoflife01Over the weekend, some of my progressive Christian friends were grousing on Twitter about how growing up in ‘90s Evangelical culture and being taught that we would be raptured up to heaven before anything terrible happens in the world, ever, left us ill-equipped to face the reality that we would one day die.

I quit believing in the rapture early on in high school when I realized it was inconsistent with Jesus’s own teachings on the end-times, but in retrospect I can see how this denial of death bled over even into the forms of Christianity towards which I was drawn in my teens and early twenties. In the doomsday cult I was a part of in college, we believed we would be impervious to the bullets fired at us in the Middle East by the Antichrist and his hordes of demonically driven Muslim supporters.

“If it wasn’t time for us to be dead,” my friend April* told me, “God could just send us back down. So that might be a really great option! Whenever we’re in any kind of danger, we can just shoot each other! Like if they were going to behead you, I could just SHOOT you and then Jesus could send you back!”

“I don’t think I like where this is going…” I said in a low voice.

April cocked an imaginary gun. “‘I’LL SEE YOU IN A MINUTE!’” she yelled.

After I left the group I began studying Gnostic groups (like ours) that believe they have a special mission to accomplish at the end of history. This sense of being in a cosmic drama relieves us of the appalling tedium of being not-particularly-special people living in a fairly uneventful period of history. One writer made a point that has stuck with me: he said that these Gnostic groups, even the ones that call themselves Christian, deny the wisdom of the Old Testament writers that life is an incredible mystery, and that everything that has a beginning must also have an end—ourselves, our relationships, our accomplishments, the world itself.

And I don’t think I fully got that until I stood in front of my friend’s coffin, face to face for the first time in my life with the awful specter of mortality. Nothing in my upbringing or religious education had prepared me for this. Bethany had been there not long ago and now she was just gone. I could spend the rest of my life roaming the earth trying to find her and would never find her. The body in the coffin had once belonged to her, but now it resembled her less and less. I had no idea what to make of this. As I wrote in my journal on the day after the visitation, “She was dead and I suddenly had no idea where her soul had gone, or if she even had one.”

I had already begun to abandon the convoluted eschatological scheme accepted by most Evangelicals (seven years of tribulation followed by a thousand-year reign of Jesus) before Bethany’s death—the Catholic Church which I was in the process of joining teaches only that Jesus will return at some point in the future and set up his kingdom forever. The rest is just speculation. But it was only after I had thrown out most of what I had been taught and believed all my life about the end of the world that I ran into a problem—namely, that science already has a pretty clear idea how the world is going to end, and it’s pretty grim.

Basically, carbon life has only existed on earth for about two billion years out of the roughly fifteen billion years of the lifespan of our universe. The first Homo sapiens emerged some tens of millions of years ago, only a second ago in geologic time, sweeping down out of the trees onto the savannahs with a miraculous awareness of themselves that is surely the greatest mystery and miracle of cosmic history—“the universe,” as one scientist put it, “becoming aware of itself.”

Barring some nuclear or ecological disaster, our species and life on our planet as a whole will lumber along for another few hundred million years until we are wiped out by an asteroid, a comet, a meteor, a chance collision of two black holes somewhere in our galaxy, an explosion from a neighboring supernova or some other ghastly and xenocidal event. Assuming we manage to survive each of these extinction-level threats, within a mere five billion years the sun will enter the next stage of its life cycle, becoming a red giant and swelling up to gargantuan proportions, in the process casually destroying the three closest planets in its orbit.

Of course by then it’s entirely possible that we’ll have developed the means of leaving earth and colonizing other solar systems. But even if we do, it turns out we’re only delaying the eventual end of our species, for the stars are going out one by one, leaving us in a cold void of perpetual night.

On the bright side, if there is one, this is still an inconceivably vast number of years away from happening, and by the time the sun winks out, everyone you know will be dead. Maybe you’re okay with that. It’s hard enough getting people to care about rises in ocean levels that will flood coastal regions and cause massive droughts, leading to war and famine, in the lives of our children and grandchildren. Still fewer are kept up at night by the cosmological certainty that our species will eventually be annihilated when the sun, the giver of life, blows up and devours its own offspring. But I am.

It troubles me because even as a child I had a mystic’s eye for the goodness and beauty of the world, because I believed that this world is full of more good things than we can possibly dream or imagine, and love makes it hard for me to accept that all this—the churches of Greenwich, the bistros of the Left Bank, the factories of Birmingham and Philadelphia; every piece of flannel, every strip of paper, everything you ever built or wrote—will perish in solar fires, unobserved and unremembered. Surely if anything can test a person’s faith, it is this. Philosopher Bertrand Russell felt keenly the implications for humanity when he wrote, “All the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system … The whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.”

Perhaps Shakespeare glimpsed something of the futility in which all humanity’s ambitions must end when he had King Lear ask, “Is man no more than this?” This is the sort of question people of faith are going to have to take seriously, if we want to be taken seriously by the rest of the world in our time.

As a Christian blogger, I’m supposed to state here that it’s all going to be okay and we don’t have to be afraid of extinction and Jesus will come down and save us before the universe reaches Threat Level: Midnight. But I don’t know that for a fact, and you don’t, either. In this life we’re given promises, but no guarantees. We have assurances, but no certainties. That’s why it’s called faith.

