[T]ime is like a fashionable host
That slightly shakes his parting guest by the hand,
And with his arms outstretched, as he would fly,
Grasps in the comer. Welcome ever smiles,
And Farewell goes out sighing. Oh, let not virtue seek
Remuneration for the thing it was;
For beauty, wit,
High birth, vigor of bone, desert in service,
Love, friendship, charity, are subjects all
To envious and calumniating time.
(William Shakespeare - Troilus and Cressida)
Time passes. Whether we like it or not, it passes. We can choose to view it as Shakespeare does here: two-faced and “calumniating” (lying, making false accusations against us to ruin our reputations); or we can accept it as our inescapable companion in this life. The perspective we take (temporal or eternal) will determine how we view and are affected by the passing of time.
The eternal perspective asks us to “number our days...that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). With that heart of wisdom, we will make decisions to serve God and treasure the time he’s given us. We become more intentional, more aware of our destinies, and we value time as currency which we invest in people who will last eternally.
On the flip side of this, we see people who have tried to ignore time and define their purpose as they go. Yogi Berra once said: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road’ll get you there.” But choosing not to choose, where do you end up? Where is “there?” The temporal perspective tells us there is nothing beyond this world. It offers no hope, and it is out of this lack of hope (or out of a manufactured false hope) that people who fail to choose an eternal perspective will view time and approach people.
Throughout history, we see many great thought leaders discouraged as they get older, because they near end of their lives still not having found the answers they spent their lives seeking. Socrates, who devoted his life to seeking truth and died several hundred years before the birth of Christ, had this to say while he awaited execution: “All of the wisdom of this world is but a tiny raft upon which we must set sail when we leave this earth. If only there was a firmer foundation upon which to sail, perhaps some divine word.” Sad words from perhaps the greatest thinker of his time.
Socrates longed for more than he had found in a lifetime of learning; he thought he might find some “divine word” and was, interestingly, executed on the grounds that he was looking for “new dieties.” Of course, our view is that there is a deity greater than the Greek gods that the people of Socrates’ time worshipped and that the divine “Word” was revealed on this earth after Socrates’ death.
Napoleon said before his death:
I die before my time, and my body shall be given back to the earth and devoured by worms. What an abysmal gulf between my deep miseries and the eternal kingdom of Christ. I marvel that, whereas the ambitious dreams of myself and of Alexander and of Caesar should have vanished into thin air, a Judean peasant, Jesus, should be able to stretch his hand across the centuries, and control the destinies of men and nations.
That’s a perceptive comment.
Alduous Huxley (author of Brave New World) also gave his life to study and writing. He began as a humanist, but his widely varied interests led him later to spiritual subjects, specifically eastern mysticism and later, experimental drug use. Though he could not speak on the day of his death, these are, purportedly, some of his last words: “It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find, at the end, that one has no more to offer by way of advice than ‘try to be a little kinder.’” In other words, after a life of studying from a temporal perspective, all he could offer was a platitude. In 1963, in the terminal phases of throat cancer, Huxley instructed his wife to inject him with LSD and died.
Sigmund Freud’s final words are sadder still: “The meager satisfaction that man can extract from reality leaves him starving.” That’s an intriguing but depressing statement, and yet most people who have studied Freud’s life would not be surprised.
Dr. Armand Nicholi, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, contrasted the worldviews of C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud, studying each of their works and correspondence in his recent book The Question of God.20 Reaching the end of the book, it becomes clear that Freud’s worldview led him to total despair. It also had a profound impact on his relationships with others, as it made him very self-centered and resignedly morbid. Lewis’ theism had the opposite effect on him. Volumes of Lewis’ correspondence with people he cared about have been published and continue to be a source of encouragement to others decades later.
The philosophies of those who have chosen a temporal perspective have frequently led them not to value time and people but to see both in terms of their utility. The book Intellectuals, by Paul Johnson, described and contrasted a number of people who were known to be thought leaders and major shapers of our culture, people like Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Heinrich Ibsen, Jean Jacques Rousseau and others. Interestingly, the common denominator among these great thinkers was this: they were in love with the ideal of humanity but really hated people. Johnson carefully demonstrates the fact that every one of them (without exception) used and tossed away the people in their lives when those people no longer seemed useful to them.
