By AJ Willingham, CNN
Updated: Tue, 27 Sep 2022 16:08:37 GMT
Thirteen-year-old April Ajoy had a sense something wasn't right. It was quiet in her Dallas house. Too quiet. Her brothers were gone. Her parents were gone. On her parents' bed, a pile of her mother's clothes signaled something terrifying.
Ajoy's mind began churning, trying to remember, trying to make plans. When was the last time she had sinned? Should she refuse the mark of the beast? At least, she thought, if she was put to the guillotine during the time of tribulation, it would be a quick death.
From the moment they are old enough to understand, millions of people raised in certain Christian communities are taught that the rapture is something that can happen at any time. Though there are different schools of thought as to how such an event would go, the basic idea is the same: Righteous Christians ascend into heaven, while the rest are left behind to suffer. However it happens, it is something to be both feared and welcomed, to be prayed about and prepared for every moment of a believer's life.
Ajoy grew up in an evangelical church, surrounded by constant reminders that the rapture was just around the corner. She was taught to never sin, since it could be the very last thing she did before Jesus returned to Earth. Dramatic rapture-themed books and movies, created as fiction, were presented as real glimpses into the end of the world.
"When i was probably 8 or 9, I remember my brothers and I spending a good 30 minutes looking out into the sky," Ajoy tells CNN. "We took turns counting down from 10, and in that time, we were convinced Jesus would come back."
Now 34, Ajoy is one of a growing network of "exvangelicals" who have removed themselves from what they now view as the damaging beliefs of some evangelical, Pentecostal and Baptist churches. She runs a popular TikTok account discussing faith and, among other things, the effects of traumatic religious experiences that can last for years -- even a lifetime.
A question of Biblical proportions
"Rapture anxiety," as it is often called, is recognized by some faith experts and mental health professionals as a type of religious trauma. Darren Slade, the president and CEO of the Global Center for Religious Research, has been studying religious trauma across several faiths and denominations for years.
"This is a real thing. It's a chronic problem," he says of rapture anxiety. "This is a new area of study, but in general, our research has revealed that religious trauma leads to an increase of anxiety, depression, paranoia and even some OCD-like behaviors: 'I need to say this prayer of salvation so many times,' 'I need to confess my sins so often.'"
"Now imagine," he continues, "You are taught that at any minute, you could be left here on Earth. What does that do to the teenager who just had premarital sex, or even simply took the Lord's name in vain?"
Experiences like Ajoy's -- a latent fear of an impending, inevitable end -- are very common among communities of religious trauma survivors. On social media, former church members recall being tricked by church leaders into watching violent rapture-themed films or crying themselves to sleep thinking about people and pets that would be left behind when the end finally came.
Chelsea Wilson of Marietta, Georgia tells CNN that while growing up in an evangelical community, talk of the rapture was so intrinsic that children would play pranks to scare each other into believing everyone around them had been raptured.
"As if," Wilson says, "it were a scary campfire story."
The concept of the rapture, known theologically as dispensational premillennialism, is not prevalent in Catholic or mainline Protestant denominations like Episcopalianism or Presbyterianism, and is most commonly adhered to in evangelical and fundamental churches. This line of theology draws heavily upon a letter from the Apostle Paul to the Thessalonians, included in the Bible, that says believers in Jesus would be snatched or seized into the air.
Interpretations of this verse vary widely among Christian leaders, many of whom see it as a common example of poetic metaphor among Paul's writings. However, this striking imagery forms the basis of a lot of modern ideas about the rapture -- so much so, Slade says it's not uncommon for people with religious trauma to report having a fear of heights as they imagine their final ascent.
Survivors also cite the influence of fiction works, like the "Left Behind" book series and the 2000 movie adaptation, which they say were presented in their church circles as accurate glimpses into a post-rapture future. These works have reached such a level of infamy in these faith communities that some survivors say the descriptions of suffering and terror in the series greatly influenced their rapture-related fears. (There is a reason Ajoy's initial thought of the guillotine seems oddly specific -- it features in a graphic execution scene in the 1972 rapture film, "A Thief in the Night.")
Slade knows just how deep modern rapture theology can go. As a Baptist preacher and religious scholar, he was surrounded by peers who would attend "end of days" or "end of times" conferences. These meetings, many of which are still held today, focus heavily on events in the Christian Book of Revelation, and attempt to connect scriptural elements with current events in the world. It's why fringe groups are left in the lurch when predictions about the end of days don't manifest.
However, Slade's biblical studies eventually led him to an uncomfortable truth: The rapture, as it is taught in some Baptist, evangelical and fundamentalist communities, is scantly mentioned in the Bible. In fact, modern rapture theology only dates back to the 1800s.
This and other realizations led Slade to leave the Christian faith and focus his energy on the academic side of religion. It was a devastating transition.
"I lost my family, I lost my community. I lost everything," Slade says. Eventually, he was diagnosed with complex PTSD from his experiences.
A shared experience
For Christians who begin to question their beliefs, the fear of what could happen if they name their doubts out loud can be just as overwhelming as rapture anxiety itself.
"It's taboo to talk about," Ajoy says. "Because there is this idea that if you need to worry about the rapture, well, what have you done to worry about?"
Ajoy, who still identifies as a Christian, first questioned rapture theology when she was in her late teens, after discovering that the word "rapture" doesn't appear in the Bible at all. Years later, she mustered the courage to ask a question in a closed Facebook group.
"Did anyone else ever genuinely think they got left behind as kids?"
The post received hundreds of responses.
"So many people said, 'I thought I was the only one,'" Ajoy says.
Slade says suffering in silence, and the threat of losing one's entire community, compounds religious trauma. Finding other people who have had similar experiences can provide a much-needed voice in the wilderness of doubt.
It can also lead people to redefine their faith, or abandon it altogether. The number of Americans identifying as Christian has been steadily dropping for years A 2022 Pew Research Survey estimates about 64% of Americans identify as Christians, but that number could drop below half by 2070 -- and could be surpassed by a majority population with no religious affiliation.
"There's no doubt that we are seeing a major paradigm shift in Christianity," he says. "One of the common things people are deconstructing for is, they don't feel welcome. They don't feel the church matches their personal values. They are tired of what they see as a system peddling in shame and rejection."
Nearly every day, Ajoy gets messages from TikTok followers who are grateful for her content, and grateful for a safe place to bear witness to painful religious memories.
"It still surprises me how many people think they are still going through this alone," she says.
Even now, Ajoy admits that every once in a blue moon, when the house gets quiet and she can't see her partner or children, she'll feel a reflexive pang of panic.
"To people who are going through this, who are questioning, I want to say that there is no fear in love," she says. "You shouldn't have to be afraid of the answer."