Strictly speaking, Catholics do believe in a form of “rapture:” a bodily assumption into heaven of all the faithful, both living and dead, at Jesus' second and final coming and judgement. This will be preceded by the appearance of the Antichrist and an associated period of intense persecution of Christians known as the tribulation.
But there is a new and often very anti-Catholic idea of rapture that is now taking many evangelical and fundamentalist Protestant denominations by storm. It is absolutely foreign to the first seventeen centuries of Christianity (Catholic or Protestant), and made especially popular by recent books and movies like the infamous Left Behind series.
While this new concept of rapture comes in many varieties, it generally involves dividing Biblical history into a series of “dispensations” or periods, then adding a secret second coming of Jesus (before his Final Coming), where he will snatch believers bodily up to heaven, leaving all others behind to endure an intense, seven year tribulation initiated by the Antichrist. This will be followed by yet a third return and judgement, at which point Jesus will establish his Kingdom on earth for a period of 1,000 years. At the end of this earthly reign, there will be a final judgement and then the end of time as we know it.
Let’s take a closer look at the Biblical claims of this troubled teaching.
The Kingdom is here!
Rapturists claim God’s Kingdom on earth has not yet begun in any form, basing this on their interpretation of the thousand year reign of Christ described in Rv 20:4. They believe Jesus will begin a literal thousand year kingdom reign at a third coming, after the “rapture.”
But even a cursory reading of Scripture clearly reveals that Jesus already established his kingdom when he was on earth some 2,000 years ago. Perhaps the clearest evidence of this comes from Lk 17:20-21, where the Pharisees specifically asked Jesus when the kingdom of God was coming. He answered them: “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed… for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” In other words, it is here!
Similarly, in Mt 6:30-33, Jesus tells his followers not to worry about the worldly needs of daily life, but instead to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”
And in Mt 16:27, Jesus reveals that: “truly… there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom” (Mt 16:27). Here, Jesus is not talking about establishing his kingdom only in heaven, as some rapturists try to claim. Jesus’ “coming in his kingdom” will happen on earth in some form, and while some of these people he is talking to are still alive!
We aren’t waiting for a secret return of Jesus at the rapture, followed by yet a third return to inaugurate the beginning of the kingdom. The kingdom is already here!
Thousand year reign?
But what about Jesus’ thousand year reign spoken of in Rv 20:4? Rapturists argue that if Jesus really did establish his kingdom on earth when he first came some 2,000 years ago, it should be over by now. They insist this period of time must be a literal thousand years.
The Church would answer that Revelation is a highly symbolic book and uses numbers and periods of time symbolically throughout. The number of the beast, 666, in Rev 13:8 is a perfect example of this, as is the 144,000 of Rv 14:3-5 (think 12 tribes representing the Old Testament, multiplied by 12 Apostles representing the New Testament, multiplied by 1,000). One thousand is a Biblical number that typically represents large, unspecified amounts or periods of time.
Christians usually understand Jesus’ thousand year kingdom reign in Rv 20 as a symbolically long period of time instituted by Jesus at his first coming and happening right now.
One final coming of Jesus – and it will not be secret!
There will only be one final coming of Jesus, not two or three as some rapturists claim. Nowhere in Scripture does it speak about a third coming of Jesus, and his second and final coming certainly won’t be secret! In Lk 17:24 and Mt 24:27, Jesus states it clearly: “as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man.” No one will miss it!
Ironically, many key Scripture verses used to argue for a secret rapture clearly contradict such a concept. For example, 1 Cor 15:51-55 is an often-quoted rapture verse: “the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed… this perishable nature must put on the imperishable.” Note the reference to a trumpet sounding!
1 Thes 4:13-17 is another favourite secret rapture verse: “the Lord himself
will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s
call, and with the sound of the
trumpet of God.” There will be nothing secret about
Jesus’ second coming.
Stay tuned for my next column to find out why Catholics will definitely not be “left behind.”