Eternity again and again

I’ve posted before on eternity, but there is much to say on this endless subject.    The first thing to figure out is what eternity is.  There are two main contenders:

  • Eternity is time without beginning or an end, sometimes called sempiternity.
  • Eternity stands outside of time. It is a perspective on time, but not time itself.  Eternity is nunc stans, from the Latin meaning remaining now, unchanging.  Ordinary time is nunc fluens, time that flows or passes.

The second way of thinking about eternity is often attributed to Plato (Timaeus 37c-e), but it became theologically significant in the work of Augustine (Confessions, book 11).  God, and only God, is eternal.  Earthly time, temporal time, is so insubstantial and illusory as to border on non-being (Erie, p 62).  Just as humans can only find fulfillment in God, so they can only find fulfillment in eternity.  God and eternity are virtually the same thing.   

Now is a ceaselessly moving point between past and future.  It is ephemeral, and totally lacking in substance.  For this reason, time has no value.  I was going to write, “ordinary time just is,” but the thing about time is that its substance, moments, have no substance.  They are gone the instant they have begun. 

Eternity is the opposite.  It is always present and everywhere.  In eternity all time is now.  How to make sense of this?  I like the simple explanation of C. S. Lewis.  He is answering the question how could God hear every prayer uttered by all who are praying at the same time.

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What’s so great about eternity?

What’s so great about eternity?

For all its importance in Christian thought, the concept of eternity in the Bible is remarkably unclear.  The two most important Christian thinkers, Augustine and Aquinas, place God outside of time, in what is called the nunc stansNunc stans is the opposite of the way we ordinarily think of eternity as time going on forever.  In the nunc stans, you experience all of time in a single moment.  Or you would if you were God. 

As Augustine put it, we pass through God’s today.  The experience would be something like seeing time as though it were space, a plane spread out before you.  You might focus on one part of the plane or another, but all time is there to be experienced in a moment.  The term is Latin (no surprise).  Nunc means now, and stans refers to stand.  In the nunc stans, all of time stands before you.

Not in the Bible

Trouble is, that this way of thinking about time is nowhere in the Bible (I’ll confine myself to the New Testament, but the problem is found in the Old Testament as well.).  The Greek term aeonios, for which so many translations mistakenly use the word “eternal” is derived from the noun “aeon.” “Aeon” means “age” or “ages.”  Thus, the word translated as eternal really refers to an aeon or age, not forever.  When Jesus says “I am with you always, to the end of the age (αἰῶνος), he does not mean forever, but until the end of the present age—that is, until the eschaton.  Aidios (αιδιος) is the ancient Greek term for eternal, and it is used only once in the Bible in reference to God (Romans 1:20). *

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