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Eternity

by Kenneth O. Stroh

"I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty." (Revelation 1: 8)

It is important that finite man should have a correct idea of eternity; otherwise he cannot properly know and love his Heavenly Father, who alone is truly eternal. No mortal man can really comprehend the Divine or perceive the infinite God as He is in Himself. But in His Word the Lord has described His infinity and eternity in terms which may be grasped by angels and men; for He says that He is, and was, and is to come.

But what is eternity? Often it is thought of in reference to the life after death, which is to continue without end; and in this connection some look forward to it with hope, some dread it with the fear of the uncertain in their hearts, while many do not think about it at all. It is commonly defined as that which is without beginning or end and is thus timeless. Yet the thought of the world on the subject is confused; for this everlasting existence or duration is frequently described as an infinity of time, that is, as time without beginning or end. This idea involves a basic contradiction in terms. Along with it there came into the former Christian Church the falsity that the Lord is the Son of God, born from eternity; whereas no one, not even God Himself, can be born into the world except in time. Thus thought concerning the matter is not clear.

Yet if man has no clear ideas on the subject he cannot know the Lord very well, because he has no adequate idea of the nature of the Master's infinite love and wisdom. At the same time, there are many things he cannot understand about the Divine order in the creation of the universe and about the laws of the Divine Providence whereby creation is protected and sustained. He cannot comprehend the eternal values that make the life of heaven on the one hand, and the life of hell on the other; and he cannot fully appreciate one of the essential elements of the heavenly marriage of husband and wife. Therefore it is important to man's spiritual welfare that he should have a right idea of eternity.

The difficulty is that earthbound humans think from ideas that are limited by the times and spaces which are proper to the natural world. They instinctively think of eternity no otherwise than as an eternity of time, and this results in a confusion of ideas. Therefore, in order to have understanding we must turn to Divine revelation, which alone can penetrate the clouds of obscurity, and in the Heavenly Doctrine we find that a true understanding may be learned from what we are taught about the angels. They do not live in a world of time and space, for these belong to the natural world, not to the spiritual. Time is measured by the revolution of the earth on its axis, which produces days and nights, and by its course around the sun, whereby men know a regular procession of seasons and of years. But in heaven the spiritual sun does not appear to move; it remains in a fixed position, at a middle height in the sky. Thus the angels always have light. They have no darkness at night and they have no seasons other than a beautiful, perpetual spring. Thus they have no idea of time such as does man in the world.

Nevertheless there is an appearance of time with the angels, for they have their morning, noon, afternoon and evening periods. But these periods are not brought on by any fixed progression outside of the angels. Rather are they produced in the angels themselves by their various and progressing states of love and wisdom. They have states when their loves and affections are warm, or relatively not so warm; they have states when their thoughts are clear, or relatively obscure; they have states of morning and evening. So instead of times they have states. Men in the world also have varying states, and natural time, though fixed, can often appear according to the state. When a man delights in what he is doing, the time seems to pass very quickly - all too quickly; but when he is bored, the time seems endless. Time can appear according to the state of mind, and with the angels it is ever so. Time is unknown to them, for instead of it they have states. Thus they cannot conceive of an eternity of time. Rather, to the angels, eternity means infinite state. (HH 167)

We are told that the angels learn the true idea of the Divine eternity by reflecting on the fact that thousands of years do not appear to them as time, but almost as if they had lived only a minute. Furthermore; in their present they have past and future things together. "Hence they have no solicitude about future things; nor have they ever any idea of death, but only the idea of life; so that in all their present there is the Lord's eternity and infinity." (AC 1382) Often we hear it said that the angels live in the present, and this is what is meant - that they have no concern for the future because their present contains all things of the past and foreshadows all things of the future; not future time, but successive states of increasing love and wisdom.

