Is There Time in Heaven? Part I

June 10, 2016 Length: 18:32

Heaven is eternal—but does that mean it also without time? This question lies at the crux of our understanding not only of heaven but also of earthly existence. In the first part of this miniseries, Dr. Roccas talks about some personal experiences regarding this question and how Orthodox worship prepares us for heaven.

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Christ is risen! Christus ist auferstanden! Hello, and welcome to Time Eternal. Today I’m starting a short series that centers on a question I’ve always wondered about, and that question is: Is there time in heaven? Today I’ll be sharing some personal thoughts that I have in regards to this question, different experiences, and where I’m coming from. Then in the next episode, I’ll get more into the theological meat of this question; we’ll talk about some different references in Scripture and how we approach the intertwined topic of heaven and temporality in Orthodoxy thought. By the way, if you hear some noise in the background, I do apologize for that. They’re doing some construction in our building, and we weren’t given advanced warning, so we have to make do with the schedule arrangements that I had made.

So today I want to kick off this series just by saying that for much of my life the whole concept of heaven was something that kind of freaked me out, to be honest. I mean, the thought of being in hell also freaked me out, and significantly moreso, but I was also kind of afraid of heaven. This goes back to when I was a young kid. Every time I thought about what it would be like to live in heaven or exist in heaven, I got this sort of existential angst. I never knew where it came from, but it was always there, and I just tried to ignore it or pretend otherwise, because in Sunday school all you hear about is how amazing heaven is and how awesome it’s going to be to live there. Everyone always seemed happy when they talked about heaven.

But I wasn’t. Moreover, for a lot of my life, my understanding of what happened in heaven or what was supposed to happen was pretty vague. I knew God would be there. I was pretty sure there’d be some angels, possibly some harps. The only other thing I knew was we’d be worshiping God without end, forever, and somehow it was that “forever” aspect that really freaked me out. On the one hand, I had serious doubts whether I could go that long without sinning. One of the big things I was taught about heaven when I was younger is that you couldn’t sin in heaven, and I knew that I could barely go a day without sinning, so I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to last in eternity.

Then on the other hand, I was just freaked out about how long heaven was going to last. It was the same feeling I would get when I was a little kid and would get in trouble and my parents would put me in a five- or a 15-minute time-out. They would say, “Okay, you have to sit on this chair for five minutes and stare at the corner,” basically. Five minutes wasn’t a very long time, but if you have to spend it sitting in a corner, it’s interminable. I would really get anxious in those time-outs. My heart would race a little bit. When you’re that young and you have so few mental resources to occupy yourself with, five minutes seemed like a death sentence.

For a large part of my life, I’m sorry to say, heaven seemed a lot like a kind of cosmic time-out sentence, like: once you’re there, you’re stuck there. Time stops. The only thing you can do is worship God. There’s no escape. It seemed like more of a punishment than a blessing. So whenever I’d think about heaven, I would feel a little anxious and —again, forgive me for saying this, but—even claustrophobic or bored in a way. When I think back on this angst, I believe a lot of it had to do with an idea I must have picked up along the way that heaven is timeless or without time. I’m not sure where I got this idea from. I don’t know if it was explicitly articulated to me, or maybe I just managed to absorb it passively, but I definitely did think that time didn’t exist at all in heaven.

There’s verses like Revelation 21:23 that talk about how there’s no need for a sun and a moon in heaven, so right there I knew that there was no more day and night in heaven. According to what my picture of things at that point was, time was just kind of an accidental fluke, an accidental side effect of God creating the heavens and the earth. Time wasn’t in any way related to God or the way heaven worked. So I figured that heaven must be totally without time.

We’ve talked about the intersection between time and creation and time and God in the first four episodes of this podcast. If you’re interested in those, I go into a lot more detail in those episodes. You can go and give those a listen. But all of this to say: heaven freaked me out, and particularly the timelessness of it. I saw heaven as kind of this atemporal, totally stagnant place where everything just stayed the same forever, almost like standing water that breeds mosquitoes on a hot summer day. Heaven: nothing was moving, nothing was going anywhere, and that sort of bred an uncomfortable feeling for me.

