When we’ve been there then thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing Gods praise,
Than when we’ve first begun.
This last verse, from John Newton’s familiar hymn, “Amazing Grace”, speaks of that which we believers have to look forward – an eternity of praise in the presence of our creator. But I think the concept of eternity is probably one of the more difficult for us to grasp. I used to tell people that if I ever wrote a book on calculus, I would use that stanza as the introduction to the chapter discussing limits and infinity. It states the concept of infinity as clearly as any I have read or heard. But are infinity and eternity the same? or even similar?
Infinity, by definition is limitlessness, a concept only approached in the universe, if current theories are correct. It used to be assumed that time and the physical universe were infinite in dimensions, but current cosmological thinking has come to the startling conclusion that both time and the universe have limits. There are physical limits to the size of the universe, and there was a point at which time and matter began. It is interesting how that agrees with God’s word in the Bible. Many cosmologists even envision a point at which time and matter will end. So, if time and the universe are not infinite, what is outside of them?
We are limited in our understanding by the fact that we are constrained in time. Every aspect of our being is controlled by time, so it is difficult to rationalize anything outside of time. In the same way, it is difficult to imagine anything outside of our physical universe, because we have no rational context into which it can fit. It is not a vacuum, because a vacuum is still a function of matter and energy. It has to be something totally different than anything from our physical and temporal existence.
Maybe it is eternity.
In each of us, there is a part that seems to know that there is something “out beyond” – a realm we cannot directly access, but a realm that can still touch us. The Bible is a message from one who dwells there, as incomprehensible as eternity itself, but none-the-less real and significant in our lives.
He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
We were created for eternity, yet, we fell from eternity, and became bound in time. I am unable to make my way back to eternity, but God can reach into time from eternity, touch me and draw me back. God himself paid the price to bring me back into eternity.
Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. (John 17:3)
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:14-16)
I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. (John 5:24)
For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:40)
We see that even though eternity exists outside of time, it permeates all of time. Time may be thought of as a subset of eternity, in the same way a tabletop may be thought of as a subset of a room. This construct helps me understand God’s ability to operate in and out of time, His ability to be everywhere all at once. Just as I can touch the tabletop anywhere, God can stick his finger into time at any point and turn the flow of history in the direction he has purposed from eternity.
His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Ephesians 3:10-11)
Being an eternal being, outside of time and the universe, He can permeate all of time and all of the universe at once.
He is not constrained to effect His will only sequentially in time, thus He is able to deal with my free will and still ensure that His plan unfolds as He has purposed. He can see my future acts as clearly as He can see my past acts. And He can reach into my past and tweak my history to bring me to the point of decision I reach today or tomorrow, building the sequence of events in my past that will allow me to see His best for me today. Thus He is able to bring me to a point where I agree with His will for me and freely make decisions in keeping with that agreement. He is sovereign – yet I am free to act as I see fit. Predestination and free will need not be in conflict!
Of course, all of these word pictures are still limited by the existence with which we are familiar. It is no more possible to describe eternity and an eternal God, than it is possible to imagine or describe a color I have never seen. I like the way Josh Wilson says it in his “Three Minute Song”
I tried to write a song, and keep it three minutes long
Get in, get out, nobody gets hurt
And I tried a thousand times to fit God between the lines
But I’m finding out that doesn’t really work
I just don’t have the words to say
Because words only get in my way
I must apologize, I have the hardest time
Finding something to define a God that I can’t define
And even if I could, it would take way too long
If all I’ve got’s a 3 minute song
I’ve got a hundred metaphors, and if I had a hundred more
I could never ever seem to sum this up
Besides, how can some melody communicate eternity?
It’s like trying to fit the ocean in a cup.
Eternity is not really like anything we have experienced. It is only by revelation from God that we can get glimpses of eternity and His nature. Even then, our nature only allows us to see a tiny glimpse of what it must be like – not what it really is. He is able to express it in language we can relate to, but our understanding will still be limited.
One day, when I am free of the shackles of time, I will be able, from the vantage point of eternity, to see all of time as He does. Only then will I begin to understand how history had to flow, and how I fit into that flow.
Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (1Corinthians 13:12)
I think this is why there will be no tears of sorrow in heaven. I will see that everything did indeed unfold according to a plan that brought God glory and brought me to that blessed place with Him.
So, I do not believe that eternity is infinite time. Infinite time could become tedious very quickly (in relative terms anyway). But I think eternity will be an entirely new experience, one filled with the wonder of discovery and understanding of things we can only dream about while we are bound in time. Yet I believe there is a part of me that can relate to eternity, even though I have no language with which to describe it.
Many pagan belief systems see time as infinite, repeating itself in endless cycles of death and rebirth, forever destined to rise no higher than it has to date, and from all appearances spiraling downward. That sounds like an apt description of Hell to me. If history were indeed driven by man, that is the way it would go. But we know that God really directs and drives history forward towards a climax and a conclusion that He has prepared before time began. Life is not futile, it can have purpose and meaning because God is drawing us back into eternity to fellowship with Him. There is a purpose for all that we experience, and once we are free of time, we shall see it and rejoice … or face eternal regret that we did not accept His offer of grace.
Understanding this little bit about eternity helps me anticipate some of what heaven may be like. And knowing how limited is my understanding of eternity assures me that heaven is undoubtedly far greater than all I can hope or imagine. But it also convinces me of the horror of hell, an eternity of separation from God, after having clearly seen all that He created me to be, and all he did to draw me back to Him. The flames of hell could be seen as a mercy if they distract from the realization of what was forfeited by foolish choice.
But even if we do not fully grasp it, as believers, we have already entered into eternal life. It is not just a future reality, it is here and now. It was always here, but I was unaware of it while enslaved to sin. I may have caught whiffs of it in the air, as a fragrance born on the wind from a far country. But I did not recognize what it was, and might have feared its unfamiliarity. If told about it while in that deceived state, I may have even dreaded it, thinking it was only endless time – time can be so cruel.
But as I was lifted a little from the morass of time, allowed to breathe more freely of this new fragrance, it infused my soul with new hope and joy because of the loving mercy and grace of my Savior. As I loose my grip on this ephemeral existence, I am able to experience more of eternity. As I take my focus off the corrupted image of heaven, I am able to see further into the reality of eternity. And sometime it simply overwhelms me so that I am left speechless.
If not an understanding of eternity, at least an eager anticipation of it is central to an intentionally-biblical world-view. Only within an eternal frame of reference can I place all that occurs into a proper perspective. Knowing of the eternal pleasures that await, makes it easier to wait patiently upon the Lord, and renew my strength. Appreciating the contrast between the ephemeral and eternal makes it easier to reign in the materialism that so easily creeps in and robs me of true treasure stored up in heaven. Seeing myself from an eternal perspective brings true humility. Though “it is not all about me”, I still play a significant role in God’s plan. Believing that there is something outside of time helps me keep my focus on eternity, so I can finish the race rather than become defeated by the hopelessness of time and the futility of the physical world. Understanding the eternal frustration of a Christ-less eternity creates a deeper urgency to rescue the lost from such a fate, and makes me grateful for the grace and mercy I receive from His loving hand.