I was thinking about the nature of time because I was invited to listen to and comment on a podcast about hell. That occasioned a consideration of time because it was necessary to evaluate the thesis that those who die without Christ don’t live eternally in torment; rather, their suffering is finite, and then they die finally to oblivion.
Time is a more malleable concept than we might suppose. It is a notoriously slippery topic in philosophy, and it turns out to be more difficult than you might suppose even in physics. The “wormhole” jumping forward or back in time, so beloved by sci-fi writers, is not so far-fetched as we might assume, especially as we know more about quantum mechanics and black holes and other phenomena that prompt speculative scientific thinking.
Theologically, too, time must be something more than a linear wave overriding the three spatial dimensions and carrying them along in one “direction,” for some reason. What happens when we die? That’s a time-loaded question, particularly when we consider it in the context of heaven and timelessness (as opposed to mere long duration).
We have this idea that we go to heaven, if we accept God’s means of reconciliation, but there are passages in the Bible that suggest this happens not at the moment of death, but at some time later. Some people would throw up the hands and say this confusion means there is no God, but that doesn’t work. If we slap away God’s hand, the questions about time are even more complicated.
There’s yet another time-angle, to me, which is perhaps more a subjective consideration. Why, for example, the feeling of sadness and even despair on Good Friday, but the feeling of glorious hope just two days later, on Easter? Why is there some sense of both standing shoulder-to-shoulder with others screaming “Crucify Him!” when that occurred two millenia past? And why the sense of solidarity with the church on Easter Sunday, not just with the people standing around us, but with all of those in history who have looked forward to the day of the Lord? It is a subjective compression of time, you might say.
And so I was gratified to see a timely piece on this very subject at Public Discourse, Sacred Time Displayed to a Secular Age, by Josh Herring, in which he writes that “worship draws us out of ordinary time to join the eternal ‘simultaneity’ of God’s divine drama.” He quotes Hans-Georg Gadamer:
[T]he task that confronts the believer is to bring together two moments that are not concurrent, namely one’s own present and the redeeming act of Christ, and yet so totally to mediate them that the latter is experienced and taken seriously as present (and not something in a distant past.)
And quotes Charles Taylor from A Secular Age:
People who are in the saeculum, are embedded in ordinary time, they are living the life of ordinary time; as against those who have turned away from this in order to live closer to eternity. The word [secular] is thus used for ordinary as against higher time. . . .
[These] higher times gather and reorder secular time. They introduce “warps” and seeming inconsistencies in profane time-ordering. Events which were far apart could nevertheless be closely linked.
Augustine, Taylor writes, held that for God, “all times are present to him, and He holds them in His extended simultaneity. . . . [R]ising to eternity is rising to participate in God’s instant.”