Bible and Time

Bible and Time

A comparison of the Hebrew Bible (in Christianity, the Old Testament) and the Christian Bible, or New Testament, reveals differences in how the concept of time came to be understood in the Jewish and Christian traditions, respectively. The Christian viewpoint regarding time is linear; that is, the universe had a beginning and will have an end (in Greek, the eschaton), which will occur when Jesus Christ returns to Earth in the Second Coming to judge both the living and the dead. His arrival will be the fulfilling of a promise he made to his apostles and will be consummation of the world and time. The first mention of this concept was by Saint Augustine of Hippo in his seminal City of God, written during the 5th century. In 410 CE, the Visigoths sacked Rome, with many Roman citizens blaming Christianity. It was in this atmosphere that Augustine set out to provide a consolation of Christianity, writing that it was the City of God that would ultimately triumph—at the end of time. Such a view was vastly different from the view of the Hebrews.

Time in the Hebrew Bible

The Hebrew concept of time, as it had developed at that juncture in history, was concerned with the quality of time as it related to seasonal events like the rain in summer or an early autumn. In addi­tion, the Hebrew calendar was based on the lunar cycle. The Hebrew day was one rotation of the earth on its axis; the month was one lunar cycle, or revolution of the moon around the earth; and the year was 12 lunar months, approximately the time required for the earth to travel around the sun. The Hebrew Bible divides the Jewish year according to each season of an agrarian society, such as when the women Naomi and Ruth trav­eled to Bethlehem to attend the barley harvest. Likewise, the concept of time centered on the hal­lowed events of God intervening in the Israelites’ history. Time was related to an event that occurred in the natural world and how it was possibly linked to divine acts.

For the ancient Hebrews, time was concrete and real, not an abstraction. There is no evidence that they engaged in the sort of abstract philosophical speculation that is the hallmark of the ancient Greeks. Rather, the Hebrews would likely say, “The passage of time is a sequence of God’s saving acts.” That is, real events occurred, and humanity measured and marked life by its relationships to those events. Ancient Hebrew culture cared little for discussions regarding whether time was real or whether it was a human invention. In fact, nowhere in the Hebrew Bible is there a general word for “time” (at least, not in an abstract sense); it also has no special terms for past, present, or future. The most common or everyday expressions of time concerned the point at which some event occurred or will occur. The matter of precision in defining such moments, however, can seem vague or elu­sive. For example, First Kings 11:4 refers to the time “when Solomon was old,” but at no point does the author refer to a specific period when Solomon began becoming old, or at what point he became old, as though he were not old the previ­ous day and then suddenly he was old.

Ancient Hebrew culture seems to have lacked a concept of eternity, an idea developed in the West by the Greeks. For the Hebrews, a conception of whether someone could be alive without the pas­sage of time would have been meaningless. For them, the existence of life was itself proof that time existed. There was no time where there were no life events and no life events where there was no time.

Modern society views time as chronological (60 seconds make up 1 minute, 60 minutes make up 1 hour, 24 hours make up 1 day, etc.), whereas the ancient Hebrews’ sense of time was qualitative. Throughout the Old Testament, specific happenings and individuals were distinguished and then arranged in order, not by location in terms of chronological sequence but, rather, according to the impact of their occurrence. The Hebrews were awed by the importance or meaning of things and people, not by measured time. Scholars of Judaic culture have observed that for the Hebrews, events separated in time could be perceived as contemporaneous. For instance, a worshiper might experience a past act of salvation, such as the Exodus from Egypt, and expe­rience it as if it were happening right then, even if the Exodus had occurred in the past.

For the Hebrews, the conception of time cen­tered on one’s exertions and accomplishments; likewise, they were interested in how individuals carried on in their daily lives—how they wrote, played, traveled, slept, dreamed, performed cere­monies, went to war, and prayed. God’s actions were also present in time. The passage of time was a story concerning God’s behavior; thus time did not exist outside of Yahweh. To spend time profit­ably probably meant living one’s life so that others could mark their lives and tell their stories in refer­ence to one’s actions. In the Hebrew worldview, the important question was not “What should I do that makes efficient use of time?” but “How can I best make use of my life in this present moment?”

In the Torah, it is written that the righteous dead will be resurrected in the “messianic age” with the coming of the messiah. At that moment, each individual will be given immortality in a sin- free, perfect place. On the other hand, the wicked dead will not be resurrected at all; rather, they face complete oblivion. By contrast, in Christianity the wicked dead will face an eternity of torment in hell—not oblivion. This is not the only Judaic belief about the ; some contemporary Jews believe in some version of hell. The Torah is not specific about the , nor are there any specifics about the timeline.

Time in Christianity

The New Testament states that the universe was created for humans—in science this is called the anthropic principle (meaning that everything is “just right” for life to exist). According to the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, the uni­verse was created at a specific point in time. This idea has received support from secular philoso­phers arguing against the idea that the universe is eternal, as well as from scientific evidence indicat­ing the reality of the “big bang.” If the universe began to exist at a specific time during the past, is the Bible correct in stating that time had a begin­ning? In essence, if time existed apart from every­thing else, then the biblical use of time lacks real meaning. On the other hand, if the Bible is correct that the universe began with an act of creation, then time does not exist away from events occur­ring throughout the universe; thus the beginning also entailed a beginning of time.

