Recently, I trimmed my bangs. I don’t think often about stuff like haircuts, so my bangs were about the same length as the rest of my (very long) hair when I realized it’d been a while. So I trimmed them over the bathroom sink. And as I did, I remembered something that happened many years ago, back when I was Pentecostal: I accidentally cut a lock of my hair in the shower. For a while there, I feared I’d potentially cost myself a place in the Rapture during the Endtimes. It was one of the times I got to make a roll to disbelieve in Christianity–only to botch once again.
Hi, everyone, and welcome! It is March 29, 2022, and this is Captain Cassidy of Roll to Disbelieve. Today, we have a retrospective about one of the goofier aspects of the Endtimes: the curiously voluntary acts of disobedience that it sells Christians. I hope you enjoy it.
College Cas and the Accidental Haircut
I reckon I was around 21 or 22 when this happened, since I was a firm Pentecostal and married. One morning, while getting ready for classes, I was shaving my pits in the shower. A slender lock of my head hair got between the razor and my skin, and I cut it off by accident.
This was a big, big problem. My hair was now cut.
In Pentecostalism, we followed a set of rules that we called “holiness standards.” That phrase covered a whole lot of rules for women. On a very old website called In Plain Site, s-i-t-e, oh how droll, we find a 20-year-old condemnation of these rules. I’ll get you the links for the original 2002 version of their post and the much longer 2022 version. The longer one goes into great depth about exactly what the rules are. For today’s purposes, I’ll just say that for women, holiness standards meant calf-length or longer skirts and dresses, long sleeves, no makeup or jewelry beyond a wedding ring, and most importantly, completely uncut hair.
Pentecostals get this idea from 1 Corinthians 11. In this chapter, Paul describes how men and women ought to dress and behave. Paul declares that women must wear a sign of submission on their heads. If their hair is cut, then the sign of submission is a head covering of some kind. If it’s uncut, then the hair itself becomes the covering. And for Paul, this rule rose to the level of a dealbreaker. He writes in verses 13-16:
Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Doesn’t nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone is inclined to dispute this, we have no other practice, nor do the churches of God.
So yes, according to my tribe I was now a shorn woman!
The Endtimes: Any Day Now for 2000 Years
My new status was a problem for me because, like most Pentecostals, I was deathly afraid of missing out on the Rapture.
Here’s how the idea ran for my tribe, which was premillennialist: At some point, there’d be this massive period of Tribulation, when global powers persecuted innocent Christians for their beliefs. The Tribulation lasts seven years. Sometime during that seven years, Jesus Raptures faithful Christians straight to Heaven. At the end of the seven years, there’d be a massive war to end all wars–Armageddon–which Jesus would win, natch. And then, Jesus holds the Last Judgment and sends souls to Heaven or Hell, and there’s a 1000-year period of blissful Jesus rule somewhere in there. Then, he ends the world itself.
What I described just now used to be a fringe evangelical belief. But now, it’s practically a tribal marker for all evangelicals, even if it lacks complete buy-in.
A 2011 survey from Pew Research indicates that roughly 61% of all evangelical leaders believe in the Rapture, which would make them premillennialist. Moreover, 52% of those leaders believed that Jesus was probably (44%) or definitely (8%) returning within their lifetimes, which also tracks with a premillennialist position. Another 2011 survey, this one done by the National Association of Evangelicals, got similar results. In this second survey, 65% of their surveyed pastors said they were premillennialist.
The Rapture was the most important part of the Endtimes conspiracy theory
To say Pentecostals were obsessed with the Endtimes would be the funniest understatement ever. We were completely engrossed by it. In particular, we feared missing the Rapture itself and having to spend the Tribulation planetside.
I was no exception. I’d joined Pentecostalism over a Rapture prediction, then drifted out again when it didn’t come true. You’d think I’d have learned better! But no, I was still very worried about missing the Rapture. We all were. In those days before cell phones and always-on internet and social media, if we couldn’t get ahold of any of our friends from church, we began to fret and worry to the exclusion of anything else.
Many people in my denomination kept whole libraries and copy-paper boxes full of books and photocopies they’d collected. They constantly tracked real-world events. They scoured newspapers for current headlines that they could shoehorn into Bible verses that sounded like prophecies.
To borrow a funny line from God Awful Movies’ review of Leap, if a Bible verse talks about people going to and fro in the last days, then one could consider parkour–literally going to and fro–a fulfillment of that real live prophecy!
The thinking here: the more real-world events that can be correlated to Bible verses, the closer the Endtimes must be. Therefore, the more careful everyone must be to stay pure enough to be Raptured.
Any slip-up could be impossibly bad
My tribe thought that Jesus would only Rapture TRUE CHRISTIANS™. That meant that we had to maintain the highest levels possible of moral purity, uprightness, fervor, and devotion. If we committed some minor sin driving home from church, like running a stop sign, and the Rapture was supposed to happen right then, well, we wouldn’t get zapped to Heaven!
As you can imagine, this constant frisson of anxiety and hypervigilance did a real number on my head. So when I looked down at the little lock of hair in my palm that morning in the shower, fear washed through me.
What would this mean? Would I need to start wearing a headscarf or hat? Some of the Black ladies at church did that, because they cut and styled their hair. Would Jesus still Rapture me?
At the heart of it all, my big fear: Was I still safe?
My evangelical friends worried about me
At university that day, an evangelical friend of mine, Shawn, finally asked me what was wrong. I’ve never been good at hiding my feelings. At his question, relief washed through me. I told him what was on my mind.
