11 July 2007

Redeeming time

Chuck Colson writes about time here: A New Perspective on Time, and here: How Big is Your God? Reading these so soon after the "untimely" death of one of my students prompts me to publish my own reflections on the subject.

When I was a child I developed a strong sense of the irreversibility of time's passage. Although one genre of science fiction is preoccupied with the notion of time travel, and though there seems to be something, if Einstein is to be believed, to the possibility of accelerating or slowing the passage of time, it remains impossible to reverse the process. This is perhaps why we are so fascinated by the likes of Back to the Future, the cinematic tale of an adolescent who returns to the days of his parents' youth and manages to rewrite the history of his own family.

When we regularly visited my grandmother's house in Milan, Michigan, nearly half a century ago, I recall seeing there a photographic portrait of my great-grandmother. She had died seven years before my birth, and I regretted that I had no memories of her, as did my mother and grandmother. I wished that I had known something of the world before I came along and would love to have experienced backwards time travel. My early fascination with the Chicago Aurora & Elgin Railroad — revived during my second year at Notre Dame — was also rooted in the desire to experience a defunct interurban railway that had come to an end before conscious memory. In short, backwards time travel, if it were possible, held out the tantalizing possibility of reversing death and recovering something long gone.

Those who are in Christ are promised eternal or everlasting life. We human beings cannot begin to comprehend what this will mean. Scripture speaks in metaphors and highly symbolic language, especially in the apocalyptic books. There are, however, many Christians who, following Augustine, assume that eternity is a state somehow outside of time. Remember the lyrics of the old gospel hymn:

When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound,
and time shall be no more. . . .

Will time really cease to exist? Is eternity a static, timeless condition, as popular theology would have us believe? I will not speculate as to God's relationship to and experience of time, since that falls outside of what he has revealed to us. Yet with respect to his image-bearers I believe this can be affirmed: if time is the good creation of God, then it makes more biblical sense to confess that in the new heaven and new earth being prepared for those who trust in Jesus Christ's salvation, time will be redeemed, not abolished. Eternity is thus not stasis on the ancient Greek model, but an everlasting age to which we will be summoned at Christ's return either from the grave or from our earthly, albeit mortal, lives.

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