Saint Augustine of Hippo felt that because time exists in our universe, then God must exist outside of time. God lives in an eternal present, with no past or future—hence time has no meaning to God. One need not be a believing Christian (or a believer in any deity) to accept this concept regard­ing eternity. Many atheists and agnostics feel that mathematics exists outside of time and is, in some sense, eternal. The Bible states unequivocally that God is eternal, meaning that he did not “begin” and will never experience an “end.” How this is understood depends on which definition of eter­nity a Christian uses, as there are several. One might state that God exists in eternity, which is nothing less than a belief that all aspects of time (past, present, and future) have no meaning. God has existed in eternity at all times and should be expected to “live” there forever. Many individuals think that human beings can never grasp the rami­fications of eternity, because it is either an infinity of what we already know (eternity is nothing more than the passage of time) or is something com­pletely different from what we can imagine.

Related to the idea of eternal existence regard­ing God as Creator is the assumption that Yahweh is dependent upon no one or no thing; it was he who created everything else. If this premise is true, then the Bible’s conception of his timelessness is essentially correct—God is independent of the uni­verse, has always existed and always will, and would continue even if God obliterated all space and time.

Throughout the New Testament, the view con­cerning time in is that it is beyond anything we can comprehend. For example, in the Book of Revelation, John saw scenes taking place on Earth in human history and scenes in occurring at the same time. Time in moves in the for­ward direction as it does on Earth. For example, Revelation 8:1 describes a period of silence in lasting “about half an hour,” although the meaning of time in is different from what we know. For instance, one occurrence in eternity is found in the Gospels: One episode concerns Jesus standing on Mount Mizar, where he was transfigured before his disciples, Peter, James, and John. Appearing with him (c. 30 CE) were Moses (from c. 1400 BCE) and Elijah, who, according to tradition, was carried into heaven without seeing death (c. 850 BCE). All three appeared to be alive, as if they had known each other for many years, unmindful of the decades that separated them, at least in the manner that we judge time.

New Testament writers stated that time was calculated using two methods: chronos and kairos (times and seasons). These Greek words for times and seasons added immeasurably to scholars’ com­prehension concerning how time works through­out our universe. Chronos refers to the quantification of time and its length, how each second follows one after the other, and/or seeing time as being bounded. To grasp the significance of the word, one should read where it was used in the New Testament, including Matthew 2:7; Luke 4:5, 8:27, 20:9; Acts 20:18; Romans 16:25; and Mark 2:19. Kairos, on the other hand, refers to the value of time, how an era is known by its unique events, the crucial worth of happening, and a favorable moment. In the Bible, humanity is depicted as having a distinct beginning, a history that accurately recorded the Creator, and the drawing closer of a day of judgment when all people, regardless of wealth, prestige, or accom­plishments, will be evaluated justly by God.

Time in the Work of Karl Barth

Karl Barth, the great German theologian killed by the Nazis in 1944, looked at time differently. In his opinion, the end of time (the coming of God’s Kingdom) is not a future goal at the end of linear time or a process that takes place within time; rather, it is the eternal, existential test for each individual “in time.” In other words, it is God’s intervention in the world at any given moment. Barth did not think that having a horizontal understanding of time was efficacious, and thus he formulated an existential conception. In its more radical versions, this view conceives of time as an aspect of human self-consciousness: One’s mode of existence is moored in the present, and this temporality of the present time is elemental to the human existence in the world. Hence, time is not an objective linear entity with a given past, present, and future. The past is definitively over and the future has yet to be, so only the present has being in any real sense. Theologically speak­ing, this means that God’s word has neither a past nor future and is fully independent of humanity, though it greatly influences the present, in an exis­tential and qualitative fashion.

With Christ’s resurrection, humanity saw that God inhabited a dominion known only to God. Human understanding of the past, our place within it, and the influence of human corporeality is confirmed using this concept of time. Barth dis­tinguished two temporal dimensions—human time and divine time. Human time is intertwined tightly with a grasp of what the past, present, and future are and is a fixture of God’s creation. Humanity has a historico-corporeal reality only in the sense of how we view time; that is, the individual that gives up his or her time also gives of himself or herself. Any statement that may be said regarding one’s life or death is subject to humanity’s irrevo­cable temporal sequence. The human person is one with his or her life history.

In the New Testament, God took unto himself time, human time, and created time—all through Jesus. It was indeed real time with the triadic divi­sion into no-more, here-and-now, and not-yet. But in the risen Christ this division does not signify the transitoriness that belongs to human life inasmuch as in his Lordship over time he is present in terms of what he was (the past), of what was previously hoped for (the prophetic past perfect), and as he who will come again (the future). It could be said, then, that God has “time.” This is not to say, how­ever, that God’s time is indistinguishable from ours; rather, God inhabits an eternal present that encom­passes what is, what was, and what is to come.


Further Readings

Barth, K. (2000). Evangelical : An introduction.

Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Boman, T. (2002). Hebrew thought compared with Greek. New York: Norton.

Craig, W. L. (2001). Time and eternity: Exploring God’s relationship to time. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

Ganssle, G. E. (2001). God & time. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Hasker, W. (1998). God, time, and knowledge. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Holy Bible. (1984). New international version. I Kings 11:4; Matthew 2:7; Mark 2:19; Luke 4:5, 8:27, 20:9; Romans 16:25; Acts 20:18; Revelation 8:1. Colorado Springs, CO: International Bible Society.

Littlejohn, R. (2000, Winter). Time and God. Biblical Illustrator, pp. 53-56.

McGrath, A. E. (2001). : An introduction (3rd ed.). Boston: Blackwell.

Whitrow, G. J. (1961). The natural philosophy of time. London: Thomas Nelson & Sons

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