IT IS STRANGE to find, upon reflection, that popular religious teaching and the teaching of Scripture is so often at variance, certainly so on most of the vitally important matters of human destiny. Religion builds most of its dogma on its own conception of "eternity", which is a Latin term having no equivalent in Greek or Hebrew, while Scripture is always limited to periods of Time, whether indefinite in duration or referred to in such terms as eons or ages, years, months, days and hours.
No church service would seem to be complete without some reference to "eternity", and there seems to be a general idea that humans make a choice while in this life which will determine their destiny for the duration of that unspecified period, generally taken to mean endlessness. The only Being to whom the thought of endlessness can be applied is, of course, God.
In terms of Time, man's earthly day is extremely short, limited by Scripture to some seventy or eighty years, in general, but there is a sense within every normal man which assures him, without physical proof, that his earthly life is not the total of his existence. And to God, Who IS eternal, the period between the end of man’s sojourn on earth and his resurrection, the period of death, is short indeed, for with Him one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. It would appear that, at least so far as His saints are concerned, God ignores death, for our Lord declared to His hearers that God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, was the God not of the dead but of the living, "for all live unto Him".
In using the term "eternal" in reference to God, one does so only as a concession to popular thinking, and it would be far preferable to speak of God as Timeless, for He is not only everlasting, but He is also outside Time. The name "I AM" means that to Him there is no past and no future, but an everlasting NOW; our Lord declares "Verily I am saying to you, before Abraham came into being I AM" (John 8:58).
It is generally admitted that, at all events as at present constituted, we are incapable of thinking out of time. Our thoughts refer to what is past, present, and to come. As the Duke of Argyll writes in his "Unity of Nature", we are inwardly conscious of living a life out of which we have no power whatever of even conceiving the absence of succession, nor can we discover any ultimate atom of time which is not divisible. Our clocks treat seconds like indivisible atoms of time, and pass by a jerk from one to another, but our minds refuse to admit that to be a true account of the matter, and in claiming perfect continuity claim also infinite divisibility. Time and Space have excited the curiosity of all thinking men in all ages, and in none more than in our own. Shakespeare who had a mind far more penetrating than the majority of theologians, wrote:—
"Time and the hour runs through the roughest day." (Macbeth)
That Time is real and not merely phenomenal is the necessary belief of every human being. If we admit therefore that Time is real in itself, and not merely a conception in the mind of man, let us then assume a question: Is Time endless, or does it come to an end? It is, as we have seen, successive; and it may be divided into parts. Each of these parts must have an end. If we call them ages, each age must have an end; but is the series of ages finite or infinite? It is often said that endless time is inconceivable to us. In this statement lurks an ambiguity: What is meant by "inconceivable"? Distant stars are invisible to us without a telescope, because our unaided eyes are unable to see beyond a certain distance; yet we can think of the existence of stars which we have no natural organs for seeing, and although our most penetrating telescopes cannot enable us to see them we can conceive of their existence.
In like manner we can conceive of endless Time which our minds cannot go round in thought. Defining the word "conceivable" as that which the mind can go round, endless Time and endless Space are both inconceivable by us; and yet in another sense, meaning by "conceivable" that of which we can think, so conceivable are they that the thought of them lies at the root of our conceptions of all the great truths made known to us by science.
It is said that endless Time is inconceivable; but, in a very different sense, so is an end of Time inconceivable. It is inconceivable mainly because the mind unavoidably asks: What comes after Time? If we answer, Eternity, we admit that Eternity is Time, indefinitely extended. There is no contradiction in extending the thought of Time so that our minds cannot follow it; there is a contradiction in speaking of what comes after Time is ended, and there is no reason whatever for believing that Time ever will be ended. In endless Time there is a mystery, but in Time coming to an end there is no mystery but a flat contradiction. It is not only inconceivable, but it is unthinkable. We cannot think it, and the truthfulness of God in creation forbids our believing it.
Not only is infinity conceivable by us, but it is inseparable from our most familiar conceptions, for both the great conceptions of Space and Time are in their very nature infinite. We cannot conceive of a moment after which there will be no more Space. This means that we MUST think of Space as infinite, and of Time as everlasting.
