Time and Eternity: A Christological Perspective | The BioLogos Forum

(system) #1

We are all familiar with “time” as something that colors and shapes our everyday life in practical ways. Yet the vast time scales that have shaped the evolution of the universe as a whole, and life on earth in particular, seem almost unimaginable. And what might it mean to think of God as “eternal,” somehow outside of time? This essay will examine “time” and “eternity” in order to help BioLogos readers better appreciate these important concepts from the perspective of both science and Christian faith.

To a scientist like myself time is something that can be mathematically incorporated into the equations that characterize the natural world. Furthermore, the domain across which time can be precisely measured ranges from extremely fast subatomic processes to the enormously long “deep time” of the whole universe. Science gives a coherent understanding of phenomena across this entire range spanning many “orders of magnitude,” or factors of 10, as scientists like to use. The best atomic clocks now measure time in intervals more than 34 powers of 10 shorter than the age of the universe.

Typical times of different physical phenomena measured in seconds given in powers of ten. The characteristic times for a “tick” of the best atomic clocks (10-15 s) is a million times faster than the cycle time of a computer chip (10-9 s), which in turn is a million times faster than the time of a neuron synapse for transmitting a nerve signal (10-3 s).

From a scientific perspective time is what clocks measure. A “clock” in the most general sense requires two things: first, some phenomenon that repeats, or “ticks,” at a regular rate to mark the passage of “time,” and second, a counter to keep track of how many ticks have elapsed. The motion of the earth around the sun that marks off a year is one such counter. The rotation of the earth marks off a day. In addition to these natural astronomical “clocks,” time can also be tracked by the swings of a pendulum or by the vibrations of a quartz crystal upon which a small electric voltage is imposed, as with inexpensive watches.

Time can be measured more precisely than any other physical quantity. This is illustrated by atomic clocks, the very best time-keepers we now have. What is doing the “ticking” in an atomic clock? At the atomic level the world is “quantized,” that is, an atom can only exist in a situation or state that has a very definite and precise energy, with each atom having a very special fingerprint of the particular energy “states” allowed to it. By using pulses of light to put an atom in a superposition of two such states with precisely defined energies, the overall state of the atom will oscillate at a frequency proportional to the difference in energy of the two states. By international convention, the “tick rate” or oscillation frequency of very cold cesium atoms now defines the standard second as the interval of time in which a cesium clock atom undergoes precisely 9,192,631,770 oscillations.

Work at advanced standards laboratories around the world is now directed towards developing the next generation of much more precise atomic clocks. One example that illustrates the accuracy of current measurement techniques is the strontium atomic clock, which “ticks” at a rate of 429,228,004,229,874 oscillations per second, nearly 50,000 times faster than cesium. The best strontium clocks can now measure time to a precision of about two millionths of a trillionth of a second. A clock of such accuracy would only lose about one second in the entire age of the universe. Atomic clocks are being used to test whether some fundamental properties of nature, such as the ratio of the electron and proton masses, might actually not be constant but change with time. Measurements over an interval of one year have shown that any such variation in fundamental “constants” is less than about one part in a hundred thousand trillion, that is, no detectable change so far.

We normally do not stop to ponder that the human scale of seconds or days—the “speed of life”—is situated in the middle of a power of ten picture, removed by just about as many factors of 10 from the time scales of atomic processes as from those acting on the scale of the whole cosmos. The rates of processes affecting life easily span more than 30 powers of 10. For example, let us take one thousand trillion (1015) seconds, or around 32 million years, as typical of the long time scales seen in the evolution of life on earth. By contrast, elementary chemical processes associated with life, such as changes in the distribution of electrons in a complex biomolecule after absorbing a photon of light, are routinely measured by scientists using fast laser pulses on time scales of a femtosecond (10-15 second), or one thousandth of a trillionth of a second. The incredibly fast times on which ordinary life processes occur at the molecular level should stagger our imaginations as much as the “deep time” of evolutionary phenomena.

As pointed out in my Word and Fire essays for BioLogos, obtaining the atoms of carbon and the heavier elements essential to life depends on the long-time macroscopic evolution of the universe to produce the right kind of stars in which such elements are formed. Such carbon formation depends on subatomic processes that are due to the highly specific quantized energy states of the carbon nucleus formed during very fast (less than a femtosecond) transient collisions of three alpha particles. The explosion of such stars disperse these elements into interstellar space to be recycled by future generations of stars and their planetary systems. The universe needs to be about as large as it is in space and as old in time as we observe it to be in order for us to be here as scientists to observe and understand it, given the laws of physics as we know them.

