Understanding the end times

Question: A lot of my Protestant friends talk about the Rapture. Can you explain what this is and what is the Catholic approach to it? 

—Verona Dunn, Grand Rapids, Mich.

Answer: Rapture means literally “to seize, to take,” and for some Protestants it refers to a number of passages in the New Testament about the end of time. In the Gospel of Matthew we read: “Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one will be left. Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day the Lord will come” (24:40-42). In First Thessalonians we receive the admonition: “For the Lord himself with a word of command, with the voice of an archangel and the trumpet of God, will come down from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord” (4:16-17). 

Protestant adherents to the notion of the Rapture believe that at the end of time the saved will be spared all the upheavals of the end of history and will be lifted up to heaven, while the rest of humankind will stay on earth as the great tribulation breaks out. The evangelist Hal Lindsey states in his book “The Terminal Generation” (Bantam, $9.99): “I expect to be evacuated from this planet in a mysterious way before the worst part of this [tribulation] breaks loose.” Evangelical pastor Jerry Falwell explains: “You’ll be riding along in an automobile; when the trumpet sounds, you and the other born-again believers in that automobile will be instantly caught away — you will disappear, leaving behind only your clothes. ... The unsaved person or persons in the automobile will suddenly be startled to find the car moving along without a driver, and the car suddenly somewhere crashes.” 

The problem with this kind of interpretation is that Lindsey and Falwell draw out from the biblical imagery more specific information than is warranted. 

For the Catholic, the appropriate way to approach apocalyptic imagery in the Bible is to look at the broad picture and not obsess about the details. The fundamental message to which we should attend is that which undergirds all of Jesus’ preaching: Be vigilant about the coming of the Kingdom and act justly in the present. Stay awake! 

Non-Christian salvation 

Question: In a recent column you stated that non-Christians are probably saved by going first to purgatory. I’ve never heard of such a thing. Where did you get that kind of theology? 

— Name and address withheld

Answer: I don’t recall where I got it from; but I have been convinced of it for a long time. It seems to flow from the interconnection between the truths that all humankind is called to salvation; that salvation is being eternally with Christ; and that purgatory is the means by which those of good will who have never known Christ are conformed to him and to their own God-given destiny. 

A theory along the lines of what I sketched is found in the writing of Archbishop J. Augustine DiNoia, the secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, in his 1992 book, “The Diversity of Religions: A Christian Perspective” (Catholic University of America Press, $26.95). 

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to mfmannion@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.