You Won’t Live an Eternity
by Gregory Koukl
Are you ready for this? You will not live for an eternity. You’re probably thinking, "Boy, that sounds weird. That doesn’t sound like Christianity to me. That sounds like annihilationism, or something." Let me clear it up a little. I think you will live forever and ever with God in heaven if you’re a Christian. Or, if you reject the forgiveness God offers through Jesus Christ, you will pay for your crimes against God forever and ever in a place of punishment. But even though you live forever and ever, you will never live for an eternity.
How can that be? Think about numbers for a moment. Are numbers potentially infinite? Yes, sure they are. They can potentially go on forever and ever. Potentially, the quantity of numbers is infinitely large. There’s no end to them. Now, how do you ever get from a potential infinity to an infinity when it comes to numbers? Well, you can start counting–one, two, three, four, five, billion one, billion two, a zillion one, two, a quintillion one, a quintillion two. Keep going. Do you realize that at any particular point in time as you keep adding one number to another–a procedure which potentially could go on forever–that you haven’t really accomplished that feat? You haven’t really gone on forever, have you? The number gets bigger and bigger, of course. But at every particular point you happen to be counting at, your count describes a finite number. Will you ever get to eternity by counting, adding one number onto another? The answer is no, you won’t. That’s why I can say that you will never live for an eternity. You started–you came into existence–at some point in time. That’s when your clock started running and the moments began to add up, one event upon another. But as you go forward into eternity, if you make an assessment at any particular point, your cosmic clock will show a finite age, counting from the time you started to the time you’re at. Now, you can keep going on forever and ever, but no matter how long you continue going on you will still have a particular age identifying the length of time of your existence. That particular age will never be an infinite amount. Do you see how that works? This is why you can never count to infinity, because infinity is not a particular number; by definition it’s an innumerable amount. At every stage along the counting process you are always describing a finite number, even though that number gets larger and larger as you count. In the same way, you will never live to eternity even though you live forever and ever, even though you never cease to exist, because at any given point in the process you will still have an age, even though the age is getting larger and larger as you move deeper and deeper into eternity. I think this is why, by the way, eternal life in the Scriptures is not identified principally as a quantity of time, but as a quality of time. Look at John 17:3. Remember the great high priestly prayer of Jesus? He says,
"And this is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou has sent."
Notice, the focus of eternal life is not on how long you’re living as if you were actually accomplishing an eternity of existence. It’s on the quality of life you live forever and ever–knowing God and His Son, Jesus Christ. Once again, you can’t accomplish an actual infinity–an eternity– with regards to time. It can’t be done. Why? Because you can only move towards eternity by adding one moment upon another in series. And you can never accomplish an infinite series of things (numbers or moments in time) by adding to the list one at a time. In this case, you can never add up an infinite number of events transcribing an infinite period of time. In philosophical circles this is called the problem with accomplishing an actually infinite series of events by simply adding one event to another. As we’ve done our little mind experiment here–our experiment in thinking and reflection on the nature of eternity and whether one gets there- -we realized you can’t really get to eternity by adding events together, one upon another. Because at every point you still have a finite number, even though it is much larger than it used to be. In other words, time proceeds forward as one event is added to another and it’s always a finite amount of time. Do you see that? It’s not really as hard to grasp this as you may think. I’m simply saying that numbers are potentially infinite, but you can never get there by counting. At any point in your count you are still dealing with a finite number. The same applies to events in time. This means that though you will live forever and ever, you will never live for an eternity, because you cannot accomplish an eternity by "counting" moments, adding one event upon another. Now this has very significant applications for the concept of the existence of God. It’s really quite simple. Our little experiment took us from the present into the future. We realize that we can never get to an infinite period of time in the future by adding individual events together. But today, this point of time in the present, is a point of time future to all past. Correct? In other words, we are future to yesterday, and the day before that.
Now, some have suggested that the universe is eternal, that it has existed forever. But our little reflection has shown us it’s not possible that it has existed forever.