Marx was a wonderful example. He had a theory of the working of the proletariat (working class people), and carried with him some emotion and passion for them as a subject. But he never knew one. It was all theory, never practice. As Christians, we’re not called to love an ideal of humanity. We’re called to love people; and there’s a fundamental difference. We’re called to love the people who are actually in our presence, in our path, in our lives. We’re even called to love the ones who aren’t useful to us, perhaps especially these. It is real people we’re challenged and called to embrace, not some flimsy notion of mankind as some general humanistic enterprise.
The lives of the people in Johnson’s book demonstrate how we are affected by our view of our destiny. Whether we choose a temporal or eternal perspective will determine whether we reach the end of our journeys starving for satisfaction and cursing “calumniating time” or possessing a wise heart and eternally valuable relationships. The decision is ours to make, and the decision demands to be made.
God offers us his Word and allows us to choose our own worldview. Three worldviews vie for our allegiance; yet only one of them leads to an eternal perspective. It would be wise for us to gain a basic understanding of them.
The first worldview claims that ultimate reality is material, and everything in the universe is the impersonal product of time and chance. There are variations of this view; but it is best known as naturalism, atheism or humanism. In the end, it promises total annihilation. When we die, we simply cease to be.
The second worldview claims that ultimate reality is not material but spiritual. However, in this context, “spiritual” is not intended to imply a personal being but the mysterious all-that-is. Variations of this view include monism, pantheism, transcendentalism and the New Age movement. Its promised end is reincarnation. But before we begin to entertain ideas about the wonderful possibility of starting over again and making it out better on the second go around, we need to understand something. Contrary to the popular version of reincarnation in the West, the religions of the East teach that reincarnation is undesirable, since it brings us around and around on the painful wheel of life. Someone who really believes in reincarnation does not want to wake up and find that he has failed so badly in life that he has to do it again. The Eastern vision of salvation is absorption into the ocean of being. This is not a vision of personal consciousness or of eternal relationships; it is another, more spiritual, version of annihilation.
Theism, the third worldview, distinguishes between the creation and the Creator and declares that ultimate reality is an infinite, intelligent and personal Being. Christian theism affirms that this personal God has decisively revealed himself in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Only this third worldview offers genuine hope beyond the grave. The Bible teaches that we will be resurrected into an eternally new existence of light, life and love characterized by intimacy with God and with one another. While we don’t know every detail about heaven, we believe that everything we go through now will be more than worth it in the end (2 Corinthians 4:17). The divine Architect of the universe, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, has promised to welcome us into that eternity.
In an attempt to discount theism’s hope of eternity, some humanists have actually made a philosophical argument against the soul’s immortality that runs this way: If our souls really were eternal, life would be a hell of absolute and infinite boredom. Bernard Williams’ essay: The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality, is based on a play in which the lead character, Elina Makropulos, is given an immortality serum and remains at the apparent age of 43, though she is actually 342 years old. Elina is bored, indifferent, cold and joyless. Williams sees Elina’s condition as an unavoidable consequence of living too long. He believes that eternal life would inevitably lead to absolute and endless boredom, an endless “tedium” of life unchanged.21
Williams’ philosophy actually reveals more about the philosopher’s deficiency of imagination than it does about the immortality of the soul. We will not be bored in heaven, because God is infinite and will always be filled with surprises. Frankly, the more we study about nature, the more mysterious and extraordinary it becomes. We may deduce that we will find the same to be true of heaven.
The People of God and the Word of God will endure. We will go on into eternity; we will be the inhabitants of the new heavens and the new earth, and we will not be bored. Bernard Williams’ hypothesis of the tedium of immortality assumes that to live forever would be to live unchanged, but we are an altogether different sort of people, a people in process. We cannot deny time. Our bodies are wearing out fast; but the apostle Paul gives us hope: “[W]e do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16). The body will perish, but that which is going on into eternity is being renewed and developed every day of the rest of our earthly lives.
