September 9, 2011

Ten Years After the Sky Fell

It was pushing 9:00, and I was running incredibly late. What I didn’t realize as I hastily dragged a disposable razor through a puffy cloud of shaving cream on my face was that the entire world was going to be late. As I dipped the blade into the sink, a voice from the TV in the bedroom announced that a small private aircraft had crashed into the side of the World Trade Center. I wandered from the bathroom, face half-shaved, to peek at the footage.
How in the world could a small airplane make a hole like that? I wondered to myself, still absentmindedly pulling the razor down my cheek.
That’s when I—along with you—saw the second plane appear at the edge of the TV screen and smash into the second tower. That was no accident!
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My wife was on the other side of the country visiting family, and even though it was before 6:00 in the morning, I grabbed the phone by the bed and dialed the number. My mother-in-law answered.
“You might want to turn on your TV,” I said. “I think somebody’s attacking America.”
Instinctively I knew they’d be shutting down all of the airspace over the United States, and possibly in Canada, too. I was living in Toronto, and had planned to be on the West Coast for an important ministry function in just two days. I had no idea how—or when—I would be reunited with my family. Abandoning the thought of going into the office, I made a few more calls to let the It Is Written team members know what was going on, then just sat on the edge of the bed staring in disbelief. A plane went down in Pennsylvania. Another one smashed into the Pentagon. Each report made me feel sicker: who could do this to civilians?
Flights destined for the United States were diverted to the east coast of Canada, where families opened their homes to hundreds of stranded travelers—a good sign that civility has not been completely abandoned in Western culture. Even before we knew who was attacking us, or why, the unacquainted strangers suddenly became family. We opened our homes. We saw (or heard of) unspeakable acts of bravery. Maybe it was just an instinctive huddle—an autonomic survival response—but I like to think that the sudden display of human solidarity was something more. I choose to believe that it was an indication that the image of God has not been completely wiped from the human heart.
It may also be the only thing about September 11 worth celebrating.
Ten Years Later
Now that we find ourselves a decade away from the event (both of my children had to learn about it on YouTube, because neither is old enough to remember it), we’ve had time to look back over the wreckage of our post-cold war sense of security. When the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet empire collapsed, decades of uncertainty about the world’s safety started to wind down. Yes, there was some concern about Soviet weapons falling into the hands of rogue nations; a Nova report pointed out that Stepnogorsk (a city built by the Russians as a development site for biological and nuclear weapons) lay abandoned in Kazakhstan, its weapons up for grabs. People occasionally speculated about the dangers of now-unemployed Soviet scientists being hired by battle-minded mavericks. But for the most part, the world’s military skirmishes seemed containable.
The crumbling Twin Towers appeared to drive home the point that our world has actually become less stable. Enemies are harder to spot, because they are no longer defined by borders and governments. The Kremlin and the Berlin Wall could be circled on a map; no one knew where al-Qaeda might be hiding. And while we once thought of terrorists as people who bombed embassies and occasionally hijacked planes, we suddenly realized that we had tragically underestimated them. Small groups are capable of inflicting huge pain with diminutive budgets. The smaller efforts and failures seemed distant and relatively inconsequential, and it was just a matter of time until someone succeeded.
Major destructive acts have become frighteningly affordable. The planes on September 11 did not belong to a foreign air force, nor did they drop bombs made in an overseas munitions factory. Civilians and commercial equipment were used as weapons of mass destruction. It was unspeakably horrific—enough to provide a key turning point in modern history.
That’s not to say that the images we watched on September 11, where desperate victims threw themselves hopelessly from skyscraper windows to escape the flames, were any more horrific than the footage gathered in Nazi concentration camps at the close of World War II. The world wars obviously took an exponentially higher number of lives and showed us atrocities on a scale that still shocks us nearly 70 years later. But like the black-and-white films of World War II, the images were a game changer. They shifted the way we think, pushing us (perhaps permanently) out of the warm glow of post-cold war life into a chilly, worried existence under the smoke of the Twin Towers.
