Thursday, December 30th, 2010

The Late Great Planet Earth

As crazy as it seems now, when I was a freshman in high school I was convinced that my life was going to end, healthy and unadulterated, sometime before December 31st 1988. Of course it’s common for sensitive teens to consider their mortality during those tumultuous years when the hormones start to kick in. But I was different. While other kids pondered death in the conventional fashion—that is, contemplating suicide while listening to the Smiths’ “Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now”—I came to terms with my mortality the old fashioned way. I learned about it in church.

The specifics of my doom were revealed to me when I was fifteen, in the basement of Bon Air Baptist in the exurbs of Richmond, Virginia. I was among a group of about twenty-five teens who'd assembled in the church's dark basement for Wednesday night youth group, primarily for the free pizza.

“The Antichrist is alive and well today,” Bon Air's youth minister Mike Honaker stated assuredly, waving a book called The Late Great Planet Earth above his head.

Honaker was a ruddy, troll of a man, approaching forty, who maintained a bushy beard to conceal a protruding bottom lip packed tight with Skoal Bandits. He was conducting a series on Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth and its apocalyptic interpretation of biblical prophesies. The slim paperback had a picture of the earth in flames on its cover and two hundred pages of prose devoted primarily to the Antichrist. A breezy, beach towel read, perfectly suited for kids of all ages, The Late Great Planet Earth spoke of a terrifying monster called “the gog” that was preparing to incite World War III and kill all the Jews and liberal arts professors. It was, somehow, the bestselling nonfiction books of the Seventies—it spawned a documentary narrated, curiously, by Orson Welles—and was my youth pastor’s current obsession.

“The Antichrist is preparing to reveal himself and this will likely happen in our lifetime.” Honaker said, spewing a little tobacco spittle.

Growing up in the Bible belt during the Reagan years I'd, of course, heard similar proclamations. It was the Eighties and fundamentalists all across the country had their granny panties in a bunch about the “moral decline” of the previous two decades. The so-called “Satanic panic” was in full swing and it wasn't uncommon to hear sensational allegations of demonic activity on the nightly news. A satanically operated daycare center in Edenton, North Carolina. A Dungeons & Dragons game gone murderously awry in Lafayette, Colorado. Geraldine Ferraro. Before long, Middle America was convinced that every child who owned a Judas Priest record was part of a coven that sacrificed goats in the woods behind the A&P. Sure, we may not have been worried about terrorists in the Eighties but we had Satanists. And when they weren’t busy stuffing our Halloween candy with razorblades, they were in cahoots with Satan plotting the apocalypse.

Honaker seemed to revel in the tension. Attending his Wednesday night youth group was like watching an Omen marathon on Fox News—a blend of end times paranoia coupled with current events. According to Honaker, the Antichrist was about to take hold of the United Nations (an organization founded by Satanists) and create a one world government under his command.

“Nobody knows exactly when the Antichrist will come to power,” said Honaker , “but Christians can take comfort knowing the Rapture will whisk us away before he does. Mr. Hal Lindsey has done us the great service,” continued Honaker, “of decoding some of the mysteries of Revelation in this book, The Late Great Planet Earth.”

And that's when he dropped the zinger. The nugget of prophesy that was going to escalate my teenage anxieties for months to come.

“According to Lindsey, praise Jesus, the signs are all in place. We will see the Rapture in our lifetime. Sometime before the end of 1988.”

1988?! I thought with panic, scrambling to put things in perspective. It was already more than halfway through 1986.

If you believed The Late Great Planet Earth’s revelations, Honaker explained, the bible predicted that the Rapture would occur within a generation of the Jews returning to Israel, an event that occurred in 1948. Since many Christians believe that a biblical generation is equal to forty years, establishing a cutoff date for the Rapture was simple math.

Now, if ever an argument was to be made against the effectiveness of Christian abstinence-only education, I'm it. Telling an impressionable kid that his days are numbered is, no doubt, cruel and terrifying. It caused me many a sleepless night. But after I came to terms with my own apocalyptic anxiety, there was something more fundamental I had to consider. My virginity. There was no way I was going to just float away into Heaven before I'd had sex.

And this is where I ran into a predicament. Having grown up among fundamentalists, I believed sex outside of wedlock was a sin that would procure me a one-way ticket to the fiery abyss. Still, I was running out of time. There was simply no way that I was going to be able to meet my future wife, get married, and have sex before 1988. I had a girlfriend, I’ll call her Amanda, but we’d only been dating for a few weeks. I didn't know her middle name, much less her thread-count requirements for the sheets on the registry. What’s more, I wouldn’t even be able to legally get married until I turned 18… which wouldn’t happen until, um, 1989. Ironically, I'd dated girls before and had successfully sidelined my temptations. But that was before I found out that I was about to get cock-blocked by the Rapture.

Predictably, I began second-guessing my faith. Sex is not a sin, I rationalized, if the world was going to come to an end before I was old enough to wed. There must be an Armageddon technicality. I’d already begun to question the logic of what I’d been taught in church—why would a forgiving god send people to hell? How could two of every known species fit onto the Ark? Why do Christians get stuck listening to all the horrible bands like Petra and Ruscha?—but denying myself the urges that god himself had created, just didn’t make sense.

