Common ground on the subject of the Second Coming of Christ? Hmm… let’s see, do Evangelical Christians believe that Jesus is coming again? YES! Do Catholics believe that Jesus is coming again? YES! Is “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom will have no end” a line from the Creed that all of us can recite in hearty, full-throated unison? YES!!
I don’t usually get to line up that many yeses….
However (you knew that was coming, didn’t you?), the Second Coming is a subject that has given rise to more confusion between Evangelicals and Catholics than almost any other, with neither side really clear on what the other side believes. Why in the world would that be?
Blame the secret rapture doctrine.
Christians for 1800 years were agreed upon the subject of the Second Coming. It was one of the truths of the Faith that Protestants appropriated when they severed their ties with the Catholic Church. Christians agreed that of course the Lord Jesus would return at the end of the world to judge the living and the dead. Martin Luther knew nothing about a “rapture;” his understanding of the Second Coming was the traditional interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:15-18:
For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.
From that passage Luther understood that at the Second Coming, Jesus will descend from Heaven to judge the living and the dead, who will rise to meet Him. Like Luther, John Calvin taught his fellow believers to await the Second Coming, when the Lord will descend from Heaven with a shout, and the dead in Christ will rise first. He anticipated no separate “rapture” event of believers seven years before the Second Coming. Neither did Zwingli, or Knox, or Wesley. When Handel composed “The Messiah,” the stirring lyrics to “The Trumpet Shall Sound!” conjured up no visions of anybody getting “left behind,” for the simple reason that the doctrine of the secret rapture hadn’t been invented yet!
It wasn’t until the 19th century that the concept of a separate “rapture,” a secret one in which Christians are caught up out of the chaos unleashed in Revelation 6, began to be promoted by a Protestant group known as the Plymouth Brethren. While mainline Protestant denominations distance themselves from the secret rapture, the idea did catch on among the Baptists, charismatics and nondenoms. Many American Evangelical denominations have made it an integral part of their theology (Corrie ten Boom went so far as to decry it as “the American doctrine.”) Evangelicals are serious about it. At the Baptist academy my children attended, teachers were required to sign a statement declaring themselves to be in agreement with this belief. Literally millions of Evangelicals believe that one day they will disappear, leaving the rest of humanity – those “left behind” – to face the horrors of the Anti-Christ’s rule. The fact that the secret, pre-tribulational rapture is a novel theological proposition does not faze Evangelicals one whit, for to them it is “the clear teaching of Scripture” – not as clear as they might like, though, for Evangelical pastors are badly divided over the specifics of the doctrine which is supposedly so clear. Prophecy conferences are held to indoctrinate believers into all the various nuances of the theory, books are written to popularize the notion, and movies are made, to the embarrassment of more traditionally-minded Christians.
The people who developed this theory of the secret rapture found it plausible because they found implausible the concept of the Lord allowing His people to undergo the suffering of the Last Days. They then read Scripture through this “God would never allow His people to suffer through the Tribulation” lens, and concluded that the verses in 1 Thessalonians 4 must refer to an event prior to the Second Coming. Reading the rapture into all passages dealing with the End Times, they found what they thought was the “comfort” that St. Paul was referring to: “comfort one another with these words.” This is why Corrie ten Boom, Holocaust survivor and Christian evangelist, so hated the doctrine; she felt that believers were being misled into thinking that they were among some privileged group who would not be allowed to suffer. When suffering eventually reared its ugly head, especially in the form of persecution in countries where Evangelical missionaries taught the secret rapture doctrine, shocked adherents apostatized, thinking that they had been deceived by what they thought was the Christian message.
Ask a believer to show you where the Bible teaches the rapture doctrine, and you will be showered with verses; Matthew 24:30-36 and 40-41, John 14:1-3, Acts 1:9-11, 1 Corinthians 15:51-52, Philippians 3:20-21 and 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 will most likely be presented. Look those verses up, and you’ll note that all of them seem to be referring to the Second Coming. That’s because they are. Adherents are taught to read the secret rapture doctrine into these verses; once they do, those verses are supposed to “prove” that the secret rapture will occur 7 years (or 3-1/2 years – depends on who’s doing the preaching) before Christ comes again in glory.
The important thing to remember when discussing the Second Coming with an Evangelical is that when you express doubts concerning the secret rapture of believers, he will most likely hear you saying that you do not believe that Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and dead. It is far more productive, in this case as in most cases, to explain to your friend what Catholics DO believe, rather than what we don’t, since he has probably heard a lot of hogwash concerning Catholic teaching. Catholics believe, and have always believed, that Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead! The Second Coming is a doctrine that Catholics and Protestants can agree on, even if the secret rapture theory – mere theological speculation, heavy on eisegesis and devoid of historicity – is not. Jesus is coming again – this is glorious, sobering news!
Catholics and Protestants need to take this seriously, join forces, and proclaim it to the world – leaving the secret rapture doctrine behind.
On the memorial of St. Blaise of Sebaste
Deo omnis gloria!