ETERNITY is the condition or attribute of divine life by which it relates with equal immediacy and potency to all times. The notion emerges at the point of contact of three distinct religious concerns. The oldest of these is the question of the state of life after death, especially in light of the continuing presence of the dead among the living as acknowledged in the various forms of the cult of the dead. A later-developing speculative concern is the question about divine creation, especially when creative power is seen as the production in a divine mind of a world of ideas, a logos or paradigm made present in this world as in an image. Finally, there is the concern with contemplative or mystical experience, especially when regarded as a way of partaking of the divine life within the conditions of present existence. Reflection on these themes converges upon the notion of a dimension of life that is "vertically" related to the "horizontal" flowing of time, that transcends time without being apart from it.
Because eternity touches each and every time, it is easily confused with the closely related concept of what "always was, is, and will be," or, in a word, the everlasting. But in its own proper concept, the eternal only "is"; only in the present tense can it be said to be or act in any way. Exempted from all having-been and going-to-be, eternity is familiarly defined as timelessness, in distinction from the everlasting (sometimes also called the sempiternal). The everlasting antecedes and outlasts everything that begins and ends in time, but because it is just as much given over to being partly past, partly future as are things that come to be and perish, it is therefore just as much in time. Eternity, on the other hand, does not transcend finite spans of time extensively, but intensively. It draws the multiplicity of times into a unity no longer mediated by relations of precedence and posteriority and therefore, at least in this specific sense, no longer timelike.
Yet it oversimplifies to call eternity timelessness. Though eternity excludes pastness and futurity, it remains correct to speak of it as presence, which after all is one of the three fundamental determinations of time. In the Platonic tradition, which gave the concept its classical development and passed it on through Muslim and Christian theology to modern European philosophy, the present tense retains its temporal sense in affirmations concerning eternity. In this way the Western notion of eternity differs from some Buddhist accounts of nirvāṇa, into which not just pastness and futurity but presence as well are dissolved. Platonic eternity by contrast is a paradigmatic presence, and the present in time is its partial but authentic image.
The present is called the "now." Latin metaphysics spoke therefore of eternity as nunc stans, a "standing now," and of time as nunc fluens, a "flowing now." Since the now of time, which is always experienced as having a certain duration, converges under logical analysis toward the limiting concept of the instantaneous, the dimensionless moment of transition, the problem arises whether the eternal Now is itself a kind of frozen instant, a durationless simplicity about which no experiences of life in time are instructive. Remarkably, the single feature most vividly affirmed of eternity by its classic expositors is that it is life, and not just life but divine life, "a god, manifesting himself as he is," as the third-century ce Neoplatonist mystic Plotinus says in one place (see the following). How does one incorporate a religious discourse in which eternity is divine life into the stark conceptual analyses of pure metaphysics, which seem to lead to a static, almost mathematical abstraction?
The synthesis of logical, psychological, and theological analyses into a rigorous conception of eternity is proprietary to the Platonic philosophical tradition, and is in many ways the single-handed achievement of Plotinus. There are rather complete analogies to the concept in some of the Upaniṣads in India, but in Asia one finds in the main only partial parallels; the metaphysical cake that is the complex Western idea is there cut apart in different ways, so to speak. Pending the outcome of more penetrating philosophical study than the Asian texts have so far received from Western translators and historians, the story of eternity remains at present the story of the Plotinian synthesis, its sources and its influences. The discussion that follows reflects this situation. It reviews, in decreasing detail (1) the classic Platonic conception of eternity as Plotinus understands it, (2) the place of this conception in its own, mainly European, spiritual history, and (3) those points in Indian and Asian philosophy where search for analogous intuitions most plausibly might begin.
Platonic Eternity in Plotinus
In the Platonic tradition, eternity and time are regularly considered together. They make up in fact a single topic, in the old literary sense of the Greek term topos ("place"), where it refers to a particular place in a canonical text. The discussion of eternity invariably proceeds among Platonists as a meditation on the place in the Timaeus of Plato where eternity is described as "abiding in unity" and time as an "eternal image of eternity, moving according to number" (37d). At a minimum, this passage imposes the idea that eternity and time are in some respect comparable to one another. But Neoplatonism makes a stronger claim for a vision of eternity and time as extremes of a continuum. Life itself, the interior life of the soul, bridges the gap according to Plotinus, and this makes possible an account of the experience of eternity itself.
In some ways it is an extremely familiar experience. Consider reading a book that one finds completely compelling, that draws one along in apparently inexhaustible attentiveness and interest. Hours can pass unregistered; it can be shocking to discover how much time has passed, and how meaningless that fact seems compared with the inner composure and vividness of the interval. Any activity that is intensely self-collected, full of purposiveness and power, can generate this effect—not just intellectual but also aesthetic, even physical activity such as dancing or athletics.
Experiences of this kind are a threshold for the pure experience of eternity, contemplation. It is important to notice that they are not without duration, indeed they are rich in inner activity and movement. One experiences something like time in them, but a time that arises more than passes, that gives rather than takes. An inexhaustible power seems to well up within oneself. When, as is inevitable, the spell is broken, one speaks of having fallen away from that power, not of the power itself having lapsed.
Plotinus calls this power the life of the Mind, and in order to express its inexhaustibility says that it is infinite, limitless. In earlier Greek philosophy, to be infinite was to be indefinite, without form or intelligibility, wholly a negative condition. Plotinus too portrays the intelligible world of Platonic Ideas as finite, formally and structurally. But grasped within the living Mind that is its origin and substrate, it is limitlessly vivacious, a world "boiling with life" (6.7.12). The living and dynamic quality of eternal Mind is as central a theme in Plotinus as its simplicity and composure, and is expressed in a remarkable passage where he says that "its nature is to become other in every way," accomplished in a "wandering" (planē, as of the planets) within itself that is like a ceaseless adventure on the "plain of truth" (6.7.13).
For the soul that awakens to this presence of mind, the experience is like a homecoming, a coming into oneself rather than a journey to another self or state of existence. The old Platonic image of this movement as an anamnēsis, an unforgetting, depended on the Orphic mythical theme of the preexistence of the soul and was therefore easily understood to be a recollection from elsewhere and elsewhen, so to speak. But in Plotinus anamnēsis is altogether what it is in Augustine also, an interior conversion of the soul completed in contemplative immediacy—conversion both in the sense of a turning, from distracting cares to tranquil insight, and of a transformation, from the condition of life that is soul to that of pure intellectual apprehension or Mind.
