As we grow in understanding of the temporal act of Christ's life, death and resurrection, the events of our temporal lives act as sign-markers for eternity.
Most of us, if we’re honest, live by the clock. The alarm sounds and we are off, watching the minutes slip by. Time-sensitive deadlines drive our days. We have appointments and meetings, we eat at a certain time, and the day ends by a certain time. Bound to our timepieces, it often seems our every moment is synchronized and controlled.
In contrast to the “objective” measures of time marking seconds, minutes, and hours, there is also a “subjective” experience of time being “fast or slow.” Another year has come and gone, and it seems for those of us who are growing older that our experience of time passes by more and more quickly. Most of us feel our vacation time as ephemeral and fleeting, while our work week plods slowly by—and yet both are marked by the same objective measurements of time. How is it that our subjective experience of time is so different from what our watches and clocks objectively mark out for us, second by second, hour by hour?
This question of our subjective experience of time is one that ancient philosophers and theologians pondered. Their philosophical and theological musings bequeathed to us many perplexities regarding the human experience of time. Saint Augustine, for example, wrestled with the fleeting character of our human temporal experience. He was rightly perplexed by the experience of apprehending the present at the moment it recedes into the past. He wrote, “We cannot rightly say what time is, except by reason of its impending state of not-being.”(1)
Regardless of the perceptual and philosophical difficulties with understanding the nature of time, what seems most crucial for human beings is the significance of events that happen in time, moment by moment, hour by hour, and day by day. Seeking to reclaim this emphasis, theologians have tried to understand the nature of time by what takes place in time—a narrative of unfolding events.(2) These theological discussions involve God’s engagement with time. Is God a wholly atemporal being, outside of time and history? Or is God genuinely engaged with time and revealed through an unfolding story of historical disclosure?
The biblical writers give witness to a God who progressively unfolds saving acts within history as they experienced them. The divine plan of salvation that Christians believe culminates in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ is called salvation history. Yet, God did not, for example, reveal every aspect of salvation to Abraham or to Moses. Instead, the biblical writers give witness to the God who works within and through the temporal events of history to reveal the plan of redemption. We see this unfolding in God’s commissioning of Moses prior to the Exodus:
“I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty (El Shaddai) but by my name ‘the Lord (YHWH)’ I did not make myself known.”(3)
Within the long ministry of the prophets as well, a God is revealed who gradually discloses what will take place. Isaiah presents the God who “proclaims to you new things from this time; even hidden things which you have not known. They are created now, and not long ago: and before today you have not heard them” (Isaiah 48:6-7).
For Christians, God’s decisive revelatory action in time is in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. While there are many glimpses, sign-markers, and hints pointing towards a messianic redeemer in the Old Testament, ultimately God chose to enter a particular time as a human being to live life among the time-bound.
The significance of those time-bound events continues into our time, and indeed into eternity. And through the unfolding of time, humans can grow in their understanding of who God is and what God has done through Jesus, the Messiah. Indeed, as Jesus spoke with his disciples, he suggested that there would be more to learn and more to reveal through the work of the Holy Spirit: “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own initiative, but whatever he hears he will speak; and he will disclose to you what is to come.“(4)
The witness of Scripture suggests that the events of our lives reveal this ongoing work of the Spirit. Sometimes, we apprehend the significance of those events in the present time. Other times, it is only through the lens of hindsight as events recede into times past that we understand God’s action. While time might move slowly for some or quickly for others, while minutes and seconds and hours are filled with appointments, meetings, and all the events that make up our time-bound existence, the Spirit invites us to look around to see how God is working through what might appear to be ordinary events in the march of time.
As each year recedes and a new one unfolds, those who follow Jesus declare that God entered time to enact the new creation in Christ’s life, death and resurrection. As we grow in our understanding of that timeless act, the events of our temporal lives act as sign-markers for eternity. And while we often see the significance of our time-bound events “through a mirror darkly,” Christians continue to live each day in hope of that time that will come when “all things are subjected to Him…that God may be all in all.”(5)
(1) Augustine, Confessions, XI, 14.
(2) Colin Gunton, cited in John Polkinghorne, Exploring Reality: The Intertwining of Science and Religion, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 120.
(3) Exodus 6:2-3, Italics mine.
(4) John 16:12-13, Italics mine.
(5) 1 Corinthians 15:28.