The Rapture: Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?

Author Carl Olson on a Flawed Eschatology That Has Captivated Millions

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EUGENE, Oregon, JUNE 13, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Confusion about the Rapture, due to the popularity of the “Left Behind” series, is growing in Catholic and Protestant communities.

In response, Envoy magazine editor Carl Olson has recently written a new book entitled “Will Catholics be ‘Left Behind’?” published by Ignatius Press to explain Catholic eschatology and Church teaching on the end times.

Olson, a convert from “dispensationalist” Protestantism, shared some key points from his book with ZENIT.

Q: What is meant by the Rapture? Where did this idea originate?

Olson: For millions of Americans, especially many fundamentalists and evangelical Protestants, the “Rapture” or “pre-tribulation Rapture,” is the fast-approaching secret and silent disappearance of Christians from the earth prior to a time of tribulation.

It is believed to be distinct from the Second Coming, and proponents claim this event is described in passages such as 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 and 1 Corinthians 15:51-52. The term “rapture” is taken from the Latin word “rapiemur,” used by St. Jerome for the Greek word in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 meaning “caught up” or “snatch away.”

Vague notions of such an event have been around for about three centuries, but the form that is so popular in North America originated in the 1830s in England with an ex-Anglican priest, John Nelson Darby [1800-1882].

Darby created an entire system of theology called pre-millennial dispensationalism, based on a radical separation between Old Testament Israel, described as God’s “earthly” people, and the New Testament Church, his “heavenly” people. The Rapture is the means by which God will remove the heavenly people from the world so that he can finish the work begun with his earthly people.

Darby’s ideas spread to North America in the late 1800s and were developed and systematized by a number of American fundamentalists, notably C.I. Scofield, Lewis Sperry Chafer and Charles Ryrie.

Dispensationalism’s popularity grew enormously in 1970 with the publication of Hal Lindsey’s best-selling “The Late Great Planet Earth,” and that popularity continues today, as evidenced by the “Left Behind” novels, created by noted fundamentalist Tim LaHaye, which have now sold about 50 million copies.

Q: Does the idea of the Rapture have any precedence in the history of Church doctrine?

Olson: Not as it has been articulated by Darby and his modern dispensationalist disciples.

The idea of Christ returning two more times is not found in the early or medieval Church, and is of modern origin. Some dispensationalists do attempt to locate passages supporting their beliefs in ancient Church texts, but such attempts are highly subjective and selective, and ignore the larger context of those texts.

Catholics, along with the members of the Eastern Orthodox Church and most Protestants, believe that those alive at the Second Coming will be caught up to meet Christ in the air.

First Corinthians 15:52 refers to the “last trumpet,” a clear reference to the final trumpet that will sound at the Second Coming — as in Matthew 24:31 — so that passage cannot be referring to a Rapture event several years prior to the Second Coming. As many dispensationalists actually admit, their use of such passages is predicated upon their theological premises, leading to forced and inconsistent interpretations.

Q: Looking at various works of Catholic art, such as Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel, it would seem that Catholics believe in the Rapture. How would you respond to this claim?

Olson: As I noted, Catholics do believe in a rapture event, if by that we are referring to believers being caught up to meet Christ at the Second Coming, or Parousia — not several years prior.

Dispensationalists believe that the Last Judgment will not occur until the end of an earthly, millennial reign that follows the Second Coming. Millenarianism has been rejected by the Catholic Church.

Q: Some Catholics have been caught up in the “Left Behind” frenzy. How do you account for the popularity of these books, and how can the Church respond?

Olson: Being a former fundamentalist and dispensationalist, I was surprised to meet and hear of many Catholics, including some priests and directors of religious education in parishes, who were reading and recommending these books. It was one reason I wrote “Will Catholics Be ‘Left Behind’?”

I think the “Left Behind” books and dispensationalism are popular for many reasons: They are exciting and sensational, they seem to make sense of difficult sections of Scripture such as the book of Revelation, they appear to predict approaching global events, and they suggest or even promise that the end of the world is upon us.

Some readers of the “Left Behind” series aren’t interested in the theological vision of the books, but many others believe that the events described in the book, including the Rapture, are biblically based.

It is quite exciting to think that you probably won’t have to suffer and die like others because you’ll be taken up from the earth in the near future. There is also the exhilaration of supposedly possessing special knowledge about what will happen in the approaching months and years.

There is an attitude among many Catholics, including some leaders, that millenarian beliefs such as dispensationalism are part of a “fringe” element that need not be taken very seriously. This is a mistake, as can be seen in the number of Catholics who leave the Church for fundamentalist groups, or remain Catholic but accept beliefs about the Church, the Kingdom and the end times that are not compatible with Catholic teaching.

I’ve found that a large number of Catholics have little or no idea what the Church affirms or rejects in the realm of general eschatology. There is a need for better catechesis, for homilies that address these issues when appropriate, and for leaders and educators who are sensitive to the attraction of these books and the questions they raise.

Q: How can your book help Catholics and non-Catholics understand this issue better?

Olson: My book has three major goals: to provide needed historical and theological context to beliefs about the end times, to critique the errors of the “left behind” theology, and to present a Catholic perspective on general eschatology, salvation history, the Church, the Kingdom and interpreting Scripture.

In critiquing dispensationalism, I examine its historical and theological origins, and respond to the biblical arguments used by its leading proponents and theologians. Some chapters address the book of Revelation, the millennium and the history of millenarian movements.

The book is exhaustively footnoted, but the main text is written in an accessible style so that readers with little or no theological training can learn more about these topics and better understand how to respond to the “Left Behind” books as well as better appreciate the Catholic vision of salvation history and eschatological events.

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