God and Time

God and Time

Conversation with William Lane Craig

Transcript God and Time

Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, one of the drawbacks of being a philosopher is that you don’t get a lot of sleep sometimes. There are some issues that keep you up at night. One of the issues that tends to keep me up at night is some of the issues of God and his relationship to time and what time is. You have some articles on reasonablefaith.org that people can refer to.[1] You have written on God, time, and eternity. Let’s unpack this a little bit. What are some of the issues that we explore when we consider God and time?

Dr. Craig: I agree with you, Kevin, that this is one of the most mind boggling, mind expanding, topics that a person can talk about. Next to the concept of God himself, I think the concept of time is the most mind stretching issue that a person can reflect upon. So when you put God and time together, you’ve got a subject that you can study for the rest of your life. I think some of the key issues that will arise here will be the nature of divine eternity. Should we think of God as timeless – that is to say transcending time? God would have no temporal location, no temporal duration. Or should we rather think of God as enduring throughout all time from infinite time in the past to infinite time in the future? That would be a key issue.

Related to that question would be the question of the nature of time itself. Here the debate is whether time is dynamic or whether time is static. That is to say: is the difference between past, present, and future a real, objective difference? Is temporal becoming real? Do things actually come into being and pass out of being as time goes on? Or is time sort of like a spatial dimension like a yardstick and the events in time are like the inches on the yardstick? They are all equally real, they are all there so that the events in 2050 are just as real as the events in 2000 and those are just as real as the events in 1950 and what is present is just a matter of your location on the yardstick so to speak. For the people at the year 2000, the events in 2050 are future and the events in 1950 are past. But for the person in 2050, those events are present and the events in 2000 are past. That is a fundamental question in philosophy of time – whether time is dynamic or what is sometimes called “tensed,” or whether time is static or “tenseless.” That will impact how you understand God’s relationship to time.

Then there are a host of other issues. Whether time is relationship among events or whether time is a substance, a thing in itself. Whether time has a kind of intrinsic measure to it or is the measure something that is just conventional that we make up? The whole Special Theory of Relativity comes in here. Are there relations of absolute simultaneity among events or is simultaneity relative? Just lots of issues like that.

Kevin Harris: Interesting. And each one of these could be explored – volumes have been written on each one of these. One of the things that interested me when I read your book, in the first chapter you talked about the difficulty of defining time without being circular.[2]

Dr. Craig: Right, exactly. What is time? One student wrote on his philosophy exam, “Time is a weekly news magazine.” Well, that is one definition. Another definition I saw for time was “time is what keeps everything from happening at once.” When you think about it, that’s not a bad definition! Time is a sort of dimension of reality that is ordered according to an earlier-than/later-than relation. As such, that distinguishes time from space. Space is related by points in space – it’s related by a between-ness relation. For any three points in space – at least on a spatial line – X, Y, and X, one of those points will be between the other two points.[3] But time, in addition to having that between-ness relation, also has this relation of earlier-than and later-than. For two points in time, one will be later than the other and the other will be earlier than the other. There is nothing like that in space. So that would be a unique and defining feature of time.

Kevin Harris: If you were to say time is endurance, then you want to know what endurance is. Well, endurance is time, so you go around in a circle. I have heard as well that time can be seen as a measurement of change. Does that work?

Dr. Craig: That was Aristotle’s idea. I, myself, like that very much. Newton, the great father of modern physics, Isaac Newton, had a different view. Newton thought that it made sense to talk about time flowing and going on even if the world were completely empty and there was nothing happening. Even if you had, say, just empty space and there was nothing happening – no events – he still thought time would be flowing. But I find myself more in agreement with the view that in the absence of any events at all there wouldn’t be relations of earlier and later. You would just have a timeless state.

Kevin Harris: A completely changeless state.

Dr. Craig: Yes.

Kevin Harris: There would be no time, there would be nothing to measure, there would be no later than or earlier than.

Dr. Craig: Exactly. Everything would be just a timeless state of affairs.

Kevin Harris: What about the A-Theory of time and the B-Theory of time?

Dr. Craig: Well, I avoided that technical nomenclature but what I described as dynamic theory of time would be the so-called A-Theory and the static theory would be the so-called B-Theory. Those labels of A and B which are very convenient come from a British philosopher named John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart who lived back around the first part of the 20th century. He wrote a very famous essay called “The Unreality of Time.” He distinguished these two theories of time. One is the A-Theory and this is the theory that says that things are really present, past, or future. This is an objective feature of reality, not just an illusion of human consciousness. That’s the A-Theory. The B-Theory would be the view that all events in time are equally real and the difference between past, present, and future is just an illusion of human consciousness. On the B-Theory, “now” is sort of like “here” - there is no objective place in the universe called “here.” “Here” is wherever the speaker happens to be. Right now “here” is in Dallas. But when I am in Atlanta, then Dallas is “there” and Atlanta is “here.” But when I am in Dallas, Dallas is “here” and Atlanta is “there.” But there is no objective here or there in the universe. That is just a subjective perspective of a person. Similarly on the B-Theory, “now” they would say is just when the speaker is. It represents his standpoint. But there really is no objective now in the world. All moments in time are equally real.

