Story Time

“What time is it?” It’s the question we have all asked but have we ever paused to consider what we mean by it? Of course we know what we mean by it, don’t we? The average person just wants to know what the clock says but the answer to the very profound question of the nature of time is something we simply assume. We take it for granted that it exists, it happens to us, it’s inescapable and it moves inexorably forward. Since we perceive time as a basic reality that is fundamental to even our most mundane experiences, it seems almost ridiculous to pause long enough to reflect on what it actually is, while life steams relentlessly forward. We see it as a lived reality not a subject of reflection. Time is like a wrist watch, it always goes with us, we want to know what it says but never bother to find out what makes it tick.

For the New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, the concept of a worldview has been indispensable in making sense of the 1st century world of the early Christians. He has constantly used it since the first book in his multivolume series on early Christianity. [1]In the second volume in the series, he realised that “what time is it?” is also a fundamental worldview question. It’s a bit ironic that it took a few years for a historian to realise how important time is to our fundamental preconceptions of reality. The historian, like the rest of us, perhaps even more so because of their field, pre-theoretically accepts the existence of time, so in one regard it is not surprising that he did not see something right in front of him. So time is itself an ultimate concern, one that is perhaps more obtrusive and demanding than other ultimate concerns. The historian studies a particular aspect of time we call the past. If time is a worldview issue then we need to talk about history. I have been exposed to the importance of history from examining the evidence for the resurrection all the way to properly grappling with Wright’s work. He insists history must be heard in the church as crucial to our faith and yet I noticed that it was precisely lacking in a lot of Christian thinking.

Now Tom Wright was not my first encounter with the idea of worldview. I first came across the concept in the teaching of prominent Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias. When I compared his view with what I had now come to know about worldview, history was conspicuously missing. When you look at the grid of disciplines that he suggests as helpful in establishing a worldview, history was not one of them. [2]Even in the work of James Sire, a well-known writer in Christian circles on worldview, he talks about history and raises some important points about it yet he too does not recognize that the nature of time is fundamental question of life. I want to go even further than Tom Wright by not only asking what time it is but asking what time actually is. Since Christianity is a historic faith, we need to reappraise the biblical conception of time.

Now there is more than one way of viewing history and therefore time. In the history of modern European thought for there have been several conceptions of time. There is Kantian psychological time which says time is something that only exists in the human mind. Then there came Newtonian mechanical time which said time exists in the real world, not in our minds, as an absolute immutable physical quantity. Then a young clerk working in the Swiss patents office, completely unknown in the scientific community, came out of the gate with an amazing discovery that overturned the Newtonian picture of time that had been dominant for two centuries and had been very successful in the sciences. That young man was Albert Einstein and he argued that time was a physical reality, like Newton had believed, but it wasn’t absolute. It was relative, depending on the frame of reference of the observer, resonating in some sense with the Kantian view of time. This also meant time was not an independent quantity but had something to do with where you are in the universe. Space and time are together one physical reality called spacetime. So to locate something in the universe you do not only have to know where it is but when it is. What Einstein proposed a 100 years ago was absolutely revolutionary and like momentous scientific discoveries of that calibre, it raised a lot of philosophical issues.

What got me thinking more philosophically about time was reading Stephen Hawking’s classic A Brief History of Time. I had to read that book twice to understand it but it was certainly well worth it as he traversed the history and philosophy of physical science, explaining important models and theories, helping me comprehend Einsteinian time. I was enthralled by his talk of light cones, event horizons and physical constants. The title of the 1988 best seller is very apt not just because it tracked the development of how people have thought about time. It raised the profound idea that time itself has a past, present and a future, something that we as inhabitants of space and time need to think about. He shifts the focus from just our private futures to the bigger question of what the very future of time is, that is, where is everything heading? We usually do not think a professional physicist and a theologian have similar concerns but Hawking was thinking about eschatology. The reason why they have similar concerns is because the nature of time cuts across worldviews. Now the answers to worldview questions differ from culture to culture. It is very important to note the concepts of time I have mentioned so far come from Europe. From Kant to Einstein all these ideas came from the Christian West. It is not by accident that science first developed there. All these concepts of time are influenced by the Judaeo-Christian worldview and its concept of time.