It is a strange unease that we feel, however. We are a generation trying so hard to learn from the intolerance of our forebears that we seem incapable of clearly identifying the enemy. Some (suddenly aware of the centuries-old conflicts between Islam and Christianity) will argue that the belief system of Islam itself is somehow intrinsically responsible for our woes. Others, now pointing to the Norwegian slaughter caused by a purported “Christian,” lay the blame for September 11 at the feet of “extremist” Muslim sects. Yet others, building on the pop philosophies of the 1960s and 1970s, browse through the rubble of the World Trade Center in search of evidence that our own beliefs and practices are to blame for what happened, creating a sort of modern Greek tragedy in which we examine the protagonist for the character flaws that inevitably cause the individual’s fall.
Above all, as the generation who grew up with firsthand stories of the death camps, we seem to go out of our way to appear tolerant. We want to appear as if we’re analyzing, not accusing. With the possible exception of Western Christianity, we are willing to separate entire belief systems from actions in our analysis, careful to not appear as if we’re “profiling” anybody. We would rather appear self-loathing than critical.
A Significant Contribution
It is precisely at that point that Adventists have something significant to contribute to the discussion. Of all Christians, we remain the one significant group who is willing to admit publicly that something is wrong with modern Christianity. Much of the evangelical world, having abandoned a sound historical approach to Bible prophecy, has gone searching for an antichrist who is “other.” The identity of the beast of Revelation shifts on almost a monthly basis—from a European dictator, to a computer system in Belgium, to a Middle East tyrant, to the American president himself—who carries a traditionally Muslim name.1
2011 1525 page16Adventists, on the other hand, have not had to change their basic interpretation of prophecy in all the years they have existed as a movement. The longer time lasts, the more accurate our understanding has proved to be, and at the core of it is a message that appeals to the growing group of those searching Western history and culture for the roots of our problems. We have a message tailored for those who live with a profound sense of unease about the state of modern Christianity and Western civilization.
If we are indeed living in the home stretch, God couldn’t (of course) have planned our outreach to the final generation any better. We live in a world that distrusts organized religion, that continually seeks to dismantle Christianity and the culture it has created—and we understand that Bible prophecy identifies the world’s biggest coming problems as originating from within Christianity, not from without. We have a message that answers to the general sense that it is a mistake to lay all of the blame for the world’s current woes at the feet of another world religion.
Take a careful look at Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, and you’ll see it: in identifying the lawlessness of the last days and the “man of sin,” he doesn’t warn of external threats:
“Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God” (2 Thess. 2:3, 4).2
The world’s biggest problems, prophetically speaking, do not arrive from the Middle East, or from the near-vacant halls of proactive atheism, or from the crumbling remnants of Communism. They arrive from within Christianity itself.  Instinctively many of the “secular” people around us know it.3
The Enemy Within
Paul speaks of a “falling away” that would happen before Christ returns, and the context makes it clear that he is speaking about a falling away from the truths of Christianity and the faith of the apostles. While he does provide extended litanies of the sins of pagans, Paul spends much time in his letters identifying sin and apostasy within Christianity. Compare that to the message given to the world by many modern Christians (including some within our own ranks, unfortunately), which spends far more time, proportionally, identifying the sins of pagans.
Step into that arena with the three angels’ messages, and I promise that you will have an audience. Not only does the world around us comprehend that it is no longer business as usual on our planet (it is becoming hard to ignore the signs that something is up), and not only does the public have a general sense of unease (check out how many specials the History Channel runs on 2012 and other apocalyptic themes), but they are desperate for Christians who will honestly admit that Christianity, as it has been practiced, is rife with problems.
We would do well to take our cues from the prophet Daniel, who, in spite of personal fidelity to God, claimed corporate responsibility for the sins of Israel. “We have sinned and committed iniquity, we have done wickedly and rebelled, even by departing from Your precepts and Your judgments” (Dan. 9:5).
