Time is transitory presence in contrast to eternity which is abiding presence. Since time presently coexists with eternity, man who is a creature of time has difficulty differentiating between them. The puritans spoke of eternity as an “eternal duration.” Duration, however, can be measured; but eternity is immeasurable. The dictionary defines “duration” as continuance in time or the length of time during which something continues or exists. Eternity cannot be explained by the use of a term which speaks of “the length of time.” It cannot be defined by a measurable term. If eternity were made up of what the puritans called “the extension of duration,” it would be made up of an endless succession of measurable units of time. Thus, eternity would be gradually running out of time. However, eternity can be neither shortened nor lengthened.
Martin Luther’s concept of eternity was “the whole thing at once.” Augustine has shown there cannot be a hundred present years. His illustration was that if the first of those years is now going on, it is present, but ninety-nine future years do not exist. He concluded that if the second year is going on, one is gone, another is present, and the rest are future; therefore, there cannot be a hundred present years. When one considers the factuality of this statement, he may substitute month, day, hour, minute, and second, and the conclusion is that the present has no length at all. Furthermore, one cannot speak of either past or future as having any reality. The present alone has reality, and eternity may be expressed as “the immeasurable present.”'
When God spoke of His eternality, He said, “I AM” (Ex. 3:14). If he had said, “I Was,” the meaning would be that He is not now what He was. Furthermore, if He had said, “I Will Be,” the meaning would be that He is not yet what He will be. Einstein wrestled with the problem that there cannot be a span of time, because it will not stay still long enough to measure it. Hence, the conclusion is that eternity is not time, like a rainbow, disappearing into eternity at both ends. Eternity does not flow past, or some would have already been used up. Therefore, eternity is the abiding, immeasurable present.
There is a difference between the succession of events in time and the intensity of experience in eternity. Intensity of experience will replace extensity when time ceases to exist. The word “extensity” means the quality of having extension. Psychologically, it is the attitude or sensation by which spatial (pertaining to space which also involves time) extension is perceived. The word “intensity” refers to the quality or condition of being intense. The essential quality of eternity is intensity rather than extensity. For example, to think of length as the essence of eternal life is to suppose that the reality of it is to be measured by how long it lasts. We are so conscious of our mortality that we tend to emphasize the quantitative aspect of our life in Christ, with its guarantee of victory over death. However, the qualitative aspect of our life in Christ is immensely significant. Such a life is not engineered by the persuasive eloquence that produces a mere mental assent for a period of time. (See John 10.)
The difference between extensity and intensity may be illustrated by showing the difference between life in prison and capital punishment. The intensity of capital punishment exceeds the extensity of life in prison. Life in prison is measurable, but capital punishment is immeasurable. Apply this same distinction to the death of Jesus Christ. The extensity of His human suffering on the cross lasted for three hours, but the intensity of the suffering of the infinite Person compensated for the eternity of the punishment He endured.
Man is ever seeking a better understanding of eternity and a more concise way of expressing his belief in such an infinite subject. Various ways of illustrating eternity have been suggested, but most of them are utterly inadequate.
There are some who say duration of Divine existence is from eternity, according to our finite way of understanding eternity. They state that the Divine duration must be considered as wholly permanent and the ever present “now,” and it is as incapable of division into parts as Divine existence Himself. They conclude that as the present “I Am” of Divine existence does, at once, fill heaven and earth, the present “now” of the Divine duration does, at once, comprehend all time and eternity. Duration, however, is measurable.
Some have sought to illustrate eternity with a circle because its circumference remains unchanged. One can go around the circle endlessly because there is no end. But what about the repetition of the measurable circle?
There are others who say eternity and time are not two lines, of which the shorter runs parallel for awhile with the other which extends infinitely. But eternity is the unchangeable center which sends out rays to cover the whole contour of time.
Some believe that eternity is infinity in its relation to time. They say that past, present, and future are “one eternal now” to God. There is logical but not chronological succession in God’s thoughts. Time is duration measured by successions. Duration without succession would still be duration, although it would be immeasurable. Hence, eternity is duration without beginning, existence without bounds or dimension, present without past or future, infancy without youth or old age, and today without yesterday or tomorrow.
Eternity and time differ. Time is duration measured, but eternity is not duration that is immeasurable. A study of the Biblical meaning of eternity will reveal that duration should never be used in its description. When one studies the subject of eternal life, he learns that the term is more qualitative than quantitative. It is suggested that the term “eternal” carries the idea of intensity or depth rather than extensity of length. The better way to state it is that time is transitory presence and eternity is abiding presence. The adjective “transitory” means not lasting, not enduring, not permanent, or not eternal. On the other hand, the adjective “abiding” means continuing without change or enduring.
Eternity must not be confused with time, even though both are currently coexistent. Time has both beginning and ending. But eternity has neither. Time moves from the future through the present to the past, but eternity is constant. When the future storehouse of time has passed through the present, nothing will be left to flow through the “now.” Time will have run out of time. Thus, nothing will be left but eternal constancy.
As God’s eternality must be viewed from the perspective of quality (height and depth) rather than quantity (duration that is immeasurable), the life given by God to the elect must be viewed from the same perspective. Although the elect of God are creatures of time, they either possess or shall possess life in dying bodies. Christ said, “...I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). To say that the new life begins with the new birth might seem a trite remark. But it is worse than platitude. It is half-truth. This life comes from God who is eternal life. Strictly from a human point of view, this life stretches backward into the past (II Tim. 1:9) as much as forward into the future (John 6:51). The elect to whom grace was given in Christ before the world began will live forever.
God’s eternal purpose cannot be regarded as a lifeless foreordination. Deistic ideas can arise only out of an ill-balanced and unhealthy over-concentration of the one aspect of man’s view of eternity. The eternal decree must be regarded as being as much alive and relevant today and tomorrow as it was yesterday because God inhabits eternity. If God were not eternal, there would be no eternal covenant of grace (Heb. 13:20, 21). This covenant is unilateral. The eternal God alone makes and maintains it. If God’s eternality could be mea- sured, He would not be immense, immutable, and perfect (II Pet. 3:8).
Eternal life obtained by grace is the greatest of all — qualitatively and quantitatively. The quality of this life gives it quantity. Although the believer is in this world of time, by grace he is not of this world of time. His fortune is not inexhaustible duration but eternal life, which is timeless. When the Christian passes out of time into eternity, the extensity of his experience will be replaced with intensity.