Time IN Eternity?

And while we’re at it surveying opinions, how do you think of the afterlife/eternity? Does it, or does it not, include the dimension of time?

I must say that I have always thought of “eternity”, the realm of God beyond creation, as “non-temporal”. And I have usually thought that this was the realm that we entered in the next life (ie. “eternity” as external to time). After all, we do talk about “the end of time”, don’t we, and “The Last Day”?

But I was challenged in this view by listening to some recordings by William Lane Craig on the Cosmological Argument. In one of these lectures, Craig made the point that God “entered” time by his initial act of creation–arguing that an event, an action, requires time. He went on to say that time will continue in the afterlife because what we await is a “new creation”, in a bodily existence, a “new age”.

These considerations were then given extra fuel by the fact that I am currently preparing a presentation for the John Paul II Institute colloquium on Spe Salvi during the Days in the Diocese in the Melbourne lead up to World Youth Day (nb. the date is wrong on this link–I will be on the panel on Tuesday 8th, not Tuesday 9th). My topic is Benedict’s take on Purgatory, and I am, of course, coming at it from an ecumenical point of view.

Now a big issue with Purgatory–in both Catholic and Protestant writing–is the issue of the “intermediate state” and the question of whether it is appropriate to speak of “time” or “duration” in terms of those who have died. Have they not “entered eternity”? Are they not “free” from the space-time continuum? Some, indeed, posit the theory of “resurrection in death”, ie. that the moment you die you are “raised to life” because the “Day of the Last Judgement” and the “particular judgement at time of death” are in fact the one event in eternity beyond time.

Well, it seems that this may not be so. Creation–even the new Creation–doesn’t appear so eager to let go of the category of time, and there is a fair bit written in this regard. Personally, I am coming around to the biblical terminology of “this age” and “the age to come”. It is interesting that in this Jewish conception, the Messianic Age is precisely that, an “Age”, an “Era”, different from this age, but still in some sense a “time”. And given that we will have bodies in heaven, and thus there must be some spatial dimension to the afterlife, then it would follow that there must be some sort of temporality as well.

What do you think?

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12 Responses to Time IN Eternity?

  1. Peregrinus says:

    It’s a bit mind-boggling.

    I’ve always thought of time as the measure of the rate at which things change and, in a perfect state, nothing ever changes; therefore, no time. God is outside of time.

    But of course “afterlife” does not necessarily equal “perfect state”; if it did, we could have no concept of purgatory, which to my mind definitely does involve a change. But I still feel that our ultimate calling is to a perfect existence in union with the life of God, in which nothing ever changes. Therefore, no time. Pehraps we could say that the afterlife moves towards a state in which there is no time. Or, perhaps, in which the notion of “time” becomes meaningless.

    Of course, such a thing is wholly outside our present experience. Timelessness is not something we can wrap our minds around at all. Try as we might, we tend to think of “eternity” as “an awfully long time”, which it isn’t. Hence the cosmology of the Hebrew scriptures, and phrases like in saecula saeculorum. They’re wrong, but they’re as close as we can get.

  2. Schütz says:

    Yes, I don’t know about “nothing ever changes” in heaven. Perhaps not. The better idea might be “happens” rather than “changes”–that is, do things “happen” in heaven? Or is it just “happening”? Even the latter would require some sort of time. Of course, relationship — eg. the love between the persons of the Holy Trinity, or the love between God and his saits — is not an event, or a happening. Such a relationship of love is indeed “without time”. Ratzinger talks about the “transforming moment” of purgatory in his Eschatology, or of encounter with Christ–but even “encounter” involves an event. He also says that “man does not have to sript away his temporality in order thereby to become ‘eternal'”, and that “the transforming ‘moment’ of this encounter cannot be quantified by the measurements of earthly time. It [ie. the transforming moment of purgatory] is, indeed, not eternal but a transition, and yet trying to qualify it as of a ‘short’ or ‘long’ duration on the basis of temporal measurements derived from physics would be naive and unproductive.” He end up using a German term “Existenzzeit”, existential time, but I don’t know if that helps.

  3. Peregrinus says:

    Ratzinger, it goes without saying, will talk more intelligently on this than I do. Nevertheless, he will no doubt be pleased to learn, on this point I am inclined to agree with him. Purgatory does involve some kind of a change, as I said before, but I don’t know how meaningful it is to talk of this in terms of measurable time as we understand it. We all know the misunderstanding that such-and-such an indulgence gives “30 days off” the time someone would otherwise have to spend in Purgatory, and we agree that this is not meaningulf. Nevertheless Purgatory does involve some concept of “time”, if only because “change” implies “before” and “after” conditions, and these terms have no meaning if there is no time. I’ve no idea what Existenzzeit means, but I’m happy to adopt it for purgatorial time.

