The “Parabola Theory” of Time and Eternity

Dr. Norman Metzler

Professor Emeritus of Theology, Concordia University, Portland, OR

A significant question regarding the last things and the kingdom of God is how we might best envision the relationship between time and eternity in a way that takes into account the scriptural evidence and plain reason. This question obviously presses us to the limits of human comprehension since we are obviously only able to speculate on matters of eternity and the realm of God from within our limited historical context of time and space. We can only attempt to address such questions utilizing analogies from our human perspective, even as we seek to grasp the divine perspective revealed to us through Holy Scripture. We “see through a glass darkly” in any such attempts, and therefore wager an explanation humbly and with “fear and trembling.” Nonetheless, since God has chosen to reveal himself within history through his Son, it behooves us to utilize images or analogies that might most helpfully capture the thrust of the question as it is raised by Scripture.

  • There are various biblical passages, reflected in the Creeds, that support the Christian view that the kingdom of God/heaven is an eschatological future reality. Jesus made it clear that he was presently on earth as the suffering servant Messiah, but that he would return in glory at the end of this age to usher in the new age of the heavenly kingdom. (E.g., Mk. 14: 61-62; Mt. 25: 31 26:64; Acts 3:19-21; 1 Cor. 15:22-25) He taught his disciples to pray that the kingdom of God would come soon: “May your kingdom come.” (Mt. 6:10) This view is amply supported by St. Paul and other New Testament writers and is dramatically portrayed in the Book of Revelation. The fervent hope for the coming kingdom motivates and informs the lives of Christians here and now, as they anticipate the coming kingdom. However, the actual new age of the kingdom itself lies in the future at the end of history — at least from our inescapable vantage point within history.
  • At the same time, there are biblical passages suggesting that the eternity of God’s kingdom is a transcendently “present” reality, not just a reality in the distant future, beyond time and space. In his interaction with the penitent thief on the cross, Jesus promised the thief that he would be with Jesus that day in paradise or heaven. (Luke 23:43) (While some scholars challenge the traditional view by proposing that Jesus was simply making the promise on that day, not that it would be fulfilled that very day, most scholarship continues to support the popular view that Jesus was assuring the thief that he would fulfil his promise that very day.) Whereas the thief asked Jesus to remember him when he would come into his kingdom, assuming it to be in the future, Jesus in effect assured him that the future was now, that very day. Furthermore, in “The Lord’s Prayer” Jesus taught his disciples to pray that God’s will may be done here and now on earth, in time and space, even as it is presently being done in heaven, beyond time and space. (Mt. 6:10) These biblical references, taken together, appear to affirm the kingdom of God as a transcendently present reality.

How are we to reconcile these two seemingly conflicting perspectives on the kingdom of God? On the one hand, the kingdom is pictured as a new creation, to be ushered in by Christ in the future at the end of history. On the other hand, the kingdom appears to exist as a transcendent reality beyond this creation, where God’s will is being done right now, and where at our death we will be with the Lord immediately. We propose the following “parabola theory” as a way to account for both of these perspectives.

The Parabola Theory

We invite you to envision a parabola opening to the left of this page, with the rounded enclosed end to the right.

  • The space within the parabola is “time.”
  • The area outside the parabola is “eternity,” the realm of God’s heavenly kingdom.
  • The parabola itself is the separating line between time and eternity.
  • A straight line bisects the inside of the parabola, representing the trajectory of history within time.
  • At the end of the line of history and to the right of the rounded end of the parabola is the Final Judgment and the Kingdom of God.
  • Along with the line of history are the words “All dead persons asleep in Christ” with an arrow pointing to the right, toward the end of history.
  • Part of the way along the horizontal line of history, a straight vertical line ascends from the horizontal line of history to meet the parabola line.
  • Along with this vertical line are the ascending words “Death of each person,” with an arrow above the topmost word pointing upward, toward where the vertical line meets the parabola line.


  • From the human perspective within history, the parabola line is the same point in “time” for all who die as well as for the end of all creation at the end of the horizontal line. It is simultaneous to all history because it is that “point” at which creation is transformed from temporal, mortal, perishable time and space into immortal, imperishable eternity of the kingdom of God.
  • The kingdom of God is both in the future from the human historical perspective – “May your kingdom come;” and it is transcendently present to all moments in human history – “May your will be done on earth as it is being done in the kingdom of heaven;” “today you will be with me in paradise.”
  • From the human viewpoint within history, one who has “fallen asleep in Christ” awaits the resurrection of all flesh in the end-time at the Final Judgment, along with all those who are alive in history. (1 Cor 15:18) One’s personal self or “soul” within history is not separated from the physical body at death but rather remains associated with the physical body as they await Christ’s return in glory. Despite popular belief, the Scriptures (reflecting the Jewish worldview) do not describe a disembodied soul leaving the body at death.
  • From the divine point of view that transcends history, the personal self or soul experiences the transformation of their physical embodiment into their spiritual embodiment “immediately” at death, in the resurrection of the body; the person will meet Christ at the Final Judgment in their new immortal body (Luke 23:43; Heb. 9:27). As in the human experience of sleep, the next thing a person “knows” or is consciously aware of when they are raised is that they are with the Lord at the Final Judgment. (1 Cor. 15:51-52)
  • The personal soul or self “immediately” experiences meeting Christ at the Final Judgment for an accounting of their life. This life assessment may include the recognition of any appropriate “reward” for their good works as well as the acknowledgement of any needed “purgation” of their evil deeds, (1 Cor. 3:13-15) so that the new person may be welcomed by Christ into their permanent home in God’s heavenly kingdom.

