Over the past couple of days, we’ve seen that the word “eternal” can be understood in more than one way.
God is eternal in the sense of being completely beyond time.
And some have made an unsuccessful argument for human souls leaving time and becoming eternal in the same sense as God.
But the word “eternal” can also be understood to mean “everlasting”–as would apply to a being who comes into being at a certain point in time but who has no end.
That seems to be the case for us. We come into being at a certain point in time (when we are conceived), but because we are ultimately immortal, we have no end. Because of death, we may not be in our bodies for a period (of time), but eventually we will be reunited with them and experience the eternal (unending) order.
Both Scripture standard Catholic theology depict us as undergoing a sequence of states upon our death. First, we die. Then, we are judged at the particular judgment. Then, we are purified in purgatory if we need to be. Then, when our purification is finished, we have the unalloyed happiness of heaven. Then, we are reunited with our bodies. Then, we experience the general judgment, where we are judged in body and soul. Then, we experience the eternal order.
That’s a definite sequence–which begins with our death, implying a sequentiality that occurs after our deaths. For there to be a sequence, there must be something separating the elements of the sequence–something that keeps them from happening all at once.
That means that there is either time or something analogous to time in the afterlife.
The Medievals even had a word for this: They called it “aevum” or “aeveternity.”
What does the Church’s Magisterium have to say on the subject?
In one General Audience of John Paul II, the pope noted that:
Eternity [in the sense of being "beyond time"] is here the element which essentially distinguishes God from the world. While the latter is subject to change and passes away, God remains beyond the passing of the world. He is necessary and immutable: “you are the same” [General Audience of Sept. 4, 1985].
In the next week’s audience, John Paul II explained that
He [God] is Eternity, as the preceding catechesis explained, while all that is created is contingent and subject to time [General Audience of Sept. 11, 1985].
If eternity (in the beyond time sense) is distinguishes God from the world and if “all that is created” is “subject to time,” that would imply that our souls are subject to time. This would be the case even after our deaths, since our souls do not cease to be created entities.
However, we can go beyond this implicit acknowledgement of the sequentiality–and thus temporality. In 1992, the International Theological Commission (ITC) issued a document that bears on this point in a more explicit way.
The ITC is an advisory body headed by the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who at the time was Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict). According to its bylaws, when the head of the ITC authorizes the publication of one of its documents, it signifies that the Magisterium does not have any difficulty with its teaching.
In this case, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger authorized the publication of a document which held that:
[S]ome theologians . . . seek a solution in a so-called atemporalism: They say that after death time can in no way exist, and hold that the deaths of people are successive (viewed from the perspective of this world); whereas the resurrection of those people in the life after death, in which there would be no temporal distinctions, is (they think) simultaneous.
But this attempted atemporalism, according to which successive individual deaths would coincide with a simultaneous collective resurrection, implies recourse to a philosophy of time quite foreign to biblical thought.
The New Testament’s way of speaking about the souls of the martyrs does not seem to remove them either from all reality of succession or from all perception of succession (cf. Rev 6:9-11).
Similarly, if time should have no meaning after death, not even in some way merely analogous with its terrestrial meaning, it would be difficult to understand why Paul used formulas referring to the future (anastesontai) in speaking about their resurrection, when responding to the Thessalonians who were asking about the fate of the dead (cf. 1 Thess 4:13-18).
Moreover, a radical denial of any meaning for time in those resurrections, deemed both simultaneous and taking place in the moment of death, does not seem to take sufficiently into account the truly corporeal nature of the resurrection; for a true body cannot be said to exist devoid of all notion of temporality.
Even the souls of the blessed, since they are in communion with the Christ who has been raised in a bodily way, cannot be thought of without any connection with time [International Theological Commission, Some Current Questions on Eschatology (1992), "The Christian Hope of the Resurrection," 2.2].
By their nature, the documents of the ITC express the common understanding of Catholic theology in accord with the teaching of the Magisterium, and Cardinal Ratzinger’s authorization of this document signals that the common understanding in Catholic theology is that some form of time “even in some way merely analogous to its terrestrial meaning” continues to apply to us in the afterlife, and that the Magisterium has no difficulty with this.
Joseph Ratzinger said the same in his own writings, such as his book Eschatology, when he was still a theology professor.
Catholic theology thus does not hold that we leave time upon our deaths. In fact, it would be difficult to hold that we do so, given the reasons that the ITC cites.
So while we do indeed have eternal souls, and while God is eternal in the sense of being completely beyond time, the Church does not understand our souls to be eternal or atemporal in the way that God is.