Ironically, part of what led to my current existential crisis was the Catholic faith in natural processes, in the idea—going all the way back to St. Augustine, who developed an early theory of evolution to describe how life on earth had come into being—that God uses natural methods and natural laws to accomplish his purposes in the natural realm. (This is still a major source of division between Catholics and Protestant fundamentalists: it was a Catholic priest and astronomer, Georges Lemaitre, who first proposed what became known as the Big Bang theory, which is almost uniformly rejected by fundamentalists who don’t seem to realize how it converges with the Genesis account). Once I accepted that maybe God had used a slow unfurling of cosmic evolution to bring the worlds into being over a span of eons, I couldn’t help wondering if maybe God would end space-time in precisely the same way: slowly, over many billions of years.

I spent much of yesterday reading a book by John Polkinghorne, a renowned Cambridge physicist—his work was instrumental in the discovery of the quark in the 1960s—who is also an Anglican priest and amateur theologian. The book, The God of Hope and the End of the World, summarizes his conversations with several other scientist-theologians at Yale University who are trying to reconcile our scientific knowledge of the eventual extinction of our species with the Christian faith in a bodily resurrection in which God raises individuals from death and restores them to their bodies in a natural environment. (The belief I was taught growing up, that when we die, our spirits leave our gross bodies behind and fly up to heaven to be with Jesus forever, is actually Gnostic).

Polkinghorne and his colleagues raise several possibilities for how this might happen in a way that doesn’t contradict current scientific findings or Christian orthodoxy. For example, maybe the information-bearing part of a human being (what we call “the soul”) is stored in God’s memory after death until the day of resurrection. Maybe we all die at different times and then find ourselves together again at the same time, as happened in the final episode of LOST. Maybe we awaken to find that the billions of years between our death and the end of the old universe have already transpired while we slept.

Ultimately, as even Polkinghorne himself seems to concede, none of these answers can be entirely satisfying because they all have to be taken on faith. “Any hope of a destiny beyond death,” he writes, “can ultimately rest only on the faithfulness of God the Creator.” In the end we’re left only with hope: hope that we were created for a purpose; hope that our creator loves us; hope that this world of unthinkable beauty is leading us towards a world of beauties even more unthinkable.

And, if I’m being honest, hope is what I’ve been missing ever since Bethany’s death. She trusted God to protect her, and God seems to have failed her. After she died, I could no longer entrust myself to pious certainties. People die. People are murdered or take their own lives and no deity intervenes to save them. Terrible things happen because this world can be a terrible place, because humans are terrible and depraved and a savage darkness lurks in even the most devout heart. Just look at what they did to Jesus.

And ultimately that’s why I remain a Christian, because even with all my doubts and questions I know I’m not asking anything new or original. Nothing has changed in human nature just because we now understand that the sun will eventually destroy us. It was Thomas Kempis in the twelfth century who said, “Look on all things as passing away, and thyself as doomed to pass away with them.” It was Job who asked why man is born to trouble, and it was Jesus who in the agony of his final hours dared to ask God why he had been forsaken, and heard only silence in response.

Buffy, Rwanda, and the Kingdom of Elsia

Xander zeppo

One of the best episodes of Buffy shows Xander having his own crazy adventure while in the background the other Scoobies battle to save the world from being destroyed by a hideous monster. We catch glimpses of their battle throughout the episode. They’re all crying and yelling at each other. At the end Buffy tells Giles he did one of the bravest things she had ever seen (but we never learn what he did).

It reminded me very much of the weekend in 2007 when our cult had to unite and battle the demonic spirit that was over Southwestern: all the feelings that come to the surface when you’re fighting an enemy that only a few people are able to see.

And then I got to thinking about… something I thought a lot about in the aftermath of that weekend: the scary things I used to see in my bedroom that weren’t normally there. Traveling out of my body was an experience very much like that of Frodo when he put on the Ring. He went into another realm and could see things no one else could. And basically, when the group started, we were all doing that.

And then I read a story about how Rwanda’s Christians are coping with the aftermath of genocide by turning to Pentecostalism. It provides them a framework for understanding the supernatural evil that was unleashed on their country in 1994. This article in Foreign Policy magazine tells the story of a young woman named Rebecca whose family was offered sanctuary in a Catholic church. It turned out to be a trap, and her parents were killed.

And then this happened:

 

Two years later, having found a home with a foster family, Rebecca made friends with a girl of her own age named Alice. One day, Alice led her into a cemetery, and there, as Rebecca tells it, the ground opened up, revealing a flight of stairs that led down into the realm of Satan. “It was a place where there was always twilight,” says Rebecca. “It was a world of bad spirits. They put an evil spirit into my body and then they sent it back out into the world.” For the next five years, she says, her body wandered the land, causing ill wherever it could. “I had the power of causing accidents on Earth. The demons gave me that power.”

It took her five years to fight her way back. She suffered terribly, she says. But one day she encountered a group of Pentecostal Christians who prayed for her release from the powers that plagued her. With their help she finally found release, and “accepted Jesus as my king.” At age 17, she converted from her ancestral Catholicism to the Pentecostal Church, a move that finally brought her “inner peace.”

