We all live in an eternal now. Everything in our lives is in the present tense. The past is gone and untouchable and the future is unformed and unhatched. This moment right here is all we’ve got.
At least, that’s how our culture conceives of time. But it’s not how the Bible conceives of time.
The biblical conception of time is like a river.
To the person watching a river pass by, as I like to do when I hike down from my home into the canyon to watch the Deschutes tumble by, the river is simply that which is front of you. It’s there. It’s now. It’s the water splashing against the solid, unmoving rocks.
But when we step back from the river, it seems like the mountains above it are hurling the water down. Time, in that conception, feels like it is being pushed forward by the past. The present isn’t the biggest consideration. Rather, the past is the greatest force of motion. And so we say things like, “Those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it,” which is a stupid thing to say, since no one has ever repeated the past, and history is the telling of unique stories that will never be be repeated.
The biblical notion of time includes both of these, but its main perspective is that of the sea. It’s not so much that that mountain pushes a river downward. Rather, the sea draws the water to itself. It’s a matter of gravity.
God’s future pulls us into it.
This is why the biblical writers can be so confident in their hope for God’s future. The promises of God are not so much pushes from behind that herd us into God’s future. They are wide open arms that draw us into his embrace. They are a funnel that gather many things into a single stream.
During my first semester of graduate school at Regent College in Vancouver, BC, I would get in my car each week and go for a long drive. Inevitably, that drive took me to Shoreline, WA, just north of Seattle. Without fail, I ended up there every time. A vast network of highways and residential streets could have taken me to a million different destinations, but they only ever took me to one.
Why? Was it because there was something about Vancouver that launched me southward? Was it because every road funneled toward Shoreline, making it irresistible? Was it because my car had a mind of its own and just went that way? No. It’s because my soon-to-be-wife lived there. Charlene was my irresistible destination.
The biblical images of the Day of the Lord and the Age to Come, both of which we generally refer to as heaven, are the gravitational points toward which history is moving.
The reason why we have hope in the face of bad news and suffering and persecution and whatever resistance and hostility that comes our way is because we know that the story we participate in has a definite destination and that this destination is God-shaped and good. It cannot be denied. It cannot be avoided. It is irresistible. It is magnetic.
We do not lose heart but rejoice as we see the day drawing near. We go from strength to strength for our destination beckons. And though the journey can be tiresome, it does not defeat us for we are drawing close to Home.
But too often, we fall for our culture’s view of time, focusing almost exclusively on the present. We spend ourselves on the moment. We eat and grow fat. We spend and accrue debt. We throw things away and fill up dumps. We think YOLO and do stupid things.
When my family and friends float the Deschutes River during our glorious Bend summers, we experience one point of the river at a time. Where we are is where we are. In that sense, we are in the moment. But because the river is always moving, we always have a sense of motion and direction. Our destination beckons and is never far from mind. That doesn’t detract from the moment. It fills the moment with expectation.
We live our best when we gather all of the past into the present and look to the coming future with hopeful anticipation.
This keeps us from being dominated by the past like those who worship their ancestors. It also keeps us from being dominated by the present like our pleasure-worshiping culture. And it keeps us ever hopeful as we are drawn irresistibly into God’s great future.