We Do NOT understand time! No wonder we can’t figure out eternity…..

Do you ever ponder eternity?  What will happen “at the end of time”?  What was here before “In the beginning….”?   There is so much that we do not know….

I was thinking about this in the context of the heaven/hell debate when I was putting together my post last week.  The variation in perspectives on the destiny of the soul following our physical death is significantly impacted by our understanding of time.  If “forever and ever” is truly “forever and ever”… well, no wonder the debate about our spiritual destiny becomes so intense!  A recap of the perspectives mentioned in my last post:

  • Rob Bell theorizes that God is more “inclusive” than the church has traditionally taught, that most souls will avoid being “tormented day and night forever and ever”
  • My theory is that the “2nd death” is a literal death of the soul and therefore the ‘punishment’ in Hell will be temporary for humans (still “day and night forever and ever” for fallen angels)
  • Francis Chan points out that he wishes that Hell wasn’t real, but that we need to trust God and what the Bible says on the subject

The one thing that I think we all do in this debate?  When we consider “forever and ever” and eternity, we all tend to think of time linearly, moving forward in one direction at a regular pace.  (You too, right?) And that brings me to the point of this post:

We DO NOT understand time from God’s perspective.

We live within a timeline.  We experience life in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years, and because of that, we CANNOT help but picture eternity in the same manner.  Eternity to us is just a longer period of time:

Years….

Millenia….

Eons…..

“Day and night, forever and ever….”

The problem with this take on eternity is that we typically picture God passing through time with us, rather than being outside of time, looking in on us.  If I was explaining this concept to a Sunday School class, I might draw a timeline like this to illustrate (note – I’m not an artist):   

Because we live in a three-dimensional physical existence accompanied by a “4th dimension” of time, this is how we tend to picture the accompanying spiritual reality.  Yes, God was there In the Beginning, and God was there then when Jesus arrived on the scene.  God is still here now with us, and He will be through the End of Time.  But the image we typically carry is that He is traveling with us through time, rather than being ever-present through all time. 

Another assumption we tend to hold is that time moves at the same PACE everywhere that it does with us. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity paints a different picture though: apparently time moves at different paces depending on how fast you’re moving and how strong the gravitational pull is where you’re at.  (Uh… what?) 

The scene from the movie in 6th grade science class way back when (circa 1972?) illustrated it this way: someone that travels from Earth to a distant star and back in a rocket at nearly the speed of light will arrive home appearing to be only slightly older, while the people on Earth will have aged a lot. (One current website gives an example: if a ship travels 25 light years each way, the astronaut ages by about 6 months while folks here on earth would age 50 years.)

A few weeks ago, a friend shared a link about recent findings of a space-time experiment that shows that, actually, Earth is in a space-time vortex, confirming portions of Einstein’s theory.  {Check it out here:  http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2011/04may_epic/.}  What does this mean?  Apparently time does move slower here on Earth, within our gravitational field, than it does in space.     

How does time lapse for God?  Or the better question is, DOES time lapse for God?  The Bible says that to God, a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day.  Does that mean that God is traveling at bazillions of miles per hour sometimes, and other times, he’s not moving at all?  Is God subject to relativity?  Hmmm….

I think the Bible is giving us a clue – God isn’t traveling along the timeline with us, and he’s not experiencing time at the same pace we are.  Why? Because God created time — time is contained within him, not vice versa.  For a graphic representation of this concept (yes, I’m foolish enough to try again), check out this additional “artwork”:

Picture Definitely NOT To Scale (told you I’m not an artist!)

Now, I have to admit, this imagery of our timeline and the universe being contained “within” God becomes harder to picture as the universe becomes “larger” and “older” in our viewpoint.  If we were to map the “observed universe” and our Milky Way galaxy was the size of a quarter, the map would have to be approximately ¼ mile wide square, if I remember correctly. God must be huge to be “bigger” than a universe that’s billions of light years across. 

And, if it turns out that the days of creation weren’t literal 24-hour periods and the universe is actually billions of years old, well, that’s pretty old! It’s way more difficult to imagine God pre-existing, creating and then permeating a four-dimensional “space-time continuum” in that case.   BUT, if God exists and God created it all, the issue isn’t with God, it’s with our imagination. 