 

So when I think about The Children, and invisible realms that are super-imposed on this one, and mysterious invisible objects, and the Air Loom Gang, and my own made-up kingdom of Elsia, I can see a mythology emerging. Inevitably, I think the story will have to be about four or five kids who have, or think they have, unusual powers, and who are at war with unseen forces that no one else sees. And they belong to a society of people who have these gifts. And this society believes the end of the world is imminent. And it provides a place for the kids to learn and grow up and fall in love when they’re not saving the world. And the world itself seems to be going to pieces around them, with living houses and nightmare clouds and whatnot, strange disturbances in nature. And as the series goes on they begin to question the nature of their mission, especially as friends die and the “enemy” becomes not just invisible creatures but real people. And they begin to wonder whether they really are doing the right thing, and whether they’ve been misled, and whether the world is really ending.

“The Apocalypse Has Been Postponed Until Gym”: My Last Year of High School & the End of the World, Part 2

alvin

Alvin High School, May 2004

On the night I returned home from a long trip at the end of January, I called Booth and he filled me in on what had happened in Alvin during the week I was gone.

Winter had taken over our high school. Friends were behaving differently, not like themselves at all. They were grumpy and depressed. They walked through the halls with scowls on their faces, barely lifting their heads to greet one another. Even the timid and pure were drinking, throwing wild parties, having sex. Booth had been invited to an orgy, but politely declined: he could see what the lure of sexual temptation was doing to the rest of his friends, and it scared him.

But the biggest changes of all had taken place in Brandon. He had injured himself playing soccer and was no longer sure he would be able to attend the school of his dreams. His teammates had held him down and shaved his head. Now he was bald and wore a hood all the time like a Sith lord.

And he hated me. “I hate Boze,” he told Booth. “And you’re turning into him!”

For much of the first half of the school year Booth had been skeptical of our prophetic encounters and the battle that Adriana and I both felt was coming to our campus. But now he was beginning to reconsider. He told me how Brandon had yelled at a girl and threatened her with a baseball bat because she took a kitten that he wanted. He related how Mr. McGowan had snapped in the middle of class and started running through the room with a pair of scissors, screaming and laughing.

“I walk through the halls in the mornings,” said Booth, “and all I can see are faces of despair. I look into their eyes, and there is no hope. One by one, it’s overtaking everyone.”

It was after midnight. Booth told me to hang on for a second and put down the phone. When he returned a moment later, there was a note of worry in his voice.

“I don’t know what that was,” he said. “There was this thing, this noise… I think it was coming from under my bed…”

And then, without any warning, he began yelling hysterically.

He took the phone and ran from the room. From the safety of the kitchen, clutching a knife, he explained to me what had happened. There was a heavy breathing sound, and at first he thought it was the cat. But the cat was in the other room, and the noise was getting louder, and closer…

When Booth’s parents found him sleeping in the hall the next morning, they grounded him. But it didn’t matter. He knew what he had heard that night, and for the first time all year we were unequivocally on the same side. Too long had the darkness lingered. It was time to take back our campus.

*           *           *

Over the Christmas holidays Blazes O’Reilly had returned home and summoned a council. Though I had not mentioned to him the specifics of Adriana’s prophecy, I told him I felt they needed to become better acquainted, so the three of us gathered one wintry night in a back room of his parents’ house.

The reception was not cordial. From the beginning of the meeting Adriana sensed a dark aura around Blazes, “the darkest I’ve ever seen.” At one point when he left the room to make tea, she confided, “My voices just told me not to trust him, because he’s been tempted”—an assertion that was seemingly affirmed a moment later when he returned and told her as much of his story as he had already told me. How could she possibly have known that? I wondered.

For his part, Blazes swore he could see spirits of deception circling around Adriana. “There were three of them,” he explained with a casual air. “They were each taking turns whispering lies in her ear.”

Oddly, though, Blazes couldn’t deny that he felt a strong sense of destiny about her. “I just have this feeling about her, like our fates are intertwined. Like we’re destined to fight to the death. Kind of like Lucifer and Gabriel, only I’m not sure which of us is which.”

Adriana was sure, though. “My voices have shown me,” she said, “that Blazes is the Antichrist!”

*           *           *

For my own part, God had revealed to me during the break that Lauren and I would be sexually tempted in the first week of March. Each of us who were called to be players in the end-time drama would be tempted by the end of the trimester. Whether we passed on to the next stage of our mission would depend on whether or not we passed the test.

As if to confirm my suspicions, my first week back on campus I was propositioned by a sweet blonde girl with a twangy East Texas accent and her best friend in gym class. They wanted to know if I would have a threesome with them. I reached into my tote bag and pulled out a copy of the most recent edition of the school newspaper, in which I had written a long article about the importance of saving yourself for marriage. They read the article with expressions of deep fascination and thanked me. I implored Booth not to tell anyone else, but the whole school knew before lunch.