Because the condition of the life of the soul is time, humans fall away from presence of mind in a recurrent downward movement that makes one's encounter with eternity multiple and episodic. Yet, "if you look attentively at it again, you will find it as it was" (3.7.5). In that contemplation one will be one's self again, self-possessed and self-contained, puzzled by the vulnerability to scatteredness and confusion into which the soul falls in time. A traditional term for the self-possession of eternal life is stasis, still used in English, and especially in the familiar complaint that the eternity of Greek metaphysics is "static." This is a fundamental misunderstanding.
Stasis means "staying, standing rather than falling, holding together rather than lapsing into dispersion." One can get the sense of eternal stasis best from the English word homeostasis, as used in biology to name the dynamic composure that the very diverse movements of metabolism and organic activity maintain within a living system. The simplicity and unity of eternal life is that of a homeostasis, a self-enveloping completion that is at the same time the space for an unlimited enjoyment of activity, purpose, and power.
"Hence," Plotinus writes, "eternity is a majestic thing, and thought declares it identical with the god." He goes on: "Eternity could be well described as a god proclaiming and manifesting himself as he is, that is, as being which is unshakeable and self-identical and always as it is, and firmly grounded in life." From this follows the definition: Eternity is "life that is here and now endless because it is total and expends nothing of itself" (3.7.5).
Familiar in the Latin West through the paraphrase of Boethius, "interminabilis vitae tota simul et perfecta possessio" ("the all-at-once total and perfect possession of endless life," The Consolation of Philosophy 5.6), the Plotinian experience of eternity marks the divine life as a presence and opens the route of human approach to this life through contemplative mysticism.
Historical Background and Consequence
The Greek term that translates as "eternity" in Plato and Plotinus is aiōn, and this has given many students of the history of the notion pause. Aiōn survives in English in the Latinized spelling aeon, and here retains much of its original meaning. Aiōn means "life, span of life, lifetime; epoch, aeon." While it never suggests duration simply on the level of measure or standard interval, even the Homeric places where it comes closest to meaning "inner life force" include strongly the suggestion of power to perdure, of life reaching out to take up its proper span of time. It seems a very timelike term, not only because of its connotation of span or duration, but because beginning, middle, and end belong so much to the kind of totality or completion it expresses still in English.
The term first occurs in surviving fragments of early Greek philosophy in the fifth-century bce writer Heraclitus, in the gnome "Aiōn is a child playing a board game; the kingly power is a child's" (Heraclitus, B52). The translation "eternity" is clearly inadmissible; those translators who instead supply "time" have good cause. Heraclitus's theme is the spontaneity and immanence of the laws or patterns manifest in the give-and-take of natural processes; the intelligibility of constant change is not outside nature like a god, but the cosmos is in and by itself an "Everliving Fire, flaring up by measure, dying down by measure" (B30). Under the control of this ruling image, aiōn again means a form of completion embracing birth and death and the process that weaves them together.
It is not at all clear to what degree Plato distinguishes between the adjectival form aiōnios, "eternal," and another term aïdios, "everlasting." Because in fact he inclines to the (false) etymology that takes aiōn from aei ōn, "always being," he gives place to the very confusion the Neoplatonists are most concerned to prevent. In the very text in Timaeus that becomes decisive, he says of aiōn that "its nature is everlasting [aïdios ]" (37d).
Among consequences of this situation is a protracted controversy among the Hellenistic Platonists of the centuries around the beginning of the common era concerning what is called "the eternity of the world." The question was whether, as Aristotle argues in the Metaphysics (12.6), the world is everlasting and has no beginning in time or whether, as Timaeus would suggest if its mythical form were given substantive import, the world began to be at some definite time. Alexandrian Jewish and later Christian Platonists tended to join the argument on the latter side, partly through their effort to coordinate the story in Timaeus with that of Genesis. It should be clear that once the rigorous nontemporal concept of eternity had been established, it was a mistake to call this question the question of the "eternity" of the world, but only Augustine (Confessions 11) diagnoses the category mistake with full philosophical precision.
The antecedents of the Neoplatonic conception of eternity lie not in the lexicography of the term's classical philosophical usage, but in the associations it takes on through the constant interaction of Platonic image and argument with popular religious consciousness. This includes first of all the concern with immortality and afterlife, the context for talk of the eternal life of the soul. Because this concern is profoundly rooted in the archaic, mythological sensibility and its experience of the structure that Mircea Eliade has called "eternal return," it made available the notion of another time, a transcending and divine time that could intersect with mundane time, embedding life in a dimension that surpasses birth and death. The eternity that can be abstracted from this archaic experience is an eternal past more than the eternal present of the proper concept; fundamental imaginative possibilities were appropriated from this origin. The mediating religious context was in large measure the emergence of the mystery religions in the Greco-Roman world, among them the mysteries of baptism and of table blessing central to Christianity.
Aiōn in the New Testament is principally an apocalyptic term, qualified as "this aeon" as against "the aeon to come" (synoptic Gospels, Paul). It shares with the rest of the apocalyptic scenario a Persian, Zoroastrian background, and in a few Pauline or deutero-Pauline places (e.g., Col. 1:26, Eph. 3:9) seems to be personified in the sense of an equation of Aion with Zurwān, an equation that sets the stage for the florid multiplication of such personified aions in the gnostic literature of the second century ce. Though there has been speculation that this kind of connection between Mediterranean and Near Eastern symbolism contributed to the emergence of the novel Neoplatonic sense of aiōn, it seems preferable to portray this as a digression.
A richer question is whether "eternal life" in the Gospel of John is consonant with the radical Platonic idea, or already on common ground with it. The predominance of present-tense statements by the glorified Son in that text ("Before Abraham was, I am," Jn. 8:58, et al.), its transformation of apocalyptic into realized eschatology, and its eucharist of epiphany and participation ("He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him," Jn. 6:56) made it possible for Christian Neoplatonism of the Augustinian type to embrace the strict nontemporal eternity without sensing any violence in its interpretation of scripture.
