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Is the claim of Jesus Christ based on an eternal moral order or on an individual interest in a parochial conflict that first arose at a historical time? The difficulty is understanding how an individual human can be held accountable in an eternal order when none of us can remember ever having had conscious choice in the infinite past, i.e. the time before (s)he became conscious as a child, nor has anyone life experience that qualifies them to envision or assess eternal consequences. The question is what concept, if any, christianity has to offer of the "eternity" to which christian teachings constantly refer. Does it differ from the pre-christian description given by Plato in Timaeus of an eternal world apprehensible by reason alone in which ananke, often translated as 'necessity', was in the mind of the Demiurge that introduced its arbitrary choice of what is good and evil? Timaeus describes the first living being, the ourobos, thus:

The living being had no need of eyes because there was nothing outside of him to be seen; nor of ears because there was nothing to be heard; and there was no surrounding atmosphere to be breathed; nor would there have been any use of organs by the help of which he might receive his food or get rid of what he had already digested, since there was nothing which went from him or came into him: for there was nothing beside him. Of design he created thus; his own waste providing his own food, and all that he did or suffered taking place in and by himself. For the Creator conceived that a being which was self-sufficient would be far more excellent than one which lacked anything; and, as he had no need to take anything or defend himself against any one, the Creator did not think it necessary to bestow upon him hands: nor had he any need of feet, nor of the whole apparatus of walking; but the movement suited to his spherical form which was designed by him, being of all the seven that which is most appropriate to mind and intelligence; and he was made to move in the same manner and on the same spot, within his own limits revolving in a circle. All the other six motions were taken away from him, and he was made not to partake of their deviations. And as this circular movement required no feet, the universe was created without legs and without feet.

I note that after Plato, Demiurge became a term of villification by gnostic christians who said the demiurge was a fallen and ignorant god creating a flawed universe. However the ourobos seems to persist in the gnostic christian text Pistis Sophia from the 3rd or 4th century AD as the disc of the sun as a 12-part dragon with his tail in his mouth.

closed as off-topic by curiousdannii, Mr. Bultitude, fredsbend, Mawia, El'endia Starman Apr 8 '15 at 19:57

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    To what, or rather which, claim of Jesus Christ do you refer? It's not clear, either, how this question "Is the claim ..." is related to your title "Eternity in Christianity". Finally, different Christian groups may have different concepts of eternity. I could give, for example, a Catholic explanation; but that might not count as the sole available (or even perhaps a typical) Christian explanation of eternity. – Matt Gutting Apr 6 '15 at 16:15
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    I enjoy responding to questions about eternity. However, it's not clear to me exactly what your question is. Could you edit the title to reflect a short form of the specific question you are asking? – Lee Woofenden Apr 6 '15 at 17:02
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    Your comment doesn't seem to help me. Click edit to edit the question. The question seems to dance a fine line between philosophy and theology. For this site, you need to be clearly on the theology side. – fredsbend Apr 6 '15 at 18:14
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    @fredsbend it sounds to me as if the OP is asking for an explanation/definition of "eternity" as used in Christianity. I've provided a Catholic approach based on a major theologian; but I have no guarantee, as I said, that this is a typical much less exhaustive answer. And I still have no idea where the "claim of Jesus Christ" fits in. – Matt Gutting Apr 6 '15 at 18:23
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    @cuddlyable3 I don't know what tone you hoped to convey with your last comment, but it comes off as quite rude. Please be polite. Guidelines toward a polite, academic tone – fredsbend Apr 6 '15 at 23:42
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From a Catholic perspective

The term "eternity" (and the accompanying adjective "eternal") is used several times in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but is never defined there. In the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas, there is a whole "Question" ("investigation" might be a better translation of the word) regarding eternity and God. Aquinas begins this investigation—Question 18 of the First Part of the Summa Theologica—by defining "eternity", following Boethius, as

the simultaneously-whole and perfect possession of interminable life.

He explains this definition:

As we attain to the knowledge of simple things by way of compound things, so must we reach to the knowledge of eternity by means of time, which is nothing but the numbering of movement by "before" and "after." For since succession occurs in every movement, and one part comes after another, the fact that we reckon before and after in movement, makes us apprehend time, which is nothing else but the measure of before and after in movement. Now in a thing bereft of movement, which is always the same, there is no before or after. As therefore the idea of time consists in the numbering of before and after in movement; so likewise in the apprehension of the uniformity of what is outside of movement, consists the idea of eternity.

Further, those things are said to be measured by time which have a beginning and an end in time, because in everything which is moved there is a beginning, and there is an end. But as whatever is wholly immutable can have no succession, so it has no beginning, and no end.