The Case of the Thief/The Case of Jesus

From our earthly perspective the penitent thief on the cross is asleep — body and soul — in the earth from which he was created, awaiting his end-time resurrection when Christ returns in glory. The condition of his physical body at death is not important; it doesn’t matter whether one dies with a completely intact physical body or with a physical body reduced to ashes in a fire. What God created and developed in the mortal physical body of the thief is a person whose identity or selfhood supersedes the temporally embodied physical body, a personal self that will live forever with God. In the resurrection at the end of time the thief will be embodied in a new eternal spiritual body, freed from all the limitations and sinfulness associated with his former physical body.

From the divine perspective, the penitent thief is already living with Christ in his new eternal spiritual body, as promised by Christ; his former physical embodiment no longer matters. His unique selfhood or identity in relation to God and others in the new creation of God’s kingdom will last eternally.

The experience of the physical body of Jesus was unique compared with the experience of the physical body of the penitent thief and all other human beings. At the thief’s death,  his physical body remained on earth viewed from the human perspective within history, awaiting the resurrection at the end of history, while he received his new spiritual body at his resurrection as seen from the divine perspective outside history. In the absolutely unique case of Jesus, his physical body was taken up from the earth by God simultaneously with Jesus’ resurrection to his new spiritual body. It was necessary for the tomb to be empty in order to avoid any confusion about the reality of Jesus’ unique experience of the end-time resurrection in the midst of history. Just as the spiritually embodied angel needed to appear in physical form at the empty tomb in order to communicate with the disciples in a very real, physical fashion, so it was necessary for Jesus in his new spiritual body to appear in physical form to assure his disciples in a very real, physical way that he had indeed experienced the end-time resurrection in his own person, “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20) Through his various appearances he confirmed for his disciples his Messianic identity and validated his gospel message, dramatically changing them from fearful cowards into fearless witnesses who changed the course of history through their proclamation of the gospel.


We propose that this Parabola Theory of the relationship between time and eternity may offer a conceptually helpful and biblically appropriate explanation for how:

(1) from our human perspective within this historical life on earth we can only picture the heavenly kingdom of God as a future and transcendent reality, ahead of and beyond our present situatedness in time and space, at the end of the trajectory of creation’s history.

(2) from the divine perspective in eternity, we can envision the present physical creation being transformed “immediately” from mortal, perishable, physical time and space into participation in the immortal, spiritual eternity of God. The “time” between our individual death and the end of all creation is collapsed into the simultaneity of God’s eternity. In responding to the Sadducees’ question regarding the resurrection, Jesus expressly declares that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were resurrected, for God is the God of the living. (Mt. 22:31-32) It is also noteworthy that in the context of the conversation with the Sadducees Jesus also explains that there will be no need for marriage in heaven because our new spiritual bodies will live eternally, like the angels. (Mt. 22:23-32)

Jesus’ resurrection in the midst of history anticipated the general resurrection, indeed the transformation of the whole physical creation to the eternal spiritual new creation, when Christ will return in glory. His unique capabilities in the resurrection appearances — appearing physically and then suddenly disappearing, passing through walls and closed doors, appearing unrecognizable and then recognizable — give us an indication of how our new spiritual bodies in the kingdom of heaven will supersede the capabilities of our present physical bodies. Those who claim that the new creation will continue to be basically a “restored” physical reality fail to do justice to St. Paul’s painstaking contrast between the perishable, shameful, weak, natural, mortal body of Adam and the imperishable, glorious, powerful, spiritual, immortal body of Christ. We will certainly continue to have our unique personal identity in God’s kingdom, but we will be embodied in a dramatically new form, beyond anything we can conceive of this side of heaven. “And so we will be with the Lord forever.” (1 Thess. 4:17)

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2 thoughts on “The “Parabola Theory” of Time and Eternity

    • Joe,
      Norm had put together a very helpful parabola, but WordPress won’t allow me to upload Norm’s diagram. Perhaps you could contact him directly, and he could send you his article with the diagram.

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