The “Rapture”?

The “Rapture”?

This piece was originally featured in the Southern Nebraska Register’s “Ask the Register” column on May 5, 2023, which can be found here.

Q. I’m confused about the verses in the New Testament that say we’ll be “caught up together . . . in the clouds” with others who are “in Christ” to “meet the Lord in the air.” Some of my non-Catholic Christian friends believe these verses refer to the “rapture” at the end of time. I’ve heard of the “rapture,” but not from Catholic teaching. Can someone explain??

A. This is a great question that connects a number of important matters—e.g., the difference between various Christian understandings of the “second coming” of Christ, and the final location of those who belong to Christ.

The verses you mention are found in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17

16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord (emphasis added).

In fact, these verses have been interpreted in a similar way by many non-Catholics and Catholics alike, though for different reasons. Since I was a non-Catholic once (now a still-young, 12-year convert), I’ll begin by explaining the non-Catholic interpretation you’ve encountered. (Although as you might expect, there’s not just one non-Catholic interpretation of such biblical puzzlers.)

A large portion of non-Catholic Christians understand these verses to refer to that moment when Christ comes at the end of time to “transport” the faithful from earth “up” into heaven. As you know from your friends, this event has come to be called the “rapture”—God’s whisking everyone away to heaven—which, it is hoped, will take place before all the distress caused by the pagans and by Satan and his demons, as well as by the great and terrible judgment God then brings upon them all as he burns up the earth and throws it away in the rubbish bin of history.

This view has a long pedigree—at least as far back as the early 20th century. But it was popularized among non-Catholic Christians in the 70s and 80s, first with a song written by Larry Norman, whom many regard as the father of Christian Rock ‘n’ Roll: “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” (from the album “Upon This Rock,” 1969). Larry’s haunting lyrics imagine the “rapture” of all the faithful:

A man and wife asleep in bed; she hears a noise and turns her head, he’s gone . . .
Two men walking up a hill, one disappears and one’s left standing still.
There’s no time to change your mind, the Son has come and you’ve been left behind
(I wish we’d all been ready ...)

As mournfully as the song is sung by Larry’s beautiful tenor voice, it represents a misreading of biblical texts like Matthew 24:40: “Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left” (emphasis added). The previous verses (37-39) make clear that the one who is left behind in verse 40 is the one in good standing, set to enjoy eternity with God in a newly cleansed and restored creation, while the other is taken away to judgement and separation from God, not “raptured to heaven.”

But misreadings of Scripture are interesting, and often gain quite a lot of traction. Sometimes they spawn elaborate multimedia franchises, like “Left Behind,” the magnum opus of Tim Lahaye and Jerry B. Jenkins (16 volumes and numerous adaptations for the big screen, variously starring actors as famous as Nicholas Cage and Kirk Cameron).

So goes [one of] the non-Catholic version[s] of the last chapter of the great story of our faith.

Many—not all—Catholics come to this discussion from a different place, though you may see some similarities. We Catholics talk about something we call the “beatific vision” which the faithful will enjoy at the end of all things—that perfect communion with God, in which we get to behold him in his essence; as he truly is. And we Catholics concentrate less on how we get there (being “raptured away,” or whatever), and more on the dwelling place itself, and on the conditions of it—beautifully blissful and blessed (hence ‘beatific’).

But notice how the end result in these two basic summaries is the same: we’re whisked away from this physical, embodied life into a spiritual reality with no physical aspect to the experience. As Scott Hahn once quipped in a lighter moment, we tend to imagine ourselves merely as disembodied souls sitting on clouds in an eternal staring contest with our Lord and with the saints.

Well, we (along with Scott) should see this as a problem for both of these accounts—the non-Catholic’s and the Catholic’s alike. The problem is that in both, God apparently abandons his physical creation which he called “very good” on page one (Genesis 1:31).

Happily, there is an alternative interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 which matches up much more nicely with what we find about ‘the end of all things’ in our beloved Catechism (see especially §§1042-1050). It goes like this: As Christ “descends” from heaven (notice the direction of his movement in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 is toward us; that is, toward the physical, created realm called “very good”), those who are still alive will join the resurrected righteous dead to go out, as citizens of the city toward which the victorious king is finally returning after a long battle, to greet him (“in the air”) and accompany him back to stay. “And so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:17).

Notice how beautifully this understanding of St. Paul’s words about our Lord’s descent in 1 Thessalonians makes sense of St. John’s words in Revelation 21:2-3:

And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (emphasis added).

This is truly good news, not only for human souls, but for the “very good” physical world that God made.