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). *

While Augustine and Aquinas interpret eternal as meaning the nunc stans, their interpretation is not so much Biblical as it is philosophical, a way perhaps to preserve God’s dignity.  For the Bible eternal means a very long time.  For God it is perhaps a time so long as to be the same as forever, but it is a forever in time, not outside of it. 

In translations and discussions of the Bible, eternity is often used as a synonym for eternal life.  But once again the concept is remarkably unclear.  Nowhere are the Greek term aidios and its equivalents employed.  But rather than go further into this issue, I want to mention a few problems that arise with the concept of eternity today. 

Rage, rage against the dying of the light

In commenting on this well-known poem by Dylan Thomas, the author of a book on eternity asked

Who, for instance, would not resonate with one of the most famous poems of our time?  “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage rage against the dying of the light.  (Eire, p 12)

Well, I don’t resonate with it, if resonate means something like agree.  Eire continues,

we as a species tend to find the very concept of nothing and the thought of not existing unimaginable and abhorrent. (p 15)

Acceptance has its place, particularly in old age (and I’m getting there).  Happiness wants eternity, but hell is eternity.  I cannot imagine just going on forever.  It is death that makes life meaningful; it is death that gives not just poignancy but intensity to life.  Everything we do matters more because about the most important things there are no second chances. 

Not only does death give intensity and meaning to life, but it is simply the case that for many the thought of non-being is a relief.  Murder, the death of a child: we rage at that.  But for many, and not always the old, death is a relief.  I’m not saying this is how it should be.  This is how it is.  For many, the thought of an ending brings as much comfort as it does fear.

Death equivalents: what we really fear

Sigmund Freud argued that we can’t fear death, for we cannot imagine non-being.  Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist, writes that we fear not death, but “death equivalents,” such as separation, loneliness, darkness, and abandonment (p 53).  This makes sense to me.  We are creatures of attachment; people die of loneliness.  What is so often confused with death are images, feelings, and experiences of abandonment.  But death isn’t abandonment.  Death is non-being. 

Dying alone and uncared for is a terrible experience of abandonment we should all fear.  Non-being is terrifying to the degree that we confuse it with death equivalents, an easy thing to do, especially in an individualistic world, where the possibility of abandonment in illness and old age is real.  The fact that we can be abandoned by our own minds, as in dementia, is equally scary.  I’m not saying there is nothing to fear about death.  There are lots of things to fear, including what is sometimes called a “bad death,” but it is really a bad end of life, such as pointless medical intervention and poor pain control.   

Transience does not devalue anything 

I think the transience of life makes life even more sacred.  Because there are only so many tomorrows, each day is more important.  Evidently this is not how many people reason.  Eire argues that without eternity, every evil is ephemeral. 

For how can anything transient be condemned, even the worst atrocities? (p 198)

This makes no sense.  Transience mitigates nothing.  Would we say that because a torturer tortured his victim for only an hour that it is transient, of no great importance?  Of course not.  The most important things in life are not measured by eternity, but by the quality of our lives, including how deeply we care for others.  Transience allows us to feel deeply, for we could not sustain certain feelings for a lifetime, nor would we want to.  An endless kiss is a good line for a song (Bruce Springsteen?), but in reality it would be hell. 

A glimpse of eternity

Pope John Paul II wrote that in the absence of eternity, the present requires too much importance.  No matter how much we have, we will never be satisfied, for only eternal things truly satisfy.  In one respect John Paul was correct.  As long as humans remain as we are, vulnerable creatures of attachment, then certain values will always be right, other values wrong.  It is always good to care for life, always wrong to destroy life, even if there are exceptions.  In pursuing these values, we participate, in as much as humans possibly can, in the eternity of universal values.  We do not become eternal, but we share in things eternal.  Isn’t that enough?


*Thanks to www.auburn.edu/~allenkc/eternityexplained.html


Augustine, Confessions, book 11, section 17.

Carlos Eire, A Very Brief History of Eternity.  Princeton University Press, 2010.

Sigmund Freud, Reflections on War and Death, 1918.

John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Sociales, 1987. 

Robert Jay Lifton, The Broken Connection.  American Psychiatric Publishing, 1996.

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