My parents, God bless ‘em, were kooks.
It all started in the mid-1970s, when my mother read Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth, which prophesied that the world was coming to an end in 1988. The reason for this abrupt end to Ronald Reagan, leg warmers, and Roseanne was the Apocalypse, a series of global catastrophes that heralded the return of Jesus Christ. However, none of this would happen until after someone referred to as the Antichrist brought upon the world a period of time called the Tribulation.
Just so we’re clear, here was the supposed order of things that would happen according to my mother:
- End of leg warmers
- Jesus returns
Also to be clear, not all Christians that believe in this business think Jesus will show up at the end. Some believe he’ll “rapture” those who are “saved” before the Antichrist comes on the scene. Personally, my mother preferred the order in which we suffered the most before the Jesus bus arrived, at which time he’d get out and force everyone to bow down and declare He is Lord before sending the non-believers to hell. (That was apparently a second bus that would arrive later.)
That Beastly Barcode
My mother would go on at length about the Antichrist and how he’d start the Tribulation. According to her, the Antichrist would be “a dark-skinned man from the Middle East. Probably Saddam Hussein or that Gaddafi.” (Wow. Not racist AT ALL, Mom.) As soon as he was in power, the Antichrist would first destroy Israel. Next, he would unite the world under one government, and then make us all take the Mark of the Beast or else cut off our heads. We wouldn’t be able to buy or sell without The Mark. Lindsey’s book featured crude drawings of “the Mark” that looked like a barcode would be tattooed on our foreheads. This outlandish imagery persists 50 years later.
My mother enjoyed adding that, “If you take The Mark, Jesus won’t take you to heaven when he comes back.” That might have been a bit of improvising on her part, or it might have even been in the Bible, but to baby Maria, it sounded scarier than the best monster movie she’d ever watched on Saturday’s Million Dollar Movie. Baby Maria was ALL IN.
So that they wouldn’t have to take said Mark to get food, my folks started hoarding dried canned goods, stuffing the giant boxes of cans in our closets and under our beds. As a kid, it sucked because the boxes fought with our clothes, games, and hiding places for space. And I couldn’t have anyone over because then they might see the food boxes. “Someday, your friends will kill you for this food,” my mother would warn. This didn’t seem very likely to me, as my Bluebird troop was a bit pacifist, but whatever. I decided to inflict my own bit of hell raising on my friends about the whole Antichrist business with mixed results.
My mother continued over the years to rail that we needed to be ready for the day that we were called to stand up for our faith and die rather than take The Mark. In my teens, our Pentecostal church showed my youth group a movie dramatizing the Antichrist beheading people who refused to take The Mark. It was the worst version of “Cake or Death” you can imagine, but I took it to heart. As a devout teen, I swore I’d brave the axe rather than renounce my faith.
No Jesus, Know Peace
Of course, I eventually did renounce my faith. The religious terrors of my childhood melted away one day, gifting me with the far more peaceful life of a nonbeliever. The Antichrist is what I named a particularly evil Hyundai that I owned, and the Tribulation is how I refer to my time working at FOX Studios.
Meanwhile, as I was pursuing my career and reclaiming my brain, my parents continued to gear up for the global disaster of biblical proportions they’d been hoping for. We became estranged at some point — not over religion or anything like that, but over some other painful family stuff — so I wasn’t privy to the Lindsey-esque shenanigans they were pursuing to ensure their survival during the inevitable End Times. While the world didn’t end in 1988 as Lindsey had predicted, my folks were sure it would happen in their lifetimes.
Decades later, I entered the house after my dad’s death to discover my childhood home had turned into Indiana Jones and the Costco of Doom. There were closets packed with canned goods; giant plastic storage bins full of pasta; a two-story garage with toilet paper stacked to the rafters; poorly maintained guns with boxes of ammo stashed in the living room end tables; and huge amounts of hidden cash. They might have thought they were preparing for the Tribulation, but they were definitely ready in some ways for the current crisis…
This Ain’t Yo’ Mama’s Apocalypse
I write this as I sit at home during the COVID-19 Pandemic, which is the closest we’ve ever come to either the Tribulation or Apocalypse, and I think about my parents. I suspect my mother would have been disappointed with the lack of beheadings, as well as the fact that she’d still be able to buy and sell stuff without any embarrassing, soul-endangering forehead tattoos — just a face mask that she could take off whenever. She might have derived some satisfaction from the persecution she’d feel when told she couldn’t go to church for a few months, but any conservative news-induced persecution would have paled next to the imagined adrenaline rush of kneeling before a guillotine to defend her faith.
She might have written this global tragedy into the grand drama of the Book of Revelation, casting it in the role of the Horseman of the Apocalypse called Plague. She would probably quote the death numbers to support her point, but would have ignored anything a real scientist had to say about the matter. With all that toilet paper, she’d be ready to ride it out until Judgement Day. But anyone who said the world would recover from this pandemic would basically be saying we could reschedule Jesus’ arrival, and that would be unthinkable.
My parents were never logical. They were paranoid, wildly contradictory eaters of myth that relished cocktails of terror and persecution sweetened with the promise of life everlasting. This COVID-19 apocalyptic cocktail would definitely be missing something for them. Maybe it would have a half-ounce too much cooperation mixed with that jigger of science and uncertainty. That’s not to say there isn’t any terror to be had these days — there are god awful amounts of it everywhere. The world is racked with grief in the wake of so many deaths, not to mention our current economic disaster. But with the threat virtually invisible and everyone confined to their homes, I doubt my parents would have savored the terror in quite the same way.
There is some explanation for all this. My parents were children during The Great Depression, and my mother was an incest survivor. Her father eventually went to prison for the crimes he committed against his daughters. It’s fair to say that trauma was hardwired into their thinking from these cataclysmic childhood events. I think it’s also fair to say that people like Hal Lindsey preyed upon and profited from the splinters festering in the psyches of people who suffered such trauma. He and anyone doing so today deserve a long, agonizing ride on that hell bus more than any non-believer.
Shut The Fuck Up, Hal
In his book, The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon, Lindsey predicted that “the decade of the 1980s could very well be the last decade of history as we know it.” He was, once again, completely wrong. The 2010s were the last decade of history — of life — as we know it. And it’s in 2020 that life veers onto a strange highway with twists and turns that are leaving us lonely, depressed, anxious, hungry, broke, and profoundly annoying to our cats.
I still get choked up whenever I’m in a grocery store. The reality of what’s happening is always a knuckle punch to the gut. But I hear a small voice that says we’ll get through this. It isn’t the end of the world as my parents would have hoped. It’s the beginning of a new, weird world with no buses up or down, just forward, together, with stops along the way to mourn.