The Eschatological Difference between Time and Eternity

The eschatological difference between time and eternity needs to be understood in light of the tension between that which was and is, and that which is yet to come. It manifests itself in the difference between old and new time. It does not work with an extrapolation of the existing as the idea of progress does. Instead, the eschatological difference between time and eternity focuses on the new that breaks into the existing. In contrast to the quantitative difference, the eschatological distinction does not presuppose infinite continuity; it builds on daunting discontinuity instead. In contrast to the ontological difference, time is not measured in relation to its opposite (eternity) in order to ascertain what and how much it lacks with regard to complete being. Rather, eternity itself initially moves into the background, giving way to the question of what makes time old or new. Because this question cannot be answered without considering the Jesus event, this differentiation model is essentially linked to Christology, which was not at all true of the ontological model, and was only partially true of the quantitative model.

Apart from Dalferth's scheme, which has already been introduced, it seems that examples for consistent eschatological differentiations between time and eternity are more difficult to find than examples for the other two models. Nevertheless, one can recognize tendencies toward an eschatological differentiation in Karl Rahner's reflections on a theology of time. Rahner complains of the apparent lack of a theology of time.248 He is also intentional about linking his thoughts on a theology of time to a scientific pluralism,249 which makes his ideas particularly interesting within the context of this study.

The key concept in Rahner's remarks on the concept of time is the history of freedom.250 Time is the condition for the possibility of a history of freedom. The concern is not a freedom from something, but rather—in eschatological terms—a freedom oriented toward fulfillment in God. In the framework defined in this way, time must be recognized as the determination of the world, which, however, should not be confused with the statement that the world is in time.251 Transitoriness as experienced temporality is the condition of freedom. This becomes especially clear in relation to death, for there is a yearning for the end as consummation. Accordingly, manifested in death is "that towards which the will of the free person tends at its deepest and most ultimate, because this free person must seek the end of that which merely prolongs itself in time in order to achieve his consum-mation."252 Rahner considers the fear of death consistently as a phenomenon of the surface of human consciousness only, whereas at the foundation of our existence we hunger for the end of that which is unconsummated in order that consummation may be achieved.253

The history of freedom is conceived individually; it is granted to "the human existence of the individual."254 Rahner sees time as a characteristic not only of the material world, but also of "the spirit as such,"255 so that "the time inherent in material reality is not, in the last analysis, the power which dominates human history, but on the contrary remains one particular and subordinate element in the time that belongs to personal freedom."256 Thus, Rahner does not speak of a new time that transforms existing time into an old time. He misses these dynamics by choosing the distinction between the time of the spirit and the time of matter. It is therefore not surprising that Rahner finds the decisive argument for asserting the temporal finiteness of the world precisely in the human being's limited capacity for freedom:

we can and must positively assert that the time of the world is finite . . . , if, and to the extent that, we regard the time belonging to the world as the material for the finite freedom of man as related to the totality of the world. For in that case to postulate an infinitude of the world's time would imply that it was of such a kind that in principle it could not be the material of man's finite freedom in this sense.257

Against this backdrop, Rahner's premises are clear: The human being considered as an individual has precedence over nature,258 the spiritual over the material,259 and the internal over the external.260

A suspicion of Platonism is aroused here. Rahner seems to adopt a dualism that applies not only to the relationship of the personal spirit to its material environment, but also to the relationship between the history of salvation and physical time in general. The latter can then be determined only negatively, "And, this negative character, considered as a negative inherent in the time of material being, is precisely that negativity which prevents this time as such from being raised in itself to any definitive and final state of being brought to an end in this."261 For its consummation, time therefore needs an Other.

With this concept, however, Rahner is at the same time far removed from a concept of time as an absolute, constantly and uniformly flowing given. "Manifestly, time is not a modality which is present in a univocal sense everywhere where anything takes place, but rather a modality which admits of intrinsic variations, and hence is analogously applied to the various realities of which it is predicated."262 At this point, Rahner therefore sees a dynamic nature that enables him, in analogy of the relationship between grace and nature, to express an explicit relationship between the time of the spirit—now called the supernatural understanding of time—and the profane understanding of time.263 Thus, in the final analysis, the accusation of dualism does not stick, and one must instead speak of a duality. The scheme, which is basically hierarchical, is repeatedly eclipsed by a complementary understanding in which the lower is the distinct condition for the possibility of the higher.

In the manner of existentialist theology, the eternity of God is understood in light of the experience of time, not merely of physical time, but rather via eminentiae in light of time understood as the event of the free self-communication of God. God is nontemporal, but God experiences history in the Other of the world.264 God makes divine eternity the true meaning of time. Time is separate from eternity, but eternity is not actually separate from time, i.e., eternity can include the temporal, but not vice versa. The latter does not work because time is constituted by the loving self-communication of God to God's Other.265 Rahner does not see an actual difference between time and history because, for him, time shows up only as human history.

