Surprised by Time
Have you ever noticed how often we are surprised by the passing of time? Do you catch yourself with the familiar maxim on your mind, "Time flies!" or perhaps another version of the same: "Where did the summer go?" "I can't believe it's already September." Or maybe you recall the last time you noticed a child's height or age or maturity with some genuine sense of disbelief.
Isn't it odd to be so poorly reconciled to something so familiar, to be shocked at a universal experience? C.S. Lewis likened this phenomenon to a fish repeatedly astonished by the wetness of water. Adding with his characteristic cleverness, "This would be strange indeed! Unless of course the fish were destined to become, one day, a land animal."(1)
As we consider the idea of time itself, seconds on the clock faithfully pass even as we ponder. All the same, we recognize that time is not just a fleeting thing. As Ravi Zacharias notes, "[Time] never moves forward without engraving its mark upon the heart—sometimes a stab, sometimes a tender touch, sometimes a vice grip of spikes, sometimes a mortal wound. But always an imprint."(2) To be sure, the most profound imprints hold in our minds a definite place in history—the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, occasions of exceptional joy or beauty, moments of unusual pain. But isn't there sometimes a sense that they also hold something more? In such moments, we are touched by the reality of the thing itself, a meaning that is bigger than this very moment. We walk beyond the brush strokes of time to find a glimpse of a canvas that makes our usual view seem like paint-by-number. Some of these moments seem to hold the stirring thought that eternity will be the vantage point from which we see the big picture.
Those who challenge the notion of eternity claim that it is a human invention, like religion itself, created to soften what we do not understand, to undermine the painfulness of life, to release us from the finality of death. As scientist Carl Sagan writes, "If some good evidence for life after death were announced, I'd be eager to examine it; but it would have to be real scientific data, not mere anecdote...Better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy."(3)
Even as I give this quote some thought, my mind returns to the crematory disaster that touched the headlines across the U.S. some years ago. Few could overlook the unfathomable outrage. Over 300 bodies were carelessly discarded around the woods and lakes of the property, bodies that should have been cremated but for whatever reason were not. Deceitfully, families were handed containers holding cement or burned wood in place of a loved one's ashes. Across the nation, people commonly noted that they felt somehow violated by this act of sheer irreverence to the dead, whether they knew them or not. In fact, at the time laws against such matters did not even exist. Who would have thought them necessary? Yet few denied that these were crimes against both the living and the dead.
But why? If our origins are so humble and we are destined for nothing more, if we are merely a collocation of time and atoms and accident, why would we sense that something sacred had been desecrated? Why would we be astonished at such a treatment of the dead if life itself is nothing permanent?
I think we are outraged because quite certainly, something substantial was trampled on indeed. In a lifetime, we see countless glimpses of it. We remember sacred moments in time, and we understand human life to have intrinsic dignity and worth, even when our philosophies say otherwise. Note that no one asked the names, occupations, race, or accomplishments of any of the victims. Our dignity is not assigned because of who we are, nor worth due to something we have accomplished.
The Christian story makes the very robust, central claim that humankind is significant because God is significant, the Son of God choosing not only to fashion all of creation but to become one with it, taking on humanity himself. Perhaps there is a sacredness about life and death because the eternal author of time has come so near to it. Our surprise at time's passing and our outrage at life—and death's—violation are indeed thoroughly strange, unless God is vicariously involved in both our origin and our destiny.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (Orlando: Harcourt, 1986), 138.
(2) Ravi Zacharias, The Lotus and the Cross (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2001), 16.
(3) Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World (London: Headline, 1997), 204.