Some Brief Thoughts on Time

Matthew Everhard
Tuesday, September 1st 2020

The Bible begins and ends with statements related to the concept of time. The first verse of Genesis includes a time marker, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” while the penultimate verse of the Bible includes a reference to time as well, “Surely I am coming soon” (Gen. 1:1; Rev. 22:20, emphasis added). The creation story in general is filled with references to time, especially in the language of day/night sequencing. The fourth day in particular focuses on the creation of celestial objects which seem to have been given purposes related to the marking of “seasons, days, and years” by God’s design (Gen. 1:14-16). At times, the Bible proceeds in a manner that seems somewhat indifferent to time. For instance, it is nearly impossible to date important events like the Flood with any certainty. And yet in other places, the Bible speaks with great specificity: “Rehoboam was forty-one years old when he began to reign, and he reigned seventeen years in Jerusalem,” (2 Chron. 12:13).

But what exactly is time, and what difference does understanding it make in terms of our relationship with God?

Definitions and Conceptual Difficulties

Defining the concept of time is easier said than done. Augustine explored these difficulties in some detail in The Confessions, Book 11.[1] What we label so precisely and casually in common modern experience (at the time of this writing it is Wednesday, July 29th, at 8:22 AM, Eastern Standard Time) is actually quite difficult to explain in so many words as a philosophical concept. Genesis 1:14-19 certainly gives us Biblical warrant to define time as the sequential relationship between the motions of extended objects in space (primarily the orbits of celestial bodies). Yet even Augustine’s incredible mind could not wrap itself around the correlation between time and motion. One rotation of the Earth is a day; and one revolution of the Earth around the Sun is a year. So far so good. But Augustine marvels over whether it is the motions themselves that constitute time, or the period of duration of the motions, or both?[2] So the best we can do to calculate time as a unit of precise measurement is to compare the various motions of the Earth, Moon, and Sun in three dimensional space to one another.

I think the best starting place from which to define “time” would be to simply say that Time is the relationship between that which has already been, that which is now, and that which is yet to come. When we narrow the scope of the larger concept of sequencing to the simpler framework of past, present, and future, we are now talking about the three well-known “aspects” or “perspectives” on time. This too presents some conceptual problems, however, since time is relative to the viewpoint of the observer. The crucifixion of Christ, for instance, was a future event from the perspective of Isaiah, a present reality to Mary Magdalene, and past history from our own point of view. And yet it is the same event, fixed to a particular moment (another vague term) in history.

Augustine, still struggling to make sense of how motion corresponds to periods of duration, defines time as “extension,” but extension of what, he is not sure. Not only that, but both past and future do not seem to exist in any meaningful way, he says. They have no “where” in which to be located. He concludes that they really exist only in the mind; the past as memory (memoria), and the future as expectation (expectatio). They exist fundamentally in the mind only as recall and foresight respectively. The present is the most real, as it consists of contuitus, that is, direct living experience.

Where time begins to boggle the mind is in its apparently elastic properties. The past seems to grow constantly as days and years move from the future, to the present, to the past. The future too would seem to be infinite given the reality of what the Bible calls “eternity,” (or “everlasting life”), and yet it appears to lose ground to the present and past. It is diminished constantly without ever diminishing. How can this be? The present is the most mysterious perspective of all, however. It is infinitesimally small, with only one fractional instant truly qualifying as “now” in any given point in the larger sequence. The moment I say the word “now” it disappears and slips into the past. It is already gone.

The elasticity of time can be pictured visually in the appropriate metaphor of an hourglass. The bottom represents the grains of sand that have already fallen (the past); the top section those which are yet to fall (the future). The very middle is where the mystery takes place: the future is somehow squeezed through a rather small shaft, and falls onto the pile of the past; perhaps just a grain of sand at a time. This narrow shaft represents what we call “now” or “the present.” But just how large are these instants, these moments? Can these too be measured or subdivided? Can a whole year ever be truly present, Augustine asks? Or a week, or an hour? These discrete units of time seem to subdivide and split into past and future, and not even a second (technically speaking) can be fully present as it passes through the sieve. It seems to me that the present is nearly, if not actually, infinitesimally small. It appears to have no “extension,” defying Augustine’s own definition that time is an extension of duration. The question of whether the present has any real actuality is too profound for this short article.

Applications and Practical Uses of Time

Philosophy aside, the elasticity of time is a practical matter. Namely in this: time appears to proceed at a different pace depending on our experience and enjoyment. I noticed this property first when I was in elementary school: gym class seemed to fly by, while math class dragged on “forever.” Now, at age 43, I feel like I am Spiderman in the scene where the webbed hero tries to hold back the out-of-control passenger train with every muscle in his body before it runs off the track and into the harbor. I desperately want my life to slow down. As my children grow up before my very eyes, I wish often that time would caramelize and flow more thickly, like molasses. Ironically, the more we enjoy time, the faster it seems to slip through our fingers.

Scripture speaks of time as something that can be used for the glory of God, and yet can also be squandered. “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time” (Col. 4:5). The Proverbs are filled with sage advice for those who would seek to invest it wisely (Pr. 3:2; 9:11; 28:16; 31:12), while numerous passages warn us against the wasting and abuses of time (Pr. 10:27; 15:15). In response to his plea, God gave Hezekiah fifteen more years of life, a treasure to be used purposefully for the glory of God (see 2 Kings 20:6; Isaiah 38:5). Time then can be viewed as a precious commodity that can be either savored and invested or pilfered and wasted. Since the rest of us are not given a guarantee of any number of years, we must live and exist without knowing how many grains of sand are in the upper chamber of our hourglass. However many grains of sand are yet to fall for us are known only to God, for He alone numbers our days and years (Psalm 139:16). Hezekiah’s outstanding exception aside, the rest of us can do nothing to “add a single hour to his life span” (Matt. 6:27; Luke 12:25).

Given these realities, it makes sense, then, that we should do our best to make the following applications related to time:

First, receive it as a gift. It was not too long ago that I did two funerals in the same week. The first was for a woman in our congregation who lived to be one hundred years old. The second was for an infant child that died on the same day she was born. The juxtaposition of these two funerals gave me a stark perspective on God’s Lordship over time. Some people live to see many generations, others are apparently cut short before they reach the prime of life. God alone is both Lord of time and eternity, and has the divine prerogative to appropriate these gifts as He wills. From a human perspective there would seem to be things that we can do to extend our time (eating right; exercising etc.), but the reality is that all time is the gift of God to His finite creatures, and no amount of right living can extend the natural life beyond the boundaries determined and fixed by God.

Second, enjoy the time given by enjoying god. Whatever time we are given, should be devoted to the enjoyment of God. While it is true that those who enjoy their days and years do so at the expense of time’s relative elasticity (remember: joy causes time to appear to move faster), it is far worse to waste the singular and only life that we are given. A number of Biblical texts stress the idea of the enjoyment of God and the time He graciously allots us, but this theme rises to a place of ultimacy in the book of Ecclesiastes: “Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot.” And again, “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.” (Ecc. 5:18 and 9:9, cf. 2:24; 6:6). It seems to me then that enjoying time is best done by rejoicing in the Eternal God.

Finally, live in view of eternity. We should live our lives in view of the dawning onset of eternity. I freely admit that I do not know how time elapses either from the perspective of God or from the perspective of the saints in Heaven. One thing that we can be sure of however is that we will one day come face to face with the end of our allotted time on earth and the onset of eternity in Heaven or Hell. When thinking on Hell, remember the principle of time’s elasticity – dread seems to make time torturously long to the observer, and this problem is compounded infinitely by the presence of damning suffering. Conversely, Heaven’s joys and pleasures will be an experience of time’s flight in which we finally do not have to fear that it will pass by too quickly due to our heightened consciousness of joy. Time simply will not “run out” there.

It seems best to me then to live in a manner modeled after Jonathan Edwards in his early Resolutions; conscious of both time and eternity. He wrote, “Resolved, to live with all my might while I do live.” And in another place, “Resolved, never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I possibly can.” And one more time, “Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if I expected it would not be above an hour, before I should hear the last trump.”

Dr. Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Gospel Fellowship PCA, just north of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Unknown: The Extraordinary Influence of Ordinary Christians and A Theology of Joy: Jonathan Edwards and Eternal Happiness in the Holy Trinity. He is currently writing a book on Edwards’s seventy Resolutions for Hendrickson Publications.

[1] St. Augustine, The Confessions. Nelson’s Royal Classics, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1999). 252-281.

[2] For instance, suppose the only motion by which to measure time was the earth’s daily rotation. What “unit” of time would we use to measure it by? We couldn’t then say that one day is 1/365th of a year, unless we had another motion to compare it to. We could measure it by a fraction of itself (an hour) but that isn’t saying anything more than an hour is 1/24th of a day. Here, we are asking a fundamental question related to time: what does it actually consist of besides comparisons between motions?

Tuesday, September 1st 2020

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

J. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church