Science in Christian Perspective

Time and Eternity

Adam Drozdek

Duquesne University
Pittsburgh, PA 15282

From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 49 (September 1997): 192-195.

In "Eternity and the Personal God," Karl Busen addresses the problem of an alleged incompatibility between God's eternity and his personhood: it is sometimes claimed that God can be either an eternal being or a person, but not both at the same time.1 Nelson Pike, for example, claims that mental activities such as thinking, remembering, imagining, etc. are inherently temporal, thus they cannot be executed in eternity, if eternity is understood as timelessness rather than time endlessness. To grapple with this problem, Busen calls on the distinction, introduced by David Park, between Time 1 and Time 2. Time 1 is modeless, like the time parameter used in equations; Time 2 is characteristic of human consciousness, distinguishing among the three modes of time: past, present, and future.

Busen's solution applies Park's thesis of complementarity of Time 1 and Time 2 to the eternity of God: "The biblical God is eternal and assumedly timeless (or better, in Time 1)." Moreover, "the biblical God is personal and in Time 2...God's `timeless' eternity and his temporal relationship to the world would then be part of his essence" (p. 45). There is here, however, at least a terminological dissonance. Can Time 1 be considered timeless, or can any time, for that matter, be timeless? Time 1 is what it is, namely time, although its modes are suspended. Time variables in physical equations, however, refer to timeóphysical, real, objective timeó and their modeless way of operation consists in not tying the equations to any particular point of time. The equations are valid any time, any time, so that specific time has to be supplied in the equation if it is to be applicable in a particular situation. Leaving out this instantiation in the equation does not make the time timeless, it only makes equations generally valid.

The same is true for any type of variable, particularly space. If a space variable in an equation is used, does it mean that some spaceless space is meant? After all, it can be considered a modeless space (although not in all equations) that does not make any distinction between left and right, up and down, etc. Therefore, Time 1 can be considered at best an image of timeless eternity but should not be identified with it. In this way, God's eternity would be elevated above the time physicists use in their equations, unless physicists' tenseless time is endowed with a metaphysical dimension. That is also what Busen suggests when he mentions that "God transcends the two times" (p. 46). Thus, if Time 1 is to be an image of eternity, then Paul Tillich's statement that "it would be foolish to imply that time is the image of timelessness" may sound too harsh, let alone, unjustified.

True, God transcends the two times, and according to Thomas Aquinas, God "is his own eternity," or "eternity is nothing else but God himself."2 Thus, reducing such a grand vision of God's eternity to timeless time of physical equations does not appear to be a well-directed enterprise. Eternity, as Aquinas repeats after Boethius, is a "simultaneously whole and perfect possession of interminable life."3 Interminable, that is, unbounded, and hence, it can be claimed, infinite. In this way, infinity would be an underlying concept of eternity. Descartes used this attribute as a principal attribute of God: God is infinite and God's actual infinity is tantamount to his perfection, by which infinity acquires the status of a sacred attribute which is reserved to God alone.4 This is similar to Aquinas's belief that eternity is perfect possession of interminable (infinite?) life, and thus God is identified with eternity. This statement, however, can be strengthened if we realize that Park's division is not sufficient for proper understanding of the importance of eternity.

Augustine was the first to convey the idea that God is greater than infinity, since to God even the infinite is finite. Thus, according to Augustine, there are three different levels of reality: the finite, the infinite, and the absolute. Augustine might have been influenced here by Plotinus's concept of One: the Oneólike Plato's idea of goodóis outside of essence and being.5 Augustine's views were later corroborated by developments in set theory. There are finite sets and transfinite sets, but there is no set encompassing all sets: such an assumption leads to antinomies. Georg Cantor was quick to use his mathematical analyses for theological purposes and saw in the hierarchy of transfinite numbers stairs leading to the throne of God.6 This tripartite division of realityóthe finite, infinite, and suprainfiniteócan also be seen in the realm of time.

