Understanding Eternity

When I read Stephen Peck’s groundbreaking novella A Short Stay in Hell the idea that struck me more than any other was how little we know about the idea of eternity–and how unfamiliar we are with how long eternity is. We simply have no way of comprehending the time involved. We live in a world where we have limited time and must decide how we use the time we have.

Reading Peck’s novella gave me a window on the length of time in the Eternities; perhaps a horrific look, but one that makes the concept a bit clearer, something we can understand a little easier. Eternity is so long, that it defies easy description, but Pecks’ book provides a look at the issues around it.

In Church recently I realized another way of looking at the concept of eternity, of comprehending how much time we will have after this life and how we then will experience time. I looked at the many infants and young children in our ward and realized how our understanding of eternity is similar to their understanding of this life.

I remember as a child looking forward anxiously for many different events—birthdays and Christmas seemed so far away. I also desperately wanted to grow up, to reach the age when I “could do whatever I wanted,” or could at least act independently. Somehow the idea of old age, of living to age 80 or 90 seemed impossibly far away—something incomprehensible, and believable only because of those I knew and was told had lived that long.

Our perception of time is controlled by our remembered experience—when all we know is the few short years that we remember, the concept of an entire lifetime—or eternity—is irreal, incomprehensible or even unbelievable.

Part of the horror in Peck’s book comes from not understanding well how we will spend our time in the eternities. Peck’s hero is faced with an eternity of a relatively mundane task, something that would bore most people in a single day. We hope and expect that the righteous will have a much more varied life. And, from what I’ve heard taught about eternity, the task of raising eternal progeny seems open ended—even once one child has progressed sufficiently (if that is even possible), there will likely still be other children who need to progress. And that assumes that our own progress and learning don’t occupy our time. [This makes me wonder, is there a finite amount to learn? Can eternity be spent in learning?]

I know that these musings about what eternity will be like are mostly speculative. But I think there is a little here that helps us understand eternity, at least in its duration if not in what it will be like.

6 comments for “Understanding Eternity

  1. February 27, 2013 at 9:06 pm

    There is no form of the concept “eternity” that doesn’t threaten to fill me with existential dread on par with that of non-existence.

    Life after this sounds wonderful, of course. Life for millions or billions of years sounds great too. I can’t think of a point where I would say “Now I’ve had enough.”

    But an infinite amount of time is not like any finite amount of time. No matter how big of a number you pick: millions of years, billions of years, millions of billions of years, it’s an infinitesimal eye-blink compared to some other number that is even bigger… and yet still 0% of forever.

    The only other alternative is block-time or eternalism, the idea that the passage of time is only a subjective perception we experience, and that in reality all chronological events are laid out in much the same way as spatial events are. That would be comforting, except that I really can’t wrap my head around it in any genuine way.

    That’s one reason why I’ve never bought into the idea that religion attracts people by promising them immortality. In my personal experience, at least, immortality doesn’t really solve the problem of mortality because some how zero and infinity wrap around back on each other and offer no real comfort.

  2. Howard
    February 27, 2013 at 9:40 pm

    Eternity lies in the present as a point midway between two nanoseconds. It is missed, overlooked and skipped over in life as we smear past, present and future together in a haze of muddled consciousness and noise colored with the dysfunction and hurt feelings of our childhood and sins of our adulthood. As embodied mortals we simply can’t get over ourselves enough to get there. It is accessed by two or more dissonance free spirits without mortal personas merging in an ego-less intimate connection. As a mortal it can only be temporary achieved (not an oxymoron btw) in an out of body experience.

  3. February 28, 2013 at 12:20 am

    Thanks Kent!

    I have to admit while I was writing this, I would lie in bed at night in terror thinking about the implications of eternity. It drove sleep from me on a number of occasions. Which makes me hope I haven’t unleashed too many nightmares into the world.

  4. Adam Miller
    February 28, 2013 at 9:09 am

    Groundhog day, people. Groundhog day.

  5. February 28, 2013 at 1:03 pm


    I’m glad you posted this — I had a similar fascination with that aspect of Steve’s book.

    But the future is story-making applied to present conditions projected forward. And the past is story-making applied to present conditions projected backward.

    It seems to me that we use “eternity” in a religious context not to designate a period of time or a framework for experience or cognition (for exactly the reasons you identify), but rather as a way to avoid allowing death to disrupt our values and narratives. That can be palliative only if we don’t look too closely at it.

  6. britain
    February 28, 2013 at 3:32 pm

    I remember once when I was a child, being unable to sleep (and descending into a dramatic fit) when I couldn’t wrap my mind around Heavenly Parents having Heavenly Parents. I know of the terror of which you speak.

    Now, as an adult with a little more experience, I’m comforted when I ponder eternity. It’s helpful to consider fractals. Eternity isn’t a line going on boringly forever. It’s more like a wild wallpaper.

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