OUR calendars (tracing the repeated journeys of planet earth around the sun) remind us of the flow of time. We record this with days, months and years. With the passing of time, we are reminded of the deeper realities of our lives, our own mortality, our own appearance and disappearance in this world.
William Shakespeare expressed this feeling when he said: “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players: / They have their exits and their entrances …” In an equally depressing, if not darker manner, J. R. R. Tolkien portrays time as a powerful devouring machine that destroys everything in its path.
“This thing all things devours: / Birds, beasts, trees, flowers; / Gnaws iron, bites steel, / Grinds hard stones to meal; / Slays king, ruins town, / And beats high mountain down.”
The same sentiment appears in Isaac Watts’s majestic and moving hymn, “O God, our help in ages past”, echoing the deeply reflective words of the biblical psalmist on the transience of earthly existence (Ps. 90).
“Time, like an ever rolling stream, / Bears all its sons away; / They fly, forgotten, as a dream / Dies at the opening day.” This flow of time, which washes everything away, has been described and reflected on not only in poetry but also in science.
About 100 years ago, Albert Einstein introduced a revolutionary idea that changed the face of modern science and intellectual thought. In his theory of special relativity, he introduced the idea of time as the fourth dimension of reality. The universe exists not only in the three dimensions of space, but also in the fourth dimension of time.
This theory has significant implications for theology and our understanding of God, our choices and of reality. This means that all of time exists together in a single reality, in the same way that all three spatial dimensions of a box can be seen together at one time. It implies that the experience of the flow of time is only a human perception. In reality, there is no flow of time. All of time exists together.
Einstein could be right, if we consider time from God’s perspective. God can see all of time at any given moment. For the Bible does say that for God, a thousand years are like a day (Ps. 90:4; 2 Pet. 3:8). If God transcends time, then it can be understood that God sees both the beginning and end of time, and all that lies in between.
But looking at it from our human perspectives, does it mean that everything that will happen is already there, already determined? That could explain the sovereignty of God, but where does human choice and responsibility come in, if this is true? Here we face again the ageold theological discussions about the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, between determinism and free will.
ANOTHER major scientific theory in the 20th century that arose from Einstein’s theory but went the other way in its conclusions, is quantum mechanics.
In this theory, everything is in flux, indeterminate, and the greatest reality is chance. Einstein could not accept the implications and gave his famous response: “God does not play with dice.”
In one sense, the implications of quantum mechanics is more understandable to our common sense. An infinite number of choices and parallel universes exist. Reality for us is whatever we choose.
How then do we understand what we experience as the flow of time, especially in relation to God, His will, and our choices? Is it like reading a book, where everything is already determined, though I may not now know how the story will flow and how it will end? Or is it like the writing of a book, where the future is a possibility which I choose and determine?
Or perhaps, it is like dictation, where God tells us what to write, but we do have the choice to write differently and make a mess of God’s story, only to have Him work with us to redeem the story, and all along, He quietly knows how it will all turn out to be? The biblical description of God’s knowledge, will and sovereignty seems to support such a view.
As much as we can reflect and ponder on these things, we still have to live our lives. Time seems to rush past us and we have to make sense of it all. At the end of the day, we must return to God, the One who dwells both in and outside time. He is the eternal God who brings meaning, life, truth and love into our time-framed lives.
Just think of our lives as a movie image of a street scene. There is constant motion and change. People and cars move by us. We see all that goes on around us but seldom pay attention to the street signs which appear lifeless and boring.
But think of this scene speeded up, like the way people who are dying seem to have their entire lives flash by like a speeded-up movie. In that rapid whiz of images, only the street signs will appear clear, real and permanent. The rest would be a blur of images.
Life is like that. What appears most real and important to us now may be proven to be wisps of vapour one day. When time, our time on earth, is seen from another greater perspective, God may prove Himself to be the sharpest and most solid reality. It is better to discover that now than in eternity. Like Isaac Watts, we must recognise that in the rapid flow of time, God is our anchor, surest hope and deepest reality.
“Before the hills in order stood, / Or earth received her frame, / From everlasting Thou art God, / To endless years the same. “O God, our help in ages past, / Our hope for years to come, / Be Thou our guard while troubles last, / And our eternal home.”
We live by a grace that was given us “before the beginning of time” (2 Tim.1:9; Tit. 1:2) by the One who was, who is, and who is to come (Rev. 1:8). God’s presence is surely the strongest reality in our lives.