Strange doctrine has become so common that it has long ceased to be surprising and has become commonplace. There is a notion repeatedly put about, that the early Christians were expecting "the end of the world", and even mistakenly expecting it within their own lifetime. Some expositors even make out that the Apostle Paul believed it, and towards the end of his ministry found he was mistaken! These false ideas would not be worthy of mention were it not that many Christians believe them, and are thereby caused to stumble.
The answer to those who teach this is short and simple; Scripture NEVER uses the phrase "end of the world". Admittedly, bad translators do, but that is not the fault of Scripture but of the men who through their carelessness or incompetence have distorted Scripture. Those of us who possess Wigram’s “The Englishman's Greek Concordance of the New Testament" can test this by going through the occurrences of KOSMOS (world) in it. There are more than two and a half columns, and no occurrence, not even one, refers to the END of the world. It simply is not there. We are aware that the phrase occurs six times in the Authorized Version, in Matthew and in Hebrews, but in each case the word translated "World'" is aiOn, eon or age, a word not of space or of order but of TIME, and even the A. V. renders it in accord with this basic idea in most of its occurrences. Confusion is worse confounded by their rendering of SUNTELIA as "end”, for that word really means "culmination", from the word telO (finish}, not in the sense of CEASING but of ACCOMPLISHMENT. The prefix SUN (with) gives the idea of gathering all loose ends into a completed and perfected work. So this wrongly translated phrase carries the idea of a time when all the affairs of this present age, its problems and endeavors, come up together for consummation and settlement by God; the promised DAY when no more doubts, difficulties, wrongs and injustices remain unresolved, and all the mess men have made of the world shall be cleared up.
It was a sad day when the Greek word EON (a period of Time of long or short duration) and the Hebrew OLAM which has the same meaning, were translated into the Latin (and subsequently carried over into the English) by the word ETERNAL, which has the meaning "endless". Much orthodox doctrine is erroneously built up on a conception of "eternity", and thus becomes incomprehensible and terribly at variance with God's truth, since the word, still less the thought, never occurs in the Scriptures. How many evangelists, so-called, have held over the heads of their hearers the awfulness of "eternity", and the irrevocable nature of the choice that one is supposed to make in reply to the hymn, "Where will you spend eternity?” "Eternal" blessedness, “eternal" condemnation, even "eternal life" are phrases foreign to Scripture and outside God's revelation which is entirely confined to Time.
The New English Bible — that monstrosity of translation by committee and supposedly the best that modern scholarship can produce — has for the Matthew phrases we have mentioned the classic phrase "the end of time", while for the one in Hebrews 9:26 it has "the climax of history". Yet in one place, Matt. 24:3, it has more correctly "the end of the age". How this relatively accurate translation slipped in is a mystery!
Shakespeare's phrase, previously quoted, gives a very close approximation to the meaning of the phrase "the culmination of the eon", for this will be God's harvest of all that He has been achieving throughout "this present wicked eon" (Gal. 1:-4), because, wicked through it is, it is also the time for working out some of God’s highest and greatest purposes. At present there is little to show, apparently, for this process, yet in due time will come the harvest, the culmination of the eon, the consummation of all the glorious things that God is now doing, all largely hidden from sight except to the eye of faith, by the tinsel display of man's day, and his dreadful treatment of the earth over which God gave him dominion, spoiling everything he can lay hands on, poisoning even the land, the air and the water.
Curiously enough, at first glance Scripture does not refer to the culmination of man's wickedness in phrases such as those we have used, but this culmination is only part of the culmination of this eon, and the harvest of man's wickedness is only the foil to the culmination of God's purposes. For the wicked, it is a harvest of destruction and death, the desolation and ruin of a harvest that has come to nothing, of frustration or "vanity" because those who sowed were doing so for their own ends. Some would claim they were working for the glory of God and not for their own ends, but this also was failure because they did not know or trouble to find out what was God's will for mankind, so His declarations were ignored. Yet this present evil age is in accord with His ultimate purpose. This will become manifest at the consummation of all the eons when the final harvest time arrives; all that is crooked made straight, every knee bowing in the name of Jesus, to the glory of the Father.
