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I wrote this essay ten years ago (Advent, 1996, last revised 7 December 1998), motivated by Episcopal Bishop Jerry Winterrowd. I asked him if he thought we were living in the End Times, and he replied, "There's a reason you asked that question. I don't know what it is, but there is a reason." He said I could follow-up with him on the subject. I wrote him a cover letter and enclosed this essay. He never replied to me. I am grateful for the initial discussion we had, though. By writing this essay I was able to make my own peace with eschatology. I pray that this essay results in a sense of peace for you.
Q: How long does a skydiver have to open his parachute once he's jumped out of the plane?
A: The rest of his life.
What a concise statement of theology! Like the skydiver who carries the means of his salvation with him, we have a "parachute" -- God's forgiveness and unconditional love for us. We need only open the chute -- ask Him to catch our fall -- and we will be saved from the singular lethal impact that awaits each of us.
To talk about the parachute is to proclaim the gospel of Christ's redemptive work on the cross. This essay, however, explores instead the nature of time during the unstoppable journey toward the ground. Skydivers call the effect "ground rush" -- the thrill during the last five hundred feet of descent as the earth fills one's view in an instant. Higher up, and before opening the chute, the sensation is like floating in the air. Approaching the minimum altitude, the skydiver opens his chute. His descent slows, but his perspective is still overwhelmed by the ground speeding upward toward his feet. That part of the journey is, some say, the most exhilarating part of the sport.
I will examine theological ground rush on two levels. First, I will address the exhilaration of living in anticipation of the End Times -- anticipation that grows with every passing year. Second, I will show how utterly irrelevant such predictions are when compared with the inevitability for every one of us who will surely land on the ground in God's Eternal Kingdom at the conclusion of this freefall we call Life. The only distinction is whether we have opened our parachute to get us there with our eternal life intact.
The end of the second millennium is near. Many are already acting in anticipation of the event. Our Lord's own words warn us that we cannot predict His return: "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come." (Mark 13:32-33) Yet many are nevertheless inspired to attempt to name the time in advance.
Jesus tells us that we are to "be alert." He uses parables to ensure that the we see ourselves as servants waiting for the master's return. He speaks to us from the Gospels and the book of Revelation, describing in prophetic detail what signs we will see. Throughout the ages, contemporaries have interpreted natural disasters to mistakenly signal Christ's immediate return. It is no different now -- those who would say the End is near point to earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, droughts, and floods. But other signs in our times are unprecedented in history. After the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD the Jews never again lived as a nation in the Promised Land -- until this century. In this decade -- the last of the second millennium -- plans for rebuilding the temple are finished. After nearly two thousand years since the last temple was leveled, worship in the temple is imminent.
As for the significance of the Third Millennium, consider this. "For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night." (Ps. 90:4) In his second letter, Peter urges believers to be patient for the Master's return; and he elaborates on the psalmist's comparison: "But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day." (2 Pet 3:8). Jesus rose at the beginning of the third day. Will he return at the beginning of the third millennium?
The most troubling and irreversible development of our times, though, is what secular analysts call the "shrinking world." The Cable News Network brings the whole world into our living room through the television. We take this for granted, but a unified view of the world really began to take shape with the surge in exploration by the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and English only five hundred years ago. Not so long after all of the farthest reaches of the earth were within imperial grasp, the World Wars became the stage for bloody Armageddons as the nations learned the hard way how to get along with one another. The disintegration of the Soviet Union -- labeled the "Evil Empire" by President Reagan -- could prove to be the conclusive act signaling an end to imperial expansion altogether. The Gulf War of 1991 pitted Iraq -- the modern geographical name for Babylon -- against a coalition of nations determined to stop raw aggression by the fourth largest army in the world. In the aftermath of Iraq's historic, lopsided, and humiliating defeat, some even go so far as to label the United Nations the Beast of the Revelation -- "Who is like the beast? Who can make war against him?" (Rev 13:4)
The shrinking of the world is shamefully scarred by countless examples of man's hatred, cruelty, and selfishness; but the last five hundred years also contain shining examples of love, kindness, and service. The acts that will withstand the test of eternity are only those done for the glory of God. Acts done in fulfillment of the Great Commission bring us ever closer to the return of Christ. After Jesus' resurrection, He said, "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." (Mat 28:19) But consider Jesus' prophesy spoken before His death: "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Mat 24:14) [emphasis mine] (Also compare with Mark 13:10 and Luke 24:47.)
