On my first visit to my husband’s childhood home in Western Kentucky—after I got the tour of the house, the yard, and the garden—we paused on the deck overlooking the waves of tall, undulating grasses. Colin nudged his father: “Aren’t you going to show her the bunker?”
I’d been told about the bunker—a basement converted into a survivalist’s dream. We walked down a flight of stairs and into a room lined with shelves of canned food, five-gallon drums of water, flashlights and walkie-talkies, shotguns and hunting rifles and crossbows, and enough home-brewed beer to ride out the world’s end buzzed, surrounded by taxidermied turkeys preserved in mid-flight across the basement walls.
In bed that night, I asked Colin, in a whisper, whether his dad had believed the world would end with Y2K.
“No,” he said, “It’s more recent than that.” Above us, his childhood bedroom ceiling glowed with the light of a hundred stick-on stars. “It’s kind of an Obama re-election, they’re-gonna-take-our-guns, NRA-Fox News-apocalypse type thing.”
My husband grew up attending an evangelical church, listening to Christian rock, and ornamenting himself with hemp jewelry strung with tiny crosses. He has described to me a frequent occurrence from his youth: getting out of the shower and toweling off in the bathroom, he’d become aware of an eerie silence. Wandering through the empty rooms, he’d find his mother’s laundry folded on the bed, his father’s sandwich half-eaten on the kitchen counter, his sister vanished from the room where she had been playing, her toys scattered across her bedroom.
In those moments, he settled on the most obvious explanation for the empty house. “They’d all been raptured,” he told me, “and I’d been left behind.”
Until we moved to Memphis last year, my husband and I lived far away from our families and felt even farther from the faith traditions of our childhoods. But since moving closer to home, the religious beliefs we were raised with seem to be floating to the surface of our daily lives.
We compare notes constantly, and find that our experiences growing up in the church seem almost entirely unrelated. From my perspective as the daughter of a Methodist preacher, my husband’s evangelical upbringing seems an alien thing, distorted and strange. I’d never even heard of the rapture, growing up, and would never have assumed an empty house meant I’d been abandoned, left behind, for God to judge or damn.
I’ve often wondered what effect it would have on a child—or an adult—to believe that the world as we know it was destined to be consumed in a final fiery moment. But lately, as end-times thinking spreads beyond the walls of any specific church, the end of the world doesn’t seem so abstract or far-fetched anymore.
When I was five or six years old, I remember my father announcing from the pulpit that he would be preaching from the Book of Revelation. He asked all the children to leave, to follow our Sunday School teacher down the hall; he was worried we would be scared by the apocalyptic language of the Bible’s last book—all that fire, all those beasts. I filed out with the other kids, feeling suddenly anonymous and abandoned, like my father was keeping a secret from me. We spent that Sunday making cards for all the homebound old ladies we’d never see, though we wrote their names hundreds of times on hundreds of pieces of folded cardstock.
I don’t always know how to distinguish between my dad’s individual beliefs and the theology of his denomination. Growing up, Methodist values like reason, discernment, and grace hovered far above other Christian concepts—like salvation, redemption, and sin—that I didn’t hear about so much. Whether it was Methodism as a whole or my father in particular, Dad never preached much about any life other than this life, or any world other than this one.
But the apocalypse is still a defining feature of evangelical theologies like the one my husband grew up with. While a 2010 Pew Research Center poll showed that just over 40 percent of Americans believe that Jesus will return to earth by 2050, this belief is not spread evenly across all denominations; compared to less than a third of white mainline Protestants in churches like my father’s, a majority of white evangelical Christians—over 58 percent—believe Christ will return to earth within the next forty years.
My father, like many contemporary mainline Protestant scholars, sees the Bible as a collection of texts written—and deeply revised—by people whose worldviews were necessarily constrained and influenced by their own cultural contexts. He reads the Bible’s last book not as a prediction of the world’s end, but as a coded depiction of oppression under an authoritarian empire. In this way, he argues, the Bible’s final book has even more relevance for our contemporary lives than if it were predicting the future. For my father, the Book of Revelation, as with all the books of the Bible, describes “their then,” as theologian Marcus Borg phrases it, not “our now.”