Fast-forward to when I started learning about and experiencing liturgical worship in general, but Orthodox concepts of liturgy in particular when I was in graduate school. My dad put it in a really articulate way recently, I want to share his impressions, and then I’ll join onto that. He and my mom attended their first Paschal Liturgy this year, just a few weeks ago. My parents come from what you might call a more Evangelical background. This is the same environment which I was raised in. Where I grew up, which is where my parents still live, there’s not any Orthodox churches, there’s not a sizeable Orthodox population. It’s just small-town America. In fact, I didn’t really hear about the Orthodox Church until graduate school, and by then I was living ten hours away from my hometown.

So in a lot of ways my parents are still pretty new to the idea of Orthodoxy. We’ve been saying for years they should come to Pascha with us, and this year it actually worked out because Pascha was so late this year. So we invited them to make the long drive to Canada and see what a real Greek Orthodox Easter is all about, partly so they could see the liturgy and the liturgical aspect of Orthodox Easter; part of it was for them to experience the old-world, Greek way of celebrating Easter, because my in-laws still roast a whole lamb on a spit. There’s dancing and all of that. On a lot of levels it’s just a very special time for all of us.

So they came, and this was really the first Orthodox service that they had ever attended, aside from our wedding. We prepared them a little bit for the rigors of the service, but honestly we didn’t say too much, because we wanted them to experience things on their own. So they did. They came, and the next day—this was Sunday morning—I asked my dad what he had thought of the service. He started describing part of the Orthros service, or Matins, the part of the service after you pass the light and before the Liturgy starts. He was saying how he just really enjoyed all the prayers and hymns during that part of the service, even though he couldn’t really see what was going on because of all the people.

I knew what part of the service he was talking about, and if you’ve never been to a Pascha service or you’re not really sure, it’s a part of the service that’s “repetitive.” There’s a long series of litanies and canons, punctuated by the priest walking through the nave of the church, censing the church, and proclaiming, “Christ is risen!” over and over again. This cycle repeats itself, on and on, for, at this particular parish, at least 45 minutes to an hour. I think at some parishes they shorten this significantly, but we were in a parish that does the full Matins. So this is not the most exciting part of Pascha. I mentioned this to my dad, and was curious why he would gravitate towards this part of the services. I asked him, “Don’t you find that a little bit repetitive?” and he said, “No, not really.”

It was how he described it. He said, “It reminded me of all the services in the Bible that talk about praising God in heaven. I didn’t really understand much of what was going on, but I think that when we are standing before the throne of God in heaven, it will be a lot like what was going on in that part of the service.” I was kind of blown away when he said that. Of course I agreed with him, but what surprised me is that his impression was gleaned after only one service, and it’s something that had taken me quite a while, at least several months of experiencing Orthodox worship, to really appreciate. When I first began attending an Orthodox parish, it was a little bit of culture shock to me, and not just sort of on an ethnic level, but on a liturgical level. I was not used to liturgical worship, despite the fact that I was partway through getting a degree in Church history, much of which required me to be familiar with the liturgical aspects of historical Christian traditions.

In my own experience of going to church on a non-academic level, I was more used to church being a source of entertainment: worship bands, services that changed every week and you never knew quite what to expect and it was always new. In fact, I had helped lead services, so I was often a part of formulating the services and coming up with new things. I had already gotten to a point where I started not enjoying that entertainment aspect of church. I was already very exhausted by this spontaneous way of “doing church.”

Nonetheless, although I found Orthodox worship beautiful, calming, etc., etc., there was a part of me that still needed to learn how to just be in church and not be entertained. So there was a learning curve for me. That learning curve was tested by what felt like repetitive litanies, the cyclical, always saying the same thing—“Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.”—and all of these things that on the one hand I found very beautiful; on the other hand I found a little tedious. I didn’t like that about myself. I didn’t like having found that tedious, and I knew I needed to keep going. I knew I needed to get past that in myself.

After a few months of continuing to go to the liturgy—I don’t quite remember when or how this happened—I just remember gradually I began to wrap my mind around the fact that Orthodox worship wasn’t just repetitive. The words and the message and the communal worship on Sunday mornings or any liturgy or other service, all of these seemingly repetitive prayers and hymns were actually going somewhere; it wasn’t just aimless.