Thus eternity is known from two sources: first, because what is eternal is interminable---that is, has no beginning nor end (that is, no term either way); secondly, because eternity has no succession, being simultaneously whole.

[Note: "movement", as Aquinas uses it here, does not mean "change of position" but—as medieval philosophers often used the term—any sort of change, internal or external. God, according to this conception, is not capable of or susceptible to change.]

In other words, "eternity" is an experience of all that is, without any reference to "time", "before" or "after", "beginning" or "end", and without division into parts in any way.

  • Beatified Tom sidesteps a difficult definition by instead defining what a thing is not. He characterizes eternal time in terms of absence of (countable, successive) physical phenomena - broadly understood as "change" - which is a phenomenological view without any christian reference. Tom's focus on what it implies to be immutable is just as agnostic, it resembles ancient Aristotle's concept of primum movens or "that which moves without being moved" and Tom can characterize it only in terms of prediction (i.e. shall never move) but not say how or whether it came about. – cuddlyable3 Apr 6 '15 at 22:42
  • Incidentally thank you Matt Gutting for directing me to the lesser known neoPlatonist Boethius whose partly lost writings could have alerted Tom to Aristotlian logic. I read that Boethius believed all history is a wheel (ref: Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, trans. Victor Watts (rev. ed.), Penguin, 1999, p.24 n.1.) which is more reminiscent of hinduism than christianity. – cuddlyable3 Apr 6 '15 at 22:43
  • @cuddlyable3 You should really look through the rest of the Summa's First Part, to look at his understanding of God as a logically necessary being - thus taking care of "whether it came about", and in the process "how". Incidentally I would hardly characterize Boethius as "lesser known". – Matt Gutting Apr 7 '15 at 2:30
  • Aquinas' famous arguments for existence of God, to which you refer, are of monumental significance in catholic history. ccel.org/a/aquinas/summa/FP/FP002.html#FPQ2A2THEP1 They are also criticized as being circular. Aquinas would prove by human reason alone that God created the universe, but only divine revelation from Genesis could he answer whether it began at some point in time or was eternal. Christianity, the incarnation of God as a man, is not treated until the third part of Summa. Google hit counts for comparison: Boethius 470 000, Aquinas 12 000 000. – cuddlyable3 Apr 7 '15 at 13:39
  • Not quite true @cuddlyable3 - Aquinas, in his discussion of God and eternity, argues that only God is eternal; thus, that the universe is not eternal (or only as a "side effect" of God's eternity). He'd need no divine revelation from Genesis. But this is more related to subject matter than to improvement of the question, thus doesn't belong in comments. – Matt Gutting Apr 7 '15 at 14:00
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Though he is certainly not a mainstream Christian theologian, Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) does offer some statements on God's eternity, and on Jesus Christ in relation to God and eternity, that may be helpful in answering the question.

These are taken from his work True Christianity, originally published in Latin in Amsterdam, 1771. The first two are about the eternity of God itself. The third and fourth relate God's eternity to Jesus Christ--and are thus perhaps relevant to the basis of "the claim of Jesus Christ" mentioned in the question.

First quote:

God is infinite because he existed before the world, before space and time came into being. The physical world has time and space. The spiritual world, on the other hand, lacks actual time and space, although it does have apparent time and space.

Time and space were introduced into both worlds for the sake of distinguishing one thing from another, large from small, many from few - one quantity from another, and one quality from another. Time and space allow our bodily senses to discern the objects they are sensing; and they allow our mental senses to discern the objects they are sensing - to be affected, to think, and to choose. (True Christianity #29)

Second quote:

Since the world was made, God has existed in space independently of space, and in time independently of time. . . .

God is present in space independently of space and in time independently of time because God is always the same, from eternity to eternity. What God was like before creation, God was like after creation. Before creation, there was no space or time in and with God. After creation, there was. Because God remained the same, then, he is in space independently of space, and in time independently of time. As a result, nature is separate from him and yet he is omnipresent in it. (True Christianity #30)

Third quote:

Because God is present in all time independently of time, his Word [i.e., the Bible] speaks of past and future in the present tense. For example, in Isaiah: "A Child is born to us, a Son is given to us, whose name is Hero, Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6). In David as well, "I will announce this decision: Jehovah said to me, You are my Son. Today I fathered you" (Psalms 2:7). These statements refer to the Lord who was to come. In the same source it also says, "In your eyes, a thousand years are like yesterday" (Psalms 90:4).