The story of the appropriation of Plotinian contemplative mysticism by later Christian and Muslim theology defeats summary. Suffice it to say that the Neoplatonic system was adapted to biblical monotheism with considerable penetration and accuracy, especially by Augustine and the Latin tradition through Boethius and Bonaventure, by the apophatic tradition from Dionysius the Areopagite through John Scottus Eriugena to Meister Eckhart, and by Ṣūfī philosophy. The close connection between the theoretical role of eternity as an attribute or name of God and its experiential richness as an element of contemplative spirituality remained characteristic of these traditions.
A certain purely logical interest in the eternity/time contrast, detectable already in Boethius (responding more to Porphyry than Plotinus) and Thomas Aquinas, was amplified by the new mathematical spirit of the metaphysics of the seventeenth century, resulting in the reduction of eternal presence to a kind of schematic simplicity illustrated particularly clearly in the system of Spinoza. The effect was to dissociate the speculative notion from its experiential basis, producing in the end the degraded conception of eternity as lifeless stasis or logical tenselessness that has been the target of complaint in historicist, existentialist, and process theologies of the past century.
Eternity in Non-Western Thought
It is a commonplace that the religious themes of afterlife, divine creation, and the nature of the soul are drawn together in different patterns by non-Western traditions. The Buddha is represented as holding that speculation on none of these furthers one toward enlightenment. It is no surprise to find that a concept like eternity, which emerges at the intersection of these themes in Platonism and then becomes influential precisely through its adaptability to biblical theology, does not always have strict analogies in other religious discourse.
The exegetical and hermeneutical complications that derive from this situation have not always been registered in the translations of non-Western sources. Only some preliminary pointers about other treatments of eternity are here appropriate.
The striking parallels that are being discovered between Neoplatonism and Vedānta philosophy appear to hold also in the case of eternity. The Sanskrit nitya can be translated "eternity" with some confidence already in Upaniṣads, especially at the point where "immortality," amṛta, is pressed beyond the popular image of outliving death, or life after death, to the radical notion of mokṣa, "liberation," deliverance from the cycle of birth and death itself. The fundamental conception in the Upaniṣads that the authentic self, the ātman, gathered into its own interior unity from the levels of psychic life, is one with brahman, the universal spirit, is developed in ways that regularly parallel the account of the authentic self on the level of the Nous, or divine Mind, in Plotinus. It is less clear, however, whether the eternal present, self-consolidated beyond all passage through birth and death, is to be found in the Vedas.
Buddhism presents a much more complex situation. The negative assessment of timelike continuity and the rejection of substantiality and causality that are frequent in Buddhist philosophy lead to descriptions of enlightenment that often have a Platonic ring. In Buddhism, the parallels are particularly pronounced in the meditative traditions that emphasize "sudden enlightenment," where the unconditioned and spontaneous quality of transcendental insight (Skt., prajñā ) is stressed. In the Mahāyāna Pure Land tradition, the paradisical Sukhāvatī ("land of bliss") of the Buddha Amitābha is sometimes developed in ways reminiscent of the Platonic world of ideal presences, pervaded by divine mentality. If there is an authentic parallel here to the notion of eternity, this will have to be tested by careful analysis of the account of temporal presence itself, for it is this that is ascribed to eternity by Platonism, and in turn made the image of eternity and mark of authentic being for life in time. In those radical portrayals of nirvāṇa as release from all forms of temporal conditioning, not just pastness and futurity, but presence itself sometimes seems to be denied of awakened mind.
A focal problem in the search for analogy to eternity in Chinese thought is the proper account of the first line of the Dao de jing, often translated, "The Dao that can be spoken is not the eternal Dao [chang dao ]." "Eternal" may overtranslate chang; the core meaning is closer to "steadfast," "constant," "abiding." The parallel seems strongest to aiōn at the stage it had reached in Heraclitus. It needs study whether the idealization found in the Vedānta or late Platonic pattern is appropriate for interpretation of this text.
Special wariness should be reserved for the use of the phrase "eternal life" in describing prephilosophical doctrines of immortality and afterlife, or "eternal return" for the transcendental relation of divine life to mundane in the experience of cyclical time that is fundamental in myth-using cultures. Most commonly what is meant by "eternal" in this context is "perpetual" or "everlasting." Whether the primordial time of beginnings, the transcendent past of divine creative action, is a predecessor of the eternal present is a separate question that needs careful consideration. While the proper notion of eternity may be very near the surface in Egypt, it is much less likely to exist in the preliterate cultures for which the cycle of death and rebirth is a naturalistic image more than a philosophical idealization.
The concept of eternity is still most accessible from primary sources, notably the treatise "On Eternity and Time" of Plotinus, Enneads 3.7.45, in Plotinus, translated by A. Hilary Armstrong, "Loeb Classical Library," vol. 3 (Cambridge, Mass., 1966), and book 11 of the Confessions of Augustine, for which there are many suitable editions. An instructive summary of the concept in the full technical development it received in medieval theology can be found in the article by Adolf Darlap and Joseph de Finance, "Eternity," in Sacramentum Mundi, edited by Karl Rahner (New York, 1968), vol. 2. Mircea Eliade's Cosmos and History: The Myth of Eternal Return (New York, 1954) remains a standard introduction to the role of a transcending divine time in the religious experience of myth-using cultures. A very helpful account of eternity is incorporated into a sketch of the history of the idea of immortality in the ancient Near East and Christian Europe by John S. Dunne, The City of the Gods (Notre Dame, Ind., 1978). The classic exposition of the interior experience of eternity in Western mysticism is Bonaventure's "The Soul's Journey into God," in Bonaventure, edited and translated by Ewert Cousins (New York, 1978). For eternity in Indian thought, the edition of The Principal Upaniṣads by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (New York, 1953) is especially useful, both for its extensive introduction and its very rich annotations, which include frequent citation of Western parallels.
Ashton, John. The Quest for Paradise: Heaven and Eternity in the World's Myths and Religions. San Francisco, 2001.
Bernstein, Alan. The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds. Ithaca, N.Y., 1993.
Dales, Richard. Medieval Discussions of the Eternity of the World. New York, 1990.
Futch, Michael. "Leibniz on Plenitude, Infinity, and the Eternity of the World." British Journal for the History of Philosophy 10 (November 2002): 541–561.