But lately, I’ve found the language of apocalypse creeping up in my own life for the first time, and with increasing frequency. When my husband and I move into our new house—a small bungalow next door to my parents and one house over from my sister and her husband—my brother-in-law begins calling our combined properties The Compound. Gesturing to our three houses with their conjoined backyards, he jokes that Colin and I will be the ones protecting the northwest side when the world ends.
“We’ve got the eastern flank covered,” he says, “And your parents have got the south side.”
This kind of language doesn’t surprise me; I don’t even think to ask what danger, exactly, he’s anticipating coming our way. It seems we all—secular or religious, conservative or liberal—sense some tension that has to give, some ending on the horizon. When my friends and I commiserate about our low-paying jobs and skyrocketing debt, we joke about the absurdity of planning for the future. “My retirement plans,” I say, “consist entirely of assuming the world will no longer be habitable by the time I’m sixty-five.”
In the months leading up to our move to Memphis, I felt a particular kind of anxiety that had nothing to do with packing our things or renting a moving truck or buying a house. Instead, I worried about the place itself. I’d lived at least six hundred miles from Memphis for the past ten years, and I’d spent half that time in Roanoke, Virginia, where seasons were vivid and delineated. In the temperate mountains, I’d been reassured by the predictable patterns of the world, and had been able to avoid constantly worrying about the Earth’s rising temperatures. In fall and winter, we hiked. In summer, we canoed. In spring, we cleared the dead brush from our garden and prepared for the first growth of the season pushing up from the thawed ground.
But in Memphis, I can’t distinguish one season from another. It rains for months, it’s hot for months, and that’s the whole year.
In the interminable months of summer, libraries and churches across the city become designated cooling stations, where people can grab bottled water and some air-conditioned time away from the punishing sun. When it finally rains, a month’s worth comes all at once, in a day or a single hour. Trees fall, power lines snap, and the city is plunged into a hot, humid darkness, the streets a mess of standing water, scattered tree limbs, and downed wires.
In the last days before we left Virginia, I relished the cool mornings shrouded in mist, the way the day’s heat dissipated in the evening, and thought of Memphis’ increasingly long, sweltering summers with a growing sense of dread.
Experts in a range of fields have been developing language to express the distress caused by environmental change. Philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the terms “psychoterratic” to describe mental health related to the environment, and “solastalgia” to describe the sense of dislocation that comes with experiencing a rapidly changing environment. He described solastalgia as “the loss of the present,” or “a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home.’”
In her essay “The Marsh at the End of the World,” Elizabeth Rush writes, “What I used to call climate anxiety has become more like a disease. I call it endsickness. Like motion sickness or seasickness, endsickness is a physical response to living in a world that is moving in unusual ways, toward what I imagine as a kind of event horizon.”
Our first summer in The Compound, we lose power when a straight-line wind tears across the city. My brother-in-law and I are the only ones at home, and we lug the generator from my parents’ garage out into their yard, hook it up to extension cords to keep all our refrigerators and box fans running. Once everything is plugged in, we stand and stare at the vibrating generator, rumbling so loudly we can hardly hear each other over it.
At night, in our stuffy house, the stagnant air is so thick with heat that we seem to swim through it. I find myself thinking about the quiet, internal urging for home that brought me back here. On the night of the 2016 Presidential election, as I ran crying from a friend’s house into the street, I felt my conception of the future go sideways on its axis. I felt physically disoriented, untethered from time and place. There was only one persistent thought, rising steadily like a drumbeat: I have to go home.
