Paul Julienne
 on August 24, 2015

Time and Eternity: A Christological Perspective

What is the connection, if any, between this temporal world of experience and “eternity,” the domain we usually associate with God?


We are all familiar with “time” as something that colors and shapes our everyday life in practical ways. Yet the vast time scales that have shaped the evolution of the universe as a whole, and life on earth in particular, seem almost unimaginable. And what might it mean to think of God as “eternal,” somehow outside of time? This essay will examine “time” and “eternity” in order to help BioLogos readers better appreciate these important concepts from the perspective of both science and Christian faith.

To a scientist like myself time is something that can be mathematically incorporated into the equations that characterize the natural world. Furthermore, the domain across which time can be precisely measured ranges from extremely fast subatomic processes to the enormously long “deep time” of the whole universe. Science gives a coherent understanding of phenomena across this entire range spanning many “orders of magnitude,” or factors of 10, as scientists like to use. The best atomic clocks now measure time in intervals more than 34 powers of 10 shorter than the age of the universe.

Typical times of different physical phenomena measured in seconds given in powers of ten. The characteristic times for a “tick” of the best atomic clocks (10-15 s) is a million times faster than the cycle time of a computer chip (10-9 s), which in turn is a million times faster than the time of a neuron synapse for transmitting a nerve signal (10-3 s).

From a scientific perspective time is what clocks measure. A “clock” in the most general sense requires two things: first, some phenomenon that repeats, or “ticks,” at a regular rate to mark the passage of “time,” and second, a counter to keep track of how many ticks have elapsed. The motion of the earth around the sun that marks off a year is one such counter. The rotation of the earth marks off a day. In addition to these natural astronomical “clocks,” time can also be tracked by the swings of a pendulum or by the vibrations of a quartz crystal upon which a small electric voltage is imposed, as with inexpensive watches.

Time can be measured more precisely than any other physical quantity. This is illustrated by atomic clocks, the very best time-keepers we now have. What is doing the “ticking” in an atomic clock? At the atomic level the world is “quantized,” that is, an atom can only exist in a situation or state that has a very definite and precise energy, with each atom having a very special fingerprint of the particular energy “states” allowed to it. By using pulses of light to put an atom in a superposition of two such states with precisely defined energies, the overall state of the atom will oscillate at a frequency proportional to the difference in energy of the two states. By international convention, the “tick rate” or oscillation frequency of very cold cesium atoms now defines the standard second as the interval of time in which a cesium clock atom undergoes precisely 9,192,631,770 oscillations.

Work at advanced standards laboratories around the world is now directed towards developing the next generation of much more precise atomic clocks. One example that illustrates the accuracy of current measurement techniques is the strontium atomic clock, which “ticks” at a rate of 429,228,004,229,874 oscillations per second, nearly 50,000 times faster than cesium. The best strontium clocks can now measure time to a precision of about two millionths of a trillionth of a second. A clock of such accuracy would only lose about one second in the entire age of the universe. Atomic clocks are being used to test whether some fundamental properties of nature, such as the ratio of the electron and proton masses, might actually not be constant but change with time. Measurements over an interval of one year have shown that any such variation in fundamental “constants” is less than about one part in a hundred thousand trillion, that is, no detectable change so far.

We normally do not stop to ponder that the human scale of seconds or days—the “speed of life”—is situated in the middle of a power of ten picture, removed by just about as many factors of 10 from the time scales of atomic processes as from those acting on the scale of the whole cosmos. The rates of processes affecting life easily span more than 30 powers of 10. For example, let us take one thousand trillion (1015) seconds, or around 32 million years, as typical of the long time scales seen in the evolution of life on earth. By contrast, elementary chemical processes associated with life, such as changes in the distribution of electrons in a complex biomolecule after absorbing a photon of light, are routinely measured by scientists using fast laser pulses on time scales of a femtosecond (10-15 second), or one thousandth of a trillionth of a second. The incredibly fast times on which ordinary life processes occur at the molecular level should stagger our imaginations as much as the “deep time” of evolutionary phenomena.