We already have manifest in us the life of the kingdom that is to come. In Christ, we are already new creatures, new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). We are not who we once were. From the inside out, we are being transformed. Our deepest selves partake of the divine nature, the life of Christ in us, the Spirit of God in our spirit (2 Peter 1:4). Now, this process - bringing our outward selves into conformity with what we’ve become on the inside - becomes our greatest call in life.
I’m more and more impressed with the depth of the Christian vision, as opposed to the shallowness of alternative views, whether it’s the new age variations or the shallowness of naturalism or materialism. I’m stunned by the depth of it. Naturalism says that ultimate reality is simply material; and the new age says that ultimate reality doesn’t come in the form of an ultimately real person but rather in some force, some energy or vibration or consciousness.
In contrast to those worldviews, the Christian vision is deeper than we’ll ever be able to plummet, because the God of our vision and his wisdom are infinite. His understanding is unbounded. In heaven, we will continue in the process of growing into the fullness of the people we were intended to be. Scripture does not lead us to believe that life in heaven will be static. We will learn; we will grow in our relationships with God and others. And we will never be bored. I assure you of this.
A. W. Tozer died the same year as Aldous Huxley, but the life he lived had been entirely different. His life was marked by a “long obedience in the same direction.”22 He became a believer in an infinite personal God at the age of 17 and stayed his course. He believed that life on this earth is a short preamble to something far better and that our lives and physical bodies give evidence to this fact. He said:
The days of the years of our lives are few, and swifter than a weaver’s shuttle. Life is a short and fevered rehearsal for a concert we cannot stay to give. Just when we appear to have attained some proficiency we are forced to lay our instruments down. There is simply not time enough to think, to become, to perform what the constitution of our natures indicates we are capable of.”23
An eternal perspective tells us that we were meant for far more than this creation can offer. C. S. Lewis said: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”24 We come to the realization that we have longings that can never be sustained, never satisfied, never really fulfilled in this world. These aspirations cannot be satisfied by any of the offerings of a transitory world, because there’s not enough time. There’s not enough opportunity, nor is there enough energy on this planet even to scratch the surface of our deep-seated, God-given hopes and dreams.
God has implanted eternity in our hearts (according to Ecclesiastes 3:11), and we cannot eradicate the desire for eternity. It’s hard-wired. We can try to avoid it by indifference and distraction. But, at the end, it’s still going to be there, gnawing away at the earthly prospects that seem so promising but end up having no value, no power whatsoever. God has planted deep longings within us, and if we are wise, we will allow these to become magnets that draw our hearts to the only realm in which these longings will be satisfied.
Tozer beautifully gives his answer to the problem of the short duration of our earthly lives:
How completely satisfying to turn from our limitations to a God who has none. Eternal years lie in His heart. For Him time does not pass, it remains; and those who are in Christ share with Him all the riches of limitless time and endless years. God never hurries. There are no deadlines against which He must work. Only to know this is to quiet our spirits and relax our nerves. For those out of Christ, time is a devouring beast; before the sons of the new creation time crouches and purrs and licks their hands25.
The concert is ahead. When it arrives, it will be glorious, because it will be unsullied by human ambition, double-mindedness, pride, vanity and foolishness. All that will be done away with, and the body of Christ, cell-by-cell, will be restored into the perfection that has really been God’s intention all along. Spot, wrinkle, all other such things, will be removed so that it will be holy and blameless and pure.
Now imagine what that concert will be like when all that is best in us is brought out, and all that was wrong in us is decisively removed. Even one hour in that experience - of the true communion of the saints (not to mention the presence of the Lord God whom we will see face to face in our resurrected bodies) — would be more than anything we can imagine. The experience of joy in heaven is something we could not sustain here. We would be disintegrated, undone. No one can look upon God and live, not in this body. But in the next life, the Bible says we will “see his face.” We, who were banished from the garden and from God’s manifest presence will live in the City of God and see him face-to-face. In light of this, it’s interesting to imagine what impact what we are doing today will have 100 years from now, not only on this planet, but for eternity.
William Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, is about a magician, Prospero, who uses his magic books to rule an enchanted island. He fills it with spirits and beings that serve him. Near the end of the play, when he addresses his guest, Ferdinand, it is as though Shakespeare himself speaks through Prospero. The fourth act of the play is like parting words from Shakespeare to his audience at the Globe Theatre as he says:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
At the end of the play, Prospero gives up his magic and turns his thoughts to the grave. Shakespeare, in his final work, showed his understanding that the temporal achievements and accomplishments of humanity really would all come to an end.
It’s reminiscent of 2 Peter 3:10, which gives us a vision of a fiery consumption of all human attainments on the day of God. Peter says, “[T]he day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.” All that we see, this “theatre of life,” the “great globe itself” will dissolve. It will fade and “leave not a rack behind.”
I took a photo of a dandelion that turned out extraordinarily well, and it’s now on my desktop. I like it so much, because it’s a reminder of how we can overlook the brilliance and creativity of God. We’ll see thousands of these little flowers turned to puff balls in our lifetime. Remember them? As a child, you took dandelions, made a wish and blew on them? You watched all the little seeds scatter. My photo caught this one at the point that it was a perfect sphere. Its structure was marvelous, crafted beautifully to reproduce, with white fluff around each seed perfectly suited as a parachute to carry the seeds great distances. You can look at the structure of one of these; and it’s absolutely exquisite in its complexity, truly more impressive than anything any architect has ever been able to achieve, marvelous in its elegance and its simplicity and beauty and yet profound in the information that is contained within it. And this exquisite and aesthetically pleasing thing is only the surface of God’s creation.
This is what God’s fallen creation looks like. What do you suppose his new creation will look like, when we and our earth are restored to the condition we were all in before there was sin? The Bible says that “eye has not seen and ear has not heard”; our hearts have not even an idea of what God has prepared for us who love him. We do not yet have sufficient cognitive equipment to understand or embrace it, but time will tell.
Time will tell as well of the contrast between the power of men and the power of God. Imagine the Apostle Paul as he stood before Nero. The first time Paul was brought to Roman imprisonment, he was acquitted. This time, he knew he wouldn’t be. His last letters (First and Second Timothy and Titus) demonstrate his awareness: “I have poured out my life as a drink offering. I have fought the good fight. I’ve finished the faith. I have been faithful.” In other words: I know I’m at the end of my journey; and he asks Timothy to carry the message to the next generation. This small man stands in chains before such a powerful emperor, Nero. Imagine what Nero must have looked like, his splendor and pageantry. Imagine Paul in his chains and in his poverty. At that time, one might have supposed that future generations would want to emulate the great Nero. One might suppose that history would pity Paul. It’s interesting that 2000 years later, we call children Paul, and dogs Nero.
We do well to remember that all the pomp and splendor of man is as nothing in comparison with the power of a life transformed by the indwelling Spirit of God. There is a new power, a new dimension in him that the world does not understand. Jesus before Pilate is a perfect example of that. The powerful Pilate asks, “What is truth?” And here was the incarnation of truth standing right in front of him. Even at that time, Pilate was actually frightened by Jesus. “Who are you?” he asked. It was a great question to ask. He knew he was dealing with someone more than an ordinary criminal. Now, besides Bible readers, who remembers the name Pilate? Time exposes what will last and what will not.
I spoke not too long ago at a retreat near Baton Rouge. Some of the men at the retreat were people I’ve known for years, and I really treasure the unity of spirit I felt there. After the Friday night session, some of us were gathered around talking, and the conversation was glorious. A friend of mine brought out four rare bottles of wine, among them a 1976 Chateau Lafite Rothschild. When he shared the wine with us, my friend said, “I want to enjoy it now with my friends rather than die and leave it behind.” I asked him to write down the names of the wines because I’d never remember them, but I wanted to remember, not for the sake of the wine, but for the sake of the moment. It was magical, four hours in the presence of people I loved, enjoying the goodness of God’s creation. It was April 30 th, and I will never forget it. But I remember, even while we were there together, thinking that it was a gift to my memory, something that I could look back on but that would not last forever.
