William Blake begins his “Auguries of Innocence” with these words:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
If you were asked by your child or grandchild to define the word “eternal,” and I hope each of you has been or will be asked that question by someone under the age of eight, what would you say? What have you said? What does “eternal” mean to you by way of definition, at least? Maybe something like this: without beginning or ending. It means lasting forever or always existing. How about some single word definitions? “Perpetual.” Another single word definition: “ceaseless.” Another: “endless.” “Enduring” could be a synonym for “eternal” as could “immutable.” Whatever is eternal is outside the boundaries of time as we know it or think we know it.
I remember in my sophomore year at Carson-Newman College the precise moment when I knew without the shadow of a doubt that I was not cut out to be a philosopher. My philosophy professor walked into the classroom (and incidentally I grew to admire this man greatly and cherish friendship with him to this day but do not share with him a love of his discipline)–he walked into classroom and asked a room full of mostly 19 and 20 year-old kids, “What is time?” I thought to myself, “Man, time is what I don’t have enough of to listen to this kind of conversation of presentation!” I did not leave the room and hoped my face did not express my honest response to his question since “Introduction to Philosophy” was a required course, and while I may not have known what “time” was I certainly knew that, for me, “hell” would be having to repeat the course.
Eventually, on the other side of campus where I was taking my religion courses, I realized that I needed to be able to define “eternal” and that some kind of understanding of time was necessary. I think I have a reasonable handle on the meaning of “time” by now.
A member of my church in Baltimore, an older gentleman, did not believe that when I first arrived there I was mature enough to understand time or at least to understand the importance of time the way a senior adult understood time. This gent, Pete Hudson, bought a little travel alarm clock, say about three inches by three inches in size, and he screwed it into my pulpit. It was his self-ordained responsibility each Sunday to come to the pulpit between Sunday School and church, wind up that clock, and set the time, which was usually a couple of minutes ahead of the actual time.
Only later did I discover why the length of my sermon and the worship service in which it was set mattered so much to a retired guy who sometimes complained about having too much time on his hands. Pete and Charlotte didn’t like to have to wait too long in line at the nearby Picadilly Cafeteria; it opened at noon, which was usually when our service ended. They sat on the back row and darted out without speaking to a soul, and if they drove the maximum city speed limit they could be there well ahead of other Baltimore Christians.
Alfred De Vigny said that it is “the providence of religion, of philosophy, of pure poetry only, to go beyond life, beyond time, into eternity.” Is that so?
I am intrigued that the atheist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal.” I can’t imagine why he would let us get by with any illusions!
Practical, this-worldly oriented Emily Dickinson said, “Forever is composed of nows.” Woody Allen describes it like this: “Eternity is really long, especially near the end,” and the Lebanese-born poet-philosopher, Kahlil Gibran, causes us to lose a few winks at bedtime if we call to mind his perspective on eternality, “I existed from all eternity, and, behold, I am here; and I shall exist till the end of time, for my being has no end.”
Neither the Hebrew Bible by itself nor Christian scripture alone–or, obviously, both taken together–has a consistent view of life after death. Instead there is very uneven treatment of the subject depending on when the material was written and by whom. One thing is for certain, though, there were initially no concepts of either heaven or hell–a place where the unrighteous were punished for eternity called hell or a place called heaven where the righteous were eternally rewarded.
Rabbi Or Rose points out, however, that there are several references in Hebrew scripture to a place named Sheol. It is described as a region dark and deep in the bowels of the earth. It is at times referred to as “the Pit.” It seems to be the land of forgetfulness where human beings, all human beings, are sent after death. It is the true netherworld, Sheol. Those in Sheol are often regarded as being separated from God, though one psalmist, at least, contested that notion. What no one questioned who wrote of Sheol, however, was that those who were there with no end in sight were mere shadows of the people they had been during their earthly lives. Shades or shadows living in a shadowy world. No rewards. No punishments. Just enough consciousness to be aware that one exists, though barely.
