Depending upon your particular interpretation of the Norse myths, the concept of time can be linear, or it can be cyclical. It all stems from one particular section of the mythology centering around Ragnarok:
The Cyclical theory
In the Elder Edda after Surt’s fire consumes Midgard, there is the following stanza:
Lif and Lifthraser
Will lie hid
The morning dew
They have for food.
From them are the races descended.
This clause tells us that after the end of the earth, two will survive and cause a rebirth of the earth. Further down we see:
Neither the sea nor Surt’s fire had harmed them, and they dwell on the plains of Ida, where Asgard was before. Thither come also the sons of Thor, Mode, and Magne, and they have Mjolner. Then come Balder and Hoder from Hel.
So if we believe this particular version of the elder edda, the universe is somewhat cyclical. It’s not cyclical in the classic celtic sense, where you have a constant cycle that repeats itself, but you have the end of one era, and the beginning of a new one that is different. So you don’t have a constant repetition of the same cycle, but an evolutionary process. The thought is the universe post Ragnarok, will be better than the pre-Ragnarok universe.
So why do the northern Europeans think this way?
It’s important to remember that at the core of all northern European philosophy are two core concepts:
When we think of our lives we don’t want to be static, we want to constantly be moving towards some goal.
Also, we don’t want to be “spinning our wheels” repeating the same task time and time again. One of the challenges of the celtic cyclical belief structure is that it doesn’t leave any room for improvement in the universe. The universe is in a constant cycle, and when the cycle “reset” you’re back at square one.
The Northern European model believes that there is an “end times” (or there may be several) but after the end times is “over” there’s a rebirth that can be better than the previous age.
So I tend to think of Ragnarok as a “cosmic” reset where we say “OK, we didn’t do it perfectly this time, we’re going to reset things, and try again.” The Gods are reborn, etc.
The linear model
Now, some would argue that those sections of the elder edda that talk about the survival of Lif and Lifthraser is a add on from the Christian era, and that the original mythology didn’t contain this.
Let’s explore the implications of this particular belief.
If we believe that there is Ragnarok, and that ultimately the universe will end, and everything will be destroyed, what does that mean? Does that mean there’s no point to living a good and virtuous life since we know ultimately it will all end?
If we believe this “ultimate destruction” model we have to tell ourselves that the benefits in being virtuous occur now, and in the afterlife before Ragnarok. And there is truth to this. If we live a virtuous life on Midgard, then when we proceed to the next life, we’ll be in a place that will be beneficial to us. If I live a hospitable life, I hopefully will end up in Aegir’s hall, which honestly, for me, sounds like a pretty good place to hang until the end of time.
And the end of time will come, and we don’t know when, but we accept that it will come, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t value in us being good people before then.