The eternal now is a notion often linked with the nature of God, according to Western theology and according to various mystical, Asian, and so- called New Age traditions.
Anicius Boethius (480-c. 524 CE) and Saint Thomas Aquinas (c.1225-1274 CE) conceive of God as existing outside of time. They argue that the divine essence involves a perpetual present or now, without succession of moments. God exists in a kind of unchanging specious present. Such a divine essence could not thus be described as existing “before” any event in time. It could exist, instead, as intimately present at every moment of our time, while being itself outside of time. Even Jesus, the alleged physical embodiment of God, is said to have asserted that “Before Abraham was, I am” (instead of “I was”). Paul Tillich (1886-1965) in his book The Eternal Now claims that a timeless eternal now is what makes possible our sense of the temporal present now. For, looked at objectively, time as a succession of moments does not exhibit any present or any now. Yet we experience a now. The experience of a present now, Tillich claims, is made possible only by the breaking through of a timeless eternal present (of God, and of our essential divine self) in the time sequence.
A much-repeated metaphor meant to shed light on the paradoxical relation between a divine eternal now and our successive time is the image of God as an immovable point at the center of a circle, a center point equally distant from every point on the circumference. The circumference represents the moving, successive, spread-out nature of time. Such a circumference would have to be imagined as infinitely long and as not necessarily returning to close upon itself. Also, in this image the distance between God, as center point, and each point on the circumference would have to be imagined as nonexis- tent—to establish the immediacy of God’s presence in every moment of time.
One of the challenges for this notion of a timeless divine specious present, or eternal now, is to preclude it from being static or frozen, thus lifeless and nonconscious. Can there be nondurational, non- successive consciousness? Does consciousness not require some dynamism or activity? Those who answer in the positive, like the philosopher Josiah Royce, tend to insist that our durational present should remain the model for understanding the divine consciousness and its eternal now. These critics understand the divine state as still somehow temporal, although this temporal present would be much wider in scope, perhaps infinitely wider, than our human specious present. Would such a divine durational now be a temporal flow that is parallel to our time? Or would it involve some sort of temporality, some hypertime, unknown to us? Could this divine now be, instead, some sort of nontemporal, nonsequential, dynamism? Does the latter notion make logical sense? Are we to take refuge in paradox here?
It is worth noting that 20th-century physics has also addressed the notion of time and of the present now. The theory of relativity proposed a union of space with time. According to a widespread interpretation of this union, though it is still debated, time becomes assimilated to a fourth dimension of the static continuum “spacetime.” Some philosophers and scientists have objected to this static-like interpretation of time. Even Albert Einstein argued that in relativistic spacetime, the time dimension is not equivalent to the spatial dimensions. He preferred viewing space as being dynamized by this union with time, instead of time being spatialized by it. For instance, simultaneity becomes relativized in Einstein’s theory. This means that the notion of “instantaneous space,” that is, the notion of all events occurring at the same time across all space, becomes problematic. Such a set of “simultaneous” events cannot be extracted unambiguously from the four-dimensional world process. This is because a point-event occurring before, at the same time, or after, another point-event depends in part on the standpoint from which the sequential observation is made. (The exceptions might be cases of causally related events.) Thus in relativistic physics, unlike Newtonian physics, past and future are not separated by a durationless three-dimensional “now” instantaneously spread across the universe. Past and future are instead better viewed as separated by a four-dimensional region of “elsewhere.”
Recently there has been a resurgence of non- philosophical and nontheological experiencebased claims regarding some form of timeless eternity. These accounts derive partly from the New Age movement since the 1950s—a dispersed movement characterized by eclectic nontraditional mysticism-based spirituality. Similar claims derive also from the now widespread phenomena of near-death experiences.
The former movement includes a number of alleged spirit channelers reporting on pantheistic claims to the effect that God is in everything and that by turning inward we can access God’s and our own (and more real) timeless nature. This viewpoint advises that beneath our ordinary temporal realm there is another and more basic one, often characterized as a divine eternal now. The metaphysics underlying this claim seems to be that the ultimately timeless divine reality opts to manifest itself as the temporal and spatial multitude of things we call the universe (and perhaps as many other universes as well). The “Seth” books by Jane Roberts are among the most popular examples of this New Age account of reality.
There is, in addition, an extensive recent literature regarding the experience of some form of timelessness during alleged “near death experiences” (experiences one has during certain traumas, and sometimes in hospitals through moments while one is mistakenly declared clinically dead). During parts of such experiences—while reviewing one’s whole life “instantaneously,” or while engaging in some form of “instantaneous” thoughttravel—many people claim that their sense of time slows down drastically, or stops altogether, while their awareness of countless events continues. Some claim that this represents the experience of an eternal now, and they often attribute this eternal now to a feature of the postlife divine environment.
See also Aquinas, Saint Thomas; Becoming and Being;
Boethius, Anicius; Einstein, Albert; Eternal Recurrence;
Eternity; God and Time; Tillich, Paul; Time, Perspectives of
Boethius, A. (1969). The consolation of philosophy
(V. E. Watts, Trans.). London: Penguin. (Original work c. 524 CE)
Craig, W. (2001). Time and eternity: Exploring God’s relationship to time. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
Leftow, B. (1991). Time and eternity. Ithaca, NY:
Cornell University Press.
Roberts, J., & Butts, R. F. (1994). Seth speaks: The eternal validity of the soul. San Rafael, CA: Amber-Allen.