Category Archives: eschatology

Is Reincarnation in the Bible?

Recently, I was asked the question: “If you, as a Catholic, believe in the natural immortality of the human soul, why would you not believe in reincarnation? After all, didn’t Jesus indicate John the Baptist was the reincarnation of the prophet Elijah, in Matthew 17:10-13?”

And the disciples asked him, “Then why do the scribes say that first Eli’jah must come?” He replied, “Eli’jah does come, and he is to restore all things; but I tell you that Eli’jah has already come, and they did not know him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of man will suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.

By “reincarnation,” I do not mean the souls in heaven being “reincarnated,” or being “made flesh” again in the resurrection of the same bodies they possessed in this life. That we simply refer to as “the Resurrection.” By “reincarnation,” I mean it as it is defined in the dictionary as “the rebirth of a soul in a new body, whether another human or animal body.”

The Catholic Answer

First of all, Jesus is not speaking of reincarnation when he speaks of “Elijah [having] already come.” He speaks of St. John the Baptist having the spirit and the power of Elijah. In fact, Luke 1:16-17 helps us to understand Matthew 17:10-13 better when the angel Gabriel gives us further definition, if you will, of what “Elijah [having] already come” actually means. He says to Zechariah, the father of St. John the Baptist, concerning his son who would soon be miraculously conceived:

And he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Eli’jah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.

Notice, he comes “in the spirit and power of Elijah” as a prophet of God. That is what is meant by “Elijah has already come.”

So What’s the Problem With Reincarnation?

The problem, or more accurately, problem[s] with reincarnation are manifold and very dangerous. CCC 1013 tells us:

Death is the end of man’s earthly pilgrimage, of the time of grace and mercy which God offers him so as to work out his earthly life in keeping with the divine plan, and to decide his ultimate destiny. When “the single course of our earthly life” is completed, we shall not return to other earthly lives: “It is appointed for men to die once.” There is no “reincarnation” after death.

The CCC here quotes Hebrews 9:27 –“Just as it is appointed that human beings die once, and after this the judgment.” Reincarnation implies multiple lives and multiple deaths. That’s a definite no-go.

But reincarnation is not only contradicted in Hebrews 9:27; it is also contradicted by our Lord himself in John 8:23:

You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world.

And St. Paul adds, in I Cor. 15:47:

The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.

Only Christ is revealed in Scripture to have had a pre-human existence, or to be “from heaven.” Humans are revealed to have come “from the earth,” or “from this world.” Thus, we say Jesus Christ was “incarnated.” But even he was not “reincarnated.” Reincarnation implies a previous bodily existence. Or, as the term indicates, a former “fleshly” existence.

Philosophically speaking, “reincarnation” is impossible because the soul is the form of the body. In other words, it is the soul that “gives form to the body” as it is. A lot of folks confuse the particular “matter” or “the material” our body is made of right now with the essence of the body. The truth is, much of the actual matter of our bodies is changed and renewed over time, but we remain the same person in the process. While some parts of our bodies do not change (for example, we get no new neurons in our brains—if we lose ‘em, they’re gone for good!), the fat cells in our bodies, for example, are completely changed every ten years or so.

Most importantly for our purpose now, not only do we remain the same person throughout the interchange of much of the matter that comprises our bodies, but we still have the same body because it is the soul that forms the matter into the same body through the decades and through the cycling of the matter. Thus, “resurrection” is reasonable, but “reincarnation” is not. The “resurrection” produces the same body and, of course, the same person.

I’ve Got Some Good News and I’ve Got Some Bad News!

The good news first! With what we have already demonstrated, not only can you be certain you will not be reincarnated as a slug, but it would be impossible for you to be reincarnated as a slug!

Bad news for dog lovers! Fido will not be resurrected because he possesses no spiritual soul that could then form the same body he possessed in this life. “Fido” would have to be created ex nihilo and would then be another dog. He would not be “Fido.” You could name him Fido, but he would be a different Fido than the one you knew and loved on earth!

The Problems Continue

Reincarnation is also problematic when we consider the fact that a human person is a body/soul composite. It is not only the soul nor is it only the body that individuates a person—it is both. (By the way, for philosophy buffs, St. Thomas Aquinas was off on this point when he taught the body, or “matter” alone was the individuating principle in human persons. He was influenced by Aristotle’s flawed thinking. Aristotle, though brilliant, was a pantheist who taught there is one collective “person” in which all human persons participate. Only the material or matter would then individuate us. However, when we die, the material body is gone, thus, the individual is no more! St. Thomas, obviously, did not take Aristotle to the point of accepting his final conclusion that led Aristotle to deny the immortality of the human soul as we understand it, but he was influenced by Aristotle to the point of teaching the body, or “matter,” to be the individuating principle of the human person, which is flawed).

But at any rate, the point to remember here is that man is a body/soul composite. Both contribute to what Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI), in his book, “Eschatology” calls “the mysterious ‘I.’” Thus, again, it would be impossible for a human soul to animate “another body” from two different parents. Ultimately, reincarnation is not only condemned by the Church on a theological level, but it is untenable on a philosophical level!

Danger, Danger!

Some may say at this point, “So what? This is a harmless little error that never hurt anybody, right? You said reincarnation is ‘dangerous,’ but I’m not seeing the danger.”

Are there dangers inherent in believing reincarnation to be true? Actually, there are many. Here are just two of them:

1. It fails to make the essential distinction between men and animals. Human beings alone are created in the image and likeness of God; and therefore, possess rational and spiritual souls. It is the distinctive human soul that is the foundation of his unique dignity. It is the reason why we humans possess “certain unalienable rights” as our founding fathers rightly said in our Declaration of Independence here in the United States. Reincarnation either reduces men to the level of animals, raises animals to the level of humans with “rights,” etc., or it becomes some sort of confused hybrid of the two. But the result is always the same: a dangerous lack of understanding of the unique and inherent dignity of the human being.

2. It tends toward moral laxity because no matter how bad someone is in this life, he gets another shot… and another… and another! This is extremely dangerous! How opposite is this to our Lord’s teaching in the form of his words to the “rich man” in Luke 12:20-21, when God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you… So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

“… be ready, for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matt. 24:44) loses not only its effectiveness, but its essential meaning.

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What Can We Know About Heaven?

With the advent of multiple movies in recent years about Heaven from the perspective of alleged eyewitness accounts (people who have died, gone to heaven–again, allegedly–and lived to tell about it), people often ask the question: “What can we really know about heaven?” As Catholics, we do not get our theology from private revelations, even if they are approved by the Church, much less from alleged experiences of well-meaning people who’ve had some sort of encounter that they may consider real.

So what can we know? Here we go!

Then Cardinal Ratzinger, in his book, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, published in 1988, warns against depicting heaven as an extension of this life prettied up with depictions of “wolves laying down with lambs,” and eternal picnics. Not only do we have the real problem with the fact that most of the world lives in abject misery, materially speaking—we forget that living in our modern United States of America where “the poor” often means not being able to afford all 2,000 cable channels—but we also must remember that wolves, lambs, and picnics get boring after a few million years. These depictions just don’t cut it for the modern, thinking man.

On the other hand, I Cor. 2:9 is overused as well. “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard,” with regard to heaven is often used as a cop out. Yes, it is true. Heaven is ultimately beyond what has ever “entered into the heart of man.” But there are certain things we can know about heaven even if now we “see in a mirror dimly” what will only be revealed fully in eternity (I Cor. 13:12). If we are going to excite people about the prospects of heaven, Ratzinger says, and if there is going to be a healthy sense of fearing the “loss of heaven” as we enter the confessional, a biblical and traditional understanding of the nature of heaven is essential.

What the Church Teaches

CCC 1023:

Those who die in God’s grace and friendship and are perfectly purified [whether in this life, or in the next life in Purgatory] live forever with Christ. They are like God forever, for they “see him as he is,” face to face.

The Catechism then quotes the infallible definition given by Pope Benedict XII in his Apostolic Constitution, Benedictus Deus, of Jan. 29, 1336:

By virtue of our apostolic authority, we define the following: According to the general disposition of God, the souls of all the saints . . . and other faithful who died after receiving Christ’s holy Baptism (provided they were not in need of purification when they died, . . . or, if they then did need or will need some purification, when they have been purified after death, . . .) already before they take up their bodies again and before the general judgment – and this since the Ascension of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ into heaven – have been, are and will be in heaven, in the heavenly Kingdom and celestial paradise with Christ, joined to the company of the holy angels. Since the Passion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ, these souls have seen and do see the divine essence with an intuitive vision, and even face to face, without the mediation of any creature.