We see that natural phenomena operate across a very wide range of time scales that can be measured and understood from femtoseconds to billions of years. As Sir John Polkinghorne likes to point out, the universe has a deep, beautiful, and coherent order ranging from the subatomic to the cosmic that is accessible to our understanding. Is that significant or not? That depends on how you choose to see it.

What is the connection, if any, between this temporal world of experience and “eternity,” the domain we usually associate with God? A proper and careful understanding of the distinction between God and the world is essential if science and Christian faith are to live together fruitfully.

According to our current best science, our observable universe had its beginning in a “Big Bang” 13.8 billion years ago. The Big Bang is not situated “in time” as if some absolute “time” were flowing along in absolutely empty space and the universe suddenly appeared at some moment in time and exploded into preexisting space. Rather, the universe was born with space and time integrated into the expanding four-dimensional space-time we now describe by Einstein’s theory of general relativity. It is not meaningful to speak of time “before” the Big Bang, for time as we know it was only born with the Big Bang. Saint Augustine said pretty much the same thing about time and creation in Book XI of his Confessions, where he recognized that it is not meaningful to speak of a time “before” creation.

What Augustine and the entire Christian tradition of “classical theism” recognize is that the distinction between God’s domain of “eternity” and our temporal world is not a quantitative one where there is merely more time in “eternity” than in our finite universe, as if God were like another object in our universe, even if in some sense “outside it.” “Eternity” is not just a way of saying “a lot more time” but is something completely and qualitatively different. Rather, the domain of God is of a different order of being entirely, with an infinite gap between God and the created world.

But if God and “eternity” are in some sense infinitely removed from our familiar world of space and time, how can we possibly talk about them in sensible ways? The character of language about God and his domain of “eternity” raise deep questions that have been discussed in the Christian tradition from antiquity onward. An important scholarly paper for BioLogos by Mark Noll, taken from his book, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind,

touches on some key issues concerning God and the natural world and gives some historical Reformed and Roman Catholic perspectives. Why bring this up here? Because there are many interlinked questions buried within the question of God’s relation to the world that underlie the often tacit metaphysical assumptions that drive much of the apparent conflict between “science” and “religion” over questions related to God’s action and providence in the world or of “design” in nature.

By “metaphysical”, I simply mean those foundational assumptions that lie beyond what any science can establish but that we cannot help but have—whether by conscious reflection or intuitively through social interactions and personal experience—about the way we think the world ultimately is. Neither science nor ordinary living can do without at least a tacit metaphysics that gives a “plausibility structure” to guide how we live and act. Noll’s essay points out how metaphysical assumptions inherited from the dawn of modernity continue to color and haunt our contemporary debates. The recent exchanges between BioLogos and Stephen Meyer over intelligent design bring into view such differences over metaphysical considerations that transcend the scope of empirical science.

Noll’s essay helps us understand some crucial distinctions about how we might talk about God and eternity. Is our language univocal, where words mean the same thing when referring to God and to things in the world. Or is it equivocal, where words mean quite different and unrelated things? The Christian tradition represented by Thomas Aquinas prefers to think of words working analogically, that is, they do not bear the same way upon God and upon similar things in the world, but they bear analogically, carrying real meaning if not a complete correspondence.

Physicists face similar issues even in trying to talk about atoms. One of the founders of the modern quantum theory of atoms, Werner Heisenberg, said: “The problems of language here are really serious. We wish to speak in some way about the structure of the atoms. But we cannot speak about atoms in ordinary language.” In spite of the great understanding we have through measurement and mathematics, the quantum domain is so unlike our familiar everyday reality that no analogy from ordinary experience is fully adequate. At its deepest level, the world is remarkably subtle, both known and unknown, visible yet veiled, intelligible and “beyond.” This is the case whether we are speaking of the ways of God or of the ways of physics.

Noll’s essay rightly points to the merits of understanding history if we are to transcend a uniquely modern way of thinking about God and the world that feeds the appearance of a conflict between “science” and “faith.” Two recent books that I find quite helpful in articulating the viewpoint of the “classical theism” that undergirded Christian thinking for over a millennium and remains quite relevant today are David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God and Michael Hanby’s No God, No Science. These books are complementary, with the former accessible to most people, while the latter may be tough going for those unfamiliar with Greek philosophy and Aquinas. But both address the roots of historical and metaphysical questions that underlie contemporary discussions and conflicts over science, God, design, and evolution. And both point to constructive ways around our modern dilemmas.

