Eternity

ETERNITY

Outline

Biblical data.


In the NT, αἰώνιος, G173, is used as eternal damnation, eternal life, eternal purpose, the King eternal, and so on. The Eng. word everlasting also trs. the same word, with perhaps a single exception, for Jude 6 has “everlasting chains” (ἀίδιος). This latter is also the word in Romans 1:20, “his eternal power and deity.”

In addition to these verbal instances of eternal or everlasting, the Bible has much to say about the nature of God. From this other material, even more than from the verbal occurrences, one must learn what eternity means.

The simplest teaching of Scripture is Psalm 90:2, “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting thou art God.” This is a denial that God ever began to exist in time. On the surface the words seem to ascribe to God never-ending duration. Involved of course is the divine creation of the world at a point of time in the finite past; practical lessons concerning the certainty of the covenant are implied, but the nature of God Himself is here characterized as one of infinite duration.

Both the OT and the NT contain anthropomorphic and other metaphorical language. God is said to have ears and eyes, and the mountains skip like rams. Metaphorical language is not unusual. Literature and ordinary conversation make frequent use of figures of speech. Therefore, when God is described as one who exists through all time, and is also described as a temporal being, the words must be determined whether they may be fig. anthropomorphic expressions.

Geerhardus Vos in his Biblical Theology notes that the prophets represent God as dwelling in heaven, unlimited by space, and yet they also say that He dwells in Zion and that Canaan is His land. Then Vos continues, “The same relation applied as between Jehovah and time. In popular language, such as the prophets use, eternity can only be expressed in terms of time, although in reality it lies altogether above time.” One must therefore look beyond the metaphorical expressions.

Theological analysis.

Time and temporality is usually connected with change and motion. Things in time have a beginning, they develop in stages, and come to an end. But the Bible teaches that God is immutable. Hebrews 1:10-12 says, “The heavens are the work of thy hands; they will perish, but thou remainest...and they will be changed. But thou art the same.” The idea of immutability helps in the understanding of eternity, for if God is immutable, if He has no beginning or end, if He does not change or move, can one say He exists in time? Is not another mode of existence—eternity—necessary? Stephen Charnock wrote an excellent volume on the Existence and Attributes of God. In the discourse on the “Eternity of God” he says:

“Time hath a continual succession....We must conceive of eternity contrary to the notion of time; as the nature of time consists in the succession of parts, so the nature of eternity is an infinite immutable duration. Time began with the foundation of the world; but God being before time, could have no beginning in time. Before the beginning of the creation and the beginning of time, there could be nothing but eternity...for as between the Creator and creatures there is no medium, so between time and eternity there is no medium (Charnock: Existence and Attributes of God [1873], pp. 280-282).

That God is not in time seems harder for some people to understand than that He is not in space. No Christian conceives of God as bounded by space, even though space be infinite in extent. Contrariwise, space is in God, or, at least, “In him we live and move and have our being.” Even when one says he has his being in God, the literal spatial meaning is not intended. We are not in God as we are in New York or Chicago.

Because it is recognized that God is not in space, and because it is usually supposed that space and time are in some way analogous, it should not be so surprising that God is not in time either, even though time be infinite. Of course, if time and space are not infinite, it is more obviously necessary to maintain that God is not in time. The reason is that if time began at the creation of the world, one must not suppose that God began to exist; therefore He must have an eternal existence outside of time.

Philosophy of time.

The line of argument begins to clarify that in large measure the discussion of eternity is really an investigation of time. What is time? What a theologian or philosopher says of time will color his view of eternity.

Aristotle said that time is the measure of motion. Bodies move through space, and the number of motion is time. For Aristotle, the physical world always existed; motion never began and will never end; therefore time never began and will never end. In such a view, a god can be both temporal and everlasting, if he were a physical object or were in some way dependent on a body. Nontemporal eternity could be asserted of a mathematical theorem or abstract concept, for truth is not a body and does not change. Aristotle’s god—the unmoved mover, a pure form, free of all matter—can also be called eternal. Although a Christian cannot accept Aristotle’s concept of God, he might accept the definition of time. In this case, God would be called eternal, for obviously the Biblical God could not be subject to the numbering, or the numerable aspect, of physical motion.

