No, We Don’t Leave Time When We Die

by Jimmy Akin

in +Religion, Apologetics, Theology

At least that is not the common understanding in Catholic theology.

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.

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John Thayer Jensen June 18, 2012 at 5:58 pm

I don’t know what time is :-)  But it seems to me that it has something to do with change.  Change, I take it, is possible for entities that have un-actualised potentialities – which, I take it, means all finite beings.  God does not change because His <i>esse</i> and his <i>essentia</i> (if those are the right terms) are identical – is that right?
If I am right, it would seem that even in Heaven – and certainly in the new Heaven and the new earth – we will have <i>experiences</i>.
I suppose that even just turning one’s attention to this or that different thing constitutes change – or does it?
I confess I find all this hard to understand!  I also wonder about one classic objection to the possibility of prayer to the Saints: if they are <i>in time</i> in some sense – how do they receive the prayers of persons praying <i>at the same time</i>?

factdragger June 19, 2012 at 1:48 am

I think there is a kind of Einsteinien cloud hanging over western thinking, where we see time as being a mere calculable property of physical matter. but it is somehow more than that.
Perhaps it might be helpful to think of our own current state of being as a clue: we are body and spirit, our bodies experience time/sequentiality but so do our spirits. Why would the subtraction of our bodies through death automatically remove our spirits from the experience of temporality?  If it did, it would result in a kind of circular fallacy- it would imply that time is only a physical property, and that our bodies communicate to our spirits the attribute of physical temporality. But that’s something that a spirit could not receive because it is not physical.  Thus we are back to the idea that our spirits continue in their experience of temporality after death, not because it is a physical property of being but it is something more.
I also think of how St. Paul mysteriously refers to a ‘third heaven’; perhaps this is a reference to God’s eternity as opposed to that of created spirits.
Oh the mysteries of His created order :-)

Howard June 19, 2012 at 4:09 am

There *is* a problem with the way we think of time, and factdragger is right: Einstein pointed out that we cannot talk about time in the abstract, we have to think of time as being measured by something. There are really only two things we know about the experience disembodied spirits have of time: (1) they experience a “before” and “after” (the particular judgment is before the general judgment), and (2) they cannot bring their digital watches with them. I read a medieval story some time ago in which a monk died, and for seven years he was in Purgatory without the benefit of any prayers. He was astonished that his community had so forgotten him, so he petitioned to return and ask for prayers. This request was granted and he was allowed to return briefly as a ghost — only to see that the priest was only then closing his eyes. His experience of time in Purgatory was not measured by earthly clocks. — Howard

jeffcoyle64 June 19, 2012 at 6:43 am

If we, as St. Thomas Aquinas did, accept the Aristotelian definition of time as the “measure of motion with regards to the before and the after,” then we would best label our experience of “time” in the next life as “discrete time.” Time won’t be an explicit measure as we know it in this life, but we will experience things sequentially, hence discretely.
God, since He is outside of matter and motion altogether (since is Being and Substance are one and the same–again using the language of classical philosophy), experiences all time simultaneously. Beings in matter and subject to motion experience time bit-by-bit.

LadyCygnus June 19, 2012 at 7:04 am

How does this reconcile with the teaching that after death our choice of God/hell will be fixed? If we can change through experiences then wouldn’t that entail the possibility of change in decision?

jeffcoyle64 June 19, 2012 at 7:33 am

LadyCygnus,  God sees ALL of eternity as we would see but one instant of time. All of eternity is present to God all at once (simultaneously). We humans experience time bit-by-bit (temporally). It would be as if God’s time were one continuously lighted line and our time was made up successively flashing lights that corresponded to one part of that line (we can call this an eternal-temporal simultaneity). So, from God,s perspective, we’ve already made our decision and he knows what that decision is before we do because God sees all of our life at once and we do not.

Mark June 19, 2012 at 10:10 am

John Thayer Jensen, I don’t know if this is helpful or in any way valid, but regarding the saints’ capacity to pray for us in response to our request: 1) What connects us to them is our communion with the Trinity, so although both they and we are finite beings, our participation in the divine nature, the life of the Trinity, which is infinite must “bridge the gap” as it were; 2) Speculatively, engaging my mind with Einstein’s relativity theory and imagining two different points of view, first that of the stationary bystander, second that of the passenger in the train traveling near the speed of light, the passenger’s experience of time would be quite different from that of the bystander, perhaps providing the passenger a perspective in which to contemplate a year’s worth of the bystander’s time in one minute of the passenger’s time.

Adonais June 19, 2012 at 11:12 am

I knew we were aeval, but I didn’t realize all that implied.  I’d always thought an angel’s a priori knowledge proceeded from atemporality.  I stand corrected.  Thanks, Jimmy!  I must now peruse this ITC document and see what else I can glean.

Bender June 19, 2012 at 12:35 pm

“The term “eternal life” is intended to give a name to this known “unknown”. Inevitably it is an inadequate term that creates confusion. “Eternal”, in fact, suggests to us the idea of something interminable, and this frightens us; “life” makes us think of the life that we know and love and do not want to lose, even though very often it brings more toil than satisfaction, so that while on the one hand we desire it, on the other hand we do not want it. To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality—this we can only attempt. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists.”
— Spe Salvi 12

John Thayer Jensen June 19, 2012 at 12:39 pm

Yes, Mark, thanks, it does.  I have always rather wondered about this – and the fact that we are always – even when disembodied spirits – in time, but that we don’t necessarily experience time in the same way as on earth, are not mutually exclusive.

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