Therefore the angels care not for those temporary things which seem so vital to men in the world - things belonging to time and space, which are of the natural world and are left behind on the death of the body. They are not solicitous about dignities, honors and reputation, about riches and physical possessions, about bodily health and appearance, or even about food, clothing and their homes. For all these natural things have been left behind in the natural world, and they have been given similar things freely, each angel in accordance with his need and usefulness. (DP 220) Therefore the angels have no regard for what is temporary, but only for what is of eternal value.

Men in the world also, if they would learn to become angels, must learn to look to the eternal rather than the temporal. This they cannot do unless they try to remove their thoughts from the things of time and space, learning to think from heavenly rather than from worldly purposes. If they do this, the interiors of their minds will be associated with the angels of heaven; and from the Divine Word they will be able to gain a true understanding of the nature of the Lord, of His creation, of His Divine Providence, of the life of heaven, and of the eternal marriage of good and truth there.

For example, only when time and space have been removed from the thought can it be fully understood what the Lord meant when He said that He is, and was, and is to come. He spoke in the appearance of time and space: He spoke of the present, the past and the future; and these are expressions comprehensible to men, but corresponding to heavenly ideas and to the Divine itself. The angelic idea of the Lord's immensity and of His eternity contains nothing of space and time. Therefore the Heavenly Doctrine reveals that "to the angels in heaven the immensity of God means His Divinity in respect to His esse, and His eternity His Divinity in respect to His existere. (TCR 31: 2) His esse might be called His being - the Lord God Jehovah as He is in Himself; while His existere is sometimes called His coming or standing forth - the Divine proceeding to create and sustain the universe. (Cf. AC 3937: 3) But perhaps the idea becomes more clear if for esse we say the Divine love, and for existere the Divine wisdom. For the Heavenly Father is love itself, and He does all things by means of His wisdom. So also, to the angels, the Lord's immensity means His Divinity in respect to love, while His eternity means His Divinity in respect to wisdom. (Cf. TCR 31: 2)

The correspondence of the Divine wisdom with eternity and, on a lower plane, with time may be illustrated from man's daily experience; for when the understanding, the receptacle of wisdom, is completely at rest, as when man is asleep, then the passage of time is not noticed, for times relate to wisdom or to truth. So when the Lord came, a Light into the world, He came as the Divine truth, the Word made flesh, to teach and lead men back to the way of wisdom and spiritual life. That He is eternal He taught when He said: "Before Abraham was, I am." (John 8: 58) But He was not the Son of God born from eternity, as the Christian churches have taught. Rather His birth, while its necessity was foreseen from eternity, was nevertheless provided in time, and His physical appearance in the world lasted for approximately thirty-three years. But the Lord's Divine Human itself is above and apart from time, though in all times; for it is one with the Divine love and wisdom, and Divine wisdom is eternity itself.

From eternity the Lord's love has gone forth by means of His wisdom, seeking to create others outside of Himself to whom He can give happiness. Man can easily conceive of this creation as going on forever. To begin with, his innate conceit will not allow him to feel that he himself will ever cease to exist, and it is not difficult to think of an endless succession of years; that is, in terms of time it is not difficult to think of "to eternity." But to think of "from eternity" is another matter. Man then instinctively thinks of a first beginning. Yet beginning has exclusive reference to time; and the man who thinks of the origin of creation as being from a beginning of time eventually must think of its origin as being natural, for time is a property of nature. He who so thinks becomes a naturalist and at length denies God; whereas the truth is that the universe has been created from eternity - not an eternity of time, but eternity not of time - and that times have been introduced by the Lord with creation. (Cf. DLW 156, 157)

So it is vain to think of eternity before time, or of the Lord's thoughts and actions before creation. Anyone who persists in such thoughts may easily become spiritually insane, and may be led to the denial of God. Swedenborg notes that once he was thinking about what God was from eternity; what He did before the world was created, whether He thought about creation and decided on the order to be followed. Then he adds: "But lest I should be driven to madness by such speculations I was raised up by the Lord into the sphere and light in which the interior angels dwell; and when the idea of space and time in which my thought was dwelling had been somewhat removed, it was given me to comprehend that the eternity of God is not an eternity of time; and as there was no time before the world was created, it is utterly vain to think about God in any such way." (TCR 31: 3)