Kevin Harris: Where do you stand on that? Are you an A man or a B man?

Dr. Craig: I am a pretty ardent A-Theorist. I think that the B-Theory has formidable philosophical objections against it. I think it also has some very serious theological objections. I find it very difficult to understand how a Christian could be a B-Theorist of time for a number of reasons. I also think that the A-Theory simply accords with our experience of time. We all experience the present-ness of time and I see absolutely no reason to think that this is a gigantic delusion that has been foisted upon us. I see no reason to think this is illusory.

Kevin Harris: We hear philosophers of time talk about “only this moment ‘now’ is real.” The past is gone, it is no longer accessible, it is no longer real. The future hasn’t occurred yet, so it is not real. Only this present moment.

Dr. Craig: That would be a version of the A-Theory or dynamic theory of time that is called Presentism. Presentism would say that of all times only the present time is real in just the way you described. I favor that view. I think that is right. I don’t think that the future exists, I don’t think the past exists any longer. What exists is what presently exists in terms of time. Now, the opposing perspective to Presentism is usually called Eternalism which would be the view that all moments in time are equally real and that the present is in no way privileged. For people in 1950, that moment is present. For people in 2050, that moment is present. There is no absolute present.[4]

Kevin Harris: It seems the A-Theory of time would preclude any time travel. There is nothing to go back to and there is nothing to go forward to.

Dr. Craig: That is exactly right. There is nowhere to go. So I think that is true. It is very interesting. When you look at the literature on time travel, inevitably those who defend time travel are B-Theorists. People who think that all moments in time are equally real and that therefore you can kind of go back and forth in time. I frankly love time travel movies. Movies like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. That is one of my favorites because it is the most consistent. Or movies like Back to the Future. But it is a little frustrating because most time travel movies are not consistent. You can tell that the writers who did them really don’t understand time travel because they have things like changing the future or changing the past and that is impossible. You can’t do that. That is logically impossible to do.

Kevin Harris: You can’t go back and kill your own grandmother.

Dr. Craig: That’s right. You can’t.

Kevin Harris: Because then you wouldn’t exist in order . . .

Dr. Craig: In order to go back and kill her. Exactly.

Kevin Harris: So that is an absurdity, a contradiction, and that tends to, well, number one argue for an A-Theory of time and also argue against time travel.

Dr. Craig: That is an argument that many people have used against time travel. If time travel were possible then why couldn’t you go back in time and kill your grandmother before you were born? What keeps you from pulling the trigger?

Kevin Harris: Even if you didn’t go back in time and kill her, the very fact that you could seems to negate it.

Dr. Craig: Right, right. That is one of the arguments that is often used.

Kevin Harris: But you were talking about Bill and Ted’s Adventure.

Dr. Craig: Oh, what is so great about that movie is that it is consistent. For example, they don’t try to change the future like they did in Back to the Future where the photograph is fading out. In Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, you have Bill and Ted in jail and needing to get out and they said, “I know what we can do. We can go back in time and leave the key here so that we can get out.” And he says, “OK, where would we leave it?” And he says, “Under the wastebasket.” And then they look and there it is because they know they are going to come back and leave it there. That is perfectly consistent. They don’t change the past, but you have effects in the past from things that are going to happen in the future. When the future comes, they will need to go back and put that key there.

Kevin Harris: That is just fascinating. Now, when it comes to God and time, a problem that you’ve worked on, Dr. Craig, is God’s relationship to time and when he created the universe and time came into existence. The eternal God somehow entered into time. Does that mean that he is no longer timeless? Therefore, he has changed but God is supposed to be changeless. So how do you work it out?

Dr. Craig: Well, boy, you are raising very profound issues here. This is the view that I ultimately came to. I felt it made the most sense of the data. That is that God is timeless without creation – that is, imagine God existing alone, just the three members of the Trinity, no universe, nothing else besides God. God existing alone without creation is timeless. But with creation, that is, from the moment of creation forward, God exists in time. So my view is a kind of hybrid view that qualifies God’s temporality based upon whether or not there is a temporal universe to which he is really related. The classical defenders of divine timelessness, like Thomas Aquinas, could avoid God’s temporality only by denying that God stands in any real relation to the universe. They said that when God creates the world, he doesn’t stand in any new relationship to the universe like being Lord over the universe or being the cause of the universe. Aquinas said those relations exist only in our minds. I find that to be utterly, utterly implausible. If anything is a real relation, surely the causal relation is a real relation. And God is the cause of the universe and he co-exists with the universe. So it seems very clear to me that he has a real relationship to a temporal world. But if that is the case, then it would seem to me that God would be temporal from the moment of creation on.[5]

Kevin Harris: When you say that God co-exists with the universe, would that be the view that would come out of Aquinas’ view? Obviously, God is prior to the universe.

