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Eternity, temporality and human suffering

Monday, 3 December 2018  | Patrick Senn

Can an eternal God relate and be of any comfort to a temporal creature undergoing suffering? This is a crucial question.

For most of history, God has been understood as ‘eternal’ or ‘timeless’. While different theologians unpack this in different ways, what they share is the underlying idea that God is not subject to time as we are. Does this then mean that God is distant from us - that his eternality renders him remote from our pain and suffering?

Before I can answer these questions, I want to explore what God’s eternality actually means and how it has been classically understood.

Divine eternity

St Thomas Aquinas summarised the classical understanding of eternity as containing two key notions: 1) ‘Anything existing in eternity is unending — that is, it lacks both beginning and end’; and 2) ‘Eternity itself exists as an instantaneous whole lacking successiveness’.[1] In other words, to be eternal means to have neither beginning nor end. This is what most people have in mind when they think of something as ‘eternal’. But, just as important to the definition of eternity is that if something is eternal then it also exists apart from succession (past, present, future). It is both of these ideas together that are crucial to understanding God’s eternity.

Eleonore Stump further clarifies that ‘the concept of eternity … is the concept of a life without succession … God’s life consists in the duration of a present that is not limited by either future or past’.[2] In other words, saying that God is eternal does not mean that he is strictly timeless, or that he simply goes on forever. Rather, it is affirming that all of time — as we experience it — is present to God in one single ‘instance’.

While we exist within time and experience succession, God does not, and for this reason all of history — past, present, and future — is present to him in one single ‘now’.[3] This means that God does not ‘look back’ into the past or ‘look forward’ into the future like I would. Instead, completely unlike any creature, everything is immediately present to God.

In light of the above, is an eternal God good news? Can an eternal God relate to and comfort someone suffering? And is there any value in God’s eternality for ministers of the gospel?

Good news

As I have been working in parish ministry and taking funerals, a common thread that I have noticed in funeral ministry is the regret of people who did not spend enough time with the deceased. The sudden death of one sister leaves the sister from whom she was estranged with incredible disappointment and sorrow. The elderly mother who dies leaves her children wishing they had spent more time with her. It is in such cases that God’s eternal nature is in fact a comfort: unlike this world that is subject to time and often in grief over its fleeting nature, God stands apart from it. God does not fluctuate nor does time steal any moments from him. God is never late to anything nor does he waste time and miss opportunities. Unlike us, God is not limited by time. Rather, he is above and beyond time, and thus supremely able to save and rescue us.

Divine eternity ensures that God really is God, and not just an impressively grand being. More modern accounts of God, which explicitly depart from the classical picture, end up with such a God: a person much like us, but who also possesses some impressive attributes such as omniscience, omnipotence and so forth. However, such a God is also subject to time as we are, and so ultimately also a victim of the ills described above.

But if God transcends time, if God really is eternal, then he is not just an impressive thing alongside other smaller things and yet still a victim in the end. Rather, he truly is the transcendent Redeemer who invades this fallen age and delivers those who are captive. He can do this because he stands apart from the rest of us who suffer in our temporality; he can act ‘from without’. A drowning person can only be rescued by someone who is not drowning themselves. Far from limiting or making God distant, his eternity is precisely what allows him to draw us out from our sufferings. God is not bound within this fallen age.

Furthermore, a consequence of divine eternity is that God is more present to people than I as a minister could be. God is fully present to every moment of a life; or, better said, every moment is fully present to God in an eternal ‘now’, as we saw above. The past hurts, wounds and pains of a person, as well as their future suffering, are all fully present to God in one instantaneous moment. This means that what I try and achieve in pastoral care, being present to a person — entering their world, and communicating to them that I am abiding with them — God always, wholly, unceasingly and unfailingly does. As Eleonore Stump puts it, a human can only be present to another ‘one time slice after another’. In contrast, ‘eternal God is present at once to every time’ of a person’s life.[4]

Another consequence of divine eternity is that it rebukes any messiah-complex I may possess. A ‘messiah-complex’ refers to the mentality of ministers who think they are the sole solution to all of the problems in the church and the world. This can especially be a reality amongst new ministers. Such ministers struggle to delegate and depend upon others and instead prefer to handle everything on their own. This not only results in the neglect of team members but can also put God out of the picture. But a proper understanding of divine eternity cautions me against this. I cannot fix everything, and I cannot even be with every person in the entirety of their struggles. This is possible only for the divine, for God. God’s eternity reminds me that I am not God, and I never could even replicate his mode of presence. Nor do I have to. All I need is to point people to him.

Can an eternal God relate and be of any comfort to a temporal creature? Indeed he can. While God’s eternity is hard to grasp, especially in relation to how God relates to us personally, it is good news. Rather than rendering God distant, his eternity makes him much more present than any other temporal being ever could be. This is good news and should lead us to exclaim together with the psalmist: ‘Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it’ (Ps 139:6 NRSV).

Rev. Patrick Senn is currently Assistant Curate at Banyule Anglican Church, Victoria.

[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I q. 10 art. 1, trans. Brian Davies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). All quotations are taken from this edition.

[2] Eleonore Stump, The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers (Milwaulkee: Marquette University Press, 2016), 59. Emphasis added.

[3] See The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers, 59-61, for an analogy of how this could be possible.

[4] Eleonore Stump, The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers, 75.


Hanna Collison
January 4, 2019, 4:07PM
Could this then be the reason why ministers often do not get close to the suffering?
I feel somewhere in this one could find an ‘out’ in doing good and comforting the grieving.

I did enjoy this article and it is making much sense, thank you.
February 8, 2019, 9:41PM
Hi Patrick,

As someone whose PhD thesis was called 'The Timelessness of God', I appreciate the philosophical underpinnings of your article. And I agree with its pastoral implications.

Nevertheless, there is a foundational flaw in classical theism's appropriation of a, more or less, Platonised view on eternity-timelessness. Beginning with Augustine, Where is Jesus?, following Barth et al, with some insights via Luther, and the New Testament witness itself, the Lamb is eternal and, as such, through this Word, God is always a Shepherd who suffers with his sheep.
Christian Hofreiter
February 27, 2019, 10:12PM
Beautifully written and inspiring me to worship our eternal Saviour God. Thank you, Patrick.

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