Some evangelical organizations have projections that predict the Great Commission will be fulfilled in our lifetime. They point to the fact that missionaries will soon be active in every last nation of the world. We know this is a prerequisite to Jesus' return, so how much longer after this irreversible development must we wait? Faithful disciples will no doubt remain busy in all the nations on earth, doing what Jesus commanded until he returns. But in this shrinking world at the dawn of the third millennium they will do so like skydivers whose parachutes have fully opened, the ground of Heaven in full view and rapidly filling their vision.
"I am coming like a thief in the night," Jesus said. "Be alert!" "I am coming soon." It's been two thousand years -- how could such a span of time be "soon?" We already examined Peter's answer to impatient believers -- the Lord's concept of time is not the same as ours. One glimpse of how God may experience time can be found in how our own memories recall the past. We can relive memories over and over. So it may be for God, except that all of time, from Genesis to Revelation, is open to His infinite recollection. But God's relationship to time is so much more than remembering. We know that God is eternal. To use scientific terminology, He exists in a dimension beyond the three spatial dimensions and single temporal dimension which we experience. God transcends time. It is as if all of time at once is "now" for God.
And when we arrive in His presence -- with or without our parachute -- we, too, will be ... outside ... of ... time. We will be in the Eternal Now. And so, it is reasonable to conclude that for all intents and purposes, we all arrive into the presence of God at precisely the same moment. Imagine the profound and mysterious moment of your death. Now imagine waking up at that moment in a vast multitude. You look beside you and meet the thief -- the one to whom Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." You are disoriented; so is he. An instant before, you were in the temporal world two thousand years after Jesus' death and resurrection; his past instant was incomprehensible agony, hanging on a cross beside our Lord and Savior. All moments of time converge at eternity in the presence of God.
Jesus said to the thief, "I tell you the truth." Even in his passion, he had the presence of mind to be sure there was no confusion. "Today you will be with me in paradise" was not merely figurative -- today in paradise meant a specific time and a specific place. Yet the Apostle's Creed asserts that Jesus died, descended to the dead, and rose on the third day. After Jesus' resurrection but before His ascension, He gave a mysterious warning about timing: "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father." (John 20:17) How could He have been in paradise with the thief the day He was crucified and yet also in Hell? Why did He have to wait before ascending to His Father after His resurrection? Not all has been revealed to us, but we will surely understand when we meet Him face to face. We must trust, though, that Jesus meant what He said.
So it is with His promise, "I am coming soon." In The Book of Revelation, that phrase appears four times in this context. The Bible ends with that promise: "He who testifies to these things says, 'Yes I am coming soon.'" (Rev 22:20) Soon. Without delay. Not two thousand years after the crucifixion. "I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened." (Mat 24:34) Always maintaining a sense of urgency, Jesus lived under the influence of the ultimate ground rush.
How long do you have to open your parachute once you've jumped out of the plane? The rest of your life. How long do you have before you meet God Almighty face to face? Only the rest of your life. Feel the ground rush. Jesus has shown us what the Kingdom on the ground looks like. We can see it if we dare to look down, toward where we are falling. If we are to be the generation at the End of Time, then we have all the more reason to be found watching and waiting for our landing on the ground of our Final Home. If not, we will all still surely be on the ground soon. Just be certain that you have opened your parachute.
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Last Updated: 20 August 2006
This document is http://alum.mit.edu/www/tbc/writing/endtimes.htm. Copyright © 1998, 2006. Tim Chambers, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://alum.mit.edu/www/tbc 1E4AF729D5CEFFD0. You are encouraged to download, forward, copy, print, or distribute it, provided you do so in its entirety (including this notice) and do not sell or otherwise exploit it for commercial purposes.