International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
e-tur'-ni-ti (olam; Greek equivalent, aion):
1. Contrast with Time 2. In the Old Testament 3. In the New Testament 4. The Eternal "Now" 5. Defect of This View 6. Philosophical Views 7. Time Conceptions Inadequate 8. All Succession Present in One Act to Divine Consciousness 9. Yet Connection between Eternity and Time 10. The Religious Attitude to Eternity
1. Contrast with Time:
Eternity is best conceived, not in the merely negative form of the non-temporal, or immeasurable time, but positively, as the mode of the timeless self-existence of the Absolute Ground of the universe. The flux of time grows first intelligible to us, only when we take in the thought of God as eternal-exalted above time. Timeless existence-being or entity without change-is what we here mean by eternity, and not mere everlastingness or permanence through time. God, in His internal being, is raised above time; in His eternal absoluteness, He is throned above temporal development, and knows, as the Scriptures say, no changeableness. The conception of eternity, as without beginning or ending, leaves us with but a negation badly in need of filling out with reality. Eternity is not a mere negative idea; to make of eternity merely a blank and irrelevant negation of temporality would not satisfy any proper theory of being; it functions as the positive relation to time of that eternal God, who is King of all the eons.
2. In the Old Testament:
In the Old Testament, God's eternity is only negatively expressed, as implying merely indefinitely extended time (Genesis 21:33 Deuteronomy 33:27), though Isaiah 40:28 takes more absolute form. Better is the view of eternity, objectively considered, as a mode of being of God in relation to Himself. For He was eternal, while as yet the world and time were not. But even in the New Testament, the negative form of expression prevails.
3. In the New Testament:
Time, with its succession of events, helps to fill out such idea as we can form of the eternal, conceived as an endless progress. But, as finite beings, we can form no positive idea of eternity. Time is less contradictory of eternity, than helpful in revealing what we know of it. Plato, in his Timaeus, says that time is the "moving image of eternity," and we may allow that it is its type or revelation. Not as the annulment of time, though it might be held to be in itself exclusive of time, is eternity to be taken, but rather as the ground of its reality.
4. The Eternal "Now":
Eternity might, no doubt, be taken as just time no longer measured by the succession of events, as in the finite universe. But, on a strict view, there is something absurd in an eternity that includes time, and an eternity apart from time is a vain and impossible conception. Eternity, as a discharge from all time limits, is purely negative, though not without importance. Eternity, absolutely taken, must be pronounced incommensurable with time; as Aquinas said, non sunt mensurae unius generis. Eternity, that is to say, would lose its character as eternal in the very entering into relations with the changeful or becoming. Eternity, as in God, has, since the time of Augustine and the Middle Ages, been frequently conceived as an eternal Now. The Schoolmen were wont to adopt as a maxim that "in eternity is one only instant always present and persistent." This is but a way of describing eternity in a manner characteristic of succession in time; but eternal Deity, rather than an eternal Now, is a conception far more full of meaning for us.
5. Defect of This View:
To speak of God's eternity as an eternal Now-a present in the time-sense-involves a contradiction. For the eternal existence is no more described by the notion of a present than by a past or a future. Such a Now or present presupposes a not-now, and raises afresh the old time-troubles, in relation to eternity. Time is certainly not the form of God's life,
His eternity meaning freedom from time. Hence, it was extremely troublesome to theology of the Middle Ages to have a God who was not in time at all, supposed to create the world at a particular moment in time.
6. Philosophical Views:
Spinoza, in later times, made the eternity of God consist in His infinite-which, to Spinoza, meant His necessary-existence. For contingent or durational existence would not, in Spinoza's view, be eternal, though it lasted always. The illusoriness or unreality of time, in respect of man's spiritual life, is not always very firmly grasped. This wavering or uncertain hold of the illusiveness of time, or of higher reality as timeless, is still very prevalent; even so strong-souled a poet as Browning projects the shadow of time into eternity, with rarely a definite conception of the higher life as an eternal and timeless essence; and although Kant, Hegel and Schopenhauer may have held to such a timeless view, it has by no means become a generally adopted doctrine so far, either of theologians or of philosophers. If time be so taken as unreal, then eternity must not be thought of as future, as is done by Dr. Ellis McTaggart and some other metaphysicians today. For nothing could, in that case, be properly future, and eternity could not be said to begin, as is often done in everyday life.
