The idea of eternity has two meanings: eternity as timelessness and eternity as everlastingness. In Western intellectual history, both meanings have been principally connected with discussions of God, especially regarding God’s relation to time. Ever since Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) and Ancius Boethius (c. 480-c. 524 CE), the view that God is timeless has became the dominant one. However, those who stress God’s immanence and activity within human history have at times preferred divine everlastingness, especially in more recent times. The debate has been sharpened by the use of John M. E. McTaggart’s distinction between A-series and B-series accounts of temporal sequence. The idea of a timeless “eternity” has resurfaced recently in experiential claims by many New Age proponents.
The word eternal comes from the Latin aetur- nus, which means everlastingness. Philosophical discussions lead, however, to the two meanings already mentioned: One of these equates eternity with atemporality; the other equates it with sempi- ternity or everlastingness.
Perhaps one of the oldest discussions of a timeless eternity goes back to Parmenides of Elea (5th century BCE) and surrounds his notion of the One, though scholars disagree about this. Clearly, however, in Plato’s Timaeus (37E6-38A6) there is a contrast between eternal and timeless forms and the world of change and becoming (with time being at least the measure of change). Time is famously termed by Plato “the moving image of eternity.” Eternity here is a “movingless” realm. Aristotle, in contrast, more modestly claims that the existence of necessary things (like a God) only requires that such necessary things be unbounded by time—but only in the sense that they cannot age (Physics 221b30). Aristotle could be viewed as being an early proponent of eternity as everlastingness. Later, Philo Judaeus (20 BCE-50 CE) ascribes, possibly as the first Jewish philosopher, timelessness to the Jewish God. Plotinus (204-270 CE) goes further in identifying timeless eternity and life. Nous (or soul) for Plotinus is eternal and beyond time, enjoying duration without succession.
Subsequent ancient discussion of eternity in Western philosophy and theology has centered on the manner of God’s existence. Book XI of the Confessions of Augustine and Book V of The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius are the most famous ancient sources.
Boethius distinguishes between timeless eternity, which only God enjoys, and the temporal everlastingness of the world itself. God’s existence, however, being that of a living being could not be like the timeless existence of lifeless abstract objects like numbers or ideas. For Boethius, God has life, yet its life is all “at once,” or simultaneous. This atemporal simultaneity helps resolve the puzzle of how God’s foreknowledge of all events is compatible with humans’ real free will. (If God knows my choices in advance, then how can I really have the power to avoid making those choices?) For Boethius this is not a problem, because God does not know anything “in advance” but knows what happens atemporally.
The puzzle that leads Augustine to agree with the atemporal view of eternity is this: How can God precede all times in order for God to create all times? After all, the notion of precedence is itself a temporal notion. Augustine concludes that only by being outside of time can God “precede” all times. God’s type of eternity is “always in the present.” This divine present, of course, is not a moment in time or of time. There is no temporal sequence in God’s manner of existence. God transcends time. Unlike his creation, God is changeless and exists necessarily. Augustine shares this view with Plato, that is, the assumption that change is a mark of imperfection. God’s perfection, therefore, rules out its being subject to change and thus to time. If God were temporal, then God could in principle change, and perhaps the changing of a perfect nature could only lead God away from perfection. God must exist as a finished and perfect unity. Unlike material objects, God cannot be spread out in time (or in space). God must exist all at once.
Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033-1109), Moses Maimonides (1131-1204), and Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) propose similar views. For Aquinas and for John Duns Scotus (c. 1266-1308), God’s timeless eternity is a correlate of divine simplicity, which is incapable of being defined or fully grasped by a creature.
Modern Philosophical Debates
Modern debates between eternalist and temporal- ist approaches to understanding God’s eternity— and of God’s relation to our time—have benefited from a distinction put forth by J. M. E. McTaggart (1866-1925). This is the distinction between an A-series view of time (where the temporal series is viewed from within and uses terms like tomorrow, now, then, past, and future) and a B-series view of time (where the temporal series is viewed indifferently as a series of moments or events placed as earlier than, later than, or simultaneous with other moments or events).
Some current thinkers, such as Paul Helm and Katherin Rogers, argue that for God, who exists timelessly, the temporal order is a B series. All times are equally present to God’s mind. According to this view, God is in no temporal relation to this B series.
Other defenders of divine timelessness, such as Eleonore Stump, Norman Kretzmann, and Brian Leftow, insisted that God’s eternity has some of the features of extension or duration, which they claim are not temporal but which critics have found objectionable.
