Of Time and Eternity

Fatima Perspectives #1344

As Pope Francis and his aged neo-Modernist collaborators attempt to remake the Church in his image, which is time-bound to the 1970s, it would be well to view this entire debacle from the timeless eternal perspective—the only perspective that really matters in the end.

But what is eternity?  To answer that question, one must first consider the question of time.   The common notion of time is that it is a flow of events from past to present to future.  But does such a thing really exist?  In Book XI of his Confessions, Saint Augustine presents a meditation on time in which he reaches the conclusion that what we call time exists only as an abstraction—an idea of the “passage” of time—and that in reality there is only the one unmeasurable, indivisible present.

“If there are times past and future,” writes Augustine, “I desire to know where they are.”  What we call “the future,” he argues, is not yet present and thus does not yet exist, whereas what we call “the past” is no longer present and thus likewise does not exist. Nor can we divide any interval of “time” into segments of existing reality, for not even a single year is “present as a whole; and if it is not present as a whole, then the year is not present. For twelve months make the year, of which each individual month that is current is itself present, but the rest are either past or future,” and neither past nor future months presently exist.  The same is true of even the smallest interval of “time,” which cannot be wholly present so long as it is divisible into segments denominated past and future, neither of which exist (except as memories or visions of what could be).  Thus, Augustine queries: “Where, therefore, is the time that we measure?” 

The logical conclusion, as Augustine puts it, is that “neither time past nor future, but the present only, really is”—meaning that only the present actually exists.  In reality, there is only what philosophers call the nunc stans­, the now that remains, not the time that passes.  

Not surprisingly, even modern science has been forced to come to grips with the unreality of “time.”  For one thing, “time” never goes backwards, but rather “time’s arrow” points only ahead to the “future.”  We never, for example, see a glass that shatters on the floor rebound from the floor and reassemble itself on the table from which it fell.  So, there is no “past” to which anyone or anything could return.  Neither is there an existent future of events that have not yet happened, but only a continuous movement in the present. Time travel is impossible precisely because there is no destination either behind or ahead.

Therefore, as one science writer notes: “The possibility that time may not exist is known among physicists as the ‘problem of time.’” In fact, in the so-called Wheeler-DeWitt Equation, which attempts to unite quantum mechanics with Einstein’s general relativity so as to explain how there can be quanta of gravity (like quanta of light in the form of photons) time plays no role, as if to suggest a universe in which there is motion but no time.  Hence, as the same writer concludes: “It may be that the best way to think about quantum reality is to give up the notion of time—that the fundamental description of the universe must be timeless.”

This is not to say that the universe had no beginning.   It is, rather, to say that by creating the universe God initiated its physical events, but these occur within the realm of the eternal.  As the physicist and philosopher Wolfgang Smith observes, alluding to the Platonic dialogue of the Timaeus, time is “the moving image of eternity.”  God did not create the universe within time, but rather created what we call time when He created the universe and its events instantaneously out of nothing and within eternity.  (Cf. Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles,  Book II, cc. 17-19.)

What all of this means is that we are already living in eternity, but in a realm of the eternal where change, including death, marks off the “passage of time.”  At the end of our wayfaring state, however, we will enter what could be called the fullness of eternity, where souls will encounter either the unchanging light of glory in the joyous state of eternal beatitude or an unchanging eternal separation from God in Hell.

Let us take heart, then, in the eternal perspective even in the midst of our troubled participation in the eternal order during this earthly life.  For each of us, if we persevere until the end, there will come an escape from this vale of tears into that realm in which God “shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more, for the former things are passed away.”  (Rev. 21:4).


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