A lot of confusion comes from mistaking “one-way” things as “two-way” things. Perhaps we get this from the continuing imaginative hold of relativity physics, according to which time and space are merely aspects of a single continuum that embraces both of them. Obviously, we can just as well drive from Denton to Dallas as we could Dallas to Denton. But I can’t wake up and have it be yesterday. Space, unlike time, is a two-way thing. You can move to New York, and you can move back. You can make the biggest mistake of your life and go to Florida, and you can reverse that and come back here. (With apologies to Floridians!)
But (despite images drawn from the space-time continuum) we cannot go backwards in time. There might be subatomic particles that do so, but humans don’t. Time is one-way.
Which is why this life is eternally important. What we do between our conception and our death is decisive for who we are forever. Life is never a straight line: we make lots of turns, including turnings back. We repent. We ask for forgiveness. But all our turnings and returnings are in time: we can never utterly erase a period of our life. What we do, going forward, can recontextualize our past; we can, say through sincere repentance, let God reshape us into new people. But forgiveness is not obliteration.
It is a fundamental Christian claim that this life matters eternally. And this life ends in death, that moment which is the period at the end of the sentence. In some transformed way it turns out that our death is not the end of our existence. Yet what goes on thereafter never goes back on what happens before.
Our prayers for the dead are prayers based on two things: the acceptance of their life as they lived it, their actual life that has ended in their death; and our complete hope in God’s grace, that he holds them in the bosom of Abraham, that they rest in Jesus, that he continues doing for them better things than we can ask or imagine. We cannot pray that time go backwards, that their life be different than it in fact was, or that they somehow become un-dead. But we can and do pray that God continues to hold them in his love, that he sees them through the cross, that Jesus embraces them in his solidarity with every human being.
Out & about. Sunday, November 6, I will be preaching at 8 and 10 a.m. at All Souls’ Church, 6400 N. Pennsylvania Ave., Oklahoma City. I will also be teaching classes there at 11 a.m. and 6 p.m., Monday through Wednesday. The morning classes will be on why the book of Job is the best book of the Bible. The evening classes will be on suffering, caring, and dying.
Sunday, November 13, I will be preaching at Church of the Incarnation, 3966 McKinney Ave., Dallas, at the contemporary services at 7:30, 9, and 11:15 a.m.