Here’s why. This point in time we call "now" is actually future with reference to all of the past. We agreed you cannot get to any infinite point in the future by adding as events one to another. Therefore, this present moment in time can’t represent an actual infinite number of events added one to another proceeding from the past. Time has proceeded forward from the past as one event is added onto another to get us to today. But we know that whenever you pause in the count as we’ve done today, that you can’t have an infinite number of events. Which means that there is no infinite number of events that goes backward from this point in time, only a finite number of events. Here’s another way of putting it. If you can’t get into the infinite future from a fixed reference point (the present) by adding consecutive events one by one, you cannot get into the infinite past by subtracting consecutive events, one by one, from a fixed reference point (the present). If you can’t transverse the distance in one direction (present to infinite past), you can’t transverse it in the other direction (infinite past to present). This means that if the universe consisted of an infinite series of events in time, you could never arrive at this present moment. Philosopher Dallas Willard puts it this way: "As in a line of dominoes, if there is an infinite number of dominoes that must fall before domino x is struck, it will never be struck. The line of fallings will never get to it." ( Does God Exist–The Great Debate , p. 203-204) In other words, there would have to be an infinite number of events completed before you could get to the domino before you. But you can never complete an infinite number of events. An infinite series is innumerable by definition, so you can’t treat it as if it were a number you could ever arrive at. This means the universe is not eternal. The unive
rse has not existed forever and ever with no beginning. The universe, in fact, had a beginning. If it had a beginning, if the universe came into being, and it’s not eternal, then something must have caused it that didn’t have a beginning itself. The universe had a Beginner, some infinite, self-existent, uncaused, non- contingent Someone who started it all. Some kind of God must have been back there in time. I like this argument. It’s a little tricky, but it shows how much work you can do with a few moments of careful reflection. And it’s a good argument, by the way. It’s called the Kalam cosmological argument developed by Muslim theologians during the Middle Ages. Now if this argument is good, then our conclusions should match the world as we discover it. And science has demonstrated this particular thing to be true–because science has demonstrated with Big Bang cosmology that the universe did have a beginning, prior to which there was nothing physical. Science has shown that time and matter and energy all had their beginning at a point called the singularity. Prior to that, there was nothing physical. The universe came into being. That raises some very interesting questions about how such a thing ever happened to begin with. I’m not going to carry it further at this time. Others have done so and we’ve talked about this at other times. You chew on that for a while.
Why is there something rather than nothing at all?
Let me just bring this out of the intellectual stratosphere for a minute. You are talking with an atheist. You ask the atheist, "OK, if God doesn’t exist, where did everything come from? Obviously something is here. Where did it come from? Why is there something rather than nothing at all?" He says, "I don’t know, I’m not an expert. I don’t know all the answers. You’re the one with all the answers." You say, "Wait a minute. It’s not that hard. There aren’t that many options. Either everything always was here or it wasn’t always here. The Law of Excluded Middle says it’s got to be one or the other. Can’t be neither. Can’t be both." Well, we know that the universe wasn’t always here because of this little exercise we did. It’s impossible to accomplish an actually infinite series of events by adding one to the other. Further, science seems to make the point very clearly from what we know in cosmology and astrophysics, astronomy: the universe had a beginning. So we are stuck with a universe that began. It wasn’t always here; it came into being. Now, it either began by itself–in other words, it created itself–or something else caused it to happen. Things can’t create themselves and here’s why. In order for a thing to create itself it would have to be the cause that caused itself as an effect. We have cause and effect. You make a pie. You making it is the cause. The pie is the effect. In this case, we’d have to say the pie made itself which means it is its own cause even though it is the effect. This would mean it would have to exist to cause itself before it existed as an effect. It would have to exist and not exist at the same time. That’s absurd. Therefore, it must have been caused by something else. Now what caused it? It would have to be something that itself wasn’t caused, or else you would run into the same problem we started with. So just with a little thinking here, we come to the conclusion that everything wasn’t here, and so something must have caused it–and it would have to be something that wasn’t itself caused but was eternal. A little more thinking and you could come to the conclusion that it must be personal as well, because the cause has to be greater than the effect–and the universe has personal elements in it–so therefore the cause must be personal as well. That’s pretty easy, I think. Where did everything come from? Well, there are not too many options. You can move from there to the fact that there must have been some kind of intelligent first cause–Aristotle’s unmoved Mover. You haven’t proven the God of the Bible, but it is a beginning. Now if an atheist rejects this, then what is he committed to? He is committed to either saying that everything always existed, for which there is no evidence. None. Zero. Zip. Or he has to say that everything came from nothing, for which there is no evidence. None. Zero. Zip. Now who is the person who is taking the wild leap of faith?
This is a transcript of a commentary from the radio show, Stand to Reason, with Gregory Koukl. It is made available to you at no charge through the faithful giving of those who support Stand to Reason. Reproduction permitted for non-commercial use only. ©1995 Gregory Koukl