    I still feel, though, that when we have been through the change or transition that purgatory implies, we reach a state in which there is no longer any change. I am not convinced by your change/happening distinction; can you give an instance of a happening that does not involve any change?

  4. Fraser Pearce says:

    Apparently the first person to consider the coexistence of space and time was St Augustine – in the last part of the Confessions.

    If you want some really good stuff on God’s eternity and human life you should look at Eleonore Stump’s ‘Aquinas’. It’s brillant, but I’m too lazy to say anything much about it here.

  5. Joshua says:

    I have always thought -since stumbling across the concept – that the Thomistic idea of *ævum* helps here.

    Time, of course, is not some external reality, but it is measured with regard to external material changes in the universe – Thomas instances the movements of the sun, moon and stars (I think).

    God of course is eternal, outside time, looking at all time at once: to Him all is seen plain before Him, from the Beginning to the End.

    Man is in time.

    But the Angels? – they are in-between!

    Angels clearly act, and thus one moment follows another; but they are immaterial and so not bound to the cycle of time. They instead exist in æviternity: for each one, ‘time’ runs at a different, entirely variable rate, vis a vis the cosmos.

    For an angel, a second may encompass a million moments of action, or none.

    I hypothesise that when we die, our souls pass into æviternity, with the experienced duration of say, purgatorial purification, depending upon the succession of happenings, rather than with reference to temporal duration.

    It is like the old tale of two priests who promised each other that whoever outlived the other would hasten to offer Mass to deliver the other from Purgatory as soon as the other died: the priest who outlived the other indeed did so, but, upon returning to the sacristy within the hour of his brother priest’s decease, having almost immediately gone to the altar to offer sacrifice, beheld the departed appear to him to reproach him for having waited decades to offer Mass for him: the soul in Purgatory experienced many ‘years’ of painful purification in the short time after death.

    These are not subjective measures, by the way: for each disembodied spirit, æviternity, neither time nor eternity, is measured by the acts experienced, and so, in relation to exterior cosmic time, runs fast or slow, so to speak, while remaining an objective reality.

  6. Christine says:

    What does it mean, I wonder, to live in an eternal “present” where yesterday and tomorrow no longer exist?

  7. Joshua says:

    I should add that, as for the angels, so for those who are saved out of human kind and come to heaven: they are ‘between’ time and eternity, in æviternity. After all, if we are to be transformed from glory into glory in an endless epektasis (constant progress), as St Gregory of Nyssa would say, then change – accidental, not substantial, else beatitude could be lost, which is wrong – continues to occur to those in heaven, and thus they are not in eternity, as God alone is.

  8. Schütz says:

    Is God really “outside time”? How can change take place in God (which it obviously did at the incarnation, since the 2nd person of the HOly Trinity, God the Son, was not, from all eternity, human, but became human) if God is “outside time”?

  9. Peregrinus says:

    Well, we do say the Incarnation is a mystery!

    A lot of statements you can make about God are “true, but . . “; this is one of them. Being uncreated and eternal, God is outside of time. Being incarnate, he exists in time. How does he manage this? Danged if I know.

    Joshua, I like what you say about aeval time – at least, in so far as I think I understand it. It does accord with another belief I have, which is that our experience of time in the afterlife – whether in Purgatory, or generally – will be radically unlike our experience of time in this life – so much so that it may not be much help to us to think about “time” in the afterlife. That word is so bound up with our earthly experience that it probably doesn;t help us to discern the truth about the afterlife.

    I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

  10. Herman says:

    Just some thoughts

    Maybe heaven is another state, a timeless state maybe in a parallel universe,
    Because if we can enter heaven in the way we enter a room than we automatically change heaven by our presence and so heaven becomes time bound (the measurement of change) If heaven is a pure state than we need to achieve the state not by entering but by achieving its pure and perfect state or a Godly state.

    We may compare it with purifying silver; silver becomes pure by removing all impurities or dross. It does not change the silver the metal becomes purse silver by virtue of the requirements of the chemical formulae “Ag” Also it is not the quantity of the metal that defines what it is.

    Some scriptural references

    Psa 119:119, Prov 25:4 Isa 1:22, Isa 1:25 Eze 22:19

    Purgatory may be a state before heaven, bound by time because of entering and leaving during which we need purification or the final removal of our dross.

    With state I mean a spiritual state

  11. Joshua says:


    No change took place in God! The Son assumed to Himself a human nature, to be united to His very Person, but in no way did this affect Him in His Divine Nature.

    Did you pay attention in your classes on Trinitarian theology, Christology and the early heresies? You’ll have PW and me writing long postings to correct you again, just like that earlier time when you got all overspeculative.

    Tsk, tsk!

  12. Schütz says:

    Ah. We are back on this subject again. Sorry, Josh, not biting this time. In any case, I think I have said before that your God is excessively philosophical. Give me the anthropomorphic God who gets wild, changes his mind and repents any day! (I can see you cringing!)

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