We don’t talk much about eternity these days. Instead, everything seems to be an “existential threat,” a threat to the existence of the moment, given philosophical gravity by its implicit link to existential philosophy. But once, not so long ago as history goes, people talked about eternity a lot.
If we think it useful to talk about eternity again (I do), the first thing to figure out is what eternity is. There are two main contenders:
- Eternity is time without beginning or an end, sometimes called sempiternity.
- Eternity stands outside of time. It is a perspective on time, but not time itself. Eternity is nunc stans, from the Latin meaning remaining now, unchanging. Ordinary time is nunc fluens, time that flows or passes.
The second way of thinking about eternity is often attributed to Plato (Timaeus 37c-e), but it became theologically significant in the work of Augustine (Confessions, book 11). God, and only God, is eternal. Earthly time, temporal time, is so insubstantial and illusory as to border on non-being (Erie, p 62). Just as humans can only find fulfillment in God, so they can only find fulfillment in eternity. God and eternity are virtually the same things.
Now is a ceaselessly moving point between past and future. It is ephemeral, and totally lacking in substance. For this reason, time has no value. I was going to write, “ordinary time just is,” but the thing about time is that its substance, moments, have no substance. They are gone the instant they have begun.
Eternity is the opposite. It is always present and everywhere. In eternity all time is now. How to make sense of this? I like the simple explanation of C. S. Lewis. He is answering the question how could God hear every prayer uttered by all who are praying at the same time.
Almost certainly God is not in Time. His life does not consist of moments following one another. If a million people are praying to Him at ten-thirty tonight, He need not listen to them all in that one little snippet that we call ten-thirty. Ten-thirty—and every other moment from the beginning of the world—is always the Present for Him. If you like to put it that way, He has all eternity in which to listen to the split second of prayer put up by a pilot as his plane crashes in flames. (Mere Christianity, p 167)
We experience time as a succession of moments. God experiences time closer to how we experience space: past, present, and future all laid out before him so that it can be grasped in an instant (except that even the concept of an instant makes no sense in eternity).
Eternity preserves free will
An advantage of this view is that it does not limit free will. Assume God knows that Jack is going to the store at 4 pm tomorrow. This knowledge does not reduce Jack’s freedom to change his mind, because God is not making a prediction. God is simply experiencing all time at the same moment. God does not cause the future, such as Jack’s shopping trip, to happen, or limit it. He does not even experience it as future. The past is now, the future is now, and now is now.
Does eternity exist?
Eternity exists if we find it a useful concept. For Augustine, it is the only thing of value. About God, he puts it this way.
Your years are one day, and Your day is not daily, but today; because Your today yields not with tomorrow, for neither does it follow yesterday. Your today is eternity; therefore You begot the Co-eternal [Jesus], to whom You said, This day have I begotten You. You have made all time; and before all times You are, nor in any time was there not time. (Confessions, bk 11.13)*
Viewed in this way, eternity is the only realm in which humans can find fulfillment, the only thing of lasting value because it is the only thing that lasts. Nothing else does. The nature and purpose of human existence is to become eternal with God. This is the original meaning of the claim, familiar to humanists, that man should live “sub specie aeternitatis,” that is, in relationship to the eternal.
A century after Augustine, Boethius (circa 470-524) would state even more clearly that “eternity, then, is the complete, simultaneous and perfect possession of everlasting life.” This became the view of most medieval philosophers and theologians, including Thomas Aquinas.
I think they have eternity wrong
They have eternity wrong because they understand salvation as unity with God. This means, and can only mean, that humans come to experience what we call time as eternity. Nunc stans. In other words, humans come to possess the singular attribute of God. Or at least that is what they seek.
Why isn’t forever enough? The alternative to eternal life isn’t extinction. Many, perhaps most, have thought about heaven as living forever in the presence of God. That’s fine, and in this way of thinking, God remains eternal, while humans become immortals, but not eternals.
This view is expressed in several verses in the Bible. Consider, for example, John 14:3. “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (NIV) Consult a parallel Bible, and you will find that not a single translation suggests that this place, topon (τόπον), shares eternity with the Lord. Nothing about the word suggests a special place (Strongs 5117). The case with 2 Corinthians 5:8, and Philippians 1:23, is similar.
The issue isn’t usually expressed this way, primarily because the distinction between forever and eternity is not clearly drawn. Reread the Boethius quote. Eternity sounds more like forever. But the problem will not be solved by parsing translations. The problem is the desire, strongest perhaps in Augustine, to merge with God, to become one with God.
Augustine’s understanding of the nature and purpose of human existence was of one piece with monastic ideals, for, as he saw it, nothing but the mystical quest for union with the eternal God could satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart. (Eire, p 71)
One can respect the ritual and rigor of monastic life while rejecting the ideal of merger with God as its goal. Merger is what baby wants with its mother; it’s probably what most adults sometimes want, even if unknown to themselves. But to make merger with God an ideal is to seek to share in God’s power, perhaps his ultimate power, to stand outside of time. This might be what humans can’t help wanting, but it’s better to grow up.
For Jews there is no confusion. Humans are temporal; they are God’s people. Only God is eternal. Over time, Christians made heaven more and more important (it’s not in the synoptic gospels), but that makes it even more imperative to distinguish forever from eternity.
The value of transient things
Of what value are transient things? One could argue that they can never have infinite value, but I don’t know what this means, other than life on earth isn’t life in heaven. Eire asks a strange rhetorical question. “For how can anything transient be condemned, even the worst of atrocities?” (p 198) The only conclusion I can draw from this is that eternity as nunc stans renders all of temporal life of equal value, and equally valueless.
Think of family, friends, and loved ones for a moment. Isn’t their value, the value of life itself, enhanced because they will not be with you forever? My wife died recently, ending our long marriage. Not for a moment have I felt that our joys were less because they were not forever. Perhaps they were more because my wife and I knew for some time that she was dying, and that we had to take advantage of the time she had left. The experience C. S. Lewis recounted in A Grief Observed is not so different.
Without eternity as a horizon John Paul argued the evanescent present acquires greater significance and the moral compass is lost. Even worse, the transience of existence itself thwarts all attempts at fulfillment. (Erie, p 202, referring to John Paul II’s encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 1987)
In fact, John Paul says nothing about the transience of existence thwarting all attempts at fulfillment (the encyclical is readily found on the web). A serious consideration of eternity leads us to set limits on human acquisitiveness, and respect human rights, the theme of the encyclical. Both make human life better. To live sub specie aeternitatis makes perfect sense, as long as we understand it in terms of living as Christ would have us live. Once we understand it in terms of sharing in the power of eternity with Christ, we will have lost our humanity.