As pointed out in my Word and Fire essays for BioLogos, obtaining the atoms of carbon and the heavier elements essential to life depends on the long-time macroscopic evolution of the universe to produce the right kind of stars in which such elements are formed. Such carbon formation depends on subatomic processes that are due to the highly specific quantized energy states of the carbon nucleus formed during very fast (less than a femtosecond) transient collisions of three alpha particles. The explosion of such stars disperse these elements into interstellar space to be recycled by future generations of stars and their planetary systems. The universe needs to be about as large as it is in space and as old in time as we observe it to be in order for us to be here as scientists to observe and understand it, given the laws of physics as we know them.

We see that natural phenomena operate across a very wide range of time scales that can be measured and understood from femtoseconds to billions of years. As Sir John Polkinghorne likes to point out, the universe has a deep, beautiful, and coherent order ranging from the subatomic to the cosmic that is accessible to our understanding. Is that significant or not? That depends on how you choose to see it.

What is the connection, if any, between this temporal world of experience and “eternity,” the domain we usually associate with God? A proper and careful understanding of the distinction between God and the world is essential if science and Christian faith are to live together fruitfully.

According to our current best science, our observable universe had its beginning in a “Big Bang” 13.8 billion years ago. The Big Bang is not situated “in time” as if some absolute “time” were flowing along in absolutely empty space and the universe suddenly appeared at some moment in time and exploded into preexisting space. Rather, the universe was born with space and time integrated into the expanding four-dimensional space-time we now describe by Einstein’s theory of general relativity. It is not meaningful to speak of time “before” the Big Bang, for time as we know it was only born with the Big Bang. Saint Augustine said pretty much the same thing about time and creation in Book XI of his Confessions, where he recognized that it is not meaningful to speak of a time “before” creation.

What Augustine and the entire Christian tradition of “classical theism” recognize is that the distinction between God’s domain of “eternity” and our temporal world is not a quantitative one where there is merely more time in “eternity” than in our finite universe, as if God were like another object in our universe, even if in some sense “outside it.” “Eternity” is not just a way of saying “a lot more time” but is something completely and qualitatively different. Rather, the domain of God is of a different order of being entirely, with an infinite gap between God and the created world.

But if God and “eternity” are in some sense infinitely removed from our familiar world of space and time, how can we possibly talk about them in sensible ways? The character of language about God and his domain of “eternity” raise deep questions that have been discussed in the Christian tradition from antiquity onward. An important scholarly paper for BioLogos by Mark Noll, taken from his book, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, touches on some key issues concerning God and the natural world and gives some historical Reformed and Roman Catholic perspectives. Why bring this up here? Because there are many interlinked questions buried within the question of God’s relation to the world that underlie the often tacit metaphysical assumptions that drive much of the apparent conflict between “science” and “religion” over questions related to God’s action and providence in the world or of “design” in nature.

By “metaphysical”, I simply mean those foundational assumptions that lie beyond what any science can establish but that we cannot help but have—whether by conscious reflection or intuitively through social interactions and personal experience—about the way we think the world ultimately is. Neither science nor ordinary living can do without at least a tacit metaphysics that gives a “plausibility structure” to guide how we live and act. Noll’s essay points out how metaphysical assumptions inherited from the dawn of modernity continue to color and haunt our contemporary debates. The recent exchanges between BioLogos and Stephen Meyer over intelligent design bring into view such differences over metaphysical considerations that transcend the scope of empirical science.

Noll’s essay helps us understand some crucial distinctions about how we might talk about God and eternity. Is our language univocal, where words mean the same thing when referring to God and to things in the world. Or is it equivocal, where words mean quite different and unrelated things? The Christian tradition represented by Thomas Aquinas prefers to think of words working analogically, that is, they do not bear the same way upon God and upon similar things in the world, but they bear analogically, carrying real meaning if not a complete correspondence.

Physicists face similar issues even in trying to talk about atoms. One of the founders of the modern quantum theory of atoms, Werner Heisenberg, said: “The problems of language here are really serious. We wish to speak in some way about the structure of the atoms. But we cannot speak about atoms in ordinary language.” In spite of the great understanding we have through measurement and mathematics, the quantum domain is so unlike our familiar everyday reality that no analogy from ordinary experience is fully adequate. At its deepest level, the world is remarkably subtle, both known and unknown, visible yet veiled, intelligible and “beyond.” This is the case whether we are speaking of the ways of God or of the ways of physics.

