Apocalypse Now?

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

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Recently a student at one of our campus ministry gatherings asked what Catholics believe about “the Rapture.” That term is often used to refer to the time when all the faithful will be caught up to be with Christ at His second coming, as described in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17. Though Catholics don’t often use the term “rapture” to describe the event, we certainly believe it will happen.

What we are talking about is the end times, which all Christians agree will involve the second coming of Christ. But among evangelical Protestants there is much discussion and disagreement over the timing of these events. For those who are interested in learning more, this article from Catholic Answers summarizes the major schools of thought. What most today understand by the term “rapture” involves a timeline first put forth in the 19th century by an Anglican priest named John Nelson Darby, who was an early proponent of what would later be called dispensationalism. His theology of the end times was included in the Scofield Reference Bible, which was popular among many Protestants in England and America, and so has crept into the thinking of Protestants of all denominations.

All Christians agree that the second coming of Christ will be preceded by a time of great trouble and persecution, often called the “tribulation.” What Darby taught was that the rapture would occur before this time of trouble, sparing true believers the pain of persecution. This view has never been accepted by the Catholic Church. Part of the problem with Dabry’s theology is that it would mean Christ would have three comings, not two: one at the Incarnation, a second at the rapture, and a third at the end of the tribulation. The Church has always understood that there would be a second and final coming of Christ at the end of time, period.

But when will that happen? All these different theories stem from a desire to know the answer to that question. This is nothing new. In our gospel reading this Sunday, Jesus is asked, “Teacher, when will this happen? And what sign will there be when all this is about to happen” (Lk 21:7)? Jesus affirms in His answer that we should expect tribulation in the last days. But He gives no information about the timing. Rather, Jesus warns, “See that you not be deceived. Many will come in my name, saying… ‘The time has come!’ Do not follow them” (Lk 21:8)!

Elsewhere in the gospels, when Jesus is asked about the end of the world, He bluntly states that “about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mt 24:36). The Catholic position has always been to follow these admonitions of Jesus and to avoid getting caught up in specific predictions.

In a way, our curiosity about the end times is understandable. Events that are out of our control (and the end of the world certainly qualifies!) cause frustration, anxiety and even fear. Knowledge gives us the illusion of control. But knowing the day and hour would not give us the power to change those events. If anything, it would make us less inclined to prepare ourselves to meet Christ.

The owner of a factory who knows the day OSHA inspectors will arrive won’t feel the need to get his factory in order until the day before. But if he thinks the inspectors may arrive at any time, he’ll strive to be always ready. This is how we should be when it comes to our readiness for the coming of Christ. None of us know when our personal “end time” will be. But it will happen to all of us. As the psalmist says, “Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty for those who are strong” (Ps 90:10). Our time on this earth is limited.

Christ’s message whenever He is asked about the end is always be ready now! We don’t have to wait until the end of time to experience tribulation. The wars and plaques and famines Jesus warns of are all happening in the world all the time. We do not have to wait “to be hated by all” because of Jesus’ name (Lk 21:17). There will always be forces in the world contrary to the gospel.

Jesus implores us to persevere. “Not a hair on your head will be destroyed” (Lk 21:18). We must remain faithful to Him and He gives us the strength to do this. This is true for Christians of all ages, not only the final age.

In a sense, all ages since that first advent two millennia ago are the final age. As we approach the ending of the liturgical year, the Church reminds us of this reality. We live in hope of Christ’s second coming, when He will usher us into the fullness of the glory of His resurrection. Are you prepared for that day?