At the very heart of this definition of heaven is the idea of the “beatific vision,” i.e. the blessed in heaven “see God, face to face.” But what does it mean that the saints in heaven “see God, face to face?” This would seem to contradict I Tim. 6:14-16 that says:

I charge you to keep the commandments unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ; and this will be made manifest at the proper time by the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.

Is this a contradiction? Not at all! I Tim. 6 must be understood to mean either that man unaided by grace cannot see God, or that man can never “see” God with his physical powers of sight using his eyeballs. In other words, man cannot see God in any sense with his natural powers. The saints and all of the blessed can be said to have “seen” and that they do “see” the divine essence with a directly intuited, intellectual vision. There are multiple biblical texts that bear this out:

Rev. 22:4 – “And there shall be no curse any more, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall serve him. And they shall see his face: and his name shall be on their foreheads.”

I Cor. 13:12 – “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.”

Matt. 5:8 – “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

I John 3:2 – “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

This “vision” of God, again, is not to be understood as “seeing” God with human eyeballs. God is pure spirit and as such cannot be “seen.” This “vision of God” is a directly intuited and intellectual vision. Think about it this way: Matthew 18:10 tells us that the angels “behold the face of God,” yet they don’t have eyes at all. They are pure spirits. So how do they “see God?” They “see” him with an intellectual and directly intuited “vision.”

We use the verb “to see” like this in modern parlance. When someone comes to understand a physics problem he had been struggling with, for example, he may say, “Now I see it!” That doesn’t mean he “sees” it with his eyes; rather, it means he now understands it with his mind. This is analogous to the beatific vision. The faithful who endure to the end and so are saved will “see God,” but with an intellectual “vision” or comprehension of God. Each person will “see” or comprehend God in the beatific vision in accordance with his own capacity dictated to him by his state of grace at the moment of death. And this state of grace is determined by both the gift of God and the degree to which the blessed cooperated with that grace during his earthly sojourn.

The example par excellence of this truth is found in the Mother of God. No member of the body of Christ will “see” or “comprehend” God to the degree Mary does because she was given the greatest gift of grace among all of mankind; while, at the same time, no human person ever cooperated with the grace of God as perfectly as Mary did.

With this understanding, we can understand why the Church teaches heaven to be primarily a state rather than a place. You can’t travel “up there” to heaven. And the beatific vision cannot be understood as people being in heaven and “looking over there” and seeing God. And then if they look away from “over there” they don’t see God anymore. The blessed will be in a state of comprehension of God that is constant. They can’t leave heaven and then go back to heaven precisely because heaven is principally a state of being.

However, having said that, heaven can also be said to be a place, but in a qualified sense. In as much as in the end of time the blessed will have bodies in the resurrection; they can then be said to have location.

Okay, Fine, So What is Heaven?

Heaven is principally a state of utter and absolute fulfillment. In the possession of God in the beatific vision the blessed will experience what cannot be put into words; a radical union with God that transcends anything we could envisage. And it is precisely because of that radical union with God in Christ, the blessed will also experience a union with the other members of the Body of Christ that transcends our ability to imagine as well. The image of the mystical “body of Christ” that St. Paul gives us in I Cor. 12 and Romans 12 gives us some inkling of this union, but again, it can only pale in relation to the full truth of the matter. To use St. Paul’s image, the union of the members of Christ is more radical than the union of my finger here with my hand because it is Christ who makes the members of Christ one! This is truly incredible to think about, but in the end, we can only imagine.

We’ve already spoken of the beatific vision which is the most important component of what heaven is: as we saw in I John 3:2. It says we will be “like him for we shall see him as he is.” St. Thomas Aquinas helps us to get a sense of the glory of this “vision of God” by showing us some of its rammifications. According to “the angelic Doctor,” our intellects will be so illuminated by God to empower us to be able to “see God” in the beatific vision that an ancillary effect of this empowering will be the comprehension of “the whole order of the universe.”

Does anyone want to pause to say “wow” with me?

In the Summa Contra Gentiles, Bk. III, chapter 59, St. Thomas says, “the natural appetite is to know the genera, species and powers of all things, and the whole order of the universe,” it makes sense that this capacity would be filled in God in heaven. If you add to this the fact that the beatific vision will empower the intellects of the saints in heaven to be able to see God, which is far above the natural capacity, it only makes sense that, as St. Thomas again says, that after having come to know “the infinite,” or God himself, it would seem to follow that the lesser would be easily known. To quote St. Thomas: “The intellect which is elevated by divine light in order to see God’s substance is much more perfected by this same light, so that it may understand all other objects that exist in the nature of things.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church seems to concur with St. Thomas. In paragraph 2040, the Church speaks to this notion of the perfection and elevation of the intellectual powers in heaven. Talk about intellectually sharp! The Catechism says, “We shall know the ultimate meaning of the whole work of creation and of the entire economy of salvation and understand the marvelous ways by which [God’s] Providence led everything toward its final end.”

What a comfort to know that every single person among the faithful who has lost a love one, a child, or suffered terribly in this life, will know how “all things work together for good to those who love God” as St. Paul says in Romans 8:28. We will see all of this in God, in heaven.

Doesn’t this sound a lot better than simply falling back on “eye has not seen,” or picking fruit and picnicking for all eternity?

Four Bodily Gifts That Await Us in Heaven

The principal gift of heaven—the beatific vision—could be the subject of a veritable library of books without ever plumbing its depths, but the Catechism of the Council of Trent, referring back to St. Thomas Aquinas, gave us four characteristics of heaven relating to the body that have been revealed to us in Scripture and tradition that can serve to give us a glimpse, however imperfectly, of the glory of heaven in a bodily sense.

I remember teaching this some time ago to a group of Southern California teens where I got the ultimate compliment: “Dude… that is very cool!” I think the “dude” part coupled with the “cool” was telling. Two thumbs up!

But at any rate, the Catechism of the Council of Trent, referencing the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas, lists these four “characteristics” or “gifts” that will be communicated to the blessed in heaven:

1) Subtility – This gift entails the absolute subordination of the body to the soul. So radical is this subordination that it will empower the blessed to be able to pass through a wall as Jesus did in the Upper Room in John 20:19-20, while possessing flesh and bone just as he did as well. Remember: the disciples were gathered together in fear behind locked doors, after the resurrection of Christ, and before they had seen the risen Lord. Jesus suddenly appeared in their midst, though the doors remained locked. He passed right through the doors! Yet, as is revealed in Luke 24:39, in a parallel account of this same event, also after the resurrection, Jesus said to the apostles, “… handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.”

2) Agility – In Acts 1:9, Jesus ascended up to heaven right before the very eyes of the apostles. And he didn’t even need rockets like R2D2! In fact, according to St. Thomas, the blessed in heaven, even after receiving their bodies in the resurrection, will be able to travel at the speed of thought, or in the “wink of an eye,” as St. Thomas says it, to any distance. Star Wars ain’t got nothin’ that can even compare with what awaits those who are faithful to Christ!

3) Impassibility – In simple terms, this means the blessed in heaven cannot suffer and cannot die (see Rev. 21:4). Indeed the bodies of the blessed will not only be immortal, but no sickness or any imperfection will be possible. They will not even so much as be able to stub a toe, even if they wanted to! Not that we would want to! But you get my drift!

4) Glory (or as the Roman Catechism calls it: “Brightness”) – The blessed in heaven will be glorified like Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. Rooted in Jesus’ own words, “… the righteous will shine like the sun,” in Matthew 13:43, the Church teaches the blessed will shine with the glory of God so brilliant that it is believed by some that we on earth could not stand to even behold one of the blessed in heaven if he were revealed in all of his glory!

If you take the Marian apparitions as an example of this, our Lady never appears to the various seers she appears to in all of her glory. She appears in a form they can handle and relate to.

But at any rate, we do catch a glimpse of the glory that awaits us in the Transfiguration where Jesus’ face “shone like the sun” (Matt. 17:2). This text not only reveals Christ’s divinity, but the glory of humanity transformed by divinity! It reveals, in that sense, what awaits our humanity. “The just shall shine like the sun.”

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Is Hell Fictional or Real?

In an earlier blog post, I talked about whether or not there are souls in Hell right now. And the answer is, yes! This post sparked a lot of questions that I very commonly get from Catholics as well as from atheists and agnostics concerning the nature of Hell. “What is Hell?” “Is it really ‘eternal’?” “Could a truly loving God allow for such a place to exist?” And more…

These questions were and are asked by Catholics, most often, so they can understand the dogma of Hell better and help friends and family members, but for atheists and agnostics, it is often a key reason why they cannot believe in God at all.

Below find my answers to some of the key questions asked about Hell.

