Updated: May 31, 2019
This is an original post from 11 October 2010 on www.thinkingmatters.org.nz called “Divine Eternity.” It is about the nature of God’s relationship to time. Is God outside of time? Or does he experience time?
Warning: the content of this post is more difficult than usual.
For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy Isaiah 57:15
God’s relationship to time has become a matter of some controversy in the latter half of the twentieth century. The scriptures affirm that God is eternal, being without beginning or end. However the biblical material is under-determined with respect to the precise nature of divine eternity. On the one hand the scriptures speak of ever-lasting duration (Ps 90:2; Rev 4:8). God is therefore omnitemporal. On the other hand there is scriptural information that indicates time itself was bought into existence by God (Gen 1:1; Prov 8:22-23; Jude 25; Titus 1:2-3; 2 Tim 1:9; 1 Cor 2:7; Ps 54:20; John 17:24; Eph 1:4; 1 Pet 1:20). God is therefore somehow beyond time, or atemporal. The problem is together these are broadly logically contradictory and cannot be rationally affirmed in the absence of a model or qualifier.
As the Biblical material is under-determined, this becomes a matter for the philosophical theologian. Christian thinkers, such as Augustine, Boethius, Anselm and Aquinas, conceived of God’s eternity as atemporal. This was commonly accepted from the early to the high Middle Ages, and as recently as 1975. Today most philosophers disagree.
The view one holds will be highly influenced by ones view of the nature of time. Most philosophers think if the A-Theory (the view that temporal becoming is real, and that future events do not exist) is correct God must be temporal. On the B-Theory (the view that temporal becoming is an illusion of human consciousness, and that all events past, present and future are equally real) it is easy to see how God can be timeless.
The B-theory (also called the static or tenseless theory) is challenged by everyday experience, as well as powerful philosophical and theological arguments. Relevant here are the theological arguments. First, a robust doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (creation from nothing) is incompatible with the B-Theory, for on it the universe exists co-eternally with God who sustains it in existence but never brings it into being. Second, on the B-theory evil is never conquered in the sense that its stain is wiped away from creation. Third, the spaciotemporal parts of Christ remain in a state of defeat, permanently broken on the cross and buried in the grave. Ergo, death is never swallowed up in victory (Isa 25:8; cf. 1 Cor 15:54).
One strong argument for divine timelessness is from the incompatibility of the incompleteness of temporal life with God’s life as the most perfect being. Their sole argument on which their entire case for timelessness is based can be summarised as follows;
- God is the most perfect being.
- The most perfect being has the most perfect mode of existence
- Temporal existence is a less perfect mode of existence than timeless existence.
- Therefore, God has the most perfect mode of existence. (modus ponems, 1&2)
- Therefore, God has a timeless mode of existence. (modus ponems, 3&4)
Suffering persists as a reality no matter how many ‘tears are wiped away’ in the kingdom (Rev. 21:4). For temporal beings the experience of life is ephemeral and transitory: once the past is gone it is gone forever. This argument’s premises enjoy powerful intuitive support. Objectors point out that recalling past experience for an omniscient being would not be such a melancholy affair as it would for human persons. Also, perfection is context-laden concept. Temporality for persons may be an enriching experience rather than an imperfection.
God’s knowledge of tensed facts provides an argument for omnitemporality. If God is omniscient he knows tensed facts, such as “it is now 2 o’clock,” and “Charles and Camilla are married.” If God knows tensed facts, his knowledge changes sequentially. Since there are tensed facts and God is omniscient, it follows that God is in time. For B-theorists there are no tensed facts. A-theorist objectors to this argument have adopted two strategies to escape the conclusion. First, by contending that tensed facts express propositions that do not carry tensed indexicals. For instance, the sentence “I am now reading” expresses the proposition that “I am reading at time T.” Second, redefining omniscience so it does not entail knowledge of tensed facts.
The second argument for omnitemporality is from God’s creative action in the temporal world. It states that since God is creatively active in the temporal world, he is really related to the temporal world. And since he is really related to the temporal world, he is temporal. The argument can be summarised as follows;
- God is creatively active in the temporal world.
- If God is creatively active in the temporal world, God is really related to the temporal world
- If God is related to the temporal world, God is temporal.
- Therefore, if God is creatively active in the temporal world, God is temporal (hypothetical syllogism, 2&3)
- Therefore, God is temporal. (modus ponems, 1&4)
Aquinas denied that God’s creative action in the temporal world entails he is really related to the temporal world, on the basis of divine simplicity and immutability. Modern proponents of divine timelessness deny God’s real relation to the temporal world entails his temporality.
Various views break the logical contradiction by denying either omnitemporality or atemporality. The traditional view is of absolute timelessness, which entails that God is atemporal both with and without the universe. Aquinas is this view’s most famous advocate. Unqualified divine temporality only affirms God to be temporal.
