Volume 46 | Number 4 | July–September 2018

Inglés Español

Linear Time Versus Circular Time

By Dr. H. T. Spence

Edwin Hubble (1889–1953) has been called the “Pioneer of the distant stars.” His studies proved the existence of galaxies other than our own Milky Way and opened the vastness of the study of the universe. What was once considered at 100 billion galaxies in the universe has now recently been expanded to nearly 2 trillion galaxies. These changes are prompting questions among physicists like “what is a universe?” and “is there a concept of other universes?” Have we come to the understanding of multiverses? Is there an all-encompassing omniverse where all the various concepts exist? As the term epistemology has become the extensive word for the universe of knowledge, omniverse has now become the blanket word for all the known and yet to be known concepts of existence, whether visible or invisible. This word therefore includes the concept of the existence and the dimension of time.

What Is Time?

What is time? Throughout philosophical history this has been a slippery serpent of a multitude of proposed answers. When Augustine, bishop of Hippo was asked the question, he responded, “If no one asks me, I know what it is. Yet if I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.” The Bible speaks much of time in the light of this earth, of man, and of God’s workings. Has time changed? Will past, present, and future time be different from one another?

Hubble observed, “Past time is finite; future time is infinite.” We do not want to make this complicated, for many paths of contemplation will lead us to abstraction. As a Christian, our souls would gain nothing for spiritual living from such theorizing. Therefore, we want to take this burden from a simple two-dimensional aspect of time.

Should time be viewed as circular or linear? Should time be viewed as a linear timeline or calendar, or should it be viewed as a circular clock?

Some biblical perspectives of circular time include the rotation of the planet. What we have come to view as the 24 increments of time in a 24-hour day continues to repeat itself. From the creation account we also read of the 6 days of an evening and a morning, suggesting a morning, noon, and night cycle. In many parts of the world, there are the four seasons of fall, winter, spring, and summer; these cycle again and again yearly down through history. There are the cycles of the winds. Additionally, there are the cycles of water that fall to the earth, rise again, only then to fall again.

The Bible also expresses linear time, revealing to us a beginning and an end. And everything from that beginning continues to press to that end of life. Once we are born into the world, there is no going backward; time is ever pressing us on to an end. However, some suggest that our lives are only circular, where one wheels around and around spiraling until we somehow manage to escape from it. This circular view is an old view, espoused by Buddhism and other religions we commonly associate with the East.

Gautama Buddha, born around 560 B.C. in northeastern India (now Nepal), is reported to have spiraled round and round in the great Circle of Life many times before reaching perfection. We are told that he experienced five hundred full circuits of terrestrial toil and trouble before at last achieving enlightenment and nirvana. The disciples of circular time and reasoning believe that we are given opportunity to re-enter the highway of life over and over again, each time representing a new opportunity to navigate by our own lights to some spiritual paradise. This is a belief of a second chance. In modern-day Tibet, for example, blind and otherwise congenitally disabled children are treated cruelly by society, even spat upon and cursed publicly. Buddhism believes in circular time and Karma; for example, blind children are reincarnations of people who were severely damaged in a previous life. Such individuals will continue in the circle until they reach perfection. Nevertheless, the Bible is very clear in that life advances in a straight line from the past, through the present, and onward to the future.

Christianity has pioneered the Western view of linear time. In his book Time and History, British mathematician and science historian G. J. Whitrow states, “With Christianity, man acquired a new understanding of time.” Long before anyone else (including scientists), Christians introduced the world to the idea that time advances in a straight, orderly fashion toward a knowable end. Time is the thread of a universal story line, and (to many) it is the greatest story ever told.

India’s Hinduism (the oldest religion in the world apart from the true religion of Jehovah) only believes in circular time; this is why they were not motivated to record dates. Hinduism’s circular way of thinking is called the samsara, a belief in reincarnation, the great circle of life. A newborn’s physical being is determined by the number of merits, the quantity of karma he or she has earned during all his or her past circumnavigations of earthly existence. The more karma the child has racked up by thinking, believing, and acting rightly, the higher up on the chain the child’s soul or atman can expect to land in the next go-round of life.