Many Hebrew scripture scholars believe that the foundation for a belief in a life beyond this life where there was a reward for good people and a punishment for bad people is tied to the longings of, the teachings from some of the ancient Hebrew prophets who began to see very clearly that evil people, truly evil people, could not from human perspective be adequately punished in this world and, therefore, would have to be punished in the next world. Similarly, the truly righteous, the really good folk could not be fully rewarded in this world; in fact, in this world some of the best people suffer the most so the rewards if there were to be rewards would have to come in another place, in another level or realm of existence.
The idea of immortality may also be tied to the consistent view in Hebrew and Christian scripture that God Godself is eternal. Eventually, Christian writers began to think about life in the next world building on what the prophets had laid as groundwork for eternal life and adding to that more concentration on the eternality of God. To be in relationship with God meant, in some way, to share God’s kind of life. An intentional connection to God begins in this world and continues into the next for those who choose it. Since God is eternal, then those sharing life with God in the next realm are also caught up in eternity. I find that mind boggling.
The Greek words translated “eternal life” in Christian scripture, zoe aionios, the noun preceding the adjective in Greek, “life eternal,” did not mean “timelessness” per se. Rather, the words idiomatically referred to life in the world to come. It turns out that life with God is timeless, but temporality is not the concern of the concept. When Nicodemus came to Jesus under the cover of darkness to ask him what he, Nicodemus, had to do to have “life eternal,” he wasn’t asking Jesus how he could be sure he’d live forever. For all anyone knew, the shadows in Sheol lived forever. Who wanted that? Nicodemus wanted to know how he could be assured that he’d have life with God in the next realm. His concern was much more qualitative than quantitative.
The Gospel of John, chapter 1, verses 1-5, a passage frequently considered at Christmas since John sings this hymn and then immediately begins his version of Jesus’ life story with Jesus as an adult, about to begin his public ministry.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He [that is, the Word] was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him [could be God, could be the Word], and without him [could be God, could be the Word] not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him [could be God, could be the Word] was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
The word translated “Word” is logos, and because of the prominence of that term in the first verse of John’s Gospel, this passage has been called “the Logos Hymn.” I hasten to point out to you that the name of Jesus is not mentioned in this hymn though vast numbers of Christians including Christian theologians through the ages have believed that God’s living Word could have been none other than Jesus, but I just want to point out to you, again, that the name of Jesus does not appear in this Johannine hymn.
In the same chapter, we could jump down to verse 14 and read these words: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s unique child, full of grace and truth.” Jesus’ name is, again, not mentioned at all. The Logos became flesh and revealed God’s glory. Sounds a lot like what has been described as Jesus’ role, but Jesus’ name isn’t mentioned. Just to be sure that everyone who heard the hymn would be on the same page, no questions asked, I wonder why the writer didn’t take “Logos” at least once and say, “Jesus was that Logos.”
This passage gets us into a highly complex corner of Christian theology that scholars tend to refer to as “the preexistence of Christ.” You may remember that in a recent sermon, I spoke a great while about the difference between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith who has been essentially created by theologians. If Jesus were the Logos referred to in the hymn with which the compilers of the Gospel of John chose to open the Gospel bearing the name of their faith mentor, John, then he lived in God’s realm before he lived in this earthly realm. Instead of simply appearing one day as a human being walking around doing human things, this hymn says that God chose to experience humanity fully so God allowed Godself to be born like every other human child has been born–not conceived like all others, but born like all others.
If Jesus and God were one and the same, the Gospel of John, which more than any of the four Gospels opens the door to that possibility, offers more than its share of scenes making the idea of Jesus and God being the same entity suspicious, if not completely untenable. If Jesus is God in the flesh, how and why does Jesus pray to God, to himself? Why does Jesus claim when he has performed a sign, a miraculous deed, that he gives God the glory for what he was able to do? Jesus dies on the cross. Does God die? Can God die?
Well, this is what John wants us grappling with–not baby Jesus, a manger, lowing cattle, an inn flashing its “No Vacancy” sign, night shift shepherds, and angels filling the skies to sing a song announcing the birth of Jesus, or of the birth of God if that’s your take on the tale. We could say, the Gospel of John wants us confronting what led up to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Some see the hymn as teaching the reality of Jesus’ preexistence in heaven with God before his birth to Mary. The hymn, for those who view it from this point of view, is unconcerned with Jesus’ earthly existence but rather with his preexistence if Logos, the Word, refers to Jesus. Not all scholars believe that it does.
One of several alternatives is that “Logos” in the hymn is God’s word personified–not in the person of Jesus, but rather in God. In the book of Genesis, God calls, by way of God’s word, various parts of creation into being. God, therefore, creates through speaking. Since John 1:1 touches back on Genesis 1:1 by using the same three opening words (“in beginning God”), and then the hymn uses the word “Word” personified. That word, an extension of God, is not Jesus, but God. Over time, God’s words became associated with wisdom so with that in mind, let’s have another look at the Logos Hymn that opens the Gospel of John:
In the beginning was the powerful, wise, creative Word, and that powerful, wise, creative Word was with God, and that powerful, wise, creative Word was God. [“He”and “it” are the same word in Koine Greek so instead of reading what follows as He was in beginning with God, we can just as easily, just as justifiably read:] It [that is, the Word] was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through it [through the powerful, wise, creative Word], and without it [without the powerful, wise, creative Word] not one thing came into being. What has come into being in it [the powerful, wise, creative Word] was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it [God’s powerful, wise, creative Word].
Now, my dear friends–faithful, thoughtful, pious, thinking, seeking friends–Christmas is not a time for celebrating Jesus’ divinity, but rather Jesus’ humanity. Jesus was born just as each of us was born, and given his historical and cultural setting he struggled with the same kinds of questions people like us ask. Jesus wondered how he was related to God. He wondered what his contribution was to be in the short time he had to live, and I’m not suggesting that he knew he’d be dead by the time his thirty-fourth birthday rolled around. I’m saying that even a long life by human standards–a hundred years, let’s say–is still just a speck in eternity.
That is no justification for failing to try to make a lasting contribution, however; to the contrary. Because my time on earth is short when it is set in the context of eternity, that is all the more reason I have to work diligently to make a difference. We have such a short time given the context of eternity, but our lives and our potential may still have profound meaning. In this world, we do good deeds for all created beings and for the earth itself because we hope to pass on something better to the next generations. Do we really, though, have enough influence and insight to leave anything good for those who come after us? Absolutely, we do.
The writer of Psalm 8 asks a probing question of God in prayer:
O Lord, our Sovereign…what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made us a little lower than yourself, and crowned us with glory and honor. You have given us dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under our feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
We humans have been created just a little lower than God? Really? We can make a great, positive difference in the world during our time in it.
I’m not sure the human mind can comprehend “eternality”–that there could be time without end. Yes, as a theory that may be able to sink in, but really to look face to face at the possibility that there’s a place or a space where time never ends seems beyond the grasp of human comprehension in much the same way that we cannot grasp all of who God is. Maybe wrapping our minds around eternality begins to make sense in bite-sized pieces. Goethe’s words: “Every situation, every moment, is of infinite worth; for it is the representative of a whole eternity.”
When I went to church boys’ camp one week out of every summer from of my ninth year through the summer of my twelfth year, visiting preachers would come and take a week apiece to be “Camp Pastors.” Some were very popular with the guys; others had no rapport whatsoever with the campers. Still the Camp Pastor was on call, as it were, to discuss spiritual questions and concerns with any one who had any and to preach in the covered pavilion each evening. We all knew that the Camp Pastors were supposed to try to get as many boys as possible saved before the week was out, and if they didn’t make a dent they’d likely not be asked back the next summer.
Most of the boys went to church weekly and were interested in the camp because they’d already begun thinking about things spiritual. Some of the pastors were fatherly; some kept our attention with humor; and some few tried to scare the hell out of us and were successful all things considered.
I had already been baptized when I was seven years old so this getting saved business was more than familiar to me by the time I was nine and certainly by the time I was twelve. What wasn’t so familiar to me was my fixation on the eternal, life without end, world without end, whatever without end. I’d go back to my cabin, and after a few practical jokes in which I always took part since you either played them or had them played on you, thoughts of eternity would take over my consciousness, and the only model I could conjure up was a cyclical one. Eternal life was like running a race around the same circular track for ever and ever. No matter how long that race course was, that was the one you kept running on forever. Occasionally, I’d catch a mental glimpse of a hamster running in circles on his exercise wheel, but in a much worse way; poor little guy never got anywhere. The cycles of eternity would make me dizzy, and maybe a little afraid even though I believed that God would be with me as I ran or walked the circular track of immortality for ever and ever. Tom Stoppard, the British playwright, quipped, “Eternity’s a terrible thought. I mean, where’s it all going to end?”
At camp I’d lie wide awake in my bunk thinking without being able to stop myself. What do you do with all that time on your hands? Is it boring? Is it like a camp preaching service where the preacher won’t let us go back to our cabins until more boys say they want to get saved, even though they already had been? Whatever it was, it surely was a hell of a lot better than hell in which I still believed at the time, but cyclical repetition that never ended was not how I’d have designed eternity had anyone sought my input. Even so, I was unable to see a place, a space where timelessness prevailed; there was no time to be kept or watched or worried with.
Forty-eight years ago, I went to the first of those camps, and I really did love them except for the nightly sermon and my forced meeting evening after evening with eternity. In my more mature years, hopefully with some more mature reasoning and pondering, I now think of eternity as life in God’s more intimate embrace, and, generally, I get to think of it on my own timetable–except that I suspect most of us have the prospects of eternity cast upon us when we have to consider our own mortality or the mortality of someone whom we love.
I told you earlier, that John’s Gospel doesn’t have us at the manger. John gives absolutely no attention to Jesus’ birth, but he gives attention to Jesus’ execution. In the events leading up to Jesus’ senseless death, John mentions that Jesus goes into a garden to pray; he doesn’t name the garden, but Matthew and Luke do. It was the Garden of Gethsemane, and in this painful, soul-wrenching prayer Jesus is reported to have prayed there, we know he was, at least in part, confronting not just mortality, but also eternity.
What I have to offer eternity must be accomplished or established before I go to live in that next realm, in God’s more intimate embrace. Agatha Christie once wrote: “Everything that has existed will linger in the Eternity.” Yes! A snippet from A Humanist Bible reads:
History cannot shed us from its annals any more than nature can annihilate the particles of our being from its scheme. We are forever part of what is, indelible, written in the record of nature and the human story, whatever our part and place. For the time we have this shape and this consciousness of its possession, let us be worthy of it.
Along the same lines of thinking, Francis Bacon reminded us of this: “Begin doing what you want to do now. We are not living in eternity. We have only this moment, sparkling like a star in our hand–and melting like a snowflake….” Paschal:
When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of space of which I am ignorant, and which knows me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there, why now rather than then?
There’s a theo-blogger named David Williams, and those of us who are animal lovers can likely identify strongly with how he sees eternity:
Every joy caused and every harm inflicted is unmediated and fully us, written forever into the fabric of existence. That standard, as I know it through my faith, includes not just our interactions with the homo sapiens around us. It also includes the creatures with which we share this beautiful and fragile little planet. If I strike or harm another being, that harm is mine, forever scarring me. If I give comfort to another being, that comfort is a part of my place in eternity.
Jesus flat out did not want to die, did not want to suffer, did not think he had offered all he had to offer. He sweated so profusely as he prayed that the sweat flowed as freely as blood would flow from a wound.
“God,” Jesus prayed with both immediacy and eternity in view, “if there is any way this cup of horrible suffering and death can pass me by for now, let it. If not, I’ll face what I must to remain true to the message I’ve taught and preached.” Well, you know the rest. If not, come back around Easter time, and I’ll tell you.
I may be just a speck in the vastness of eternity, but I am a speck; and a speck can make an impact. Here is Oscar Wilde without a barb: “Love is not written on paper, for words on paper can be erased. Nor is it etched on stone, for stone can be broken. But it is inscribed on a heart, and there it shall remain forever.”