Our Lord, and His apostles, frequently referred to future events in phrases such as "the hour cometh", or "the day will declare it", and we who enjoy the glad message of Paul's evangel are constantly reminded of our future expectations by the term "in that day". Nowhere in Scripture are we pointed, to an orthodox “ever and ever", whatever that ridiculous term is suppose to mean, nor are we asked to try and conceive of the cessation of time. The writer confesses that for some time he was puzzled by the curious verse (in the A. V.) found at Rev. 10:5, 6:
There is little doubt that this verse as translated has contributed through misunderstanding to the spread of the delusion about time. The Concordant Version at Rev. 10: 7 rightly reads: "There will be no longer a time of delay", and the Rotherham Version reads likewise: "Delay no longer shall be”. After including more of the context R. B. Withers proposed that in a very literal sense this passage would read: "And the angel swears that time will still not be; but in the days of the sound of the seventh angel the secret of God is finished also". Reading on from there, we find a further series of events in fulfillment of prophecy before the seventh angel trumpets, and after that still more prophetic events. From all this, it should be obvious that the phrase here cited does not mean "the end of time"; rather that a time of waiting has come to an end.
It has become the fashion among Christians to speak as though the apostles (and ourselves) were given the task of converting a world, pending the accomplishment of which the Lord would not return. No one seems to wish to explain this pathetic thesis, and it would be difficult to form such an explanation in view of what is stated regarding the future in the prophetic parts of the Gospels. But this ridiculous view is still widely held among professing but uninstructed Christians.
A modern scholar seeking, as usual, to explain where the Apostles had gone wrong in their thinking, writes: "They looked, so to speak, for a crisis when time should be no more". Again, as we might expect, the critic makes no attempt to explain what he means by "time should be no more", or even whether the cessation of Time CAN mean anything. If Time were to cease, everything, all motion, light, life, thought, even God Himself, would be frozen into an unalterable "NOW"; for even the thought of changing or altering involves Time. In these circumstances God, as revealed in Scripture, could not exist, for no being can love who cannot even move or think.
It is difficult to combat this widespread delusion about time as long as orthodoxy clings to the spurious term "eternity", which rolls so sonorously off a preacher's tongue, and it will not do to excuse it as meaning "endless time". As we have seen, time may well be endless, but all the revelation of Scripture deals with periods of time, ages or eons, which are not endless, since they are described as having commencements and conclusions. What has transpired and what will take place before and after the period of the ages, we do not know, for nothing is revealed regarding these matters, and speculation is bound to be foolish.
The Scriptures are full of chronology, times and eras, days and years, all in terms that the human mind can grasp, for the mental process of man cannot operate other than in periods of time. That he prefers to invent some metaphysical conception of the future cannot be laid at the door of Scripture, which so strenuously avoids leading man's thinking into realms which he is not equipped to understand, if such realms even exist.
It is true that God invariably makes His declarations in words which the human mind can grasp; it is also true that He likewise makes declarations which the human mind, in its present state of development, cannot fully understand, but He does so even then in terms which are within the orbit of rationality. He speaks constantly of the passage of time as being within days, months, years, eras and eons. He speaks of the "end of the eon", but the culmination of one age in no way precludes the opening of a further age. Paul goes far into futurity in his Prison Epistles, but even there he does not import any suggestions of an orthodox "eternity", although he ascribes glory to Christ Jesus "for all the generation of the eon of the eons” (Eph. 3:21 CV).
In that magnificent and revealing chapter (I Cor. 15) where the apostle traces out the ultimate consequences of our Lord's resurrection, we are taken step by step to the inevitable fulfillment of the Cross!
"For, even as, in Adam, all are dying, thus, in Christ also, all shall be made alive. Yet each in his own class: the Firstfruit, Christ; thereupon those who are Christ's at His presence; thereafter the consummation" (v. 22, 24).