Padgett, Alan. God, Eternity, and the Nature of Time. New York, 1992.
Rouner, Leroy, ed. If I Should Die. Notre Dame, Ind., 2001.
Russell, Jeffrey Burton. "Goodness, Gracious(ness) Great Balls of Fire: Visions of Eternity Just Aren't What They Used to Be." Christian History 70 (2001): 38–42.
Walter, Tony. The Eclipse of Eternity: A Sociology of the Afterlife. Basingstoke, U.K., 1996.
Peter Manchester (1987)
The word eternal is derived from the Latin aeternus, a contraction of aeviternus, which, in turn, is derived from aevum, a word from the same root as the English words ever and aye. In Greek the corresponding adjectives are even more obviously connected with the notion of everlasting existence. This is the original sense of the word eternal and probably also the sense that is still the most common in ordinary language. But in certain philosophical contexts the notion of everlasting existence is expressed rather by "sempiternal," "eternal" being reserved for the sense of "timeless."
The "Timeless Present" in Science
In English and other Indo-European languages there is a usage described by grammarians as the timeless present. When, for example, we say, "Seven is a prime number," we do not intend our use of the present tense to convey anything about the present as distinct from the past or the future. For this reason we find something very curious in the sentences "Seven was a prime number" and "Seven will be a prime number." Existential statements of a mathematical kind do not refer to the time of speaking. An assertion such as "There is a prime number between 5 and 10" could never be countered sensibly by the remark "You are out of date." For this reason the entities discussed in mathematics can properly be said to have a timeless existence. To say only that they have a sempiternal or omnitemporal existence (that is, an existence at all times) would be unsatisfactory, because this way of talking might suggest that it is conceivable they should at some time cease to exist, an absurdity we want to exclude.
Mathematics, however, is not the only study in which use of the timeless present is appropriate. The same idiom can be found in all studies that are concerned with necessary truths as distinct from matters of fact. It may occur, for example, even in empirical studies when the propositions we formulate involve the notion of necessary connection. Thus, we say "The hydrogen atom contains only one proton" because we do not wish to allow that hydrogen atoms may in the past have contained or may in the future come to contain more than one proton. Here, however, our use of the timeless present is certainly not intended to suggest that hydrogen atoms exist out of time. What we wish to call timeless is simply the connection between being a hydrogen atom and containing a single proton. Sometimes such connections have been called eternal verities, most commonly when it has been thought they could be known a priori, as in mathematics.
A different conception of timelessness appears in Parmenides' poem "The Way of Truth," where he says of the One, "It neither was at any time nor will be, since it is now all at once [ὁμου̑ πα̑ν ] a single whole." Since Parmenides and his pupil Zeno argued against the reality of change, we must suppose that this remark does not represent the One as existing merely for a moment but says rather that the One cannot be described in a language that employs tenses. The One exists all at once because it involves no temporal succession of earlier and later. But why should anyone talk in this way? Perhaps Parmenides accepted the religious teaching of Xenophanes, that the Whole is an everlasting god, and tried to defend it against Heraclitus's doctrine of universal flux by maintaining that the Whole is spherical in all respects—that is, temporally as well as spatially. For such a Whole could not itself be in time, and if we talk about it at all we must employ the timeless present. This is only a guess, but there is evidence to show that a conception of cyclical time order was current in the Pythagorean school with which Parmenides is said to have been connected in his youth.
From Parmenides the notion of a mode of existence that allows no distinction between past, present, and future passed to Plato, who applied it to his Forms, or Ideas. The most influential passage of his works dealing with this subject is in the Timaeus (37e6–38a6), where he contrasts the created world with the eternal living being, its timeless archetype.
The language of the passage is poetical, and it seems that we are not expected to take all the details seriously. In particular, Plato can scarcely have meant us to believe that time was an afterthought of the creator. Rather, we are to understand that time is to the perceptual world of becoming what eternity is to the intelligible world of being. For Plato said later (Timaeus 38b5), "Time was created with the heaven," and he seems to have held that it is identical with the movements of the heavenly bodies, which are commonly said to measure its passage. In many of his works Plato glorified the eternal and spoke of the temporal as something inferior, but he did not, like Parmenides and Zeno, deny the reality of time. The most he said in this regard is that temporal things never have being but are always in a state of becoming, as Heraclitus had argued. However, this seems to be no more than a recognition that we cannot talk of temporal things in the timeless present as we talk of Forms and mathematical objects.
The connection with necessity that Plato had claimed for timeless eternity Aristotle claimed for sempiternity. For having rejected Plato's doctrine of the creation of time (Physics 251b14), he did not wish to say that anything was wholly severed from it. Thus, in one place he explicitly associated the objects of mathematics with the universe, which he certainly did not regard as timeless (Nicomachean Ethics 1112a22). In his view the objects of mathematics are eternal (ἄϊδια ) but only in the sense that they exist always—that is, are sempiternal. He held that among sempiternal things there is no difference between possibility and actuality and also that there is nothing merely accidental (Physics 203b30, 196b10). In one place he even said that sempiternal things, insofar as they are sempiternal, are not in time, because they are not bounded by time or subject to aging and the other conditions of time (Physics 221b30). Apparently he had in mind not only mathematical objects, such as numbers, but also God and the sun and stars and the whole heaven. For he said elsewhere that the heavenly bodies, unlike perishable things, are not wearied by their motion. The sun is active forever, and there is no danger that it will give out, as some philosophers feared (Metaphysics 1050b24). Benedict (Baruch) de Spinoza may have been influenced, even if only indirectly, by Aristotle's doctrine when he used the word aeternitas to signify both necessity and sempiternity.
The doctrine of Plato's Timaeus passed into Christian theology, with emphasis on the notion of timeless life. As early as the St. John Gospel (8:58) there is a curious passage in which Jesus is represented as saying, "Before Abraham was I am." But it is fairly clear that the author of this gospel knew something of Greek philosophy, possibly at second hand through the works of the Jewish theologian Philo of Alexandria, and also that his narrative is no mere historical record of the life of Jesus. By the end of the fifth century there was nothing at all strange in the use of Platonic thought for the exposition of Christianity, and St. Augustine, when commenting, in his De Civitate Dei (xi, 21), on the sentence in Genesis "God saw that it was good," referred to the passage of the Timaeus cited above. In his Confessions (xi, 13) he wrote also of God's "ever-present eternity" and said that for God "all years stand at once" (omnes simul stant ). A century later Boethius, in his De Trinitate (4), said that our "now," by running as it were (quasi currens ), makes time and sempiternity, whereas the divine "now," by abiding, unmoved and immovable, makes eternity; in the final chapter of his De Consolatione Philosophiae he discussed this at greater length.
