Time and Eternity
A Biblical Study
Chapter One

by G.T. Stevenson


The past century of biblical studies has been marked by the increasing importance of the historico-critical approach and method. This means that the student seeking revealed truth must endeavor to gain knowledge of the background of circumstances, customs, beliefs and aspirations of the inspired writer and his contemporary readers. In recent years much fresh light has been thrown on the biblical records by archaeological discoveries and scientific research into the languages, cultures, religions and general environments of the Semitic peoples, about whom, among whom, and to whom the O.T. (and much of the N.T.) was written; yet it is still difficult to gain release from the process of reading the scriptures with a predetermined background of inherited Greek philosophy, medieval dogma, and youthful indoctrination. This is particularly true regarding the biblical concept of time. Thus in his valuable book 'Christian Doctrine of History' (Edin. 1957) John MacIntyre wrote,

'What we regard as the Biblical view of time and history can only by anachronism be said to be that of the Biblical writers themselves, yet that is the anachronism of which so many of our contemporaries are guilty'. (p. 5-6).

Further, much modern thought is based upon a tacit acceptance of the idea of some evolutionary process in nature and humanity. Throughout the Bible there is evident an awareness of a developing process in time; but this is seen as involution, a purposeful movement toward a goal - the Kingdom of God - that "far off divine event to which the whole creation moves' the 'TELOS' or 'sunteleia' or end-purpose of the ages of probation, discipline, preparation, and 'salvation history', to which the patriarchal covenants, apocalyptic prophets, N.T. writers, and Jesus himself pointed.

In contrast with the Grecian static view of history, time bound within a constantly repeated cyclic pattern (a concept common to much oriental religious thought) from which mortals might obtain release only by escape into timelessness, Hebraic thought is dynamic, empirical, realistic; that is, secondary causes are short circuited and events attributed directly to God Who is seen as immanent and active in history and therefore in time. This Hebraic linear concept envisages continuous progress toward a future consummation. (I Cor.15:28).

There is also the problem of the relationship between 'time' and 'eternity'. The usual practice in discussing biblical topics is to use these terms as if everyone knew the precise meaning of each, when in fact no on seem able to define either, nor state the relationship in terms universally acceptable. Still our common usage seems to imply that we do have some general ideas which arise from experience in respect to time, and regarding eternity, develop from our envisaging either some infinite extension of temporality or a negation of it.

Some scholars hold that in the Scriptures there is evidence of a concept of endless extension of time both before and after the aeons covered by history and predictive prophecy. Others think of eternity as timelessness, a sort of everpresent NOW.

While the idea of endless extension of time baffles our finite comprehension, as does spatial infinity, that of timelessness seems logically untenable. It appears almost axiomatic that awareness of time arises from sequence of events. It is related to movement and change. If the whole universe stood still, time, or our perception of it, would cease. To try to conceive how time is related to the Deity may be futile, but certainly that God exists in endless stagnant inertia but rather the reverse.

However it is possible that the biblical terms for time periods were not meant to extend beyond the ages covered by history and predictive prophecy, the writers describing events, processes, and purposes within these bounds. Eternity itself may not have been a topic or concept within the scope of their thinking.

Actually there is no scriptural example of eternity and no direct reference to the concept in terms such as 'I shall tell you about eternity' or 'Eternity is like this or that'. This does not mean that the idea of future duration unending is absent; but just as in English it appears to be impossible unequivocally to express the notion of 'eternal' and 'eternity' (Latin terms for which Greek does not seem to have had exact equivalents), except by negatives, not end (Luke 1:33), immortality and incorruption (I Cor.15:53,54), indissoluble (Heb.7:16).

Whether the adjective 'aionios', derived from 'aion' an age or period of time, may ever rightly be rendered 'eternal' will be discussed in relation to its usage and contexts. A century ago, in the study of words, great importance was attached to etymology, that is to accounts of their origins. It seems obvious that, while this may be a useful staring point, it is not at all decisive for determining meaning in later contexts, and in fact one may gain a thoroughly sound grasp of the significance of a word without any knowledge at all of its origin or history, provided it is examined in enough meaningful occurrences and contexts, hence the emphasis on concordance and context in these studies.

Using the concordance of all the 448 occurrences of the Hebrew words OLAM (sing) and OLAMIM (plur.) and paying careful attention to the context in each case, the writer classified these examples into three groups:-

(a) cases where by context the period indicated by olam was limited at both its beginning and its end.

(b) passages where the periods have a known beginning but obscure end.

(c) those examples were olam, its repetition (from olam and to olam), or the plural olamim, have been regarded by some writers as indicating duration without beginning or ending and hence thought to mean 'eternal'.

An example of the method of classification by context is with regard to Gen.9:16 where the rainbow is designated the token of berith olam, an olam covenant (A.V. everlasting covenant). Since the inception of this covenant is stated as being at the recession of the flood, it had a beginning in time.

Hence it is not an eternal covenant. Further, since the rainbow results from meteorological factors - sunshine, rain cloud etc., its

continuance depends on the recurrence of these terrestrial phenomena. For how long? No one knows. Maybe while the earth remains. But the conclusion of this terrestrially oriented covenant is hidden in obscurity, hence the appropriateness of olam which in its verb form, 'alam' means 'to hide'.

Some attention must now be given to the matter of terminology and precise definitions. Much confusion has arisen from the common practice of treating 'eternal' and 'everlasting' as synonyms, no indication being given as to whether everlasting is meant to cover duration without beginning or end, or a period having a beginning in time but no ending, or one whose ending , if any, is so remote as to be lost in obscurity. When people speak of a believer in Christ having everlasting life, do they mean life without beginning or end, or having a beginning but no ending, or a quality or mode of life to which beginning and ending or even time itself have no application?

When we read in Ephesians 3:11 regarding God's 'eternal purpose' (A.V.), should we conclude that this objective will never be realized , or should we translate the Greek 'prothesin ton aionion' literally 'purpose of the ages' and hence to be accomplished in time?

So that there may be exactitude and consistency throughout the following pages 'eternal' will connote duration without beginning or ending.

It is here maintained that in the study of the Bible we should regard this concept of infinite duration as axiomatically applicable to the Deity alone, not needing to be stated and certainly incapable of proof; in the beginning or to begin with, God (Gen.1:1). God is eternal. All else is out of Him.

'Everlasting' will be used for entities that have a beginning, but are stated to have no ending. For those known to have had a beginning but whose ending or time of ending, is obscure,we shall use the word 'permanent'. A permanent building does not last endlessly, but the length of time of its existence is obscure. For periods of short duration, e.g. Jonah's incarceration, olam, "temporary' will suffice. Jonah 2:6.

The reader is requested to keep these definitions clearly in mind.

(a) God is eternal.

(b) The life received through faith is everlasting.

(c) The open eared slave (Deut.15:17 was a permanent possession.

(d) Jonah's olam was temporary.

[Return to main indexpage]