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The Last Days Maze: Catholics and the Last Things

By Carl E. Olson
What do Catholics believe—and not believe—about the end of the world?

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Beliefs about the “end times” are both numerous and confusing. What exactly do Catholics believe will happen at the end of time? According to the Catholic Church, what really is going to happen—or not happen—in the final moments of history? Will Christ literally return? Will there be a Great Tribulation and a Battle of Armageddon? Will there be a “Rapture”? This is the first of a series of essays about Catholic eschatology—the doctrine of the “last things.”

“Do Catholics believe in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ?”

The question was asked in good faith by a Protestant friend. Apparently he had heard that Catholics do not expect Christ’s return, or perhaps he had surmised as much from what another Catholic had told him.

“We certainly do believe in the Second Coming,” I told him. “Every Sunday we recite the Creed and say ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead ...’”

“But you don’t believe in the Rapture” he objected.

“No,” I said, “at least not in the way that the term is understood today in America by most Christians.”

After a lengthy discussion of the issue, I emerged with a couple of undeniable impressions. First, there is a fair amount of confusion about what Catholics believe about the Second Coming and much confusion about what we believe about what are commonly called the “end times.” Secondly, the belief in the Rapture, which is so common and continues to enjoy incredible popularity among many Protestant groups and has carried over into some Catholic circles, is not only confusing for Catholics, it is rather confusing for many non-Catholic Christians as well.

My fascination with this topic goes back to my early childhood. I was raised in a fundamentalist home, where teachings about “biblical prophecy” and the rapidly approaching End Times were commonplace. While in junior high, I spent many hours pouring through the Book of Revelation, and, by the time I graduated from high school, I had participated in three Bible studies of the last book in the Bible. From those studies and from reading books like Hal Lindsey’s There’s A New World Coming and The Late, Great, Planet Earth, I had formed some strong opinions about the manner of Christ’s return and how the end of the world was going to take place.

These beliefs were part of a theological system called dispensationalism, which broke salvation history into different eras or “dispensations.” But, most importantly, we dispensationalists held particular views about the nature of the Church, the event known as the Rapture, and other events such as the Great Tribulation and Armageddon. We believed that Christ’s return would be prior to the Great Tribulation (pre-tribulational), a seven-year period of horrible destruction and suffering, and also before the Millennium (premillennial), the literal one-thousand-year reign of Christ on earth. Related to these beliefs was my conviction that the Catholic church was a false and apostate institution that had stripped the Book of Revelation of all meaning by failing to interpret it “literally.” This was, I concluded, just one of many signs of how deceived and deceiving the Catholic Church really was.

Eventually, through a lengthy series of events, I became Catholic, despite what I had believed as a child. Fundamentalists and evangelicals who examine the Catholic Church and develop a curiosity about her beliefs must wrestle with many difficult issues: authority, Mary, sacraments, the priesthood, and a host of others. But often ignored are matters of eschatology––what one believes about the end times or “last things.” David Currie, a former fundamentalist whose parents taught at Moody Bible Institute, an influential dispensationalist school, realized how significant this issue was because he had to deal with it in his journey into the Catholic Church. In his book Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic, in a chapter titled “Premillennialism and Eschatology,” Currie writes:

“When Colleen [his wife] and I decided that we would become Catholics, we discussed those issues that would be the hardest for certain friends to handle. For many, we knew it would be Mary. For others, it might be the pope. Others would be bothered by the thought of our submission to Catholic morals. She was surprised that I insisted that our departure from premillennialism would be the major stumbling block for certain clergy we knew. She was even more amazed when it turned out that I was correct.” (David Currie, Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996], p.179.)

My experience was quite similar to what Currie describes. I was drawn to the Catholic Church for a number of reasons: theological, philosophical, moral––even political. But what caused me the most significant anxiety, for quite some time, was the frightening thought that if the Catholic Church were wrong I would miss the Rapture and would have to endure seven years of Tribulation. It did not help that materials on the subject written from the Catholic perspective apparently did not exist, or so it seemed. While books and articles on the Eucharist, Mary, the pope, and even indulgences were easy to locate, reliable material on the Catholic view of the end times, the Rapture, the Anti-Christ, and the Tribulation were nearly impossible to find.

That is why, in part, I’ve decided to write a series of articles on this issue. Over the course of the next few weeks and months we will take a look at what the Catholic Church teaches (or doesn’t teach) about the end times, the Second Coming, the nature of the Kingdom, the Book of Revelation, the Millennium, the Rapture, the Tribulation, and much more. Our prayer is that of St. John: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20); as we wait in joyful expectation for that Coming, we will seek to learn more about it and the events surrounding it.

Copyright © 2000 Carl E. Olson.

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