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 FREEwilliamsburg.com.