Q — The movie “Left Behind,” starring Nicholas Cage, is due for release Oct. 3. When that movie comes out I know it will lead to a lot of questions from teenagers and parishioners of all ages. Why do Catholics not believe in “The Rapture,” and what do they believe about the “end times”?

A —Catholics believe there are three Advents of Christ. The first is the Incarnation of the Word in the womb of Mary. The second is his present coming in Word and Sacrament. The third is his future coming, when God will be all in all; Parousia, the Greek word for this, literally means “arrival” or “presence.”  

Science speculates about the end of the world in physical terms. Christian faith proclaims that what is ultimate is not physical, but the will and purpose of God. For a Catholic Christian the key issues are three: trust in the utter faithfulness of God; trust in the whole event of Jesus, climaxing in his death resurrection and ascension, as the Sacrament of God’s unbounded love; and three, the Eucharist as the anticipation of God’s final purposes for creation.

People talk about the “end times” in various ways, for example, about “Armageddon.” The name — derived from Megiddo, the most famous battlefield of ancient Israel — became a by-word for major chaotic and critical conflict.  An English equivalent might be “Meeting your Waterloo.” It’s a way of speaking, a form of words.

In answer to the question, “Will there be no conflict before the End?” one could not do better than consult the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 675, which insists that the real conflict is in our hearts and souls, in our putting something else in God’s place.

What about the 1,000-year reign of Christ? We read in Revelation 20:1-2 about an angel who bound a dragon for a “thousand years.” It’s symbolic language, not to be taken literally, meaning “a long time.”  So what does it mean for us as Catholics?  It means that we are in the time period between the binding of Satan through Christ’s victory, and Christ’s coming in glory.

What is “the Rapture” all about? Usually two New Testament passages are referred to: first, the Gospel of St. Matthew 24:40-41:  “Then two will be left in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.  Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left;” second, 1 Thessalonians 4:17: “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with (those who have died) to meet the Lord in the air…” Some Christians read these passages in a very literalist fashion, so that at the end of time — what we have been calling the Parousia — the just will be plucked by God from the earth.

Evangelist Jerry Falwell once said: “You’ll be riding along in an automobile; when the trumpet sounds, you and the other born-again believers in that automobile will be instantly caught away — you will disappear, leaving behind only your clothes… That unsaved person or persons in the automobile will suddenly be startled to find the car moving along without a driver.”

For a Catholic, this kind of understanding of the parousia is very problematic. In the first place, it seems to imply a normally absent Christ, whereas we believe in a very present Christ, the Christ whose Body is the Church and who comes in Word and Sacrament, especially the Eucharist. In the second place, this way of thinking does not seem to be the understanding of God, for example, in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The father in that parable is a figure of God the father welcoming his errant children home, not “rapturing” the good ones, and destroying the sinners. One Protestant New Testament scholar, Robert Jewett, says the “higher rapture” is the Eucharist, live-out in reconciliation and unity.

The real message for Catholics is this: “Be ready for the final meeting with the Lord!” The message is about being ready for the End and for our own ending. This “rapture” language is to be taken seriously, but not literally. It draws attention to making a fundamental decision for the Kingdom of God so that at the glorious coming of Christ, and at our own coming to Christ, we will be found ready.

What will the End be like?    In the Gospels, Jesus talks about this. But remember that while these texts have their origin in Jesus, they have been reflected upon by the earliest Christians. They are more like a compilation of sayings about the End. Second, in their present form, they are written after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.  Jesus’ sayings are recalled through this awful experience. And these sayings have been recorded after the terrible persecution of the Roman Christians by the Emperor Nero in the mid 60s. The sayings reflect these experiences and are couched in what is known as “apocalyptic language.”  

“Apocalyptic” comes from the Greek verb apokalyptein, which means “to reveal.”
When we take these sayings seriously but not literally, we understand the thinking of the times. Theologian Keith Ward says the apocalyptic passages of the New Testament express an expectation that at any moment  humans as a whole would be transfigured by the radiance of the divine beauty, aware that everything that once concerned them was petty indeed. 

When will the End come? The short answer is, “No one knows.” In the year 418, Hesychius, Bishop of Salonae, wrote to St. Augustine of Hippo, about “signs of the End.” Hesychius noted drought and earthquakes in Palestine and N. Africa, plus an eclipse of the sun. Augustine’s reply may be summarized in these words: “As to wars, when has not the earth been scourged by them at different periods and places?  To pass over to remote history, when the barbarians were everywhere invading Roman provinces in the reign of Gallienus [260-268], how many of our brothers who were then alive do we think could have believed that the end was near, since this happened long after the Ascension of the Lord!  Thus, we do not know what the nature of those signs will be when the end is really near at hand… It seems to me that a man does not go wrong when he knows that he does not know something, but only when he thinks he knows something which he does not know.”

The writer is a faculty member at Mount Angel Seminary in St. Benedict, Ore., and an author. Questions for him can be submitted at catholicsentinel.org, or emailed directly to sentinel@catholicsentinel.org