I’m not sure if the concerns of a nuclear apocalypse drove Cold War-era teens to shed their clothes. (I suspect many felt the time crunch while hiding beneath their desks during the Cuban Missile Crisis.) But when faced with the choice of hell and remaining a virgin for all of eternity, I made the obvious choice. You can’t expect a kid in the throes of puberty to walk the straight-and-narrow, if his reward is an eternity of remorse for having never touched a woman.

In the days to come, I began spending more time with Amanda and, though I was conflicted about the sanctity of premarital sex, I knew that I only had a brief window of time before my world would come to an end. In hindsight who knows, had Honaker not scared the bejesus out of me in that church basement, I may have stayed chaste all through high school. As anyone who knows me will attest, I work best when under a strict deadline.

Of course, 1988 came and went and, with the exception of the release of Crocodile Dundee II, nothing even remotely apocalyptic occurred. By the time I was sixteen, I’d abandoned religious fundamentalism for more compelling things like logic and facts. As I began to question the things I’d been taught growing up, I became curious why an educated adult like Honaker would own an absurd, mean-spirited “book of prophecy” such as The Late Great Planet Earth, or, for that matter, a spittoon. And when 1989 finally arrived, I was happy to have quantifiable proof that Hal Lindsey was a fraud.

If the Mayans are to be believed, 2011 will be the penultimate year of my life. It’s also the year I turn forty which, unlike 17, is a perfectly reasonable age to be when facing an apocalypse. (Author’s note to impressionable youth: nothing to worry about.) I haven’t accomplished everything I‘d hoped for, but I’ve lived long enough to appreciate life. Plus, I’m too old to be drafted in our impending war against asteroids, aliens, antichrists, Rand Paul supporters, or whatever else is slotted to turn our world into a cacophonous Bruckheimer movie in 2012. Best of all, when the Mayan calendar comes to a close, I’ll have made it 26 years longer than I’d ever thought possible the last time I confronted an apocalypse in the basement of Bon Air Baptist.

Robert Lanham is the author of the beach-towel classic The Emerald Beach Trilogy, which includes the titles Pre-Coitus, Coitus, and Afterglow. More recent works include The Hipster Handbook and The Sinner's Guide to the Evangelical Right. He is the founder and editor of

16 Comments / Post A Comment

ericdeamer (#945)

Why are there now comments on this one? I love this one!

ericdeamer (#945)

now="no" obvs. And I had 5 minutes to edit it!

HiredGoons (#603)

"I was among a group of about twenty-five teens who'd assembled in the church's dark basement for… free pizza."

There are other stories that start out like this, no doubt.

No doubt, indeed. But do any of them contain the world-changing turn of phrase, "cock-blocked by the Rapture"? (Google says no!)

Elmo Keep (#3,840)

These are all so great!

Side note: as an Australian, I am sorry for Crocodile Dundee. Very.

ow that hurt (#3,919)

So it's all about 2012?

Has no one gone into Mayan history, to find out how many times that
Mayan Clock stopped, and how some guy had to get underneath it, and scrape out all the gunk
and rotted virgins??


untitled HD (#4,555)

I really don't understand why we CAN'T put a positive spin on all of this.

World ends in 2012? Fine, we've had enough anyway. I have.

I say it needs re-branding:

(Get Ready for the "Mayan Shift!")

(Your Sinus Infections Will be Forever Gone!)

(Your Ex will either appear on his/her knees, or simply vanish in a cloud of
$100 bills!)

(Your headaches from $7 wine will disappear!) (

You'll be able to get in shape again,
without once again damaging your knee, because you will be lighter and more sure-footed!
Indians will help you with this! They will just appear!) All yu have to do is give them their land back!

And so on..

"Your car will suddenly work again and skyrocket in value!"

"The 15 degree magnetic shift in the Earth will result in your facial wrinkles smoothing out,
as if you are lying on your back! (check photo)

"Lily Thomlin's "Forty Miles of Bad Road" will finally air on HBO!"

It's all good? Get it?

So.. beat the religious control freaks at their own game.


"Yes, I Will Do My Part When End Times Happen! I will stand ready with a hose and a broom!
I will Clean Up Their Mess, and their greed." And Take Their Cars. Or at least borrow them
and care for them"

I will make asteroid-proof umbrellas.

What are you going to do?

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

I know you literary types are all uber post-post-post aesthetics and what not. Not to mention you can tell Cor-E is still pissed he didn't get a Christmas Pony this year – yet AGAIN!

I would have moved this series to begin on January 3rd. Unless your goal was to provide the only space on the Internet for the sullen, bitter, mean drunk types in the media (yes, I'm looking at you – I did my oppo research long before any of you did) to find someplace to hate their lives and bitch about another year of shit they will have to eat with shovels.

January 3rd week would have been perfecto. Not bad posts, just bad timing.

If you really wanted to increase readership or some other sensible business reasons, rather than committing a full Basquiat for a week, you should have gone the Wonkette route and satirized the year end. Timely and would have matched the mood of the Internet.

