Each issue carries an imprimatur from
the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
Raptured or Not?
A Catholic Understanding
What is the Catholic teaching on the Rapture? It was over 30
years ago that a student in my Scripture class asked me that question. Drawing on all my
years of Catholic education (kindergarten through the seminary and doctoral studies), I
replied, The what? I had never heard of it.
In the intervening years, talk of the Rapture has become much more pervasive
in our culture. Through radio and TV preachers, the Moral Majority movement of the 1970s
and 1980s, the turn of the millennium in the year 2000, and the phenomenal success of the
Left Behind series of novels (recently completed at volume 12 and earning a
cover story in the May 24, 2004 issue of Newsweek magazine, it is likely that few
Catholics today would share my response. They would, however, probably still be a bit puzzled
by it, and ask another question as well, Will we, as Catholics, share in the Rapture?
In this Update we will address these questions. We will begin by looking
at the meaning and origin of the Rapture doctrine. Then we will briefly consider the key
biblical passage which is foundational to it. Finally, we will highlight some problem areas
The Rapture doctrine: what and when?
But what do we mean by the Rapture? The word can be used in
different ways. Spiritual writers have used it for mystical union with God, or our final
sharing in Gods heavenly life. This is not the sense we are using it in here; we
are using it in a much more specific way.
For many American fundamentalist Christians, the Rapture forms part of the
scenario of events that will happen at the end of the world. While differences exist among
various groups, the more common view goes like this: At the end, Jesus will come on the
clouds of heaven and the righteous (the saints) will be raptured, that is,
caught up into the air, to be with Christ. They will be separated from sinners who will
remain on the earth to endure a period of great suffering (the Tribulation).
After this, Jesus will rule on earth for 1000 years (the Millennium); finally,
then, Jesus comes at the end in judgment (the parousia) and will inaugurate the new heavens
and the new earth. The Rapture is significant, then, as the first of the events that mark
this end of the world. This scenario appears as such nowhere in the New Testament;
it is put together through a particular interpretation of various and scattered texts.
While speculation about the end of the world is as old as Christianity, this
particular scenario is not. In fact, it is not yet 200 years old!
Origins of the Rapture
The Rapture seems to have been invented by a British religious figure named
John Nelson Darby (1800-1882). He was ordained in the Church of Ireland and worked there
to convert Catholics away from their folly. He was extremely pessimistic about what he
saw as the state of the world and the state of the Church. He eventually left it, joining
a dissident group called the Plymouth Brethren of which he soon became a prominent leader.
About 1830, he began teaching that Jesus coming at the end of time
would be preceded by a rapture of the saints.
Some members of his own Brethren community objected that this was not biblically founded,
but Darby dismissed any criticism. It had, he claimed, been revealed to him by God.
He would eventually distance himself from this group and travel extensively
in the 1860s and 1870s in Europe, the United States, and Canada, where his views were very
influential. (Especially important is their appearance in the Scofield Reference Bible,
which was printed first in 1909. The 1967 edition is still in print and is very popular
in many Protestant fundamentalist circles.)
Despite Darbys denials, scholars have suggested several possible influences
on his Rapture views. In 1830, in Port Glasgow, Scotland, a 15-year-old girl, Margaret
MacDonald, a follower of a charismatic Scottish preacher, Edward Irving, attended a healing
service at which she saw a vision of a two-stage return of Christ. Darby adopted and expanded
Another suggestion traces the influence to a Jesuit priest, Manuel Lacunza
(1731-1801), who was born in Chile but came to Italy in 1767 where he would spend the rest
of his life. Posing as a converted Jew (under the pseudonym Juan Josafat Ben Ezra), he
wrote, in Spanish, a large apocalyptic work entitled The Coming of the Messiah in Glory
and Majesty. The book appeared first in 1811, 10 years after his death. In 1827, it
was translated into English by none other than Edward Irving, an acquaintance of and possible
influence on Darby. Given Darbys hatred of Catholics, this possible influence adds
an ironic touch!
The Rapture text in Scripture
Those who propose the Rapture maintain that it is found in Scripture. From
its first appearance, as we have seen, others have questioned this. What are we to think?
Written by Paul from Corinth, about 50 or 51 A.D., less than 20 years after
the death of Christ, 1 Thessalonians is commonly considered the oldest book of the New
Testament. It is clear that these earliest Christians were eagerly expecting Jesus return
in glory at the end of the world. As time went on and this was delayed, two pastoral problems
emerged that Paul addresses in these lines.
The first is the question of when. Paul tells them that they know very
that we do not know the time of the end; it will come like a thief in the night. This becomes
a truism throughout the New Testament, appearing in the Synoptic Gospels (Mt 24:42,44;
Mark 13:21-23, 32-33; Luke 12:39-40; 17:20-24; 21:34-35); Acts of the Apostles (1:6-7);
the Letters (our passage and 2 Peter 3:9-10); and even in the Book of Revelation, not once
but twice (Rv 3:3; 16:15)! Needless to say, this clear teaching has been consistently ignored
by many up to the present day.
The second question seems more urgent. Since Christs coming was delayed,
some of the community had died. Those who were left became worried: Would the dead lose
out in some way at Christs return? Would they be at any disadvantage?
In describing Jesus return, Paul combines imagery drawn from two sources.
From biblical apocalyptic (e.g., Daniel 7:13), he gets the coming on the clouds of heaven
with the angelic trumpets. From his Greco-Roman experience, he gets the imagery of an arrival
of a king on a state visit (in Greek, parousia); a joyful multitude goes out to
meet him on the road and accompany him back to the city.
