Piety, Prayer, and the Apocalypse

I close my eyes and set my mind on the gentle vibrato of a man in prayer. His calm, consoling voice cracks with emotion as he repents for his sins, then becomes urgent and commanding as he warns of war, death, and devastation — the end of the world.

I struggle to stay balanced as I stand at attention, and only the warm, familiar grip of my mother’s hand in mine keeps me upright as his prayer comes to a close.

“In Jesus’ name, amen,” he softly says. The room roars it back. 

I open my eyes and pick up the two books placed before me: my Bible, encapsulated in a black leather cover bookending the history of everything, and a slim, red hardcover copy of a book on the apocalypse, which we’d spend the next two hours studying. We were told that on God’s day of judgement, He’d enact widespread destruction of our current world to rid it of our wickedness, and only His followers would survive the carnage.

I’m eight years old, still unsure how the world works, when I first learn its disastrous end is imminent. My mother brought my siblings and me to these Tuesday Bible study meetings, and this month the subject was the end of the world. It was one of three weekly meetings held by Jehovah’s Witnesses, a sect of Christianity my family followed for most of my life and certain family members still practice. 

Its chief teaching — that we are living in the “last days” of earthly life before Armageddon destroys wickedness from the world — was my earliest introduction to religion and how I understood the world, and as I watch a virus devastate the world around me, the memory of that man’s vicious premonitions resurfaces to shake my body to its core.

I’m an adult now and disassociated from the religion, but it still haunts me: that younger me dressed in his Kingdom Hall clothing feels like a ghost, as if leaving the religion killed my spirit and left me a hollow husk of the happy child I once was, struggling to make sense of the world seemingly coming to an end around him. 

I remember sitting with open ears as my mother answered a knock on the door and invited a stranger inside the house to talk. I don’t remember the details (I probably hid in another room to avoid saying hello), but I know that was when my mother heard about the promise of a paradise Earth. That’s what drew her in, and in no time at all, we were attending our first meeting.

It’s that promise that hooks you in and gives you hope, enough to submit to shedding your identity in anticipation of eternal life. You’re told the world around you is coming to an end, that present suffering is temporary, but everlasting life is around the corner. There’s a deep sense of warmth and community in the congregation, something that could only come from a group of people with shared hope for the future, always reminding you that all you have to do is follow God’s teachings. A small sacrifice for an eternity of perfection.

And maybe for others it is. But that wasn’t the case for me. 

I struggled early on with abiding by the countless rules of the religion, be it not saluting the American flag at school or not celebrating my own birthday until I was 18, at which point a birthday party didn’t even matter anymore. I didn’t celebrate a single holiday for about a decade of my life, and I’ve lost all enthusiasm for Christmas and Halloween. They don’t feel like days that are all that significant, only moments I missed out on that I’ll never get back.

I don’t remember if I ever asked someone why I should follow these rules — questions were evidence of doubt, and doubt meant a lack of faith. Even if I did, it wouldn’t have mattered. The rules were all derived from the Bible, doctrine that I, barely old enough to understand the individual words, didn’t have the vocabulary or knowledge to question or refute. 

The men in suits who led the meetings, who wrote the literature, who created the religion: we were told they were divinely inspired by God Himself and their decisions were, in essence, God’s own decree. That meant any chance of surviving God’s destruction of the Earth, and living in the paradise that would replace it, is contingent on our ability to follow His commandments.

So I followed them, as well as I could.

The hardest commandment to follow, and the one that changed me most as a person, was the requirement to separate myself from people outside the religion. To avoid the negative influences of the sinful, secular world, we were to surround ourselves only with fellow followers of Jehovah. If the world itself is wicked, they taught us, then the people who inhabit it must be.

That kept me from making many friends. I had peers both in and out of the religion, people I’d see briefly at school or the Kingdom Hall and rarely elsewhere, but I never developed deep friendships. My mandated social isolation forced me to keep people at arm’s length, knowing our friendships and connections would be limited to our school lives. 

I think I lost my belief in God around middle school, the same time I started developing more significant relationships with my classmates. I kept our connection mostly hidden from my parents, telling them I was attending school-sanctioned events with classmates when I was actually elsewhere — anywhere I could go to spend time with my friends in peace. I yearned for the escape the school year brought me, but these brief moments of freedom were only blips of felicity in an otherwise lonely, upsetting childhood. Each year I dreaded the summer, a three-month seclusion from the friends I’d made.

My classmates never understood how we could be such great friends at school and complete strangers once the bell rang. I couldn’t give them a good answer. It was just what I was told to do if I wanted to live forever. The older and more disillusioned with the religion I became, the more I latched onto those school-day friendships, and when it came time to search for colleges, I saw an opportunity to escape and to build real, meaningful friendships.