We want to hold onto these moments, but we know, even in the process, that we cannot. There’s something about time that makes you want to stop it. At moments like these, you want to hold onto it, and yet it slips through your fingers. Time seems to be a relentless river that carries our lives away with it. We must make the most of the time we’ve been given before the time slips away.
Waking Ned Divine is a clever film that illustrates this beautifully. It’s about a man from a tiny Irish village of about 52 inhabitants, all mostly honest Irish country folk living simple lives. Big news hits their tiny village when they discover that someone from their village has won the Irish National Lottery. The only problem is that Ned Devine, the winner, lives on his own, has no family and gets so excited about winning that he dies, smiling, with his hand still on the ticket. When his friends Jackie O’Shea and Michael O’Sullivan discover that Ned has won only after writing his name on the back of the winning ticket, they must concoct a quick scheme to keep the winnings from reverting back to the state, which is what will happen if the Lottery folks find out Ned is dead.
They convince almost everyone in the village to go along with the scheme. Michael O’Sullivan plays the role of Ned Devine. And when the lottery man comes to confirm it, it goes off without a hitch. After they believe the lottery official has left, the people gather together to remember Ned Devine. But the official has not yet left. On his way out of the village, he hears them singing and enters the church to see what’s going on. Jackie O’Shea quickly devises another plan and begins a eulogy to his friend Michael O’Sullivan, who is actually sitting, alive, in the front row.
Jackie has the unique opportunity to give a funeral oration for a man still living. He says:
Michael O’Sullivan was my great friend, but I don’t ever remember telling him that. The words that are spoken at a funeral are spoken too late for the man that is dead. Michael and I grew old together. But at times when we laughed, we grew younger. If he were here now, if he could hear what I say, I’d congratulate him on being a great man and thank him for being a friend.
Why do we wait until the funeral to speak our love, our gratitude, our affection? Why do we do that? Why do we reserve our best words for people after their death? It doesn’t make sense. What a wonderful thing it would be to visit your own funeral, like Michael O’Sullivan, to sit and hear what was said, maybe to say a few things yourself.
An eternal perspective teaches us that relationships can be forever and time is not to be feared. Funerals are not the time for our words of praise. Now is. If we really believe this, we will treat people differently. We will remember how many times the Bible tells us God loves us and wants us to love each other. We will be generous with our words of praise and more cautious with our criticism. We strive to speak words filled with a divine kindness which we spend on people who are God’s eternal treasure. Then, like the poet John Milton, we can, without fear, bid Time to “Fly...run out they race....”
Then long Eternity shall greet our bliss
With an individual kiss;
And Joy shall overtake us as a flood,
When every thing that is sincerely good
And perfectly divine,
With Truth, and Peace, and Love shall ever shine
About the supreme Throne
Of him, t’whose happy-making sight alone,
When once our heav’nly-guided soul shall clime,
Then all this Earthy grosnes quit,
Attir’d with Stars, we shall for ever sit,
Triumphing over Death, and Chance, and thee O Time.26
20 Armand Nicholi, The Question of God ( New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002).
21 Max More, Meaninfulness and Mortality, February, 1991. Http://220.127.116.11/search?q=cache:ztVwAn_aej0J:www.maxmore.com/meaning.htm+reflections+on+the+tedium+makropulos+max+more&hl=en.
22 A Long Obedience in the Same Direction comes from a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, but was redeemed by Eugene Peterson in his book on the subject of perseverance by the same name.
23 A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, ( New York, New York: Harper Collins), p. 52-53
24 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (book 3 ch. 10)
26 John Milton. 308. On Time (Arthur Quiller-Couch, ed. 1919. The Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250.)