I have occasionally accused theologians of lacking the imagination of theoretical physicists.1
Take, for example, the idea of running time backwards. Some physical theories and processes have no problem with this. For example, a gamma ray decays into a positron and electron. A positron and and electron combine to become a gamma ray. This process can happen whether time is going backwards or forwards. 2
Other physical processes only work in one direction, from the present to the future. Put a tank of hot air next to a tank of cold air and open a valve between them, and they will equalize their temperatures irreversibly; you can’t go back; this process only happens when time is moving forward.
In physics, the reversible, timeless things are often quantum-sized. The irreversible, time-bound things are bigger and more in the general category that might be called ’emergent’, which is about the behaviour of lots of things together.
So: in physics, for some processes, the flow of time doesn’t matter. For other processes, it does. Let’s call the first processes ‘timeless’ or ‘eternal’. Then hand over to the theologians.
Send in the beards
Theological processes can also be divided into the timeless and the time-bound. As subjects of these processes, we get to enjoy both.
A life-changing encounter with God is eternal. That is why the apostle Paul can look both forward and back in time and see the same thing, as he does in the book of Ephesians: ‘For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight‘ and then he talks about how God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace. 3
Christ’s sacrifice for sin is eternal. John’s picture of the Lamb is ‘the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.’ (Rev 13:8) the Lamb who has ‘just been slain’ (implied in Rev 5:8) and eternally bearing the scars of his slaying when he showed his disciples his wounds.
Perhaps ‘Paradise’ is eternal. The Fall story is about Adam and Eve evicted from where they could live forever, into a realm of time and death. But on the cross Jesus promises the thief that that very day he will enter a Paradise that evidently still exists.4
- This creation, and its story, is time-bound, a long evolution.
- The formation and growth of the church is time-bound.
- History is (of course) time-bound
All of these, note, are emergent things, the sum of many things acting together.
This is wonderful. We find there is, in time, everything to play for; but at the same time, in eternity, everything is settled.
I feel the need for John Milton at this point:
Fly envious Time, till thou run out thy race, Call on the lazy leaden-stepping hours, Whose speed is but the heavy Plummets pace; And glut thy self with what thy womb devours, Which is no more then what is false and vain, And meerly mortal dross; So little is our loss, So little is thy gain. For when as each thing bad thou hast entomb’d, And last of all, thy greedy self consum’d, Then long Eternity shall greet our bliss With an individual kiss; And Joy shall overtake us as a flood, When every thing that is sincerely good And perfectly divine, With Truth, and Peace, and Love shall ever shine About the supreme Throne Of him, t’whose happy-making sight alone, When once our heav’nly-guided soul shall clime, Then all this Earthy grosnes quit, Attir’d with Stars, we shall for ever sit, Triumphing over Death, and Chance, and thee O Time.