Confession Is the First Step
In public evangelistic meetings it is tempting to enumerate the rather obvious identity markers of the little horn and then cast an accusing glance at Rome. The dots are, after all, rather easy to connect. But in recent years I have discovered a much better approach, particularly when introducing the topic for the first time: corporate responsibility.
“You know who this is?” I often ask. “This is us. This is how we behaved during the Dark Ages. These are the crimes of the Christian church, and it’s about time we admit it.”4
I have seen audiences go wild over the statement, because somebody finally admitted it. Out loud. It has given an honest answer to the profound sense of unease the world has with organized religion. It answers the objections of such virulent critics as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris,5 who point to religion as the source of all woe. It takes the current trend of cultural self-loathing, heightened in many circles by September 11, and wipes away the sins of Christianity as an excuse for people to avoid the Scriptures. It takes the blame off God for our horrific behavior and puts it where it belongs—on us.
It’s honest, and it gives us license to examine all sorts of things with people, because it removes the “we/they” mentality and opens the door to honest examination. We can move on to examine the claims of many different schools of thought, including Islam, because together we approach the throne of God, admitting that His voice is the one we most need to hear.
I’ve already alluded to it, but there is something else gnawing at the public’s sense of well-being: the way we seem to be willing to trade liberty for security after a crisis. We complain vociferously about the indignities we suffer at the hands of the Transportation Security Administration, but the week after September 11, we were more than willing to wait eight hours to check in for a flight (I waited eight and a half hours for a flight that left on September 13), because we didn’t want to be the next plane to drop out of the sky. We were happy to have strangers rifle through our suitcases and confiscate our personal effects, because it seemed necessary at the time.
Later we complained about full-body scanners and the Patriot Act, but we easily forget how badly we wanted such things in the face of a crisis. Legislators who later decried overseas wars are  loath to be reminded of how heartily they supported the original decision to engage. Some people went so far as to suggest that September 11 was a conspiracy, producing clever YouTube videos to demonstrate that a shadowy elite had carefully orchestrated the whole event as a means of consolidating power.
As with religion, we sensed that something was clearly wrong with government. We collectively sensed that there was something more going on behind the scenes than was being presented on CNN. Everybody had a theory, ranging from big oil to the Illuminati. The recent partisan debate over the debt ceiling drew heavy criticism from a public slow to trust any form of government at all.
The public is getting more nervous by the moment as our world seems to spiral out of control. We can’t control the economy, we can’t control the terrorists, we can’t control the climate,6 and we wonder when the next Haitian earthquake or Japanese tsunami is going to hit. We don’t trust religion, and we don’t trust government, and ironically, the table is being set for the granddaddy of all religio-political tyrannies. We have had enough of human suffering and inadequate solutions. We don’t know what to do with our sense of angst. We don’t know how to fill the void left in our hearts by the dismantling of faith.
The world will cry for solutions, and a fallen angel who has waited millennia for this opportunity will provide them.
A Time of Opportunity
There has never been a better time to share our prophetic message with the world. Let the world take one more look at Jesus through the lens of the three angels’ messages before the final, overwhelming delusion hits. We complain that we cannot reach the postmodern world with the message of Jesus, as if the world is happy in its philosophical uncertainty. We take signals from general Christendom that the world is tired of hearing the traditional message of Christianity and assume that our own remnant message falls entirely into the same category—when in fact it offers the world precisely what they need to hear from Christians at this moment. We have the ability to tap into the public’s unease and distrust and show them why they’ve been soured on Christian faith and worldly government7—and show them that the character of God is not at all like what they’ve been told.
The devil knows the power behind the final proclamation of God’s people; that’s why he is working so very hard to construct a counterfeit. If we do not answer people’s questions, if we do not provide the public with a framework for understanding the world’s (and personal) problems, if we do not show them Jesus, the devil will gladly show them his version.
