Is eternity measurable? When we talk of eternal life, what does it mean? The flip side is the question the scrupulous may ponder: When we talk about eternal punishment, what does it mean?
The answer to all three is a simple confession: We don’t know. We humans have no way of comprehending, no dependable or comprehensible measurement, no way of explaining what eternity means.
One reason for this dilemma—our inability to explain the eternal—is that we measure our lives. We exist within a measurable accumulation of human-invented tools of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years. Those tools help us put our life, the lives of others, and our experiences into perspective. In short, the concept of time helps us weave the fabric of our lives into a whole. But people invented the tools of time, God did not. While helpful, the tools are limited inventions.
While humans invented the tools to measure time, we didn’t create time. God did. Time is a dimension, a way of measuring the universe, a way to calculate distance, the placement of one object in relationship to others. Our understanding of time is also relatively new, a perspective that is minuscule when contrasted with the reality of the universe, thousands of years in contrast with billions of years.
It might help to note that our concept of eternity has evolved. At one time, eternity was understood as the experience of being outside time. In other words, the older tradition and understanding was that eternity resisted measurement and could not be quantified. We began to understand eternity in the manner that we reference it today in the sixteenth century. At that time, concerns about quantifying and placing into systems all things Catholic came into vogue in partial response to Protestant reforms.
If your brain is not aching at this point, consider this. What do we mean when we say God is eternal, God is timeless, or when Scripture observes that “a thousand years in [God’s] eyes are merely a day gone by” (Psalm 90)?
Scripture pretty much suggests that the human way of counting and measuring time is not the experience of God. It suggests that God exists in an entirely different place of perception and experience. We can’t know or comprehend the perception and experience of God. Thus we’re reduced to a position where we must admit that we don’t understand and can’t explain what eternity is and how it can be understood and quantified.
Stepping back from attempts to answer what is unknowable, we’re left with a question. If we assert that we’re living and anticipating the experience of eternity—eternal life as creed and dogma—what do we really mean? An example might help answer that question and get to the heart of this reflection.
Imagine you have an unwelcome, powerful, impure sexual thought. Imagine it happens as you stand in line for holy Communion, which makes it worse in your mind. From start to finish, the whole imaginary experience lasts a second. Now imagine you believe that—as a result of this one-second, unwanted, powerfully sexual thought—you have somehow committed a mortal sin that you must confess or God will sentence you to an eternity in hell. This equation of a one-second sin resulting in an eternity in hell is absurd.
The example illustrates a person taking a personal experience from one second of his history and then concluding that God will give him an unmeasurable, horrible consequence. This erroneous conclusion, fueled by anxiety and fear, is flabbergasting to say the least. It’s also arrogant, pretentious, and not at all reflective of God’s order. We can’t wrench God out of his experience of eternity into our small experience of a moment in time. In other words, we can’t force an eternal God into our human experience of time. God’s time is not our time.
I invite and challenge scrupulous people, and in fact everyone, to resist the temptation to make the mystery of God and the mystery of eternity too small and too constrained. If we do that as a result of fear and anxiety, we don’t change reality, but we do fuel the emotion that is necessary to feed the scrupulous condition.
Try to embrace an attitude of awe and wonder, mystery and grace. Such attitudes are much better choices, and they will pay dividends by removing a trigger that deprives scrupulous people of peace and blessing.
Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR