Continuing with my series — “. . . And Other Stupid Statements” —
I would like to register a complaint. In truth, I would like to register many complaints about the common Christian view of the afterlife, but I start here. This complaint is important because it not only represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the afterlife (i.e. heaven), but of the very nature of God, for to have this view of the afterlife, one must either be some sort of modified pantheist or an atheist.
Let me make my proposition and then repeat the above charge:
The statement, “When we get to heaven, we will be timeless” represents a fundamental misunderstanding of Christian theology. To have this view of the afterlife, one must either be, as I said, either a modified pantheist or an atheist.
Much of Christian theology carries the assumption that in eternity (heaven), believers will be like God, timeless. This belief goes back quite some time in pop theology.
Notice the concept in the hymn “Almighty Father of Mankind” (emphases added in all)
Therefore in life I’ll trust in Thee,
In death I will adore;
And after death will sing Thy praise
When time shall be no more.
Or how about “The Christian’s Guide,”
When old earth shall cease to travel,
And when time shall be no more,
With our loved ones we will gather
Over on the other shore,
Where all sorrow will be over,
Where all tears are wiped away,
Where with angel voices blending
We shall sing in endless day.
Or take this stanza by James Thomson (1700-1748) in “A Poem Sacred to the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton,”
While in expectance of the second life,
When time shall be no more, they sacred dust
Sleeps with her kings, and dignifies the scene
Or how about the most well known “When the Roll is Called up Yonder,”
When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound, and time shall be no more,
And the morning breaks, eternal, bright and fair;
When the saved of earth shall gather over on the other shore,
And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.
If that were not enough “evidence” for our expectation of future timeless existence, we also have biblical proof:
Revelation 10:6: “And sware by him that liveth for ever and ever, who created heaven, and the things that therein are, and the earth, and the things that therein are, and the sea, and the things which are therein, that there should be time no longer” (emphasis mine).
But I don’t believe that there will ever be a time when Christians (or any of creation) will experience timelessness. I believe that we will always experience a succession of moments. There will always be a past, present, and future for the Christian.
I will deal with the passage in Revelation shortly, but let me first explain how it is theologically and philosophically impossible (not merely improbable) for any of creation to ever experience timelessness:
Timelessness is a characteristic of God alone. Paul tells Timothy that God “alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see.” (1Ti 6:16 ESV). While believers are promised eternal life, this does not imply the same kind of eternal life that God possesses. Though there is a sense in which we will see God with our eyes, there is also a very real sense that we will never see God in his essence. He exists in an “unapproachable light.” The phrase “whom no one has ever seen or can see” uses the word dunatai which speaks of our ability or capacity to accomplish that which is spoken about. Humanity, indeed, all of creation, does not have the ability or capacity to see God in his essence. Why? Because of his transcendent nature.
Transcendence is a quality that is God’s alone. Indeed, transcendence is a foundational qualification of being God. Transcendence, in this sense, is to be separate and above all things created. God is not the creation. He is not “in” the creation. Creation is not a part of him. To believe otherwise is pantheistic.
When God created all things, he created them ex nihilo “out of nothing.” In other words, creation was not made from some preexisting “stuff” that God used and molded into our universe. Neither is the universe created out of God’s essence itself. There was nothing before creation but God (Heb 11:3). Therefore, God created space, matter, and time. But God is not made up of space, matter, or time. God is the “First Cause” of all things. He is the “Necessary Being” that makes sense out of existence. In this way, because he is God, he is transcendent to space, matter, and time.
God is not a part of time. If he were, he would not be God. He would simply be the most powerful being that we know of in our universe, a sort of “Superman.” If we believed that God was a part of time, we would be, philosophically speaking, atheists. But the definition of God is not “The most powerful being in the universe” but the one who created all that there is and is transcendent and sovereign over it. God cannot be in time because it is a necessary characteristic of divinity to be timeless. God does not experience a succession of moments in his essence. This is not to say that God does not act in time and experience time in his activity or in the incarnation of Christ or the presence of the Holy Spirit. It simply means that the essence of the Triune Godhead is not in time, but transcendent to it.
We now must examine how far off it is for us to entertain the idea that people, part of God’s creation, will one day be timeless. To be timeless is, by definition, to be God. Timelessness is not all he is, but it is for him alone. If we maintain that at death or in the resurrection we become timeless, we are saying that we are going to be joined with the essence of God. This is pantheism. In other words, we are saying that one day we will be God! If we were to deny God timelessness, then he would not really be God, and we would be atheistic, philosophically speaking.
“What about the passage in Revelation? Doesn’t that say that we will be timeless. Sorry Michael, I am going with the Bible rather than the philosophy of man.”
The passage in Revelation does not in any way speak to the ceasing of time. The version I used above is an unfortunately obscure translation from the King James Version of the Bible. Due to its influence and obscurity here, this train of thought has made its way into much of Christian culture. The phrase, “that there should be time no longer,” translates the Greek, hoti chronos ouketi estai. Literally, it is “that time no longer is.” In the context, the seventh Angel has just revealed the seven voices of thunder (which John was instructed to seal up). The events that follow show the angel bringing this stage of the tribulation to completion. The idea behind “time is no longer” is that the duration has run its course. “Time is up,” the angel declares, “Its over.”
Take note of other translations here:
ESV Revelation 10:6 – and swore by him who lives forever and ever, who created heaven and what is in it, the earth and what is in it, and the sea and what is in it, that there would be no more delay,
NAB Revelation 10:6 – and swore by the one who lives forever and ever, who created heaven and earth and sea and all that is in them, “There shall be no more delay.
NAS Revelation 10:6 – and swore by Him who lives forever and ever, who created heaven and the things in it, and the earth and the things in it, and the sea and the things in it, that there shall be delay no longer,
NAU Revelation 10:6 – and swore by Him who lives forever and ever, WHO CREATED HEAVEN AND THE THINGS IN IT, AND THE EARTH AND THE THINGS IN IT, AND THE SEA AND THE THINGS IN IT, that there will be delay no longer,
NET Revelation 10:6 – and swore by the one who lives forever and ever, who created heaven and what is in it, and the earth and what is in it, and the sea and what is in it, “There will be no more delay!
NIV Revelation 10:6 – And he swore by him who lives for ever and ever, who created the heavens and all that is in them, the earth and all that is in it, and the sea and all that is in it, and said, “There will be no more delay!
NJB Revelation 10:6 – and swore by him who lives for ever and ever, and made heaven and all that it contains, and earth and all it contains, and the sea and all it contains, ‘The time of waiting is over;
NLT Revelation 10:6 – He swore an oath in the name of the one who lives forever and ever, who created the heavens and everything in them, the earth and everything in it, and the sea and everything in it. He said, “There will be no more delay.
TNIV Revelation 10:6 – And he swore by him who lives for ever and ever, who created the heavens and all that is in them, the earth and all that is in it, and the sea and all that is in it, and said, “There will be no more delay!
The KJV is the only translation whose wording allows for the misunderstanding.
In short, we will not ever become timeless precisely because we will never become God. The dictum is true: once timeless, always timeless. Once time-bound, always time-bound. There is a sense, as Paul says, that you and I will never see God because we are not able to do so. We will not be able to peek through the curtains of time and see what no eye can see. God will forever remain holy and timeless, even though manifestations of him along with his activity will always be ever present with us in time and through the incarnate Christ.
In heaven (and hell) and forever more, you and I will experience time, space, and matter. The only way that time could ever be no more is if God destroyed all of creation, leaving only himself. But he has promised otherwise.