By definition, according to CCC 1033, hell is “[the] state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed.” Some people cannot fathom how Hell could be a reality if God is truly an “all-loving” and “merciful God.” Yet, Hell could be said to be both the definitive expression of God’s justice and of the lofty calling and dignity of man. What do I mean by this?

Let’s look at the latter statement first.

In his infinite wisdom, God deigned to create man with the immeasurable dignity of a free, rational, spiritual, and therefore, immortal soul. He did not create us as robots that can only “choose” the good. Man has been gifted with the incredible gift of being free to either accept or reject God and God’s plan for him.

The ultimate reason for this is love. CCC 1861 says it well: “Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself.” Without freedom there is no real love as we understand it. The Catechism goes on:

[Mortal sin] results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back.

God has given to man his entire lifetime on earth to make that irrevocable decision of which the Catechism speaks. Thus, the “time” for choosing is now in this life, but the choice we make will have eternal consequences. Indeed, not only is this the “time” for choosing, but this is the only “time” there will be “time” at all. “Time” will be no more after we die, at least, not as we understand it. There will be some sense of sequentiality, some sort of “time,” if you will, but very different from “time” as we understand it now. Our “eternity” is thus sealed at the time of our death! But think about this: our choices affect not only us, but others as well and quite possibly for all eternity! Consider these two texts: one from the Old Testament, and one from the New Testament:

If I say to the wicked, “You shall surely die,” and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you will have saved your life (Ez. 3:18-19).

In I Tim. 4:16, St. Paul says to Timothy:

Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.

Ezekiel seems to indicate that if we choose not to evangelize someone God places in our life, it may well be that this will have been the last opportunity that person will ever have to choose God! This is daunting in one sense to be sure, but it also speaks of an incredibly lofty calling we all have as God’s faithful on earth. Some people, Calvinists in particular, simply cannot believe God would give to man this kind of responsibility. Yet, according to Scripture, this is the dignity and calling of man.

Now, I should also note that it may well be, and I would think it would most often be the case, that if we choose not to evangelize someone, he will be given any number of other opportunities to come to God, but both Ezekiel and St. Paul remind us of another reason why we need to evangelize: we save our own souls as well. “Educating the ignorant,” and “admonishing the sinner” are corporal works of mercy by which we will be judged on the Last Day. It is precisely because of this spiritual and free component in man that he has the ability to ascend the heights of a Mother Theresa or to descend to the depths of an Adolf Hitler. German shepherds have neither ability.

God considered this gift of freedom, and the ultimate fruit of that freedom–eternal life–as being worth all the evils that would eventually be brought about by the abuse of that freedom. As St. Paul said it, “… the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” in full at the end of time (Romans 8:18).

To chase a rabbit here for a moment: when considering the massive amount of evil that exists in the world we should also remember that God only even permits this inasmuch as he knows that he will bring ultimate good out of that evil. The crucifix is the ultimate example of this. The greatest evil ever perpetrated in the history of creation—the crucifix where we killed God—results in the greatest good… the redemption of the world by the grace of Jesus Christ.

Answering Objections and Questions

1. The Bible Does Not Teach “Hell” – At Least, Not as an Eternal Hell

The truth is: Most of what we know of Hell and its eternity comes from the very lips of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And he uses terms that are unequivocal. Pope St. John Paul II, in his book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, pg. 185, says it succinctly:

… the words of Christ are unequivocal. In Matthew’s gospel [Christ] speaks clearly of those who will go to eternal punishment (cf. Matt. 25:46).

The CCC 1035 concurs:

The teaching of the Church affims the existence of Hell and its eternity.

Most importantly, Scripture itself could hardly be clearer:

In Revelation 20:10, St. John describes Hell (“the lake of fire,” more specifically) in relation to the Devil and the False Prophet of the end times in terms difficult to misunderstand:

And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone where  the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

Then, in Revelation 20:14-15, St. John again mentions this same “lake of fire” and explicitly and specifically declares that humans will go to the same place—and that means “for ever and ever.”

This is the second death, the lake of fire; and if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown in the lake of fire.

Revelation 21:8 says it as well and includes all those who die in mortal sin:

But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.

In Matthew 25:41 and 46, Jesus says just as heaven represents eternal life, Hell represents eternal punishment:

Then he will say to those at his left hand, “Depart from me, you cursed, in to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…
And they [the unrighteous] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

Matthew 13:41-42, 47-50:

The son of man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth…

So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.

2. Catholic “Dogma” Misuses Biblical Terms for “Hell”

The truth is, the word Hell, or I should say the “words” translated as “Hell” [Hebrew-sheol, Greek-Hades, Tartarus, and Gehenna-which is a Greek word of Hebrew origin], have various meanings and usages in the different books of the Bible and extra-biblical sources, yet this does not justify a failure to use the term “Hell” as understood in Catholic dogmatic teaching, in certain contexts, for these terms. In fact, and by way of example, “Gehenna” is always used for the “Hell” of “Catholic dogma” in Scripture. Let me explain what I mean:

Sheol generally represents “the place of the dead” in the Old Testament. Both the righteous and the unrighteous go there. In ancient Hebrew thought, this “place of the dead” was divided into two sections: a place of suffering and a holding place for the righteous. We find this idea in the teaching of Jesus in Luke 16:19-31, where Jesus speaks of a wicked rich man and a righteous poor man named Lazarus who had been a poor beggar. The wicked man who had “everything in life” goes to the place of torment, Hades, which is the closest thing to a Greek equivalent of the Hebrew “sheol,” while the poor man, Lazarus, goes to paradise. They are both in the same “place of the dead,” but separated by a “great chasm” as verse 26 calls it. The place of the righteous is called “the bosom of Abraham,” while the place of torment is called “Hades.”

The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom (verses 22-23).

“Hades,” though here used for Hell, can, again, be used as “the place of the dead” as is “Sheol” in Hebrew. We see this in texts like Acts 2:27, 31 and Rev. 20:13-14. But the point is, it is, at times, used for the place of eternal torment we call “Hell.”

Gehenna is a different story. As I mentioned above, it is always used for eternal “Hell” as we see, for example, in Mark 9:43:

If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna: into the unquenchable fire.

Of the 12 times “gehenna” is used in the New Testament, 11 of the 12 come from our Lord and unequivocally refer to Hell (see Matt. 5:22; Matt. 5:29-30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15; 33; Mark 9:43-47; Luke 12:5, etc.). James 3:6 is the only other place we find “gehenna” used and it clearly refers to “the fire of gehenna” in referring to the danger of an unruly tongue.

Perhaps more importantly, what we find in the New Testament are multiple terms and multiple ways in which the inspired text teaches about Hell. We find phrases like “the lake of fire” (you find this used in Revelation 19:20; 20:10), or “furnace of fire” (Matthew 13:42) used to represent Hell. So it’s really not about misusing particular terms; the truth is, the biblical text is remarkably clear when it comes to the reality of an eternal Hell.

Perhaps the plainest text of all concerning Hell’s reality and eternity is found in Revelation 14:10-11. This text uses none of the above-mentioned terms; rather, it describes Hell in such stark terms that there is no way of parsing words and claiming a different usage for “hades” or “gehenna.” This is not a matter of semantics:

If any one worships the beast and its image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also shall drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever; and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image and whoever receives the mark of the beast.

These words speak for themselves!

Tartarus“is yet another term used in Scripture for the “Hell of Catholic Dogma.” In II Peter 2:4, we find:

For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell (Gr.-tartarosas)and committed them to pits of nether gloom to be kept until the judgment.

3. Are the “Flames” of Hell Literal?

It should be understood that both the joy of heaven and the pains of Hell are indescribable this side of eternity. And just as the Church warns against seeing heaven as a “worldly” sort of extension of life on this earth, so it is with Hell. The inspired authors cannot describe Hell adequately using human language; thus, the “flames of fire” are simply the most painful things we can imagine on this earth used to attempt to describe the indescribable to some degree.

So, are the “flames of fire” of Hell literal? No, they are not. In fact, it should be obvious that they are not literal right now because the souls in Hell do not presently have bodies. You can’t “light up” a soul with a match.

But even after the resurrection, the Catholic Church does not teach the “flames” of Hell to be literal. CCC 1472 answers this question succinctly:

These two punishments [the Catechism is here speaking of both Purgatory and Hell] must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church emphasizes the fact that Hell is primarily eternal separation from God. To quote CCC 1033 again, it defines Hell as, “The state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed.” It is absolute emptiness and isolation beyond anything we can fathom. The “pains” that are quite real, quite literal, and consist of both the pain of loss, and the pain of sense, i.e., they involve the body after the resurrection of the body, “follow from the very nature of sin,” or, they arise from the inside out, not from the outside in.

