The End of Time
The opening decades of the 21st century have been disturbing. The century began with the twin tower attacks of 9-11-2001 and a series of deadly wars in the Middle East. Then in 2019 an outbreak of the covid-19 virus spread into a worldwide pandemic threatening life and destabilizing economies.
The crisis has sent Christian people into the Book of Revelation. They are trying to understand the times in which we live. The last book in the Bible seems to offer some sort of timeline for world history and its end. The unfolding of warning judgements in the opening of seals, sounding of trumpets, the coming of the thunders, and finally the bowls of wrath seem ominously close. The foretelling of natural disasters, wars, plagues, and the revolt against God’s government are an accurate description of today’s events. It is reasonable to ask where in the timeline we might be. When will Christ return and history end?
Unfortunately, in his Book of Revelation, John doesn’t give us a date for the end of time and the final judgement. We do not find a time given anywhere in the New Testament. What we are told repeatedly is that the end is drawing near. We are told most emphatically that we are living in the end times. Paul tells us, “our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.” (Romans 13:11-12)
The message is crystal clear. The challenge is not to know when the end may happen, but rather to be ready when the end does come. Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church, “Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety,’ destruction will come upon them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.” (1 Thessalonians 5:1-3)
The question before us now is a sobering one. The question is not where are we in the end times? The question becomes, “Am I ready for life as I know it to end? Am I ready to face judgement on my life and what I have done in this life?” For some people this may seem like a question about preparing to die. This is not a question about preparing to die. It is a question about preparing to live, for that is what we shall do if we are prepared to meet Christ at his return and then share in his abundant life in heaven forever. The pressing question is “how am I preparing to live forever?”
We need to think past the judgements and the end of time as we know it into the eternal future. The judgements and all life in this world are temporal, the heavenly world is forever. Far too many Christians have fuzzy misconceptions of heaven. Christians seem to believe that “heaven” is somewhere beyond the sky, a “spiritual” place, meaning it is not a very substantive place. The Bible tells us that heaven is the place where God’s will is done. The scenes of judgement in Revelation should not distract us from the scenes of heaven which, in kaleidoscopic fashion, reveal the wonders of creation, material and spiritual. In the final outcome we are told by John that when evil is vanquished heaven and earth become one. This world is a place of preparation for that world.
So how do I get ready to meet Christ? How do I prepare for the judgement? In his book “The Divine Conspiracy” Dallas Willard issues a challenge that is unfamiliar to many Christians. Please be patient with a rather long quote:
“I am thoroughly convinced that God will let everyone into heaven who, in his considered opinion, can stand it. But “standing it” may prove to be a more difficult matter than those who take their view of heaven from popular movies or popular preaching may think. The fires of heaven may be hotter than those in the other place."
“It might prove helpful to think occasionally of how, exactly, I would be glad to be in heaven should I “make it.” Will it be like a nice, air conditioned luxury hotel with unlimited room service and spectacular amenities for eternity? I often wonder how happy and useful some of the fearful, bitter, lust-ridden, hate-filled Christians I have seen involved in church or family or neighborhood or political battles would be if they were forced to live forever in the unrestrained fullness of the reality of God…and with multitudes of beings just like him.
“There is a widespread notion that just passing through death transforms human character. Just believe enough to “make it.” But I have never been able to find any basis in Scriptural tradition or psychological reality to think this might be so. What if death only forever fixes us as the kind of person we are at death? What would one do in heaven with a debauched character or a hate-filled heart?” (302)
So how do I get ready for the return of Christ? Willard suggests that it is through a purposeful cooperation with God’s Holy Spirit in the transformation of one’s character. The transformation of character is hard work, especially in hard times like the end of history. This sounds almost heretical when the gospel of Jesus Christ has been reduced to the slogan “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” The implication is that it doesn’t matter too much what one does, just so one believes the right thing. After all isn’t grace “free?”
We might dismiss Willard as an enemy of “free grace” were it not for Paul. He writes to us, “But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should not surprise you like a thief…Since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting in faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just in fact you are doing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:4,8-11)
The challenge presented to me, a challenge always present during the season of Lent, and a challenge made so much more acute by the signs of violence, pandemic, and godlessness, signs of the closing of this age, is simply this: “Am I carrying anything in my life that will simply not fit into heaven?” “Is there anything that I hold so tightly that at his coming I would refuse to let it go?” What am I learning in the stay at home order about security, relationships, priorities?” “Could this episode be used by God in a purposeful and positive way?
Should not we be concerned about the lost? What about the importance of witnessing as the end approaches? True enough. But unless our hearts are broken and our lives bear marks of the cross our words will have little influence. To the extent Christianity still influences our culture it is through the witness of changed lives. We are told that the witnesses in Revelation overcame the adversary “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.” (Rev 12:11)
The entire closing remarks of Paul in 1 Thessalonians chapter 5 demands attention. I will leave you with just a few sentences from his instruction and benediction. “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus…May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16)