As a result of some back-room finagling, I began giving a short message on the intercom every morning right after the Pledge of Allegiance. I urged the campus to pursue joy and beauty and resist the darkness that was seeking to devour. Together Booth and I wrote six pages in the next issue of the newspaper exclusively devoted to that subject. Booth even penned an article about the “Economics of Joy” in which he graphed the school’s GDP: “Good Deeds Potential”:

 

 GDP

 

I negotiated with Mr. McGowan to let me teach European History for an entire week. On Friday I announced that I had brought in a motivational speaker, Mr. “Ebenezer Scrooge” of Scrooge & Marley’s. The entire class groaned as Booth strode up to the front of the room. Then, as if out of nowhere, music began playing. Scrooge and I spontaneously broke into a dance and were joined by a guy in the third row who knew all the lyrics to the original song (from the 1970 Scrooge musical). For four and a half minutes we twirled around the room and sang about the pleasures of enjoying life:

 

Where there’s music and laughter

Happiness is rife!

Why?

Because I like life!

The entire class watched with mounting incredulity, and by the end of the song Lauren was in tears. “That was the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen,” she said sadly. Booth and I sat quietly back down as though nothing had happened.

 

*           *           *

 

We waited for the first week of March, for the end of the second trimester.

 

I began having utterly terrifying dreams in which I seemed to be traveling out of my body at night and wandering through the rooms and halls of the trailer in which I lived. There were things in my bedroom I had never seen before. I heard footsteps in the hallway and saw strange lights outside my window.

 

I received my letter of acceptance from Southwestern University. I wondered if it was wise to go. I thought about staying in Alvin and fighting alongside my friends in the battle that was soon to come.

 

And then the trimester ended. We all settled into our new classes. And nothing happened.

 

There was no battle, no moment of tempting. Lauren started dating a guy she had met two weeks before. And I could feel the ground giving way beneath my feet.

 

*           *           *

 

On a quiet and warm afternoon near the end of that week, Booth, Adriana, and I sat facing Mr. McGowan from across the desk in his classroom. We were all disconsolate and hoped he could give us answers.

 

Adriana told the story of how she had nearly died the summer before, and how she began hearing the voices shortly after. Booth and I tried to explain all that had happened since Christmas, but it was clear from the moment we began talking that Mr. McGowan didn’t believe us. And by the time we related how Adriana learned that Blazes was the Antichrist, and how Blazes himself seemed to think that he was, and how we had briefly debated using physical force to try and subdue him, small beads of sweat were breaking out on the sides of his round face.

 

I watched him imploringly. I just wanted someone to explain what was going on. My prophetic gift had never been wrong before. Why had it failed me now, at the most critical time?

 

“First of all,” he said, in a very low and quiet voice, “what you’re going through is not unusual.”

 

I’m not sure what I had been expecting, but it wasn’t this. “Are you serious?” I asked.

 

He nodded. “For one, the three of you are reading from a shared text. Whenever three or four people read from a shared text, it’s not hard to induce shared delusions.

 

“Second, I think you’re scared. You’re scared because you’re about to graduate, Boze, and you two will be graduating in about a year. And you’re leaving the only home you’ve ever known, and that’s an incredibly traumatic experience. And it’s not uncommon for students who are juniors and seniors in high school to start having apocalyptic visions, because it’s their way of expressing kind of the terror they feel at the future.

 

“Because, let’s face it, the world may not be ending, but the only world you’ve ever known is ending. You know how they say, ‘You can’t go home again.’ You may come back in a few years, but the school that you knew will be gone. Reality won’t live up to your memories. When you go away to college, you’ll forget about me. And when you think about me at all, you’ll think of me as some sophomoric teacher who liked to pretend he knew everything. But I don’t. And some day you’ll realize that.”

 

My entire experience of the last eight months, all I had felt and foreseen and suffered, was slipping away. The apocalypse wasn’t going to happen, it might never happen, or else it had been postponed. But I was determined to hold on.

 

“What about all the others?” I asked. “We’re not the only ones. What about Blazes?”

 

Mr. McGowan shook his head. “There’s something very dark and unnatural about that man,” he said. “He went wrong somewhere… became something different than what God intended.”

 

He stood up summarily from his desk, as though to suggest that the meeting was over. Together the four of us walked to the door.

 

Booth turned in the doorway and faced him.

 

“I do have a question,” he said. “Was it you? Were you the one who orchestrated… you know, all of that?”

 

Mr. McGowan stared at him quizzically. “No,” he said with finality.

 

We waited. I looked at him, more confused than ever.

 

“Do you mean, was I pandering and manipulating you?” He laughed lightly. “Oh, of course.”

 

He clapped us both hard on the shoulders. “It was quite fun, actually. I’m honestly kind of sad it took y’all that long to figure it out. Your senses were picking up on stuff, but I was putting a spin on it. It’s good that you wanted an order to life, but you have to want it in order to see it. That’s why the super-sensible is so hard for empiricists to get.”

 

He closed the door behind us. Adriana and Booth and I walked forward into the harsh sunlight.

 

*           *           *

 

It’s been ten years since that conversation in Mr. McGowan’s room, but the course my life has taken since graduation has been in a lot of ways a vindication of his warnings. Sociologists tell us that conspiracy theories and apocalyptic thinking are deeply intertwined, and that wherever you find one, you’re likely to find the other. It’s a pathology in the American psyche, a sickness, this fascination with the end times. There’s something deeply un-Christian about it. It’s as though Jesus and the Bible have become nothing more than cultural totems with the power to drive us mad.

