Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Eternity

The notion of eternity is difficult to reconcile with our experience of time, of change and of happening. This makes it difficult to understand; and that makes it difficult for us to think about eternity without getting it all muddled up with time. The muddles can be so nettlesome that some thinkers try to clear them up by rejecting either the notion of time and change, on the one hand, or of eternity, on the other.

The reason we get into these muddles is that we try to extend our natural ways of thinking about temporal events to thinking about eternity. We naturally take time as basic, and generalize from it to eternity.

Thinking about the Eternal One, for example – for the *only* example, for as there can be only one Ultimate, so there can be but one eternality – it is all too easy to fall into thinking that his life is an infinitely extended series of finite moments, like ours except that it had no beginning. It is easy to think that God went on for quite a while enjoying himself alone, but then eventually decided to create the world, then redeem it, then destroy it, then judge it, and so forth.

This is exactly backward.

What is necessary cannot be otherwise. There can be no state of affairs in which the necessary is other than it is. So the necessary is eternal. And the eternal is coterminous with the necessary; for there is no state of affairs in which the eternal can be other than it is – to say that a thing is eternal just is to say that it is always the same, always itself – that, i.e., it cannot be other than it is.

The eternal is necessary, and vice versa.

Temporalities, on the other hand, are neither necessary nor eternal.

It is not time that is basic, then, but eternity. And we cannot therefore employ the terms proper to discourse about temporalities in thinking about eternity. Rather, in something like a massive, radical willed reversal of figure and ground, we must learn to use the terms proper to thinking about eternity to enlighten our understanding of time. Once we execute this reversal, and learn to maintain it, all sorts of difficulties endemic to the philosophy of time simply vanish.

It may turn out in fact that treating time under the terms of eternity is the only way to understand time. More on that below.

How then shall we think about eternity?

It is not time. It is nothing like time. Eternity has none of the temporal character of time. It has no before and after, no now and then, no past or future. It is One.

So, the moment in God’s life when he created the world is the same moment in his life when he redeemed the world, and the same moment in his life when he destroyed the world. There was no time in God’s life when he had not yet created, redeemed and destroyed the world. Nor might there be any time in his life after these events had taken place. Nor, to drill down a bit toward our mundane life, was there any time in God’s life when you had not taken your next trip to the store to buy whatever it is that you will then decide to buy.

So, it is not quite accurate to say that God knows what you will do before you do it. For him, there is no time before you do it. He knows what you do when you do it.

This is why we say that God does not change. It is not that he does not know and love his creatures, and feel their feelings, and respond to them. It is not that he does not suffer for and with us, does not judge us, does not save and salve us. It is that for him, the time before you go to the store and the time you are at the store and the time you have been to the store are all one moment. It is that his judgement, his mercy, and so forth are all one. Those moments differ for us, but not for him. Those events differ for us, but not for him.

How to think about this? How to understand what it might be like? Consider this moment of your own experience. It is a togetherness – a binding, as the philosophers of mind call it – of many different qualities of experience – qualia, as they call such things – into an integral whole. The colors, sounds, bodily feelings, thoughts, emotions, desires, volitions, and so forth – all these different things, and indeed different sorts of things, are somehow annealed seamlessly into a single moment of life.

Perhaps that’s how it is for God, too, except that he is binding *all things whatever,* from *every moment of existence whatever,* into one moment.

Could we mean anything other than this, by characterizing him as omniscient? Omniscience can’t forget or overlook *anything.* Nor can it fail to know anything, or therefore mend such a defect by learning anything. This is another reason we say that the Eternal One cannot change.

Herewith, in no particular order, some reflections that flow from these considerations:

  • Notice that in this present moment of your life the various qualia thereof are integrated but not confused. You do not mistake the purring of the cat for the warmth of the fire or the taste of the coffee or the anxiety about the coming interview. So nor likewise is God confused about the differences among the moments of his creatures.
  • Does the notion of binding introduce composition to the divine nature, thus ruining divine simplicity? No. In the first place, it is only an analogue. In the second, there is in eternity no state of affairs in which creaturely moments were not all comprehended in and by the divine nunc. They were not without his knowledge of them, for what Omniscience does not know does not exist. Nor were they before his knowledge of them, for in him there is no before. On the contrary: it is creaturely moments that are composed, and composed into a world, by the Eternal One. The One is prior to the Many, and all the Many are explained by him; and not vice versa. He knows that they are good; in virtue of his infallible knowledge of their being and goodness, and of nothing more, are they then made to be, and to be good. John 1.1.
  • Does omniscience logically entail a block universe? No. Consider; does the fact that we know about different things at once – the cat, the fire, the coffee, the anxiety, and so forth – mean that all these things are really a single thing? Does it, that is to say, mean that there is in truth no cat, no fire, no coffee, no looming interview? No. No more then does the fact that God apprehends all creaturely acts at once mean that there are no such acts.
  • There are two theories of time, the A and the B. Given eternity, which is right, the A (time is real, and passes) or the B (there is no time or passage)? Again, just as our binding of the warmth of the fire and the purr of the cat does not vitiate the actuality either of fire or of cat, that God sees all events at once does not mean that all times are one. It does not mean that time t(n + x) already actually exists at and for time t(n); for, what is actual at and for t(n) is all t(nx). It means rather that for God, at t(¬), t(n + x) and t(n) both actually exist, albeit – given the differences in their loci on the causal extent – differently. That all times are present to God at once nowise vitiates their extensive differences (spatial, temporal, causal), nor does it introduce some contradiction; just as the simultaneity of Cincinnati and Indianapolis does not mean that there is some contradiction in construing one of them as at once near to itself and far from the other. That the Eternal One sees all times at once does not conflate those times; for, that would eliminate them as objects of his knowledge of creaturely affairs, which would have the effect of eliminating creaturity per se, completely (for if Omniscience does not know that p, then absolutely ¬ p).
  • The foregoing considerations indicate that what completes the actuality of an event is, not its own act of becoming, by which it completes itself and so defines its character, and in virtue of which, as finally definite, it can have some causal effect (so that it is thenceforth virtually effective), but the reception thereof by other occasions (so that it is thenceforth actually effective). Until a thing is actual to some other thing – until, i.e., it has affected that other thing, somehow influencing its constitution – it is not yet quite actual, but rather only virtual. Viz., Schrödinger’s cat: before its state collapse is measured by some other entity, that collapse is not yet actual, but only virtual. The cat is not yet an element of any actual world. The measurement of the cat’s state, in virtue of which it causally affects a measuring device of some sort, actualizes the cat’s theretofore merely virtual state. It thereby renders the cat an element of a causal nexus – of an actual world.
  • The temporal locus of an event E – its “address” in time – is indeterminate until it exerts causal influence upon some other event E’. Only insofar as it is actual to some E’ does E take up a spatiotemporal locus within an actual world (the environing world of E’). Spatiotemporal locus, then, is a derivate of actuality. Absent acts of actualities that influence each other, there is no causal nexus: no space, no time. Time and space then are gauges of the causal effects of events upon each other. Events then do not occur in time and space. They occur in eternity and infinity. Acts 17:28. Time and space are aspects of the character of events.
  • The notion that time is a derivate character of actuality shows us how the B theory of time is true. Time is not ultimate; eternity is ultimate; so therefore eternity is ultimately, absolutely real, whereas time is only relatively real; is real only relative to some perspective from within some actual causal nexus. But, NB: that time is not absolutely real, but rather only solutely real, does not mean there is no such thing as time. It means rather only that time is derivately real. I derive from my forebears; that does not mean I am unreal.
  • To say that time is derivately real is to say that time is indeed real. And this shows us how the A theory of time too is true.
  • As Infinity does not eliminate finity, but enables it (for it is in virtue of infinity that there is such a thing as 5), so Eternity does not eliminate ternity, but rather enables it. In virtue of I AM, I AM (for, the possibility that God entails that God); and in actue of I AM, Larry strolls to the corner for a cup of coffee.
  • Does God’s knowledge of contingent creaturely acts introduce contingency to his nature, thus rendering him other than God? No. God is nowise contingent upon creatures, but vice versa: creatures are everywise contingent upon God. Creaturely acts are contingent entirely upon God’s knowledge of their actuality. For, again, if ¬ (God knows that p) → ¬ p; and if (God knows that p), → p. It is God’s knowledge that, in the ultimate analysis, brings contingent creaturely acts into being. God creates by knowing. John 1:1. He knows creatures by knowing what he creates; by knowing himself.
  • God does not need to wait until after a creature has finished becoming actual before he can know what that creature has become. For God, being eternal, there is no waiting, no before, nor any after.
  • Eternity is the environing context of all events, and their spatiotemporal loci in their local causal nexus is a derivate of their characters, and of the differences in their relative importance to each other. This is to say that all finite things are generated by God at once, in one eternal act. At once they all precipitate out of him, and so doing reckon each other, their differences and similarities, their attractions and repulsions, their loves and hates. So doing, they ascertain their spatiotemporal loci in respect to each other. Only thereby is time real, or space.
  • This does not vitiate the reality either of time or of space. Things really are, are really different from each other, do really relate to each other, do really influence each other, and really differ in their relative importance to each other.
  • Spatiotemporal loci are all addresses within worlds. The universe as a whole is not located anywhere, and does not happen at a certain time, as time and space are reckoned within it. If a world is located anywhere or anywhen, it is insofar as it lives within some larger actual world, of which it is a department or mansion – is itself a locus within that world.
  • The temporal matrix is incomplete all the way through to Judgement Day. I.e.: Judgement Day is the forecondition of the entire causal matrix, for it is in virtue of the Judgement of that Day that the causal matrix is at last completely definite; is completely actual. Judgement is the last step of Creation. Until there is Judgement Day, there is no Creation. Judgement Day and Day One are coterminous.
  •  None of this is new. All of these considerations – and many more – are implicit in the second paragraph of the Nicene Creed.

4 thoughts on “Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Eternity

  1. I absolutely loved this, one of those pieces of writing that both expands my mind, as well as touches my heart. Great job, I love this blog

  2. Pingback: Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Eternity | Reaction Times


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