Aristotle will suffice as an example of pagan antiquity. Before considering any Christian thinker, it would be wise to examine a non-Christian philosopher of modern times. Immanuel Kant defined space and time as the two a priori forms of sensory intuition.

His meaning can be explained briefly as follows: Ordinary or empirical intuitions, such as the sensations of blue, loud, rough, bitter, acrid, vary from person to person. But all men see everything as in space, and their ideas all change in time. Because the contents of experience are so varied, whereas space and time are the same, it follows that the knowledge of space and time cannot be derived from experience. The history of British empiricism, which made the attempt and failed, supports this conclusion. As a priori forms independent of experience, space, and time are not only infinite (as no object of experience can be), but they are also universal and necessary, forming the basis of the necessary truths of mathematics, none of which sort can be learned empirically.

Therefore, concludes Kant, space and time are the innate, or as he calls them, the a priori forms of intuition. The contents of experience are poured into the mind, as hot jelly is poured into a jelly glass, and they take the shape of the mind. It is similar to the ordinary phenomenon of perspective on a profounder level. One sees parallel lines converging in the distance. This convergence is due to the mind: it is the way one sees. So too, trees and rocks are in space because that is the way one sees, and sensations follow one another in time because that is the way one arranges them.

A Christian, however, cannot accept Kant’s philosophy in toto any more than he can Aristotle’s. If he accepts Kant’s theory of time, consistency will require him to make God nontemporal. God has no optic nerves, no tongue, no tympanum. God has no sensations. Therefore God, though He may know things as they are in themselves, cannot impose time on them by seeing them. Nor can man impose time on God, because God is not a sensory object to be seen. His status may then be called eternal.

Augustine’s view.

Secular philosophers, such as Aristotle and Kant, paid no attention to the Christian doctrine of creation; on the other hand, Christian theologians usually pay little attention to the nature of time. Hence their ideas of eternity are confused or at least incomplete. Augustine, however, the great philosopher-theologian of the 5th cent., tried to work out a systematic theory.

Rejecting pantheism and emanationism, Augustine asked how God could create the world, time, and change out of nothing, though He Himself is immutable. God must be immutable because if He changed He would become either better or worse, and both are impossible for a perfect Being.

Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” attributes a beginning to created things. Because time is somehow connected with change, it too must have been created and must have had a beginning. No time could have preceded the world, for a preceding time would require God to choose one moment rather than another for the act of creation, and this would have been irrational. But, if time began at creation, God Himself, because immutable, because unchanging, is Eternal, and with respect to Him there is no before or after.

Human misunderstandings of eternity arise through the illegitimate comparison of two heterogeneous types of duration. These two modes are based on two types of being: created, changing being, and uncreated, changeless being. Because man knows virtually nothing about the being of God, he naturally has an incomplete idea of eternity. Man’s possibilities are largely confined to his own changing being and time.

Time itself, continued Augustine, is difficult enough to understand. Aristotle, brilliant though he was, misunderstood it, for time can be neither motion itself nor its numerable aspect. The same motion can occur in different lengths of time, and those motions are measured by something that is not an attribute of motion. Thus, Augustine spends several pages in his Confessions refuting Aristotle.

Augustine’s own view begins with the admitted fact that man can and does measure time. But man cannot measure what is not present to him. Hence man could not measure past time unless, strangely, it were present. A physical past, such as a motion yesterday, cannot be present. It is past and gone; but the human mind can make the past present intellectually. Man remembers. The existence and continuity of time, therefore, are the work of man’s spirit. It is the nature of mind to preserve a series of past events in the present.