Now, Pentecostals in those days were fringe Christians. Though technically we were evangelicals, we bristled hard at the very idea. This was years before the two groups merged into fundagelicals. What’s so funny to me is that now, evangelicals have not only caught up to fundamentalists but lapped them in every way–except for the dress code, of course!
So back then, Pentecostals were fundamentalists, thank you very much. And we thought regular evangelicals were lukewarm Christians who couldn’t handle the real truth. For their own part, evangelicals thought fundamentalists were dangerous fanatics who were entirely too focused on rules and regulations.
So Shawn furrowed his brow at me and asked, very worriedly, why I thought Jesus would judge me that harshly for what had really been an accident.
His question caught me completely by surprise. It’d never occurred to me to think that. And it’s entirely possible that someone in Pentecostalism would have pointed it out as well, yes, but it’d been Shawn who’d said it.
This incident did very little to allay my evangelical friends’ fears that I was caught up in a dangerous, extremist flavor of Christianity. They soothed my fears–that time. But the Endtimes is a curious mindworm. It crops up again and again, bringing fresh fear with it every time.
The curiously voluntary disobedience of the Endtimes
Remembering that whole incident brought me to those awful A Thief in the Night movies we reviewed years ago. These movies depict a vision of the Endtimes. And their vision runs about like my old tribe imagined. First, Jesus whisks all the good Christians to Heaven, and then the Tribulation begins. Some people convert to TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ after the Rapture, but they missed the only escape opportunity. Now, they endure the Tribulation in full.
During the movies, the evil One World Government rounds up and imprisons all the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ left. The authorities make their prisoners an offer they can’t refuse: accept the Mark on their hand or forehead, or else be executed.
Nobody in this evil government ever actually tattoos an unwilling prisoner, however. No! In all cases, prisoners accept or reject the idea on their own. In the movie, characters mill around and wrestle hard with the idea as they try to decide whether or not to accept the Mark and get out of prison–but go to Hell forever as a result.
But at no point in these movies does anyone get Marked against their will. Ever. The movies refuse even to entertain the idea of someone being Marked without consent. For an authoritarian, totalitarian, fascist government that no longer respects any basic human rights and actively seeks to destroy Christians, it’s such a curious and noteworthy refusal.
The authorities of this ghastly new regime could easily destroy these Christians’ entire eternal fates just by holding them down and tattooing them. They just never do.
Forgetting an important component of disobedience: intent
However, the movie’s creators forgot something.
The Bible verses used as references here, Revelation 13:16-17 and 14:9-11, don’t talk about the Mark being purely voluntary. Some translations in Biblehub, like the NIV version, even make that point clear by saying that the second beast forced all people to get the Mark. And 14:9 even makes a second point clear. Here’s what it says:
And a third angel followed them, calling out in a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image, and receives its mark on his forehead or on his hand, he too will drink the wine of God’s anger, poured undiluted into the cup of His wrath. [. . .] Day and night there is no rest for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”
If someone gets the Mark but didn’t want it, that doesn’t seem to matter much. They still have the Mark. But here, the real condemnation seems to come with having the mark and worshiping the beast. There’s that troubling “or” at the end there, but mostly it seems to be a translation thing. When I look at alternate translations, I see worship paired with the Mark with an “and” just as often. So it’s the Mark plus the worship that seems to be the problem here.
That meshes a lot better with the Bible’s command to Christians (in Romans 13:1-2) to obey the law of the land. The Endtimes doesn’t alter those rules.
Upping the stakes with Endtimes fear
This whole thing is officially one of those things I wish I’d noticed as a Pentecostal! Oh, of course I forgive myself for not catching that stuff back then. As we’ve discussed before, Revelation is quite a goofy book.
And evangelical leaders shamelessly use its apocalyptic language, prophetic and bizarre imagery, and threatening scenarios to cow their followers into submission. It’s just such an over-the-top fantasy that it’s impossible not to feel scared reading it, if one believes at all in the supernatural claims that inform it.
Removing even the idea of involuntary Marks was part of how my Christian leaders amped up Endtimes fear. If it could only be gotten voluntarily, then that laid the entire onus upon the Christian flocks to refuse it.
And everyone knew, in turn, that any Christians getting it must have voluntarily committed grievous rebellion.
A very convenient tool as well
Since we didn’t know exactly what form the Mark would take, that led to us deciding that all kinds of things were the Mark. For a while, my tribe fully bought into an urban legend that claimed that bar codes, like the ones found on products in supermarkets, were a form of the beast’s Mark. Snopes even talks about it.
Years ago, some teen girl in Texas tried to claim that her school’s new student IDs were the Mark so she could get out of wearing hers. One wonders if the real problem there was that it would be able to track her location while she was on campus–and warn administrators whenever she wandered off campus.
I’ve also seen countless evangelicals nowadays claim that COVID vaccinations are the Mark. BioLogos, an anti-Creationist Christian site, has thoroughly debunked that one, but I’m not sure it’s doing as much good as we’d all want.
I wish I’d realized, back then, how my tribe engaged with the idea of the Mark–just as we engaged with the idea of women cutting their hair. I reckon it is always just easier for authoritarians to judge people by outward signs than by inward feelings. But for those suffering from real fears and anxieties around the Endtimes, it all just added an extra layer of needless suffering over us.
As for my college self, I relaxed eventually about that lost lock of hair. Alas, I didn’t make my roll to disbelieve that time. I continued in fervor and faith for another few years. Ah, but every gamer knows one thing: eventually, if you keep rolling the dice, you’ll make the roll.