 

I’ve held on to my faith, but just barely. The realization that I was not a prophet was devastating, but what has been much worse is seeing the damage caused by End-Times fanaticism, the toll that it takes. I’ve seen it drive otherwise sane people to the brink of madness. I’ve watched it transform them until they were no longer recognizable, until they were willing to do the most horrible things to even their closest friends. I’ve seen it claim the life of one of my dearest friends in the world.

 

So I find myself thinking about the events of that year, and the great disappointment of third trimester, and Mr. McGowan’s explanation for what had happened to us. I think about it whenever a good Christian whom I respect is incredulous that I’m not prepping for the end times, as though it makes me some lesser species of Christian that I don’t have an opinion about when Jesus is coming back. I think about it when I’m sitting on the shuttle next to a man who wrote a 200-page book about the role of the nephilim in the last days that he’s trying to sell me, when I’m in a meeting with Christian counselors who are demanding that I pray out loud to accept my calling to battle the forces of the Antichrist. I think about it whenever someone on Facebook tells me they can’t wait to be martyred, that they hope they continue to laugh long after their head has been severed from their body.

 

“Boze, where do you find these people?” Bethany once asked me, the first time I recounted my story—back when the dangerous group was just forming.

 

And sometimes I listen to that song, “Lake Geneva,” by The Handsome Family, about a woman whose husband is hospitalized because he sees visions of the heavens in the stumps of falling trees:

 

“You remember how he cried

When they strapped him to the stretcher

Convinced his arms were burning

With electricity from heaven

 

“You remember how he told you

Black holes were like Jesus

And the crucifix was a battery

That filled the air with fire”

 

And I hear that and I think, isn’t that my story, and the story of our country? That we’d rather read about the mysterious code that foretells the day of judgment than lift a finger to help the teeming masses on whose treatment the nations will be judged? And aren’t we a sick society, when conspiracy theories and end-times mania, the province of the young and confused and deranged and scared, are mistaken for true worship?

 

After my last conversation with Mr. McGowan, I accepted the nature of the fantasy I had been living in. I was no prophet. I wasn’t destined for greatness. The only certain thing in my life at that moment was graduation.

 

And instead of running away from it, as I had been doing all year, I learned to accept it. I embraced my own normalcy, and in doing so I found freedom and a certain measure of happiness.

 

And at the end of May I graduated and left high school behind me. I worry that some of us are there still.

“The Apocalypse Has Been Postponed Until Gym”: My Last Year of High School & the End of the World, Part I

ahs“But which is more important:

To comfort an old woman

Or see visions of the heavens

In the stumps of fallen trees?”

            — The Handsome Family, “Lake Geneva”

 My last year in high school was a strange time in my life.

 

It’s a year that I haven’t talked much about since I left the dangerous group a few years ago because it’s hard to describe what happened without sounding a little insane. But I’ll try.

 

Eric Booth had been my best friend for about three or four years. To the rest of our friends, we were an inseparable duo, one of the classic teams, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Boze and Booth. We were always getting into trouble and wreaking havoc.

 

And we were a great match. Booth was tall, outgoing, and good with women. I was quiet, bookish, a little awkward, and spent most of my time writing down entire conversations in a notebook I carried around everywhere. And while I was whimsical, romantic, and full of weird ideas, Booth was rational, pragmatic, and rigorously logical. (Once when a friend boasted that she was “one in a million,” Booth did the math and pointed out that there were at least 6,000 of her.)

 

Young Boze

Me, my senior year of high school

Booth and I had a teacher I’ll call Mr. McGowan. Mr. McGowan was our European History teacher, but he seemed to view himself as an entertainer first and teacher second. On the first day of my last year in Alvin in 2003, the day our story begins, he delivered a ten-minute monologue on the day’s news. “My Middle Eastern friend hasn’t been happy ever since we had that talk about Allah,” he said. “You know, Allah this, Allah that…”

 

(“Welcome to Mr. McGowan’s stand-up comedy class,” whispered Booth.)

 

I’d been feeling sort of anxious about going back to school. So, to alleviate my concerns, Booth tried to think of the worst things that could possibly happen. “Watch, you’ll get put in the Criminal Law class!” he teased me. To our friend *Brandon he said, “Your counselors will mess up your schedule so bad, you won’t be able to fix it. And, you’ll get put in Child Development with all the pregnant chicks!”

 

So our whole first day back at school was interesting, because yes, I did get put in Criminal Law, even though I hadn’t signed up for it. When Brandon went to the counselor that afternoon to complain about his schedule, she tried to put him in Child Development. By the end of the day Booth had also correctly predicted that *Lauren, a girl I was interested in, would call me, even though she hadn’t done so in almost two years.

 

But we thought it was all just an incredibly weird string of coincidences—until the next day.

 

New England was experiencing a tremendous electrical shortage. The night before, over 45 million Americans had lost power in eight northeastern states. Mr. McGowan decided to begin his daily monologue by plugging the virtues of the Texas electrical system when compared to the infrastructures of New York and California (which was currently going through a recall election in which actor Arnold Schwarzenegger was the clear frontrunner).

           

“See, here we have a superior electrical system,” said Mr. McGowan, slowly warming up to his audience. “On the East coast, their facilities are sixty and seventy years old, and no one even knows how to fix ‘em anymore. Whenever a generator blows, they have to call out these really old men to take care of it. That’s why the New York electrical system sucks!”