But lately, the nickname of our new home—The Compound—disturbs me. It seems militaristic, as if we live in a fortress surrounded by unseen enemies. Sometimes I comfort myself by thinking of compound’s other meanings: as a noun, a mixture composed of two or more separate elements, or as a verb: to put together, so as to form a whole.
Lying sleepless in bed, listening to the generator hum, I am acutely aware of how close we are to my entire family—how quickly we could get to them if we heard the sound of a tree falling, or glass breaking, or the tornado sirens wailing their alarm eerily as they have done off and on all day.
My instinct, in chaos, to hunker down with my family is probably not so different from the impulse my father-in-law had when he began turning the basement into a bunker for the end of the world. But this instinct seems to implicate me, ushering me into the steady stream of a belief system I don’t believe in, a way of life that I don’t want to live.
Some mornings, writing at my desk before work, I’ll see the dining room light flicker on next door as my father settles in to write that Sunday’s sermon. Sometimes I imagine we’re working away on the same problems, sitting in these parallel rooms, hunched over a pile of books and notebooks and mugs of tea gone cold.
We moved to Memphis just as my father began his last year in the ministry before retirement, and I found myself in the pews each Sunday for the first time since I was a teenager. I still don’t know—have never known—how I feel about religion, but I know that the language of faith can be a container for times like these that feel at once searing and utterly ordinary.
Lately, I’ve found myself attuned to the ways this language is used; the way varying interpretations of the same texts can shape a person’s conception of the world to entirely different—and sometimes opposing—ends.
Driving around, I’ve often seen sparkly bumper stickers reading, “Not of This World,” or simply the letters NOTW drawn as a swirling graphic, the ‘T’ looming over the other letters like a distended cross. The phrase is a truncated reference to John 17, when Jesus says, “I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world.” Later, he reiterates: “My kingdom is not of this world.”
I remember my parents referencing this verse all the time when I was growing up, but I was surprised to see its widespread use, those four letters a shorthand for something I didn’t quite understand. For my parents, this verse was a reminder not to be materialistic, not to hoard possessions or participate in mindless consumerism. But my husband was taught that this verse meant that Christ’s followers should always be prepared to leave this world behind for God’s better world beyond.
These wildly different interpretations of this single phrase—Not of This World—say so much about the traditions we were raised in. One seems so dualistic—not this world but that one—while the other emphasizes how to live life here, in this world, the only world we know we have.
It’s difficult for me to imagine any other place but this one, but it’s impossible to imagine longing for another world. I’ve asked my husband many times to explain how a theology of apocalypse works in everyday life.
“Even if I believed in the apocalypse,” I said, “I can’t imagine being excited about it. Aren’t evangelicals even secretly a little scared?”
“The thing is,” he said, “what is promised at the end of the world is supposed to be so much better than this world.”
On that tree-shrouded street, as we drove through rapidly shifting shadow and light in the green glow of spring, I couldn’t imagine anything better than this world, and I told him so. He sighed. He is my evangelical-whisperer.
“There will be no debt,” he elaborated, “No financial stress, no physical illness. All your lost loved ones will be reunited.”
Over our first year in Memphis, we’d been hit by unexpected, expensive repairs to our house, sky-high self-employment taxes, the spiraling costs of our supposedly low-key wedding, and my grandmother’s death. I could start to see what he was saying.
Of course, evangelical Christians might not fear the apocalypse because they believe they will be spared during the rapture, spirited away before the suffering begins here on earth. The idea of the rapture is relatively new, popularized in the 1830s by John Nelson Darby and later spread widely by the Scofield Reference Bible, which included Darby’s interpretation of the rapture and the apocalypse in the margins.
In her book Interior States, Meghan O’Gieblyn writes that evangelicals believe that, “Like Noah and his family, they will be plucked out of the chaos and allowed to watch from a safe distance as God destroys the earth.”
But did God pluck Noah and his family from the flood, or did Noah save himself, his family, and future ecosystems, by listening to God and by paying attention to the world around him? This is only one interpretation of Noah’s story, and one that leaves out Noah’s agency in his own survival and the survival of the animals he ushered on board.
