Of time & eternity

What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know (St. Augustine).

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day (2 Pet. 3:8 NRSV).

Last week, at The King’s University’s Interdisciplinary Studies Conference, a student asked Drs. Brad Gregory (a Catholic) and Richard Mouw (a Calvinist), what the point of Christian social action is if God predetermines everything anyway. Dr. Gregory deferred to Dr. Mouw saying that predestination is a Calvinist doctrine and so let a Calvinist answer. Dr. Mouw then said that, although he believed in predestination, it was, for him, a “back-shelf doctrine,” by which he meant that it didn’t animate his everyday life as a Christian. I think that this is a weaseling answer which certainly didn’t satisfy me, and I doubt it satisfied the student.

So there we have it, the old “predestination versus free will” conundrum. If God has predetermined everything, including our salvation, then what is left of human agency and responsibility? But if humans have a free will, then God is not all powerful and humans can accept or reject God and earn their own salvation. As a teenager, this theological problem greatly troubled me, and it’s clear from the student’s question that it still troubles some young Christians. St. Augustine dealt with this issue over 1,500 years ago and, while I am not a theologian, I’m going to take a stab at explaining how Augustine dealt with the vexing problem of time and eternity.

Before all time
Genesis tells us that “in the beginning” God created the heavens and the earth. This raises the question of what God was doing before creation. Augustine says that is the wrong kind of question. God, explains Augustine, exists separately from time. There is no “before” or “after” for God. God created time, but is not subject to it. Since there was no time before the creation of time, it is nonsensical to ask what God was doing “then” because there was no then! God precedes time, but does not precede in time. Rather, it is in the divine eternity, “which is supreme over time because it is in a never-ending present,” that God exists.

A helpful way of thinking about this mystery is to think about our own experience as a time-line consisting of the past, present and future. On this line, the past is our memory of what has transpired (such as just having read this statement), and the future is our anticipation of what’s to come (what will my next sentence be?). But when exactly do we experience the present? The present is, in fact, never quite experienced by us because the moment we think we are in the present it’s gone and has receded into the past. Said Augustine, “You [God] made all time; you are before all time; and the ‘time’, if such we may call it, when there was no time was not time at all.” Finally, Augustine posits that the present, which always just escapes us, is the eternal present that encompasses both past and future and that this is where God exists eternally. Thus, Augustine concludes, there is only a continuous, unceasing present, which is distorted by our experiences of memory and experience.

Unlike God, we humans are time-bound creatures and the language of the Bible, like all languages, is also time-bound with the verb tenses (times) that describe our temporal experience. All controversial theological doctrines (for example, predestination, or when creation began), which try to explain God in terms of our human experience of time, will always fail to adequately account for God’s mysterious, timeless way of being. So we ought to hold such doctrines lightly, if at all. As a result, there would be far fewer fruitless theological arguments between Christians, and we could more confidently live our lives before the face of our gracious, timeless God, as the responsible, time-bound creatures that we are.

Author

  • Robert (Bob) Bruinsma is a retired Professor of Education (The King’s University) living in Edmonton. He has interests in language and literature and loves birds and the outdoors. To help pass the time on long winter nights, he makes wine and beer (and drinks it in moderation) with his wife of 46 years (Louisa). Bob is a member of Fellowship CRC where he tells stories for children and happily participates in weekly communion. He and Louisa have three grown children and three little grandsons.

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