Eternity seems to me to require an essential difference from time. As we sing in the old gospel hymn “Just a closer walk with thee:” “When my feeble days are o'er, Time for me shall be no more . . .” It seems to me that most evangelicals don't see eternity as a state of being when time is “no more.” Rather, evangelical eternity is time extended indefinitely.
Admittedly, talking about eternity as essentially different from time stretches our ability to say anything meaningful. Thus religious texts must talk about eternity – in so far as they talk about eternity – in terms of time. But if we take the metaphors of scriptures and attempt to treat them as concrete bits of data like “it's currently 8:30 pm and I am watching television” is to badly misunderstand and misuse the religious text.
Eternity, in order to be eternity must be different from extended time. But what then is it? It is qualitatively and quantitatively different. It has no quantity, and no duration. Time has duration. Eternity cannot have duration or it would simply be more time – which it cannot be. It has a quality different from the quality of being “in time.”
But what is it to be “in time” except to experience duration – more or less. Perhaps better said, being “in time” means that we are aware of duration and the passing of time. In eternity we are unaware of the passing of time because there is no time to pass.
Perhaps I've made a leap that is unjustified by tradition or scripture. Perhaps what the gospel writers meant by eternal life was simply a continuation of this earthly life on this earth and continuing it forever with a cognizance of the passing of time.
I'm working from memory, so I may get the details wrong and I don't claim that these are my final thoughts about the subject. But as I recall it, when the Christian scriptures talk about eternal life they do so in codes that are fairly obviously meant metaphorically. John's vision of the martyrs hidden under the altar is surely not meant to be taken literally. Martyrs keeping an unending vigil crouched or crammed or somehow confined under an altar and being forced to sing one line over and over and over again would seem to be not far from the kinds of punishment that good evangelicals reserve for the atheists and others who question their sadism.
John's vision of the heavenly city, one of my favorite passages from the Christian scriptures, likewise seems to me to force a metaphoric, synecdochal interpretation on the reader. If we take it literally, there isn't room in this puny city – this heavenly Jerusalem – for all the inhabitants that would have to be accommodated from Jesus' day to ours. It's rather like the dilemma of attempting to cram all the “living creatures” onto Noah's ark. They just wouldn't fit.
I don't want to drive myself batty by spending all my time trying to think thoughts that have been better thought by actual philosophers. Still, I've been pondering time and eternity for a long while, and never more seriously than these past six months.
It seems to me that the fundagelicals in particular have it all wrong. I don't think I have it all right, but I do think, no I'm certain, that the idea of a place of punishment where Christopher Hitchens is being fried over and over and over again – and is conscious of the continuation of his cooking is both a vile sadism and not eternity. Likewise, the notion of a place of bliss where we are with our unborn unformed unexperienced unchildren for an unending family reunion is pure sentimentality. I can understand why people find consolation in that idea, but I find it as much of a torture as the idea of hell. After all, what will the Duggers say to little Jubilee Shalom after the first “Hi, how are you, sorry you didn't get to live on earth?”
I love family reunions. But they have a end and I look forward to the end.