The classical doctrine of creation ex nihilo is not a statement about a temporal sequence of events but rather a statement about what the world is. In “classical theism” God is not only infinitely distinct from the universe but, as the overflowing fullness and ground of all being, is intimately present and interior to everything in it. God continually sustains the universe in existence in all times and places and has his own proper mode of activity and causality with respect to the world—not as a cause-among-causes as another “being” in the universe, not even as a “supreme being.” He is something altogether different. Hanby points out that it is precisely the infinite separation of God from the world that gives science its proper freedom and independence to investigate the contingent universe without needing to bring God into the details. He points out that creation and evolution are not rivals but belong to different orders entirely, such that a “choice presented between creation and evolution, between a divine intention for the world and the world’s unfolding in its own proper freedom, is a false dilemma rooted in defective notions of God, creation, and causality.”

With this background in mind, let us keep in mind that Christian theology’s greatest resource to deal with the intersection of time and eternity—that is, the relation between God and the world—is the Incarnation, God-with-us in the flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, truly God and truly human, as articulated in the Scriptures and clarified together with a Trinitarian understanding of God by the early Creeds and Councils of the church. Thus in Christ, the “eternal” touches the “temporal,” where each aspect remains distinct and unconfused in the one person of Christ. The Incarnation provides the basic logic controlling how we understand the relation between God and the world, making visible a likeness and intimacy in the context of an ever greater and infinite difference. Thus, analogical language about God needs to respect both aspects: similarity and difference, knowledge and mystery. The intimacy requires the language of love; the difference permits the language of freedom.

The title of Mark Noll’s essay points to a promising approach: “Come and see: a Christological invitation for science.” The phrase “Come and see” resonates with the spirit of science itself and mirrors the Psalmist’s call to “Taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Psalm 34:8). The word “Christological” reminds us that any conception of the world in which the Incarnation is possible makes claims about the way the world is. And the word “invitation” expresses openness to exploration. As Christians, we need to frame the science-faith interaction keeping in mind both the rich resources of classical Incarnational theology and the beautiful and deep intelligibility of the world uncovered by the modern empirical sciences. These together support the kind of “thick” engagement between science and Christian theology encouraged by Sir John Polkinghorne.

The story of the Incarnation is a vastly better one than the story of reductive naturalism that animates the atheism of much modern “scientific” culture. The reductive story tells us that all that exists is the mindless “atoms and the void,” with the purposeless activity of the former giving rise to the mind of the scientist who discovers the broad intelligibility of an ultimately meaningless world. Yet naturalism’s story leaves no way to make sense of the scientist who not only discovers the intelligibility but is driven by a deep desire to do so. By contrast, the Incarnation reveals an intelligible world in which the scientist can be at home, a world where concepts like goodness, truth, beauty, justice, and love have real and abiding meaning. It is a world that a simple child can know through acts of love given to her but which also can be probed at great depth as scientists go about their work. Either story embodies a metaphysics that can accommodate an evolutionary universe, but no empirical “science” can provide the metaphysics. Which story one chooses ultimately comes down to vision, to seeing what is going on in the world, that is to say, a discernment or a judgment about what we are to make of the totality of lived experience.

Christian faith has nothing to fear from the sciences and can offer to the world a vision of creation that enables the whole to be intelligible—more importantly, for the knowing scientist to be intelligible to himself or herself within a whole that is full of meaning and purpose. It is a world where “eternity” touches the past, the present, and the future. We can bear witness to this Christological vision with confidence and humility in light of the intersection of time and eternity in Jesus Christ.

Additional reading:

  • Michael Hanby, No God, No Science: Theology, Cosmology, Biology (Wiley Blackwell, 2015).
  • David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (Yale University Press, 2014).
  • Mark Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Eerdmans, 2011).

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blog/time-and-eternity-a-christological-perspective

(Paul Julienne) #3

I hope this essay will stimulate the reader’s imagination regarding the depth and scope of both science and theology, and how they might relate. I will be pleased to respond to questions to the extent that I can.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #4

Thank you, Paul, for the sweeping logarithmic tour of time as we can see it from our perch somewhere near the apparent middle.

I have a somewhat technical question from a lay person’s perspective. If the flow of time is changing, how would we know it? There is an old star trek quip in the mouth of a Klingon, that “if the universe were shrinking, and our measuring rods shrinking along with it, how would any of us know?” I have the same question about our highly measured perspective of time. We could also muse that, if God were to hit a sort of cosmic ‘pause button’ for a year (or a thousand years!) stopping us and all our vibrating atoms, and then resume us all again, how would we ever know it?