Eternity is the complete possession of eternal life all at once—a notion that becomes clearer from comparison with things temporal. For whatever lives in time moves as something present from the past to the future, and there is nothing placed in time that can embrace the whole extent of its life at once. It does not yet grasp tomorrow, and it has already lost yesterday. And even in the life of today you do not live longer than in the transitory moment. That, then, which is subject to the condition of time, even if (as Aristotle thought of the world) it has no beginning or end and its life extends through endless time, is still not such as may be rightly judged eternal. For though its life be endless, it does not grasp and embrace the extent of it all at once [totum simul ] but has some parts still to come. … And so, if, following Plato, we wish to give things their right names, let us say that God is eternal, but the world everlasting.
All these notions reappeared in the Middle Ages. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, quoting Boethius as his authority, said in his Summa Theologiae (I, x, 1) that there are two marks of eternity, namely, that the eternal has neither beginning nor end and that eternity contains no succession, being all at once (tota simul existens ). This last phrase, though Thomas could scarcely have known as much, is a rendering of words Parmenides had used over seventeen centuries earlier. Not content, however, with the old distinction of time and eternity, medieval theologians sometimes spoke of aevum —that is, everlastingness—as something intermediate that was appropriate to the heavens and to angels. This was conceived by some as having a beginning but no end and by others (probably influenced in part by Aristotle's account of God and the heavenly bodies) as possessing earlier and later, but without innovation and aging. Thomas regarded the latter view as self-contradictory, since, he held, there could be no succession without aging. Aevum does not necessarily include earlier and later, according to Thomas, though these can be joined with it, as is the case with angels, who have changeless being as well as the capacity of change according to choice (Summa Theologiae I, x, 5).
Criticism of the Theological Use
Anyone who, like Boethius, speaks of eternity as "the complete possession of eternal life all at once seems to be running together two incompatible notions, that of timelessness and that of life. For we can attach no meaning to the word life unless we are allowed to suppose that what has life acts. No doubt the word acts may be taken in a wide sense. Perhaps it is not essential that a living thing produce changes in the physical world. But life must at least involve some incidents in time, and if, like Boethius, we suppose the life in question to be intelligent, then it must also involve awareness of the passage of time. Purposeful action is action with thought of what will come about after its beginning. It is difficult to decide how much of this Plato was prepared to admit when he wrote the Timaeus. In his earlier works (for example, the Meno and the Phaedo ) he tried to explain the possibility of a priori knowledge by a doctrine of reminiscence, which involves the hypothesis that before this life the human soul lived among timelessly existent Forms and contemplated them directly as in this life it sees things belonging to the realm of becoming. But he probably came to realize that there is something absurd in the suggestion that a soul can pass part of its time in a timeless realm and then at a certain date enter the temporal realm, for he appears to have dropped the doctrine of reminiscence in his later dialogues, where instead of glorifying the soul by treating it as something akin to the timeless Forms he praised it as the source of motion.
In the Republic, which belongs to the middle of his literary life, he spoke of God, who is presumably alive, as having created one and only one Form of each kind. But the wording of the passage (Republic 597c) seems to be obviously playful, and it is unlikely that Plato ever meant to suggest seriously that the Forms had been created. In the Timaeus, as we have seen, the Forms are said to be the timeless model used by the demiurge, or craftsman, who made the temporal world. Yet this same timeless model is said to be itself alive (Timaeus 37e6). Is this to be taken seriously? Unlike medieval theologians, for whom things predicated of the eternal were to be interpreted analogically, Plato maintained (Timaeus 29b) that discourse about the eternal is to be understood in the strict and primary sense of the words it employs.
How did the theologians come to commit themselves to talk about timeless life? The influence of Plato's style counts for a lot, but not for everything. One might say in the case of Thomas that the surprising thing is that he held to Plato's account of time and eternity though he must have known it had been criticized by Aristotle. Probably the explanation is to be found in a peculiarity of Christian doctrine. Aristotle, though a theist of a sort, not only rejected the Platonic notion of the creation of time but also maintained the sempiternity of the heavens. To a theologian who had to produce a metaphysical scheme concordant with biblical revelation (which denied the sempiternity of the cosmos) this must have made Aristotle's criticism of Plato's doctrine of eternity seem unsatisfactory. But apart from that, Plato's doctrine had the positive merit of seeming to provide for the necessity of God's existence. If it is correct, once we have admitted that we understand the meaning of the word God and that it involves no inconsistency, we cannot sensibly deny that God exists. Another manifestation of this theological interest in the necessity of God's existence is Anselm's ontological argument. Admittedly, this was rejected by Thomas, but for epistemological reasons concerned with the limits of our capacities, not for the assumption it involves that divinity, by definition, entails existence. On the contrary, Thomas, following Boethius, said that God's essence and existence are one.
Other Philosophical Uses
In later European thought Spinoza and various idealist philosophers used the word eternity to describe the existence of their God or Absolute. Spinoza, for example, said in his Ethics (I, Definition viii), "By eternity I mean existence itself in so far as it is conceived necessarily to follow solely from the definition of that which is eternal. Existence of this kind is conceived as an eternal truth, like the essence of a thing, and therefore cannot be explained by means of duration or time, though duration may be conceived without a beginning or an end." Here there is no longer any verbal connection of eternity with life, but there is still a wish to maintain that something concrete exists with the timeless necessity of which we speak in mathematics. Similar assertions have been made in Indian philosophy, which does not in any way derive from Parmenides or Plato, and we must therefore suppose that they correspond to a widespread demand of religious thought. In modern times even the Pythagorean notion of a cyclical time order has again been considered seriously, by Kurt Gödel.
