Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Time and Eternity

We never give up. Our bodies are gradually dying, but we ourselves are being made stronger each day. These little troubles are getting us ready for an eternal glory that will make all our troubles seem like nothing. Things that are seen don’t last forever, but things that are not seen are eternal. That’s why we keep our minds on the things that cannot be seen. (2 Corinthians 4:16-19, Contemporary English Version)

On this last day of the year and on the cusp of a new year, we are drawn into thinking about the passage of time. And some of us have seen a considerable passage of time: for example, today is the 27,898th day since I was born.
Perhaps all of us who have passed the 27,000th day mark realize that our physical bodies “are gradually dying.” But I hope we are also experiencing “ourselves” as “being made stronger each day.” Unfortunately, I am afraid that not all of us are experiencing that.

It seems that many people now do not recognize the actuality of “an eternal glory” and do not keep their minds “on the things that cannot be seen.”
Across the country and around the world, I fear there has been a considerable loss of a sense of eternity even among those who are Christian believers. Except for those who are firmly entrenched in the world of conservative evangelicalism, the reality of eternity seems to be becoming dimmer and dimmer.
In the Christianity of the past there was often too much emphasis on Heaven and not enough emphasis on this world and its present ills. There was too much stress on “the sweet by and by” and not enough on “the dirty here and now.”
With all the emphasis on eternity, the hope of Heaven was sometimes used to justify deplorable conditions on earth in the present. For example, slaves were told to be patient and to endure their current suffering steadfastly, for soon they would be walking on the streets of gold.
In many Christian circles, the idea of Hell as everlasting punishment has been discarded—and most of us would say “Good riddance.” (I have long understood Hell as annihilation.)
It also seems that more and more the idea of Heaven as everlasting bliss to be enjoyed in the future by individual human beings is also fading.
Part of the reason for this change may be a common misunderstanding of the meaning of “eternal,” long considered to be unending time. Properly understood, however, eternity refers to a state of timelessness, not to time which goes on endlessly.
Eternity is the realm of God, Creator of Heaven and earth—and of time. To God, all space is Here and all time is Now. God’s “existence” is in what some theologians refer to as the “eternal now.”
This juxtaposition of the Creator and the created, or time and eternity, causes many to focus only on the created world and on matters that exist in time while questioning and even rejecting ideas about God and eternity. This problem is due to what Kierkegaard referred to as the “infinite qualitative distinction” between God and humans.
So today and tomorrow as we think about time passing from 2014 to 2015, this is a good time to reflect also on the meaning and significance of eternity and to focus our minds on the things that cannot be seen—as well as to give attention to things, and people, that can be seen and need our care and kindness.
We humans were wonderfully created to live simultaneously in both time and eternity.


  1. Thanks for your post, Leroy. I think one reason that a lot of Christians are moving away from the "eternal heaven" bit is that this idea hasn't been the norm of the Christian tradition until very recently. The biblical and ancient theological witness is to a renewed creation and the establishment of heaven-on-earth, and I think this idea has gained a lot of traction in recent years with renewed concern for (in political/social terms) environmental sustainability and for (in theological terms) the cosmos as God's good creation. On a related note, this makes me think of the Gloria Patri, one of the oldest Christian doxologies, which affirms that "as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be world without end, amen, amen."

    I highly recommend Anthony Thiselton's recent book, Life After Death: A New Approach to the Last Things, which has some interesting things to say about eternity, time, and timelessness. Thiselton even brings in some Wittgenstein to make his case. Needless to say, any discussion about time and eternity has been infinitely complicated by the last century of scientific research, especially Einstein's work on relativity. I would also highly recommend an episode of the popular podcast Radiolab entitled "Time," which takes up a more modern approach to what time actually is. You can listen to it here:

    Again, thanks for the post!

    1. Joshua, thanks for reading and responding to this article yesterday -- and so early in the morning!

      Thanks, too, for the book recommendation. I did not know about it but soon sent in a request for a copy of it from ILL.

      I don't know what you mean by "very recently" at the beginning of your first paragraph. The idea of eternal heaven seems to have been firmly ensconced in the thinking of the Reformers of the 16th century.

      According to an online article (that I found at random at, "Martin Luther, like most traditional Christians, believed that this life was simply a pilgrimage, a journey toward our final destination.That destination was an eternity spent either in heaven or in hell."

      I certainly agree that the idea of "a renewed creation and the establishment of heaven-on-earth" is a growing emphasis among contemporary theologians, but I also think it is probably not very widespread among the lay people in most churches across the nation.

  2. Greetings, Leroy, from Fort Worth, TX, today. Thanks for your reflections here on the eve of the new year. My own theological views are so different that it would be too much for me to try to address all the differences fully here in a response to your fine blog. The only thing I'd note is that I found myself wondering whether it's really true that "there has been a considerable loss of a sense of eternity even among those who are Christian believers." I think this is an empirical claim that needs testing in some such way, if possible. But, then, you defined eternity in a way, I think, quite differently from the way you began using it in this blog: "eternity refers to a state of timelessness, not to time which goes on endlessly." I think it's certainly true that there has been an erosion in the world, even among Christians, of some notion of a life after death that goes on and on in a never-ending heavenly realm. And I would say, "good riddance," to that idea as well as to the unending hellfire idea. But if eternity refers to a state of timelessness, then it could be that an erosion of a sense of eternity has not occurred, and has maybe even grown.