More seriously though, if time were slowing down, and all our vibrating atoms (and therefore our most reliable time-measurement devices) were slowing down with it, how would we know? It used to be that planetary rotation and yearly season was considered the absolute bedrock against which crude time keeping tactics could be corrected. Now we know that earth rotation is not quite constant … as compared to vibrations of atoms as the next seemingly absolute bedrock. But against what can we check the constancy of these atoms? Is it just our confidence that the physics of vibration reveals no compelling reason to doubt their constancy?

Doesn’t our actual location on the periphery of various gravity wells relativistically slow down our time (including atomic vibrations) compared to other locations in space? You allude to these relativistic effects which reveal the nonlinear nature of space and time, also showing (I would think) that the question of constancy is no idle or merely hypothetical concern.

Thanks again for your essay, and any further interactions/answers you provide.

(Patrick ) #5

Is the universe really finite? Yes there was a beginning of space and time about 13.8 billion years ago, but the universe is now expanding faster than the speed of light and will do so until the last atom vibrates in greatly expand space. Doesn’t that make the universe eternal (infinite) in both time and in the three spatial dimensions?

(Patrick ) #6

Neither science nor ordinary living can do without at least a tacit metaphysics that gives a “plausibility structure” to guide how we live and act. Really? Please elaborate on why we can’t live and act without tacit metaphysics?

(Patrick ) #7

“to deal with the intersection of time and eternity”

Please explain what is the intersection of time and eternity.

(Paul Julienne) #8

Indeed, clocks are affected by gravity. As for its effect on time measurements, let me refer you to a news release from the lab that developed the Sr atomic clock. The best atomic clocks are so sensitive now that they oscillate at measurably different rates if they are raised or lowered by only a few inches in the earth’s gravitational field. The oscillation rate of an atom is influenced by its environment, and the best clocks have to control that environment to a very high degree.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #10


It seems to me that there is no reference to the distinction between time as chronos and time as kairos or has science done away with that distinction?

(Merv Bitikofer) #11


Thanks for the response and the link. It seems to me that all this fluidly relativistic time runs stampeding bulls through the china shop, so to speak, of precision time measurement – or at least in terms of our wanting to think in any sort of “universal time” which apparently does not exist, right? The best we can do is set up some arbitrary but useful standard of declaring that any clocks at specific altitude x and exact gravitational field y we will declare to be the standard by which all other clocks are compared.

These tiny relativistic differences from our local situations, though, are only the tip of the cosmic iceberg. Interstellar or intergalactic speed differentials probably become much more substantial. If one could find an empty spot between galaxies (where g is extremely close to zero) and that was roughly in the middle of the expanding universe, would that come closest to qualifying as anything that could, in principle, be a “universal time” standard?

(Paul Julienne) #12

Thanks to @Patrick for asking for amplification.

As for whether the universe is finite or not, science can only survey or observe a finite amount of space or time. What happens beyond that is speculation, based on some theory of model which may or may not be credible or true. We can not observe the future, although we might have a reasonable expectation of what may happen.

Much of our knowledge of the world in tacit, that is, inarticulate or intuitive, whether it has to do with how we make everyday decisions or how we do science. Scientist/philosopher Michael Polanyi has written extensively about this. It is best, of course, to make explicit any fundamental assumptions about how the world works, but if we don’t, we can not help but have implicit beliefs and assumptions that govern how we act. As I am using the term here, these are in the domain of that which is “beyond physics,” or “metaphysics.”

When I spoke of the “intersection of time and eternity,” it is a “poetic” manner of speaking intended to stimulate the reader’s imagination to think about how God and the world relate, given the story of Jesus Christ.

(Paul Julienne) #13

The brief essay did not intend to treat the scriptural and theologically important distinctions between chronos and kairos. Time studied scientifically belongs to the domain of chronos, ordinary linear time. But the sense of time as kairos is also an important one to capture. For example, the “time” in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 is kairos, quite different from “scientific” time: “To all things there is a time, and a season for every matter under heaven. A time of birth, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what has been planted …”

(Patrick ) #14

Thanks and yes, I agree that a vivid imagination is needed to relate 2015 cosmology with the stories written two to three thousand years ago.

(Paul Julienne) #15

Merv is right that we can not set up a “universal” or “absolute” time in terms of which everything else is measured. We can measure differences between two different clocks or between two different events in the universe, and we can measure time differences very accurately. Comparing clocks in different locations, such as Boulder, Colorado, and Paris or Tokyo, remains problematical, since signals have to be propagated, either through the atmosphere or through optical fiber, or one even might carry one clock to the other place. But all of these methods of comparison have limitations on how accurately it can be done. We are now up against such limits.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #16

@Paul_Julienne wrote:

“Time studied scientifically belongs to the domain of chronos, ordinary linear time.”

