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About the Book

Table of Contents

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI

     

Part I: Time and Eternity:Creation and the Theory of Relativity

Chapter 4

Time Contrasted With Eternity in Scripture

     PEOPLE STILL pose the question that Augustine answered in the opening quotation: What was God doing before He created the universe? To which Augustine had replied, in effect: Since time did not exist, God did not have time to do anything.
     But this is a situation that we find exceedingly difficult to grasp. Augustine was doubtless perfectly right, and his achievement in sophistication is all the more remarkable because it was solely the result of a mature Christian mind seeking to comprehend something of the real nature of the spiritual world into which every child of God is born again. He did not have the advantage of the scientific discoveries of the past fifty years to give him a clue.
     Perhaps it will help a little to consider what the concept of eternity does not mean. To begin with, the Theory of Relativity did not strictly concern itself with a world in which time was non-existent, but rather with a world in which time was relative. The Theory of Relativity, per se, therefore, is not concerned with eternity at all. When we come to the psychological aspects of time, we are again dealing with the relativeness of time, but in this case with its relativeness as experienced, rather than its relativeness as measured. We are still dealing with time, but not with eternity. In the first case, then, the physicist is concerned with measured relativity of time, and in the second the psychologist with the experienced relativity of time. Both are concerned with time. But there is neither measured nor experienced relativity of time in a purely spiritual world, because time belongs to the physical order.
     It can be argued, of course, that in experience the passage of time could be so rapid as to be virtually eclipsed. It would then appear that you could have the experience of timelessness within the natural order of things. But I think this is a confusion of terms because it implies that if a thing is small enough, it is no thing at all. This is analogous to saying that there is no fundamental difference

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between something and nothing; or, to use a more familiar idea at the other end of the scale, that infinity is merely a very, very large number. The basic error here is that infinity differs from a very large number for the important reason that if you subtract one from a very large number (no matter how large it is), you have one less: if you subtract one from infinity, you still have infinity.
     This principle has wide application. The difference between a Being who is absolutely righteous and a creature who is very, very good is as great as the difference between infinity and a large number. It is for this reason that righteousness is something which God must credit to us outright; no approach can ever be made by stages any more than one can count to infinity and arrive there. This may seem like a digression: actually it is not.
     The really important thing to notice is that time stands in the same relation to eternity, in one sense, as a large number does to infinity. There is a sense in which infinity includes a very large number, yet it is quite fundamentally different and independent of it. And by analogy, eternity includes time and yet is fundamentally something other. The reduction of time until it gets smaller and smaller is still not eternity; nor do we reach eternity by an extension of time to great length. There is no direct pathway between time and eternity: they are different categories of experiences.
     The fundamental point to grasp in all this is that when we step out of time, we step into eternity, and we cannot be in them both at once. But God can. In the New Testament, the Lord Jesus testified continually to this capacity. And every child of God, whether in the Old Testament or the New Testament, does pass in one unique situation back and forth from one to the other with remarkable consequences. This will become clearer as we study some of the passages in Scripture that make this assumption.
     Some passages, because of their familiarity to most readers, will at once come to mind in support of the view that God lives outside the ordinary limitations of time as we experience it. For example there is the Lord's remarkable statement, "Before Abraham was, I am" (John 8:58). If we make the period before Abraham to be represented by the letter A, Abraham's time by the letter B, and the Lord's time of speaking by the letter C, we have the three periods A, B, C amalgamated as one and the tenses confused as though C preceded A. What we might have expected to find would have been the words, "Before Abraham was, I was" -- which would have satisfied our normal sense of time. But this is not what the Lord said. What He did say is much more significant and is evidence of His living outside of time.

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It seems desirable, even at the risk of being repetitious, to re-state this situation again in slightly different terms. The subject of the conversation had been the patriarch Abraham. The Lord took Abraham's time as the pivot and spoke of two periods balanced on either side, namely, the ages which preceded Abraham, and all that followed (including the present). He then deliberately picked up the present and put it back before Abraham, but still referred to that distant period in the present tense. Though it was centuries ago, to Christ it was "now." Even if He were here today, He would still refer to the time before Abraham as the "present" time. Why? Because He is God, and to God there is no passage of time, but all is "present." The reaction of the Jewish authorities to His statement suggests that in some strange way they had understood what He meant. The mystery of God's name, as revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:13,14 "the One who is existing always in the present" is unlocked here and undoubtedly determined the Lord's choice of words in speaking to the Jews.
     Augustine reflected upon this, and his words reveal his insight. He said,
(22)

     Thy years stand together at the same time . . . nor are some pushed aside by those that follow, for they pass not. . . Thy years are one Day, and Thy Day is not like our sequence of days, but is Today.

