A Brief Theology of Time

Another year is almost over, a new one about to begin. All over the world party-goers and New Year revellers will mark the moment from the Sydney Opera House to the Paris Champs Elysees, from Trafalgar Square to Times Square. But how much thought will they give to the significance of ‘time’ itself?

From the earliest times, time has been a source of fascination to our race, caught up in its flow. John Milton famously penned these words to mark his 23rd birthday:

How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth, Stol'n on his wing my three-and-twentieth year!  My hasting days fly on with full career…[1]

Stephen Hawking, the renowned Cambridge physicist has written A Brief History of Time[2] in which offers a scientific analysis of time, but in a way intended to be accessible for a lay readership.

But you don’t have to be either a poet or a distinguished professor of physics to reflect on something which is the native environment of every human being; but which, strangely, every human being senses is not the only dimension to the duration of our existence.

Therein lies the problem for us as time-bound creatures: to reflect on something that even Stephen Hawking perceives as having a beginning and an end. We can only reflect on time from within. We do not have the capacity to step outside its limitations to explore it from without.

So what we need is not just poetic musings on our experience of time, or mind-boggling hypothesizing about its possibilities; we need a theology of time. We need a perspective on time from the only being who stands outside it and who alone is worthy of the epithet ‘Time Lord’ – the God who is its creator.

It should not surprise us, therefore, that when we leaf through the pages of God’s self-revelation, we find a theology of time in what it says about God, his creation and, most significantly, about our race.

We discover from the opening pages of the Bible that the human race was – like every other creature God made – placed not merely in space, but in time and space. In the process of God’s creative activity, he made the sun, moon, stars and their movements to order the ecosystem and environment of planet earth (Ge 1.3-10, 14-19), thus making life sustainable. And the very framework in which God performed his work of creation spoke of time and its steady onward march.

Part of the uniqueness of the human creature God placed at the very pinnacle of all he had made was the fact that he/she had a consciousness of time not shared by other creatures. After the fall, God could speak to Adam in terms of ‘all the days of [his] life’ (Ge 3.17) and Adam could envisage what that would entail. And that consciousness of the speed with which a lifetime passes became a part of God’s record of the pre-patriarchal race – notwithstanding their great longevity at that time (Ge 5.1-32).

Despite the fact human beings were made with an awareness of time, there is something more to the way we have been constituted that makes us aware of eternity as a crucial dimension to our existence. We find it embedded implicitly in the account of God’s creation of man (Ge 1.26-31). Since Adam and Eve were made in God’s image and likeness, and since God is eternal, then consciousness of eternity is built into the very fabric of our humanity. And that’s what the author of Ecclesiastes notes in his reflections on life: ‘He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end’ (Ecc 3.11).

Perhaps the most concise and comprehensive theology of time found anywhere in the Bible is in the psalms. Moses, writing as an old man – possibly near the end of his 120-year life – looks back on the years he has lived, but considers them not merely in their own light, but rather in light of eternity.

He begins by acknowledging that, according to God’s purpose from the beginning and because of his promise of redemption, man’s natural habitat was always ultimately meant to be God himself. ‘Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations’ (Ps 90.1). He then goes on to acknowledge the eternity of God: ‘…from everlasting to everlasting, you are God’ (90.2). But then speaks of human mortality with the words, ‘you turn men back to dust’ (90.3),  but in a way that does two things. On the one hand it explains the reason for our mortality as being the consequence for our sin (90.7-9). Death was not what God intended for human beings, it was what Adam brought into our race by virtue of his disobedience. But, on the other hand, Moses speaks of God’s eternity and how we are touched by it as we relate to him. He is the God to whom ‘a thousand years are like a day’, yet also the God with whom we are involved throughout our journey in this life.

What is so striking about Moses’ theological musings on time and eternity is his confidence that even though he knows he is a sinner who deserves only to die, he can also pray about the future with overtones of a future that reaches into eternity. When he asks that God would ‘Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may be sing for joy all our days. Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen trouble’ (90.14-15), he is hinting at something more than just ‘make our last few days just a little bit better.’ And that comes out most fully in the closing verse: ‘May the favour of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us – yes, establish the work of our hands’ (90.17). Here was a man who, according to the book of Hebrews, was looking for ‘a better country’ and ‘a city whose architect and builder is God’ (He 11.10,16). Were it not for that God-given and God-guaranteed hope, we would descend into despair – a hope and guarantee embodied in the One through whom God secured salvation: his one-of-a-kind eternal Son who stepped into space and time by his incarnation.

All that God reveals in this concise theology of time has a very personal and practical edge to it. In the midst of all he says, Moses prays, ‘Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom’ (90.12). Only as we appreciate how quickly our days fly by – ‘faster than a weaver’s shuttle’ (Job 7.6) – that we will seek the ‘skill-to-live-by’ [wisdom] that is revealed in God’s word and focused by faith in his Saviour-Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

[1] John Milton, Sonnets no. vii

[2] Hawking, S., A Brief History of Time (Bantam Books) 1989


Mark Johnston