October 09, 2016
Scriptural Teaching on God and Time
Dear Dr. Craig,
I have some questions on the issue of eternity and God. I understand that you hold to the view of God as timeless "before" creation and in time ever since.
1. Is there any Scriptural reason to suppose that God was timeless before creation (or when creation did not exist)? I ask, because I think there are actually mention in Scripture of time "before creation", e.g. 1 Pet 1:20 - the Messiah who was known before the foundation of the world and loved before the foundation of the world (John 17:24) or wisdom existing before the creation of the world in Prov.8. Is there any reason to NOT suppose that the Bible see God as existing into eternal time past (i.e. that time existed before creation, possibly forever, with God)?
2. Alternatively is there any Scriptural reason to believe that since creation God is limited by time (i.e. not "simultaneously" in the past, present and future)? Or is it mainly a philosophical view only?
3. In your view, what about heaven as the permanent abode of God (from where Jesus is ruling on the right hand of the Father)? How does "a thousand years like one day" (2 Pet.3:8) fit into things? Is there only a difference between the perception of time by God and us, or an actual difference between heaven and the physical world/earth?
Nice to hear from one of our African readers, Chavoux! I have dealt with your questions in my book Time and Eternity, which may not be readily accessible to you.
1. Is there any Scriptural reason to suppose that God was timeless before creation (or when creation did not exist)? Yes, indeed! Johannes Schmidt argues for a biblical doctrine of divine timelessness on the basis of creation texts like Genesis 1.1 and Proverbs 8.22-23.
Genesis 1.1 states, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” According to James Barr, this absolute beginning, taken in conjunction with the expression “And there was evening and there was morning, one day” (v. 5), indicating the first day, may very well be intended to teach that the beginning was not simply the beginning of the physical universe, but the beginning of time itself and that, consequently, God may be thought of as timeless. Certain New Testament authors may be taken to construe Genesis 1.1 as referring to the beginning of time. The most striking New Testament reflection on Genesis 1.1 is, of course, John 1.1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” Here the uncreated Word (logos), the source of all created things, was already with God and was God at the moment of creation. It is not hard to interpret this passage in terms of the Word’s timeless unity with God--nor would it be anachronistic to do so, given the first century Jewish philosopher Philo’s doctrine of the divine Logos (Word) and Philo’s holding that time begins with creation.
As for Proverbs 8.22-23, this passage is certainly capable of being read in terms of a beginning of time. Here Wisdom, personified as a woman, speaks:
The Lord possessed me at the beginning of His way,
Before His works of old.
From everlasting I was established,
From the beginning, from the earliest times of the earth.
The passage, which doubtless looks back to Gen. 1.1, is brimming with temporal expressions for a beginning. R. N. Whybray comments,
It should be noted how the writer . . . was so insistent on pressing home the fact of Wisdom’s unimaginable antiquity that he piled up every available synonym in a deluge of tautologies: re’sît, beginning, qedem, the first, me’az, of old, me ‘olam, ages ago, mero’s, at the first or ‘from the beginning’ (compare Isa. 40.21; 41.4, 26), miqqade me’ares, before the beginning of the earth: the emphasis is not so much on the mode of Wisdom’s coming into existence, . . . but on the fact of her antiquity.
The expressions emphasize, however, not Wisdom’s mere antiquity, but that there was a beginning, a departure point, at or before which Wisdom existed. This was a departure point not merely for the Earth, but for time and the ages; it was simply the beginning. The passage was so understood by other ancient writers. The Septuagint Greek translation of the Old Testament renders me ‘olam in Prov. 8.23 as pro tou aionios (before time), and Sirach 24.9 has Wisdom say, “Before the ages, in the beginning, he created me, and for all ages I shall not cease to be” (cf. 16.26; 23.20).
