A Biblical Theology of Time
I often wish I had more time to accomplish all things things I would like to do. I wonder if men really believe that "time is on our side"--as one of our own poets has expressed; or, as another one of our poets has said, that it just "keeps on slippin'...into the future." We all feel the pressures of life because of the pressures of time limitations. Not least among the most profound and perplexing questions of the human mind is the question concerning the nature of time. What is time? Why did God create it? Why did God created cum tempore (with time)? What is eternity? Is there such a thing as eternity past? Will we speak, in the hereafter, of eternity future? We know that God is not limited by or subject to time. We also know that time was the first thing that He created: “In the beginning…” Experientially, we know that “time is what keeps us from getting everything done at once.”1 So, how are we to view this all encompassing reality in the world that God has made? Why did God create time, and how does it differ from the eternity we await?
Surely we may conclude that time was created by God and for the works of God as Jonathan Edwards noted: "The works of God that were wrought in time in creating the world were very great, [such as] bringing the matter of the world out of nothing, [the] creation of the highest heavens and the glorious angels."2 But, we cannot detach the works of God in creation from the works of God in redemption. The apostle Paul seems to indicate, in two place in the New Testament, that time was created for Jesus Christ. In Romans 5:6 the apostle explains that it was "when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly;" and, he further expressly stated it in the following way: “In the fullness of time God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, that He might redeem those who were under the law” (Gal. 4:4). God created time to carry out His plans. If there were no time, there would be nothing for which to hope. If there were no hope, there would be no faith. Human history is redemptive-history. The living God ordained creation, the fall, redemption, judgment and restoration for the manifestation of His glory. His eternal decree necessitated the creation of time. Time serves the outworking of this plan. This is why the same apostle could say, “Redeem the time for the days are evil.”
The question of eternity is much more difficult to answer. We are finite, and, therefore, will never be without limitations. We are spatially bound creatures, and, therefore, will never be ubiquitous. Will eternity be something different for us than it is for God? If we will worship, work, play, eat, sleep, create, invent, and build in eternity will this not necessitate some time table by which God’s plan for His redeemed will be carried out? Or, will our experiences in the New Heavens and the New Earth be ever present? In the Confessions, St. Augustine breaks into one of the most fascinating meditations on the relation of God and time. I remember stumbling across this as a new Christian. It set me on course to understand a distinctly Christian philosophy of time and history. It is not in vain that Augustine has been coined the greatest thinker of the Christian church. Of time and eternity, Augustine wrote:
At no time, therefore, had You not made anything, because You had made time itself. And no times are co-eternal with You, because You remain forever; but should these continue they would not be time. For what is time? Who can easily and briefly explain it? Who even in thought can comprehend it, even to the pronouncing of a word concerning it? But what in speaking do we refer to more familiarly and knowingly than time? And certainly we understand when we speak of it; we understand also when we hear it spoken of by another. What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I do not know. Yet I say with confidence, that I know that if nothing passed away, there would be no past time; and if nothing were coming, there would be no future time; and if nothing were, there would be no present time. Those two times, past and future, how are they, when even the past not now, and the future is not yet? But should the present always be present, and should it not pass into time past, it could not truly be time, but eternity. If then, time present–if it be time–only comes into existence because it passes into time past, how do we say that even this is, whose cause of being is that it shall not be, namely, that we cannot say what time truly is, unless because it tends not to be.2
We will certainly be bound to space, so it is likely that there will be some termporal limitations as well. We will live with Christ forever, but will ourselves always be creatures subject to the limitations of creatures. Perhaps we will find time to be one of those fundamental limitations. Until then, we should redeem the time by growing in our love for and knowledge of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who, “at just the right time died for the ungodly.”
1. This quote was shared by Phil Ryken during a pastoral round table discussion at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Dr. Ryken attributes it to one of his professors in college.2. Edwards, Jonathan Sermons and Discourses, 1743-1758 (WJE Online Vol. 25), pp. 113-114 3. St. Augustine Confessions (pp. 301 ff.)