In the beginning

Column: ‘Left Behind’ based on faulty reading of St. Paul

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

Several years ago, the “Left Behind” series of novels appeared. They take place in an apocalyptic future as interpreted by a branch of fundamentalist Protestantism and describe how various individuals would suddenly and mysteriously disappear in a phenomenon known as the Rapture.

Those individuals, the saved, would be headed for heaven. On the other hand, those unfortunate enough to be left behind would be headed for damnation. These events would prepare for the end of the world, for the second coming of Christ.

These fictional stories are based on a theory of evangelical Protestantism known as the Rapture. The word “rapture” derives from the Latin verb “raptire,” meaning “to catch up.” The verse that supplies the basis for this notion is found in this Sunday’s second reading, 1 Thes 4:13-18: “Then we, the living, the survivors, will be caught up with them in the clouds to meet the Lord.”

We should note that the theory of the Rapture only emerged relatively recently and is not held by all Protestants, much less by Catholics. It depends upon an interpretation of Scripture that does not bear up under close scrutiny.

Specifically, the scenario that St. Paul describes does not involve leaving behind unfortunates doomed to eternal damnation. Rather, St. Paul draws a distinction between those Christians already dead and those who would still be living at the time of Christ’s second coming. Because of the resurrection of the dead, those who had died would not suffer any disadvantage compared to those still living.

That is why St. Paul concludes this passage with the words: “Therefore, console one another with these words.” We should note that this passage is often used as a reading at funeral Masses, to console mourners with its teaching on the Resurrection.

St. Paul’s motive in writing remains crucial and offers a guide in evaluating other writings. He does not wish to terrify unbelievers with threats of eternal damnation, although he does elsewhere take that possibility seriously. Neither does he wish to make believers complacent in presuming their salvation or smug in regard to non-Christians. Rather, he wishes to console. This motive is the opposite of the “Left Behind” books.

That is a good criterion by which to judge writings on the end of the world, as well as writings on any religious topic. Do they wish to scare people, more in fitting with Halloween stories or slasher movies? Or, do they seek to build up the reader in faith, inspire in hope, and motivate us toward love of neighbor? We would not ingest a food whose primary effect is to make us miserable or engage in an activity that results only in our unhappiness. Why would we do the same when it comes to our religious faith?

Admittedly, following Christ will inevitably lead to some suffering. Our faith frequently will challenge us. At the same time, that is not the primarily goal. Rather, our faith seeks to bring us joy.

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Fr. Mike Stubbs

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