Sunday, November 06, 2005

Do Catholics Believe In ‘The Rapture’?

(Thirty-second Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on November 6, 2005 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18; Matthew 25: 1-13.)

[For the audio link to this homily, click here: Thirty-second Sunday 2005]

Have you ever heard this scenario before? This is from a book by Catholic author Robert Baldwin:

One day soon . . . Jesus will rapture his Church. All true believers will be caught up in the air with [Jesus] and taken to heaven, while all non-believers are left on earth to suffer the torments of the tribulation. The seven years of tribulation will be worse than anything the world has previously seen. Terrifying signs will appear in the skies. The sun will be darkened and earthquakes will spread devastation throughout the world. Stars will fall from the sky and lakes will turn to blood.

During this awful period, a man described in the New Testament as the "Antichrist" will arise as a powerful political leader. He will appear at first to be wise, peace-loving and benevolent and will win the hearts and minds of most of the world's people. But with the help of a religious "False Prophet" he will later seek to control the entire world and will set up his political headquarters in the Jewish temple at Jerusalem. His number will be 666 and these three digits will control the lives of the world's masses. The number will have to be worn or even tattooed on one's forehead in order to buy or sell anything. Those who resist his authority will be put to death. During his reign, many persons will realize what has happened to the Christians who disappeared at the rapture and will long to be in heaven with them. Many, including large numbers of Jews, will be converted to Christ and will await his final appearance as the Messiah. But before he comes, the terrible conflicts of the tribulation will culminate in the mightiest military battle the world has ever seen.

The Battle of Armageddon will be fought on the plains of Megiddo outside Jerusalem. Some 200 million soldiers commanded by the Kings of the East . . . will prepare an assault on Jerusalem. But at the decisive moment of the battle, Christ will return to earth with the believers who were raptured. Leading his army in the bloody fray, Jesus will vanquish the invaders. The Antichrist and his False Prophet will be cast into the lake of fire. Satan will be bound in a bottomless pit and the long-awaited millennium will begin. For a thousand years, Christ and the raptured Christians will reign. Wars will cease and the world will know true peace for the first time since the fall of Adam. The lion will lie down with the lamb and the people will beat swords into plowshares. As this blissful millennium draws to a close, God will allow Satan to come out of the pit and tempt the believers who accepted Christ after the rapture. A portion of them will prove to be backsliders and God will cast them, along with Satan, into the same lake of fire where the Antichrist and the False Prophet had been thrown a thousand years earlier. All of them will remain in the lake of fire for an eternity of constant torment. After that, the earth will be consumed in fire and will be replaced by a new heaven and a new earth where those redeemed by Christ will live with him forever.
(From Robert Baldwin, “The End of the World: A Catholic View,” Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 1984, pp. 35-37.)

Have you heard this scenario before?

If you’ve read any of the “Left Behind” books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins (which, incidentally, are best sellers); if you saw the movie “Left Behind” with Kirk Cameron (who many years ago starred in the hit comedy series “Growing Pains”. Remember him?); or if you’ve listened to evangelical or fundamentalist preachers on radio and TV from time to time, then you’ve no doubt encountered this scenario before (perhaps with some slight variations).

And you’ve wondered whether this is something that Catholics also believe.

Well, today I will clarify the matter for you in this homily.

First of all, does the Catholic Church teach that there will be a “rapture” before Jesus comes again at the end of time?

The answer is No!

The key biblical text for those who believe this false doctrine is the one we heard in our second reading today—this passage from 1 Thessalonians 4. There St. Paul says, “Indeed, we tell you this, on the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself, with the word of command, with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God, will come down from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord.”

The authors of the “Left Behind” books—Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins—and those who believe as they do—would say that this text refers to the “rapture of the church,” which will take place before the “tribulation” and all those other events that Robert Baldwin describes in that writing I shared with you at the beginning of my homily.