     One is at once reminded of 2 Peter 3:8: "Beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day." This is poetic language in one sense, and the contradiction it implies is therefore permissible by a special kind of license. Yet the very contradiction leaves one with a momentary perception of the kind of timelessness which seems to be involved in God's ever-presentness. As the writer says though he certainly would not have formulated it this way there is neither a slowing up of time nor a speeding up of time with God, but both at once, which is no time at all as we understand it.
     Another illustration of this apparent inversion of time is found in Isaiah 65:24, "Before they call, I will answer." Most people have taken this to mean simply that God foreknows what we shall pray for and thus anticipates our needs. But this is not really what it says; it does not actually say that before they prayed God would arrange provision so that the answer might follow immediately. What He says is that the fulfillment of the request will have been completed before the request is made, which would appear to render prayer quite unnecessary in the first place. The question may be asked, If

22. Augustine, Confessions, book 11, chap. 13, section 16.

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God has already answered, why pray? a question which is meaningful in our time framework but it is not meaningful in God's, where there is no past, present, or future as we experience it. The reader may recall the statement previously quoted from E. A. Milne in which he pointed out that a quite strict interpretation of the implications of the Theory of Relativity is that "future events have the same kind of reality as past events." Which means, in effect, that from God's point of view the prayer is already answered, because from God's point of view it is already prayed.
     It may be thought that this is making far too much of the text. But this is not simply a text; this is God's Word. And while it is profoundly simple, it is also simply profound. Each reader draws from the Word of God that which meets his own level of sophistication, and the child and the philosopher read the same story with equal delight. It is in this sense that the Word of God is truly eloquent, for the words are for children and the thoughts for men.
     There is yet a third example of the inversion of the time order, found in Revelation 13:8. Here the reference is to "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world."
(23) Once again, the ordinary rule is to interpret this sentence as demonstrating God's foreknowledge. But it does not say that the Lamb was foreordained to be slain, before the foundation of the world. Or, to invert the sentence, that before the foundation of the world, the Lamb was foreordained to be slain. This is an entirely different thing: it is the foreordination which is before the foundation of the world in these sentences. But in the text it is the Lord who is slain, from the foundation of the world -- slain, in fact, out of time. This was the sacrifice of God, an event which was timeless in itself. This is a truth which it is by no means essential that a man should understand in order to be saved, but it is a wonderful thing to enter into God's revelation and think His thoughts after Him. The Lord Jesus Christ continually lived in time for our sakes, and in eternity by His very nature. It is in this sense that He could speak of Himself while on earth as "the Son of man which is in heaven" (John 3:13).
      We come now with some diffidence to illustrations of this principle that have not always been recognized as such, but which are much more remarkable in some ways. We have said "with diffidence," because at first it will be difficult to escape from common-sense interpretations and penetrate into the real significance of the

23. The expression "before the foundation of the world" (pro kataboles kosmou) or its equivalent "from the foundation of the world" (apo kataboles) is found in nine other places in the New Testament: Matthew 13:35; 25:34; Luke 11:50; John 17:24; Ephesians 1:4; Hebrews 4:3; 9:26; 1 Peter 1:20; Revelation 17:8.

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things revealed in Scripture about the relationship between time and eternity. These relationships are so apparently conflicting that the revelation about them has to take an apparently contradictory form. And these contradictions have led to some rather weird and wonderful expositions of Scripture in the effort to resolve them.
     Here is one example. We have every assurance that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8). There is no ambiguity whatever about this statement, and many who have passed on to be with the Lord have, at the moment of departing, expressed their joyful delight when the call to go home was at last received.
     But we also find the Lord comforting the disciples as He discussed His going away by assuring them that when He came again, He would receive them unto Himself (John 14:3). Did He mean that they must wait for His second coming before being received into His presence? It seems so. This statement is also unambiguous. Yet these assurances are contradictory. Can they both be true? Undoubtedly they are! Then how can these things be reconciled?
     It is here that we apply something of what we now know about time and eternity as different categories of experience. And the light which these two passages receive is found to illuminate many other passages in an equally wonderful way. The statement that follows requires very careful reading. When any Christian dies, he passes from this realm of time and space into another realm of pure spirit, that is to say, out of time as we experience it into a state of timelessness, the ever-present of God. As he makes this passage, every event in God's scheduled program for the future which, as revealed in Scripture must come to pass before the Lord's return, must crowd instantly upon him. He does not "wait" for the Lord's return: it is immediate. But the Lord's return is an event which, in the framework of historical time, cannot take place until the church is complete and the end of the age has come. It must happen for him, therefore, that these events are completed instantaneously, though the living who survive him await these events in the future.
     Yet, for him, those who survive him must in his consciousness also have completed their journey home, and therefore he will not even experience any departing from them, but they with him rise to meet the Lord on His way for His second triumph with all other saints. Within the framework of time, this general resurrection is future, but to the "dying" Christian, it is a present event. This is the meaning of the Lord's words "The hour is coming -- and now is. . ." (John 5:25). There is no difference between "is coming" and "now is."  

