Thursday, October 6, 2011

Time and Eternity

“Before Abraham was, I am” —John 8:56

Years ago, when I was a child, I was invited to participate in a backyard gathering in which a neighbor told stories from the Bible. The first story was about “the beginning” of the heavens and earth.

I don’t remember the lesson, but do I recall a child asking, “What was before ‘the beginning’?” I also recall thinking, “What a dumb question.” (It wasn’t dumb at all, of course—St. Augustine asks the same question. I just wasn’t smart enough to ask it.)

Our teacher answered the question with one word: “Eternity.” “What is eternity?” the child persisted.“ ”A long time,” she said, and then explained: “Suppose a bird flew from Texas to Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, rubbed its beak on the mountain and wore away one grain of sand, and then flew back to Texas. Imagine that the bird made one round trip every year and rubbed away one grain of sand on each occasion. When Mount Everest has been worn down to the ground it will be like one second in eternity.”

“Wow!” I thought, duly impressed.

I suspect this concept of “eternity as a very long time” is one that’s generally accepted these days, but what if eternity is not prolonged time at all, but timelessness?

That’s not a novel idea, you know. Plato and other philosophers toyed with the notion of time and eternity and concluded that the invisible world of forms (the ultimate realm of reality) is outside of time and thus is timeless. Time did not exist before creation, Plato said. It was “begotten,” to use his word, when “the Sun, the Moon, and five other stars” were created (Timaeus 38b).

Augustine elaborated Plato’s idea in Book 11 of his Confessions. Whatever time is, he said, it began with creation, for time is a construct for the material world alone. God created time when he created the cosmos. As he famously put it: “Beyond doubt, the world was made not in Time, but together with Time."

Surprisingly, theoretical physicists now endorse this hypothesis. I don’t pretend to understand Albert Einstein, but I do know that he believed that time does not exist apart from the physical universe. In one of his more popular statements, Einstein put it this way:  “Before relativity, one believed that space and time would continue existing in an empty world. But, according to the theory of relativity, if matter and its motion disappeared there would no longer be any space or time” (Philipp Frank, Einstein, His Life and Times, p. 178). No matter, no motion. No motion, no time.[1]

There may be an essential corollary to this theory, namely that in eternity, i.e., in heaven, no one will experience the passage of time. There will be no past or future; only the present. That’s a difficult concept to wrap our minds around—indeed impossible—for like the concept of infinity we have no analogies in our experience, and no language to explain it. But, bless my soul, it could be true.

“So what?” you say. Well, for one thing, if there is no time in heaven there will be no waiting. So, if I predecease Carolyn (and my family and others that I love) I will not have to wait for her to appear. She will be present when I arrive.

Intriguing, I must say, but I dare not think further in that direction, for as Paul cautions us we must not go “beyond what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6).


[1] This would give us the answer to that vexing, medieval question: How many angels can stand on the head of a pin? Since angels are heavenly (spiritual) beings and there is no matter in that realm, there can be no progression, no movement, no motion. Every object would be “present" at once. Thus, “How many angels can stand on the head of a pin?” An infinite number. As George MacDonald wrote, “If two things, or any parts of them, could occupy the same space, why not 20 or 10,000?" (Lillith).

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