So here’s my theory. Let’s call it “Modern Physics and the Second Coming.” (I bet you weren’t expecting that!)
According to the Hawking-Penrose Theorem, derived from Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, time began when the universe was created. Indeed, time is a part of the universe and is simply undefined outside our finite (in both time and space) universe.
The New Testament beat the scientists to this conclusion millennia earlier–
(1 Cor. 2:7) No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began.
The word often translated “eternal” is aion, which means “unbounded by time” and in many contexts properly refers to a spiritual existence separate from earthly time.
(Luke 18:29-30) “I tell you the truth,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God 30 will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.”
Thus, in the age to come – in the New Heaven and New Earth – we’ll have eternal life, that is, life unbounded by time.
In other words, there is no correspondence between time as we experience it and time as God experiences it — if God is bound by any kind of time at all. As the Bible says, a thousand years is like a day to God. It doesn’t mean that he’s old! It means his time is radically unlike ours.
Hence, as heaven is outside the created universe, it’s not bound by and doesn’t even touch time as we know it.
Therefore, it’s entirely possible for me to arrive at the gates of heaven simultaneously with my great-grandparents and great-grandchildren. I really like this thought. And I think this is what we’re promised.
We all die. We all leave this universe and its time. And we all enter God’s realm where earthly time has no meaning. Thus, there’s one Judgment, and it all happens at once – just as the scriptures picture it.
This explains quite a lot, actually. From an earthly perspective, the dead appear to sleep, but not from their perspective. From a heavenly perspective, the dead find themselves immediately at the End, that is, at the entrance to the New Earth. They receive their new bodies in God’s realm, which has no correspondence to earthly time.
Hence, the thief on the cross really did go straight to Paradise to be with Jesus.
Augustine reached the same conclusion in Book XI of his Confessions–
15. But if the roving thought of any one should wander through the images of bygone time, and wonder that Thou, the God Almighty, and All-creating, and All-sustaining, the Architect of heaven and earth, didst for innumerable ages refrain from so great a work before Thou wouldst make it, let him awake and consider that he wonders at false things. For whence could innumerable ages pass by which Thou didst not make, since Thou art the Author and Creator of all ages? Or what times should those be which were not made by Thee? Or how should they pass by if they had not been? Since, therefore, Thou art the Creator of all times, if any time was before Thou madest heaven and earth, why is it said that Thou didst refrain from working? For that very time Thou madest, nor could times pass by before Thou madest times. But if before heaven and earth there was no time, why is it asked, What didst Thou then? For there was no “then” when time was not.
We have to add a little more modern physics to the mix. We now accept as elementary that we are all made of electrons, protons, and neutrons. The protons and neutrons are made of quarks. And these seem to have finite lives. As some some point, protons are likely to decay into more elementary particles. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proton_decay. This hasn’t been proven, but is the outcome of current theories.
Moreover, under the Second Law of Thermodynamics, we know that the universe is subject to entropy. The energy in the universe will eventually so dissipate that there will be no usable energy and, hence, no life. The stars will burn out, chemical and atomic energy will be exhausted, and life will end. This universe is irrevocably destined to die. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heat_death_of_the_universe. (It’ll be a very long time from now, but the universe can’t last forever.)
Hence, if God is to give us new incorruptible, imperishable bodies and a New Earth that will be eternal, he’ll have to make them out of different stuff and put us in a different place. Fermions and bosons, electrons and protons, just won’t last long enough. The universe won’t last long enough. (And everything ever made out the same stuff as this universe wears out, dies, or breaks.)
On the other hand, God is entirely capable of changing the rules. He may, by act of will, rewrite the laws of nature. But when he does, things will unquestionably be different, but they’ll be very different.
Finally, I should add that physics shows us how it’s possible that God’s realm exists right next to our own and yet we can’t see it (most of the time). All you have to do is postulate an additional dimension that our senses do not perceive, and it’s easy enough for God in heaven to be right next to me, but beyond my perception.
I’m not saying that’s how it happens. I’m just saying that it shows that it’s possible without breaking any laws of science at all.