Thank you for that clarification. The problem I have with that is that while it works fairly well with the physical “natural” sciences, it does not work as you imply with the soft “human” sciences.

BioLogos is dealing with the intermediate middle ground between the physical world and the human world and is thus the battle ground between the soft and hard sciences. One could say that evolution introduced history to nature and science, but history is the realm of kairos, not chronos. In other words natural history is divided into eras, where different kinds of life dominate.

When science ignores history and Kairos, it misunderstands nature and reality as Darwinism has done. Time per se does not produce change. Individuals interacting in time produces change and they interact in defined patterns, rather than randomly.

Time as we know and experience it is more than chronos. It is chronos and Kairos. Scientific reality needs to be about more than the physical and more than chronos, if it wants to be universal as it claims.

Science needs to include the physical, the rational, and the spiritual, if it is the study of all of nature, which includes the physical, the biological, and the human. Evolution demonstrates that humans are a part of nature. That should be no surprise to Christians since we have always said that humans are a part of the Creation.

However since humans can think (and have meaning) they are clearly beyond the physical. That means that humans must be either supernatural, beyond natural, or nature needs to be defined as including rationality (and purpose.)

(Brad Kramer) #17

I moved 3 posts to a new topic: What is “Nature”?

(Robert J. Kurland, Ph.D.) #18


I’ll put on my scientist cap to reply to the quote above. If you replace “Science” in the quote by “knowledge” I would agree with that statement. If you maintain it to be science, I’d have to disagree. Science rests on the empirical verification of theories, couched in mathematical terms. (I’m talking here about the so-called “hard” sciences; let’s not fool with sociology, economics, etc.) As Fr. Stanley Jaki would put it: that which cannot be quantified can not be treated by science. I would bend this qualification since it dispenses with much of biology, geology and other disciplines that I regard as science, but the essential point is that of empirical, reproducible verification of theories that fit into the network of the general framework of science–a Lakatos type network if you will.
This empirical verification of scientific theories (with their consequent application to technology) is what has impressed so many and created the false impression that all knowledge can treated by the scientific method, whence “scientism”.
Although there have been many neuro-imaging experiments on the spiritual experience (see "Are we hard-wired for faith) that have correlated religious experience–prayer, meditation–with areas and functions of the brain, these do not give a fundamental insight into religion, the nature of the relation between God and man. Science cannot deal with history, because history is non-replicable. I’ll agree with your assertion that “Time as we know and experience it” is more than Chronos, as would one other scientist, the Nobel prize-winner Ilya Prigogine. But science can never claim to be universal, nor should it, because the scientific method is limited. Fr. Stanley Jaki has laid out very nicely the limits of science in his essay “The Limits of a Limitless Science”, and I can’t improve on his essay.

(Robert J. Kurland, Ph.D.) #19

A very interesting article. I’ll have to chew on it. In a related topic, the physicist Aron Wall has posted an article on his blog: God and Time III. General Relativity. There are links to his previous posts on the same general topic.
(For once my link isn’t for shameless self-promotion :wink: ).

(Patrick ) #20

I read the article by Aron Wall and although I thought I understood most aspects of SR and GR as well as how well the FLWR model of the universe fits the recent 2015 Planck CMB results, I didn’t understand what Aron was saying. Can you summaries in a few sentences, the key aspects of his arguments/theory. Thanks.

(Robert J. Kurland, Ph.D.) #21

Patrick, I’m not sure whether this will answer your question/remark, but as near as I understand it what Aron Wall is saying is that one cannot disentangle time from space-time, that there is no unique set of coordinates in current theory (with some possible exceptions that he cites). Space-time is what God created, not just space and time separately. Space-time is what is real and what is “before” for us may be "after’ for someone/something else in a different frame of reference. Now the preceding sentence applies to special relativity, but it is made even more complicated in general relativity because of the effects of mass on space-time (the squiggles in the worldlines he drew). If I don’t get to the point of what you want to know, please respond.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #22


Please note that the word Science is based on the Latin word scio, scire (Thank you, Miss Williams) which means “to know.,” so science is knowledge. We have economics, psychology, and political science, which are human sciences, as opposed to the “hard” sciences of physics and chemistry.

To dismiss the soft sciences are irrelevant means that people cannot understand themselves, which is the goal of science or knowledge.