The Catholic Church would say that this passage of the Bible does not refer to a “rapture” at all; rather, it refers to the end of the world—the parousia—the second coming of Christ, which will take place at the consummation of human history. St. Paul is making the point that those who happen to be alive when Jesus comes again (and who are living in the state of grace) will have no advantage over those who have already died in that state. According to Paul, all those who end their earthly lives in a condition of friendship with God will witness the second coming and will live forever with Jesus in his kingdom.

Neither does the Church believe in a literal thousand year reign of Jesus here on earth: a reign which will come after the rapture and precede the end of the world!

This erroneous belief—which the Catechism calls “millenarianism”—is rooted in a misinterpretation of biblical passages like Revelation 20, verses 1-3, where we read, “Then I saw an angel come down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the abyss and a great chain. He seized the dragon, the ancient serpent, which is the Devil and Satan, and tied it up for a thousand years and threw it into the abyss, which he locked over it and sealed, so that it could no longer lead the nations astray until the thousand years are completed. After this, it is to be released for a short time.”

Revelation 20 goes on to speak of this thousand years as a time when Christians—especially Christian martyrs—will rule with Jesus here on earth.

The Catholic Church, following the thought of the great St. Augustine, teaches that this “thousand year reign” of Christ on earth that we read about in Revelation 20 is actually a symbolic reference to the age of the Church (the time we’re living in right now!): that is to say, to the period of time between the “chaining up of Satan” (which occurred at Easter, when Jesus rose from the dead, victorious over the devil and the forces of evil), and the end of the world. During this long period of time (which has already lasted almost 2,000 years) Christ’s faithful people actually do “reign” with their Lord here on earth—through baptism and a life of faith. In other words, by the power of the risen Christ, they conquer temptation and sin and evil in their lives. A convert said to me a couple of weeks ago: “Fr. Ray, ever since I was baptized last year, my life has been so different. I deal with my problems in a much better way than I did before I knew Jesus and became Catholic.”

This man said that because he is currently “reigning” with Christ on earth as a believing member of the Church. His faith is helping him to conquer his anger, his impatience, and all those other emotions that used to get the better of him before he was baptized.

Every Catholic is supposed to “reign” with Jesus here on earth in the very same way.

Let me end my homily this morning by briefly outlining for you the Catholic understanding of death, judgment and the end of the world (because all of these ideas are tied together).

The Church teaches, first of all, that when we die, our souls are separated from our bodies. If we’re in the state of mortal sin, our souls go to hell; if we’re in the state of grace, our souls go either to heaven (if they’re ready), or to purgatory, where they remain until their final purification is complete.

At some point in the future, Jesus “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead”—as we say in the Creed every Sunday. This is the event St. Paul is talking about in our second reading from 1 Thessalonians 4 (as I mentioned a few moments ago). It’s also the event that Jesus is referring to in the parable of the 10 virgins, which we heard in today’s Gospel reading.

This second coming of Christ will take place at the end of human history. No one, of course, knows when this end will occur. But we do know that before it happens, there will be some kind of final trial that the world will have to undergo. (On this point we agree with our fundamentalist and evangelical friends.) Among other things, this trial will involve some type of religious deception which will be orchestrated by the person the Bible refers to as “the Antichrist.”

In the midst of this turmoil, God will intervene through the second coming of Jesus, and the world as we know it will come to an end. The dead will rise and be reunited with their bodies, and the Final Judgment will take place. (This, by the way, will not be a “second chance” for those who were condemned to hell when they physically died. For them, God’s declaration of damnation will simply be reiterated.)

When the Final Judgment is complete, the damned will go off to eternal punishment in hell, and the just will go to heaven—soul and body—to live with Jesus forever. And purgatory will cease to exist (because no more souls will need to pass through it.)

That’s the Church’s teaching on death, judgment and the end of the world, given to us in the name of Jesus himself. It tells a story that we will all be a part of at some point in the future. By the grace of God, may we be like St. Paul and the 5 wise virgins in today’s Gospel parable, so that for us the story will have a happy ending.