Heaven is other people too
May 5, 2015
In his entertaining 'Hell's horror vs Heaven's Happiness' Mark Jones discusses time and eternity, especially time in heaven. In this brief blog I take the liberty to comment on it.
He makes the distinction between the timeless eternity of God's existence with no beginning, no ending, no succession, and time which began with the creature, having a past, present and future. To characterize the 'eternal life' available to the creature the medievals distinguish God's timeless eternity with 'aeviternity' which has duration, a beginning but no end. (It entered discussion much earlier, in fact. Boethius (480-524) distinguishes between eternity and everlastingness (which is usually referred to these days as 'sempiternity'), in The Consolation of Philosophy Book V) Mark points out that Herman Bavinck introduces the further distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic time (see, for example, Reformed Dogmatics I. 162 f.) Extrinsic time is measured by external occurrences, like the movements of the heavenly bodies. Intrinsic time seems to be our own sense of the past, present and future. 'We cannot escape the fact of intrinsic time because we are creatures'. What Mark entertains us with is may be called an essentially Bavinckian account of the creaturely eternity of heaven. So (on this occasion at least) the scholastic distinctions of Reformed Orthodoxy are left behind.
What interests me is that (following Bavinck) the Doctor of Distinctions so confidently says that extrinsic time will cease in eternity. He points out that here and now (as we say) sometimes time seems to stand still, while at other times it seems to move quickly. He says that in heaven time will fly for the redeemed because they are enjoying themselves. (I am not sure what illumination this casts on the particularities of heavenly or hellish existence, hell being the place where time drags intolerably. But we can leave that to one side here.)
But whatever is true of all that, is he not at this point not forgetting that the redeemed (and the damned?) will possess resurrection bodies, and form a society of such folk. Augustine says that the heavenly redeemed will be able to eat even though they do not need to eat. And if so then presumably someone will have to prepare the food? And some one to wash up? Will time drag for them? (How Augustine thinks he knows all this is not clear.)
On planet earth what corrects our subjective beliefs that time has dragged or speeded up to a point where it races (both of which are, after all, false beliefs, like the belief that the rails of the railroad join at the horizon, or the stick bends when it is pushed into water), are the objective regularities which surround us. In heaven, likewise, if they occur they will be corrected by the presence of the society of the embodied saints. Heaven is commonly thought to be a society of the innumerable company of the redeemed. It is not only hell that is, as Sartre said, other people.
But for Mark heaven seems to be a society of solipsistic consciousnesses. If so, he can comfort himself with the thought that he seems to be in the line of great theologians who insist on the resurrection of the body (as I presume he does) and then in their depictions or speculations of heaven can find little or no use for it! Augustine seems rather like this. He wonders whether having the vision of God means that the redeemed will nevertheless still be able to open and close their eyes at will (City of God, XXII.19). Calvin also is pretty tongue-tied when it comes to eschatological matters. He appears to have been inoculated against saying anything eschatological by the excesses of the Anabaptists.
Looking at Bavinck more closely (Dogmatics 2. 163) he says that 'essential' (or intrinsic) time is 'the measure of duration in a moveable object'. Creatures are temporal in this sense, whether in heaven or on earth. Were there no measure of time in heaven, those there could not relate ourselves to other agents there. Without the information that external checks - heartbeats, Big Ben, the vibration of quartz crystals - and their heavenly equivalents - provide, its inhabitants could not make the distinction between knowing how long they have been in the queue, and seeming to know how long. So the life of heaven cannot have as its only evidence of the true measure of time what seems to a person to be the passing of time there. But as how quickly time seems to pass is corrigible, there will in any case be no such beliefs in heaven - beliefs that need correcting - but all shall be correct the first time.