On several occasions Mr. Alexander Thomson and I have written about the problems of time and eternity. His series of articles, now rewritten and republished as a separate booklet, "Whence 'Eternity'?" (obtainable from him, price ninepence or ten cents) is a masterpiece and must be pretty well the last word on the subject so far as its relation to the Sacred Scriptures is concerned.
Nevertheless, others have said and written so much about "eternity" which, although it is in no way related to the Scriptures, has without compunction been foisted on them, that in no other respect can the matter be regarded as settled.
The immediate occasion for this article is a paper read by Dr. Alfred T. Schofield before the Victoria Institute of Great Britain in 1927. Though so old, it is painfully up-to-date as a (compendium of error about this subject; and in one respect, at any rate, it falls into line with every discussion of this subject I have ever come across: it fails to define what its author means by "eternity" and" eternal." An old dictionary (Ogilvie's) defines the latter as "without beginning or end of existence" and "perpetual, ceaseless, continued without intermission"; and "eternity" as "duration Of continuance without beginning or end." It gives as a secondary meaning "the state or time which begins at death." How this latter can be "without beginning" is not explained. One cannot but deride so blatant a self-contradiction, which illustrates perfectly the general confusion of thought about this word.
The Oxford English Dictionary gives similar primary definitions of "eternal" and "eternity" and adds for the latter "infinite time." The only important objections to these is redundance. If every writer about this subject were to use endless for eternal and endless time or infinite time for eternity, we would all be spared enormous confusion and perplexity. But no! Again and again we find eternity spoken of as if it were something different to time and beyond and outside time; yet none of those who speak in this way ever attempt to explain what they mean by such expressions or why they give a meaning to eternity which flatly contradicts the dictionary definition. The reason for this is not hard to discover: these special ideas are meaningless.
Anyone who may feel inclined to dispute this has only to ask himself one question: What precisely does it mean to be beyond or outside time? I have yet to meet anyone who can provide an intelligible answer. Yet people continue to talk in this way, and neither Dr. Schofield nor his distinguished hearers could do any better. Instead, the report of their Proceedings makes lamentable reading. After some preliminary but quite irrelevant matter, he quotes 1. Cor. 13:12 and audaciously asserts that "now, refers to Time, and 'then' to Eternity." He follows up this assertion with a whole page of mystical thoughts, but not the slightest attempt at proof.
Next, he turns "to a consideration of Time" and adds
that" we are practically forced to associate space with it."
Here, at any rate, we can agree with him; but soon he returns
to his mysticism and provides us, at last, with his definition of eternity, which, he says, "is simply the cessation of time,or
Yet he has just said:
Then comes a gleam of truth, when he declares that aiOn
"literally does not mean eternal at all, but an age"; yet he
promptly tells us that "it is better rendered by eternal than
by everlasting. Everlasting may be used to mean eternal, but eternal never means everlasting." So bemused is he with
this odd assertion that presently
he insists that:
Another leap in the dark is his assertion that "Exod. 3:14 is the best and absolute declaration of eternity as a fact and not an idea, a concept, not a philosophic theory." This pronouncement appears to have satisfied his audience in spite of the fact that this verse does not even mention time or any word that might seem to refer to "eternity." Even if the rendering he quoted ("I am that I am") were a correct translation of the Hebrew, it would not mean what he said it means; and it is not correct. Certainly God's being has always existed and always will exist; but these are time terms and neither assert nor imply anything outside, or beyond, or above time.
The trouble with Dr. Schofield was that he was juggling, as it were, with two meanings of the word" eternity." Much of what he said was reasonable enough when referring to the word as endless time, but completely irrational when the word slipped over in his mind into something beyond time, as it kept on doing. The conjurer holds the eyes of his audience so busy watching other things that his rabbit slips into the hat unnoticed. Exod. 3:14 is not amenable to any conjuring trick of this sort, in spite of Dr. Schofield's attempts. He makes matters worse by citing Rev. 1:4 and 8 as if they were relevant and by his added comment: "Eternity is expressed to us here in terms of time." How something which he defines as "the cessation of time or change" can be expressed "in terms of time" he does not attempt to explain.
After some remarks by the Chairman, the meeting was opened to discussion; and it is extraordinary that neither he nor the ten others who expressed their views appear to have had even a glimpse of the fact that Dr. Schofield had been talking a mass of self-contradictory nonsense, though five did admit that they detected some confusion of thought. One declared that "timeless stagnation is unthinkable, at least, it does not represent the Bible view," yet nevertheless he found "eternity" in "the concluding chapters of the Book of Revelation." However, he had the wisdom to remark that Dr. Schofield "uses the term Eternity in more than one sense." At one point he thinks of God as being in a state in which there is neither time nor change; at another he seems to think of Him as effecting the change involved in coming into time. What a contradiction!
One other point, a very important one, is that if God is in a state outside time and beyond time (whatever that may mean, if anything), then He is altogether other than ourselves; so other, so different, that no bridge between Him and ourselves is conceivable. Some do believe this and thus flatly contradict the Apostle Paul's assertion in Acts 17:27-29. The price that has to be paid for such guessing is very high. If we dare to add to God's Word in any way, we surely will be forced to adjust the balance by subtracting from it elsewhere.
From this curious discussion we can draw two conclusions: that it is folly to discuss words unless we first have a clear understanding of their meaning; and that it is folly, and blasphemous folly at that, to attempt to force ideas into Scripture that are not there. The sooner we cast the words eternal and eternity out of our vocabulary the better. They are a sure sign of error.
R.B.W. Last updated 29.11.2005