GREENVILLE – Getting too caught up in the “end times fever,” made currently popular in the Left Behind series, can be detrimental to one’s religious health, a former evangelical Protestant pastor and author said.
Paul Thigpen, Ph.D., told around 200 Catholics and Protestants that there is no Biblical foundation to support the notion of a “rapture,” or third-coming of Christ. He said those who believe in a rapture event are simply reading things into Scripture that aren’t there.
“There is no passage in Scripture where you find a straightforward description of the rapture,” said Thigpen.
Thigpen converted to Catholicism 10 years ago. In 2001 he wrote The Rapture Trap: A Catholic Response to ‘End Times’ Fever. He spoke at a lecture sponsored by St. Mary Church in Greenville.
The book, now in its second printing, discusses Catholic teachings on Christ’s second coming, and the rapture notion and how it differs from the teaching of the Catholic Church.
Thigpen said the current – but certainly not the first – interest in the end of times has been fueled by the Left Behind series written by evangelical Protestant writers Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.
The series, which the authors have expanded into a feature-length movie, compact discs, video and audio tapes and a version of the series for children, opens with millions of people suddenly “vanishing” from Earth and leaving all of their everyday possession – including the clothes they were wearing – behind.
Those who are “caught up” (the word rapture is Latin for “caught up” or “snatched”) turn out to be those who LaHaye and Jenkins say are “believers” in Jesus, while the so-called non-believers are “left behind” to deal with a world left in chaos by the rapture event.
According to the authors, Christ returns for a third time at the height the “great tribulation” to defeat the Antichrist and all the forces of evil.
Thigpen said the rapture idea comes primarily from a misreading of several Bible passages.
Thigpen, who at one time was an evangelical Protestant pastor, said rapture believers often cite a passage from St. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians and other New Testament books in defending their view.
But Thigpen said those passages are referring to Christ’s Second Coming and not a surprise rapture.
“All of these passages are about the Second Coming of Christ, where we will greet him in all his glory and not in some hidden, secret way,” he said. “They apply to the end times and not to a rapture.”
Thigpen said Paul and the Gospel writers simply used these passages to help swell the ranks of what was then the still young church.
The author of 25 best-selling books A Dictionary of Quotes from the Saints and Blood of the Martyrs, Seed of the Church: Stories of Catholics Who Died for Their Faith, Thigpen said there’s no historic basis for a “secret rapture” among any of the major religions.
“John Calvin, Martin Luther, John Wesley – they all failed to see it,” Thigpen said. “Are these people and others simply clueless?”
In fact, the notion is a relatively new one in religious history, first surfacing around the start of the 20th century.
Thigpen said the current popularity of a secret rapture or third coming of Christ, especially among Christian fundamentalists, may simply be a reflection of the turmoil many see in the modern world.
“Maybe these people want to find a secret rapture because it holds for them the promise that they are going to escape God’s wrath to come,” he said. “That’s why it’s so appealing to so many.”
Thigpen’s three-hour presentation included a recounting of his “coming home” to the Catholic Church.
The Savannah resident said he was raised in the Presbyterian Church became an Atheist by the time he was 12, and returned to the Protestant faith during his college years before joining the Catholic Church in 1993.
He was introduced at the St. Mary’s lecture by two former students – now St. Mary parishioners – who took theology classes under Thigpen when he was at Emory University in Atlanta.
He has also served as assistant professor of American religion at Southwest Missouri State University; as a fellow in theology at The College of Saint Thomas More in Fort Worth, Texas; and on the adjunct faculty of St. Leo University in Savannah.