“WHAT WAS GOD DOING BEFORE HE CREATED THE UNIVERSE?,” was occasionally asked when I took my classes on a brief tour of the doctrines of God and Creation. My usual reply was standard Trinitarian theology: God was enjoying the love and joy that is the eternal relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit. This answer most students found completely satisfactory, since their question was more about God’s state of being or his activity, than about the relationship between eternity and time. And so most often I would leave things there. Not always. If there were time enough, sometimes I would bring up the mystery of time, and first point out that there was no before “before” creation, since time itself was brought into existence with creation, and God himself inhabits eternity. And then sometimes the conversation took interesting turns. I did not do this to be annoying, but to offer an invitation to venture out a bit deeper into the ocean of truth. Some students enjoyed the swim, especially when they realized that I as well as they were swimming in deep waters way over our heads.
No one can define time. St. Augustine recognized this in his Confessions: “What then is time? Provided no one asks me, I know. If I want to explain it to an inquirer, I do not know.” There is the clever, “Time is what keeps everything from happening at once,” which may go back to a science fiction story by Ray Cummings in the 1920s. Plato famously described time as the “moving picture of eternity.” Physicists speak of the “arrow of time” which holds the recognition that the processes of nature move only in one direction and can never be reversed. There is even a hypothetical smallest time measurement of physical processes, the infinitesimal Planck time, which at 1 x 10-43 seconds is way beyond several trillion blinks of an eye. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus described the passage of the world as “ever-living Fire, in measure being kindled and in measure going out.” Time as the fire in which we burn.
Most often we think of time as a flowing river, an image which also goes back at least to Heraclitus: “Everything flows,
nothing stands still.” Time flows out of the past, through the present, and
into the future. It is only an image, but it is a useful image. Time is movement, change, and variation. Life is a journey moving inexorably forward from its source, new each day. But this is also an image of loss. Of things coming into being, and then passing away. The hymnist Isaac Watts wrote: “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away.” There is no going back, and along the way we say good-bye to something and someone else every day. “Before us lies eternity; our souls are love, and a continual farewell,” as W.B. Yeats put it.
If Time is perplexing, Eternity is unfathomable. There are two enduring misapprehensions of eternity. First, that eternity is time without end. Like a line extending endlessly away from us, eternity is nothing more than an “infinite” succession of moments of time. But this is impossible. There can be no actually infinite number of anything in the physical universe. Not apples, not stars, not grains of sand, and not moments of time. You can never get to infinity by counting, forwards or backwards. Try it sometime, if you have some time to kill.
Another misapprehension is that eternity is stopped time. Time frozen in place, like a winter-locked stream or arctic ice field. But this can’t be true either. Absolute zero is the final measure of “frozenness” in the physical world. At that temperature all motion ceases, everything is static, there is no dynamic relatedness, only universal stillness. But this can’t possibly be a description of God’s eternity; the God who just is an eternal, dynamic relationship of love between Father, Son, and Spirit.
Eternity is God’s mode of Being, his dwelling place. God is the One “who inhabits eternity” (Isaiah 57:15; ESV). Most new translations smooth this out to “who lives forever”. I think the English Standard Version is right to keep it as it was. Eternity is timelessness, but this does not mean stasis. God is love, and love is dynamic relatedness. The LORD does not change (Malachi 3:6), but this means his character and faithfulness are as eternal as his Being. God’s eternity means he is not subject to the vicissitudes, the ravages, the variableness, the coming-into-being and passing away, of time, as we are. We collect our lives only in bits and pieces as all the while time’s ever-rolling stream bears us away. God has all the fullness of his life now, and forever, without beginning and without end.
The mystery of the relationship between time and eternity is like the mystery of the relationship between Christ’s humanity and divinity. Our present humanness is corruptible and corrupted. We are not anymore what God created us to be, and we are not yet what God intends us to be. In a Fallen world, the passage of time reveals more and more our human bondage to decay. Jesus Christ’s humanity is perfect humanity; it is what God in grace offers to us. And Christ is divinity incarnate in perfect humanity; truly God and truly Man, eternity “incarnate” in time. The eternal clothed in the temporal. At the end of the book of Revelation John has a vision of a “new heaven and a new earth.” The image of the New Jerusalem is the symbol of the joining of heaven and earth, of God and humanity, of eternity and time: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Revelation 21:3). Time will still pass, but its passing will never again mark passing away—“Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5)—only everlasting becoming. The passage of time into God’s unfathomable and inexhaustible eternity will mark endlessly new heights of love, and joy, and beauty.