But my decision to come to Temple University was itself an act of treachery in the eyes of the religion. The Elders strongly discouraged higher education. Not only did it foster dangerously secular thinking, but it took away time we could’ve spent studying the Bible and preaching His word.

Going to school, for me, was never about going against God: it was about finally commanding my own life, rather than having others dictate it for me. It was a chance to forge my future on my own terms and see the world I’d been sheltered from for so long. 

Leaving the religion to attend college was an act of liberation, but it only brought more loneliness. Moving away from my family left me directionless and isolated, and I regret not being there for important moments in their lives. My family is still an integral part of my life, even if I see them less often, but having to leave them to be free felt like one more thing the religion took from me.

When I came to college, I struggled with making friends. I felt so socially incompetent after an adolescence marked by loneliness that I lacked the skills and experience to find friends in such a large community.

I could never come close enough to anyone at Temple to let them see the real me: this lost refugee from a restrictive religion trying to navigate a world he was told was about to end. And as soon as I started making friends, only a handful of whom I told the truth about my life, my worst childhood fears came true — the end of the world was here.

When the coronavirus pandemic shut down my college life, leaving me once again isolated from the few people I’d finally connected with, it felt like I was coming full circle to the life I left. Except I didn’t resent quarantine the way my younger self would — I welcomed it. I’d spent so much time at school pretending I wasn’t damaged by my childhood, but when I’m alone, like I was for so long growing up, there’s no one to hide my trauma from.

It’s just me in all my brokenness.

Being back felt like returning to life in the religion, and it gave me a new perspective on what I abandoned. I’ve come to terms with the fact that my decision to no longer be identified as a Jehovah’s Witness was a necessary one. I strongly disagree with its doctrine and rules, and it’s already taken so much from me — my mental health, my social skills, my childhood, and above all else, my connection with religion.

But as I watch the world slowly sink into chaos, I have to wonder whether I was wrong. Was my decision to choose my present instead of my future the right one? And if this is the Armageddon they said was coming, will I pay for my faithlessness with the same destruction I once feared? I try to remain hopeful, to convince myself this isn’t the apocalypse. But when you’re taught for so long, from such a young age, that the end of the world is imminent, and a pandemic begins to devastate everything around you, what else are you supposed to think?

I thought this religion had taken everything away from me already, but it saved the most significant part of my identity for last: at 21, I’ve lost hope. I try imagining my future 10, 20 years down the line — I try to think of myself as the inspirational teacher I’m studying to become — and yet every existential fear they embedded in my mind overtakes me when I try, and all I can see is the end coming closer each day as that ghost of myself inches further away from me.

But I felt him come back to me one Tuesday night in April at home, the same night I’d spend each week studying the end of the world as a child. My family crowded together on the bench of our dining room table. In front of us, a laptop tuned into Zoom as we, dressed in our best button-ups and blouses, grabbed a stack of Bibles, one for each of us, and got ready to pray.

It was the memorial of Jesus’ death, an annual event central to the religion, and the first year it took place online rather than in person. Nothing about the event felt as ceremonial as it usually did, but the looming threat of death that had marked the past month brought a certain sense of urgency to every word.

An Elder tells us through the screen about the significance of Jesus’ death — that as a result, humans like us have a chance at the paradise Earth as long as we abide by the teachings laid out in the Bible. I dismiss the notion, but ultimately think about the offer he’s proposed as the event ends and we bow our heads for the closing prayer.

At the bottom of my heart, past my skepticism and uncertainty and faithlessness, I ultimately have to admit that a higher power exists, but I can’t quite say whether I believe it’s Jehovah. So much of my life has been stolen or impacted by the religion that bears His name, that distorts His words to keep people locked in their fear of losing faith, and if I tried to return to my childhood religion I know I’d only be more miserable than I already am.

But as I held that book in my hand during the closing prayer of the memorial — my thumb rustling through its twelve-hundred-something pages, tracing the history of the world from Genesis to Revelation, from the beginning of time to the end of it — I asked myself one last time whether I made a mistake. Was the promise of eternal paradise in the future worth losing myself in the present? Was I unhappy because I had left the only stable social setting I’d known so far? Was the end of the world really here and I, in my inflexible faithlessness, going to meet the very end I’d feared for so long?

In moments when I feel closest to God and to myself, I remember my mother once telling me she worried she might get to the paradise Earth and I won’t be there. As the Elder nears the end of his prayer, her voice echoes in my mind.

“In Jesus’ name,” he says, “amen,” and in a firm, hushed, and almost unconscious response, I whisper the word back.

Photos by Miles Wall

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