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  Can You Explain Eternity?

“How can it be that God has always been and always will be? I cannot get my head around someone always having existed.” Our question this week comes from Dave, a reader in England.

The notion of eternity is one of the most difficult concepts for a finite being to grasp. It’s not just God being around forever that’s difficult to get our “heads around,” it’s the whole forever thing. From infinite space to never-ending numerology, eternity is a tough nut to crack.

To begin with, the concept of eternity seems to be a well established belief in most theological systems. In the Judeo-Christian traditions, God is pictured as having existed in all time. The preexistence of God to human history is well recorded—Genesis has God creating the cosmos ex nihilo, out of nothing, with the presupposition that nothing at all existed other than God. One of the psalmists wrote: “Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God (Psalm 90.2). And then Isaiah the prophet explained that the everlasting God is beyond explanation: “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom” (Isaiah 40.28). And yet, understanding or not, the notion of a forever God is assumed throughout the scriptures. 

The notion of forever is complicated further by the fact that time is apparently a uniquely human construct. Indeed, the futility of measuring time is a key theme in the book of Ecclesiastes, “Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises” (Ecclesiastes 1:4-5). And even Jesus said that the only thing that’s really important is living in the now—“Don’t worry about tomorrow…today has enough troubles of its own” (Matthew 6.34).

Which, interestingly enough, is one of the most popular definitions of eternity by many philosophers: the only thing that exists is the now. Moments ago don’t exist; moments to come don’t exist; only now exists. Therefore, now is eternity.

This is how God is introduced to Moses in Exodus. “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’” (Exodus 3.14). In Hebrew the word “am” means literally to exist, to be. And interestingly, the Hebrew neither implies a future, nor a past. Simply a present state. God is now, when ever now is, has been, or will be. God is.

It would be easy to leave it at this. Eternity is now. There is nothing else. Get over it. Which is all well and good. Until…

It’s time for finals in World History 101. Just try and convince a history teacher that all those dates are meaningless, pointless, human constructs that really don’t exist. You’d likely get an “F” on your final term paper that way. Because, let’s face it, time is a human construct and it is a part of our understanding. To dismiss it is to dismiss ourselves as humans.

So, how do we get our heads around “forever” when our minds are trapped in finitude?

Through metaphor and imagery. Understanding the right side of the timeline is pretty easy. There’s a beginning and it doesn’t come to an end. In the words of Scarlet . O’Hare, “There’s always tomorrow.” There’s always one more answer to “what comes after that?” That part doesn’t tend to get in our way. It’s the “never began” that gums up the cogs of understanding. For us, there’s a beginning for everything. Right?

Unless we’re standing in a mirrored room with mirrors on opposite sides. Then we can look into near-infinity both forwards and backwards. When we look forward, we can answer what comes after that. And when we look backward, we can answer what comes before that. It’s always the same—both ways. 

And that’s no less true for numbers. You can always take away one more—you know the answer to the “what comes before that?” It’s simply one less. The numbers go both ways beginning with zero. And zero, for us, in the now. 

So, what comes before the cosmos? God. And what’s before that? God. It’s the same mirrored image all the way back.

Understand it? No. But that’s about the best we can get. The reality is that we are finite beings and the infinite baffles us. And yet it’s no less a reality. When I began to research this question I was struck by the confusing, convoluted, and conflicting answers that scholars had offered. No one seemed able to really explain it. And then I realized something—getting our minds around eternity is difficult for just about everyone. Dave, I suspect we’re in good company.

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