Summer in Thessalonica – Flatland and the End

Two years ago I read a fun little book called Flatland. It begins in a two-dimensional world (flatland, like one you would draw on a piece of paper) with the main character, a Square, telling his story. In the story the Square is visited by a three-dimensional Sphere from Spaceland. But having never lived in three dimensions, the Square cannot conceive of a land different from Flatland. “Up” and “Down” are meaningless words. When the Sphere enters Flatland he appears flat. The Square has to visit Spaceland to understand it.

Also in the story, the Square has two dreams. First he enters Lineland, a universe that is simply a line. Here the Square tries to convince the residents of Lineland, all of whom are points on the line, of the existence of two dimensional Flatland. He fails. In the second dream he enters Pointland, a universe that is one single point and thus consists of just one resident. When the Square communicates with this Universe Point, the Point is convinced the communication comes from inside his own mind as he cannot conceive another being other than himself.

It is a short and interesting book. Of course, you and I live in three-dimensional Spaceland. We are moving through time and cannot conceive of an existence outside of time. I cannot fathom of living in a universe where I can see all points of time in the present (for example, seeing my whole life all at once). Yet for centuries, perhaps oversimplifying a few theological debates here and there, this is how Christians have understood God. God, our Creator and Sustainer, exists outside of time: your birth and death are all present to him at once, just as the birth and death of the universe are present. He is not confined by or within time.

Philosophers, theologians and those with too much time on their hands debate about how exactly this works. No one knows, because stuck in our finite, three-dimensional existence, we cannot ultimately fathom the workings of an infinite God. But Christians also believe, absolutely central to our faith, that God reveals himself to us: from speaking through the writers of scripture, to speaking to us through the Holy Spirit. Primarily and most clearly, God has entered our world in the person of Jesus Christ, the God-Man. It is in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we find forgiveness, adoption into the family of God and new life.

All of that to say that I wonder if we argue and debate and in general misunderstand the “end-times” because, like Spaceland to the Square, it is a whole new level of existence (new heaven and new earth) beyond our current understanding. Last week we looked at 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and focused on the fact that Christians have hope in the face of death:

4:13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. 14 We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

Paul did not write this to offer fodder for later theologians to speculate on how exactly the second-coming was going to work. Rather, the point is to encourage the Thessalonian Christians to have hope in the face of death, knowing that all those in Christ will be united in God’s presence for all eternity (see last week’s e-mail).

Still, phrases like “the coming of the Lord” and “the Lord himself will come down from heaven” give us pause. Other texts, such as Matthew 24, 1 Corinthians 15 and Revelation 21-22 give us images of what the new heaven and new earth will be like. I am not saying we can know absolutely nothing about these future realities. There is enough in Scripture to paint a picture that when Jesus returns, when the veil is removed and heaven and earth are made one, it is going to be beautiful beyond our wildest imaginings. The truth of Jesus Christ’s return has been a central part of our faith since the beginning, it is the hope of the church and all Christians. It influences all we do, for we know we do not serve, minister and evangelize in vain: we fight against sin in our lives knowing Jesus will one day cleanse us, we serve the poor and sick knowing Jesus will one day remove all hunger and disease, we call people to worship Jesus knowing one day every knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

My point is that while the Bible gives us enough to begin to understand a little bit of what our future existence in the presence of God will be like, it does not give us a fully detailed exposition. There is enough to motivate us, but not enough to distract us. In other words, there is enough to move us to live as followers of Jesus, but not enough so that we just sit in our rooms waiting to die and enter God’s presence. I am reminded of the words of Ephesians 2:8-10 – “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” We are saved by grace, not by anything we have done. And we are saved for a purpose, to do good works. We should get to work and not worry about times and dates, as Paul goes on to say in the next part of the letter:

5:1Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, 2for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.

4But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. 5You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. 6So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled. 7For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. 8But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. 9For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. 11Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing

Do not spend your time worrying about when the end will come. Instead, live each day with your hope and trust for your life and work in Jesus Christ.

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