If Abbott and Costello had been philosophers rather than comedians, one could imagine their “Who’s on first?” routine morphing into “what did God do before He made the world?” Costello would spin Abbott in circles explaining how there was no time before God made the world because God made time with the world. Back and forth they would go until Costello told Abbott that God was outside of time. Exasperated with more questions than answer, Abbott would finally ask “who’s on first?” The two comedian philosophers would not be alone in puzzling over time and eternity. Even the great Christian philosopher and saint, St. Augustine’s “mind burns to solve this complicated enigma” and begged God not to “shut off and leave these problems impenetrable” (Confessions XX, XXII). He realized he was not faced with a mere intellectual abstraction but a question that had great practical consequences. After all, time is the means by which earn our wings to fly into eternity and thus grasping the relation has bearing on how we live.
Let us begin by tracing some of Augustine’s thoughts about time. Asking what time is often elicits a response akin to “I could have told you if you didn’t ask.” That is, it is so fundamental to our lived experience that we are defined by it, making defining it difficult. For this reason we should do the intellectual legwork and come to examine it.
Augustine and Time
Time, St. Augustine says, exists only in the sense that it is tending towards nothingness. What he means is that the past no longer exists and the future does not yet exist. The present, however we might measure it because of its fleetingness, has barely any duration at all and therefore has no extension. Nor is the movement of heavenly bodies time because we would know if one day the sun moved twice as fast. Heavenly bodies can be used to measure time only because they move in time. Time instead, according to Augustine, is something that is experienced as either a present of things past (in memory), a present of things present (in the eye) or a present of things to come (in the expectation of the imagination). Time is this succession from past to present to future.
Because time in its constituent elements of before and after is deeply embedded within our vision of reality, we often struggle to grasp eternity because we see it as somehow opposed to time. We see it as some duration that does not have beginning or end. This is inadequate because even if time had no beginning or end, it would still be a succession of days that embraces past, present, and future. Time is but an analogy for eternity. Plato thought that time is, in essence, the mobile image of immobile eternity. Time is like a sacrament for eternity—a tangible sign of the invisible reality that, when lived united to divine eternity through sanctifying grace, brings eternal life about.
Eternity in the theological sense is a duration without beginning and end but has no succession of either past or future. St. Thomas calls it “the now that stands, not that flows away” (ST I q.10, art2 obj 1). More accurately, eternity is not a duration but a fullness. It is the absolutely unchangeable God’s total possession of Himself—the fullness of His life.
Living within time, we are never fully ourselves. What we were as children is not the same as we are now, nor is it the same as it will be when we are older. Our life is not simultaneously whole as it consists of distinct periods so that there is never a moment in which we are fully ourselves. Not so with God. All that He is, He possesses in a single act of being. When we say that God is “outside of time” this is primarily what we mean—because God does not change, there is no time in Him.
There is a second sense in which we mean God is outside of time. If eternity is, as Boethius contends, “being simultaneously whole” and our life is not simultaneously whole then we can only view time successively. But God, being simultaneously whole sees the succession of time. He sees all of time in a single glance as man looking from a high mountain can see an entire river while the man in a boat on the river sees each twist and turn as he comes to it. This is why God knows what we do before we do it—because he can see all of time before Him—without directly causing those things to happen.
Why It Matters
This all remains terribly abstract unless we ask the question, what difference does all of this make to you and me? It makes, quite literally, all the difference in the world. Only God is eternal. Our reception of eternal life is a participated eternity by which we have an uninterrupted, unchanging vision of God that is succeeded by a love for God that is equally changeless. As Our Lord says, “this is eternal life, that they may know You and the One Whom You sent” (Jn 17:13). This participation in God’s eternity is called the beatific vision—in seeing God “as He is” (1 John 3:2) we will see all things in Him.
It is by reflecting on these truths that we can earnestly desire “eternal rest.” Locked in time, we view rest as cessation of all activity, a passive staring at God. But rest in the eternal sense is vastly different. It is a rest that can only come about when we have received the fullness of our being and nothing can be added to it. In other words, it is a rest of ceaseless activity. We see God as He is and all things in Him. We see things as God sees them and judges them. We may not be able to fully grasp what this is like here and now, but those who grow into the higher levels of prayer in this life can, like St. Paul, experience a foretaste of it in the unitive way (c.f. 2Cor 12:2).
This seeing and judging as God sees is why the saints, especially Our Lady, are such powerful intercessors for us. They can ask God for those things we are asking for, but always in a manner that is in accord with God’s will. They have fully “put on the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16). They too are “outside of time” but only in a participative sense. This means they cannot see everything, but only those things which God has allowed them to see. That is their participation is in proportion to their knowledge and love of God. This helps us to understand both why some saints are more powerful than others and why some saints are more powerful as intercessors for certain needs—grace has fully perfected their natural powers in those areas.
In closing, it is also useful to ask about how, if at all, those in hell participate in eternity. The punishment of hell is eternal in the sense that it never ends but “in hell true eternity does not exist but rather time in accordance with a certain change in sensible pain.” The awareness of before and after rather than a rest in the eternal now is a constituent element of hell. This makes the pain all the more acute because of both the remembrance and expectation. This lack of participation in eternity, by the way, is why the devils did not know who Jesus was. Angels too naturally experience a “before” and “after” but only in a discrete sense. There is “this” and then “that” with no connecting moment between the two. This is different from time and to mark the difference, St. Thomas calls it Aeviternity. So, the angels are “outside of time” but in a very different sense than God is. They truly are outside of it, not able to see the succession of it. Therefore, they cannot know the future (even if they are smart enough to make a really good guess).