Augustine’s words are, “In thee, O my spirit, I measure time....The impression that passing things leave in Thee remains when they are gone. It is that present impression that I measure, not the past things. It is that impression that I measure when I measure time. Therefore either that impression is itself time, or I do not measure time” (Confessions, XI, xxvii).

By thus making time depend on perception and memory—a view roughly similar to that of Kant—Augustine preserves the doctrine that God is eternal. An omniscient Being could not have a series of perceptions one after another, for such a series implies that the mind does not know something and later perceives and knows it. But omniscience means that the divine Mind is never ignorant of anything. He neither loses an idea He once had nor gains one He previously did not know. Therefore there can be no temporal succession in God’s knowledge. He is not subject to the form of time. Finite beings, who know and do not know, are temporal; but the infinite and omniscient God is eternal.

Some modern views.

Contemporary theologians also discuss eternity and time, but it is not clear that they have improved upon the great thinkers of the past. For example: F. R. Tennant produced a massive analysis of time, but “we still lack a theory as to the nontemporal serial order which manifests itself in time” (Philosophical Theology, Vol. II, p. 138), and if he does not bluntly deny that God is timeless, at least he denies creation.

Oscar Cullmann, Christ and Time, has a chapter entitled “Time and Eternity.” It is short and disappointing. The book might better have been called Christ and History, for it contains no theory of time, and it is unclear whether or not he thinks that God is eternal.

Cullmann makes a sound observation when he remarks that the Scripture nowhere discusses time and eternity in any philosophical manner. As was said earlier, the nature of eternity must be gathered by implication from what the Scripture teaches about God’s immutability, independence, and sovereignty. The explicit message of Scripture, instead of stating these implications, uses the idea of eternity for the practical purpose of engendering in the worshipers truth and confidence in God.

Practical application.

Because God is eternal, His decrees must be eternal, for He could never have existed without thinking or willing them. He can accomplish His decrees because He is almighty, but He could not be almighty without being eternal. A being who is at times ignorant could not be almighty.

What confidence could man have in any of God’s attributes, such as His mercy, wisdom, righteousness, goodness, and truth, unless He were immutable, eternal and almighty? How could man entertain hope of a resurrection unless God were everlasting?

How could man rely on God’s covenant, if He was not eternal? The covenant is founded on the eternity of God who “desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he interposed with an oath, so that through two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible that God should prove false, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to seize the hope set before us” (Heb 6:17, 18).

In times of distress, decline, or apostasy, the doctrine of the eternity of God provides assurance and comfort. The God who never was born cannot die; and although declension and unbelief may corrupt the visible Church, the eternal God has said, “I will build my church, and the powers of death [or the gates of Hades] shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18).

The concept of eternity, the philosophical theories of time, and the carefully extended implications from Scripture may seem to be too technical and far removed from a living religion, but what part of Christianity would remain if God was not eternal?

Bibliography

Aristotle, Physics IV (350 b.c.); Augustine, Confessions XI (a.d. 420); S. Charnock, Discourses upon the Existence and Attributes of God (1860); F. R. Tennant, Philosophical Theology, Vol. II (1930); O. Cullmann, Christ and Time (1950).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(olam; Greek equivalent, aion):

Contents

1. Contrast with Time 2. In the Old Testament 3. In the New Testament 4. The Eternal "Now" 5. Defect of This View 6. Philosophical Views 7. Time Conceptions Inadequate 8. All Succession Present in One Act to Divine Consciousness 9. Yet Connection between Eternity and Time 10. The Religious Attitude to Eternity

LITERATURE


1. Contrast with Time:

Eternity is best conceived, not in the merely negative form of the non-temporal, or immeasurable time, but positively, as the mode of the timeless self-existence of the Absolute Ground of the universe. The flux of time grows first intelligible to us, only when we take in the thought of God as eternal--exalted above time. Timeless existence--being or entity without change--is what we here mean by eternity, and not mere everlastingness or permanence through time. God, in His internal being, is raised above time; in His eternal absoluteness, He is throned above temporal development, and knows, as the Scriptures say, no changeableness. The conception of eternity, as without beginning or ending, leaves us with but a negation badly in need of filling out with reality. Eternity is not a mere negative idea; to make of eternity merely a blank and irrelevant negation of temporality would not satisfy any proper theory of being; it functions as the positive relation to time of that eternal God, who is King of all the eons.

