Death Sentence

by John B 

 

        In 1965, when I was 16 years old, I was told I only had seven years to live. 

        It isn't what you think -- there was no doctor, no diagnosis (we didn't even go to doctors then), nor was I sick in the traditional sense.  Rather, I was told, loudly and repeatedly, that the Great Tribulation would begin on January 7, 1972.  It was explained to me, loudly and repeatedly, that anyone who wasn't "ready" when the Great Tribulation started, would have to endure the most horrible suffering anyone has ever experienced this side of hellfire. 

        At the tender age of 16, I knew I wasn't "ready".  I also knew that I would never be ready.  Not because I was rebellious, because I wasn't.  It was just that the standard, as laid down by the ministry, was so impossibly high that I knew I was incapable of attaining it. 

        I had seven years to live, if I was lucky.  Because I knew, without a doubt, that I would die in the Great Tribulation.  I even entertained the idea of exposing myself to German machine guns so I could go quickly, without lingering in a concentration camp. 

        I had these thoughts in 1965, and for many years afterward.  I was worried about Germans! 

        It may be difficult for some to believe, but there are people alive today, some of them reading this website, who still believe that Herbert Armstrong and his legion of ministers caused no one any harm.  It was our own fault, they tell us, because we chose to follow him. 

        Well, I didn't choose to follow him.  I was raised to believe that he was the only man on earth who understood the "truth", and I believed it because the adults around me believed it.  They were a lot smarter than I, having the wisdom of many more years than I, so who was I to question their judgment?  If they said Mr. Armstrong was right, then it must be true. 

        So I believed everything Mr. Armstrong said, and by extension, (almost) everything his ministers said.  And they said the Tribulation would begin in 1972.  It would be over in 1975, when Jesus would come back.

         

        Imagine

        Can you imagine what life was like for a teenager who only had seven years to live?  Seven years did seem like a long time, but that was very little comfort.  I knew that I would never get married, never have kids, never own a home, never have a career.  I would never experience sex (and that's big when you're 16). 

        In short, I had no future.  As my classmates made plans for college and careers, I pitied them, because they also would never achieve any of their goals.  The only difference was that they didn't know it and were happy in their ignorance.  But I did know it, and happiness eluded me. 

        There was no point in going to college, unless I could get into Ambassador.  Why study for a career that you wouldn't have time to work at?  Maybe, if I could get into Ambassador, I might be able to improve my chances of survival. 

        But in 1966 my application to Ambassador College was rejected.  And the Selective Service was breathing down my neck.  If I went to Vietnam, I might not even make it to 1972. 

        I should have gone to Vietnam.  I've wished many times that I had, because I avoided the military for all the wrong reasons.  I did it because Mr. Armstrong said I had to.  I sat down with my draft board (the single most terrifying experience of my life) and convinced them that I was truly a conscientious objector.  They reclassified me, and I was ordered to work in a civilian capacity for two years.  Lo and behold, I ended up at Ambassador College anyway, not as a student, but as an employee. 

        Living in Pasadena was a reprieve for a time, but the anxiety did not abate.  I was in the lion's den, and pressure about 1972 was intensified.  We heard about it every week, and now it was only four years away.  By 1969, Joe Tkach, a low-level low-life local elder, went so far as to suggest (on numerous occasions) that the tribulation might actually begin in 1969! 

        And no one contradicted him. 

        It didn't come in 1969, of course, but it was only three years away.  I had three years to live. 

         

        Can You Say "Brainwashed"?

        Needless to say, 1972 came and went.  Nothing happened.  There was no Tribulation, no German invasion, no Nazi nukes.  The church did not flee.  I should have been relieved.  Any sane person would have been relieved.  But I wasn't relieved, I was even more frightened.  The Great Tribulation was overdue!  It must be close.  It had to be close.  It could start at any minute.  

        It didn't happen.  Years passed.  I was out of the church for awhile, I did get married, I did get a career (thanks to trade school -- I never did get that college education), and I had kids.  Fear for the fate of my children drove me back into the cult, where I wasted 15 more years, still waiting for the Great Tribulation, still sacrificing on the Altar of Armstrong, sending in any "spare" money (none of which we could really spare -- I'm still deep in debt because of that). 

        In 1981 Armstrong told us why the Great Tribulation hadn't started yet.  He had made no mistakes, but it was our fault!  "CHRIST HAS DELAYED HIS COMING BECAUSE YOU PEOPLE AREN'T READY!" he squealed. 

        And I believed it. 

        Five years later (and fifty years too late) Armstrong died.  The church stopped talking about the Great Tribulation.  They just continued to collect the money.  In 1992, thanks to the overt and undeniable corruption of Joe Tkach, I finally woke up.  And got the hell out. 

        I was 44 years old. 

         

        Seven Years to Live

        As I approach age 60, it is entirely possible that I now really do have only seven years to live, more or less.  My parents barely made it into their seventies, so that wouldn't be an unreasonable expectation.  My death sentence from 1965 has had one hell of a reprieve; but my entire life was on hold up until 1992, waiting for something that was "sure" to happen, but never did.  What might I have accomplished if I hadn't been sentenced to life on Death Row? 

        What's done is done.  The last 16 years have been wonderful.  My kids have turned into fine adults, they all have college degrees (thanks to student loans -- I was unable to help them), and promising careers.  I woke up just in time to spare them a life sentence.   

        But the point of this article is not about them, nor about me.  The point is about those poor children who are just now growing up in the toxic atmosphere of Armstrong cults, those poor kids whose parents have "proved" that Armstrong theology is "true".  It doesn't matter which minor dictator they live under, nor which "church of god" they belong to; what matters is that those kids also believe they only have seven years to live (or maybe four, depending on which date their particular fuehrer has chosen as the "end").   

        What despair runs through their minds on any given day?  What sleepless dread chills their bones every time they look at the TV news?  What kind of future do they face?  Will some of them rebel and make their way in the world anyway, feeling guilty and ashamed for the rest of their lives for turning their backs on the "truth"? 

        Or will they sit there, waiting, fearing, dreading, wasting their only chance at a decent life? 

        It's those kids I worry about.  Who is going to save them? 

        -- 4/12/2008

         

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