What if time is an illusion?
A self-described atheist threw out this proposition offhandedly in a conversation I had with him recently. I think it makes sense to respect the people we dialogue with, including atheists, so I chewed on that proposition a bit.
As often is the case, I woke up this morning thinking about things that I had been thinking about the night before. In my reflection, it dawned on me that, perhaps, he was right: time is an illusion. It actually makes some sense, but maybe not like he imagined. Let me explain.
God exists outside of time and space and matter. Therefore, to the extent that God is eternal, and the universe is not, time is an illusion. The abiding reality is God.
To the extent that time is not the abiding reality (space and matter as well), they are, literally, figments of God’s imagination. He thought them, and then He spoke them into existence ab initio.
The abiding reality is God. The universe (time, space and matter) had a beginning. Time, space and matter are temporal by definition. They did not always exist and are, to that extent, an illusion.
These thoughts got me wondering further. We see the concept in Scripture that God will establish a new Heaven and a new Earth. The suggestion is that this new Heaven and Earth will continue on forever. Does that mean a new universe?
If that means a new universe, or a transformed one (transformed from temporal to eternal), then, perhaps, it is a universe without time. I am not sure I can even comprehend existence not limited by the element of time!
(Does that mean without space or matter too? That is another interesting thought that I have not explored. Is there some sense in which the finite qualities of space/time and matter can take on eternal qualities?)
That got me wondering further. God created us (human beings), and he created us in His image, unlike any other creature or thing in His creation. We were created in His image and likeness, suggesting that we have some of God’s attributes, but we do not have eternal life. We live in these bodies and we die. That is to say that we live and exist within and subject to the limitations of space/time and are made of temporal substance (matter).
But, the tree of life was there in the Garden.
The suggestion is that God intended to make eternal life available to us from the beginning. We have been cut off from the Tree of Life, but God came in the form of a man offering eternal life to us. (“Everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” (John 11:26))
God’s intention, therefore, has always been to extend eternal life to us. It comes with conditions, though. We must give up our selves, our natural selves, and be born again (John 3:3) of the spirit. (John 3:6)
Then something else occurred to me, something truly astonishing – if it is true. God may be making the universe eternal through the agency of people!
He created us uniquely in His own image. Maybe the purpose of God in establishing the temporal universe and creating us in His image is to invite people to use the agency God gave us to transform the universe into an eternal relationship between God, thus converting the temporal universe into an eternal one.
Perhaps, this was God’s plan all along: to invite us to become part of His creative activity in forming a new Heaven and new Earth, ultimately, making them into an eternal habitation in which God and His creation live in sweet harmony. (See Romans 8:18-24)
These thoughts are not necessarily biblical doctrine, and I do not offer them as such. I am simply exploring possibilities. We serve a God who is bigger than we can possibly know and bigger then we may possibly ever know. We serve a magnificent, all encompassing, enormously glorious God.
God put eternity in our hearts (Ecc. 3:11), so that we would have some sense of it. The tree of life was there in the garden before we were exiled, and Jesus now extends this eternal life to us, along with the ongoing work of God in our lives by which we “are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory…” (2 Corinthians 3:18)
This idea that, somehow, God is using us as His agents to transform the temporal universe into an eternal universe seems to have some biblical inertia:
“[T]he creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” (Romans 8:21-22)
The creation will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God – us! The creation “awaits with longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19) because we, through the transforming work of God in us, are the agents by which the creation is being transformed from temporal to eternal.
And, when we “look back”, it may seem as if this were all a dream. When the redemption of the creation is complete, time will be swallowed up in eternity. The memory of time will fade as the illusion it actually is.