2. In the Old Testament:

In the Old Testament, God’s eternity is only negatively expressed, as implying merely indefinitely extended time (Ge 21:33; De 33:27), though Isa 40:28 takes more absolute form. Better is the view of eternity, objectively considered, as a mode of being of God in relation to Himself. For He was eternal, while as yet the world and time were not. But even in the New Testament, the negative form of expression prevails.

3. In the New Testament:

Time, with its succession of events, helps to fill out such idea as we can form of the eternal, conceived as an endless progress. But, as finite beings, we can form no positive idea of eternity. Time is less contradictory of eternity, than helpful in revealing what we know of it. Plato, in his Timaeus, says that time is the "moving image of eternity," and we may allow that it is its type or revelation. Not as the annulment of time, though it might be held to be in itself exclusive of time, is eternity to be taken, but rather as the ground of its reality.

4. The Eternal "Now":

Eternity might, no doubt, be taken as just time no longer measured by the succession of events, as in the finite universe. But, on a strict view, there is something absurd in an eternity that includes time, and an eternity apart from time is a vain and impossible conception. Eternity, as a discharge from all time limits, is purely negative, though not without importance. Eternity, absolutely taken, must be pronounced incommensurable with time; as Aquinas said, non sunt mensurae unius generis. Eternity, that is to say, would lose its character as eternal in the very entering into relations with the changeful or becoming. Eternity, as in God, has, since the time of Augustine and the Middle Ages, been frequently conceived as an eternal Now. The Schoolmen were wont to adopt as a maxim that "in eternity is one only instant always present and persistent." This is but a way of describing eternity in a manner characteristic of succession in time; but eternal Deity, rather than an eternal Now, is a conception far more full of meaning for us.

5. Defect of This View:

To speak of God’s eternity as an eternal Now--a present in the time-sense--involves a contradiction. For the eternal existence is no more described by the notion of a present than by a past or a future. Such a Now or present presupposes a not-now, and raises afresh the old time-troubles, in relation to eternity. Time is certainly not the form of God’s life,

His eternity meaning freedom from time. Hence, it was extremely troublesome to theology of the Middle Ages to have a God who was not in time at all, supposed to create the world at a particular moment in time.

6. Philosophical Views:

Spinoza, in later times, made the eternity of God consist in His infinite--which, to Spinoza, meant His necessary-- existence. For contingent or durational existence would not, in Spinoza’s view, be eternal, though it lasted always. The illusoriness or unreality of time, in respect of man’s spiritual life, is not always very firmly grasped. This wavering or uncertain hold of the illusiveness of time, or of higher reality as timeless, is still very prevalent; even so strong- souled a poet as Browning projects the shadow of time into eternity, with rarely a definite conception of the higher life as an eternal and timeless essence; and although Kant, Hegel and Schopenhauer may have held to such a timeless view, it has by no means become a generally adopted doctrine so far, either of theologians or of philosophers. If time be so taken as unreal, then eternity must not be thought of as future, as is done by Dr. Ellis McTaggart and some other metaphysicians today. For nothing could, in that case, be properly future, and eternity could not be said to begin, as is often done in everyday life.

The importance of the eternity conception is seen in the fact that neo-Kantian and neo-Hegelian thinkers alike have shown a general tendency to regard time-conceptions as unfit, in metaphysics, for the ultimate explanation of the universe.

