Time and eternity are related concepts but different. They are not, as many believe, opposite sides of the same coin, so to speak. So we naturally ask ourselves: how can we define these concepts?
If you have ever thought about it, you realize everything we understand is because we understand its opposite. What is cold? Cold is the reverse, or opposite of hot. And high? It is what is not low. Wide? Think of narrow. Difficult? Easy.
And so it goes.
In philosophy, this is called the via negativa – the understanding of something by what it is not. Usually thinkers incorporate this approach when speaking of God, as He cannot be compared to anything because He is above and beyond all things. So they discuss what He is not, to arrive at what He is.
Time and eternity are similar to God in that there is nothing by which we can compare them to.
Even Sir Isaac Newton, the famous scientist, described time merely as: “That which flows on uniformly.” What? Doesn’t sound like much of a definition to me. Perhaps this is because time can’t really be defined.
Einstein took it a step further when he described the properties of time in his Theory of Relativity. But he was looking at time from the standpoint of scientific explanation, not philosophical explanation.
Let’s see what the wisest man who ever lived had to say about time:
“He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.” Ecclesiastes 3:11
In wisdom, Solomon ushered God into His discussion of time, recognizing God as the author. He understood God’s sovereignty over the ordering of events. In the first 8 verses of Ecclesiastes Chapter 3, he lists a series of events time was designed to explain. Time, in this sense, is a way of measuring life.
But Solomon also speaks of eternity, only in a different way.
In the dictionary, eternity is defined as “unending time”, but actually this is a shabby definition. Eternity is not explained by time; it is altogether something else. This is a broad discussion for another time (pun intended), but for now, let me just say that eternity is not a quantity of anything. Eternity cannot be a quantity of time, for eternity is endless, infinite, and beyond the comprehension. Time, on the other hand, is measurable, and quantifiable.
In a word, time and eternity do not define each other. Time appears to be a part of eternity, but in no way is eternity interpreted by time.
Let me point out here an important fact: the only reason I or anyone else cares to discuss the concept of time or eternity is that God gave us an ability to care. We have eternity in our heart. It lingers in our mind, in our innermost being, prodding us as we try to comprehend all that which is not apparent through empirical analysis.
We as humans are forever seeking the beyond. There is an ultimate, and we know it, and we want it. But in our limited daily experience, we realize there is no achieving it. It is accessed in some other way, and what is that way???
THIS IS THE GREAT QUEST! From the beginning of time, man has sought to understand the eternal, the transcendent. Thousands of years of searching and still he searches.
Humans are confined in the limitations of time while traversing this life on earth. We measure things by it, we identify things by it. But we are eternal, so nothing in the limitations of time will ever be satisfactory to us!
So if you ever wonder why the passing of time and the shortness of time brings pain, and there is forever a strain on our hearts, a longing for the ultimate, the transcendent, just know it is like the wise sage said:
God has set eternity in our hearts, and we will never find rest until we find rest in the One who is eternity itself: the Lord God Almighty.