To bring this concept down to earth, think about this: What is mortal sin but the rejection of the love of God and neighbor? It is ultimate selfishness. Ultimately, the damned will simply get what they wanted—themselves for all eternity!

It is said that a man will go insane if he is kept in isolation for too long because human beings are so ordered toward communion with other persons. Hell will be that isolation that would lead anyone to insanity, but the condemned will never be able to lose their faculties. They will be fully cognizant of the pain of their isolation.

Some may ask as a follow-up, “What about, for example, the private revelation of St. Faustina that speaks of ‘the company of the devil’ as being part of the pains of Hell? How does that square with this ‘isolation’ that we are talking about?”

Answer: the “isolation” we are talking about here does not mean necessarily that there will be no other persons present. Think of it this way. Have you ever seen a person who is “all alone” in the middle of a party with people all around? For example, a person who is angry or having a “pity party” and wants nothing to do with anyone? In fact, the presence of people having fun can be an occasion for increased rage for someone like that!

That is an imperfect glimpse of Hell.

4. Is Hell a “Place” or a “State of Being?”

Hell is primarily a state of being, but inasmuch as the souls there will have bodies after the resurrection of the dead, they will have location as well. So, in that sense, we can say Hell is a “place.” In fact, we could say the same of heaven. But both heaven and hell are not “places” in the sense that the people there could “leave” and “return.” Inasmuch as these are states of being, “heaven” and “hell” are present wherever the saints and damned are.

5. How could it be possible that the just in heaven will be able to rejoice for all eternity in God, when they know that loved ones, for example, are in Hell for all eternity?

In other words, it has been asked of me, how could the angels and saints rejoice in heaven, for example, in Rev. 21, knowing the damned are suffering terribly as we see in Rev. 20? Or even more, we see in Rev. 14:11, the damned, “shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the lamb.”


Perhaps an analogy would work best in explaining this: Imagine you are in a court room and a man whom you know is guilty of murder is standing before the Judge and jurors where his fate is about to be determined. The foreman of the jury stands up and says, “Your honor, we find Tom Smith (insert your own name here) ‘not guilty’ of all charges.”

Your immediate reaction would most likely be to say, “That’s unjust!” At least, it should be! This would be an injustice because this man was, in fact, guilty. You should feel outraged at an injustice like this. Yet, on the flip side, if that same juror were to say, “We find Tom Smith guilty,” there would be a sense in which you could rejoice in this that is just. We should not rejoice in the suffering that awaits this man. We should not allow ourselves to fall into a sense of vengeance for vengeance’s sake, but we can, and indeed we should, rejoice in the good that is justice. You could say in a joyful way, “Justice was served today! And that is a good thing!”

On Judgment Day, all will know that every person will have been judged rightly and we will be able to see this with “God’s eyes,” so to speak. The blessed will be able to rejoice in God’s justice and mercy. In fact, only heaven will reveal in full the reality that Justice and Mercy are actually absolutely one in our infinitely just and infinitely merciful God!

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The Rapture, the Antichrist, and the Second Coming of Christ – Pt. 3

For our last post in a three-post series on “the Rapture” theory, we will continue with our series of seven biblical texts used by Rapture theorists to prove the Rapture to be biblical, and just why they fail to accomplish the task:

5. I Thess. 5:2-3, 9:

The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night … then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a woman with child… For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ…”

I used to love to use this text to show how God is going to “rescue the Church” in a secret rapture designed by God to take the Church away from the tribulation. It was a popular cliché to say, “God would not allow his bride to be beat up before he comes, would he?”

I used to add here to the mix Rev. 3:10:

Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial which is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell upon the earth?

Doesn’t that sound nice? The true Church made up of born-again believers will be taken away so that they will not have to suffer?

The only problem is, it’s wrong!

St. Paul had already made very clear the fact that the Second Coming of the Lord would be public in I Thess. 4:15-16. He is simply saying to be ready! And as far as our escaping suffering goes, Scripture makes very clear that we are called to suffer for Christ! Here are a few verses of Scripture to consider:

Luke 9:23:

And he said to all, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.

John 16:2:

They will put you out of the synagogues; indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.

John 16:33

I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.

I Peter 2:21-24:

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.

I Peter 1:6-7… 4:12-19:

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ… Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or a wrongdoer, or a mischief-maker; yet if one suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but under that name let him glorify God… [19] Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will do right and entrust their souls to a faithful Creator.

“But what about Rev. 3:10?” says the Rapture theorist. “Jesus plainly said:

I will keep you from the hour of trial which is coming on the whole world.

Back up to Rev. 2:10, where Jesus had already warned, “Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life.”

There seems to be a common misconception and misapplication of texts like Rev. 3:10 to mean that Christians will not have to suffer. When Jesus says “keep them from the hour of trial,” he does not mean, “take them out of the world.” He means “keep them faithful” in the midst of the trial that is to come.

This idea of Jesus protecting the Church from tribulation leads to contradictions all over the Bible as we’ll see below. But we find a similar misconception with the Lord’s prayer as well. When Jesus taught us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” in the Our Father, this does not mean the Spirit will not ever lead us “into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil” as we see with Jesus in Matt. 4:1. The phrase “lead us not into temptation” can be understood to mean “let us not fall in temptation.”

At any rate, God can certainly keep us “from” certain challenges that may overwhelm us at times, but St. Paul also tells us in I Cor. 10:13, not that we won’t have to face temptation, but that God will strengthen us so that we will be able to endure it:

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

Sometimes, we have to go through the fire. Or, as the famous story of the three Hebrew children in the book of Daniel reminds us: God does not say we will not have to go through the fire, he promises to protect us in the midst of the fire. If you recall the story, the three Hebrew children, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, were thrown into a fiery furnace by order of King Nebudchadnezzar, because they refused to bow down and worship an idol the king had erected. God did not deliver them from having to be thrown into the fire; he delivered them in the midst of the fire.

My favorite verse of Scripture that demonstrates the fallacy of the Rapture theory gives us the words of Jesus himself in his great high priestly prayer of John 17 on the night before his death. He prayed, in John 17:15:

I do not pray that thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep them from the evil one.

In other words, Jesus says, “I do not pray that you rapture them,” so to speak, “but that you keep them from falling prey to the Devil’s temptations.”

Bishop Fulton J. Sheen used to say that any teaching that attempts to bypass the crucifixion in order to get to the resurrection is a sign of the presence of the demonic!

The Rapture theory that claims the Church will not have to go through the tribulation in the last days falls prey to this mentality. It is very tempting, but dangerously false for two reasons.

First, recall St. Peter in Matt. 16. Just after being promised the keys of the kingdom, Jesus then declares that he must go to the cross, suffer and die and be raised on the third day (Matt. 16:21). Peter then “took him and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid, Lord, this shall never happen to you!” Jesus immediately said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan!” (verse 23)

It is very tempting to want to avoid the cross or create a theology that denies not only the cross of Christ that is necessary for our salvation, but our own cross that is just as necessary for our salvation: Romans 8:17:

And if [we are] children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

6. II Thess. 2:1-12

Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling to meet him, we beg you, brethren, not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word, or by letter purporting to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you this? And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, and the Lord Jesus will slay him with the breath of his mouth and destroy him by his appearing and his coming. The coming of the lawless one by the activity of Satan will be with all power and with pretended signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are to perish, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends upon them a strong delusion, to make them believe what is false, so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.

Most Rapture theorists, not all, but most, will claim that “the coming of the Lord” and “our assembling to meet him” refer to two events seven years apart: the Second Coming of the Lord and the Rapture. But notice three key points.

First, St. Paul refers to “the Coming of the Lord” and “our assembling to meet him” as one event. And wouldn’t he have put the Rapture—“our assembling to meet him”—before the Second Coming, rather than after? Think about it. The truth is: there is nothing here about a Rapture of the Church and seven years of Tribulation between “our assembling to meet him” and “the Coming of the Lord.” Many of these same Dispensationalists will claim the Second Coming has two stages, as I said before, 1st the Rapture, and 2nd the Second Coming seven years later. The problem here is that the Bible does not make this distinction, nor did Christians for the first 1800+ years of the Christian era.

Second, notice he says the coming of the Lord will not happen until, among other things, the antichrist is revealed. The majority of Rapture theorists teach that Christians will never see the Antichrist. This is dangerous because it espouses the same spirituality void of the cross that we mentioned before, but it also plays right into the deceptive plan of the devil, as I mentioned in my last blog post. The Antichrist, like the Devil himself, has the easiest time deceiving those who deny his existence! How could he be the Antichrist if he can’t be the Antichrist?