 

Booth leaned over and whispered, “Watch, the lights suddenly go out!”

 

“Oh, and Ah-nold!” said Mr. McGowan, shaking his head and grinning slightly. “Can you imagine? ‘Governor Schwarzenegger, we have a problem with immigration!’” He held up an imaginary gun. “‘I VILL TAKE CARE OF IT!’”

 

But at that moment the laughter of the class was interrupted by the lights going out. There’d been a power spike across the entire east side of Alvin and over a thousand homes had lost power.

 

Booth denied it as best he could, but I could no longer doubt it: he was a prophet. Something strange and uncanny was happening in Alvin, and him and me and Brandon were about to be swept up in it.

 

*           *           *

 

Brandon and I became convinced that tragedy was going to strike our campus. In the swirl and haze of late summer, omens were all around us. Thirteen ravens sitting on a power line, the mysterious imprint of a child’s hand on the window of a car, the continual recurrence of the number 42. One Sunday the Houston Chronicle’s daily Bible verse was Isaiah 13:13, in which God warns that judgment is about to fall on the land.

 

On the thirteenth day of school the three of us took a walk around campus during our last class, and we saw some strange things. Total strangers who looked just like people we knew (“Doppelgangers,” I explained to Brandon. “Omens of death”). Two ambulances flashing their sirens in the exact same place. (We fled when we heard a third one coming).

 

The whole day had a weird, uncanny quality about it. Booth and I spent most of the evening on the phone, speculating about what it all could mean. But then at about a quarter to nine, Brandon called and explained everything. The parents of a good friend of ours had just been caught up in a high-speed police chase. A man had rammed their car, and the three of them had been life-flighted to a hospital.

 

“Do you need me to spell it out for you, Boze?” said Brandon darkly. “We know two of the three people in that accident. Just like we saw three ambulances, but only heard the third one.”

 

“We saw it,” I said quietly, my eyes brimming with sudden awareness. “We saw the whole thing.”

 

“Yes,” said Brandon. “And this is only the beginning. Whoever is behind this is trying to warn us of something. Something big that’s about to happen. Someone is going to die, unless we can stop it.”

 

*           *           *

 

The whole world had become a secret code begging to be deciphered by us. At first it was an exhilarating feeling, being privy to secrets that were hidden from the rest of our classmates and teachers. Mr. McGowan, the only person who seemed willing to listen, encouraged us to stay alert and pay attention to the numbers and patterns all around us.

 

He urged me to keep journaling our encounters, but he also advised caution. “Your senses are keen and you’re making connections; you just may not be correct about them. That’s the strength of a novel: it’s fun.”

 

And it was, at first. But the longer it went on, the lonelier I felt. I was getting trapped in the maze of my own connections, and I wanted out, but there was no way back. Sometimes when I went into the cafeteria at lunch I would see four people I knew in succession, and the order in which I saw them would show me, with uncanny precision, how my relationships would unfold going into the next semester: which of my friends would suddenly betray me, which one would make an unexpected return to my life. And I was never wrong, and it was scary, in a way, because I felt sure I could see the future but I didn’t have anyone else except Brandon and Booth who believed me, and increasingly I felt isolated even from them.

 

And sometimes I wondered if I really was crazy, like that woman in the old song “who wrote poems to Jimmy Carter but forgot to feed her kids.” Though, as the first trimester of school wore on, a lot of strange things were happening and people were beginning to notice. Booth and our friend *Adriana had the same dream on the same night. I heard the exact words Brandon was thinking, as though he had said them aloud, as I lay on the floor half-asleep. Mr. McGowan’s wife saw an angel in their house.

 

*           *           *

 

In November I reconnected with *Blazes O’Reilly, a friend who had recently left Alvin to attend an advanced school for mathematics in north Texas. Blazes had been in love with Booth for a long time. (Those were his two major temptations, he had once told me: homosexuality and witchcraft). Before we’d been on the phone for more than a minute I asked if anything strange had happened to him lately.

 

“Funny you should ask,” he said. He told me that since the middle of August demons had tried to possess him on ten different occasions. He would start cursing and throw his promise ring across the room. “It’s like Satan and the angels are fighting a war over my body,” he explained matter-of-factly.

 

“And what do you think it all means?” I asked.

 

“Well, I was going to say, you’re going to think I’m crazy, but after the story you just told me, I’d be very surprised. I think we’re heading into a major spiritual battle, possibly the final battle, and both sides are gathering their key forces for a major offensive.”

 

Blazes O’Reilly seemed to think I had a major role to play in the final end-times battle. That was insane, crazy. I told no one what he had said to me on the phone that night, because my reputation had already suffered enough.

 

A few weeks later, on a cool, sunny Saturday, Adriana came and sat down next to me at a UIL competition in San Antonio. She was a thin, quiet girl with short black hair and blue, sprightly eyes, and every time she watched the trailer for The Return of the King she wept, because it reminded her “of the great battle that is coming for us all.”

 

“What would you say if I told you that Jesus is going to return in our lifetime,” she asked me, “and that I will be one of his closest followers?”