    1. Anton, thanks for taking the time to write yesterday from Fort Worth. I hope you and Jean have a great New Years Day today in Texas.

      As always I appreciate your thoughtful comments and wish we had time to talk about them in person--which perhaps we can do to some extend next Wednesday when the OCs get together again.

      You are right in pointing out that in my article there is a shift from the "popular" view of eternity to what I consider a more accurate understanding. And I don't have any empirical evidence about the loss of belief in eternity in the traditional sense, but I think it is "certainly true" as you acknowledged. And while there has most likely been an increase in the understanding of eternity as timelessness, I think probably the number of those who have come to understand that concept of eternity has not grown nearly as much as the number of those who have lost the former concept.

  3. Thoughtful and thought-provoking essay, Leroy. My notions on eternity are still in formation. Thank you for something to contemplate, entering the year of the . . . sheep.

    1. Debra, thanks for reading and commenting yesterday.

      The East Asian year of the sheep has special meaning to June and me. It is a twelve year cycle, as you know, and our first New Years in Japan was 48 years ago. We bought a ceramic sheep to display in our home at the beginning of 1967--and we hope to find it and place it on the mantle of our living room today.

  4. Well put and worth remembering. The comments are good as well as I continue my sojourn in the faith.

  5. Dr. Glenn Hinson, my esteemed Thinking Friend in Kentucky, wrote,

    "A welcome challenge, Leroy! Fundamentalists wouldn’t like your interpretation of Hell as annihilation, but I think you are right. It’s separation from the 'I AM.' Heaven would be the antithesis of that—continuing in the 'I AM.' In death I expect to step off into the sea of Love that God is, to let my love energies flow into God’s love energies by which God directs our universe toward some meaningful end."

  6. Here are very pertinent comments that I just now received by local Thinking Friend David Nelson:

    "Time does not exist. There is only a small and infinite present, and it is only in this present that our life occurs. Therefore, a person should concentrate all his spiritual force only on this present." (Leo Tolstoy reading from December 31st in his book "A Calendar of Wisdom.")

    "Martin Luther in his writings once spoke of a ' that begins now and is brought to perfection in the world to come.'

    'By living fully in this moment I am experiencing the wonders of eternal life. And it is a beautiful life.

  7. Hi Brother Leroy,
    Greetings from Southern California and another person who has passed the 27,000th day mark, and who has personally known you as long as almost any one; with the exception of your parents.
    Your report is Very stimulating and thought provoking, and has Given me a lot to contemplate.
    I speak about Heaven&hell a lot to the Non-believers I interact with and your report will be Very helpful.
    Since I am focusing on the unseen(like you state),I am experiencing God`s provision of being made stronger each day.
    Thanks for you well written message and may we All have a Blessed 2015 and Beyond!
    In His and your Service

  8. I believe the relationship between time and eternity is a paradox, not a contradiction. A thinking person can no more ignore time to solely embrace eternity, than to do the opposite. We are held in tension between the two. I mean, here we are on New Year's Eve, discussing time and eternity. Rather timely, isn't it? Then again, people have been having New Year's thoughts (and resolutions) for long time.

    Mathematics has something of eternity in it, Those 3-4-5 triangles and their right angles do not literally exist, but somehow they are all the more eternal for it. Computers have been set to calculate Pi to millions of digits, and they always get the same irrational sequence. Yet the ancient approximation of 22/7 is close enough to build most anything you would want. We are mortal men and women, yet we think on such things.

    As the Apostle Paul teaches us, "And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love." I Corinthians 13:13.

  9. "We are graced with a godlike ability to transcend time and space in our minds but are chained to death. The result is a nagging need to find meaning. This is where the esoteric "mind-body problem" of philosophy professors becomes meaningful to us all, where it translates into tears and laughter." (Quotation from Descartes' Bones: a Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason by Russell Shorto)

    I believe the above to be an excellent description of the human condition.

    While we're on the subject of time it's worth mentioning that physicists have determined that time is variable. An extremely accurate clock can show time to be highly variable. In this NPR segment it is mentioned that, "If you take a clock off the floor, and hang it on the wall . . . the time will speed up by about one part in 10 to the 16th power."

    1. Thanks for sharing your comments, Clif.

      Your reference to Descartes allows me to share this quote from Pascal, a contemporary and friend of Descartes. It seems to me that if Pascal's observation was true in the 17th century it is even more commonplace now.

      “Our imagination so magnifies the present, because we are continually thinking about it, and so reduces eternity, because we do not think about it, that we turn eternity into nothing and nothing into eternity, and all this is so strongly rooted within us that all our reason cannot save us from it.”

  10. Here are comments, received yesterday from Glen Davis, a Canadian Thinking Friend and a close personal friend when we both lived in Fukuoka City, Japan:

    "Thank you for this thoughtful reflection, and the reminder that we too are living in the eternal now where the reign of God has already begun but is a long way from being fully realized. This full realization of the kingdom is a goal to motivate us to even greater efforts on behalf of the values of the kingdom in a world that seems to be so opposed to those values."