Time and Eternity

Before pursuing these reflections, we need to consider a more theological objection that has been raised to talk of a future life beyond death. Put crudely, the objection is this: if God's eternity is thought of in non-temporal terms, it does not make sense to think of our eternal life, that is, our participation in God's eternity, as life after death. For 'after' is undeniably a temporal term.

The question of how seriously, indeed how literally, we should take the word 'after' in talk of life after death is a highly controversial topic. Nicholas Lash and I debated this issue in several issues of The Heythrop Journal for 1978 and 1979. According to Lash, resurrection and eternal life are best understood, not as a further, subsequent, unending span of temporal existence bestowed on us by God, but as our whole finite, contingent life story being affirmed, in all its inner transfigured significance, by God's creative love. Indeed, each finite life is held to be, eternally, an expression of God's creativity, and, as such, itself of eternal significance. Against this view I argued that, if eternal life means our bounded temporal existence being experienced from the standpoint of God's eternity, then we, as subjects, appear to slip out of the picture. There is no hope of our own conscious participation in the life of the world to come. I also pointed out that Lash's view contains no solace whatsoever for the millions of thwarted and truncated human lives that create such problems for theodicy. To this last point, Lash had little of substance to reply. To the first point he replied that he had not meant that, in resurrection, our earthly life is experienced eternally by God alone. Rather, it is experienced by us from God's eternal standpoint. But it was hard to conceive what this might mean if it could not be given cash value in terms of something new, something richer, something more rewarding for us than what had gone before. A fortiori, it was hard to make sense of Christ's Resurrection on such a view.

Lash's position was premised not only on the conviction of God's timeless eternity, but also on the conviction of the inherently bounded nature of our finite temporal life span. But Christian theology puts a question mark against both these premises. It challenges the kind of secular anthropology that confines human life within the boundaries of birth and death. And, as was shown in chapter 3, the doctrine of God's timelessness is itself the subject of criticism in much systematic and philosophical theology today. In the Heythrop Journal debate, I concentrated on the point that, if God has created a temporally structured universe, he must relate himself to it in a mode appropriate to its temporality, not only now but in the future. On any view, the future of creation has to be reckoned with. But, if God's own eternity is itself to be rethought in terms of sempiternity or primordial temporality, then there is all the more reason to think in terms of a future consummation to his creative project.

It is strange that a number of leading process theologians, despite their conviction of the temporality of God, have tended to follow Whitehead in holding the future to consist in the retention ofall value in the mind ofGod. Thus, for Charles Hartshorne and Norman Pittenger, immortality is God's remembrance of the achieved values of a person's life.16 This involves a very strong and positive sense of God's 'memory'; but, even so, it is hard not to agree with Hick that this is hardly a doctrine of our new life beyond death.17

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