Protestants talk a lot about the “rapture” and the “tribulation.” What are these things and what is the Catholic belief about them?
Let’s take the “tribulation” first. The tribulation is a time of intense suffering and persecution that will take place around the time of the Second Coming of Christ. Most Protestants from fundamentalist denominations believe that Jesus will spare his elect (or his “chosen people”) from this tribulation by “rapturing” them before the tribulation begins. Supposedly, Christ will appear in the clouds and raise the souls of the elect up into the sky with him where He will reign in a sort of parallel kingdom while the unlucky ones are left to toil on earth and suffer the wrath of the anti-Christ. If you are one of the ones “left behind” (remember the books that were so popular?), then there is still a chance for you, if you come to faith in Christ during the tribulation.
Many Protestants anxiously await this rapture, and their hope is rooted in it. It is indeed a comforting thought to know that one does not having to undergo any persecution as the world reaches its culmination … but it’s not Biblical and it’s not what Catholics believe.
While we can be sure that there will be a tribulation in the end times, the Church also teaches that everyone alive will experience it, even the elect. This is stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 675-677) and clearly seen in the 24th chapter of Matthew’s gospel. Matthew also tells us that Jesus will come after the tribulation, not before (cf. Mt 24:29-31).
As for the rapture, Catholics do believe that at the end of time, human souls will “meet the Lord in the air” (cf. 1 Thes 4:17), but we don’t believe that this will take place in order to spare the elect from the tribulation. Instead, we believe that this meeting will take place between God and every soul that has ever lived, and it will be for the purpose of the “final judgment” (or the “general judgment”). When Jesus comes again the souls of all mankind will be reunited with their bodies and the works of every single person will be revealed to all. In this way, everyone will know why some souls received heaven and others hell, and the mercy and justice of God will be vindicated.
In other words, this “meeting the Lord in the air” (and similar verses that Protestants use to defend the rapture) actually explain what will take place in the final judgment. This can get complicated, but there are some good Catholic books on this topic that are very helpful. I suggest Will Catholics Be Left Behind? by Carl Olson, and The Rapture Trap by Paul Thigpen.
Peace of Christ to you,
Nicholas Hardesty, WIMM Board Member Director of Religious Education, Blessed Mother Catholic Church
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