Heaven is hard to conceptualize in terms of space and time. For instance: What kind of memories will we retain? Given that our lives are riddled with sin, the bad things we have done, as well as the bad things that have been done to us, are a large part of who we are. That is true even when we accept God’s free offer of forgiveness, since we cannot simply eliminate our memories without falsifying our identities.
Some theologians picture heaven’s temporality as a timeless point of the pure presence of God, but an eternal now never changes and thus makes no room for making new memories and offers no reason for retrieving old ones. But if the resurrection is a resurrection of the body, then that body will move through a new kind of spaceand, therefore, a new kind of time.
Redeemed time will liberate us from the ways in which we are bound to our past as well as anxious about the future, but we will still be the same person, which means we will still have basically the same earthly memory. Even assuming that we can make new memories in our eternal existence, the new will not simply replace the old. How will we be able to remember the past in heaven in ways that do justice to the sequential relations of time and yet do not grant the past any negative power over the present?
Surely we will be free to move through time in ways similar to how we will be free to move through space, although it is much easier to imagine spatial freedom than temporal freedom. On earth, we are more bound to time than space. We can travel in any direction, but the past is, as they say, a foreign country we can never visit. True, we can change how we interpret the past. When we give or receive forgiveness, for example, we can come to terms with sinful actions in our past, but the facts regarding past events remain the same. As much as we might wish that some event had not happened, or that we could change the consequences of some past action, the past remains both a part of us and something beyond our reach. Causality, simply put, does not work backwards. As a result, past sinful actions can still cause us to feel regret or resignation, even if we do not feel guilty of sin or judged by God.
The idea of temporal parts can go a long way toward making sense of the redemption of time. Also known as four dimensionalism and temporal perdurance, this idea assumes that just as we have parts that exist in space, we have parts that exist over time. We are the sum of our temporal parts, even though not every one of those parts is essential for our identity. Conversely, none of our temporal parts is the whole of who we are. As four dimensional wholes, we are never simply the person who exists at a single point in time.
Temporal parts theorists reject the idea that things are real only when they exist in the present. They argue instead that all the temporal parts of a person (or object) carry the same ontological weight, even though all of these parts exist at different times: The ongoing person that I am does not have access to all of these temporal parts in the same way that I have access to my spatial parts.
The idea of temporal parts challenges some of our intuitions about earthly existence, but it just might make a lot of sense about what life will be like in heaven. Think of heaven as the place where the ontological equality of temporal parts becomes absolutely real, or, in other words, where the spacetime continuum becomes the ordinary reality of our extraordinary existence, so that time becomes a functional dimension of space. In heaven, we will be able to move through time (in any direction) more easily than we now move through space.
How will our freedom to move through time help us with the problem of memory? In heaven, the past will become a land we can inhabit for as long as it takes to experience the healing power of God’s love. In other words, we will be able to change past events that need changing, and not just by reinterpreting them. We can change the past now, but only through our imaginations, and we could change it for real, according to the theory of relativity, if we were as fast as light, but in heaven we will be able to meet those we have hurt or been hurt by and let God make things right.
Just as earthly doctors can operate on one of our spatial parts (a limb, for example) to make us physically whole, God will be able to operate on any of our temporal parts in a way that will preserve and yet heal our memories. Memory will still matter, but matter will not limit how we experience time, so that we will finally be able to remember ourselves as God wanted us to be.
Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things. He is the author most recently of Mormon Christianity. His book on Bob Dylan is Dylan Redeemed.
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