7. Time-Conceptions Inadequate:

Eternity, one may surely hold, must span or include, for God’s eternal consciousness, the whole of what happens in time, with all of past, present or future, that lies within the temporal succession. But we are by no means entitled to say, as does Royce, that such wholeness or totality of the temporal constitutes the eternal, for the eternal belongs to quite another order, that, namely, of timeless reality. Eternity is not to be defined in terms of time at all. For God is to us the supra-temporal ens perfectissimum, but One whose timeless self-sufficiency and impassable aloofness are not such as to keep Him from being strength and helper of our temporal striving. Our metaphysical convictions must not here be of barren and unfruitful sort for ethical results and purposes.

8. All Succession Present in One Act to Divine Consciousness:

Eternity is, in our view, the form of an eternal existence, to which, in the unity of a single insight, the infinite series of varying aspects or processes are, together-wise, as a totum simul, present. But this, as we have already shown, does not imply that the eternal order is nowise different, essentially, from the temporal; time is not to be treated as a segment of eternity, nor eternity regarded as interminable duration; the eternal cannot pass over into the temporal; for, an eternal Being, who should think all things as present, and yet view the time-series as a succession, must be a rather self- contradictory conception. For the Absolute Consciousness, time does not exist; the future cannot, for it, be thought of as beginning to be, nor the past as having ceased to be.

9. Yet Connection Between Eternity and Time:

After all that has been said, however, eternity and time are not to be thought of as without connection. For the temporal presupposes the eternal, which is, in fact, its positive ground and its perpetual possibility. These things are so, if only for the reason that the Divine mode of existence does not contradict or exclude the human mode of existence. The continuity of the latter--of the temporal--has its guaranty in the eternal. The unconditioned eternity of God brings into harmony with itself the limitations and conditions of the temporal. For time is purely relative, which eternity is not. No distinctions of before and after are admissible in the eternity conception, hence, we have no right to speak of time as a portion of eternity. Thus, while we maintain the essential difference between eternity and time, we at the same time affirm what may perhaps be called the affinity between them. The metaphysics of eternity and its time-relations continue to be matter of proverbial difficulty, and both orders--the eternal and the temporal--had better be treated as concrete, and not left merely to abstract reflection. Our idea of the eternal will best be developed, in this concrete fashion, by the growth of our God-idea, as we more completely apprehend God, as actualized for us in His incarnate Son.

10. The Religious Attitude to Eternity:

Thus, then, it is eternity, not as immeasurable time, but rather as a mode of being of the immutable God, who is yet progressively revealing Himself in time, which we have here set forth. This is not to say that the religious consciousness has not its own need of the conception of God as being "from everlasting to everlasting," as in Ps 90:2, and of His kingdom as "an everlasting kingdom" (Da 4:3). Nor is it to make us suppose that the absolute and self-existent God, who so transcends all time-dependence, is thereby removed far from us, while, on the contrary, His very greatness makes Him the more able to draw near unto us, in all the plenitude of His being. Hence, it is so truly spoken in Isa 57:15, "Thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite." Hence, also the profound truthfulness of sayings like that in Ac 17:27,28, "He is not far from each one of us: for in him we live, and move, and have our being." After all that has been said, our best knowledge of eternity, as it exists in God, is not developed in any metaphysical fashion, but after the positive and timeless modes of the spiritual life--the modes of trust and love.

LITERATURE.

H. Cremer, Lexicon of New Testament Greek, English edition, 1880; G. B. Winer, Grammar of New Testament Greek, 3rd edition, 1882; R. C. French, Synonyms of the New Testament, 9th edition, 1880; E. H. Plumptre, The Spirits in Prison, 3rd edition, 1885; J. Orr, Christian View of God and the World, lst edition, 1893; I. A. Dorner, System of Christian Doctrine, English edition, 1885; J. H. Stirling, Philosophy and Theology, 1890; J. Lindsay, Studies in European Philosophy, 1909; The Fundamental Problems of Metaphysics, 1910.