Jude 21: keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. (NKJV)
I was talking with my beautfiul wife the other day about eternity. Sometimes the whole idea of forever just takes over my mind and I get consumed with trying to comprend it.
Just as surely as I spend some time trying to grasp the idea of “eternity”, it naturally turns my mind towards what heaven will be like, bringing on a sense of incredible expectation. Likewise, it forces me to think about the reality of hell and face a shuddering fear considering what hell will be like including the most scary fact of all: that no one who chooses hell (yes, people choose hell by rejecting the gracious and free gift of eternal life offered freely to every person that has ever existed) will ever, ever, ever ever ever get out, escape or get a second chance. More about that tomorrow when we talk about an eternal hell.
Today we’re going to take a look at just the idea of eternity itself. Tomorrow we will look at eternal hell and then a final lesson about an eternal heaven.
It seems kind of ridiculous to try and teach a lesson on the concept of eternity when the fact is “eternity” is outside of finite human understanding. We cannot fully understand it, grasp it or communicate it. The best we can hope to do is give a glimpse of it, attempt to describe it in part and perhaps give examples that give us some sort of sense that eternity is “however long we can imagine added to infinity”.
Eternity is defined in the English dictionary as:
- the state of being
- infinite time
- the state after death
- a seemingly endless or an immeasurable time
About the best I can come away with that definition is how I feel sitting at the Department of Motor Vehicles waiting for my drivers license to be processed. A Bible dictionary adds:
- existing at all times
This begins to take us more in the right direction. The problem is as humans we can more easily grasp what may exist forever into the future because we understand the idea of something coming into being that did not previously exist. In other words, it’s a little easier (but not truly possible) for us to understand that we could be created and then exist forever although we don’t in reality have an authentic understanding of what “forever” actually is. We just know that it goes on a long, long time into the future, way beyond what we know to be the longest period of time we can conceive.
It is much harder for us to grasp the idea of eternity past. The idea that something or someone has always existed and was never created, never had a starting point, never had a beginning… is an idea that is simply beyond human understanding. I mean think about it really. Picture your mind right now how God has existed in the past for as long as a period of time that you can possibly think of. It will probably be a number that is well beyond your true ability to grasp but since we throw around words like millions, trillions and google so easily today, it gives us a false sense that we actually can conceive of these types of quantities. For example, it would take the average human 30 years counting quickly for 24 hours a day, seven days a week to count to one billion. A trillion is one thousand billion taking a human 30,000 years of non-stop counting to achieve. Nevertheless let’s say that you can think in your mind that God has existed for one trillion times one trillion times one trillion times a trillion trillion trillion years.
In light of eternity, that amount of time isn’t one day closer to the amount of time that God has truly existed because no matter how big that number is, God has existed for that long, times that long again, times that long again, times a trillion times that long again, and even then you haven’t lessened the time that God has existed by a fraction of a second.
See what I mean? When you really seriously think about eternity past it is just something we are incapable of truly understanding and yet it makes it no less true. Now what about eternity future? Again, it seems a little easier for us to get a hold of because we don’t have to juggle with the idea that there wasn’t a starting point.
We tend to think of eternity as having starting point “A” and moving on a straight line that never ends. Humans are limited in understanding eternity because we are trapped inside of the reality of “time” (more on that in just a minute). So we can only try to contemplate and comprehend the idea of eternity within the framework of “time”. Here’s a little analogy I heard somewhere, can’t remember when or who, that goes a long ways in helping us to understand just how eternal eternity really is.
Picture with me a bird, a sparrow. This sparrow flies over to a child’s sandbox in your backyard. He digs up one grain of sand and begins to fly up into the air towards the moon. Pretend that he is capable of flying out of our atmosphere and through space, nonstop without ever taking a rest. Our little sparrow flies past the moon, past Mars, through the asteroid belt beyond the eye of Jupiter and through the rings of Saturn all the way to Pluto. He drops a grain of sand on to Pluto and begins the return flight home.
Once arriving back home he takes a second grain of sand and begins the same journey back to Pluto. Over countless billions of years our tireless little bird transports what would be little more than a small pail of sand back-and-forth to the farthest planet. Now imagine that he must empty the entire sandbox one grain of sand at a time. When he is done with the sandbox he must fly a couple of miles over to the local beach and remove every grain of sand one by one by one. When he’s finished with that beach the poor little guy then flies across the ocean to the Sahara Desert and must strip the entire desert of sand one grain at a time and deposit it on the planet Pluto.
When that sparrow is done, he will not be one grain of sand closer to lessening the time of eternity by one second. No matter how many times you multiply this scenario by what ever incomprehensible numbers you can verbalize, you will still have not scratched a day out of eternity.
Now that kind of example may just leave you completely bewildered and even less able to really stop and think about eternity but I think it’s important and beneficial for us to engage in this type of mental exercise. In doing so, we not only increase our anticipation and gratefulness towards God for offering us the gift of eternal life but we also fire up and instill a healthy fear of the alternative: an eternity in hell that never ends. More about that tomorrow.
The Bible doesn’t speak about “eternity” as such, but more assumes the fact of eternity and applies it to eternal life or death, the immortality of humans and angels, and the attributes of God. When speaking of eternal life or death, we find the Greek word:
- aionios: without beginning and end, that which always has been and always will be; without beginning; without end;never to cease;everlasting.