When I started to understand and appreciate this, it totally changed the way I thought about, not only worship, but also time, existence, creation—basically all of reality. The boredom and the tedium that I had initially struggled against in Orthodox worship started to be replaced by something else. I’m not really sure how to describe that something else. All I can say is that it felt like I was settling in, and I felt like I was able to just experience and be there.

I’m definitely still on the path of learning this lesson, of course—we all are; it’s not something we ever finish—but I can say there was a definite, palpable shift that was made in those first few months of attending an Orthodox parish when I started to feel calmer during the liturgy. Just on an external level, I stopped looking as frequently at my watch, I stopped feeling as impatient, and things like that.

An unintended side effect of all of this was that my old anxiety with regards to heaven melted away. Again, I don’t know exactly when or how this happened, but I do remember one day, after I’d been attending a parish for maybe two months or so, suddenly the thought of heaven occurred to me, and instead of the familiar old dread that would normally follow such a thought, I was filled with this really strange sense of calm. Looking back, what I think had happened is, again, my whole conception of heavenly existence had changed, just as my conception of earthly existence and worship had changed.

Heaven was no longer this cosmic time-out that was somewhere else yonder that I might, Lord willing, be sent someday. Instead, it was all around me in the liturgy. Yes, it was “repetitive” at times, but it wasn’t aimless, and I think if I had voiced my impressions then, they would have lined up pretty well with my dad’s observation of the Paschal Matins, when he said, “I don’t know what’s going on here, but it seems heavenly. It seems a lot like what’s going to be happening in heaven.”

For me, all the singing repetitions I heard in the liturgy began to serve as points of return, and worship itself became this dynamic, endless process of coming back, coming back, coming back to a place that, even in those early, mildly confusing days of Orthodoxy, felt strangely familiar and vital and real. I pictured a little bit, when you have a satellite in space that’s orbiting earth, the satellites don’t actually move in a perfect circle around the planet earth. They move away from earth, and then earth’s gravitational pull pulls them back. And then they move back away, and then they get pulled back, and then they move back away, and then they get pulled back. So they’re actually moving in this zig-zag. They’re moving around the earth, but in a zig-zag path.

To me, that’s a little bit like what the liturgy looks like. We’re centered on Christ. We’re orbiting Christ, if you will, in the liturgy, but our minds, our distractions, our thoughts—they’re always pulling us away, and then we’re pulled back in and we’re pulled back in and we’re pulled back in. Particularly in the Divine Liturgy, there’s something also that’s forward-moving about worship, so we’re not just moving in a circle. The circle itself is moving closer, forward to our redemption. So there’s a message that’s unfolding through the epistle reading, the proclamation of the Gospel, the confession of the Creed, the celebration of the holy mysteries. We’re always going somewhere and moving somewhere, and we’re moving there together as the body of Christ, with Christ.

And not just anywhere, but we’re pressing forward to the incarnational mystery of Christ’s presence among us and the realization of his resurrection. Along the way on that path, we’re sifted, just as I was saying before: we enter and re-enter and re-enter the prayers. We pull in more and more of our loose ends into the fold as we go. There’s something dynamic about this, right? There’s progress; there’s a narrative. You have all these elements like music and words and voices and materials and gifts: actual things in reality being offered to God at a particular time in a particular space. There’s also a sense of looking both backwards on, but also forwards to—the cross, the tomb, the resurrection—bringing these things into the present and bringing the present forward to eternity.

In short, there’s time, and I think that that’s a necessary component to liturgical worship. Again, there’s progress, change, development. There’s cyclicality but also linearity, such that we really can’t describe liturgy in the Orthodox sense as timeless. We can’t divorce time from liturgy in Orthodoxy.

So if the worship that we know and experience here and now on this earth in this Church is time-oriented, what does that mean about heaven, or at least our limited capacity to understand and perceive heaven where we are, firmly situated in our earthly lives? What does that mean about heaven? Well, that’s exactly where we’ll pick up in the next episode of Time Eternal. Until then, may God teach us to number our days aright, that we may be imparted wisdom. Thank you and God bless.