See also Aristotle; Augustine, St.; Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus; Gödel, Kurt; Heraclitus of Ephesus; Indian Philosophy; Parmenides of Elea; Plato; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Thomas Aquinas, St.; Time; Time, Consciousness of; Xenophanes of Colophon; Zeno of Elea.
Brabant, F. H. Time and Eternity in Christian Thought. New York: Longmans, Green, 1937.
Cushman, R. E. "Greek and Christian Views of Time." Journal of Religion (1953): 254–265.
Festugière, A.-J. "Le sens philosophique du mot αἰιών." La parola del passato. Fasc. 11 (1949): 172–189.
Guitton, J. Le temps et l'éternité chez Plotin et chez Saint Augustin. Paris: Boivin, 1933; 2nd ed., 1956.
Guthrie, W. K. C. "Time and the Unlimited." In A History of Greek Philosophy. Vol. I. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1962. Pp. 336–340.
Haldane, J. B. S. "Time and Eternity." Rationalist Annual (1946): 33–38.
Kneale, W. C. "Time and Eternity in Theology." PAS 61 (1960–1961): 87–108.
Mondolfo, Rodolfo. L'infinito nel pensiero dei Greci. Florence: F. Le Monnier, 1934. 2nd enl. ed. published as L'infinito nel pensiero dell'antichità classica. Florence, 1956.
Wolfson, H. A. "Duration, Time, and Eternity." In The Philosophy of Spinoza, Book I. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934. Ch. 10.
William C. Kneale (1967)
Although its Greek equivalent, αἰών, first meant fluid of life, then life, then the maximum span of individual life, the eternal usually signifies—from the ancients down to recent times—what endures without beginning or end, or what is inherently timeless, or what is utterly outside the created order of the universe and time.
History. The following survey points out some of the leading views of eternity in ancient, medieval, and modern thought.
Ancient. Major philosophers prior to, or indifferent to, the influence of Christianity ascribed eternity to divine entities that, while above nature, are part and parcel of the universe. For plato (Tim. 37C), the Forms resident in the domain of being abide unchangeably; they simply are, rather than were or will be. Eternity is the timeless being proper to the Forms. What goes on endlessly is not eternity, but time, a derivative everlasting image of eternity. In aristotle (Meta. 1072b 1–1075a 11), eternity is the perfect all-at-once existence of God, the self-thinking thought. plotinus (Enn. 3.1–6) located the Platonic paradigms in the Intellect, the second of the hypostases. In his view, eternity is the unchanging life of Intellect possessing all things all at once in the present; it is the radiation of the manifold of intelligibles concentrated in the Mind.
Capitalizing on the metaphysics latent in Christian revelation, St. augustine (Conf. 11.1–16) added the dimension of transcendence to eternity. Because God is His own existence, He is immutable and eternal. Hence, eternity is the total presentness of the one incommutable being; indeed, God is His eternity. For Augustine, the Forms of Plato, the Intellect of Plotinus, and the self-thinking thought of Aristotle are supertemporal, but none of them utterly transcends time because none is wholly outside of, and infinitely superior to, a universe produced out of nothing. boethius (De cons. phil. 5.6), also within a Christian framework, formulated a definition that was to become a classic object of medieval commentary: eternity is "the perfect possession of interminable life held wholly all at once." Along with Augustine, Boethius regarded total simultaneity as the proper note; eternity is a standing now, in contrast to the flowing now whose never-ceasing course resembles the plenitude of eternity.
Medieval. alexander of hales (Studia theologica 1.65) singled out interminability as the distinctive element of eternity. His Franciscan colleague, St. bonaventure (In 2 sent. 18.104.22.168), differentiated eternity from time and the aevum. Time possesses a before and after with innovation and "veteration," and the aevum a before and after without innovation and "veteration"; but eternity simply lacks a before and after. St. albert the great (In 4 phys. 4.1–4) sharply distinguished the total simultaneity of eternity from that of aeviternity; eternity measures what is utterly invariable. Eternity is the successionless extent—the nonquantitative continuum— of what remains in one mode through all modes. But for St. thomas aquinas (Summa theologiae 1a, 10.1–6), the now rather than a stretch of time serves as the closest natural analogue of eternity: eternity is the uniformity or perfect possession of what is entirely immutable. The section on doctrine below analyzes this definition and its implications. However, according to duns scotus (Quodl. 6.14 and Op. oxon. 1.8.4), life, or actual perfect existence intrinsic to the divine nature, constitutes the subject and foundation of eternity. The other three elements in Boethius's definition, i.e., the interminable, the wholly simultaneous, and perfect possession bespeak extrinsic relations of God. The approach of F. suÁrez (Disp. meta. 50.1–3) departed further from that of Aquinas. Interminable life, the exclusion of all mutability in existence, is a secondary factor. Eternity is uncreated duration; not the nature of God, but nonorigination from an outside active potency primarily differentiates eternity from created durations.
Modern. The abandonment of a creative God generally entails the loss of a transcendent eternity among certain moderns. Two philosophers committed to this transcendence base their views on moral or religious convictions that are virtually devoid of theoretical content.
B. spinoza reached a concept congruent with his quasi-mathematical monism. "By eternity I understand existence itself insofar as it is conceived to follow necessarily from the definition alone of the eternal thing." This formulation is plainly circular; eternal appears in the definition itself. In addition, an outlook relating God and the universe as ground and consequent blurs what is manifestly noneternal with the eternal.
J. locke defined eternity as an infinity of duration, comparable to an infinity of number, achieved when one thinks of a duration "so much greater as cannot be comprehended." But if eternity is merely an unendingly extended time, its potential infinity is irreconcilable with the immaterial infinity of knowledge and power that Locke attributes to God.
I. kant nullified his acceptance of a transcendent eternity by emptying the idea of God of theoretical import. Unable to know demonstratively that God is, the mind is persuaded by moral faith that God is eternal. In breaking the causal link between time and eternity, Kantian phenomenalism destroyed for many moderns the possibility of regarding eternity as other than a metaphor or a religious symbol.
G. W. F. hegel overcame the Kantian divorce of time and eternity by making them diverse attributes of the one Absolute Idea. In itself eternal, the Spirit necessarily expresses itself in nature and history, so that eternity becomes immanent in time. Whereas Spinoza eternalized time, Hegel temporalized eternity. A One necessarily becoming many is really a dynamic manifold, and in a similar fashion an eternity revealing itself in time is really a finite distension.