From many other passages in the Word about seeing and being vigilant we can see that God is present everywhere in the entire world, and yet there is nothing belonging to the world in him, that is, nothing limited in space and time. For example, this passage in Jeremiah:

Am I not a God near you, rather than a God far away? Can a man be covered over in hiding places so that I would not see him? I fill the whole heaven and the whole earth. (Jeremiah 23:23-24)

(True Christianity #30)

Fourth quote:

The being who came into the world was God himself, who from eternity [has been and] is the One. This is very clear from the birth of the Lord and Savior. He was conceived by the power of the Highest through the Holy Spirit. As a result the Virgin Mary gave birth to his human manifestation. It follows then that his soul was the Divinity itself that is called the Father--God is, after all, indivisible--and the human being born as a result is the human manifestation of God the Father, which is called the Son of God (Luke 1:32, 34, 35). It follows from all this that when we turn to the Lord God the Savior, we are turning to God the Father as well. This is why he replied to Philip, when Philip asked him to show them the Father, "Those who see me see the Father. How then can you say, 'Show us the Father'? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me" (John 14:6-11). (True Christianity #538)

So according to Swedenborg's theology, God's eternity is based on God's being above and outside of time, time being a property that God created as part of the material universe. The spiritual universe, he says, does not have time, but does have an analog of time such that those living there experience a passage of events. God, however, is present in all time simultaneously from a state that exists outside of time. This also means that God is unchangeable and unchanging, and therefore eternally one and eternally the same being.

In Swedenborg's theology, Jesus Christ is God himself entering from eternity into time and space. If that doesn't wrap your brain in knots, I don't know what will! But the whole concept of God from eternity entering into the world of time and space is a huge challenge to our time- and space-bound brains.

Perhaps the most understandable way to express it is that Jesus Christ is the human manifestation of the eternal, omnipresent God in the material, time- and space-bound world that we humans inhabit.

Even the Incarnation of God in time as Jesus Christ did not change God--as it would appear to our time-bound minds. God is eternally present in all time and space. Therefore God's Incarnation as Jesus Christ is always a present reality for God, just as everything else that we perceive as past, present, and future is a present reality for God--who experiences it all simultaneously from timeless, spaceless infinite state of Divine Being.

Therefore, from the perspective of Swedenborg's theology, in terms of the question, "the claim of Christ" would be based on "an eternal moral order" rather than on "an individual interest in a parochial conflict that first arose at a historical time."

Having said that, since God did enter human history as Jesus Christ at a particular point in material-world space and time--meaning at a particular time in history and in a particular geographical location inhabited by a particular set of cultures--his life, ministry, and teaching necessarily took a particular form based on that human culture. We therefore must use our thinking minds to sort out the eternal divine truth and love in his life and teachings from the time- and space-bound forms in which that eternal divine truth and love were expressed.

But that is a vast, complex subject that can in no way be done justice in this compact question and answer format.

This may perhaps offer an answer to your question based on the theology of Emanuel Swedenborg as understood within the denominations that were subsequently founded based on his theology.

  • That's quite interesting! Your quote beginning "Time and space were introduced into both worlds ..." sounds a lot like Aquinas' "The fact that we reckon before and after in movement, makes us apprehend time, which is nothing else but the measure of before and after in movement." Very interesting indeed! – Matt Gutting Apr 6 '15 at 21:09
  • @MattGutting Thanks. Swedenborg didn't spend a lot of time reading Christian theologians. Up until his mid fifties he was much more interested in science and philosophy than in theology. However, he did read some of the biggies such as Aquinas and Augustine. I'm sure he was aware of what they said on the God's eternity, and likely drew on it in formulating his own theology on the subject. – Lee Woofenden Apr 6 '15 at 21:21
  • Swedenborg disagreed with Aquinas about the Trinity. – cuddlyable3 Apr 7 '15 at 13:51
  • @cuddlyable3 Yes, Swedenborg rejected the doctrine of a Trinity of Persons in God. However, Swedenborg didn't live in a vacuum. Though he charted an independent course theologically, he was aware of the main theologies of Western Christianity, and referred to them frequently, as well as drawing on them occasionally. – Lee Woofenden Apr 7 '15 at 20:04
  • @Lee Woofenden While rejecting the Trinity, the prolific, and critics may say parallelomaniacal, Swedenborg conceived there to be 3 essentially separate natural ("physical"), spiritual, and divine worlds (after Plotinus 2nd century, i.e. the One, the Intellect, and the Soul). Swedenborg claimed to receive angelic inspiration but I see him as a master synthesist intent on presenting a new idea every day. – cuddlyable3 Apr 8 '15 at 2:48

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