Many evangelical Christians cite a verse in Matthew to argue that environmental disasters like droughts, floods, and wildfires are not anything that can be avoided or helped, but are in fact harbingers of the second-coming: “For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.”
But importantly, that verse continues: “For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away.” This warning is not only about the rising waters, but about the obliviousness of those who might ignore the world’s imminent collapse or even revel in it.
Months after visiting my in-laws, I found myself watching recorded sermons on their church website. Several about Noah and the flood drew to a close with a discussion of the end of the world. In one, the pastor began, “What’s unique about the Christian faith is that Christianity is the only faith system that identifies the problem with the world as something squarely within us. We’re the problem. And the solution is something wholly outside of us.”
“God’s gonna judge the world again,” the pastor intoned, one pixelated hand in the air. “This time, not by flood but by fire.”
He almost looked sorry when he said there was nothing we could do to save ourselves.
I never actually read the Book of Revelation, in all my years growing up in the church. I guess I took my dad’s instruction seriously, when all the children were secreted out of the sanctuary’s back door. But when I recently asked Dad about that Sunday, he told me my memory was wrong.
“I’ve never once preached about the Book of Revelation,” he said.
“Not a single sermon?”
“No, I wouldn’t do that,” he said, wrinkling up his nose in distaste. “I remember that on that Sunday, I wanted the kids to leave because I planned to quote Will Campbell.”
My brain started spinning, trying to re-orient. I could remember that Sunday so clearly. Over forty years in the pulpit, two thousand sermons, and not a single one about the Book of Revelation?
“What was the quote?” I asked.
“‘We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.’”
It was not until this year, at the age of thirty, that I turned to the Bible’s final pages to read the Book of Revelation for the first time. The book’s author, John—who may or may not be the same author of the Gospel of John—wrote from exile in a cave in Patmos. He’d seen a vision of Christ, who instructed him: “Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this.”
John recorded a vision of the physical word’s destruction: the sun turns black and the moon, red as blood; “the sky vanished like a scroll rolling itself up;” even the stars fall to earth.
But God’s kingdom to come is also conveyed in earthly language: a river “bright as crystal,” a fruit-bearing “tree of life.” Even after the supposed end of the world, there is life abundant, “healing of the nations,” a world un-degraded. “Nothing accursed will be found there anymore.”
It seemed there was no real end of the world to be found here—only massive and continual change, not so unlike the world we live in now. I wonder if change might be harder to imagine—maybe even harder to bear—than a definitive end.
Many Christians now interpret the Book of Revelation—originally titled apocalupsis in Greek—as a prophecy for the end of the world. But in Greek, apocalupsis means “unveiling” or “uncovering.” Similarly, though “Revelation” has become synonymous with a prophecy for the end of the world, the word’s original meaning referred to a flash of new understanding, often seeming to come from outside of ourselves. Rather than a new world, revelation leads to new sight, a new way of seeing the world that’s always been there.
Though the intense heat and humidity in Memphis increase my anxiety about climate change, the distance I feel from the natural world, here in the city, makes it harder to be sure of the ways the world is changing. The first time Colin and I stepped into our new backyard, it felt like the world was winnowing down into this single point. Before, we’d had endless mountains, a network of secret swimming holes, a broad, ever-changing sky, and we traded it for this flat patch of green.
In winter, we watched as near-daily rains swept in currents from my sister’s yard, across my parents’, and into ours. After torrential storms, water stood in the saturated backyard for days, leaving arcing impressions in the sopping ground like the tide carving a path through sand.
In what little spring we had, we planted a small garden, but I struggled to grow plants like I could in Virginia. The broccoli was infested with grubs; the Swiss chard was destroyed daily by packs of squirrels. The green bean plants grew strangely miniature, beans the size of bobby pins dangling from tiny leaves.
