Time, Death, and Relationship

Just a few days ago, Jessie (my wife) and I were talking about what happens when someone dies. (Nothing like a light conversation just before bed, right?) There is a tension in Scripture on this point. “The dead cannot sing praises to the LORD,” the Psalmist declares, “for they have gone into the silence of the grave.” This seems pretty clear. At least until the Spirit gives John a glimpse of heaven, where the dead from the Great Tribulation who are crying out praises to God, waving palm branches. What should we do with this tension?

In his chapter “Defending Resurrection,” Douglas Campbell tries working out this tension in Paul’s letters. Paul talks about death in two kinds of ways. First, Paul refers to death as “being asleep,” implying a temporary lapse in existence. Second, and in a seeming contradiction, Paul indicates that after death, we will go immediately to be with Jesus.

The trouble with the first option is that a temporary lapse in existence, in the “silence of the grave,” implies a separation from God. How does that jive with Paul’s own claim, in Romans 8, that nothing, “neither present nor future,” can separate us from the love of God? The second option, however, leads somewhat inevitably to a gnostic conclusion: if we go to God without our bodies, then do our bodies really matter at all?

Is there a way to resolve the tension? Campbell thinks so and brings in none other than Albert Einstein to back him up. Einstein rejected the theory of time as only or fundamentally linear. Time is, according to Einstein, a field. It acts differently in certain conditions. (Does this sound perplexing to you, but you can’t imagine reading Einstein? Campbell suggests watching Interstellar, Inception, and Memento, all films directed by Christopher Nolan.) 

The move Campbell makes with this is especially helpful. We experience the field of time in a particular way. For us, the field of time consists of past, present, and future. Time feels like a line. But time is more of a continuum, “like a vast sphere,” with no clear beginning and end. So, while our experience of time tempts us to feel there is, say, a “point” on the line of time where we are born, and another where we die, and another where we are raised from the dead, that is not the full truth. It’s more complicated than that. We move within the field (or “through” it, as Campbell says) of time, which is itself caught up within the broader field of all creation.

And, what’s more, time does not govern reality. We may keep schedules (or at least we did before quarantine) according to our clocks and calendars but those things do not rule the universe nor existence. God does. Campbell suggests that God exists “above” the field of time. “And there is a related sense,” Campbell goes on, “in which we must think about all of time as being ‘present’ to God.”

This makes it possible to conceive that both of the ways Paul describes what happens after death—either a lapse in existence or an immediate entrance into God’s presence—are accurate. The first accords with our experience of time—people’s bodies enter the grave to return to dust. The second accords with God’s experience of time—people are immediately raised to life with God, inhabiting their resurrection bodies. God is no less present to us who are living in what we experience as the “present” than God is to those who’ve gone “before” us into death and resurrection because God is immediate to all “presents.” Wild, isn’t it?

God is no less present to us who are living in what we experience as the “present” than God is to those who’ve gone “before” us into death and resurrection because God is immediate to all “presents.”

I think in some sense, this all relates back to what Campbell told us early on. Life is fundamentally relational because God is relational. I think of Revelation, when Jesus refers to himself as the beginning and the end. If this is true, if Christ not only marks but, in some sense, is the continuum of time, then time itself must be understood as thoroughly relational. 

To be frank, I’m not quite sure what the implications of this insight are, but a few observations might help get us started. I think the church understood this insight when it created a circular calendar that was based both on the seasons and on the story of Christ. Time in the church is a gift that invites us into a repeated, relational encounter with Christ’s own story, which has become ours. 

I also think of the prayer many pray before koinonia-ing with God and one another: “It is good and right always and everywhere to give You our thanks and praise.” The word “always” has a more profound dimension if time is not just a neutral, endless ticking of the clock. “Always” describes the whole of time, which God has made for the very purpose of relational connection with God. At the very moment in our service when we proclaim that, somehow, the body of Christ is present to us despite not being present as we’d expect a body to be, we affirm that this is always the case, for God has created time for the sake of relationship with His beloved creatures, whenever they may be.

Hallelujah. Amen.

4 thoughts on “Time, Death, and Relationship

  1. Pingback: Pauline Dogmatics: What are we working with? – Theology Forum

  2. At a pastoral level – and a less conceptually difficult one than Einstein’s – we can think of and appeal to people’s lived experiences of the different kinds of time, too, and of those as a shadow or foretaste of God’s time. The sudden pang of a shared memory bringing a lost loved one back into the lived reality of our present, or the ways in which experiences of suffering, injustice and abuse linger – finding in that pain itself a reassurance that they’re even more present to God, whose kingdom reigns in that present/presence even as we feel it to be so far off…

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