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The Catholic approach to Revelation

Left Behind’s approach to the book of Revelation and other prophetic biblical passages is so different from that of Catholic biblical scholarship, it is difficult to find enough common ground to compare the two.

“It’s very foreign to Catholic biblical scholars to treat the book of Revelation as a kind of biblical Nostradamus,” said William Portier, professor of theology at Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Md. “The approach of Catholic biblical scholars to the book of Revelation is dominated by the historical critical method” -- setting Revelation’s imagery in the context of the Roman Empire in the first century -- “trying to figure out what it meant to people who wrote it and what it might mean to us now. It’s a complicated process, opposed to looking at it as a kind of code you need to crack, which is how prophecy people read it.”

According to Bob Hodgson, a researcher with the Institute for Biblical Scholarship at the American Bible Society, Catholics “don’t have a systematic theology of the end of the world as such. We have within dogmatic theology sections on heaven, hell and Last Judgment. But we’ve never consistently tried to parse Revelation in the way our Protestant brothers and sisters have.”

He noted that Roman Catholic interest in the book of Revelation has traditionally been expressed through art. “Instead of talking about the end of the world, we visualize it,” he said. “It becomes the subject of paintings, stained glass windows.”

Though the beliefs about the end times found in books like Left Behind are foreign to the Catholic approach, Portier told NCR that as the Catholic subculture wanes, “more Catholics have contact with things like biblical prophecy as understood by evangelical Protestants and mediated by things like books and movies. That’s a pastoral task that not a lot of theologians are working on because it seems so odd to us. It’s hard to find a New Testament scholar that would really want to get into Hal Lindsey or the Scofield Reference Bible. But it is out there and is going to be more frequently out there.”

--Teresa Malcolm

National Catholic Reporter, June 15, 2001