The Origin and Meaning of Time
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also he has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end.” Ecclesiastes 3:11 (NKJV)
Scientists and philosophers have perpetually puzzled over the origin and meaning of the created order, the space-time universe. Discussions are endless surrounding the origin of our majestic cosmos—the mind boggling microscopic world of bacteria, all the way to the wonder of animal life, and of course, human life. But perhaps the mystery of all mysteries is that of the nature and origin of time itself. Many scientists believe (as in fact, Scripture teaches) that the space-time universe came into being in the finite past at the moment of creation.
It is not my purpose here to discuss or refute the rival theories, but simply to note that this whole field of study is still today a matter of great controversy. What is time and what is its relationship to eternity? What is the infinite and what relationship does it sustain to the finite? These questions have shown themselves thus far to be insoluble for the finite mind of human beings. Indeed, this is what the wisdom literature of the Christian scriptures leads us to expect because we are dealing with the mysteries that belong to the Lord. The infinite, transcendent creator God of Scripture, whose “ways are past finding out,” who “dwells in unapproachable light,” is beyond human intellection.
This absolute personality of God, who knows Himself exhaustively, is incomprehensible to us unless He reveals Himself. Again, “no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end.” For the Christian, God’s self-revelation in Scripture must be the starting point for knowledge and our ultimate criteria for truth. And as the ultimate criteria, He cannot be “proved” by a criterion more ultimate than Himself; in such a case, He would not be ultimate.
Consequently, I cannot prove to you directly the origin and true nature of time, or inductively reason up from the facts to demonstrate the triune God of Scripture, for we may have a disagreement about the very nature of facts. Our philosophy of fact may be altogether different, that is, created by the personal God of Scripture or not. For many so-called facts are uncreated or self-created, and ultimately unrelated, emerging from an impersonal void of chaos. But what we can do here is consider some of the implications of the biblical and non-biblical view of the origin of time and examine what follows in terms of meaning and purpose—for only one view of time provides meaning and makes intelligible anything we do in time.
The Bible reminds us in the text from Ecclesiastes of the existential reality of passing moments. These moments come to us all. We have all been born; a moment will come when we will die. That is the ultimate statistic: one out of one die!
Look briefly at your wrist watch if you are wearing one. Your watch is a measure of moments, the succession of events. Already the point at which you began to read this article is history. Or, consider the quantity we call a “second.” On average, worldwide the following happens in a second: 4.5 cars are manufactured; 2,000 square meters of forest is wiped out; 3 people are born; 1.5 people die; 12.6 million cubic meters of water falls as precipitation (3.2 million of that falls on dry land). In a single second, 2.4 million red blood cells are produced in our bone marrow, and 4 billion impulses are exchanged between the cortical hemispheres in our brain. A lot happens in a second!
This succession of events we call “time.” And we have learned to measure time from small quantities—fractions of a second—to large quantities such as centuries and millennia. Yet the existential reality of time is troubling. Time seems to pursue us and hunt us down. We feel stalked by the passing years. Time, it seems to us, is running out, or rather, we are gradually passing out of the world of time. Although this reality hits home more as we grow older, reflection on it brings the same feeling whether we are teenagers or pensioners.
The movie Star Trek Generations examines one of the great themes of human existence: time and its origin, meaning, purpose, and end. A fascinating story unfolds around this mystery of time and the human desire to defeat it. The film focuses on a fictional anomaly in space called the “nexus”—a temporal ribbon phenomenon that pulls you into a reality where time is meaningless. This phenomenon can read your thoughts, so in this nexus you are placed into your ideal world to live out your dreams endlessly—an interesting heaven concept. In one portion of dialogue the captain Picard is talking with the villain Soren, who is going to destroy many lives by exploding a star, just to get back into the nexus. Soren describes time as a predator that is stalking you, closing in to make the kill, but in the nexus he says, “Time has no meaning there; the predator has no teeth.”
The origin of time
What then is time? The English Chambers Dictionary defines time as “the continuous passing and succession of minutes, days, and years.” Yet this doesn’t really tell us what time is at all; it just tells us how we have measured time. That is, what are minutes, days, and years?
Augustine once asked, “What is time? If no one asks me I know; but if any person should require me to tell him, I cannot.” Augustine was highlighting the fact that time is very difficult for us to contemplate. When we do try to think about it we are overwhelmed by a sense of the weakness of human intelligence; we cannot put this reality into words. Furthermore, we can’t sum it up with an equation. Einstein’s theory of relativity has not brought the expected breakthrough; we are still waiting to understand the real nature of time!
Time appears like a riddle to us, an inscrutable mystery. It leaves us with puzzles and paradoxes. Thus we ask, From whence did time originate? The big bang hypothesis, which, though popular, is fraught with mathematical problems solved by invoking hypothetical entities, has no explanatory power to tell us how the space-time continuum could come into existence from nothing, by blind random processes. All the laws of our physics are said to break down at the “quantum singularity.”