And according to the Bible, he will be remarkably successful.
A Message for Our Time
There’s little question in most people’s minds that September 11 set the table for something. As God’s remnant church, we need to assume, based on the astounding prediction of Revelation 18, that the glory of Christ will light up the globe before His return. The attack on the World Trade Center has set the table for us to finish our assignment. God has already given us every conceivable tool for speaking to the hearts of this final generation.8
Above all, the smoldering rubble at ground zero demonstrated that we simply don’t have answers for a world broken by a deliberate disconnect from God. In the endgame people will lay the blame in one of two places. Some will ultimately blame God (and religion, etc.); others will realize, before it’s too late, where the blame actually belongs: with us. We broke this planet. We broke our own hearts. We spawned the evil that besets us—and Jesus is still the answer.
No more running late; the time is upon us.
1 In the wake of the 2008 presidential election the airwaves were busy with preachers denouncing Obama as the antichrist. Some have gone so far as to suggest that his name holds a secret key to his true identity, with odd interpretations of Aramaic and Hebrew being used to equate Obama’s name to someone who fell from the high places “as lightning.”
2 Texts in this article are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
3 I place this word in quotation marks because interaction with tens of thousands has shown me that remarkably few people are, indeed, truly secular. More  often than not, they are frustrated with religion and/or God and express their personal frustration through the vocabulary of skepticism. 
4 I indeed focus on Rome more closely as my relationship with the audience deepens, but this approach has allowed me to keep doors open with the Catholic audience in particular. There is no finger-pointing, just honest self-examination. The audience is often visibly relieved that someone has been honest about the issues; deeply faithful Catholics are disturbed by the dishonesty of Rome in dealing with its current moral morass. Of course, I’ve experienced some Adventists who have been keenly disappointed by this approach; they want more accusation, faster. They want to lay the “straight truth” on people, regardless of whether or not they comprehend it or seem to be willing to examine it further. One person actually told me, “You just called Adventists part of Babylon, you know, by saying we.” Let’s be honest about it, though: unless you happen to be of Waldensian descent, your ancestors were doing this stuff during the Dark Ages too. Some of us, in spite of our Adventist label, are still behaving poorly. It’s time that we all simply owned our sins, which is, after all, the first step in finding forgiveness.
5 Sam Harris famously came to the conclusion that some forms of religion are so dangerous that aberrant belief systems might warrant the death penalty: “The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them” (The End of Faith, p. 53). Many people were naturally horrified by his statement, but it did, at the very least, underscore the fact that during times of crisis, people will be able to come to such conclusions, pointing us eerily to Revelation 13:15.
6 I’ll let you enjoy the irony of that statement at your leisure. On the one hand, we assert that we are responsible for climate change; on the other, we are running scared that there seems to be nothing we can do about it. I’m not attempting to make a political or ideological statement; I’m just enjoying the irony of the notion while pointing out something that frightens much of the population. Please don’t take this as evidence (one way or the other) for my position on whether or not global warming is real and/or human-made.
7 Look at the messages we traditionally use to open evangelistic meetings and Bible studies. The second chapter of Daniel shows a succession of failed human governments that are swept away by the kingdom of Christ—a government that will never fail or need replacing. Matthew 24 shows that Someone knew that our world would face monumental crises, and His advice was to “fear not.” While much of Christianity has been eager to portray Christ as any number of things—a motivational speaker, a businessman, a radical political liberationist, a pop star—we are able to throw open heaven’s sanctuary and present Him as the slain lamb of Revelation 5 and the high priest of Revelation 1.
8 This is not to suggest that God designed September 11 to accomplish His purposes.

Shawn Boonstra is an associate ministerial director for the North American Division, specializing in evangelism, and works from Silver Spring, Maryland. He was previously the speaker/director of the It Is Written television broadcast. This article was published September 8, 2011.