By Dan FitzPatrick
There is a lot to write about these days: the COVID-19 pandemic; a hyper-partisan and contentious Congress; activist courts; a capricious president; state shutdowns; protests; vandalism; monument destruction/removal; the cancel culture; the Deep State; China; Russia; Iran; North Korea; bias in the media; the venality of politicians; the staggering hypocrisy of both on display daily, etc. Instead, I’ve chosen to write about a more timeless (pun intended) topic: eternity.
Warning: this could get heavy.
For years I have been puzzled by the concepts of eternity and the infinite nature of the universe (a topic best saved for another column). Originally, I thought they were related in that I assumed that eternity was simply time that kept going forward on and on without end. I now think differently.
I assume we have all experienced this: while time is an objectively measured and verified constant (though not absolute, per Einstein’s theory of relativity), we don’t always perceive it as such. When we are very busy, time seems to fly; when we are bored, time drags on. The forced confinement and isolation imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic health restrictions have left many of us feeling that the days run into each other, with little perceptible difference between weekdays and weekends. It’s as if we are caught in the real-life equivalent of Bill Murray’s movie “Groundhog Day.”
I’ve long been a fan of science fiction, especially the British TV series “Dr. Who,” in which the title character travels through space and time. Though I’m no physicist, I think that’s actually impossible, as I believe that time is linear and one-directional (i.e., forward, not backward). But the series gave me an idea which, for me, potentially answers a number of questions I’ve had for a long time.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, a pre-existing God created everything: light, darkness, the heavens, the earth and everything in and on it, including the human race. He (traditional styling) did so out of love for what he had created, particularly men and women, and asked very little in return: simply, that they respect his wishes. He also gave them the gift of free will, allowing them to decide whether or not to do exactly that. In the Bible story, God forbade Adam and Eve to eat or even touch the fruit from the tree of the knowledge or good and evil, or they “would die.” (Gen. 3:3). As the story goes, they nevertheless did so, committing the original sin, and bringing death into the world (Gen. 3:19, Rom.5:12).
In my view, the experience of aging and death gives birth to the concept of time, for if no one ever grew old or died, time would have no real meaning. In that sense, time is the consequence of death, which is a consequence of sin, which is the consequence of a voluntary and knowing failure to respect God’s wishes. Thus, time itself is a product of creation, nonexistent prior to or apart from God’s creation of everything.
If this is right, then God exists outside of time, and every moment of what we experience as time – past, present and future – is all “now” to God. I believe this is part of what God meant to convey when Moses asked him for his name and he replied: “I am.”
God created women and men “in his own image and likeness” (Gen. 1:27), with two natures: corporeal (body) and spiritual (soul). The body ages and dies, whereas the soul, being noncorporeal, is thought not to die (i.e., is immortal). If time does not exist apart from this created world, then when we die, we leave behind our body, as if taking off a shirt, and our soul continues in timelessness. In the Christian faith tradition, we are “united with God in eternity.”
So, what questions have this world view helped me answer for myself? I had originally thought of eternity as time going forward without end; now I understand it as the absence of time – the past, present and future all becoming “now.” Basically, a state of constant existence. This has helped me accept the concept that God knows what we have done, are now doing and will do, yet at the same time we have and experience the ability to make our own decisions (free will) and direct the course of our lives, for better or for ill.
Christians believe that the death and subsequent resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth redeemed humanity from its original sin and “conquered death;” henceforth, all could be saved through faith. This was possible because Jesus was also God on earth (“Emmanuel”), having taken on human form and subjected himself to aging and death – and time – in an act of love and forgiveness (John 3:16).
But what about all the good and righteous people (including Noah, Moses and the Old Testament patriarchs) who lived and died previously and without the opportunity to hear the Good News? Were they simply out of luck? And what about Heaven and Hell, reward and punishment?
If I am right, then the souls of all who have died or will die step out of time and into the “now” of eternity, where past, present and future are all one. Those who died before the period of Jesus’ time on earth will have entered into the timeless existence in which the salutary effects of Jesus’ worldly death and resurrection are already present, and they too are redeemed.
The last question is perhaps the most difficult. If free will exists, then its exercise must have consequences. I believe that God is above all loving and merciful, and is willing to meet us more than half way (see parable of the Prodigal Son, Luke 15:20). For those who have been forgiven, I believe Heaven is the state of existence in constant unity with God. As corollary, Hell would be existence in the absence of that unity. While that understanding could seem inconsistent with the more graphic depictions of Hell in art and the Bible, I believe that the absence of that unity could be every bit as regretful.
With luck, we will get past the worse of the current health crisis soon and be able to return to a semblance of our normal lives. In the meantime, let’s take a moment to appreciate all the blessings we have, including the power to use our time in the way we best see fit.