Thirdly, notice the Antichrist will represent “lawlessness.” Just as the Devil himself refused to bow to God’s plan, but created his own, this will be the modus operandi of the Antichrist. Jeremiah 2:20 is a famous text of Scripture where God says of Israel’s rebellion against God, “You said, ‘I will not serve’” (non serviam in Latin). Those words are often attributed to the devil himself by multiple fathers and doctors of the Church. It appears the Antichrist will be no different. He will deny God’s law and perform “pretended signs and wonders” to deceive those who take “pleasure in unrighteousness” to follow him. And yet, who is “the restrainer” here that restrains him from being “revealed” until “he be taken out of the way?”

There is no clear answer in the tradition as to who or what “the restrainer” is. But according to Fr. Orchard, O.P., in A Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, pages 1140-1141, there are three more common interpretations. Tertullian took the “restrainer” to be the law and order provided by the Roman Empire (or civilized government in general). Some take the restrainer to be the preaching of the Gospel all over the world and some take it to be Michael the Archangel who we see given the task by God of restraining the devil in Daniel 12:1, Rev. 12:7-9, and in the final “Rapture” text we will look at in a moment from Revelation 20.

I tend to go with an “all of the above” approach and I would add Jesus to the mix. When Jesus was accused of casting out devils by the power of the devil in Matt. 12, his response was twofold: First he said the more famous quip of: “If Satan casts out Satan then his kingdom is divided against itself.” In other words, Jesus says, “You guys aren’t making sense.” He goes on to say, “If I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out?” But then Jesus goes on to say this: “But if it is by the Spirit of God I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you… how can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house.” Jesus tells us here that he is one who “binds” the devil!

It seems to me that an all of the above approach would be the way to go. Our Lord uses the Archangel Michael as well as the Church and the culture at large to restrain the forces of evil that would cause chaos. But the one interpretation you don’t find among Christians for the first 1,800 years of the Christian era is one that says the Church will be “Raptured” away and that is what “the restrainer” being taken away would mean. Again, that is simply not in the text.

The final “Rapture” text we will look at is:

7. Revelation 20:1-10:

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years were ended. After that he must be loosed for a little while. Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom judgment was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God, and who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life, and reigned with Christ a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and they shall reign with him a thousand years. And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be loosed from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations which are at the four corners of the earth, that is, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. And they marched up over the broad earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city; but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

To the Rapture theorist, this text is clear. The devil, at the end of time will be bound and this will institute a one thousand-year reign of Christ where the devil will not be able to deceive people. When the text says the martyrs “came to life,” that would refer to the Rapture. Believers will be “Raptured” and then reign with Christ for 1,000 years.

The keys to understanding this text begin with understanding the binding of Satan in the context of the New Testament, as we saw above. This is not something that will happen in the future. Remember, Jesus binds “the strong man” or the devil in Matt. 12:29 and Michael the Archangel “binds the devil” in these first few verses. When the text says the devil is bound “so that he may no longer seduce the nations,” this should be seen in the context of biblical verses like Acts 17:30 where St. Luke tells us of Old Testament times as being “times of ignorance God overlooked.” The idea is that the devil had much more of a free reign before the advent of Christ. We get this sense in the book of Job, chapter 1 as well when we see the devil portrayed as what Revelation 12:10 calls “the accuser of the brethren… who accuses them night and day before our God.” The devil seems to have had much more freedom to harass and even possess people before the advent of Christ. There seems to have been many demon possessions at the time of Christ as well as proof of this. However, the advent of Christ and the Church has curtailed the devil’s work significantly.

But remember this: even though the devil is bound, that does not mean he is powerless. I always think of the picture of Mike Tyson, years ago, when he was being taken to jail after being convicted of a felony. Even though his hands were handcuffed in front of him… he was “bound”… how many people would want him to be let loose on them even with the handcuffs on!

At any rate, the binding of the devil happened two thousand years ago through the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Moreover, the thousand years must not be taken to mean a literal thousand years. Numbers are used symbolically throughout the book of Revelation, and “a thousand years” in particular is often used in Scripture to denote a long period of time rather than a literal thousand years (cf. I Chr. 16:15, or, Ex. 20:6: “[God is] showing mercy to thousands of those who love me.” Deuteronomy 7:9 – “The Lord your God … keeps his covenant… with those who love him… to a thousand generations.” Or, II Peter 3:8, “One day to the Lord is as thousand years and a thousand years is as one day”).

According to both St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, we are living in the ”thousand years” now and the first resurrection begins when a person is baptized! Those who are baptized are raised from death unto life as we see in Ephesians 2:1, “And you he made alive, when you were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once walked.” Or, Ephesians 5:14: “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.”

Also, the “loosing of the devil” corresponds with what we saw in II Thess. 2 concerning the final apostasy at the end of time and a final assault of the devil and his Antichrist wherein the devil will “be loosed” and launch one final assault against Christ and his Church before he and all evil will finally be vanquished at the Second Coming of Christ. Again, there is nothing in this text about any Rapture of the Church and a literal and future 1,000 year reign of Christ. At least, not if we understand the “1,000 years” passages here correctly.

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The Rapture, the Antichrist, and the Second Coming of Christ – Pt. 2

As promised in my last post, we are now going to take a look at some of the main texts involved in presenting a biblical case for “the Rapture.” Over my next two posts, I will present seven of the most common and favorite go-to verses I used to use when I was a “Rapture” theorist before my conversion to Christ in his Church. The first is perhaps the most commonly used of all:

1. I Thess. 4:15-17:

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.

 The word “Rapture” actually comes from the Latin Vulgate “rapiemur,” translated here as “caught up” in verse 17. What’s the problem here? Does the “word of commandment of God, the voice of the archangel and the trumpet of God” sound like a “secret rapture?”

For those who did not read my last post, “the Rapture” represents a belief that has Jesus Christ snatching away all true Christians sometime in the near future in a “secret” event that will cause millions to simply disappear from the earth. In one sense it would not be  a “secret” because the whole world will have to explain (or explain away) this massive disappearance of millions. But it will be “secret” in the sense that Jesus himself will not reveal it to the world for what it is.

The problem is, there is nothing “secret” about the coming of the Lord and this is precisely what this text is describing—the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time. Of course, St. Paul is describing the indescribable here using human terms. But notice, there is no 7-year tribulation mentioned—no 1,000 year millennium. Just as we Catholics would expect, St. Paul describes this event as the end of all things. “So shall we ever be with the Lord…” He does not say “so shall we be with the Lord for seven years and then we will come down to earth for 1,000 years…”

2. I Cor. 15:51-55:

Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed {great text to place in crying rooms at Church!}, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”  ”O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?”

I can’t tell you how many sermons I heard (and preached!) on the Rapture that used this language of “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye…”

Notice again the “trumpet of God?” This does not sound like a “secret rapture,” does it? And it does not sound like a preliminary coming of the Lord either! Just as with I Thess., this text indicates St. Paul is describing the end of the world. Notice in particular, “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting.” In other words, death shall be no more at this point. And yet, according to Rapture theorists, death will just be beginning! They believe there will be millions if not billions killed during the tribulation and that death will continue even through the 1,000 year reign of Christ on earth. This text simply describes the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time. Period!

3. Matt. 24:32-34:

From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all these things take place.

The “fig tree” and “this generation” are the key words here. Rapture theorists connect this text to Matthew 21:19-20, where Jesus is reported as,

… seeing a fig tree by the wayside he went to it, and found nothing on it but leaves only. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.

The idea here is that the “fig tree” represents Israel—or those in Israel who rejected the Messiah—being cursed by God because they rejected the Messiah. And we should note here that there is no doubt the fig tree does represent Israel that rejected Christ here in Matt. 21. Jesus had just the day before, in Matt. 21:12, driven out the money changers from the Temple. Then, immediately after he curses the fig tree, Jesus teaches several parables, all of which emphasize Israel being unfaithful to God and his Messiah resulting in God choosing to bless another “son” or “nation” who would believe and obey. We have the Parable of the Two Sons” in Matt. 21:28-32, the Parable of the Master of the Vineyard” in verses 33-46, and the Parable of the Marriage Feast in Matt. 22:1-14.

In fact, just so there could be no misunderstanding, Jesus gives us the interpretation of all of these parables when he plainly says in Matt. 21:43:

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you [Israel that rejected Christ] and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.

So, there is no doubt that the “fig tree” represents Israel that rejected Christ in Matt. 21.

But the problem comes in when men like Hal Lindsey then say, when Jesus says in Matt. 24:30-32, “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near;” this means when Israel in the Middle East becomes a nation again, you know the end is near. In fact, Rapture theorists then claim that when Jesus says, “when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all these things take place,” he means “the generation” that sees Israel become a nation will see the coming of the Lord!

