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“What time is it?” Sometimes I’m asked that question by a complete stranger. It’s an easy question to answer. I just check my phone or watch, and I state the time. But no stranger has ever asked me, “What is time itself?” That’s a much more complex question to answer. On the one hand, we know what time is, because we use it every day. We start our day with an alarm buzzing, we check the clock throughout the day to be sure we’re on schedule, and we go to bed hoping we get several hours of sleep. We also know that time has a cumulative effect. Children grow up and become adults. Relationships change. Seasons pass.
On the other hand, it’s hard to know what time is, exactly. We know it involves measurement—not in spatial units such as inches or centimeters but in temporal units such as seconds and days. Yet, we can’t define time merely by how we measure it. If we did, it would be like defining a birthday cake merely by its ingredients: quantities of butter, eggs, sugar, and flour. The idea of measurement, however, must be part of the definition, because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to speak about time coherently. So, in addition to time’s being something that is measured, we could also say that time proceeds by events occurring one after another. We experience life moment by moment, not all at once. So, for the sake of defining things, we could say that time is a “nonspatial” dimension that we measure by successive moments.
It’s strange to think about time so abstractly, but it gets even stranger when we think about how that simple definition doesn’t encapsulate everything about time. For example, sometimes it can feel like time speeds up, slows down, or even stands still. What’s to account for that? Augustine of Hippo was one early thinker who considered the mystery of time:
What do we refer to more familiarly and knowingly than time? Certainly we understand it when we speak about it; we understand it also when we hear it described by another. What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to someone who asks me, I don’t know.
Like Augustine, we cannot understand time entirely. Nevertheless, we know that we are creatures made to exist in and through time. We can’t even fathom what it would mean to be strictly timeless.
The Creator of Time
Yet there is One who is timeless—God. “From everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Ps. 90:2). God made the universe, and so He created time. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). But was there “a time” before God created time? Augustine also thought about this question:
Nor did You precede time by any time; because then You would not precede all times. But in the excellency of an ever-present eternity, You precede all times past, and survive all future times, because they are future, and when they have come they will be past; but “You are the same, and Your years shall have no end.”
According to Augustine, God precedes time by His “ever-present eternity,” because He’s the very Creator of time. To be ever-present is to exist in such a state that all times are equally present. Admittedly, in describing things like this, we are a bit like fish hypothesizing about walking on the moon. The very phrase “ever-present” shows the limitations of our language. Ever and present are words that derive their very meaning from time to describe One who is strictly timeless. Theologians through the centuries have described this timelessness as God’s eternality. It’s a difficult concept to grasp given our nature as time-bound creatures.
Nevertheless, we see the eternal God operating in and through time in Scripture. He operates in a measurable, moment-by-moment fashion from the early pages of Genesis. For example, He creates the world in six days, one after the other. He establishes the sun, moon, and stars on the fourth day to help measure time: “And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years” (Gen. 1:14). God deliberates and speaks in consecutive moments, with His words following one after another: “Let us make man in our image” (v. 26). He finishes and calls everything “very good” (v. 31).
Time Is Good
In calling everything very good, God was calling time itself good. We were, like Adam, made to exist in and through time. God created Adam to think, speak, and mature in time. Adam experienced communion with God in time, and God condescended to Adam’s temporal limitedness by being with him at certain times. Part of Adam’s joy in experiencing life was experiencing time: God brought animals to Adam to see what he would call them (v. 19); Adam longed for a partner, and God gave him Eve (vv. 20–23). Adam ate fruit, spoke with God, and explored the garden.
Time, in the beginning, was a blessing. It was the arena in which Adam and Eve matured and experienced the fullness of life that God had given them. But then they fell into sin. They disobeyed God’s word. As a result, God cursed the ground. He multiplied Eve’s pain in childbearing. He reminded them of the consequence for eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil—death (Gen. 3). And so, they eventually returned to the dust: “Thus all the days that Adam lived were 930 years, and he died” (5:5).
Time Is Short
You may have noticed that God never curses time in the narrative of the fall. Time is not evil. So, what’s to account for all our anxiety, frustration, and exasperation over time? How did the fall affect time? Well, for one, like any good thing God has given us, we often misuse time. In our sin, we treat time lazily, or we try to hoard it, or we spend time doing things we shouldn’t. But more significantly, death cuts our time short by putting an expiration date on all our lives. Our time, like Adam’s, is going to run out. We experience time running out even while we’re still alive. For example, we only have so much time to get an education. We only have so much time to find a spouse, to buy a house, to have children, to spend time with our children, to save for retirement, to spend with loved ones before they die. We can do only so many things and spend so much time with a limited number of people before we, too, die. We can’t make the joys of life last. They run through our fingers like sand. “Thus all the days that Adam lived were 930 years, and he died. . . . Thus all the days of Seth were 912 years, and he died. . . . Thus all the days of Enosh were 905 years, and he died . . . ,” and so it goes on, from Genesis 5 to the present day.
Thankfully, the Bible’s pattern of death is broken in the New Testament. Matthew begins with a genealogy leading up to Jesus Christ, the Son of God. God became incarnate and lived among us. The timeless God entered time. And Jesus Christ didn’t just live—He died. We might say, “Thus all the days that Jesus lived were 33 years, and He died . . .” His time was cut short in a different way than others’ are, though. Jesus was the only perfect man to ever live, and He deserved eternal life. He died of His own accord—sacrificially—to take the punishment of death on Himself for our sake. Though His human life was cut short, He rose again to eternal life. Jesus promises this eternal life to those who put their faith in Him (John 3:16).
By placing our trust in Jesus, we receive the life for which we were originally made—to spend never-ending time dwelling with God. Though we may die if Jesus doesn’t return in our lifetime, we will nevertheless be resurrected. In the new heavens and new earth, we will eat from the Tree of Life (Rev. 22). This is a mirror image of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden before the fall (Gen. 2). They ate from the Tree of Life, and they could expect to go on living endlessly. The story of the Bible comes full circle.
So, we Christians don’t hope to escape time. Rather, we long for timefullness—an overflowing, abundant amount of time to be fully alive—to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. We experience a foretaste of that timefullness even now as we seek to redeem the time, knowing that this life is not the end. But we will experience true timefullness in the new heavens and new earth as we dwell in God’s presence forever, where our timeless God will impart to us a life that will never be cut short again.