Significantly, certain New Testament passages also seem to affirm a beginning of time. For example, we read in Jude 25, “to the only God, our Savior through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever” (pro pantos tou aionos kai nun kai eis pantas tous aionas). The passage contemplates an everlasting future duration but affirms a beginning to past time and implies God’s existence, using an almost inevitable façon de parler, “before” time began. Similar expressions are found in two intriguing passages in the pastoral epistles. In Titus 1.2-3, in a passage laden with temporal language, we read of those chosen by God “in hope of eternal life (zoes aioniou) which God, who never lies, promised before age-long time (pro chronon aionion) but manifested at the proper time (kairois idiois).” And in II Timothy 1.9 we read of God’s “purpose and grace, which were given to us in Christ Jesus before age-long time (pro chronon aionion), but now (nun) manifested by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus.” Arndt and Gingrich render pro chronon aionion as “before time began.” Similarly, in I Corinthians 2.7 Paul speaks of a secret, hidden wisdom of God “which God decreed before the ages (pro ton aionon) for our glorification.” Such expressions are in line with the Septuagint, which describes God as “the one who exists before the ages (ho hyparchon pro ton aionon)” (LXX Psalm 54.20 [Ps 55.19]). That such pro- constructions are to be taken seriously and not merely as idioms connoting “for long ages” (cf. Romans 16.25: chronois aioniois) is confirmed by the many similar expressions concerning God and His decrees “before the foundation of the world” (pro kataboles kosmou) (John 17.24; Ephesians 1.4; I Peter 1.20; cf. Revelation 13.8). Evidently it was a common understanding of the creation described in Genesis 1.1 that the beginning of the world was coincident with the beginning of time or the ages; but since God did not begin to exist at the moment of creation, it therefore followed that He existed “before” the beginning of time. God, at least “before” creation, must therefore be atemporal.
2. Alternatively is there any Scriptural reason to believe that since creation God is limited by time (i.e. not "simultaneously" in the past, present and future)? Yes, indeed! The biblical writers typically portray God as engaged in temporal activities, including foreknowing the future and remembering the past, and when they speak directly of God’s eternal existence they do so in terms of beginningless and endless temporal duration: “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting thou art God” (Psalm 90.2). “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Revelation 4.8b). Only in the context of the doctrine of creation do the biblical authors provide any inkling that God is not literally in time.
3. What about heaven as the permanent abode of God (from where Jesus is ruling on the right hand of the Father)? I see no reason to think that heaven is timeless. On the contrary, the fact that Christ can ascend there shows that it is not, for there was a time there when he had not yet ascended and time after which he had. How does "a thousand years like one day" (2 Pet.3:8) fit into things? This verse is neutral on the issue, meaning only that for a beginningless and endless being, whatever the mode of His existence, the duration of time on Earth is trivial. Is there only a difference between the perception of time by God and us, or an actual difference between heaven and the physical world/earth? Just a difference of perception; the amount of time is an irrelevancy for an eternal being.
So although Scriptural authors usually speak of God as temporal and everlasting, there is some evidence, at least, that when God is considered in relation to creation He must be thought of as the transcendent Creator of time and the ages and therefore as existing beyond time. It may well be the case that in the context of the doctrine of creation the biblical writers were led to reflect on God’s relationship to time and chose to affirm His transcendence. Still the evidence is not clear, and we seem forced to conclude with Barr that “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 to biblical but to philosophical theology.”
 Johannes Schmidt, Der Ewigkeitsbegriff im alten Testament, Alttestamentliche Abhandlungen 13/5 (Münster in Westfalen: Verlag des Aschendorffschen Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1940), pp. 31-2.
 James Barr, Biblical Words for Time (London: SCM Press, 1962), pp. 145-7.
 On the beginning of time with creation, see Philo of Alexandria, On the Creation of the Cosmos according to Moses, trans. with an Introduction and Commentary by David T. Runia, Philo of Alexandria Commentary Series 1 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2005).
 R. N. Whybray, Proverbs, New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994), pp. 131-2.
 A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, by W. Bauer, trans. and ed. W. F. Arndt and F. W. Gingrich, s.v. “aionios.”
 Barr, Biblical Words for Time , p. 149.