This is to stretch the context just a smidgeon, folks!

Men like Hal Lindsey have said that we are “this generation.” First, he said because Israel became a nation in 1948 (Matthew 24:34 fulfilled!), the end would come by 1988! Another famous radio preacher, the late Harold Camping, made similar claims, but he claimed the Rapture would happen in 1994, and twice in 2011!

At any rate, with regard to Hal Lindsay, he claimed if a generation is 40 years, and the “fig tree” generation was the generation that saw Israel become a nation… well… the conclusion is obvious! And you can find this in Hal Lindsay’s book: “The Late Great Planet Earth,” 1948 + 40 = 1988. Oops! By New Years of 1989, (or 1995, and 2012 for the Camping “camp”), all who followed his teaching had egg on their faces!

Some Rapture theorists revised their theory. I have heard some of them claim the end would come before 2007 because Jerusalem was recaptured in 1967; thus, all the land of Israel was not Israel’s until 1967. 1967 + 40 = 2007! Oops again! 2007 came and went! I heard Benny Hinn, a well-known TV Evangelist, a few years ago say on television a “generation” is actually 100 years, rather than the generally understood 40! How convenient! Now he has until 2048 or 2067!

At any rate, the context of Matt. 24:32-34 makes clear that Jesus was NOT referring to any re-establishment of Israel as a political entity. He is simply using a then-common way of knowing “summer is near,” that is, when the fig tree’s “branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves.” In fact, in Luke’s version of this same saying of Jesus, he has Jesus saying, in Luke 21:29,

And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees…”

What would “all the trees” represent? Would that mean all the countries then existing would have to be reestablished as well? Of course not! Again, we do not deny that the fig tree is a symbol of Israel in Matt. 21:19. But we have a different context and usage of the fig tree in Matt. 24:32. Jesus is saying, “When you see these things know that things are ripe and ready.” Jesus is giving clues to believers of both the first century as well as the final generation, and all generations in between, as to what will be signs of covenant judgment coming on the earth.

Jesus is referring in the literal sense to the coming judgment of Israel through the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. But that judgment would be a type of the final fulfillment of all things at the end of time. He gives a number of clues as to what will be the signs of this coming judgment when he says, in essence, ”just as you know summer is near when the fruits on the various trees begin to shoot, you will know that judgment is nigh when you see these things…

This has nothing to do with Israel becoming a nation in 1948 or Jerusalem being captured in 1967!

Is Israel in the Middle East the “Israel” of Prophecy?

We are confining our thoughts here to “the Rapture” as much as we can, but whenever “Israel” comes up in a conversation with a Rapture theorist, there is a crucial point that you must be prepared for. Rapture theorists (more universally called “Dispensationalists”) teach that all of the promises concerning the land promised to the People of God in the Old Testament will be fulfilled in the millennial reign of Christ. They teach the Temple of the Old Covenant  will be restored and some even teach that animal sacrifices will be re-instituted for the Jews! This betrays a faulty notion of what “Israel” represents in the New Testament.

Warning, Warning! Key point here:

All of the promises to the People of God in the Old Testament are fulfilled in Christ and the New Covenant Church he established, the Catholic Church.

The new Israel in the New Covenant is the Church, not the “Israel” that rejected and continues to reject Christ. In fact, St. Paul uses an allegory in Galatians 4:22-26 to make this point:

For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, the son of the free woman through promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.

In Galatians 6:16, St. Paul plainly refers to the Church as the “Israel of God.”

Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule, upon the Israel of God.

When Jesus prophesied the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem as judgment permitted by God, he said, in effect, the only way to a relationship with God for the Jews is through recognizing their Messiah, Jesus Christ. In Matt. 23:36-24:2, and on the heels of Jesus declaring judgment was about to fall upon Israel for rejecting their Messiah, we read:

Truly, I say to you, all this will come upon this generation. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken and desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” (ch. 24) Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”

St. Paul uses unequivocal language concerning the Jews who rejected the Messiah in Romans 2:28-29:

For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal.

Thus, the Church is the “New Israel.” This does not mean that God does not have a plan for those who are Jews, “according to the flesh,” as Scripture calls them. In fact, the CCC 674 tells us, referencing Romans 11:20-29, that:

The glorious Messiah’s coming is suspended at every moment of history until his recognition by “all Israel”, for “a hardening has come upon part of Israel” in their “unbelief” toward Jesus. St. Peter says to the Jews of Jerusalem after Pentecost: “Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for establishing all that God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old.” St.   Paul echoes him: “For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?” The “full inclusion” of the Jews in the Messiah’s salvation, in the wake of “the full number of the Gentiles”, will enable the People of God to achieve “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”, in which “God may be all in all.”

There will be a large number of Jews, “according to the flesh”, come to Christ in the last days before the coming of the Lord, but this does not mean that all of the promises of God to the Jews are not fulfilled in the Church. They are. All people, whether Jew or Gentile must come to Christ in order to experience the sacraments, especially baptism, that have the effect of joining all of humanity as one in Christ where, as St. Paul says in Galatians 3:26-29:

For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

 4. No treatment on the Rapture is complete without addressing the famous “left behind” texts of, for example, Matt. 24:40-42:

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. Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

This is the text (along with the parallel texts in the other synoptic Gospels) where the famous “left behind” series of books (and now movies) by Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins got their names. It is taken to mean that one day believers will be secretly “raptured” away and the rest will be “left behind.”

What’s the problem here, you ask?

First, if we read the three verses leading up to this text, we find 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.

It seems from the text that the folks who are being “taken away” are being “taken away” to judgment rather than to heaven. He says, “as in those days before the flood… they did not know until the flood came and swept them away.”

Secondly, and along these same lines, if we go to a parallel text to this one, in Luke 17:34-37, we find this:

I tell you, in that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding together; one will be taken and the other left. And they said to him, “Where, Lord?”

If you asked any dispensationalist today the question, “Where are those who are ‘taken away’ going?” They would respond, immediately, “To Heaven!” But what did Jesus say to the apostles when they asked him where they were going to be taken?

He said to them, “Where the body is, there the eagles [Gr. aetoi, vultures, eagles – the word is being used to convey birds of prey feasting on carcasses] will be gathered together.”

That doesn’t sound like heaven, does it?

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The Rapture, the Antichrist, and the Second Coming of Christ – Pt. 1

In my next post, we will get into a biblical critique of the popular “Rapture” theology we find mostly among Evangelical, Fundamentalist, and Pentecostal Christians, but before we do that I would like to respond to a question I often get when talking about this question in general.

“What’s the big deal?”

In other words, so what if these confused Protestants have their beliefs about this aspect of eschatology awry. That’s not going to hurt anybody, is it?

In fact, I argue, Dispensationalist theology is dangerous for many reasons, but one of them can be seen in their view of the Antichrist. Now, for those who may not know, “Dispensationalist theology” made famous by Hal Lindsey’s “The Late Great Planet Earth,” and Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkin’s famous “Left Behind” series of books and movies, radically departs from the traditional and biblical Catholic teaching on the Second Coming of Christ. Texts of Scripture that speak of the Second Coming of Christ have always been understood to refer to the absolute consummation of all things at the end of time. Not so, with the Rapture theorists.

The Rapture theorists divide the coming of Christ into first a “Rapture of the Church” where true believers in Christ (and in the very near future, I might add) will literally disappear from sight having been “raptured” up to heaven by God. This is a sort of “secret coming” of Christ that only affects true believers. They will be taken away while the rest are “left behind” to face a seven-year tribulation period where the Antichrist will be revealed and literally billions will be slaughtered in a massive world war that will follow.

Nota Bene: I am using for this post the most popular version of the Rapture theory known as the “Pre-tribulation Rapture” theory. This means the Rapture of the Church will occur before a seven-year tribulation period of unspeakable horror on earth for those “left behind.” There is a minority of folks who hold to a “mid-trib” theory that says the Rapture will occur 3.5 years into the seven-year tribulation. And there are those few who hold to a “post-tribulation” theory that says the Rapture will occur after the seven-year tribulation as well.

At any rate, this “Rapture of the Church,” according to the popular theory, will cause car and airplane crashes, as well as massive economic and cultural chaos due to the “disappearance” of millions of people in an instant.

Again, see my next post for a thorough de-rapturing of Scripture.

But understand that after the Rapture, those “left behind” will have to face the Antichrist, a massive world war that will see the slaughter of billions, as well as executions of a relatively few who will turn to the Lord for salvation during this terrible time of persecution.

Then, at the end of the seven-year period of tribulation, Jesus will return to establish a 1,000 year reign on earth where there will be great harmony, though there will still be sin and death for some. The righteous will live very long lives and many will come to Christ during these 1,000 years leading up to the final “White Throne Judgment” at the end of this millennium that will usher in eternity.

