God and Time

This post was prompted by reading a post over at Storied Theology entitled “Time, Lord?” I dug up a short paper I wrote about it in my feeble attempt to understand how God and time work. For what it’s worth, one of my favorite movies of all time is Back to the Future, and my favorite Star Trek episodes were always those that messed with the space-time continuum. Consider this as sort of a basic primer to some of the major positions on God and his relationship to time. I’ve pasted it below:

One of the most perplexing questions for theologians is how to interpret and understand various anthropomorphisms in the Scriptures.  In particular, such language occurs in various places in the Bible with regards to God and his relationship with time.  From the very first lines of the book of Genesis, it starts with the words, “In the beginning, God.”  Anyone who has taken a little bit of time reflecting on the nature of creation ex nihilo has dabbled with the question – what was there before the beginning?  Even those approaching the question of the origin of the universe from a non-theistic point of view have looked at theories like the Big Bang and wondered, “What was there before the Big Bang?”  While the Scriptures do not offer an exact propositional statement regarding God and his relationship to time, there are certainly references to it, that when taken together can be used to construct various theories on how he stands in relationship to time.

I entered this with a general bias or presupposition that time has no restrictions whatsoever on God, and that He is completely free to operate exactly how he chooses with regards to sequential time or timelessness altogether.  It seemed perfectly reasonable to stand with theologian Wayne Grudem’s definition of God and his relationship to time: “God has no beginning, end, or succession of moments in his own being, and he sees all time equally vividly, yet God sees events in time and acts in time.”[1] In other words, God is completely outside of time, or atemporal, yet is able to work in and through the mechanism of time to accomplish what He desires.  Or, as A. W. Tozer remarks, quoting C. S. Lewis, “if you could think of a sheet of paper infinitely extended in all directions, and if you took a pencil and made a line one inch long on it, that would be time.”[2] This understanding of a timeless God falls as a subset of an understanding of God as immutable.  If God were contained in any way by a temporal understanding of time, then it would logically follow that at certain points God undergoes change.  As each new event unfolds, God in a sense “acquires” a new set of knowledge that He did not previously have.

Upon further research, it became evident that while the atemporal, divinely timeless view of God had stood for centuries as the general majority view of God’s relationship to time, there were particular nuances on exactly how to understand that timelessness.  Particularly helpful was a book edited by Gregory Ganssle, God and Time, which allotted the space for four theologians to outline their positions on God and His relationship to time.  Of those four positions, I will focus on the three here that discuss some version of timelessness, and reflect on how they impacted my understanding of our glorious Triune God.

Paul Helm, Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Regent College, holds the position of Divine Timeless Eternity.  This is most in line with the classical positions of Augustine, John Calvin and Thomas Aquinas, and holds to an idea of God being completely timeless irrespective of His relationship to the created order.  He has always been timeless and always will be timeless.  In approaching some of the language of the Bible that seems to suggest that God indeed operates in a temporal manner, Helm offers the following solution: “But may not such representations of God be anthropomorphic (or anthropochronic) in order to render his relations to his creation more intelligible to us?”[3] I appreciate his usage of the term anthropochronic, because it reminds us that not just in relationship to space, but with regards to all attributes of God, we are attempting to put into human understanding an infinite being.  As Helm contends, “For divine eternality is timelessness, and it cannot be expected that human analogies and models will throw much light on what more positively it is or is like.”[4] All of our attempts to systematize and understand how God operates timelessly is ultimate an improbable exercise.  As the theologian William Hasker puts it, “no experience of ours is timeless, so in that respect the analogy is not only incomplete but incompleteable.”[5]