Here, the eschatological time difference remains implicit, so to speak. It is true that Rahner speaks of kairos and ephapax,266 but, strangely enough, he does not mention the eschatological problem of the "already" and the "not-yet" within the context of his theological remarks on the concept of time. The "already" of consummation as a result of God's self-communication in the Incarnation seems curiously "timeless"; it more closely resembles an abstract principle than it does an event. This may well be due to the fact that Rahner does not really understand eschatology in light of the future, but rather primarily from statements of the past that are interpreted in the present. He does indeed emphasize that Christian eschatology "really bears on the future, that which is still to come, in a very ordinary, empirical sense of the word time" and may not be de-eschatologized into "something that takes place here and now in the existence of each individual and in the decision he takes here and now."267 Then, however, Rahner identifies "a forward-looking draft of existence oriented toward the fulfillment of the end of time"268 as the source of revelation of the eschata. Accordingly, the future occurs less as the breakthrough of the new than as an extrapolation of the consummation that has already been granted: "[B]iblical eschatology must always be read as an assertion based on the revealed present and pointing towards the genuine future, but not as an assertion pointing back from an anticipated future into the present. To extrapolate from the present into the future is eschatology, to interpolate from the future into the present is apoc-alyptic."269 This, however, puts the eschatological discontinuity in danger of complete dissolution. It is therefore not surprising that Rahner can call eternity the "fruit of time" and that, in the context of Johannine eschatology, which he understands as "in-existence of eternity in time," "eternity emerges out of time."270

Given this method of extrapolation, the question arises: Can there be anything really new? How much innovation can be expected in this framework? Well, Rahner expects the dissolution of time, because the final realization of the consummation that has already happened cannot take place on this time axis;271 and he anticipates the individual event of consummation in human death, by means of which ultimate consummation, as Philip Geister expresses it, "is gradually 'ratified.'"272 "Eschatological consummation appears to be like a cosmic puzzle into which a new part is added every time a person dies, until finally it is completed—at the end of time and the cosmos."273 Later, I will return to alternative ways of understanding death. In the meantime, it should suffice here to say that Rahner's implicit eschatological time difference definitely overcomes a static dualism, but its way of juxtaposing time and eternity largely remains hostage to an anthropocentric and individualistic approach.274

Wolfhart Pannenberg's method is more explicitly eschatological. Pannenberg repeatedly stresses that God's eternity enters time along with the eschatological future and, from there, is creatively present to every temporal thing that precedes this future.275 This creative presence means that that which exists in time—based on that which will emerge as its true identity at the end of time and history—is already now participating in eternity.276 An event that has not yet occurred thus determines the present as if it were already a historical fact. That which will not fully occur until the eschatologi-cal future is already manifest: "the truth of things that will be revealed in the future, their true essence that will come to light in the eschaton, generally defines already their present existence."277 How is this possible? Pannenberg does not provide a direct explanation. The biblical reference that he cites (". . . what we will be has not yet been revealed," 1 John 3:2)278 admittedly emphasizes the "not-yet," but it says nothing about the powerful "already" that is related to participation in eternity. Instead, Pannenberg resorts to the historical past by saying that only in the history of Jesus of Nazareth did the eschatological future, and, with it, the eternity of God, actually enter into the historical present.279 Pannenberg offers contradictory information regarding the degree of discontinuity between that which is and that which is to come. On the one hand, the eschatological future faces present reality, which should already be conceived as its own eschatological manifestation in the process of becoming, "not as a totally different reality."280 On the other hand, because of sin, the participation of created beings in the eternity of God is "possible, however, only on the condition of a radical change."281 Like Rahner, Pannenberg also does not make use of the terminology of old and new time. Upon closer examination, it is also evident that one cannot really expect anything genuinely new in his eschatology, because, ultimately, nothing is newly created. Instead, that which has always existed is restored, something that brings to mind the return of eternal ideas to their timeless source rather than a new heaven and a new earth: "The resurrection of the dead and the renewal of creation may be seen as the act by which God through his spirit, restores to the creatures' essence that is preserved in his eternity the form of being-for-themselves."191 Inspired by Pannenberg's frequent use of the term future, one had hoped that the eschatological distinction between old and new time would have rendered the relation of time and eternity in Pannenberg's theology more dynamic. It seems, however, that the dynamic hoped for has been eclipsed by a rather conservatively oriented constancy of essence.

Models based on the distinction between old and new times probably often fail because of their difficulty in accounting for the concept of eternity. Is in this scheme eternity being replaced by the new time? Will it be absorbed by the concept of future? The answer to these questions depends, first, upon whether the eschatological difference excludes, includes, or even surpasses the ontological difference, and, second, upon how successful one is in taking seriously the specificity of the time that is qualified as old time even after the new time has dawned.

The ontological differentiation is included in the eschatological one to the extent that the coming of new time is not a penetration of two ontolog-ical spheres, but is instead an interaction that does not destroy the respective character of the interacting entities but strengthens it. Through the breakthrough of new time, old and new times are essentially linked to each other and related to each other, although they remain different from each other. This is the relationship of tension described with the words "already" and "not-yet."

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  • ty
    What is the Biblical difference between time and eternity?
    6 months ago

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