On waning summer evenings, I stand on the back porch and watch a few sputtering lightning bugs spark across the middle distance. At another time, I found them reassuring, their flickers of light across the night sky a predictable part of this unpredictable landscape. But now, I watch them and wonder, weren’t there more, when I was a kid?
Perhaps this is what Albrecht meant when he described solastalgia as the loss of the “potential for solace.” Even the natural world, when I manage to notice it, doesn’t comfort me anymore. The present has become merely a screen onto which I project my anxieties about the future.
In some places, the future is already here. In coastal cities and towns devastated by hurricanes and chronic flooding, some residents petition local governments to help them leave rather than rebuild. Here in my landlocked hometown, I don’t always know what changes I’d be aware of, without the internet telling me what changes have already happened.
Whenever I open my phone, reflexively, many times a day, my eyes glide past news stories I am no longer able to read through: the last female Yangtze giant softshell turtle in captivity dies following artificial insemination; whales show up on beaches with bellies full of plastic bags; a heat wave across India climbs to 122 degrees Fahrenheit; a UN report warns that a million species are on the brink of mass extinction. I feel my heart rate jump with each bit of frantic bad news, but my thumb slides past, hurrying each headline beyond my sight.
There are plenty of scriptural interpretations that affirm that this world, this Earth, is God’s kingdom—not some other world, or at some other time. In some translations of Luke 7:20-22, when the Pharisees ask Jesus when the Kingdom of God will come, Jesus answers, “‘The kingdom of God will not come with observable signs. Nor will people say, ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘There it is.’ For you see, the kingdom of God is in your midst.’” In the Gospel of Thomas, an apocryphal collection of Jesus’ sayings, Christ says, “the Kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it.”
Removing the promise of another world, the challenge of faith shifts: rather than waiting for some unseen world to take this one’s place, faith becomes seeing this world as singular and sacred. Perhaps Christ’s instruction to “stay awake” in Revelation is not about anticipating his impending return to Earth, but about remaining present, attentive to the world around us, finding God already thoroughly here.
My father recently told me about an argument he got into with a friend, years ago, about the historical accuracy of the Bible.
“Now, when it comes to the literal resurrection,” my father said as an aside, “I’m still waffling on that. I go back and forth on whether Christ was literally resurrected.”
This offhand comment opened up some new chamber, to know that my father had not planted some stake, had not decided one way or the other, after all these years. It was the most beautiful statement of faith I’d ever heard: that there is no arrival at some perfect and unchanging belief, only moments of re-articulation, only steps taken forward and back.
Lately, it feels painful to stay awake to a world so clearly suffering—difficult to experience wonder or holiness on these patches of earth we no longer recognize—almost impossible to be present to a changing world without knowing how this story will end.
In my father’s faith, I find no apocalyptic visions; no rapture; no promise of some new, unseen world. Instead, I find a way back to this world, through a faith that mirrors the uncertain world in which we live—the one that never really ends but keeps on changing, making itself strange before our eyes.
Reading the Book of Revelation, I find myself returning to the description of “the beast” that “was and is not and is to come.” Some pastors would say the beast is the devil, Satan himself. My father would say the beast is a symbol of authoritarian governments and oppressive systems that have a way of mutating and reappearing, from age to age.
But it’s the phrasing itself— “was and is not and is to come”—that intrigues me. It’s an example of my favorite linguistic trick of these old texts: their braiding of past, present, and future, to express in the rhythm of language itself something about the nature of God, or of the world, or of God in the world.
It brings to mind the hymn in which we sing about what “wert, and art, and evermore shalt be,” that playful, poetic configuring of verb tenses that somehow shifts the ground beneath my feet, bringing past, present, and future into one moment I am always currently in.
Whenever we sang the doxology, which I memorized before I could read, I always loved that perfect last line, that promise or plea, circling back on itself: “As it was in the beginning/ is now and ever shall be/ world without end/ amen, amen.”