In spite of the difficulty in understanding eternal timelessness, Helm and others still make their best attempts to shed light on how to view God and time.  At the outset, there are passages like Isaiah 46:9-10, “remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’”  From passages like this, it seems clear that God stands outside of time and is unrestricted by successive temporal events in any way.  Everything works in conjunction with His purposes, and he is able to see the end of time at the same time as seeing the beginning.  On the other hand, the notion that God acts in time in the Scriptures must be addressed.  For example, God seems to respond to Abraham’s plea for Sodom and Gomorrah and Moses’ intervention on behalf of the idolatrous Israelites.  The response of theologians like Helm and Hasker is that God has eternally willed something to pass, not being surprised by any of these circumstances, and the result is effects that appear to be temporal.  For example, our understanding of God sustaining and preserving the universe could be seen as a temporal activity.  However, an alternative way of looking at preservation is to see it as something that has been eternally willed yet being effective in a temporal manner from our limited perspective.  As Hasker suggests, “the temporal characteristics of the effects of divine actions need not characterize the actions themselves….the act of bringing about responses that occur in time to the actions of temporal beings need not itself be a temporal act.”[6] As finite beings, our understanding of God’s timelessness is inherently limited.  Helm helpfully remarks, “There is for him no past and no future.  It makes no sense to ask how long God has existed, or to divide up his life into periods of time.  He possesses the whole of his life at once: it is not lived successively.”[7] In other words, instead of talking about God in terms of segments of life, it suffices to say, “God is.”

Two other positions, variants of the divine timelessness position warrant discussion here.  The first, defended by Alan Padgett at Luther Seminary, is that of “Eternity as Relative Timelessness.”  This intriguing suggestion defines two primary modes of time.  The first, as we from a human perspective would see it,  is regular, physical time which operates in successive moments.  Physical time had a beginning which God brought about, and will have an end.  Apart from that, however, is an idea of metaphysical time, the time that God himself operates in.  While God is timeless with respect to the created, physical time that we experience, he is temporal with respect to the metaphysical time, which does not operate with the same metrics or restrictions as physical time.  In other words, God exists in “God-time.”  Padgett’s contention with a purely divine timelessness like Helm and Hasker is that “the doctrine that God determines every event ‘from eternity’ is incoherent with a libertarian understanding of human free will.”[8] Moreover, one of the primary tenets of a purely timeless theory of God, known as the stasis or tenseless theory, that every event actually exists with regards to the time it happened, is false.  Because of that, Padgett suggests, “we should reject the timeless view because we should, whenever possible, bring coherence to theology.”[9] As he continues, “All times’ being present to God, while a traditional idea, is incoherent.  Being past, being present and being future are temporal properties that God cannot partake of, if God is absolutely timeless.”[10] His solution, then, is to have two aspects of time, the physical and the metaphysical.  The space and time that we exist in is of the created type, that which God exists in is of the necessary type – it exists as a necessary result of God existing.  Within this scheme, “God is not contained within time, not even God’s own time.  Rather, God’s Being is conceptually prior (in terms of ontological dependence) to eternity, even though God’s life is not temporally prior to God’s time.”[11] Moreover, God’s time remains “infinite and immeasurable,”[12] and we cannot understand the precise manner in which it operates.  God remains the Lord of time as we know it because He created it, yet is able to operate temporally within it while being timeless in relation to it, but temporal with regards to God-time.

A third suggestion that includes a version of timelessness is that of “Timelessness and Omnitemporality” as proposed by William Lane Craig at Talbot School of Theology.  Craig offers a particularly interesting solution to the conception of God as timeless and yet operating within time.  In his scheme, God was completely timeless before the creation of the universe, but ever since that particular event, God became temporal and actually operates in a sequenced manner.  Craig does not buy into a tenseless theory of time, and hence concludes, “Given a dynamic theory of time, it follows from God’s creative activity in the temporal world and his complete knowledge of it that God is temporal.  God quite literally exists now.  Since God never begins to exist nor ever ceases to exist, it follows that God is omnitemporal.  He exists at every time that ever exists.” [13] Craig suggests that an entirely timeless God would be unable to have any real knowledge of tensed facts, because He would be unable to operate within that realm.  So in keeping with the trajectory of the world, once God created time, He changed into a temporal being, while still being completely omniscient and omnipotent as long as it is now, and operating temporally with temporal beings.  That, to Craig, does not take away from the ultimate power and knowledge of God while making his character compatible with creation.

