[First published Fri Jan 20, 2006; substantive revision Thu Feb 4, 2010]
"Concepts of eternity have developed in a way that is, as a matter of fact, closely connected to the development of the concept of God in Western thought, beginning with ancient Greek philosophers; particularly to the idea of God's relation to time, the idea of divine perfection, and the Creator-creature distinction. Eternity as timelessness, and eternity as everlastingness, have been distinguished.
Following the work of Boethius and Augustine of Hippo divine timelessness became the dominant view. In more recent times, those who stress a more anthropomorphic account of God, or God's immanence within human history, have favored divine everlastingness. The debate has been sharpened by the use of McTaggart's distinction between A-series and B-series accounts of temporal sequence.
The English word ‘eternal’ comes from aeturnus in Latin, itself a derivation from aevum, an age or time. So ‘eternity’ means everlastingness. However, in the course of philosophical discussion the idea of everlastingness has been further refined, and two contrasting concepts can be denoted by it. It is usual to make the contrast clear by calling one of these ‘eternity’ or ‘atemporality’ and the other ‘sempiternity’ or ‘everlastingness'.
2. The loci classici
The richest and longest discussions of eternity have been in connection with the manner of God's life. The loci classici of this discussion, which makes the contrast between everlastingness and eternity clearer, and at the same time establishes what came to be the dominant account of eternity in western philosophy and theology, are to be found in Book XI of the Confessions of Augustine (354–430) and Book V of Boethius's (480–c.525) The Consolation of Philosophy. (The extent to which the platonism of Philo of Alexandria (c. 25 B.C.–40 A.D.), particularly applied to the idea of creation (for example, in his De opificio mundi) was influential is not clear.) However, the styles of these two thinkers are very different. Boethius presents the idea of divine eternity as straightforward and relatively problem-free, while Augustine wrestles with the idea and expresses continual puzzlement and indeed amazement at the idea of time itself and with it the contrasting idea of divine eternality.
In Boethius the contrast (which Boethius believes to be a ‘common judgement&rsquo
is drawn between timeless eternity which only God enjoys, and the sempiternity which (according to Plato) the world itself possesses.
It is the common judgement, then, of all creatures that live by reason that God is eternal.
So let us consider the nature of eternity, for this will make clear to us both the nature of God and his manner of knowing. Eternity, then, is the complete, simultaneous and perfect possession of everlasting life; this will be clear from a comparison with creatures that exist in time. …for it is one thing to progress like the world in Plato's theory through everlasting life, and another thing to have embraced the whole of everlasting life in one simultaneous present. (Boethius Consolation, V.VI.)
God has life, so eternity in this sense cannot also be possessed by abstract ideas or numbers.
God's life is ‘at once’, simultaneous. Boethius invokes this idea in order to resolve the problem of providence. If God knows beforehand what I shall do then how can I be free not to do it? His answer is that this problem dissolves in the face of the fact that God does not know anything beforehand but has an immediate, atemporal knowledge of all things. In Augustine the connection is made between divine eternity and divine fullness, and of God, existing timelessly, being the cause of all times.
What times existed which were not brought into being by you? Or how could they pass if they never had existence?
Since, therefore, you are the cause of all times, if any time existed before you made heaven and earth, how can anyone say that you abstained from working? (Augustine, Confessions, XI. xiii (15)). It is not in time that you precede times. Otherwise you would not precede all times. In the sublimity of an eternity which is always in the present, you are before all things past and transcend all things future, because they are still to come. (Augustine Confessions XI. xiii (16)).
In you it is not one thing to be and another to live: the supreme degree of being and the supreme degree of life are one and the same thing. You are being in a supreme degree and are immutable.
In you the present day has no ending, and yet in you it has its end: ‘all these things have their being in you’ (Rom.11.36). They would have no way of passing away unless you set a limit to them. Because ‘your years do not fail’ (Ps.101.28), your years are one Today. (Augustine Confessions, I. vi (10))... " http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/eternity/#pagetopright (to be continued)
Here's my simple rationale for introducing this eternity focused thread: The belief vs. the disbelief in the reality of life after physical death is, in my estimation, one of the most significant differences between the mindsets/perspectives of nearly all contributors to this spirituality forum. If there's no
"eternity": What the hell am I worried about. Be Moral. Eat, Drink and be Merry for Tomorrow We Die. And please don't bother me with your tripe about the person and claims of Christ! If there is
an "eternity", then maybe I should think again about temporal vs. eternal issues for my sake and my family's.