 

I was too polite to tell Adriana what I really thought, which is that it sounded like Satan was preparing her heart to receive the Antichrist.

 

But apparently Adriana had similar feelings. Feeling encouraged by our conversation, she wrote me a letter that weekend. In it she revealed the horrible truth about her life. In dreams and visions God had shown her that she was soon going to meet the Antichrist. She would fall hopelessly in love with him, and the fall of men would begin.

 

“In a battle,” she wrote, “my love will be wounded and killed, though not by my hand, and he rises again. In the last battle, I am able to get past his defenses and, in the most horrifying moment of my life, kill the darkest love in the universe. And though I realize that I have saved my life and my fellow men, I know that my life will never be normal. I will never again feel the all-powerful passion of that love or the security of that touch. Though I know it was worth it, I can’t help but hate the loneliness that will accompany me for the rest of my life.

 

“Can I deny this fate and give it to someone else? And if I do, will there be someone to answer my call? Am I the only one who can achieve this end? I need to talk to someone, but no one but you believes me.”

To be concluded tomorrow in Part 2.

The Bethany Deaton Case: A Blogging and News Roundup

leadThis week I’m very excited to announce that one of my articles is being featured in The Atlantic online.

 

“Seven Signs You’re in a Cult” gives an overview of my time in Tyler Deaton’s prayer group, beginning in 2005 when I met him and Bethany Leidlein and concluding with Bethany’s death in Kansas City in 2012. It was an extremely difficult piece to write, because reliving the emotions associated with that period in my life, and losing her especially, is never easy. There were times when I thought it would never be finished, but I’m pleased with the response it’s been getting. Continue reading

“Trust God & Listen to Your Own Heart”: A Video Chat with Stephen Lovegrove

On Saturday night I participated in an hour-long video interview with Stephen Lovegrove, creator of #StephenSoulTalks. Stephen is an independently ordained minister, a Human Rights Campaign emerging leader, and the future pastor of Chrysalis, a church for everybody launching in Southern California in 2015. He’s passionate about giving people a platform to share their stories and advocating for human rights and social justice.

In this video we discussed my five years in an end-times cult, the unhealthy religious mindset that led me to be a part of one, and how I finally broke free through encountering the love and acceptance of God. Stephen called it the most powerful interview he’s ever done. You can watch the whole thing below.

This is What Dangerous Religion Looks Like

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Last year I wrote a post listing the dynamics of dangerous religion. I’ve spent the last year slowly adding to the list as I tweet and write my books and talk to people about the things that really scare them about the churches they’ve come out of. Eventually the list grew so long that I had to divide it into sections, and I’ll probably keep expanding it as time goes on. Please share your own experiences in the comments, and together we can continue to expose all the wrong things in the hope of bringing freedom and justice. Continue reading

Tonight, All the Children Are Crying: A Lament for Nigeria

malala-yousafzaiThree hundred girls.

 

The hope of their nation. The brightest young women Nigeria had to offer. They were going to be teachers, doctors, lawyers, politicians. They had dreams of leading their country out of the darkness.

 

But that’s not how it’s turned out. They were carried away. Awoken in the middle of the night to the noise of gunfire, forced out of their beds by sweaty, dangerous-looking militiamen, with AK-47s primed at their backs they disappeared into the night and haven’t been seen since. The darkness swallowed them up.

 

It swallowed up the hope of Nigeria.

 

The hope that a woman could get a real education and grow up to be something other than the twelve-dollar bride of a tribal warlord.

 

The hope that a country racked by violence and religious militancy could look towards the future and begin to heal itself.

 

Those dreams were taken away, into the jungle where three hundred brilliant, talented women were tallied up and sold like the cheapest of human commodities.

 

This need not have happened. It shouldn’t have happened.

 

And as I join with people of faith throughout the world tonight in praying for their return, I wonder why I live in a world where these things do happen, why they seem to happen so often. Why men with Bibles and Korans and machine guns are trying to destroy everything good and beautiful in this world. Why they throw acid in the faces of little girls who have the courage to attend school and determine the course of their own lives. Why they shoot strong women, brave women, in the back of the head, for the crime of being strong and brave.

 

I keep thinking of the lines to an old song we used to hear on Christian radio growing up. Tonight the lyrics resurfaced, more poignant and powerful than ever:

 

            Little child

            Dry your crying eyes

            How can I explain the fear you feel inside?

            For you were born

            Into this evil world

            Where man is killing man

            And no one knows just why

 

            What have we become?

            Just look what we have done

            All that we’ve destroyed

            You must build again

 

Yes, some humans have made this world a truly terrible and hellish place to live in. We have to do better. We have to create a better world for our children, a world not characterized by the deafening roar of bombs and ceaseless cacophony of bullets but by the quiet hum of students thinking, reading, writing poetry, creating model UNs—free to dream and discuss and flirt and fight and fall in love in peace and safety.

 

A world where the “threat” of peace doesn’t scare us.

 

A world without drones or guns, where the state no longer wields the grisly instruments of torture and death.

 

A world where women are not seduced and exploited by twisted religious perverts—in America or anywhere else.

 

Where they can study astronomy and biology and literature and math and politics without fear of reprisals from men bearing scriptures and machetes.