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     The thief on the cross said, "Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom." The Lord who knew that His kingdom was not to come yet historically speaking also knew that the man who spoke would "die" that day and in his experience would that very day be with Him in His kingdom (Luke 23:43)! We have put the word die above in quotation marks: he did not die! While each man dies in so far as his contemporaries are concerned, they therefore need the assurance of resurrection that he may live again. But in his experience he passes at once to meet the returning Lord without any conscious interval and therefore without any conscious dying. "He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live," said the Lord, speaking to the living who remain to mourn the lost one; but "he that liveth and believeth in me shall never die," says the same Lord to the saint who is about to depart (John 11:25,26).
     As each child of God passes into glory, he therefore experiences no death nor the slightest pause in consciousness, nor even any sense of departure from the loved ones who remain. For him, the time that must elapse till they too "follow" is completely absent. They depart with him. Is it any wonder that men can die joyfully in the Lord and show no sadness in "leaving their loved ones behind"?
     Now, this can be carried a little further. The experience of each saint is shared by all other saints, by those who have preceded and those who are to follow. For them all, all history, all intervening time between death and the Lord's return, is suddenly annihilated so that each one finds to his amazement that Adam, too, is just dying and joining him on his way to meet the Lord: and Abraham and David, Isaiah and the Beloved John, Paul and Augustine, Hudson Taylor and you and I all in one wonderful experience meeting the Lord m a single instant together, without precedence and without the slightest consciousness of delay, none being late and none too early.
(24)
     Enoch saw "the Lord coming with ten thousands of His saints" (Jude 14) though he was but the seventh generation from Adam when the population was still small at the very same moment that Stephen, four thousand years later, saw the same Lord about to come (Acts 7:56). In so far as our time sense is concerned, the Lord is seated at the right hand of God in expectancy. But when time was effaced for Enoch and Stephen, the Lord was found ready to return for His second triumph. For us who remain, this event is still future, an event greatly longed for: for those who have gone on, it has already happened but not without us.

24. This could be the meaning of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17.  

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     It is in this sense that Scripture twice affirms, observing events from our point of view, that no man hath yet ascended into heaven (John 3:13), not even David (Acts 2:34). And yet, when we are absent from the body, we are present with the Lord in heaven. David is not there yet, nor any others, because we are not there! As we have said, in one body, in one single experience, all pass together to be with the Lord, and all intervening time being eclipsed, the Lord is at that moment on His way back.
     This wonderful fact is even found in a kind of allegorical form in a New Testament incident. The disciples had run into a severe storm. Their ship seemed about to be engulfed, with the haven of port far away. Suddenly they perceived the Lord, walking on the water toward them, and a moment later He had entered into the ship. Then there is this remarkable comment: "And immediately the ship was at the land whither they went" (John 6:21 ) in the Lord's presence and instantly at home, the intervening journey unaccountably eclipsed from the record.
     The question may be asked, What happens to our sense of time when we do come back with the Lord? We are then, it seems, to share His reign as active participants over a world of very real space and time. Does this not at once re-introduce us to a temporal orientation? Probably it does. Thinking forward (forward, that is, to us who are still here), it may be that the experience will be like this: At death we pass out of time to be with the Lord, only to return at once into time to reign with Him. We may not be aware of these shifts from one category of experience to another, from time to eternity and back to time. Since the interval here marked by the word Eternity is timeless, there will in effect be no interval at all, and the experience of time will be continuous.
     Since we have the assurance and somehow it is surely a comforting one that the passing of this old world will be the signal for a new heaven and a new earth, perhaps time will always be with us thenceforth. But we shall experience time not as limitation, but as opportunity. For us now, time is continually running out; then it will be continually opening up. We shall have all kinds of time to do all kinds of things.
    So long as we are separated from the desired goal of being with the Lord, it is a comforting thought to know that there will be no consciousness of delay in meeting the Lord and our loved ones. When no such longings are experienced, it will be equally comforting to know that haste is never again required of us. Thus we shall probably have no desire in that new heaven and new earth to escape from time, even if such a thing should be possible.  

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Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights reserved

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