Reacting against Hegel's absolutism, S. A. kierkegaard put time and eternity at opposite poles. Eternity, the forever present identical with pure being, excludes the becoming and "either-or" characteristic of time. Yet existence, one's subjective being, does somehow share in eternity, each moment of decision being filled with eternity. Kierkegaard, somewhat like Kant, posited a theoretically groundless eternity bequeathed by Christian culture to serve the subjective thinker striving for fulfillment. Furthermore, it seems absurd to make each moment big with the plenitude of the eternal.
A. N. whitehead blended the Platonic Forms with a quasi-Hegelian ingression of the changeless into concretes. Eternal objects, the abstract natures of things, reside in the nontemporal primordial nature of God. Yet in his consequent nature, God is enriched by the creative advance of the universe. Unfortunately, an unconditioned, eternal actuality always potential and subject to time is a self-defeating notion. Eternal objects enmeshed in time are simply constant features of nature abstracted from time.
Doctrine. Four aspects of the realistic account of eternity merit summary exposition: its precise notion, its comparison with noneternal measures, the eternal knowledge of contingents, and the possibility of an ab aeterno world.
Notion. As a being of nature, man has his thinking properly attuned to the quiddities of material things. To grasp beings outside nature, his mind must fall back on the negation of natural traits and the modes of causality and excess. In short, man knows not what God is, but what He is not. So with eternity; one knows it not in itself but in virtue of a transcendent negation of the potential in time and the now. time is the number of motion according to before and after. The negation of motion, the before and after, and number yields respectively immobility, sameness, and uniformity. Eternity is, then, the uniformity of the utterly immutable. The ascent to eternity can also start from the now, the number of mobile being. The negation of number issues in unity, the negation of mobile being in a being unaffected by mutability; the result is eternity conceived as the unity of an entirely immutable being. The terminus of an approach made from things measured by time coincides with Boethius's definition. Things in time, existing successively, begin and end; what is measured by eternity is successionless. Thus eternity as measure is interminable life existing wholly all at once.
God alone is truly and properly eternal, since He alone is utterly immutable. The word may be said analogously of other beings insofar as they are in some way immutable. However, Plato's Forms and Whitehead's eternal objects are only metaphorically eternal. universals are always and everywhere only in a sheerly negative fashion; for, as known, they are objectified in the human intellect, whose discretely temporal operations exclude eternity. Universals and truths are eternal only as existing in an eternal intellect.
Comparison with Noneternal Measures. The aevum is closest to eternity, for it measures angels and human souls, exempt from transmutation. The aevum falls short of eternity because joined together with it are successive spiritual actions.
The now recedes even farther from eternity. While subjectively identical, the flowing now is formally other as other. Wedded to the mobile, the now is inexhaustibly potential to a diversity of positions. Eternity, by contrast, measures an immutable infinite act; humanly speaking, it is a nunc stans, stationary in that it is perfectly identical without differentiation of phases.
Nevertheless, the now is the moving image of eternity. As indivisible, and therefore most knowable in time, it reflects the perfectly indivisible measure. The now is the point of intersection of eternity and time; it is like the moving point on a circumference whose minimal indivisible act imitates in nature the maximal indivisible act of the transcendent center and measure of all being.
Thus, eternity and the now are analogically one; eternity is to God as the now is to the universal physical cause. The proportional resemblance is founded on the formal causality exercised by eternity with respect to inferior measures. God is so present in other things as the cause of their being that His principal causality does not liquidate, but uses created agents as secondary causes. Similarly, eternity is effective in the now as remote formal cause of its indivisibility, so that the now remains a secondary formal cause unifying cosmic time. Spinoza, Hegel, and Whitehead confuse this causal nexus with an essential unity; Spinoza makes eternity and time one in number, while Hegel and Whitehead make them one in genus or species.
Eternal Knowledge of Contingents. Like the center of a circle directly opposite every designated point on the circumference, eternity is simultaneously present to every instant of time. Each part of time coexists with the whole of eternity, although this part may be past or future in relation to other parts of time. Hence, every event in time is present to eternity; God sees each event actually occurring. Applied to the problem of divine knowledge of future contingents, this means that the copresence to eternity of events past, present, and future assures God an infallible and necessary knowledge of future contingents, including free acts. A contingent event is one actively or passively indeterminate in its causes; its indetermination lies in reference to the future, but once caused, it obviously occurs as this determinate event rather than some other. Socrates need not sit down while lecturing today, but if he is seen sitting down, he is necessarily sitting down. Just as it is evident to any observer that Socrates is now sitting down, so every event in the whole history of the universe is infallibly known by eternal vision, since the whole of time is copresent to the whole of eternity.
Possibility of an Eternal World. An allied problem concerns the eternity, here meaning perpetuity, of the universe. One view, implied by every absolutistic metaphysics, holds that the nature of divine action necessitates an eternal world. An effect must be proportional to its cause, but the conclusion that an eternal cause must produce ab aeterno beings is based on the faulty assumption that God generates the universe by natural necessity. God creates according to intellect and will; i.e., He freely determines that the universe will exist after not existing. According to a second opinion, popular with some scholastics, an eternal world is impossible, because to be beginningless is incompatible with being a creature and because an infinite time is untraversable. Indeed creature entails a principle of origin, but not a principle of a duration. Second, since each segment of an eternal time-line would cover a finite distance, it is no more difficult to conceive a time-line without an initial term than one without an end. Thus, an eternal world is neither necessary nor impossible. As God has revealed, the universe was in fact created in time. God so created without necessity and with reason, but the precise reason is hidden in the depths of divine wisdom. (see universe, origin of; creation.)
See Also: time; now.
Bibliography: m. j. adler, ed., The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World (Chicago 1952) 1:437–450. r. amerio, Enciclopedia filosofica (Venice-Rome 1957) 2:166–177. r. eisler, Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe (Berlin 1927–30) 1:420–424. j. guitton, Le Temps et l'éternité chez Plotin et saint Augustin (3d ed. Paris 1959). j. f. anderson, The Cause of Being: The Philosophy of Creation in St. Thomas (St. Louis 1952). b. gerrity, Nature, Knowledge, and God (Milwaukee 1947). h. f. hallett, Aeternitas (Oxford 1930). r. onians, The Origins of European Thought (2d ed. Cambridge, Eng.1954). i. leclerc, Whitehead's Metaphysics (New York 1958).