To be sure, one must not be as cavalier about the concept of eternity as Leibniz, to whom "there is nothing simpler than the concept of eternity."7 It seems, however, that eternity can be understood in three ways: (1) time without end, (2) truths valid always and everywhere, and (3) atemporal existence.8 Park's Time 1 is of the second category since it pertains to the universality of physical laws. Atemporal existence, most important within God's eternity, seems to be included in Busen's statement that "God transcends the two times." God surpasses the bounds of time. He is a timeless, atemporal being who is faintly reflected in Time 1. So Time 1, to use Cantor's saying, resembles stairs which lead to the throne of God. But Time 1 is hardly the essence of God. The division would be among what is limited in time, what is endless, and what is eternal. Only God is in the third category.9

Does this mean that God is detached from time, like the God of deists? Because God is his eternity, does it mean that God himself has no connection with time? Busen says that for Aquinas "God's eternity has no connection with time" (p. 41). Aquinas himself plainly states that God's "eternity includes all times."10 This should be obvious in systems that accept that the world has been created, created by an eternal Being, and that the world was infused with time. For this world, the material world, time is an inseparable characteristic, even its essence. But in such systems as Aristotle's, where the world is uncreated and God plays only the role of the prime mover, eternity would include all times because eternity is time. Secondly, extratemporal eternity includes time(s) because of the Incarnation, which is a primary argument in Christianity.

Busen tries to answer the question whether God's eternity can be reconciled with his personhood. He answers "Yes" at the cost of sometimes blurring the line between the eternal and the temporal by leaning toward confining God's eternity to Pike's Time 1. The fact that he also says that "God transcends the two times" indicates that he is not comfortable with this stress put on Time 1. And he should not be.

Let us look at the problem not from the perspective of the divine but from that of the human. Does the fact that people perform their mental activities in time mean that their temporality constitutes humanness of humans? After Pike, Busen lists "processes of reflecting, deliberating, anticipating, intending, and remembering" as temporal processes and thus "agreeing with the definition of a person" (p. 41). But why are these processes taking place? All these processes allow us to transcend time, to break its power, and to surpass its limits. Thanks to memory we are not just immersed in the present, but we can also live our past, although the past is already gone. Thanks to deliberating, anticipating, and intending we can also live the future, although the future does not exist yet. When living in time, we do our best to break its barriers and with these mental processes we can overcome its limitations. Even "perception puts time in parentheses to fix the world in some kind of eternity,"11 since perception brings perceptual data to be operated on by the mindóby memory, reasoning, etc. Therefore, perception allows time to stand still, or better yet, to break its hold on us. Thus, although mental processes are temporal, their role is to bring us into the extratemporal. The processes themselves in humans are conducted in time, but this is accidental. This does not constitute the essence of humanness; this is not why a person is a person.

A person should be eternity-oriented and should use personal abilities to go beyond time. Personal development does not lie in limiting oneself to time, but in opening oneself to the influx of the eternal, in eternity-directedness. As aptly put by Aquinas, "we must reach to the knowledge of eternity by means of time."12 We are temporal beings, thus we have to use temporal means to turn our faces toward the eternal. This is not an impossible task, since, as the apostle Paul wrote to the Romans in the spirit of natural theology, God's "eternal power and divine nature" are "clearly visible through his works" (Rom. 1:20). Do we undermine our humanity by directing ourselves toward the eternal? If so, the religious life would be anything but an inducement to the development of personality. But we are urged to be born from above to reach eternal union with God, from above (anwqen)ónot anew or again (palin), although only the former entails the latteróthat is, from heaven, with the help of the eternal. Is this birth to stifle our personality, or to develop it? If the contact with the eternal were an adversary of personal development, of what is human in us, then mystics would be the most miserable of peopleómystics who are "capable of living the real life of Eternity in the midst of the real time," who are "bringing Eternity into Time," and who are to the Eternal Goodness what hands are to a man.13 Obviously, these are rhetorical questions. We undermine our humanity if we turn our back on the eternal and the supratemporal, and confine ourselves to the temporal, pretending that it makes us more human. That is why Pascal complained so bitterly about the fact that people cling to divertissement which is a way for people to divert their minds from what exceeds the boundary of the world in order not to think about what is truly important. People throw themselves into the here and now, into the passing moment through the means of gambling, horse racing, and other types of entertainment. These diversions, however, make them less human by chaining them to the passing of time; by limiting their memory, reflection, imagination, etc.; and by immersing them in time.

This does not mean that the temporal should be abandoned altogether and that we should turn our backs on our world. This was a danger of quietism. No, the world and the temporal ought to be viewed from the perspective of the eternal, as a necessary stage in our pilgrimage beyond the limits of time and space. Only equipped with this eternal perspective can we accomplish the fullest personal development. It is not that we have to struggle to acquire such a perspective, after all, as it says in Ecclesiastes 3:11, God put eternity in our hearts. We have to struggle to renounce this perspective, and that is what was so upsetting to Pascal when he wrote about divertissement. Human personality develops by saturating it with the eternal, which is understood not as tenselessness of the time of physics, but as the eternal of God's reality.