 

Where they can be anything they want to be, live any dream they want to dream, and no one can ever again take those dreams away from them.

 

So many have been hurt; so many have died. Tonight I pray against hope for the return of these young women, even as I mourn the possible loss of all they might have become. But I realize that in a much larger sense this is just another tragedy in a world full of them. It seems like every time the world has a chance to go right, someone comes along to wreak harm and destruction. And no one knows why they do it. Maybe it’s the twisted feeling of control and power it brings them, or maybe they really do just want to watch the world burn.

 

There are times like tonight when I feel scared and overwhelmed, just one feeble voice in the darkness. But this experience has galvanized so many, and I know I’m not the only one who thinks this world could be so beautiful. There is much to rebuild. But as hopeless as it seems, I haven’t given up yet. I hope you won’t, either.

 

Thomas

PLWD09 The_Incredulity_of_St_Thomas_Caravaggio“Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’”

 

The one who doubted:

that was what they called me.

No one remembered

the bravery I had shown

on the way to Bethany—

bravery or was it despair I felt

remembering the failed revolutions

the cousins murdered

Miriam straining to deliver

and dying or ere they were born,

our two sons.

 

The eddies of dust

over which our fathers walked

in ages past are trampled under

by the eagle’s talons

luxury sits grinning and contented

in the temple

making a mockery of Abraham

and Abraham’s God

The flower of youth perishes

on the hilltops of Judea

and hope is a luxury

for fools and charlatans.

 

Yet there was one who was not hopeless

Quiet and resolved

Upon his dark brow lingered a celestial light.

Though we had been abandoned by all

He had not abandoned us

And I was resolved not to forsake him

Even with the expectation of death encroaching

Death sadistic and perverse.

 

So call me not doubting

for it wasn’t my faith that forsook me

on that night in the garden

when they led him away

when they bound him to a fiery wheel

when the hounds of hell stood baying

round the tree where he hung suspended

where the crude lance entered

and his mother lay pierced at the root

 

no, it wasn’t my faith.

it was hope.

 

hope was enshrouded

and lain in a tomb

and a stone was laid over its mouth

and into the whale’s jaws

poured the blackness of darkness

and the mountains of the sea were silent.

And the serpent of death

glutted and imposing

stretched its victorious coils

round the sleeping world.

 

*           *           *

 

When they talk about me

ages hence

this is all they will remember:

the scorn on my face

when I heard they had raised him

when they said he had been sighted

walking towards Emmaus

breaking bread and disappearing

amid quiet laughter.

 

Buoyed with renewed expectation

they floated together

and I stood alone on the seashore

and the stars of twilight twinkled

as the shadows gathered round me.

 

And whenever the story is told

they’ll laugh at me for not believing

though if you had been there with us

you’d have had your questions

and they all gathered round him

and I lingered at the edges

feeling faint with confusion and sadness

as the smell of frankincense and spikenard

filled the warm spring air.

 

And when the commotion settled

and the twelve spread apart

there he was

and he motioned me forward

and it wasn’t a ghost nor a trance

he was just as alive as he had been

three days before

and I had no idea how to account for that

because I had known all along he was going to die

and the best I could have hoped for was to die alongside him.

 

But when I saw the wrists

where the wounds of betrayal burned dully

when I dipped my hand in the well

where the waters of life had poured out

when I brushed the skin of my arms

against the hair on the back of his neck

the embers of injustice blew away into nothing

and bitterness exhausted itself and was silent.

 

Years from now

when my desire is finally granted

when my blood seeps over the barbaric stones

of some desolate isle

and my body grows cold and rigid

pierced by the four lances

I’ll stretch my stiffening sinews

Breathe a final prayer

And when death comes gliding over the seas to meet me

like a ghostly mirage of one I loved long ago

I’ll follow it fearless and undaunted

through the primordial depths

where the monsters of chaos will battle

until one comes to free them

and the dust of the tomb is plundered

and the relics are gathered from the shrines

and the bones are called out of the blackness.

And I’ll gaze on myself

and on them

as we gazed on him that night

credulous but believing

not understanding but no longer doubting

and we’ll walk together, tranquil and quiet,

on the shore of the sun-rimmed sea.

_________________________________

Easter-2014-blog-synchroblog_550x332

Why You Should Stop Freaking Out about “NOAH”

Here’s what’s fascinating about all the controversy surrounding the NOAH movie:

In Jewish tradition, Noah is *not* considered one of the heroes of the faith. The Scriptures tell us that he was “righteous in his generation.” It’s a measure of how bad the world had gotten that Noah was the best of the lot.

When God revealed to Noah that he was going to destroy the whole earth in a flood, Noah showed no compassion for his fellow human beings. His only concern was to save himself and his own family.

He’s not a role model of our faith.

You know who is a role model? Someone like Abraham. Who when God said he was going to destroy Sodom, raised his voice in protest and said, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” A man who flagrantly questioned the decisions of the Lord, who challenged his idea of justice.

A man like Moses who, when God offered to wipe out the whole Israelite line and make him the father of a great nation, begged him with tears to spare the people.

The word “Israel” means “he who wrestles with God.” Abraham and Moses are Jewish heroes because they loved others, listened to the voice of reason, and fought with God. That ought to make them Christian heroes, too.