Temporalist opponents, such as Anthony Kenny and Richard Swinburne, have argued that eternal- ism is incoherent. If God exists all at once, then God exists simultaneously with all the events that occur in the universe. They argue that since an event now and an event 2,000 years ago are each simultaneous with God, the two events must then be simultaneous with each other. But the latter is absurd. Thus, God’s simultaneity with every temporal event must be impossible.
This argument is still the subject of debate, as it is not clear that God could not be “simultaneous” to separate temporal events in such a way that the two temporal events would not be forced to be simultaneous with each other.
Paul Tillich (1886-1965), in his book The Eternal Now, claims that a timeless and divine eternal now is required for our sense of temporal present now. For, looked at from the outside, time as a succession of moments does not exhibit any present or any “now,” but only a chain of moments sequentially arranged. 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 nonexistent—to establish the immediacy of God’s presence in every moment of time.
A second analogy often used to convey the paradoxical relation between a divine eternal now and our successive time appeals to the possibility of a hidden macro dimension within which time is embedded. Imagine how a third spatial dimension would appear to a Flatlander (an inhabitant of two-dimensional space). A three-dimensional line perpendicular to a Flatland plane would have to be conceived as a stack of points piled on each other and yet each in some sense occupying the same Flatland place. Imagine how motion along this perpendicular line (as the motion of a missile or point going straight up) would have to be conceived by Flatlanders. Ordinarily for Flatlanders all motion is horizontal motion. Thus, they would have to speak of perpendicular motion as of a kind a spatial dynamism that is not really spatial. This could, by analogy, shed light on the paradox of nontemporal yet dynamic events. Just as the motion of a missile moving in a direction perpendicular to Flatland would be incomprehensible to Flatlanders, yet quite real, so too an atemporal fifth-dimensional divine observation of temporal events might be dynamic in a way that is incomprehensible to four-dimensional beings like us. Whether this spatial analogy can in fact shed light on temporal paradoxes has, of course, been disputed. A second question that has been raised is whether this extradimensional analogy points to a timeless God or to a hypertemporal god.
These debates between eternalists and tempo- ralists are complicated by the new physicist notion of relativized spacetime—which denies that there is an objective temporal sequence of temporal events (i.e., which events happen before and which ones happen after depend on an observer’s spatiotemporal standpoint).
Temporalists have also objected that eternalism relies on a false view of time, the B-series view— time must inherently be experienced from within. Whether this is true, however, is controversial.
Temporalists have further objected that eternal- ism would make God a “lifeless” being. Any personal living God, who is affected by the suffering of its creatures and who affects changes in this world, must be a temporal God. Of course, whether a God must be personal in this fashion is subject to dispute. In addition, whether a timeless God would be automatically unable to engage “timelessly” in such interactions is itself not completely obvious, particularly if there could be either nontemporal dynamisms or forms of hypertime totally foreign to our form of time. The appeal that is often made here—particularly by mystics—is that God’s nature transcends, at least in part, our intellectual, linguistic, and imaginative powers.
Finally, philosophers like Swinburne find divine temporalism attractive because it is most compatible with the libertarian free will of creatures (and perhaps also of God itself). For the perfect omniscience of a timeless God might make alternative choices by agents impossible. However, a tempo- ralist God might also be in the position of knowing human choices in advance—thereby possibly making alternative possibilities in human choices an illusion. Moreover, Boethius’s type of defense of eternalism (that a timeless God does not know anything “in advance,” hence its timeless knowledge might be in some sense simultaneous and thus harmless with respect to agents’ free will) may remain still substantially sound.
It is worth adding that in Eastern thought, eter- nalists have dominated the characterization of the Ultimate Source. Among such eternalists, the account of Brahman by the Hindu Vedanta philosopher and theologian Shri Adi Sankara is one of the most influential. He characterized the ultimate Brahman—following, he claimed, older Upanishadic sources—as pure timeless awareness and bliss. Here too there have been criticisms that any pure divine awareness of all things, including awareness of the changing world of Maya or our apparent universe, would seem to require some internal structure and dynamism. The latter might be incompatible with timelessness.
Recent Accounts or
“Experiences” of Timeless Eternity
There has been a recent resurgence of nonphilo- sophical and nontheological experience-based 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 rather Eastern-like pantheistic claims to the effect that God is in everything and that by turning inwardly 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). Such metaphysics appear to have roots in ancient Indian thought. The popular “Seth” books by Jane Roberts may constitute the most sophisticated and serious example 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” thought-travel-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 Anselm of Canterbury; Aquinas, Saint Thomas; Aristotle; Augustine of Hippo, Saint; Boethius, Anicius; Bruno, Giordano; Duns Scotus, John; Eternal Recurrence; God and Time; McTaggart, John M. E.; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Plato; Sankara, Shri Adi; Tillich, Paul; Time and Universes
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