I am not the first to note the importance of Christianity in the development of science. Of course science is done today by both Christians and non-Christians but historically it developed in a part of the world most heavily influenced by Christianity. Some would go so far as to say science first emerged in the Christian West because of its unique cultural milieu and therefore could not have emerged anywhere else. However, without waxing too apologetic, I think one of the reasons the Judaeo-Christian worldview influenced the development of physical science was its view of time.

In the biblical worldview, time is linear. All things have a beginning and an end, one thing following after the other, making every single moment unique and unrepeatable. Well you might think this is quite obvious but the majority of the ancient world did not think that way. Remember, most of human history has been dominated by polytheism. In polytheistic thinking, due to its concept of cosmic continuity, they believed time was not linear but was in fact cyclical. They observed the repeating cycle of the seasons and inferred that all of reality just repeated itself, over and over again. That is partly why they believed in magic, because if you could simulate an event in the past, you could replicate it in the present, thereby influencing the forces of nature to do you bidding. Many fertility rituals, for example, enact that belief. Nothing truly unprecedented happened in the world, it was all fate. That is why it has been observed history is very important in the biblical worldview. If each moment is unique it is well worth recording, and recording accurately. Among texts from the ancient Near East, the Bible pays incredible attention to the careful recording of history. It not only affects how you do history but how you do science.

In a polytheistic worldview the reason why things happen now is because they happened before sometime in the infinite cycles of the past. That is not a good enough answer for doing proper scientific enquiry which is about finding efficient causes. If the reason is that it simply happened before, there is no reason to probe further as to what processes were involved. Science is built on the belief in cause and effect, which means things happen sequentially, one after the other. This means things don’t happen unless particular circumstances are met, which makes it worthwhile finding out what is specifically needed for something to happen. If Europe had remained dominated by pagan concepts of cyclical time, scientific thought would not have flourished. [3]It was Christianity that overthrew polytheistic thought allowing for scientific enquiry to freely abound.

[4]The Judaeo-Christian concept of time is quite remarkable in world history. We cannot be sure whether the Jews were the first but we can be almost certain that in their era, the ancient Near East, they were the only ones who thought that way. This belief stems from Genesis 1, that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Though linear time has been dominant in the Christian West, the prevailing view of time in academia  was not exactly the same as what is found in Genesis 1.

In the scientific community time was popularly thought of as linear but ultimately not purposeful. This view represents the heavy influence of Greek philosophy, particularly Aristotlean thought. The universe was thought to be eternal and therefore time itself was eternal. So though time was linear we moved from an infinite past to an infinite future. Though everything you do in time is unique, a moment that cannot be reproduced identically, it ultimately does not matter since it is part of an infinite series of happenings. Cyclical time could also be purposeful or purposeless. The repetition could be for its own sake or it might accomplish something else. Likewise time could either be linear because it just is or it is linear for a reason other than itself. Many scientists were happy with the status quo of an eternal universe. It fit well with the scientific process which employs methodological atheism, that is supernatural forces are not studied in science, as well satisfying philosophical atheism among those who didn’t believe in the supernatural. Then George Gamow came along with the Big Bang theory. This meant the universe was not eternal but had a definitive time. Then suddenly the question of what or who started things was back on the table. A lot of scientists did resisted it because God was now again a legitimate answer to that question. [5]In fact the name “Big Bang” was given pejoratively. Somewhat unsurprisingly the theory was first proposed by George Lemaître, a Belgian astronomer and Roman Catholic priest.

In the Bible time is the way it is because of God who made it. The Bible views God as the author of history, so time itself must be his created servant. This helps explain why he influences events but is himself not constrained by them. Time and history are very important in scripture but how does that effect the way we think about eternity?

In popular eschatology time and eternity stand opposite one another. When someone dies we say they have passed on to eternity. We think of eternity as being free from the effect of time because we more or less conceptualise time as something to be contended with, a prison we must break out of. This struggle can be glimpsed in expressions like “a race against time” or “time worn.” We must now refer back to Immanuel Kant who noticed the difficulty with defining eternity as a non-time. Peter Liethart commenting on Kant writes,

[6]In his essay on “The End of All Things,” Kant analyzes the “pious language” that speaks of “a person who is dying as going out of time into eternity.” Kant finds no comfort in the thought. On the contrary there is “something horrifying” about it.

