Apocalypse When?


by Carl E. Olson

Ignatius Press, 2003 395 pages, $15.95 To order: (800) 651-1531 or www.ignatius.com

There's little doubt that apocalypse fever has struck. Even a casual stroll through the local bookstore reveals a seemingly endless stream of texts related to the end of the world and the second coming of Christ.

Among the most popular titles in this genre are those in the best-selling Left Behind series, written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. In each of these fictional texts, the authors play out a variety of dramatic end-times scenes. Each book is based on adherence to a particular form of apocalyptic theology that includes, among other components, a belief in “the rapture” — a secret snatching away of “true Christians” that spares them from the horrors of a “great tribulation,” which will precede Christ's final return.

The books in this series have enjoyed tremendous popularity, renewed an interest in apocalyptic discourse and prompted many readers, including a fair share of Catholics, to question whether they might be whisked away to glory — or “left behind” to face eternal torment.

Therein lies the starting point for Carl Olson's in-depth discussion of matters eschatological. But the Envoy editor (and Register correspondent) does much more than probe the question of who will or will not make the heavenly cut. Rather, he takes on the entire notion of the rapture and the belief systems that undergird it, emphasizing that eschatology, the study of the last days, must never be separated from ecclesiology, the study of the nature of the Church.

And, in situating the shallow tenets of popular prophecy preaching against the Church's deep theological patrimony, Olson shows the entire school of apocalypse-happy thought for what it is: a novelty and a sham.

Yet, airtight as his case is, Olson's tone never descends to smugness or condescension. With exemplary charity, he simply lays out the landscape and lets the facts speak for themselves.

“The Catholic Church has much to offer when it comes to the issue of the ‘end times,’ especially since the nature of the Church and the reality of the Kingdom are central issues,” he writes in the book's introduction. “And there is no greater teacher about the Church than the Church herself, the Mystical Body of Christ, ‘the pillar and bulwark of truth’ (1 Timothy 3:15). Many insightful books have been written by Reformed Protestants and other Evangelical scholars about these controversial and complex issues. I have profited immensely from their study - and labor, and I gratefully acknowledge my debt to 1 them. But these works [ occasionally miss, or leave undeveloped, i important points about the mystery of the i Church and the culmination of history, topics that the Magisterium and faithful Catholic theologians have addressed with great profundity.”

Given the runaway marketing success of the Left Behind books — 57 million copies sold so far — Will Catholics Be Left Behind? is an important and timely book. Its copiously documented research is buoyed by the author's lively writing style and his unique perspective as a former adherent of rapture theory.

Olson has given us a comprehensive, scholarly and indispensable resource: a must-read for Catholics needing a response to the hard sell of the end-times enthusiasts — or for those simply pondering Christ's return for themselves.

Patricia A. Crawford writes from Winter Park, Florida.