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Warning: Serious consideration of the thoughts that follow may induce temporal vertigo and cause the reader to lose his or her sense of place in time. Making plans for the future is highly recommended while under the influence of these symptoms.

In the previous post, The Approaching Day, I defined time as “the unfolding of God’s accomplishment of redemption in the universe.” This definition derives from the momentum of the Scriptural narrative and agrees with the Hebraic notion of time, which is primarily qualitative and more concerned about what happened and why than it is about the specific when as we generally think of it.

Western culture is saddled with a concept of time that is primarily Greek in origin. The Greek philosophers were prone to thinking spatially and viewing time quantitatively—as a thing unto itself requiring measurement—defined it geometrically. We still do this. Soon, you will be presented with a time line. The figure will be familiar to the reader and intuitively interpreted. Our proclivity for viewing time in spatial terms extends from the ancient Greek philosophers to modern day physicists who theorize on the composition of what we call space-time.[1]

These concepts are hard to avoid as they are hardwired into the very language base we use to communicate and frame our thoughts.[2] For instance, when someone asks us to consider our place in time, we seldom consciously realize that we are being asked a time question in a space way. Place belongs to space, but time is more about our experience than it is about our position. That being said, consider how we generally think of time and our place in it.

Simple Time line 2

The classic time line above is instantly recognizable and easily understood. The present, where (spatial) we are now (temporal), is a point (spatial) on the continuum line (geometric) of time (temporal). The past is all that lies behind and the future stretches before us filled with possibilities and uncertainty. When I am in a science fiction state of mind and consider time travel, I generally think of the notion of seeing the future as forward motion. In contrast, visiting the past requires the gear shift to be in reverse. The popular science fiction movie franchise Back to the Future played upon these common perceptions in its ironic title, giving hints to its comedic content. But would you laugh if I told you our future is behind us?

The Future in Hebraic Thought
We need to dig into the dictionary directly, but let’s look at a couple of verses first. Both are from the English Standard Version (ESV) with bolded emphasis added.

Jeremiah 29:11
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.

Proverbs 24:14
Know that wisdom is such to your soul; if you find it, there will be a future, and your hope will not be cut off.

The Hebrew word translated “future” in these verses is ‘achariyth, which means “the last or end, hence the future or posterity, all that comes afterward.”[3]

I am using the English language to define a Hebrew word and the result is a mixed picture. Last, end, and afterward are all consistent in their imagery. To us, these words occupy the space that is behind us. For instance, if I am at a cash register paying for my groceries and people are lined up behind me, I am at the head of the line or first in line. The last person in line is at the end of the line and comes to the register after me. While I am present at the register, the future customers are behind me. Generally, we do not think of the future as being behind us. We don’t even define it that way.

My trusty American Heritage Dictionary defines “future” as “the indefinite period of time yet to be; time that is to come; the prospective or foreseen condition of a person or thing.”[4] These definitions are filled with a forward concept of the future. When we say “come here” to someone, what is our expectation? It is that they will move to us. In defining the future as that which “is to come,” the mental picture is of us motionless while future events flow to us like oncoming traffic. This sense is intensified in the words prospective and foreseen. Pros- and fore- are both prefixes indicating frontal position.

As we have seen above, ‘achariyth is “all that comes afterward.” It is also translated “last” and “latter” in the King James Version (KJVS) as in the verses below.

Genesis 49:1
And Jacob called unto his sons, and said, Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days.

Isaiah 2:2
And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.

Daniel 10:14
Now I am come to make thee understand what shall befall thy people in the latter days: for yet the vision is for many days.

When we hear “last days” and “latter days,” we think of the end of the ages and our coming hope. And as I have demonstrated above, we generally conceive of these things as lying ahead of us, but the Hebrew term for it signifies something that is behind. As odd as this mind concept may seem, it is not totally foreign to our thinking. Looking back at the classic time line, where are our children and grandchildren? Ahead of us? Are they not born after us?

Generational time line

Our descendants—our posterity and future generations—come after us even as our forefathers went before us. Thorleif Boman’s insights into this flipped perspective of time are worth quoting at length.

“We Indo-Germanic peoples think of time as a line on which we ourselves stand at a point called now; then we have the future lying before us, and the past stretches out behind us. The Israelites use the same expressions ‘before’ and ‘after’ but with opposite meanings.

From the psychological viewpoint it is absurd to say that we have the future before us and the past behind us, as though the future were visible to us and the past occluded. Quite the reverse is true. What our forebears have accomplished lies before us as their completed works; the house we see, the meadows and fields, the culture and political system are congealed expressions of the deeds of the fathers. The same is true of everything they have done, lived, or suffered; it lies before us as completed facts, and we could unroll their genesis individually as much as we want, just as in a motion picture. The present and the future are, on the contrary, still in process of coming and becoming.”[5]

Realizing that our future is behind us and in the hands of our progeny should impact the way we walk out our Christian faith. It is a faith as much—if not even more so—concerned with what we do for those who come behind us as it is with what we are heading toward.

[1] While space-time has empirical physical evidence, our cultural bias toward seeing time as an aspect of space acts as a blinder to seeing time’s deeper, spiritual reality.
[2] As English speakers, we utilize an Indo-European language with its corresponding thought constructs. Hebrew is a Semitic language.
[3] Biblesoft’s New Exhaustive Strong’s Numbers and Concordance with Expanded Greek-Hebrew Dictionary. Copyright © 1994, 2003, 2006 Biblesoft, Inc. and International Bible Translators, Inc.
[4] The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1976, s.v. “future.” Emphasis added.
[5] Thorleif Boman, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1960, p. 149-150.