One of the most popular items on the Christian section of your local bookstore is the “Left Behind” series of books. This set of twelve books portrays what things will be like in the end times, and depends for its imagery on the authors’ interpretation of the bible’s Book of Revelation. The end time, as the books describe, will be a time of judgment, with horrific terror in store for the unfaithful. For those faithful, the remnant, there awaits the great “rapture,’ spelling eternal happiness. But what is the “rapture,” so often spoken of by many evangelical Christians, but not a part of the vocabulary of Catholic Christians?
The rapture is not mentioned anywhere in the bible. It is a word that means an exhilarating or thrilling experience. The word seems to have originated in a footnote in a famous Protestant study bible, describing a passage from the New Testament that says “Then we, the living, the survivors, will be caught up with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thessalonians 4:17). This particular study bible was used for so many years that the word “rapture” came to be the term that was used to sum up the wondrous experiences in store for those faithful who would survive the judgment of the end times. The concept of a rapture also became intermingled with literal interpretations of the Book of Revelation, resulting in preaching that emphasized the security and confidence of knowing that you are saved, the eager anticipation of the heavenly rapture, and, of course, the horrors that await the damned.
Why do Catholics not speak of the rapture? Perhaps we would if we had used the same study bible for so many years. In addition, we certainly believe in the concepts of final judgment, heaven and hell - that we are responsible before God and before others for our human decisions, and that there are consequences for those decisions. However, as our liturgy indicates time and again, we do not view salvation as our waiting anxiously for the end times, while patiently enduring the here-and-now. For Catholic Christians the world around us is not something fundamentally evil, something that we can’t wait to escape in order to be “taken up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” The world around us is holy, because the holy God created it. The world around us nourishes us on the journey to meet the Lord. The world around us is the place where we can encounter the God of mystery in countless ways. We dare not be passive on the journey, in any way smug because we have been saved. But we do not need to warn others of their impending damnation, as some fundamentalist Christians seem to do.
In addition, the Roman Catholic position is that we do not interpret the bible literally. There is an inherent danger in using biblical proof texts - taking certain passages out of the bible, often out of context, and proposing them as proof of what we believe. We have seen what happens in the course of history, when, for example, people give literal interpretation to the Book of Revelation. Christians have attempted to match the symbolic and metaphorical imagery in this book to current events in the news, or have attempted time and again to see in these scriptures a prediction of when the world will end. Perhaps most of these conclusions were good -willed, but misled. The scriptures must always be understood in their authentic context, or there is the risk that the real meaning will be lost. As renowned scripture scholar Fr. Eugene Laverdiere remarks, the fundamentalist or literal approach to understanding the scriptures is not a particular interpretation of the bible, but rather it is the lack of any interpretation, for the words are accepted only at face value.