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Part I: Time and Eternity:Creation
and the Theory of Relativity
Time Contrasted With Eternity in Scripture
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.
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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
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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
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
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.
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
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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.