This must mean what it says. It is not “the end” in any sense, but the completion, the final outcome, the making alive of all the remainder who have died in Adam. To attain this consummation we are told, "He must be reigning until He should he placing all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy which is abolished is death. For He subjects all under His feet" (v. 25, 27).
Does this subjection mark the end of Time and the ushering in of "eternity"? There is no hint on Paul's part of any such notion; on the contrary there is clearly marked continuity, for he concludes the passage:
"Now, whenever the universe may be subject to Him, then the Son Himself also shall be subject to Him Who subjects the universe to Him, that God may be all in all" (v. 28).
This grand consummation certainly will mark an end, not of Time, but of all the ages of Sin and Death past, present and yet to come. Of these things current theology takes little account even if, as is doubtful, it is really aware of them at all. The more popular notion seems to be centered on a second coming of our Lord resulting then in a complete restoration of righteousness to the earth, and that is usually assumed to be not only immediate but also permanent. Scripture speaks very differently, as those who study it will know.
Our Lord's presence upon this earth will come after a time of condign judgment, visions of which were given to the Apostle John and recorded by him in the Revelation. But after the return there will come the Millennium, not "eternity", limited by Scripture to a thousand years; and after that, still more time …
John Wyclif was probably the first person to translate the whole Bible into the English tongue. He was born about 1320, when the language of England was in process of formation. He commenced by translating the Revelation in 1356, and with help finished the entire Bible by 1382. He certainly lived up to his saying, "Christian men ought to travail night and day about holy writ". In his day the Greek originals of the New Testament Scriptures were almost forgotten in Europe, for the Latin Vulgate version had dominated the continent for a thousand years. In translating from the Vulgate, Wyclif never once used the expression "for ever" or "for ever and ever", and though he used "everlasting" he never used "eternal". Had the Authorized Version followed immediately after Wyclif, we should never have received the word "eternal" either, nor would the mass of false theology have been built upon it.
Quite apart from his translation, however, Wyclif has not left us in any doubt as to his views regarding future time. Among his voluminous works is the "Trialogus", which contains a dissertation on the distinction between eternity, eons, and time. He says, "It is one matter for a thing to exist always, and another for a thing to be eternal. The world exists always, and yet it is not eternal, because it is created, for the moment of creation must have a beginning, as the world had". He draws a sharp distinction between God and the world. God alone can be eternal, without change or mutation, without fore and after. The world, on the other hand, had a mutable existence and experiences a continual succession of time. Yet for the saints, and spiritual beings, he perceived a third form of existence, the AEVUM life, which we should term eonian life.
Although we know from Scripture that previous eons have had their terminations, we should be cautious about stating that there is a final end to ALL the eons; despite I Cor. 10:11 and Heb. 9:26 where we have the words "telos" and "sunteleia". The context suggests that the words imply the result, the outcome, the complete fruitage, rather than the termination of the eons.
After all, we cannot show that the eons or ages of Scripture have in every case a definite beginning and end. We speak of: the Dark Ages, the age of Shakespeare, the Byzantine age, and so on. Why must the ages of Scripture be cut and dried? Some of them no doubt have overlapped and will overlap. We cannot tell by the calendar or the clock just when the Dark Ages began or ended, and probably the ages to come will consist rather of features and phases rather than strict time periods. Some say (while rightly discarding the term "eternal") that there are only five eons in Scripture, including two yet future. But the final verse in Jude's Epistle ascribes glory to God, literally, "before the entire eon, and now, and for all the eons". And the last four words might well take in ALL INDEFINITE FUTURE TIME.
The Scriptures never mention eternity, so nor should we. Nor do they ever state that Time will end, and so far as we can see, Time will continue. And as the human mind cannot take in the fact of God's continuous existence in the past, neither can it comprehend a future endless dimension of time. Let us therefore not use terms which cannot be understood.
You can be idle for him, if so He Wills, with the same joy with which you once labored for Him.
It is clear that in whatever it is our duty to act, these matters also it is our duty to study.
Not as unto men giving pleasure, but unto God, Who proveth our hearts.
Paul to Thessalonians