What is our idea of eternity? Does it matter?
I suggest that the idea of eternity with which we have been brought up is defective, and that as a result we do not have clear ideas about such things as Heaven, Hell or Purgatory.
In his book, "A Grammar of Assent", Cardinal Newman discussed whether Hell had no termination. He concluded his discussion, "In what I have been saying, I have considered eternity as infinite time, because that is the received assumption". That is the notion that I grew up with.
That is the same assumption that underlies the description of purgatory in the Green Catechism, as "a place or state of punishment in the next life where some souls suffer for a time before they go to heaven". It is expressed in the hymn, Amazing Grace, "When we've been here ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we've no less days to sing God's praise than when we've first begun." (We can forgive "less" instead of "fewer" for the sake of poetic rhythm).
It has occurred to many that such an existence could get pretty boring. Newman recognised this. He wrote, "Mere eternity, though without suffering, if realised in the soul's consciousness, is formidable enough; it would be insupportable even to the good, except for, and as involved in, the beatific vision; it would be a perpetual solitary confinement."
In Newman's day, and in my youth, it may have been legitimate to accept that received assumption. It is so no longer. Our knowledge of cosmology has changed since Einstein and Stephen Hawking. Scientific observation and speculation has given rise to the currently received hypothesis, that the universe, the material world, did have a beginning, a "singularity", to which the popular press has given the name, "the Big Bang".
There are competing cosmological theories about whether and how the universe may have an end, but that does not matter for my present purposes. What does matter is the present view that time itself is part of the material universe, and that it came into existence at and with the Big Bang. Time is but one aspect of the laws of Physics, which describe how the material world operates, and it is intimately bound up with matter and motion. "Before the Big Bang" is a phrase without meaning. "Before" and "after", "past",' "present" and "future" came into existence with it. Even for those who do not accept the "Big Bang" hypothesis, it has been experimentally demonstrated that time is bound up with, and is an aspect of, matter.
Remarkably, this is an insight that had come to St Augustine many centuries ago. He held that time itself is part of the reality created by God. (He quoted a facetious answer to the question, "What was God doing before He made Heaven and Earth?” namely, "He was preparing Hell for those who pry into mysteries.")(Confessions, Book 11, Ch 14).
What follows from this?
It is difficult to say. I mean that literally. Time is, and has always been, so much a part of our consciousness that it suffuses our language, and it is difficult to find words that do not import or connote concepts of time. We rely very much on our imagination to express ourselves, and yet it is impossible for our imaginations to conceive of an existence that does not include time. My attempts to think about eternity are therefore hampered by the difficulty to find words that adequately express true meaning, unadulterated by concepts that are bound in time.
When I die, what there is of me that is material ceases to exist as me. It becomes a mass of inorganic chemical substances. If, as I believe, I do not cease entirely to exist at all, what then exists of me is spiritual, not material. Therefore it does not exist in time. For the spiritual me there is no past or future, but only present. Eternity is not endless ages stretching out to infinity. A better word is "timelessness". Time is not part of the existence of the spiritual being, either created or Creator.
Heaven, therefore, is a timeless present, in which I realise that the God who creates and loves me, knows my sinfulness and the sins that I committed when I was in time, and forgives them. I would realise that the grace that led me to repentance had been entirely His gift in Jesus Christ, and my gratitude and love would have no bounds.
Hell on the other hand is also a timeless present, in which I realise that I reject the forgiveness that was offered to me, and that an opportunity to change my mind does not exist, because metanoia, repentance, a change of heart, a turning away from sin, requires a motion from one state of mind to another, a before and an after, in other words, time, which I do not have. I would realise that my predicament was entirely my own choice (otherwise I should not be there), and the bitterness of that realisation could be described as "like fire".
What about purgatory? I cannot suffer for a time before I go to heaven, because, once I am dead, for me there is no time. Not only can I not imagine, I cannot intellectually conceive of a state between life and death. The only logical possibilities are; (a) I am alive and material and in time, or (b) I am dead and spiritual and not in time, or (c) I am dead and simply no longer exist. If (c), that is the end of the discussion.
I have grave doubts about the need for purgatory.
We are told that, “It is a happy and wholesome thing to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins”. That does not demonstrate to me that this concept of timelessness after death is wrong. The exhortation is quite consistent with it. God hears prayers whenever they are offered, and answers them when and if it suits him. It seems to me quite possible that if, for example, my grandchildren were to pray for me in say 40 years time, when I will certainly have been dead for some time, God may answer their prayers by giving me now the graces that I need to keep my faith, repent of my sins and to do penance for them while I yet live. He is not impeded by a before and after.
Of course, I believe that he gives me, and will continue to give me, those graces whether they or anyone else prays for me or not, but that raises another and different problem that is not the subject of this essay.
I also have no problem with the teaching that divine justice requires that we do penance for our sins. Divine justice is not based on human concepts.
In human law, when a person causes harm to the community by crime, or to another by crime, civil wrong or breach of contract, punishment or compensation is ordered, so as to repair, so far as possible, the harm done, as well as to deter others who might be tempted to act likewise.
But God is not harmed by our sins. Punishment of the sinner does not provide any benefit to him, he takes no pleasure in our suffering, nor does he need compensation. Penance is entirely for the benefit of the sinner. The time for it is during the sinner's lifetime, not in timelessness.
What God gives me is life, that is, life as a human being, with all that that entails. My right relationship with God requires that I recognise the value of that gift, and express my gratitude for it, as it is.
Human life, for me at any rate, has brought and will no doubt continue to bring many joys, delights and pleasures, especially love, and it is easy to be grateful for them. But it also brings with it sorrows, pains and suffering. Again, it is easy for me to be grateful for the fact that so far they have not been many or grievous. But I think that a loving and grateful acceptance of them in their entirety can constitute the doing of penance. The time for doing this is while I am still in time, alive.
Most importantly, human life entails that it will come to an end. I will inevitably die. I can at present lovingly and gratefully accept that fact, but will I be of the same mind when the time comes? To accept my death with gratitude would seem to me to be the ultimate penance for my sins. If God gives me the grace to die while still in that state of mind, I see no need for purgatory.
1 June 2011