The importance of the eternity conception is seen in the fact that neo-Kantian and neo-Hegelian thinkers alike have shown a general tendency to regard time-conceptions as unfit, in metaphysics, for the ultimate explanation of the universe.
7. Time-Conceptions Inadequate:
Eternity, one may surely hold, must span or include, for God's eternal consciousness, the whole of what happens in time, with all of past, present or future, that lies within the temporal succession. But we are by no means entitled to say, as does Royce, that such wholeness or totality of the temporal constitutes the eternal, for the eternal belongs to quite another order, that, namely, of timeless reality. Eternity is not to be defined in terms of time at all. For God is to us the supra-temporal ens perfectissimum, but One whose timeless self-sufficiency and impassable aloofness are not such as to keep Him from being strength and helper of our temporal striving. Our metaphysical convictions must not here be of barren and unfruitful sort for ethical results and purposes.
8. All Succession Present in One Act to Divine Consciousness:
Eternity is, in our view, the form of an eternal existence, to which, in the unity of a single insight, the infinite series of varying aspects or processes are, together-wise, as a totum simul, present. But this, as we have already shown, does not imply that the eternal order is nowise different, essentially, from the temporal; time is not to be treated as a segment of eternity, nor eternity regarded as interminable duration; the eternal cannot pass over into the temporal; for, an eternal Being, who should think all things as present, and yet view the time-series as a succession, must be a rather self-contradictory conception. For the Absolute Consciousness, time does not exist; the future cannot, for it, be thought of as beginning to be, nor the past as having ceased to be.
9. Yet Connection Between Eternity and Time:
After all that has been said, however, eternity and time are not to be thought of as without connection. For the temporal presupposes the eternal, which is, in fact, its positive ground and its perpetual possibility. These things are so, if only for the reason that the Divine mode of existence does not contradict or exclude the human mode of existence. The continuity of the latter-of the temporal-has its guaranty in the eternal. The unconditioned eternity of God brings into harmony with itself the limitations and conditions of the temporal. For time is purely relative, which eternity is not. No distinctions of before and after are admissible in the eternity conception, hence, we have no right to speak of time as a portion of eternity. Thus, while we maintain the essential difference between eternity and time, we at the same time affirm what may perhaps be called the affinity between them. The metaphysics of eternity and its time-relations continue to be matter of proverbial difficulty, and both orders-the eternal and the temporal-had better be treated as concrete, and not left merely to abstract reflection. Our idea of the eternal will best be developed, in this concrete fashion, by the growth of our God-idea, as we more completely apprehend God, as actualized for us in His incarnate Son.
10. The Religious Attitude to Eternity:
Thus, then, it is eternity, not as immeasurable time, but rather as a mode of being of the immutable God, who is yet progressively revealing Himself in time, which we have here set forth. This is not to say that the religious consciousness has not its own need of the conception of God as being "from everlasting to everlasting," as in Psalm 90:2, and of His kingdom as "an everlasting kingdom" (Daniel 4:3). Nor is it to make us suppose that the absolute and self-existent God, who so transcends all time-dependence, is thereby removed far from us, while, on the contrary, His very greatness makes Him the more able to draw near unto us, in all the plenitude of His being. Hence, it is so truly spoken in Isaiah 57:15, "Thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite." Hence, also the profound truthfulness of sayings like that in Acts 17:27, 28, "He is not far from each one of us: for in him we live, and move, and have our being." After all that has been said, our best knowledge of eternity, as it exists in God, is not developed in any metaphysical fashion, but after the positive and timeless modes of the spiritual life-the modes of trust and love.
H. Cremer, Lexicon of New Testament Greek, English edition, 1880; G. B. Winer, Grammar of New Testament Greek, 3rd edition, 1882; R. C. French, Synonyms of the New Testament, 9th edition, 1880; E. H. Plumptre, The Spirits in Prison, 3rd edition, 1885; J. Orr, Christian View of God and the World, lst edition, 1893; I. A. Dorner, System of Christian Doctrine, English edition, 1885; J. H. Stirling, Philosophy and Theology, 1890; J. Lindsay, Studies in European Philosophy, 1909; The Fundamental Problems of Metaphysics, 1910.