Dr. Craig: Well, he is causally prior to the universe but he would not be chronologically prior to the universe. That is to say, he is the cause of the universe, he explains why the universe exists, but if time begins at the moment of creation, then there is no before creation so God isn’t before creation in a temporal sense.

Kevin Harris: Because “before” is an indication of time.

Dr. Craig: Exactly. So to say that God existed before time would be a self-contradiction. So he is causally prior but not chronologically prior to the existence of the world.

Kevin Harris: I’ve heard an illustration that you give about a bowling ball in a cushion and that there is a simultaneous cause-and-effect. The bowling ball depressing into the cushion. Is that part of your thinking on this to show the simultaneity of cause and effect?

Dr. Craig: Yes, it does relate to this. It shows that a cause doesn’t have to be chronologically prior to its effect. It can be simultaneous with it. The depression or the concave shape of the cushion is not the cause of the ball being round. The heavy ball being round is the cause of the concave depression in the cushion. Yet, the ball could have been theoretically resting on the cushion from eternity past. So the cause and the effect are not chronologically related to each other. They are both simultaneous. I would say in exactly the same way, God as the cause of the universe is simultaneous with the origin of the universe. His creating the universe occurs at the same moment at which the universe comes into being.

Kevin Harris: That is just the moment of creation.

Dr. Craig: It is. That is the moment of creation. The moment which God says “let there be” and the universe springs into being.

Kevin Harris: Now people can go to the website and wrestle with your essay and some articles on this that will uncover all of the aspects and the considerations of this.

Dr. Craig: Right. I worked on this question for thirteen years. This was my major research focus for thirteen years. There are six books that flowed out of this work. There are articles on the website, both scholarly articles as well as popular articles on God and time. You know, it is so funny, Kevin, like so many of the things I work on – they seem so abstract and unreal and philosophical and yet over and over again I find these issues coming up in debates, in evangelism, in talking with people about Christianity.

Kevin Harris: And in my six year old!

Dr. Craig: Really?

Kevin Harris: Yeah, when Cody was six years old he asked questions about this. What in the world was God doing all that time before he created the world? So don’t think at all that this is just stuff for top-shelf academia. We all think about this.

Dr. Craig: I find this over and over again that it has practical application.

Kevin Harris: My son said when he was five years old, “Dad, how can God just have always been? He never started. That worries me.” He had this little frown on his face. I said, “You little philosopher.” Another consideration – a lot of people think that time is abstract and not concrete. Would we consider time to be abstract or concrete?

Dr. Craig: Well, that depends on whether or not you think time is a substance. Is time a thing itself? Newton thought so. He thought that time and space are actual things – created things. Many modern physicists think this as well. In fact, they combine time and space into one single entity or substance called spacetime. Spacetime is a sort of four-dimensional continuum or four-dimensional manifold of points that they believe is a sort of fundamental physical reality – matter and energy exist in spacetime. So many people would think of time as a sort of concrete reality or spacetime as a concrete reality. I am more disposed to the view we talked about earlier that thinks of time as a relation among events. I think time is distinct from space. I think spacetime is just a convenient way of thinking about time and space where you can plot on a graph one axis being time and the other axis being space and then you can draw a line on the graph that would chart a thing’s progress through spacetime.[6] But that is no more significant than a graph where one axis is temperature and the other axis is pressure and you can draw a line showing that as the pressure increases the temperature goes up. But nobody would think there is a thing – an entity – called temperature-pressure. It is just a graphical or diagrammatic way of displaying the relationship between pressure and temperature. I think that the same is true of the relationship between space and time. I think these are quite distinct.

Kevin Harris: Our question of the day, Dr. Craig: what about the Young Earth-Old Earth controversy? Christians tend to be divided on how old the universe is or how old the earth is.

Dr. Craig: I think that we as Christians need to realize that we are involved in a much broader battle with secularism than to be fighting with each other over this issue. We need to recognize that we are fundamentally allies in the cultural battle against secularism that would take over our public square and exclude God and religion from the public life. Therefore, these discussions between us ought to be carried out privately in civility and good will. We shouldn’t be denouncing one another. I think we need to have a big tent philosophy and to have our attention focused outward to a world that desperately needs to hear the Gospel rather than inward and fighting with each other.[7]

[1] For example, see http://www.reasonablefaith.org/god-time-and-eternity and http://www.reasonablefaith.org/god-time-and-eternity-2 and http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-special-theory-of-relativity-and-theories-of-divine-eternity among others. (Accessed November 13, 2013).

[2] William Lane Craig, Time and Eternity (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), p. 13.

[3] 5:01

[4] 10:16

[5] 15:02

[6] 20:01

[7] Total Running Time: 21:44 (Copyright © 2007 William Lane Craig)