When I looked at these second two positions by Padgett and Craig, I was initially drawn in by both suggestions.  Padgett’s idea of a second, immeasurable metaphysical time appealed to my mind the most, as it seemed to offer a reasonable solution to an understanding of how God could somehow operate temporally within creation while himself remaining timeless.  It seemed to be a way of simultaneously answering yes to the questions of whether God is atemporal or temporal.  Craig’s suggestion, while certainly innovative, did not seem to work as cleanly to me.  First, God had to undergo some element of change in order to become temporal, and therefore his immutability is threatened within such a scheme.  Furthermore, I wonder if this view is compatible with any form of timelessness at all, because the creation happened at a certain point in time, and God existed “before” that moment, and therefore in a way was temporal prior to the creation as well.  God would have had some sort of measurable interval of time antecedent to his transformation into a temporal being.  In that sense, it seems to me that Padgett’s view of a separate metric for God-time or Helm’s view of the classic divine timelessness are the most compelling.  On this point I am inclined to agree with Helm because it does not introduce a second layer of complexity to the mechanism in which God-time works.  There is also a similar problem with God existing prior to the created order on some other immeasurable metaphysical time scale.  If God-time is immeasurable, yet there is some interval before which God existed in his own time scale, then in some way that time-scale is temporal.  It seems to me to be easier to say that God is, and there is no contingent time scale, physical or metaphysical, that He is dependent on, and he eternally wills things into place.  Obviously, the matter is far more complicated than the few sentences that I have written to condense these ideas, but it seems most in line with my understanding of the Scriptures and God’s sovereignty for Him to be divinely timeless without any restrictions.

Thinking about even a single moment in time, say January 1, 2008, there were billions of people being affected by billions more events and interactions, not to mention the other living creatures of the earth along with the activity in the entire universe.  And God understood and was able to see every one of them.  He knew what I was eating for breakfast that day and what sensation I had when food entered my mouth at the same time as understanding a mother caring for her child halfway across the world.  He saw it simultaneously, with equal vibrancy, along with billions upon billions of other events.  One minute later, the event that occurred did not surprise God one bit, for He saw that with the same omnipotent ability as the prior moment, because he exists outside of time.  Or, more accurate, because He exists.  In my mind, this view of divine timelessness best preserves the concept of the sovereignty of God and his ultimate goodness – He is not adapting to surprising changes in any temporal manner, but as Lord of all He guides and understands every event in time while standing outside of it.  From our perspective, we are only able to see things one moment at a time – we can have some recollection of the past, no real vision of the future, and a limited and dulled understanding of even the present moment.  Yet for God, I believe there are no such restrictions.  He can see all events equally vividly, yet understands the sequential order of them.  He can view the entire landscape of history without being perplexed by anything.

Any thoughts?

[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 168.

[2] A.W. Tozer, The Attributes of God, (Camp Hill: Christian Publications, 1997), 5.

[3] Paul Helm, Eternal God, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 2.

[4] Paul Helm, “Divine Timeless Eternity,” in God and Time, ed. Gregory Ganssle (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 37-8.

[5] William Hasker, God, Time, and Knowledge (Ithaca: Cornell Press, 1989), 150.

[6] Ibid., 158.

[7] Helm, Eternal God, 23-4.

[8] Alan Padgett, “Eternity as Relative Timelessness,” in God and Time, ed. Gregory Ganssle (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 94.

[9] Ibid., 95.

[10] Ibid., 98.

[11] Ibid., 107.

[12] Ibid.

[13] William Lane Craig, “Timelessness and Omnitemporality,” in God and Time, ed. Gregory Ganssle (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 153.

1 comment to God and Time

  • I agree with Padgett’s position involving metaphysical time. Any sort of change or action requires time in order to occur, so how could God create the universe if time did not exist for Him? It makes perfect sense to say that a different kind of time exists for God and is separate from created time, that is time as we experience it. I was confused when I read the objection you made to metaphysical time. You say there was “some interval before which God existed in his own time scale”. But this is absurd. God has always existed in His time scale. God can act in immeasurable metaphysical time because He is an eternal, infinite being. Any objection to metaphysical time is based on knowledge of time in our sense of it, and is therefore invalid.

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