Yet, the origin of time is deeply significant to us all because only as we come to understand its origin can we contemplate the meaning and purpose of time and how we should use it. If all is random, irrational, and finally meaningless as some suppose, then we may just kill and waste time, for this is what time is doing to us.
Consider the following parable:
“Once upon a point of infinite density, Nothing that was Something went ‘Boom!’ Then there was Everything. Everything eventually named Something ‘Matter,’ the tragic character in our story. Sadly, Matter had no mind, yet this makes our tale all the more amazing!”
“Now matter had only one companion, the hero of our fable, a mysterious stranger of unknown origin called Chance. Chance, though blind, was a brilliant artist. Chance taught mindless Matter to paint and paint our pupil did. Matter painted a universe from center to rim on the canvas of a vacuum. And lo, innumerable galaxies emerged filled with infinite wonders, beauty, order, and life. The inspired brush strokes of ignorant Matter, guided by the hands of blind Chance, created together a cosmic masterpiece. But as Matter and Chance were working away they failed to spot out the villain called Time. Time crept in unnoticed back at the boom and was extremely wound up about being stirred from his sleep. Time determined there and then to wind down again and thus rub the masterpiece out—as soon as he got hold of that Chance! Chance, being blind, didn’t see Time coming and mindless Matter was helpless to intervene.”
“Now, Time ruins the painting little by little and brags that by Chance it’s just a Matter of Time before the canvas is blank and the boom will swoon and Everything that was Something will be Nothing again, once more upon a pointless point of infinite nothingness, with no Time for Chance to Matter anymore.”
This is one view of the origin and end of the space-time continuum. So to which authority should we go? To which view of time do you subscribe? Where should we look for the origin and meaning of time, to physics textbooks or the philosophers? Unfortunately, their observations, though at times helpful, are not far-reaching enough. Many, particularly in the scientific community, are prepared to agree today that time has not always existed—it came into existence at the creation of the universe along with space and matter. Time is therefore a created entity. This far Christian theology is in agreement.
But in the observations of everyday life, in our “naïve” realism we notice that from nothing comes nothing. We observe that effects are not greater than their cause. If we apply this line of thought to our universe and to time, does it not suggest that all space-time reality was brought into existence by one who is personal, intelligent, moral, all-powerful, and crucially outside time, that is, timeless? If we want to know about who we are and how to use our short time on this earth it stands to reason that we should seek the one who made time itself. The only alternative is to face the irrationality of the void and deny all meaning and rationality to the universe at every level.
Unlike the books of many contemporary physicists, the Bible begins, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Or, to put it another way, “In the beginning was infinite information calling the space-time continuum into existence.” Time on this basis is not an eternal cycle; it had a beginning, and it will have an end. The same is true of this world that we live in. Things are running down; we call this principle “entropy.” Yet at the same time the creation all around us reveals something of its incredible designer: the intricacy, beauty, order, complexity, and diversity of life.
As William Blake once powerfully asked,
Tiger, tiger burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
The author of the universe, the creator of heaven and earth, according to the Bible, is the God and Father of Jesus Christ (John 1:1-18). This I take on faith, on the authority of Jesus Christ. Yet this is also a rational and intelligible faith to believe that an immortal hand and eye shaped our matter-space-time universe. Further, I would argue that it is a faith of pure irrationality to surmise that blind chance is the author of it all. If that were so, the very conclusion of the irrational, impersonal thinker would itself be meaningless, having no validity. It is also worth noting that there is no known law of physics that purports creation of information out of nothing, and there is no known natural law through which matter can give rise to coded information.
In the Bible Jesus taught supernatural creation. He claimed to be the author of space and time itself (the beginning and the end) and confirmed his claims by demonstrating incredible power over the creation, from turning water into wine, to walking on water and raising the dead. In the biblical worldview, time belongs to God. As such, our time, Scripture affirms, is in God’s hands. Jesus addressed this very thing when he asked, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” (Matthew 6: 27).
We cannot extend the time we have but we can use it foolishly or wisely. In fact, Jesus taught that we can invest our time in eternity (a place where time has no meaning) or we can waste it without reference to God with real consequences for time and eternity.
If God is indeed the Lord of all time, then it has a real unity of meaning. Time has a teleology, or goal in mind. Our time is endowed with real purpose because of the all-inclusive plan of God. In seeing this, we realize a wisdom that that can help us understand the meaning and purpose of our time here on earth. As the Bible admonishes us in Psalm 90:12, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
The meaning and purpose of time
The English poet Steve Turner poignantly reminds us, “These are the good old days. Just wait and see!” Before you know it, these will be our good old days. Time waits for no one and it really is flying by. Looking at time from a perspective that excludes the God of Scripture is rather depressing. Have you ever considered that much of our life is spent trying to find something to do with the time that we rush through our lives trying to save! And when we soberly look at the question of time, our lack of it is foremost in our thoughts.
Sir Walter Raleigh, the English commander, historian, and poet wrote,
EVEN such is Time, that takes in trust,
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with earth and dust;
Who in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wander'd all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days;
But from this earth, this grave, this dust,
My God shall raise me up, I trust.
