Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

From the March AD 1997
Our Lady of the Rosary
Parish Bulletin

    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. 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:

    On account of these words [Apocalypse xx], as Augustine relates, certain heretics asserted that there will be a first resurrection of the dead that they may reign with Christ on earth for a thousand years; whence they are called chiliasts or millenarians. Hence Augustine says that these words are to be understood otherwise, namely of the spiritual resurrection whereby men shall rise again from their sins to the gift of grace: while the second resurrection is of bodies. The reign of Christ denotes the Church wherein not only martyrs but also the other elect reign, the part denoting the whole; or they reign with Christ in glory as regards all, special mention being made of the martyrs because they especially reign after death who fought for the truth, even unto death.7

    In our century, writing in A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, Fr. C.C. Martindale advises:

    Augustine and Jerome are to be followed: they regard the chaining of Satan and the reign of the Saints as the whole period subsequent to the Incarnation. The power of evil is in fact broken: Christians in whom grace is are in fact "kings and priests" however they be harassed. These, then, are not only the martyrs or confessors already in heaven, but all who do not "worship the beast", even though yet unborn: cf. ch 7; 15:2-4; esp. 14: 1-5.8

    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:

    Most millenarian teaching shows no interest in or knowledge of the historical context in which, and in relation to which, the Book of Revelation [Apocalypse] was written. This disregard for the historical situation of John of Patmos and his readers usually leads to serious misinterpretation of the passage in Rev. 20. The author of Revelation plainly states that the events to which he refers "must soon take place" (Rev 1: 1). He addresses lukewarm Christians (Rev 3: 1, 15-16) in an atmosphere of persecution (Rev 1: 9; 2: 2, 9, 13, 19) clearly issuing admonition and encouragement (Rev 1-3). The content and imagery of the whole book relate to the purposes established in the early chapters of the work. Understood in this manner, the millennium is a promise of Christ's steadfastness and an example of the security believers have, despite adversity, through their faith in Christ.9

    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:

    Is the system of mitigated Millenarianism, namely that Christ the Lord, before the final judgment, whether preceding or whether not preceding the resurrection of the just, visibly reigning on this earth, a situation that will come to be?

    The Holy Office answered:

The system of mitigated Millenarianism may not be safely taught.11

    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:

Matthew xiii: 24-52 the parable of the weeds sown among the wheat, which describes the separation of the just from the wicked, but only at the end of the world, not a thousand years before.

Matthew xxiv: which also depicts the unexpected division of good and bad (v. 40-41), but only after describing the events of His "coming and the consummation of the world" (v. 3 ff.) and clearly stating that the elect will have to undergo the "great tribulation" (v. 21-22) before being gathered by the angels (v. 31). Luke xvii: 26-37 is sometimes cited. It lacks the detail found in Matthew.

1 Thessalonians: which simply describes the taking up into heaven of the dead and those still living at the resurrection of the body (Ch. iv: 13-17). It is an encouragement to believe in eternal life, not a careful description of the end times. Chapter 5 is an admonition to ever on guard so as not to be taken by an unexpected end.

2 Thessalonians i: 7-10 which says that in the end the bad will be punished and the good will glorify God.

1 Corinthians xv: 51-53 which describes the resurrection of the dead "at the last trumpet."

    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

1. Apocalypse xx: 7. Cf. verses 2 and 7.
2. See C.C. Martindale, SJ, "The Apocalypse," in A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (NY: Nelson, 1953) and Wm. G. Heidt, OSB, The Book of the Apocalypse (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1962) on the genre of apocalyptic literature.
3. This "pre-millennial" view was held by some Catholics including Irenaeus, but also by heretics like Tertullian. Following the style of the O.T., the Catholic Papias spoke of amazing agricultural plenty.
4. Cf. Nicene Creed (325 A.D.); Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (c. 381 A.D.).
5. Augustine, Civitate Dei, 20: 7-13. A "thousand" in Jewish terms is indefinitely large, much like "seventy times seven" in Matthew xviii: 22.
5. Cf. Colossians ii: 12.
7. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Sup. Q. 77, A. 1, Reply to Obj. 4
8. Martindale, op. cit., p.   1207. The citations refer to Augustine, Civitate Dei.
9. Marion L. Soards, Mercer Dictionary of the Bible (Macon: Mercer University, 1990), s.v. "Millennium," P. 577.
10. Cf. Constitution of Benedict XII, Benedictus Deus, 29 January 1336 (reprinted in Parish Bulletin, November 1996, p. 3.).
11. Denzinger 3839: Decree of the Holy Office 19 (21) July 1944, confirmed by the Sacred Penitentiary 20 July.
12. As there are no citations in Catholic sources, those discussed below are from the (Baptist) Mercer Dictionary, op. cit., s.v. "Rapture."
13. Apocalypse xx: 15; xxi: 1, 3, 4.  


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