On one hand, we think of the relationship between God, time and eternity as a “mystery of faith”.  On the other hand, figuring out the mechanics of time is one of the great “mysteries” of science.  What I’m suggesting is that there is a single REALITY that is an integrated solution to the mysteries of faith and science when it comes to time and eternity. In physics, they would call this (the science part anyway) a “unified theory”.  Have we figured out how that reality works yet? No.  But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist and that we shouldn’t strive to figure it out.

Would our view of the Heaven/Hell debate and the question of the origin of the universe change if our understanding of the mechanics of time changed?  I don’t know….   Here’s a few “what if’s” to ponder:

  • What if God collapses our current timeline and starts a new, different timeline when He creates a “new Heaven and a new Earth”?  Which timeline would the “day and night forever and ever” be measured under?  Would Hell cease to exist if God collapsed that timeline at “the end of time” (i.e., would “day and night forever and ever” end if the clock stops ticking?)   
  • Is it possible that the “new Heaven and a new Earth” referred to in Revelation actually refers to a different planet somewhere else in the universe?  In Biblical times, people referred to the stars and night sky as “the heavens”….   If we were somehow transported by God to another planet, wouldn’t we be looking at a “new heavens” from a “new earth”?  (I’m not heading towards a “spaceship” theory here…..)
  • Is it possible that God being omnipresent in both space and time is actually compatible with the theory of relativity? According to Einstein’s theory, if something is moving at the speed of light (which is only possible if it has no mass) it does not experience time – i.e., the clock stands still.  If God’s “omnipresence” is somehow the equivalent of traveling at infinite speed across space, then according to relativity, we would expect that God does NOT experience changes in time:  time stands still for God because, while we are traveling into the future, God is already there!

I’m not saying any of these “what if” scenarios are true (though they could be) – they are primarily conjecture and something fun to think about.  However, I think that both the church and the world of science will be best served if we strive to find a “unified theory” that reconciles our faith with our science.  That’s a better model than sticking with a faith VERSUS science debate.     

 

What do you think?  Do you have any favorite theories on how God works in space and time?   

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5 Responses to We Do NOT understand time! No wonder we can’t figure out eternity…..

  1. By the way, anybody notice the difference in how relativity is supposed to work and what happened with Jodie Foster’s character in “Contact”? She traveled through a wormhole, was gone for about 18 hours according to what she experienced, but her trip was viewed as instantaneous by those watching the ball drop. This is exactly the OPPOSITE of how relativity is supposed to work.

    I had to double check online to see if this was right. One physics commenter noted that wormholes can also theoretically allow travel through time, so possibly Foster’s character traveled back in time and forward again in order for her trip to appear instantaneous. Hmmm…..

    I wonder how many people have a misunderstanding of relativity due to that movie?

  2. JKR says:

    I personally am a big fan of the concept you presented briefly above, that God “has no mass.” When I read how we were created in his image, over time I’ve come to think of it not as “God has a nose like I have a nose, and a leg like I have a leg” but that our very consciousness is what we are created in the image of God as. So, in my mind, God isn’t a big old guy in white robes so much as an ever present (mass-free) conscious that would indeed be timeless. Likewise I think heaven would take place free from our bodies and that the soul and our consciousness are more one and the same.

    Deep stuff that makes my brain start to hurt when I think about it too long. 🙂
    Very interesting, though, so it’s worth wondering about. I, for one, and very glad that one day I’ll learn all the answers and have my “world” expanded to know what I don’t know now. It might be a while (hopefully I’ve got a good 50+ years left around here) but one day.

    • Mass-free and pure energy…. Definitely deep stuff that makes our brain start to hurt! A friend mentioned awhile ago that physicists theorize that the bulk of the universe is made of “dark matter”…. I wonder if maybe the heavens are in the dark matter, which we can’t see now but will see then? Who knows….

      Like you said, someday we’ll have our world expanded when we meet him face to face, and we’ll learn answers to questions like this…. At that point, I’m not sure if the answers will matter so much though!

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. Just read this Dan (sorry…still catching up) and LOVE it! Great job.

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