The end of time must mean the end of all experience. We cannot conceive a life that does not involve temporal succession; we doubt whether it counts as life at all: “that at some point a time will arrive in which all alteration (and with it, time itself) ceases—this is a representation which outrages the imagination. For then the whole of nature will be rigid and as it were petrified: the last thought, the last feeling in the thinking subject will then stop and remain forever the same without any change.” For human beings, who are conscious of “existence and the magnitude of this existence (as duration) only in time,” a timeless existence “appears equivalent to annihilation, because in order to think itself into such a state it still has to think something in general, but thinking contains a reflecting, which can occur only in time.”

Timeless eternity is not only inconceivable; it is self-contradictory, for bliss and punishment depend on meeting conditions of possibility for experience, one of which is temporality. An atemporal bliss or punishment cannot be experienced at all, and so the thought of the afterlife leads to a speculative impasse, an aporia.

I do not know how exactly it happened but this contradictory view of time was developed in the West and exported to the rest of the world, foreign to both the traditions of Greek and Judaeo-Christian thought contemporary Western society descends from. Essentially eternity became defined as nothing. With that understanding it is unsurprising that the supposedly “Christian” view of eternity is just not unappealing to some. The truth is it’s not Christian. It ain’t even Greek.

Recognising that a timeless existence is unimaginable, it makes sense of why there is no univocal word for eternity in the original languages of scripture. Olam in biblical Hebrew and aion(os) in Koine Greek (from which we derive aeon) can both be used to talk about a specific period of time as well as indefinite periods of time, that is eternity. Even the English word eternal is etymologically from the Latin aevum which also has a range of use. Timeless existence as a concept is impossible to positively define, that is, you cannot say what it is, the best you can do is say what it isn’t. It is no thing, nothing. Similarly, “timeless truth” is a contradiction. Truth is something that can be known, knowing requires experience, experience requires change, and change requires time. A timeless truth would therefore be unknowable. What good is truth if we can’t know it? What good then is a timeless God? He too would likewise be unknowable, unless he reveals himself in the course of events.

The entire Bible is written on the predication that God has chosen to be present in time and active in human history, even though he is not restricted by anything that happens. This goes back to the primal Jewish belief that he is the creator and lord of all things. [7]When we go to the creation narrative, Dr John Walton so brilliant observes, that on the first day God does not create light and darkness. He actually creates alternating periods of light and dark, a simple chronological unit. In other words the first thing he creates is time. The reason why we think of time as enemy and therefore long to be delivered of it is that we have conflated time with decay. The two are very different. Rampant decay is bad but time is something the God calls good.

Presumably Adam and Eve knew what death already was or the warning God gave them about it would be completely lost on them. Now Paul speaks of death entering the world through Adam’s disobedience (Romans 5:12.) It isn’t so much that there wasn’t any death before the fall but that death gained almost unbridled access to all of creation. Decay is what happens when death reigns. Yet Paul continues to write that God has consigned the creation to this futile experience in hope, that one day creation would be released from its bondage to corruption into glorious resurrection life (Romans 8:20-23.) The last enemy is death not time. Time is not something we are to be delivered from neither has God promised to do so. It something very good. If time was the enemy how do you explain life before the fall? Eden could not have had a timeless past since we know it was at some point created by God. Now everything changed with the Fall.

When we speak of redemptive history or salvation history, we are talking about how God entered the affairs of the world to restore it after the first couple sinned. It’s a crucial concept in biblical theology but we are mostly preoccupied, and for good reason, with what it means for human beings. What if time itself needs to be redeemed, to be rescued from death? As much as death works everywhere in the universe, it also is present at every moment. Death affects all things in spacetime. Using true Pauline metaphor, what if death took something good, called time, and used it to cause a terrible perversion of creation known as universal corruption and decay, condemning all things? Death “infected” the time stream such that everything touched by time was touched by death. The Psalmist of speaks the fragile condition of the fabric of spacetime,

Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away… – Psalm 102:25-26 ESV

The Psalmist looks to the old Genesis narrative and hints at the hope of new creation. It is important to note that it is a creation narrative. Time is essential to narrative. You cannot tell a story without change in events which means the progression of time. The first thing God made in the Genesis narrative is time because without it a story cannot be told. History itself is a narrative and time has to exist for it to happen. I earlier said time and its nature is a fundamental worldview question. Now our worldviews are embedded in the implicit stories we tell i.e. the metanarrative. Human beings are essentially questioning creatures, we are capable of self-reflection, and storytelling creatures, that is we imbue our world with symbolic meaning. Time is crucial to them combined i.e. the worldview narrative. So instead of fatalistic, psychological, mechanical or even relativistic views of time, what if we understood time as fundamentally narratival.

Now I certainly do not mean time is a made up, make believe story. There is an objective reality to time which we experience subjectively. A properly Christian view of time needs to come from the biblical worldview. In this worldview creation has a beginning, middle and an end, ultimately determined by its creator. That sounds to me like the components of a story. In the Grand Drama of the Bible I further examined the narrative structure of biblical history. We are inherently storytelling creatures because we are made in the image of a storytelling God. The Gospel of John brilliant opens with the declaration, “In the beginning was the Word.” In the biblical worldview story is fundamental to existence. Everything is not one grand accident. Things exist by our cosmic author’s will who by his spirit is faithfully penning the closing chapter of creation and beginning story according to his good initial purpose.

Now if the old creation ran by an old narrative marked by death and decay, a new creation would require a new narrative, one that is untouched by death. Now the new creation is not the condemnation of the old but rather its restoration. Instead of time being repudiated it will be made anew. As such I do not think the age to come will be timeless but there will be a different sort of time. There will be a kind of time in eternity, a non-contradictory eternal time. In fact you could say eternity is a pure time, unsullied by the presence of evil.

As with the eschatological principle of continuity I spoke of in Last Things, that future version of time will be both familiar and unfamiliar. In “Time 2.0” moments will be fuller and richer than we could possibly ever imagine. Time will properly be itself, not something evil but be the good gift that God has always intended it to be for all his creatures. Now when we look into the Revelation both heaven and earth, and the future heaven and earth experience some kind of time. We know this because it records temporal changes in each setting whether in the present world or the one to come. The idea of time remaining eternally is not foreign to the Bible. You could argue it is properly biblical.

The principle form of existence in the new creation is eternal life, that is, existence unmarred by the totalizing power of death. From Genesis 1 and 2 it is abundantly clear that God made the world to flourish. Death and decay limit flourishing which means when they reign, they become the chief enemy of God’s created purpose of universal flourishing. Without them there will unlimited flourishing. So in the eternal tomorrow there will be change which is characteristic of time. In fact things have to change for there to be more of it which is you need when you want something to abound. So a deathless time will not limit fruitfulness or abundance. Time will in fact be the chief ally of cosmic flourishing, where prosperity continues uninterrupted and unabated indefinitely. The river of life will constantly flow and never cease, and our access to it will be unlimited.

So I conclude with the final words of Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time,

If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God.

I fully agree with Professor Hawking except for one thing. In his mind ordinary people tried to unknot the enigma of time but they couldn’t so they gave the task to the philosophers. The philosophers went further with the riddle but they too were unsuccessful. So the scientists took over the endeavour and in his view they have the best chance of success. Unbeknownst to Hawking, or simply disregarded by him, the mystery has already been resolved in the oft ignored discipline of theology. Much like Christian philosopher Paul Tillich, Wright argues our theology is our worldview since their no greater concern, no more ultimate issue, than the question of God. In that regard we are all theologians since we all wonder about God and what purpose he might have for our time on earth. The great thing is that question has been answered through the coming of Jesus the Messiah. The meaning and purpose of time have been revealed through the Gospel preached to the entire world.

[1] N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, p. 66, 1996.

[2] James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door, p. 10, 2009.

[3] John Lennox, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?, p. 47-50, 2009.

[4] John Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature, p. 144-146, 2009.

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Hoyle#Rejection_of_the_Big_Bang, 23:25h, 10th February 2017.

[6] https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/leithart/2017/01/kantian-eschatology, 12:03h, 4th January 2017.

[7] John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, p. 53-55, 2009.

Header image source: theb4rd.deviantart.com

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