This clearly makes the ideas of annihilation or the doctrine of purgatory (punishment with a second chance for eternal life) outside the bounds of Scripture. When the Bible says “eternal” speaking of life or death, that is exactly what it means regardless of whether or not we can grasp it or come to understand its essential fairness (in other words, there are those who think it is “unfair” that God will eternally punish; we’ll discuss that tomorrow).
To begin to understand eternity, it is helpful to be absolutely clear about what is eternal. God is eternal past and future. Angels and humankind are eternal future. The universe in this present state is neither past eternal nor future eternal. The new creation will be eternal future. All things except God had a beginning, a starting point. All things except God, the angels, the new heavens and earth, and the souls of humans will have an ending point.
Looking at eternity future, God has never changed, nor will He (Hebrews 1:10-12). All angels have one of two eternities in store: the angels who rebelled will be forever punished in hell which was the original reason why hell was created (Matt 25:41); and the obedient angels will continue to serve and worship God for all eternity (Rev 4:8).
All humans have one of two destinations and no amount of man-made religion or political correctness will change that fact. Those who have accepted God’s gracious gift of eternal life on God’s terms, will spend eternity with God (Jude 21). Without exception, all humans who have ignored, rejected or replaced God’s offer of life, will buy their own choice spend all of eternity getting exactly what they wanted: life without God (Matt 25:46). However, it will be eternal life without God. We’ll talk more about that tomorrow.
Maybe you can’t comprehend ETERNITY,
but you can comprehend your options concerning it.
While we cannot come to a full understanding, and in reality maybe not much of an understanding at all of what eternity really is, we can come to a full and complete understanding of what choices we have about eternity. The exercise of trying to understand eternity helps us to be more excited and more appreciative about eternal life with God. Conversely, it also helps us to have a proper fear and dread of an eternal life absent from God.
A final thought I want to leave you with today goes back to this whole idea of “time”. The reason why we have so much difficulty grasping eternity is because we are bound inside of what physicists now know is the property of time. Just like length, width and depth, time is a physical property. We now know that time can vary within the influences of speed and gravity. Given that, we know that time is something God created as a part of the reality that we know and experience, leaving Him outside of time.
That is why it is actually a misnomer to think of God in the terms of “eternally past” and “eternally future”. In reality, God is outside of time completely and is not bound by it at all. God is not inside of time, He is not part of time and He is not constrained to moving from point A to point B like we are.
In the best analogy I can describe, that is still a pretty juvenile attempt at explaining the concept, think of God as a person who is watching a DVD movie. The person watching the movie can see the start and the finish and inside “the world” of the movie. The person watching it is unaffected by the timeline of the movie. After seeing the movie, the person knows the beginning and the end and in a sense because the DVD is all contained in one object, the viewer exists at both the start, and the finish, and before and after the movie.
It’s a lame analogy but any attempt to understand how God as outside of time is not going to be much more than lame. GOD EXISTS APART FROM TIME AS WE UNDERSTAND IT. He is equally and fully present at all points of time in our existence. To God, any given moment can be the first day of Genesis or the last day of Revelation or anywhere in between. God exists in full at all times, in places, in all ways, in all fullness.
He does not move from a starting point to an endpoint and has to “wait” for time to pass in order to be there or experience it. Being eternally existent, God has always been in both the past and the present and the future. That is why God can give us his inspired Word and have it tell us in detail hundreds of facts about the future. It’s not that He “sees” into the future and tells us about it. God is already in the future having seen it, experienced it, ordained and orchestrated it.
God is equally present and fully present at all times and at every moment both in the past and the future. He is completely outside of our concept of time and the constraints of existing in one moment of time, at one place at a time and in one reality at a time. That is why He can authoritatively declare to us the “what”, “how” and “why” about eternity.
God’s been there, done that.
This is a tough subject. I hope I haven’t lost you, or confused you. It is a topic well worth the time spent thinking about it and trying to understand it because it enhances our response to the one of two eternities that await us all: heaven or hell. Tomorrow we’ll talk about hell, and then finish up with heaven.
This is a subject that can leave you feeling like it’s just too much to deal with, so let me leave you with a summary to chew on:
The idea of “eternity” is important to think about because it gives us hope and excitement when we more fully understand what an eternity in heaven means. And it is equally important to sit and imagine the reality of “how long” eternity is so that it will develop in us the natural and appropriate dread we should feel when we contemplate an eternity of punishment and condemnation, absent from God’s love.
Lord God, help us to want to think and understand more about eternity. Help us to share with others that eternity awaits each of us in only one of two destinations. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
Application: The concept of eternity is worth our time spent contemplating it. The idea of “eternity” is important to think about because it gives us hope and excitement when we more fully understand what an eternity in heaven means. And it is equally important to sit and imagine the reality of “how long” eternity is so that it will develop in us the natural and appropriate dread we should feel when we contemplate an eternity of punishment and condemnation, absent from God’s love.
James 1:22 – But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. (NKJV)
- What is the most obvious Bible truth you have learned today?
- What change in your life needs to be made concerning this truth?
- What specific thing will you do today to begin that change?