TRIBULATION TRAIL: NONFICTION BY MATTHEW OGLESBY

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As a kid, my biggest fear was that everyone would disappear. You know, like the Biblical rapture, when Jesus comes down from the sky and saves all His believers, leaving the rest of us behind. I had dreams about it, nightmares. I went downstairs and found my whole family vanished, with only their clothes sitting around the kitchen table, shoes on the floor.

I went to a Christian school south of Atlanta, in a small town with an old-fashioned brick square. It was an interesting place, not at all strange to me then. You could buy Chick-fil-A in the cafeteria. The original restaurant, called The Dwarf House, was nearby and some of the founder’s grandkids went to school with me. I remember one teacher didn’t believe we landed on the moon, another showed us where dinosaurs could be found in the Bible. We passed around something known as the Prayer Bucket. Everyone wrote their prayers on imaginary scraps of paper and dropped them in an imaginary bucket. When the bucket was filled to the top, a couple scraps fell out and those were the prayers that were answered.

In chapel, we heard sermons from the pastor and headmaster—the usual stuff and also some about the End Times, especially as Y2K drew near. I remember being particularly disturbed by all the current events that sounded like Biblical prophecy: earthquakes and fires, wars and riots, escalations in the Middle East. Teachers (and even once Jeff Foxworthy) told us personal stories about how they escaped the vices of their past lives and were born again in the blood of Jesus Christ.

Instead of Halloween, which was considered a vaguely Satanic holiday, we were encouraged to visit a reenactment of the seven year tribulation. It was on a big wooded property out in the middle of nowhere Georgia. A dirt path led from the dark country road to a parking lot crowded with kids my age. The mood was festive, like a fairgrounds or hayride. Youth groups from all over flocked here for their Christian haunted house experience. Except this one had eternal consequences.

Torches flickered near the entrance, where the trail began. Black tarps strung from the trees made a maze that weaved through the woods. We followed a guide who led us to several different rooms where scenes were acted out. Along the way, demons and other hellish creatures, sinners condemned to hell, leaped out from the shadows, hissing and shrieking. I tried not to jump or scream, to seem tough for my sisters, but they didn’t take it so seriously.

I remember a mom in a hospital. The operating room was covered in blood and doctors were running around, trying to save her, but she couldn’t be saved because her baby had been aborted. In another room soldiers forced kids to throw their Bibles in a fire. One boy refused and the soldiers made him watch as they shot his sister in the head. In a grocery store that looked more like a breadline, a starved family wearing cross necklaces to identify them as Christian were refused food because they didn’t have the Mark of the Beast tattooed on their arms. The customers in line behind them spat and yelled. Bloody teenagers sat slumped over in a burned-out car with bottles of liquor shattered around them. I’m not sure what this one was about; it seems more like a D.A.R.E. advertisement.

Towards the end came the scene that haunted me the most. A family sat around a table, gleefully eating, like a photo in an insurance pamphlet. Then Jesus appeared in the sky, descending on strings. A spotlight burned in His direction. He wore a white robe and sandals and shuttered down with an expression both vicious and serene, like my mom when her punishments were firm. Abruptly the lights cut out and when they turned back on only the father remained at the table. The rest of the family was gone, their clothes draped over the chairbacks.

I realize now this is a familiar End Times image, but at the time it felt like God was speaking directly to me. I wanted to cry out. I didn’t know what to do. The man playing the father circled the table, touching his family’s clothes and calling out their names. Then he dropped to his knees, sobbing and begging God to please forgive him.

But it was too late, he couldn’t be saved.

He had been left behind.

Before we left, the group met with a pastor. He asked us to bow our heads and pray. Then came the moment familiar to any Baptist churchgoer: the pastor asked whether there were any among us who felt convicted to step forward and lay their lives at the feet of Christ.

My heart pounded like shoes in a dryer. The pastor repeated his call, softly, insistently, but I stood still, unable to move. My legs wobbled, a nervous energy bounced in my chest.

The moment passed.

So the next Sunday, when the familiar call came, I stood up and, dizzy as a drunk with the acoustic guitar strumming, I approached the pulpit. The pastor palmed my head like a basketball. “Thank you,” he whispered.

I expected everything to change after my salvation. I was, after all, born again. But nothing changed, everything was the same. I worried that my salvation had been false, a planned performance instead of an authentic response. The fear was most serious in middle school, when I didn’t have many friends and believed everything. In church, I imagined half the congregation raptured away, their dresses and blazers suspended for a moment before collapsing in a heap on the pews next to me. If I had lustful thoughts, my family would disappear. If I stole money from the offering plate—poof!

And then one day it just went away. I’m sure it was more gradual than that, but that’s how it feels now, looking back on it—as sudden as the Rapture, which Scripture tells us comes in “a moment, a twinkling of the eye.” Like a thief in the night. It happened sometime in high school, like stepping out of a torrent into the clear eye of a storm—where I have stayed, safe but still a little afraid.

Because of course the fear is not gone, not entirely. It’s like an old injury: the pain flares up when it rains. When I stood watching my father die on a sunny day, who did I call on, begging for it to stop? As I lay awake thinking the unthinkable, who do I turn to for solace, a divine bargain?


Matthew Oglesby lives in Atlanta where he works for a public health nonprofit. His work has been published in Atlanta Magazine, The Rumpus, Kenyon Review, The Black List, Go Into the Story, and various other places. He is a regular contributing writer for Sports Illustrated’s FanSided website, where he covers college football.