Various models are available that attempt to reconcile the logical contradiction between omnitemporality and atemporality. The first speculates God is timeless with respect to physical time, and temporal in a metaphysical time. Newton is the progenitor of this view, envisioning a sort of hyper-time sans creation. Strictly speaking God is not atemporal on this view, even if this metaphysical time is ontologically dependant on God. For the A-theorist the finitude of the past presents a problematic antinomy for this model, for there appears to be two phases of God’s life; a temporal phase with creation, and an atemporal phase with a before than relation. In response modern proponents have suggested an amorphous time properly prior to t=0 by advocating metric conventionalism.
An alternative model conceives God exists timelessly sans creation, but with creation exists temporally. Here God voluntarily undergoes extrinsic change by creating the universe and choosing to act within it.
- Everywhere in time. This term is mutual with respect to the question if time is finite or can be infinitely extended into the past.
- “if such a thing as a Christian doctrine of time has to be developed, the work of discussing it and developing it must belong not biblical but to philosophical theology.” James Barr, Biblical Words for Time (London: SCM Press, 1962), 149.
- Nicholas Wolferstorff, “God Everlasting.” In God and the Good: Essays in Honor of Henry Stob, ed. Clifton J. Orlebeke and Lewis B. Smedes (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1975), reprinted in Contemporary Philosophy of Religion, ed. Steven M. Cahn and David Shatz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 77-98.
- Gregory E. Ganssle, ed. God & Time: four views (Downers Grove, Il.: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 13.
- Other issues that will influence one’s view and which model or qualifier one adopts include; the doctrine of creatio ex nihlio, omniscience (especially foreknowledge), divine simplicity and immutability, if actual infinites are possible, God’s interactivity in the world and the fullness or perfection of the divine life.
- Using the terminology of J. M. E. McTaggart, see The Existence of Nature, vol. 2. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1927), chap. 33. The A-theory is also known as the process or dynamic or tensed theory of time.
- A-theorists are divided as to whether the present alone is real (Presentism) or if the past is real like the present. Wolferstorff and Craig are Presentists, and Garry DeWeese and Michael Tooley are A-theorists who are not.
- Gregory E. Ganssle, ed. God & Time: four views, 15.
- B-theorists admit that prima facie the A-theory is superior. “The advocate of the dynamic view of time may plausibly contend that our experience of tense ought to be accepted as veridical, or trustworthy, unless we are given some more powerful reason for denying it.” William Lane Craig, Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time (Wheaton, Il.: Crossway Books, 2001) 130. Despite this it remains popular among time-travel enthusiasts, physicists and some philosophers of science.
- Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann, “Prophecy, Past Truth and Eternity,” Philosophical Perspectives 5 : 395; See also Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann, “Eternity, Awareness and Action,” Faith and Philosophy 9 : 463.
- R. W. Hepburn, “Time-Transcendence and Some Related Phenomena in the Arts,” Contemporary British Philosophy, 4th Series, ed. H. D. Lewis, Muirhead Library of Philosophy (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1976), 152-73. See also William Lane Craig, God & Time: four views, 136.
- Kvanvig and Wierenga give the most sophisticated accounts of how God can know tensed facts and remain timeless. See Jonathan L. Kvanvig, The Possibility of an All-Knowing God (New York: St Martin’s, 1986), 150-65 and Edward R. Wierenga, The Nature of God (Ithica, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989), 179-85. cf. William Lane Craig. God & Time: four views, 146-9.
- Paul Helm holds this view and is one of the few who recognises it is only plausible on the B-theory of time.
- Nicholas Wolterstorff defends this view with biblical and philosophical arguments whilst professing ignorance of the nature of divine eternity without creation. Those who believe in an eternal universe could also hold this view.
- Isaac Newton, The Principia, trans. I. Bernard Cohen and Anne Whitman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 941.
- William Lane Craig, God & Time: four views, 116. cf. Nicholas Wolterstorff, God & Time: four views, 122.
- Alan G. Padgett represents a “Relative Timelessness” view of eternity, and advocates metric conventionalism with Eleanor Stump and the “Oxford School”. See Alan G. Padgett, God, Eternity, and the Nature of Time (New York: St Martin’s, 1992), 112-146. cf. Richard Swinburne, “God and Time,” in Reasoned Faith, ed. Eleonore Stump (Ithica, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993), 204-222.
- This is regarded as coherent and the most plausible by William Lane Craig.
- Craig, William Lane. Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time, Wheaton, Il.: Crossway Books, 2001
- ________. “Timelessness, Creation, and God’s Real Relation to the World,” Laval théologique et philosophique, vol. 56, n° 1, (2000): 93-112.
- ________. “Timelessness and Omnitemporality” Philosophia Christi, Series 2, Vol. 2, No. 1, (2000): 29-33.
- ________. “On the Alleged Metaphysical Superiority of Timelessness.” Sophia 37 (1998): 1-9.
- ________. “God, Time, and Eternity.” Religious Studies 14 (1979): 497-503.
- ________. “Timelessness and Creation,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 74 (1996): 646-56
- ________. “Omniscience, Tensed Facts, and Divine Eternity.” Faith and Philosophy 17 (2000): 225-41
- Ganssle, Gregory E., ed. God & Time: four views, Downers Grove, Il.: InterVarsity Press, 2001
- Moreland, J. P. and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, Downers Grove, Il.: InterVarsity Press, 2004