Most people love the hymn “Amazing Grace,” but for years, I dreaded singing it in church because of the last verse: “When we’ve been there 10,000 years / bright shining as the sun / we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise / than when we’d first begun.”
You see, for as long as I can remember, the concept of eternity has been my greatest fear. Thinking of 10,000 years as just a drop in an unfillable bucket would send chills of horror coursing through my body. My mind would loop through a cycle of “But then what? And then what?” The overwhelming incomprehensibility of it all, the towering vastness, shook my sense of well-being and threatened my mental health. Even though, as a Catholic, I believe eternity means the glories of heaven with Christ.
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For years, this phobia clamped my spirit in its vise grip. As a child, I can recall sitting in a corner crying tears of anguish when it dawned on me that time in heaven would never end. In college, I’d have to call home periodically so my mom could talk me off the emotional ledge when I’d thought about it too much. I even used to bargain with God, proposing that I could take breaks from heaven in a sort of hibernation state, or have my consciousness rebooted every so often to remain unaware of the endless passing of time.
As it turns out, I’m not alone in my anxieties about eternity. Not surprising, since many of us harbor fears of the unknown. The fear of eternity even has a name: apeirophobia. Message boards on the internet and conversations I’ve had with friends reflect a universal truth: It’s not easy for the finite human brain to deal with the infinite.
Despite the apparent prevalence of this fear, it’s not a topic often addressed in Mass or Catholic settings. (Not that I expect my priest to deliver an entire homily on my specific phobia!) Thankfully, however, the Church and the Bible offer numerous teachings on the concept of eternity — and specifically, an eternity in heaven. Reflecting on these teachings has gradually helped anchor my mind and calm my fears.
First, I have come to rest in the belief that God’s will for me is perfect. Romans 12:2 puts it plainly: “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.” Even if time without end sounds frightening to me, it must be the absolute best destiny for my soul, since it is the destiny God has planned. The Catechism affirms that “the Father’s will is ‘to raise up men to share in his own divine life.’” (CCC 541). Submitting myself to the perfection of God’s plan requires humility, but brings much more peace than resisting it. It’s my pride that makes me believe I should be able to understand the infinite. Time and again, I have had to relinquish this hubris to God in prayer.
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Another comfort has come from adjusting my understanding of time. Much of my anxiety used to stem from thinking of time in a linear sense, plodding from point to point. With this mentality, it’s easy for scary questions to creep in, like “Won’t I get bored in eternity?” or “How will I fill the time?” But God—and heaven—exist outside of our human sense of time, in a state where “all moments … are present in their immediacy” (CCC 600). Grasping this, I now picture eternity as an unbroken circle, complete and flawless, rather than an endless stretch of hours or days to be filled. This image sets my mind at ease with its sense of wholeness, rather than emptiness.
Finally, I have accepted the fact that my limited mind is categorically incapable of fathoming the infinite, so I can set my futile attempts aside. Worrying about it only steals my joy. If anything, I can allow this inability to remind me of how great beyond comprehension God truly is. Christ is Lord of eternal life (CCC 679); I am not. Acknowledging the minuteness of my own mind compared to God’s sets me free of the burden of needing to understand. After all, Scripture promises “You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast because they trust in you” (Isaiah 26:3).
These days, when I sing “Amazing Grace” or get to the end of the “Glory Be” (“as it was in the beginning and ever shall be, world without end”), I don’t hold my breath. Though I can’t claim my journey to fearlessness is complete, I sing out, pray loud, trusting that God is in control.