Arjuna recognizes that he will have to fight his own family, and he despairs. Krishna responds:
You speak sincerely, but your sorrow has no cause. The wise grieve neither for the living nor for the dead. There has never been a time when you and I and the kings gathered here have not existed, nor will there be a time when we cease to exist.
…Every creature is unmanifested at first, and then attains manifestation. When its end has come, it once again become unmanifested. What is there to lament in this? (BG 2:11, 28)
I’ve often heard that the greatest difference in Eastern and Western cultures, or between Abrahamic religions and most of the world, is the conception of time. Does time march forward, like a digital clock? Or does it move cyclically, and everything that has happened will happen again?
Time doesn’t only move forward in the Hebrew scriptures. We get a minority opinion in the book of Ecclesiastes. The author of Eccelsiastes is referred to as Qoheleth, “The Teacher.” Listen to how much Qoholeth sounds like Krishna:
Whatever has happened—that’s what will happen again;
whatever has occurred—that’s what will occur again. There’s nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
Einstein informed us that time is relative—it behaves differently depending on how fast we are moving, or how much gravity we are experiencing. Time is part of the created order, so much so that we cannot “see” back before the Big Bang. What existed “before” time got its house in order in those first few milliseconds of the universe?
C.S. Lewis pointed out that God is outside of time, and doesn’t measure time by the clock. God “has all eternity in which to listen to the split second of prayer put up by a pilot as his plane crashes in flames.” We experience one moment after another, but from the perspective of eternity, our moments are spread out like a sheet of paper. All moments are NOW to God.
While I think this is a powerful perspective and I believe its theological truth, let’s not ascribe the same worldview to the ancient Hebrews. In the Bible, while God has an eternal perspective, there is still the notion that God experiences time:
You return people to dust,
saying, “Go back, humans,”
because in your perspective a thousand years
are like yesterday past, like a short period during the night watch. (Psalm 90:3-4)
The ancient Hebrews understood God as a liberating God who acts in history: Tell [your children]: We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. But the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand (Deuteronomy 6:21). Creation has a start and an end, and both are held in the hands of God as time moves in one direction.
But there is a place where Jesus turns this notion inside-out. When he is debating with Sadducees about the resurrection, he says: “…haven’t you read what God told you, I’m the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? He isn’t the God of the dead but of the living” (Matthew 22:31-32). Of course, everyone listening had always thought that God really meant “I was the God of Abraham.” Jesus puts the weight on I AM.
So to understand our relationship to time and to God, Jesus tells us that either a) we are resurrected—or “manifested” in the words of the BG—again at some point in the linear future, or b) all times are present to God as now, because the advance of time is simply an illusion we are bound up in. Eternity and eternal life is either on the horizon, or it is present even now.
Either way, in both traditions, this thing we call “death” does not have the last word.
God, my world is full of moments. Help me to experience them all as now. Bring eternity into our time.