When our daughter was little, she liked her bed and she liked her sleep, and after a goodnight story we wouldn’t hear a peep out of her for a solid ten hours. Late one night, when she was about seven, she called out in a long and gut-wrenching wail. Alarmed, we shot out of the sitting room to rescue her from robbers or bears or toothache or whatever was troubling her. There she was at the top of the stairs, a cross and exhausted little figure, inconsolable, wailing “I can’t sleep. I can’t stop thinking about eternity and it just keeps going on and on and on and on! On and on and on. And it never ends.”
I’ll try not to go on and on, but I have been thinking about eternity.
In Job 36:326, the Living Bible translation, Elihu, one of Job’s false comforters says ‘God is so great that we cannot begin to know him. No one can begin to understand eternity.‘
I know that Elihu’s motives were all wrong; he was, after all, a false comforter, desperately trying to say all the ‘right’ things rather than just buttoning his lip, but he got this bit right – we can’t even begin to understand time without end. Or time without time. Hang on, that isn’t even logical….. How do we discuss something that’s invisible, silent, unknown and unfathomable? How do we discuss its absence? See how difficult it is? Shall I give up now, delete the blog and tell you about my day instead? No. I’m ploughing on.
Surprisingly, really surprisingly, there’s hardly any mention of the word ‘eternity’ in the English translation of the Bible, but the concept of eternal life runs through it like a life-giving artery, and eternity is the promise Jesus holds out to us. Eternity doesn’t just matter – it’s central, vital to our Christian walk, it’s what God made us for, to spend eternity with him.
He has made everything beautiful in its time.
He has also set eternity in the human heart;
yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.
He has set eternity in the human heart.
Here’s an amazing truth: We existed at the beginning of time, you and me. We hadn’t taken a breath – our forefathers hadn’t taken a breath – but we existed in the same way that music exists before it’s played. If I say ‘Bridge over troubled water’ or ‘The 1812 Overture’ or ‘Oceans, where feet may fail’ you almost certainly hear a melody in your mind. You become conscious of it, and so it exists, even in the silence. And when God created the heavens and the earth he knew the beginning from the end, he knew you and me and the lives we lead and the love we have for him today. We were in his knowledge, and so even then we existed. We were the song already written, waiting to be sung. Hang on, hang on – here’s a thing to chew on – the world was made with us in mind!
Jeremiah 1:5 is a go-to verse for many of us ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.’ So every one of us is an integral part of God’s plan. He knew us. He didn’t just know about us, or plan us. He knew us. When we read Genesis, we are a part of it. From the first cell, or amoeba, the first drop of lava, the first swirl of interplanetary wind (if there was such a thing) across the primordial swamp, we were always going to be His crowning act. Made in His image.
When we talk about the beginning of the world and we read Genesis, or John 1, ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God.’ it’s more than poetry – it’s history. Whether you believe that God created a fully formed Adam and fashioned woman from one of his ribs, or whether you believe that this is a wonderful metaphor, similar to the metaphors and similes of the parables, there is one thing for sure- Omnipotent God created the Heavens and the Earth. In the beginning God, our Triune God, created all things. The scientists talk about the big bang, and about the universe expanding, and I don’t fret about all that stuff. I’m quite happy with that suggestion. Why not? I read John 1 over and over again and just crow with delight at the truth of it. If there was a big bang, who created it? God. If the Universe is expanding, who is doing that great work? God. And in the act of creation, time began. Before creation, before there was matter, there was no time. Time less ness. Time is a blip, a distraction in eternity, no more. It’s of less importance than eternity, and although time is essential here in this life, marking our progress from cradle to grave, our priority and concern is eternity. Everything in this world will rot and fade or break or diminish, ignite or crumble, except for God’s word and our humanity.
It’s hard for us to come to a sort of acceptance or vague understanding of timelessness, but we can try. Do you ever suddenly, and unexpectedly, remember a place that you were in years and years ago? The other night as I was tidying the kitchen, I suddenly had the very strong and immediate memory of a corridor at my school. Out of the blue! Dunno why. The school consisted of three large houses linked by a long corridor, not a dark and winding tunnel but wide and high and airy. A corridor where voices echoed and if you stood in a certain place and called a name, that name would echo and echo and dwindle away to a whisper. For some daft reason – some blip in a tired brain – as I wiped down the work surface in my kitchen I visualised the tiled floor of that corridor, the cream walls, the double doors to what we called ‘the new building’, and I could walk in my mind up a wide curving staircase towards the cloakroom, and see beyond that the rows of handbasins, the line of loos with their grey doors… just as if I was there, and I could turn around and see the new hall, the two sets of double doors, the parquet floor stretching away. I could smell the unmistakeable smell of school. I was both back in 1964, and here in 2022, both there in Somerset, and here in Wales, and that seems to me to be a clue about the nature of timelessness, a state in which the past, the present and the future exist together in perfect truth and wholeness. Eternity is not wishful thinking, it’s as real as thought, as invisible as memory, as powerful as love. God thought the world into being, knowing the end from the beginning, so that both existed in His omniscience. His all-knowing.
When Jesus was resurrected he told us ‘Before long, the world will not see me any more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realise that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.’ We are in him and he is in us. How intimate is that? However intimate a marriage may be, it’s a poor weak copy of our intimacy with the God who made us. He knows everything, every thought, every temptation, every moment of love, there is nothing, NOTHING that can be hidden from him. That’s what makes prayer so wonderful and exhausting and challenging and sometimes a bit scarey. I’m still learning that I can be, and indeed must be, entirely vulnerable in prayer, completely dependent. Still learning that prayer is an uncovering of my soul before God, to quote CS Lewis (if you’re a regular here, you know these words already)
”We must lay before him what is in us and not what ought to be in us.” That makes prayer a hard won thing. Not easy. Not a recital, not a form of words, a stripping bare. Ouch.
Saying the right words, like poor old Elihu, or presenting our best face to God, isn’t prayer. Psalm 147 tells us ‘His understanding is infinite’. That means without bounds. There’s nothing he doesn’t and hasn’t always known. God is unchanging, there are no surprises for him, nothing we do will startle him or make him reassess the situation. Or fool him. What he knows now he knew before time began. All of it. Petrol at two quid a gallon, inflation at 10.1%, and the big things, the tragic things too, like war in Ukraine, floods and famines and children dying. And your heart and mine. He knows us inside out. We can trust him with our secrets because he knows them already and he knew them before time began. And he loves us anyway.
I don’t suppose there’s any adult reading this who hasn’t felt the terrible pain of a loved one dying. Sometimes the loss is so shattering that it changes our life completely. Everything in this world has a cost and love is no different, and we pay that cost when we lose someone, when they go ahead of us out of this world and into glory. But when a loved one dies, just as you and I are part of God, we are still part of each other. Whether we are the one left behind in this world or the one who slips away into the next, this is how it should be. No life ends too soon, and no life drags on too long. However much we miss those we love, we can rest in the knowledge that their story has been played out from beginning to end, and is perfectly complete. No-one is short changed, each story fully told.
What is eternity? Eternity is yesterday, today and next Thursday week. Eternity is beyond space and time. We were made for eternity.