After all, "time does not have original reality, but derived."14 As created human beings, we have a derived reality as well. Thus, if we direct ourselves to the temporal, we make ourselves doubly derived, and we turn time into a barrier between ourselves and the eternal instead of making it the nexus. Furthermore, it can become a nexus if the eternal in us allows us to see the temporal in the proper light, if we do not allow diversions to interfere and obfuscate the proper view. The diversions allow the temporal dross in personality to accumulate; and the eternal perspective allows it to dissolve in the eternal light, whereby personality, i.e., human personality, can burgeon.

All these remarks are to point to the fact that our humanity is strengthened by the eternal perspective. Without it human personality withers and human being turns just into being. Eternity is, therefore, no foe to human personality. Is it to God's, as Busen is afraid of?

The arguments used against God's personality are of at least of two types: from memory and from knowledge.15 As to memory, it is said that time is indispensable for memory, since remembering refers to things past. We can retort briefly that an eternal, timeless being forgets nothing it knows, having perfect and infallible memory. Does this capacity make this being a nonperson? In this way, the more a human could remember, the more inhuman he would be. Uncommonness does not have to mean inhumanity or impersonality.

Secondly, an eternal being's knowledge can be questioned, since such a beingóbeing extratemporalócannot acquire knowledge or display it. In summary, when an eternal being knows everything from eternity, he does not have to learn, he just knows everything. Does this deprive this being of personality? Though it is a debatable issue, there are strong indications that humans have innate knowledge, or at least, innate dispositions (to mention only linguistic competence). Do they thereby lose a part of their personality? Also, some knowledge may never be manifested to anyone; does it have a negative impact on a person's personality?

Arguments against God's personality are mostly very weak and include a time factor in definitions of personality components: memory must take place in time, knowledge is acquired in time, etc. Similarily, Leibniz accepted existence of infinite sets, but not infinite numbers, because by definition numbers are finite. This all changed with Cantor. Similar definitional restrictions may hinder ascribing personal traits to God. If these restrictions are lifted, then it will turn out that God does have personality and in the fullest sense possible. We then can second the statement that "only God's personality is guaranteed by his eternity,"16 a personality that is proportional to eternity, not to temporality.



1Karl M. Busen, "Eternity and the Personal God," Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 49 (1997): 40ñ49.

2Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 1.10.2. This definition is endorsed by Tibor Horvath, Eternity and Eternal Life: Speculative Theology and Science in Discourse (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1993), 4, 79, and 104; Constantin Gutberlet, Die Theodicee (M¸nster: Theissingsche Buchhandlung, 1909), 256; and Gerhard Wilczek, Zeit und Ewigkeit, (Pfaffenhofen: Ilmgau Verlag, 1985), ch. 3. Such a view is shared not only by Thomists, since it can also be found in Augustine who identified eternity with divine essence: "In the nature of God...there is only what is, and this is eternity itself" (Enarrationes in Psalmos 9.11; De Trinitate 4.1). It was once noted that the relationship between time and eternity was the main preoccupation of Augustine in Jules Chaix-Ruy, Saint Augustin: Temps et histoire (Paris: Študes Augustiniennes, 1956), 3.

3Aquinas, Summa 1.10.1.

4Descartes, third Meditation, see also my paper, "Descartes: Mathematics and Sacredness of Infinity," Laval thÈologique et philosophique 52 (1996): 167ñ178.

5Štienne Gilson, Introduction a l'Ètude de saint Augustin (Paris: Vrin, 1949), 261.

6Adam Drozdek, "Beyond Infinity: Augustine and Cantor," Laval thÈologique et philosophique 51 (1995): 127ñ140.

7G.W. Leibniz, "Letter to Remond de Montmort 1715," in Selections (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1951), 556.

8See, for instance, Jacques Durandeaux, L'ŠternitÈ dans la vie quotidienne (Bruges: DesclÈe de Brouwer, 1964), 150.

9This, however, raises a theologically interesting problem of the position of angels. Aquinas places them in aevum which is not eternity, because "before and after are compatible with it," nor time, since time does not limit angelic beings (Summa 1.10.5). Horvath sees in this a statement of the fact that angels have personal time, Eternity and Eternal Life, 106. It seems that the time and aevum can be predicated of created beings only, whereas eternity can be predicated of an uncreated being, God.

10Summa 1.10.2.

11Durandeaux, L'ŠternitÈ, 37.

12Aquinas, Summa 1.10.1.

13Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism (New York: Dutton, 1948), 154, 161.

14Jean Pucelle, Le temps (Paris: PUF, 1959), 87.

15Paul Helm, Eternal God: A Study of God Without Time (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), ch. 4

16Horvath, Eternity, 104.