When this is accepted it can more easily be understood how the Divine Providence protects and sustains all created things. For in all that it does the Divine Providence looks to eternal things, and to temporal things only as far as they agree with eternal things. That is, the Lord wishes to lead men to heaven to the extent that they are willing to be led; and He grants or withholds dignities, honors, possessions and health and the like in such a manner as can best serve man's spiritual welfare. The Lord can do this because He knows man's quality from and to eternity; He knows what the man can and will be, and so is able to provide for his every spiritual need. But the Lord could not do this unless He were infinite and unlimited by time and space. To man, this knowledge of the Lord's appears as foresight, and is properly so called; but with the Lord it is not foresight, but His Divine wisdom. For He knows all things, and to Him all things are present. (Cf. DP 214; AC 1048, 5309)

It is from this that the angels are said to live in the present, for they are close to the Lord. Indeed it is said that they are in the Lord and that the Lord is in them. Still, they are human, finite, and thus limited. But they are above the realm of time and space, and the appearance of time with them is according to their different states of love and wisdom. Those in hell are also in such appearances according to their states of the love of evil and belief in what is false. But, unlike the angels, they have not given up a longing for temporal things. They long for dignities, honors and possessions, and burn with hatred against those who keep them from their desires; and because the laws which restrain them are Divine, for the Lord rules the hells also, their greatest hatred is therefore for the Lord Himself.

Thus life is more heavenly as it is far from the things of time and space. (AC 2654: 6) So is it also with men and women upon the earth. To the extent that they regard worldly things as important in themselves, to the extent that they desire these things for selfish reasons, to that extent are they far removed from the sphere of heaven. But as they come to regard the eternal things of the spirit as being of the first importance, and look on temporal things merely as means to spiritual ends, so do they come near to heaven, for then heaven is within them.

This truth may be illustrated by the love of husband and wife in marriage. If the married partners both hope and believe that their union is of the Divine Providence, and that it is to endure to eternity, they will progress more deeply into interior states of heavenly joy and peace, no matter what the external vicissitudes of life may bring. But if the idea of the eternal is taken away, then they must regard their marriage as being only an external conjunction which will be dissolved by death. Then it is as if they had been cast down from heaven; for the true love in marriage, called conjugial love, has eternity in it from the fact that this love, together with its wisdom, increases with the married partners to eternity. (Cf. CL 216) This increase is not to an eternity of time, but rather to one of state. For those in conjugial love know ever more interior states of wisdom, and of the love of that wisdom. This they have from the Lord, who is wisdom itself; and because the Divine wisdom is eternity itself, therefore conjugial love has in it the eternal.

So is it in all things of man's life. In his thoughts and affections, his words and deeds, he can choose to give primary emphasis to the temporary things of the world or to the eternal things of Divine wisdom; and those who choose the way of wisdom will search the Divine Word for the truths of wisdom, will examine the inner nature of their lives, will shun their evils as sins against God, and so will enter the life of regeneration.

Certainly man is surrounded by time and space while he is in the world, and his external thoughts are limited by these fixed boundaries. This is of the Divine mercy, so that man will have the opportunity to make a free choice between the things of the world and of self on the one hand, and the things of God and of the spirit on the other; wherefore all in the world must live, think and talk according to times and spaces. But their spirits do not need to be governed by these things; for the Divine Word has been given to teach men the true values of spiritual life and all need regular periods when their thoughts can be removed from the compelling nature of temporal problems, when they can read or listen to the Lord's Word and reflect on its meaning, join in public Divine worship, and open their minds to the Lord's leading.

All who follow the Lord in the life of regeneration will be led in the way of wisdom and eternal life. After death they will be numbered among the sheep, the righteous, who, the Lord said, should go into life eternal; and in heaven they will grow continually in their knowledge and love of the eternal God, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.

-New Church Life 1963;83:289-295

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