So what could be the harm here, right?

One interesting and I believe dangerous error taught by Dispensationalists about the Rapture, is their teaching that says Christians will never see the Antichrist. Christians will be “Raptured away” before the Antichrist comes on the scene. Would this not be the perfect set up for the Antichrist himself when he does come on the scene? What better cloak for him to deceive than a belief that excludes he could possibly be the Antichrist? This is extremely dangerous, folks!

The Church and the Bible Say

CCC 675-676 gives us the Catholic and biblical perspective on the Antichrist:

Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the “mystery of iniquity” in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh.

The Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the “intrinsically perverse” political form of a secular messianism.

The Church traditionally distinguishes between the Antichrist, generally understood to be a pseudo-Messiah who will come at the end of time and lead “the world” against the Church in this “final trial” that we just read about in the Catechism, and antichrist[s] in the plural who participate, in various ways, in the same spirit, so to speak, of Antichrist who will personify the spirit or mind of the devil.

Recall Satan’s temptation to Adam and Eve. He tempted them to “realize within their own history,” so to speak, or in their own lives God’s promise of sharing in God’s own image and likeness, but by their own power and in their own way. Satan is the ultimate example of Sinatra’s famous—“I did it my way!” The spirit of Antichrist, in a sense, is synonymous with the spirit of the devil that opposes the will and the way of God in favor of his own way.

II Thess. 2:1-12–a text we will examine a bit below, and more in my next post–describes the Antichrist to be a person who will have all the power and deception of the devil himself. He will attempt to deceive people into believing that he is what he is not. Ultimately, he will claim himself to be God. And it will only be the coming of the Lord that will stop him. Christ himself will finally defeat him and cast him into Hell.

But we also see in St. John’s writings, for example, there will not only be the Antichrist who appears at the end of time, but there are “many antichrists” already in the world:

For many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. Look to yourselves that you may not lose what you have worked for, but may win a full reward (II John 1:7-8).

Children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come; therefore we know that it is the last hour… [22] Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son (I John 2:18-22).

In St. John’s day, he was combating the early “fathers,” so to speak, of Gnosticism. According to St. John, they personified the Antichrist because they denied the Incarnation of Christ—the plan of God for the salvation of the world, thus, Antichrist “denies Jesus coming in the flesh.” But he then goes beyond this and says anyone who would then “deny the Father and the Son” to be an antichrist.

But here is a point many miss: In this same context, St. John teaches us something else very important in I John 4:3-6. Just after St. John declared every one who “confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God,” obviously aimed at the false teachers who denied Jesus had a physical body, he goes on to say:

… and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of antichrist, of which you heard that it was coming, and now it is in the world already. Little children, you are of God, and have overcome them; for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are of the world, therefore what they say is of the world, and the world listens to them. We are of God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and he who is not of God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

According to St. John, there is a connection between the spirit of antichrist and those who reject God’s authority, or spokesmen, on earth. The “spirit of truth and the spirit of error” can be known quite simply and clearly. The spirit that says I know more than God’s apostles or bishops on the earth, sent by God with his authority is that same spirit of antichrist that says, “I’ll do it my way!” This is what St. John is warning against in I John 4:6.

Sounds Protestant, doesn’t it? Yet, not just Protestant. The spirit of antichrist is the spirit that says I’ll do it “my way.” The spirit that says with the Devil in Jer. 2:20, “Non serviam!”

Am I saying all Protestants are “antichrists?” No. But I am saying there is a spirit of antichrist that permeates the reformer’s mindset.

At any rate, back to the point:

We, as Catholics, believe it will only be after the revealing of the Antichrist that the Second Coming of Christ will come about, wherein Christ will come and all the nations will be gathered together for the final judgment as Christ himself clearly says to us in Matthew 25:31-46. But that’s it! Then the faithful will be in eternity and experiencing an existence that is beyond anything we can now fathom. However, this is not so according the Rapture Crowd!

More Problems

We have some very obvious problems with the Rapture theory from a biblical as well as historical perspective. The Bible teaches just one “Second Coming” of Christ. Yet, the Rapture theory has Christ coming (at least half way down), snatching up Christians, and then going back up to heaven for seven years! Then it presents Christ as coming again at the end of a seven-year tribulation (a “third” coming?) to establish a millennial kingdom on earth that will last for 1,000 years. During this time “the wolf will lie down with the lamb” (Is. 11:6), children will be born, people will die (though they will live a long time as I said above) and people will have to choose Christ and then Christ will finally judge those who live through the millenium at the end of the 1,000 year reign of Christ on earth!

So, what is being presented is a second and third coming of Christ! Now, to be fair, some Dispensationalists will say the Second Coming is broken down into two-parts: the Rapture and then the Coming of the Lord seven years later. But the Bible says absolutely nothing of the sort.

Perhaps even stranger is the fact that we have four judgments: One at death, one at the Rapture, one at the end of the Tribulation and one at the end of the millennium! As we will see in part two of this post, the Bible only speaks of two Judgments: the particular and the general Judgment at the end of time. And, again, it only speaks of two comings of Christ. The First was in the manger of Bethlehem and the Second will be at the end of time. So where did all of this “Rapture stuff” come from?

From the writings of St. Paul in II Thess., to the Montanists in ca. AD 200 to the millenium craze in AD 1000 to the “Millerites” in 1843-1844, there have been from time to time, and in various forms, many examples of false teachers who get carried away with the imminent return of the Lord. In fact, in II Thess. 2:1-12, St. Paul tells us there were folks who were then teaching Christ’s return was immanent in the first century. And the irony is, St. Paul clearly does not agree with them. He clearly says there was then present “a restrainer” that would have to be taken “out of the way” and that the coming of him whom we today call “the Antichrist” would have to occur as well before the Second Coming:

Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling to meet him, we beg you, brethren, not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word, or by letter purporting to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you this? And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, and the Lord Jesus will slay him with the breath of his mouth and destroy him by his appearing and his coming. The coming of the lawless one by the activity of Satan will be with all power and with pretended signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are to perish, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends upon them a strong delusion, to make them believe what is false, so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.

Notice, the Lord clearly will not come until after the antichrist is revealed. St. Paul’s message is as timely today as it was 2,000 years ago.

And we can say the same thing today. “The day of the Lord has not come!” And “the day of the Lord will not come until after the Antichrist is revealed!” And there are other things that have to happen as well that are somewhat less certain as to their fulfillments. “The rebellion” of which he speaks, is actually apostasia in Greek, or “apostasy.” This will, most likely, be an apostasy like we’ve never seen before in history. We’re not even close to that now.

It also speaks of the removal of “the restrainer.” Tertullian connected this with lawful government because of the connection to lawlessness. More likely, it would be the sovereign will of Christ whom Scripture depicts as “the strong man” who binds Satan, and the one who “looses” Satan to tempt the earth in Matt. 12:29, and Rev. 20:7.

But one thing Is absolutely certain, the Lord will not come until after the Antichrist is revealed. Now, these necessary things can happen swiftly, and the Lord could come again in any generation, but we have to be careful about coming up with scenarios where we start giving dates and times for Christ’s return! Jesus was pretty cautionary on that point in Matt. 24:36. And yet…

William Miller, a Baptist lay preacher, is an excellent and more contemporary example of one who believed Jesus’ return was imminent in his day. He said Jesus was coming by March 21, 1844. He then extended it to October 22 before giving up on his theory, only to have his message “saved” by the “vision” of Hiram Edson who said Jesus did come, but he came in an “invisible way” and “cleansed the sanctuary” in heaven! His “visible” coming was very soon, he said… we’re still waiting… but his invisible return already happened.

Invisible? Really? What ever happened to “every eye will see him” (Rev. 1:7)?

By the way, the sect Hiram Edson started would later become the “Adventist” movement out of which would arise such sects as the Seventh-Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have become famous for their many predictions of the end of the world, such as they said was coming in 1914 (and many other years). Their last prediction of the coming of the Lord was for 1975. Obviously, it didn’t happen!

There have been many others who have predicted the second coming (in the case of Miller and others, many of their followers lost everything in the process! They sold off everything they had and waited… and waited…). But beginning with John Darby, a Congregationalist minister in the 1870′s, we have for the first time this very odd and novel belief, not just in the imminent return of Christ, but in this “secret rapture” I mentioned above that has become the craze today in many Evangelical, Fundamentalist and Pentecostal circles.

You’ve probably seen the bumper stickers on cars that will say things like, “In case of rapture, nobody will be driving this car!” The belief is that when the Rapture occurs, all born-again Christians will simply disappear, cars will crash, airplanes being flown by Christians will crash, etc. And this will begin the 7-year tribulation period just before the Coming of the Lord where he will come back to earth to rule and reign for 1,000 years.

