Is Time the Curse? (Part 1)
I imagine that if I do not qualify the above question, the accusation will rise that I confuse ‘time’ with ‘our experience of time.’ To preempt this complaint, there is no place where a person can observe time without experiencing time. This is not to say we cannot imagine what ‘time’ might be like apart from our experiencing of it. We can, but this imagination of time will not be something another person will be able to experience. What time is as we experience it will be others’ experiences of time too. I might add that there is a ‘principle of analogy’ where we assume that my experience of time is certainly what others also experience. This assumption should be checked by the relativity of time, but let’s leave that alone for now.
Likely the most salient observation about the biblical curse of Adam (Gen 3:17ff) is that God does not curse humanity directly—like God does of the Serpent. God instead curses Adam’s environment: agricultural behavior, human kinesiology, scarcity of resources, and, yes, delimitation. Am I really mining all this from Genesis 3:17 – 19? I believe, yes, but the influence of my education for sure provides additional context, so let’s put the text in explicitly and roll through it.
Genesis 3:17 – 19
Then to Adam He said, “Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat of it’: “Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”
I want to start with my category of ‘delimitation’, which effectively means to limit something into a smaller state than its former state. The word “all” in the aforementioned text is a word for speaking about a totality. We know from Gen. 3:23 that God provided an environment of eternal life in the Garden of Eden; I do not want to digress into the mechanics of how that worked. The take-away is that God’s initial intent for humanity was for them to have ongoing life. There was no book end, just an endless openness of possibility. Those who perpetually exist cannot have this phrase assigned to them: “all the days of your life.” There is no way to talk about “all” when the line of life forward is unbroken and continuous. There is no “all” when the future is endless.
We should add to these points two more: (1) the beginning and end is clearly conveyed in the phrase, “for dust you are, and to dust you shall return”; (2) it is not unimportant that the sun/moon mechanic that gets used (by humans) to demarcate the passing of time during the period of the curse is disregarded or dismantled in the Book of Revelation when God restores redeemed-humanity to endless eternal life. “And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5). We must carefully distinguish the cosmological behavior of the sun/moon/stars from their usage as a way to demarcate the passage of time. We should be even more cautious not to limit our imagination about the role of the sun/moon/stars after God sets things right (Rev. 22:5). Romans 1:20 points out the fact that knowing God happens through the created order, even to the point that God will judge persons because of their access to knowing God in this way:
For what can be known about God is evident to them, because God showed it to them. For God’s invisible properties are observed since the creation of the cosmos, being understood by the things God created, both his eternal power and divinity so that they are inexcusable (Romans 1:19 – 20, translation mine).
My point is that the cosmological order’s function may no longer be used to demarcate time or usher night day after day, but this does not mean that the created cosmos, which God called “very good,” did not serve to communicate God. Hans Ur von Balthasar, a famous aesthetics theologian, once said that the universe is a body of expression for God. Therefore, in the new heaven and the new earth, the cosmological order may remain with different functions, but still fulfilling its good mandate to communicate God.
Now that we have cleared the field, is time the curse? When we think about time, I believe the first associated idea that should come to mind is ‘limitation’ or ‘delimitation’. The experience of time for humanity is one of beginning and end, of a relentless march of days counting down to death. Whatever ‘time’ was or experienced by humanity before the curse is irrelevant because there is no access to such experience at any time in any place to inform the question, “What was time like before the curse?” Such a question is a pointless quest. This sets up the question, “Is time the curse?” in its correct situation, in the situation of how humans have experienced time now and for almost all of human history. Time—prior to its acting as a kind of ticking time bomb (after the curse)—might be better described as ‘difference’. I will not go deep here, but ‘difference’ is one of the innate properties of the immanent Trinity (my dissertation explains this well, here is a link to it https://www.amazon.sg/Tawidic-Allah-Trinity-Inherent-Relationality/dp/3330002514).
We can put forward a few takeaways from this question about whether time is the curse. Noteworthy indeed is that small children have no concept of time. Even my five-year-old still has trouble understanding it, and it seems altogether unimportant to her. C.S. Lewis once opined that people’s “aha moments” they feel when they are shocked that so much time has passed indicates that humanity was designed to be in a context of eternality, not time-limitedness. Why is it after all that we feel shocked when feeling like time moved too quick? If we were designed to be limited by time, as a countdown clock on our lives, shouldn’t it feel entirely natural that time works the way it does? Time or our experience of time as limiting us, as hunting us, is perhaps the surest evidence that God submitted the entire creature to futility: “For the creation was subjugated to futility, not willingly but because of Him who subjugated it, upon hope, because the creation itself will be freed from its servitude to decay unto the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (Romans 8:20 – 21, trans. mine)” Time is a feature of creation, obviously. Time, however, encapsulates the curse as a kind of Grim Reaper eerily stalking us. Time as a delimitation of our lives is most certainly a substantive part of the curse, if not its most dominant aspect.