I used to work in a parish religious education office, and once when I was at that job, a parishioner asked me when the rapture would happen. If you don’t know what the rapture is, it’s basically the idea that true Christians will be saved from the worldwide tribulation that will precede the consummation of human history and the coming of the new creation foretold in the final chapters of the book of Revelation. This belief postulates that Jesus is going to come and take his followers to heaven with him so they can escape that tribulation, leaving everybody else to suffer through it. Now, when this person asked me about it, I was initially surprised, but then after a few moments, I realized that the question actually wasn't as odd as I thought it was.
See, the rapture is a Protestant idea; we Catholics don't believe in it. In fact, even most Protestants don't believe in it. The belief is barely a few hundred years old, and it's found mainly in American strands of Protestantism. In other countries, the idea isn't nearly as pervasive as it is here. And that's why I was surprised at this woman's question. I expected that a Catholic would know that the rapture isn't a Catholic belief. However, after a few moments, it dawned on me that the idea is so pervasive in American Christianity (which is largely Protestant) that of course it would seep into certain Catholic circles. It shouldn't have surprised me at all that a Catholic would hear so much about it that he would just assume it was a basic tenet of Christianity like the Trinity or the Incarnation.
So why don't we Catholics believe in it? The basic reason is that it's not taught in Scripture. Of course, believers in the rapture claim it is, but if we look at the evidence they marshal, it's not very convincing. So let's take a look at what in my experience are the two passages most commonly brought up in its defense and see why they fail to prove this dubious doctrine.
Who Will Be Taken?
First, we have one from the Gospel of Matthew. When teaching about the end times, Jesus said:
Then two men will be in the field; one is taken and one is left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and one is left. (Matthew 24:40-41)
Believers in the rapture argue that in each of these examples, the one taken is a Christian who is raptured up to heaven, and the one left will remain on earth to suffer the great tribulation. At first, that may seem pretty convincing, but let's look at what Jesus said right before this:
As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of man. (Matthew 24:37-49)
Once we understand the context of Jesus' teaching, we can see that he was actually saying something very different than what believers in the rapture think. He compared the end times to the time right before the great flood, and he said that the ones taken at the end would be like the people who were killed in the flood. And who was killed in the flood? It was the unrighteous, not the godly. Consequently, when Jesus said that some people would be "taken," he wasn’t talking about the faithful; rather, he was talking about the ungodly. Simply put, he was talking about judgment upon sinners, not the rescue of Christians.
The other most common passage used to support belief in the rapture comes from one of St. Paul's letters:
For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall 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. (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17)
Again, this passage looks like it clearly teaches the rapture, but let's dig a bit deeper. The main problem here is the timing. Nothing in this passage implies that this is going to happen before any sort of great tribulation. There's no indication in the text that these people are going to be rescued from suffering. Instead, Paul says that they are going to be "caught up" to the Lord right after the resurrection of the dead, which means that it's going to happen immediately before the consummation of human history and the ushering in the of the new creation (on the timing of the resurrection, see 1 Corinthians 15:20-28).
An Ancient Custom
So if the passage isn't talking about the rapture, what does Paul mean when he says that Christians who are alive at Jesus' coming will "be caught up together...in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air"? He's referring to a popular custom in ancient times. Back in his day, when important people would visit cities, they would often be met by people from those cities while they were still on their way. In other words, people would leave their homes and go meet these important visitors and then accompany them back to the city (this is what happened on Palm Sunday when people went out to meet Jesus as he entered Jerusalem). And if we read Paul's words through this lens, they make perfect sense. Jesus is coming to earth, so the faithful (both living and departed) will go out to meet him while he's still on his way and then accompany him as he arrives here.1
Granted, Paul doesn't explicitly spell this all out, but he didn't have to. Unlike us 21st century Americans, his original audience would've been familiar enough with the custom that they didn't need him to spell it all out for them. Once he said that the faithful would meet Jesus on his way down from heaven, his readers would've been able to figure out the rest for themselves. The custom was part of the cultural air they breathed, so they would've instinctively known what he was talking about.
The Basic Idea
There's a ton more we could say about this topic. The doctrine of the rapture is tied up with a whole host of other questions regarding the end times, and we could spend all day talking about that entire complex of issues. Nevertheless, the basic idea is straightforward enough: Catholics don't believe in the rapture. We don't believe that Christians will be taken up to heaven and rescued from the great tribulation that will precede the consummation of human history and the coming of the new creation, and we have a very good reason for this. It's simply not a biblical idea, and the passages that are often brought up in its defense can be easily explained in other, more convincing ways.
1) Ben Witherington, Jesus, Paul, and the End of the World: A Comparative Study in New Testament Eschatology (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 158.