This “Rapture” mentality has led to many failed predictions of the coming of the Lord from Hal Lindsey’s famous prediction that Jesus was coming before 1988 in his 1970 book, “The Late Great Planet Earth,” to Harold Camping’s many, many failed predictions.

Let’s pause here for now. But don’t miss my next post where I will give you an in-depth exposition on why the seven most often used biblical texts in favor of the Rapture theory, actually say absolutely nothing of it! In fact, some of them expressly contradict the theory!

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Is Hell Really Real?

It has become fashionable in some Catholic quarters these days to question where there are now or will ever be any souls populating hell. Hell, it is taught, is a “real possibility,” but whether there are any souls actually there, or whether there will ever be any souls there, is unknown to us.

It is, of course, true that hell is a “real possibility” for each of us. And that is a sobering thought. But it is also true that souls are actually in hell now, and will be for all eternity. This is a teaching of our Catholic Faith.

Au Contraire!

No less of a luminary than Fr. Robert Barron, following the great Hans Urs von Balthasar, from his famous book on the topic, Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?, writes in his book, Catholicism, on pages 257-258:

If there are any human beings in hell, they are there because they absolutely insist on it. The conditional clause with which the last sentence began honors the church’s conviction that, though we must accept the possibility of hell (due to the play between divine love and human freedom), we are not committed doctrinally to saying that anyone is actually “in” such a place. We can’t see fully to the depths of anyone’s heart; only God can. Accordingly, we can’t declare with utter certitude that anyone—even Judas, even Hitler—has chosen definitively to lock the door against the divine love. Indeed, the liturgy compels us to pray for all of the dead, and since the law of prayer is the law of belief, we must hold out at least the hope that all people will be saved. Furthermore, since Christ went to the very limits of godforsakenness in order to establish solidarity even with those who are furthest from grace, we may, as Hans Urs von Balthasar insisted, reasonably hope that all will find salvation…

Let me just say at the outset here that neither Hans Urs von Balthasar nor Fr. Robert Barron are “universalists,” as they are sometimes accused of being. Both taught hell as a “real possibility” emphasizing the fact that we just can’t know with “utter certitude”—to use Fr. Barron’s words—whether anyone is in hell. Neither ever taught we can know with that same “utter certitude” that everyone is going to be saved either. For an excellent defense of von Balthasar’s teaching, I recommend Mark Brumley’s article, “Did Hans Urs von Balthasar Teach that Everyone Will Certainly Be Saved?” found in The Catholic World Report, November 21, 2013.

Having said that, this does not mean there are not problems with both von Balthasar and Fr. Barron’s teaching. There are. We’ll focus now on Fr. Barron’s above-quoted statement.

The central problem comes from the statement, “If there are any human beings in hell…” And then also with the claim that “the church’s conviction” is that we are not committed “doctrinally” to saying anyone is “in” such a place (hell). These are problematic. There are four points that I think we need to consider:

1. The First Constitution of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 at the very least alludes to the fact that folks then living in AD 1215 would be in hell. This was the opening statement of the Council and its “Profession of the Faith.” The implication is that people from every generation would finally be eternally separated from God, not just people from the 13th century. But, at the very least, for the strict interpreter of the words of the Council, it seems inescapable that the Council taught souls are in hell now:

Indeed, having suffered and died on the wood of the cross for the salvation of the human race, he descended to the underworld, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. He descended in the soul, rose in the flesh, and ascended in both. He will come at the end of time to judge the living and the dead, to render to every person according to his works, both to the reprobate and to the elect. All of them will rise with their own bodies, which they now wear, (Latin text reads quae nunc gestant—which they are now bearing or wearing) so as to receive according to their deserts, whether these be good or bad; for the latter perpetual punishment with the devil, for the former eternal glory with Christ.

The present tense indicates that some folks then living—now wearing their bodies—would go to hell. Thus, the Church is here teaching there are souls “in” hell.

2. We have a more recent magisterial statement from Pope St. John Paul II with, shall we say, an interesting history. It was originally recorded in the L’Osservatore Romano, August 4, 1999, and it read:

Eternal damnation remains a real possibility, but we are not granted, without special divine revelation, the knowledge of whether or which human beings are effectively involved in it.

This sounds like it agrees with Fr. Barron and von Balthasar, doesn’t it? However, when this statement was placed in the AAS (Acta Apostolicae Sedis—all of the official statements of our Popes are placed there in their official form), “whether or” was edited out. This is most significant. The Pope’s original statement seemed to lend itself to Fr. Barron’s position. At the time, it was met with serious blow-back. But it was purposely amended, it appears, to eliminate those two problematic words. Thus, the official statement of the Pope reads:

Eternal damnation remains a real possibility, but we are not granted, without special divine revelation, the knowledge of which human beings are effectively involved in it.

The official statement of the Pope indicates the traditional Catholic teaching that there are human beings in hell, but that we just do not know “which human beings” they are. This is contrary to Fr. Barron’s position.

3. Pope John Paul II, in his book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, provides:

Can God, who has loved man so much, permit the man who rejects Him to be condemned to eternal torment? And yet, the words of Christ are unequivocal. In Matthew’s Gospel he speaks clearly of those who will go to eternal punishment (cf. Matt. 25:46). Who will these be? The Church has never made any pronouncement…” (pg. 185)

Though not a magisterial document, this does give us some insight into the mind of our former Pope. The unresolved question for John Paul was not whether folks are in hell or not, but who they will be individually. That is what the Church has not defined or taught officially. In other words, there is no “anti-canonization” process where someone is declared to be in hell infallibly.

Thus, it seems the Church’s Magisterium has, in fact, taught that there are souls in hell now, and that there will be for all eternity. “Which human beings” we do not know without special divine revelation. With all due respect to von Balthazar’s “Dare We Hope,” I would say that kind of “hope” would be to hope against the sensus ecclesiae, if by that he meant, or if by that Fr. Barron means, that there could even be a possibility that no one is or ever will be in hell. Jesus’ words are, as Pope John Paul II said, “unequivocal.”

And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life (Matt. 25:46).

Jesus seemed as certain that there will be souls in hell as he was that there will be souls in heaven.

Thus, in Fr. Barron’s statement, “If there are any human beings in hell…” he seems to be confusing the idea that we don’t have definitive knowledge of an individual soul being in hell by name, and our not knowing whether there are any souls in hell. We don’t know the former; we do know the latter as a matter of Church teaching.

Dare We Hope?

Finally, I want to consider Fr. Barron’s argument that the Church’s prayer for all of the dead means “we must hold out at least the hope that all people will be saved,” based upon the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi. This seems to be a non sequitur. Because we cannot know who will be saved, and who will be lost (apart from a private revelation, as Pope John Paul II said), it stands to reason we would pray for all. In other words, we would not pray: “Lord, because we know some will end up in hell, I pray Eggbert McGillicutty will be one of them.” Absolutely not! Just as God “wills all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Tim. 2:4), so must we. But a hope or desire does not necessitate even the possibility of a strict fulfillment.

As an analogy, because I know my six children either have sinned (those over the age of accountability), or will sin (those under the age of accountability), that does not mean my prayer, “Dear Lord, keep my children from the ‘sin which clings so closely…’” is somehow void of hope. My desire, my hope, is that they never sin, but there is nothing in that desire, or hope, that means I must then hold to the possibility that all of my children will actually be sinless.

Neither is there anything in the Church’s prayer for all souls that necessitates a doctrinal stand of the Church that says we “must” hold out hope that we will discover “hell” empty in the afterlife. In fact, that would contradict both the words of our Lord I cited above and the teaching of the Church in CCC 1034:

Jesus solemnly proclaims that he “will send his angels, and they will gather… all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire,” and that he will pronounce the condemnation: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire” (Matt. 25:41)!

Notice, the Church declares that “Jesus solemnly proclaims” and “pronounce[s]” that some will indeed be lost.

What Do We Conclude?

While we did not broach the topic of “how many” will be saved; that is for another time, our focus here has been on the question of whether there are and whether there will be souls in hell for all eternity. Greater minds than mine, like the aforementioned Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Fr. Robert Barron, have posited the possibility that all men could well be saved. Indeed, Fr. Barron even claims that as Catholics we “must” hold this to be a real possibility.

In a word, both of these great men are wrong. The teaching of the Church is clear. CCC 1034 teaches us that Jesus “solemnly proclaim[ed]” that Christ will, in fact, “pronounce the condemnation: ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!’” And the Church can do nothing but repeat her Lord’s solemn words.

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