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.