The dead will rise first and then we, the living, will be snatched up
to join them in the air. Many pagan epitaphs of the time spoke of the living being
away by death. Here Paul speaks of our
being snatched up to join the Lord and to welcome him at his return.
In the ancient world, the air was a scary place filled with unseen
beings, many of them hostile. Together with Christ, there will be nothing to fear. Paul
means this as a message of comfort and consolation for the Thessalonians. Christians do
grieve the loss of their loved ones, but they should not do so
as others do who have no hope.
The passage is about Jesus return in glory at the end of the world.
The New Testament knows of only one such return. There is no first second coming!
Further, the passage says absolutely nothing about being separated
sinners; the whole thrust is exactly the opposite. It is about being together with the
dead. There is no suggestion that once we meet Jesus in the air that he then
turns around and goes back, taking us with him, to return later.
The conclusion is clear: There is no basis whatsoever in this passage for
a doctrine of the Rapture. To see such a doctrine here is a complete distortion of the
biblical text. If we were to examine other biblical texts often cited in support of this
doctrine (e.g., Mt 24:40-41; Luke 17:34-35; Rv 3:10), the results would be the same.
Church teaching on the Rapture
A s Roman Catholics, we might ask, Has the Church censured anything
regarding the Rapture doctrine? The answer would have to be no and yes.
No, to my knowledge, there has never been an explicit statement relative
to the Rapture. But as we have seen, the Rapture forms part of a particular millennial
expectation based on a particular use of biblical texts. Yes, the Church has explicitly
rejected both this kind of speculation and this way of interpreting the Scriptures.
The Council of Ephesus (431) denounced it as a deviation and a fable.
It was denounced again in 1516 at the Fifth Lateran Council. In 1824, the work of Manuel
Lacunza (noted above) was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books. In 1941 and 1944, responding
to questions from the Archbishop of Santiago, Chile, the Congregation of the Holy Office
(now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) again rejected this kind of millennial
speculation with explicit reference to the work of Lacunza. As recently as April 22,
1998, with the turn of the millennium approaching, Pope John Paul II warned again against
this way of thinking.
In interpreting biblical texts, the Church has stressed that it is essential
that we take account of their literary genres since truth is expressed differently in different
types of writing (Vatican II: Dei Verbum #12; Catechism of the Catholic Church #110).
In its 1993 document, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,
the Pontifical Biblical Commission both reaffirmed this (Section I-A) and rejected as inadequate
the so-called fundamentalist
interpretation at play in the Rapture doctrine and scenario (Section I-F).
As John Paul II expressed it on April 22, 1998, We know that the apocalyptic
images of the eschatological discourse about the end of all things should be interpreted
in light of their intense symbolism. It is not language that should be taken literally.
Problems with the Rapture
We might conclude by asking, What view of the world is encouraged,
even legitimized by the Rapture/Left Behind ideology? It can be fairly described
as an extremely pessimistic, outsider mentality. It feels left out of
the world and of society, so it eagerly anticipates leaving all of that behind. In fact,
God shares their disgust, and the signs are clear: God is coming soon to put an end to
it. The world itself is doomed to destruction, so there is obviously no point in caring
for it or protecting it now.
Everyone left behind on the earth at the time of the Rapture will be subject
to the sufferings of the Tribulation. The violence envisaged and described (as in the Left
Behind novels) is almost pornographic in detail.
The spirit of vengeance is much in evidence as those left behind are
subjected to extreme anguish. The hope that the earth and most of its inhabitants will
soon be destroyed is a cause of happiness and rejoicing among those who are eager to be
separated from sinners and raptured out of the world because then they will
be with the Lord.
To this we might juxtapose another, very different, world view. The world
of Gods creation is basically good (Gn 1). Though it is marred and broken by sin
and death, it is still created in, through and for Jesus Christ (Col 1:15-20). The world
shares in the redemption of God and even now is groaning, awaiting the fullness of redemption
(Rom 8:19-23) which will be manifested as a (re)new(ed) heavens and (re)new(ed) earth (Rv
God sent the Son into this world out of love to show us the way to life.
Jesus did not separate himself from sinners but, on the contrary, they seem to have been
his preferred company. If we want to be with the Lord, we should be together with sinners.
In all the Gospels, he is criticized by the self-righteous, He eats
with publicans and sinners (e.g., Luke 5:29-32), but, as he assures us, there is
more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 just (Luke 15:7,10). The day
of the Lords second coming is delayed, in fact, precisely because
[the Lord] is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance (2
Peter 3:9-10). Jesus
harshest words are reserved for those who think they are secure and look down on others
(e.g., the Pharisee and the publican, Luke 18:9-14).
Even though we may long for the day of the Lords return in glory, the
time of that return is unknown. Not even Jesus knows; only the Father knows (Mark 13:32).
We are warned against false prophets who say that the end is near (Mt 24:23-26), but Jesus
assures us, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Mt 28:20).
Until that time, we are to be about the Lords work, Blessed are
those servants whom the master will find at work when he arrives (Mt 24:46). If we
look too eagerly for Jesus return on the clouds of heaven, we may pass him by too
often on the street (Mt 25:31-46). It would seem that what gets left behind most in the
Left Behind mentality is the whole Bible.
Whats a Catholic to believe?
We began with several questions: What is the Catholic teaching on the Rapture?
There is none; there is no traditional Christian teaching on the Rapture. It is a late,
and rather suspect, arrival on the scene.
Will Catholics be raptured? No, of course not, but then neither will be anyone
else. But we are left behind with one final—and most important—question. It
is not about the future, the question, Will I be taken up by the Rapture? Rather, its
more about a present question: Will I be taken in by it?
Next: Longing for Peace (by Pat Fanning)