Noll’s essay rightly points to the merits of understanding history if we are to transcend a uniquely modern way of thinking about God and the world that feeds the appearance of a conflict between “science” and “faith.” Two recent books that I find quite helpful in articulating the viewpoint of the “classical theism” that undergirded Christian thinking for over a millennium and remains quite relevant today are David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God and Michael Hanby’s No God, No Science. These books are complementary, with the former accessible to most people, while the latter may be tough going for those unfamiliar with Greek philosophy and Aquinas. But both address the roots of historical and metaphysical questions that underlie contemporary discussions and conflicts over science, God, design, and evolution. And both point to constructive ways around our modern dilemmas.

The classical doctrine of creation ex nihilo is not a statement about a temporal sequence of events but rather a statement about what the world is. In “classical theism” God is not only infinitely distinct from the universe but, as the overflowing fullness and ground of all being, is intimately present and interior to everything in it. God continually sustains the universe in existence in all times and places and has his own proper mode of activity and causality with respect to the world—not as a cause-among-causes as another “being” in the universe, not even as a “supreme being.” He is something altogether different. Hanby points out that it is precisely the infinite separation of God from the world that gives science its proper freedom and independence to investigate the contingent universe without needing to bring God into the details. He points out that creation and evolution are not rivals but belong to different orders entirely, such that a “choice presented between creation and evolution, between a divine intention for the world and the world’s unfolding in its own proper freedom, is a false dilemma rooted in defective notions of God, creation, and causality.”

jesus pointing toward the sky on stained glass window

With this background in mind, let us keep in mind that Christian theology’s greatest resource to deal with the intersection of time and eternity—that is, the relation between God and the world—is the Incarnation, God-with-us in the flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, truly God and truly human, as articulated in the Scriptures and clarified together with a Trinitarian understanding of God by the early Creeds and Councils of the church. Thus in Christ, the “eternal” touches the “temporal,” where each aspect remains distinct and unconfused in the one person of Christ. The Incarnation provides the basic logic controlling how we understand the relation between God and the world, making visible a likeness and intimacy in the context of an ever greater and infinite difference. Thus, analogical language about God needs to respect both aspects: similarity and difference, knowledge and mystery. The intimacy requires the language of love; the difference permits the language of freedom.

The title of Mark Noll’s essay points to a promising approach: Come and see: a Christological invitation for science. The phrase “come and see” resonates with the spirit of science itself and mirrors the Psalmist’s call to “Taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Psalm 34:8). The word Christological reminds us that any conception of the world in which the Incarnation is possible makes claims about the way the world is. And the word invitation expresses openness to exploration. As Christians, we need to frame the science-faith interaction keeping in mind both the rich resources of classical Incarnational theology and the beautiful and deep intelligibility of the world uncovered by the modern empirical sciences. These together support the kind of “thick” engagement between science and Christian theology encouraged by Sir John Polkinghorne.

The story of the Incarnation is a vastly better one than the story of reductive naturalism that animates the atheism of much modern “scientific” culture. The reductive story tells us that all that exists is the mindless “atoms and the void,” with the purposeless activity of the former giving rise to the mind of the scientist who discovers the broad intelligibility of an ultimately meaningless world. Yet naturalism’s story leaves no way to make sense of the scientist who not only discovers the intelligibility but is driven by a deep desire to do so. By contrast, the Incarnation reveals an intelligible world in which the scientist can be at home, a world where concepts like goodness, truth, beauty, justice, and love have real and abiding meaning. It is a world that a simple child can know through acts of love given to her but which also can be probed at great depth as scientists go about their work. Either story embodies a metaphysics that can accommodate an evolutionary universe, but no empirical “science” can provide the metaphysics. Which story one chooses ultimately comes down to vision, to seeing what is going on in the world, that is to say, a discernment or a judgment about what we are to make of the totality of lived experience.

Christian faith has nothing to fear from the sciences and can offer to the world a vision of creation that enables the whole to be intelligible—more importantly, for the knowing scientist to be intelligible to himself or herself within a whole that is full of meaning and purpose. It is a world where “eternity” touches the past, the present, and the future. We can bear witness to this Christological vision with confidence and humility in light of the intersection of time and eternity in Jesus Christ.

About the author

paul julienne headshot

Paul Julienne

Paul S. Julienne recently retired from his career as a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Joint Quantum Institute of NIST and the University of Maryland. He has published over 200 scientific papers on the theory of quantum processes in atomic, molecular, and optical physics.