Whatever, sit in your corner table at Figaro's with your other unfamous published authors drinking from tiny glasses (makes you feel so Eurotrash!).

When I was at NYU I threw a superbowl party at the bar across the street on Bleeker from that cute cafe, you know the one, and for some reason they had to remove all the furniture to accommodate the crowd. Not even going to mention my Lynyrd Skynyrd concert at SWT.

What the fuck do I know anyway?

I can't even fill out a stupid resume without saying I was the King of Siam for the last 20 years.

buzzorhowl (#992)

I love any story that takes place in Richmond. Back when the bookstore where I worked for most of the past decade was still on Midlothian Turnpike, I drove past Bon Air Baptist (on Buford Road!) every day on my way to work.

I'm really glad I hardly ever have to go down there anymore.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

You should try walking past the pizza place on the corner of 3rd & Bleeker (is that sex shop still across the street?) on your way to the pizza shop (going past the McDonald's – I made 7K in advertising off that franchise, yeah it's a franchise shop based out of midtown. They own the one on the other side of NYU too) and that diner before you hit the area where all the great pickup games are done (and a championship thing too, if I recall) to walk across to the other pizza shop – you know the one, right near the smoke shop that'll sell you a nonsmoking bullet if you drop the right words?

Yeah, also miss the movie theatre where I first saw Scream – it was one of those preview things to get "teh buzz" going kind of showings.

I'm really glad that as soon as my lease ends, I'll be doing all that again. Been long enough I won't run into the "Austin" problem where I walk into a pub filled with conquests and ex's. That was a hellish night.

GoGoGojira (#2,871)

I was born in '87. In elementary school, my best friend was a fundamental Baptist. I was a conflicted atheist, I didn't really care because I felt like a nerdy outsider/loser and decided I needed to do whatever it took to have friends. I devoured the Left Behind shit and all of the apocalyptic stuff. I remember reading something about how China would be involved because they have red on their national flag. Also, because they were Communists. (Any and all Communism is bad, you see.)

In 6th grade, she spent New Year's Eve hanging out at her church–one of the rumored effects of Y2K was that Jesus would come. I spent it playing dominoes (Mexican Trains, y'all) and board games with my family. She just graduated from a "Bible college" that forbids Contemporary Christian Music for being abhorrent, I'm converting to Judaism. We're friends on Facebook, but never talk. I wonder if she still prays for my soul to be saved.

Gia (#9,264)

I love this story. Not feeling so alone now. I would try telling people about growing up in an evangelical church but usually the things that make me laugh prove to be conversation stoppers for anyone who didnt experience it. All the alternative Halloween, Christmas, and Easter celebrations. Going to adult church to hear about how we will all fall into the sun, how we listened to 'bad" music backwards – or going to Sunday school and watching movies about what happens to you when you dont take the mark of the beast. Has anyone else seen these films?? You know – kids in potato sacks lined up next to a bus next to a guillotine? Anyone?

BadUncle (#153)

I was raised an Episcopalean. And the only apocalypse ever predicted within the hallowed walls of St. James by The Sea was the death of the last bottle of tonic at the beach barbecue.

Hal Lindsey's Pretrib Rapture "Proof"

Is Hal Lindsey's proof for a pretrib rapture "100 proof" – that is, 100 percent Biblical?
In "The Late Great Planet Earth" (p. 143) Lindsey gives his "chief reason" for pretrib: "If the Rapture took place at the same time as the second coming, there would be no mortals left who would be believers" – that is, no believers still alive who could enter the millennium and repopulate the earth.
We don't know if Lindsey's amnesia is voluntary or involuntary, but earlier (p. 54), while focusing on chapters 12 through 14 of Zechariah, Lindsey sees "a remnant of Jews in Jerusalem" who are mortals who will become believing mortals at the second coming and then become repopulating mortals!
During the same discussion of Zech. 12-14 Lindsey overlooks some of the final verses in Zech. 14. They reveal that some of the tribulation survivors "of all the nations which came against Jerusalem" will refuse to go there "to worship the King, the Lord of hosts." Here's what will happen to those "heathen" rebels: "upon them shall be no rain."
So the facts about the repopulating mortals, in unbelieving as well as believing ranks, cancel out Lindsey's "chief reason" for opposing a joint rapture/second coming – the ONLY rapture view to be found in official theology books and organized churches prior to 1830!
(See historian Dave MacPherson's "The Rapture Plot," the most accurate and most highly endorsed book on pretrib rapture history – available by calling 800.643.4645. Also Google "Pretrib Rapture Stealth," "Pretrib Rapture Pride," "Pretrib Rapture Secrecy," "Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty" and "Evangelicals Use Occult Deception.")
Although Hal Lindsey claims that his "Late Great" didn't set a date for Christ's return, many of his followers – including copycats Bill Maupin ("1981") and Edgar Whisenant ("1988") – did view Lindsey as a date-setter, and his later book "The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon" (the sort of title that date-setters and their ga-ga groupies love) became another fizzle – unless we're still living in the 1980s!
In Old Testament days false prophets were stoned to death. Today they're just stoned!

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