This is true to an extent, but the Bible has more to say. Jesus, in fact, affirmed that “heaven and earth will pass away” (Matthew 24:35). The apostle Paul writes, “This world in its present form is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31). History as we know it is working toward an end, and so are our days. We can’t lend, store, skip or invest time to gain more. We can’t freeze ourselves for another time (cryogenics), we can’t travel through time—it’s a one-way system!
But if our time is a gift from God, two things become true that move beyond Raleigh’s prognosis. First, our time has real significance and meaning despite physical death. And secondly, time has a new destination: eternity.
Thus, with the biblical origin of time and its destination in mind, we can begin to see why our time has real importance and significance. What you do and who you become (in time) matters to God, and it matters to other people. What we do has a real effect on people, not just ourselves.
There have been many startling and significant moments in recorded history. In more recent history, for example, certain events stand out like the Reformation, the first heart transplant in 1967, or the first steps by man on the moon (1969). These are just three events that came to my mind among the scores of others that are studied in history.
But most important of all and from which all of these derive their date is one found in Galatians 4 :4: “When the right time came God sent forth his Son.” The Bible teaches that time and eternity collided when the God-man came among us, born of a virgin. The creator of time and Lord of eternity became a human being. Humanity and divinity collided (they did not become identical), and history would never be the same again!
The ministry of Jesus the God-man focused on people’s relationship with God. He explained that the way we live in time affects our present and determines our eternity. In the box office hit Gladiator, the hero Maximus rallies his cavalry for battle and tells them, “What we do in life echoes in eternity.” Likewise, the time God gives us in the present affects not just our earthly life, but our future beyond this life. Our decisions become infinitely important. Most central of all is how we decide to respond to God and his Son Jesus Christ. When the writer of Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a time for everything, this includes God’s call to us to get our attention!
Jesus explains time’s significance in one of his many parables about time and eternity in Luke 12:16-21. Here a rich man, having set himself up for life with only himself in mind, decides to take an early retirement and live a hedonistic life, all the while presuming that his time and his money are very much his own. That very day, as he boasted in his heart of what he was going to do, God says to him, “You fool, tonight your life will be required of you, then whose will all this wealth be?”
It is so easy to disregard these issues, to live selfishly for ourselves, ignoring and spurning God. This is what this man did. He also made the fatal error of presuming upon time. He thought his time was his own; he thought it belonged to him—he was mistaken. He was rich toward himself with wealth and pleasures on earth, but he was spiritually impoverished for eternity. He was not ready for the “undiscovered country” or the jaws of death. Time had made the kill and he was unprepared.
But the message Christ came to bring was one of life now and on beyond time into eternity. He did say heaven and earth will pass away, but he added, “my words will never pass away.” What were these words? We can read them in the Gospels. For example, Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life, he who believes in me, even though he dies, yet shall he live” (John 11:25).
What is it we are to believe? Through Christ’s death upon the Cross for our wrong doing, we can find pardon and forgiveness for all our failures in time. Our consciences can be cleaned and our shame washed away, by putting our trust in Christ Jesus—trusting that he is Lord of the universe who died to bring us to God and was raised to life to give us life eternal. The Bible teaches that this is the most significant and important decision we can make in time. The author of time and the one who will bring time as we know it to an end calls us to come to him for new life. The apostle Paul puts it simply for us, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
The end of time: eternity
The British dramatist Tom Stoppard once noted, “Eternity is a terrible thought. I mean, where’s it all going to end?
This humorous quip raises a potential misunderstanding about eternity and the nature of God. God does not run by the atomic clock. He is not bound by the space-time universe He has made, so terms like past and present lose their meaning where God dwells. There is no “there” and “then” with God, only here and now. God is outside our time axis and sees the rolling ages at a single glance.
Even we can imagine looking on events that happened thousands of light years ago. A light year is a measure of distance, defined by the distance light travels in one year. If we could look through a telescope from a star 1000 light years from earth, then we could witness the events of the turn of the previous millennium. If we could travel from star to star, then we could experience a certain contemporaneousness of all past events. Yet God’s time is an eternal contemporaneousness—He sees all time as one.
Consequently, eternity is not time stretched out infinitely like a conveyor belt; rather, it is a new quality and new dimension to life that will never end. Though difficult to comprehend, we all have this sense of God and eternity somewhere in our consciousness. Again, Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us that God “has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”
Yes we are limited at this point to time; we cannot see what God sees. But we have a sense of eternity and life that goes on beyond the veil of time. Of course, eternity would not be heaven if it is without God to give it meaning and purpose and endless joy. Eternity without God is what the Bible calls hell.
But for those who trust Christ, an unspeakable gift is granted, a new quality of life: the gift of God. God Himself is the gift, the new quality that fills our lives. Those who have the Son, said Jesus, have life! It is knowing Christ and his indwelling presence that is life eternal.
The Scriptures assure us concerning heaven that “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4b). There will be no tragedy or broken hearts. And finally, there we will realize the irrelevance of death for all who believe in Christ.
Joe Boot is executive director of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Canada