Question: What are the "millennium" and the "rapture"? (P.L., Chicago)
Answer: "Millennium" is the combination of the two Latin words for "thousand" and "years." The thousand year period in question is the bondage of the devil and the reign of Christ alluded to in St. John's Apocalypse: "and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years."1 This last book of the Bible (called "Revelation" by Protestants) was written while St. John was in exile on the island of Patmos, during the persecution of Christians by the Roman Emperor Domitian. It sought to strengthen the faith of persecuted Christians by assuring them of God's power and glory, predicting the eventual triumph of Christianity over Roman paganism, and depicting the heavenly paradise that awaited the faithful. Following the pattern of earlier Jewish apocalyptic literature, it is replete with symbolic language and sometimes overlays events widely separated in time in the same narrative.2
During the persecutions, the thousand years were sometimes interpreted to be a period that would follow the Second Coming: Christ would vanquish the Romans, there would be a resurrection of the martyrs, and there would be an eon of peaceful life on earth under the reign of the Lord.3 But by the time of Nicæa, the Church would define: "[Christ] will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. His reign will have no end.... I expect the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come."4 The second coming would not usher in a temporary kingdom.
With the persecutions abated, Christianity became the dominant force in the Empire, and it was obvious that Christ had not returned in an overt and personal manner to overthrow the pagans. Christians were already living in the millennium, as St. Augustine affirmed in his treatise The City of God, for the millennium is the centuries long reign of the Church.5 The "first death" and "first resurrection" refer to the Baptism of Christians instituted after the first coming.6 The "second death" and "second resurrection" are the events of the Judgment day that will follow the second coming. Saint Thomas Aquinas comments in the Summa Theologica:
In our century, writing in A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, Fr. C.C. Martindale advises:
Only with the Reformation was the concept of a millennium following the second coming revived among some Protestants. To many "Reformers," the Catholic Church could not have been the vehicle for the reign of Christ. The pope, after all, was the Antichrist who persecuted those of the reformed faith. The period of peace could only come in the future, after Protestantism had restored "true" Christianity!
But even among Protestants belief in a coming millennium is by no means universal. No major denomination has made it an article of faith or included the thousand year reign in its creed. As the Baptists are probably the single denomination most closely identified with millenarianism, it is instructive to see what the National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion has to say:
It is a defined teaching of the Catholic Church that the soul is judged shortly after death and is sent to its deserved reward, purgation, or punishment.10 As the martyrs would already be enjoying the beatific vision of God in heaven, they would not be subject to being resurrected and spending a thousand years on earth.
A theory known as mitigated Millenarianism was proscribed by the Holy Office in 1824. In 1944 the same Holy Office was asked:
The Holy Office answered:
The word "Rapture" comes from the Latin "raptus," meaning to be "snatched" or "forcefully taken away." "Rapture" may refer to a temporary ecstatic experience in prayer, a very close union with God, excluding all natural awareness. In canon law, an impediment to marriage, "Raptus" is the use of violence to take a bride.
"Rapture" is not found in Sacred Scripture or in traditional Catholic literature in the sense intended by fundamentalist Protestants.12 Among those that expect a thousand year reign after the second coming, some hold that the Rapture will be a sudden disappearance of the elect; a "snatching away" to protect them from the tribulations preceding that reign. The scriptural passages alleged to describe the Rapture are:
There is very little in Sacred Scripture or Tradition to justify belief in a thousand year reign after the Second Coming, and even less to justify the fundamentalist notion of "the Rapture."
In any event, speculation about "the millennium" and "the rapture" is rather fruitless. The fundamental lesson of the Apocalypse is the final punishment of the evil and the reward of the good:
Whoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the pool of fire. And I saw a new heaven and a new earth...Behold the tabernacle of God with men, and He will dwell with them....[And] God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and death shall be no more, nor crying, nor sorrow, for the former things are passed away.13