When we carefully read the Bible, we see evidence that time presses on without exact repetitiveness in man’s actions. History is recorded in Scripture, while prophecy is pushing history onward. Time was altered only twice: once by an extension of time during the days of Joshua, and once through a retraction of time in the days of Hezekiah.

When we come to the days of the birth of Jesus, we can view the miracle of the histories of the linear lives of many men and women brought together: Caesar Augustus, Joseph and Mary, Herod Antipas and Herodias, and Salome who demanded the head of John the Baptist, Pontius Pilate, Annas and Caiaphas, and the lives of the Sanhedrin Court. God took the threads of all their linear living and wove them together to bring about the greatest story ever told. Christ was born, He lived, He died, He was buried, He was resurrected, and He ascended.

Church history has unfolded, and we are in the days of the growing intense persecution against God’s saints. We are looking to a rapture, a tribulation period, and the second coming of Christ to set up His kingdom. All these events are revealed in sacred Scripture; we have their sequences of events as well as descriptions of what is to come. The details of eschatology are all linear, temporal details. The temple of God, the holy city Jerusalem will be occupied by foreign powers for 42 months; the Antichrist beast will rise and kill two witnesses. This will take place 3½ years before the Lord comes to earth to set up His kingdom.

The Father is able to comprehend all at once the endless streaming that we time-bound creatures call the past, present, and future, and bring it all together for the unfolding. And then, a new heaven and new earth will be revealed as God will come to earth to dwell with man (Revelation 21). This all is the unending of the ages in a linear concept.


Augustine, in his famous opus The City of God, declared the following:

The pagan philosophers have introduced cycles of time. . . . From this mockery they are unable to set free the immortal soul, even after it has attained wisdom, and believe it to be proceeding unceasingly to false blessedness and returning unceasingly to true misery. . . . It is only through the sound doctrine of a rectilinear course that we can escape from I know not what false cycles discovered by false and deceitful sages.

How do you see your life? Looking back over your years, do you view a vicious cycle of living over and over in sins and frustrations, never getting out of the rut of carnality? Have you entered a vicious cycle of your Christian life (as the days of the Judges) of sin, servitude, supplication, and restoration ever being repeated? Do you believe you are bound because of your past to live this way? Have there been moments where some hope came from Scripture for deliverance? Or do you believe this is your destiny?

From the cradle to the grave, God is calling us onward, upward, ever living the unfolding of the Christ within. Once God has saved us from our sins, there is an initial entrance into the kingdom of God, and from that point there is to be no turning back, no revolving door. For the Christian there is always more and more of Christ! It is the linear life in Christ. Crises come within that linear life to enable us to go to the next-step dimension of this ongoing walk with God. If we do not go on with God, we will be as the children of Israel, wandering for years around and around in carnality, apathy, with no goals, no aspirations in Christ! We will be repeating our sins, repeating our repentances, repeating, repeating, repeating, and never going on with God. Such a life produces the monotony in our lives; any boredom is because of the cycle of living we create. Although crises come in a moment of time, they come to strengthen the walk of a linear perspective of time. These are woven with the linear life of a wife or husband, the linear lives of your children and those of other Christians. Whatever the case, we are all going together, either onward or declining. God never intended for us to go back. He never intended for us to retrace, although failures may force us to do so! But if this happens, it is so we can go on. We can’t go back even in time. What has been lost is lost! Pick up now and move on in Christ.

There is a destiny with God out there; you are ever moving towards it. You are only a child once; only a teenager once; only a young person once; only middle aged once; only autumn aged once; and, thank God, you only die once! It’s the linear life—moving on, going on, praying that God will work in all your crisis times. There is no time for failure, for backsliding, for quitting; our Christian linear life must continue.

Where are you today at this hour in your Christian life? Is your family in a cycle? Is your own life in a cycle? Let us pray that God will pluck you out of the hamster wheel and bring you to an ongoing life with Christ!