[j. m. quinn]
The concept of eternity qualifies both discussion about God and about human destiny, although in different but analogous way. Most believers would profess that God is eternal and many of them believe that eternal life is the prospect of human life in the wider context of the divine life. However, believers, theologians, and philosophers disagree about the meaning of these professions. With the declaration "God is eternal" religious believers express their faith that God encompasses all time for them as creatures because divine life has all the time it needs without beginning or end. God is present at any time in the course of history; divine existence is everlasting, so it endures without any possible limitation. This notion of eternity is found in biblical literature.
The word eternal, meaning "everlasting," can be used in a strong and weak sense. In the strong sense it refers only to God with the entire divine reality, which always has existed and will exist without end. In the weak sense eternal might be used to describe creatures that enjoy eternal life that has a temporal beginning but will have no end. Human beings have their creaturely constraints (birth and death), and it is God's grace when they (or their soul) receive eternal life beyond death, which is life in relation to the eternal God. Apart from these meanings, eternity is sometimes used in a nontemporal way: To live sub specie aeternitatis means to lead one's life according to eternal ultimate normativity.
Theologians and philosophers often disagree about how to interpret eternal. Many of them understand "God is eternal" as affirming "God is wholly timeless." So they imagine the divine being as outside time, without a temporal location (a moment of existence), and without duration (a period of subsistence). There is an anthropological argument pro timelessnes, presupposing a realistic theory of time (time flows and exits independent from events) that runs as follows: Human life is limited both by the borderline cases of birth and death (moments) and by the periods of its past, which are no longer available, and of its future to which it has no access. As temporally living beings, humans are imprisoned in time, continually losing parts of their lives (present events). Such an "imprisonment" in any temporal series is considered to be a denial of the perfectness of the divine being. Therefore, the Roman philosopher Boethius (c. 480–524) equated God's perfect eternal life with timelessness: "eternity is the instantaneously whole and perfect possession of illimitable life."
So far, the argument entails that God knows everything simultaneously because the past, present, and future of God's life are instantaneously grasped in all its relations to creation. Therefore, the past, present, and future are all present to God in one divine point of view. Boethius illustrates God's point of view outside of time with the image of a person standing on a mountaintop who sees what happens along the road in the valley. That person sees, as it were, simultaneously the past, the present, and the future of people walking along the road. The mountain metaphor, however, makes unequivocally clear that this all-encompassing simultaneity spatializes the concept of time: God observes all temporal relations between events as if they were spatial relations between objects in a landscape. If the omniscient God knows all the events of past, present, and future simultaneously, God is simultaneous both with these individual events in order to observe them, and with the sum total of these events because God must be outside of time to observe the temporal series as a unity. Because divine knowledge is true by definition, God's observation of the temporal order is how it "really" is; all events are simultaneous, synchronized. In other words, the notion of a causal chain as a temporal structure is useless because causes and effects are simultaneous, which makes the temporal order arbitrary and causal circularity a serious option. This appears to be equivalent to the assertion that time has no temporal metric and merely a spatial topology. Given this reconstruction, time is merely illusion or appearance (in line with an idealistic theory of time). And therefore, the temporal "imprisonment" human beings might experience is illusory as well. Without coping with such issues, a timeless view of God's eternity is incoherent.
For classical theists, however, eternity conceived as sempiternality (of never-ending duration) raises several theological problems. Divine essence cannot be identical with existence because a temporal God continually loses part of being as past and is not fully actual because of the divine future. Moreover, a temporal God cannot be simple because the divine existence is composed of past, present, and future, each with its own logic. Lastly, to reach the present for a sempiternal God takes an infinite amount of time, subdividable in a finite and an infinite part ad infinitum. These interpretations of essence and simplicity, however, are disputed, whereas the third issue misses the existential point that there is no moment in history in which God is absent. The use of temporal language has the advantage that it can make sense of the notion of divine action and involvement in history.
Contemporary theologians like Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928–) and Jürgen Moltmann (1926–) argue that God's future already exists (in a tenseless sense) from which God acts in the present, a movement opposite to the arrow of time. So God's eternity is an entering in time in which everything is shaped by and from God's future, which is declared to have ontological priority over past and present. However, God's action from God's future implies that all past, present, and creaturily future are simultaneous with God's future. Thus, in God's view, the complete history of created reality appears to be a timeless block universe, whereas from the perspective of creatures history is experienced as temporally ordered. Pannenberg interprets the divine eternity as simultaneity, the perfect possession of the fullness of life, which is claimed to be the opposite of timelessness. Both the whole of creaturely history and this divine life is present to God in such a way that God's eternity embraces the totality of time.
See also Life After Death; Time: Religious and Philosophical Aspects
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leftow, brian. time and eternity. ithaca n.y.: cornell university press, 1991.
moltman, jürgen. the coming of god: christian eschatology. london: scm press, 1996.
padgett, alan. god, eternity, and the nature of time. new york: st. martin's press, 1992.
pannenburg, wolfgang. systematic theology, vol. 3. grand rapids, mich.: eerdman's, 1998.
pike, nelson. god and timelessness. london: routledge and kegan paul, 1970.
stump, eleonora, and kretzmann, norman. "eternity." the journal of philosophy 78 (1981): 429–458.
stump, eleonora, and kretzmann, norman. "eternity, awareness, and action." faith and philosophy 9 (1992): 463–482.
swinburne, richard. "god and time." in reasoned faith: essays in philosophical theology in honor of norman kretzmann, ed. eleonora stump. ithaca n.y.: cornell university press, 1993.
luco j. van den brom
e·ter·ni·ty / iˈtərnitē/ • n. (pl. -ties) infinite or unending time: lasted for all eternity. ∎ a state to which time has no application; timelessness. ∎ Theol. endless life after death: immortal souls destined for eternity. ∎ used euphemistically to refer to death: he could have crashed the car and taken them both to eternity. ∎ (an eternity) inf. a period of time that seems very long, esp. on account of being tedious or annoying: a silence that lasted an eternity.
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