The Doctrine of God (Part 2)May 14, 2007 Time: 00:44:45
We began last time with our study of the doctrine of God. By way of review we saw that the Judeo-Christian concept of God is the concept of the infinite, personal God. And as a positive reality, God has certain attributes or properties which make him the kind of being that he is. And God has disclosed to us in Scripture what some of those attributes are.
We saw that there are certain attributes that God has in virtue of his being an infinite being and certain attributes which are his in virtue of his being a personal being. We began last time by discussing God’s attributes as an infinite being. The first attribute we looked at was God’s attribute of aseity or self-existence. We saw that God and God alone exists necessarily whereas everything else has been created by him and exists in a radically contingent way.
One of the implications of God’s being self-existent, you will recall, was that God must be eternal. He has neither beginning nor end. He always exists because as a self-existent being nothing could bring him into existence and nothing could cause him to cease to exist. So what we want to look at today is the second attribute of God in virtue of his being an infinite being and that is God’s eternity. What we’ll do again is continue to give first an analysis of the attribute and then we will give some practical application of this to our lives. In analyzing the attribute, we will first look at the raw data of Scripture – what Scripture has to say about this quality of God – and then we will do a systematic summary in which we will reflect upon this attribute of God and try to come to some coherent formulation of this attribute that God possesses.
So let’s first turn to the Scriptural data concerning God’s eternity.
The Scripture indicates first and foremost that God exists without beginning or end. Look, for example, at Psalm 90:1-4. The psalmist says,
Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting thou art God.
Thou turnest man back to the dust,
and sayest, “Turn back, O children of men!”
For a thousand years in thy sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.
Here the psalmist says that before God ever created the world from everlasting into the past to everlasting into the future God is. For an infinite being, for an eternal being, even a thousand years, he says, is as yesterday when it is gone. It is like a watch in the night that soon passes away.
Look over at Psalm 41:13,
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting!
Amen and Amen.
God exists from everlasting to everlasting; God is without beginning or end. He never came into existence; he will never cease to exist. God always is.
Secondly, the Scriptures indicate that God’s eternity contrasts with the transitoriness of man. Psalm 102:11-12, 25-27:
My days are like an evening shadow;
I wither away like grass.
But thou, O Lord, art enthroned for ever;
thy name endures to all generations.
. . .
Of old thou didst lay the foundation of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of thy hands.
They will perish, but thou dost endure;
they will all wear out like a garment.
Thou changest them like raiment, and they pass away;
but thou art the same, and thy years have no end.
Also look at Psalm 90:5-6,
Thou dost sweep men away; they are like a dream,
like grass which is renewed in the morning:
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.
Also compare Job 36:26 (“Behold, God is great, and we know him not; the number of his years is unsearchable.”) with Isaiah 41:4 (“Who has performed and done this, calling the generations from the beginning? I, the Lord, the first, and with the last; I am He.”). Here we see that on the one hand God’s years, says Job, are unsearchable. You cannot place a time limit to God’s existence. In Isaiah he says, “I am there with the first, I will be there with the last, I am he, I am the one who calls forth these various generations of men.” So while men come to be and pass away like the grass that blooms in the morning and withers in the evening, God endures forever. God’s eternity thus contrasts sharply with how transitory human existence is.
Finally, the third datum of Scripture that I want to highlight is that the Scriptures indicated in several places that God existed before time. We find this expressed, for example, in the little book of Jude, verse 25. This is right before the book of Revelation in the New Testament – it is only one chapter long. Verse 25 of the little book of Jude is a doxology that is very interesting. Jude 25 says, “to the only God, our Savior through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and for ever. Amen.” Here, glory and dominion and majesty and authority are ascribed to God before all time (before the beginning of time), now (at the present time), and forever (into all future time). So, in some mysterious way that we have yet to explore, God existed before the beginning of time. Time had a beginning. Genesis 1:1 says “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” and yet Jude says before all time God has glory, majesty, dominion, authority, and so forth. So this deserves to be explored further, but here we are simply excavating the raw data of Scripture to see what it says about God’s eternity.
In summary, God exists without beginning or end, his eternity contrasts with the transitoriness of human beings, and God existed before the beginning of time.
How are we to understand this attribute of God? The Bible is not clear as to whether God should be thought of as timeless or everlasting throughout all time. The Bible isn’t clear as to whether we should think that God is simply outside of time as it were – he transcends time – or whether he endures forever throughout time. Clearly, those are two very different conceptions of divine eternity. If God is timeless then that means that God does not exist now. He doesn’t exist at the present moment. God isn’t in the stream of time, this stream of moments, that are ordered by earlier and later or past, present, future. Rather, God simply is outside of the stream of time. He is beyond time and time is his creation. So if God is timeless, he would not have a beginning or an end, but that would be because he doesn’t have any moments of time to his existence. He is simply outside of time. He transcends time; he isn’t in the dimension of time.
But on the other hand, we might think of God’s eternity as being that God is in time but that he exists at every moment of time and that time is infinite. God has existed from eternity past into eternity future. At any moment of time you could pick, there is always another moment earlier than it and later than it, and God exists at every moment of time that there is. This is a quite different conception of divine eternity. On this view, God does exist right now. God has a past. He has a future. God exists at every moment of time that there is from infinity past to infinity future.
What I am saying is that the biblical data are not determinative with respect to this question. The biblical data indicates that God has neither beginning nor end, and that in some way God is the creator of all things but it isn’t clear as to whether or not God’s eternity is to be thought of as timelessness or as omnitemporality – infinite omnitemporality, existing at all times. Rather, this is a philosophical question which we must ponder and then try to come to some understanding of God’s eternity in light of those deliberations.
In order to answer this question of whether or not God is eternal in the sense of being timeless or everlasting throughout all time, we need to ask ourselves first and foremost what is time? One student wrote on his philosophical final exam in answer to this question, “Time is a weekly news magazine.” But that is clearly not the question we are asking here. We want to know what is time – this element of reality – that we experience? Here we run smack dab into the dilemma that St. Augustine enunciated, namely, Augustine said, “If nobody asks me what time is, of course I know what time is. It is a familiar reality.” But he said, “If someone asks me to define time, I find that I don’t know what it is. I really don’t understand what time is even though it is this familiar reality that I experience every day.” Well, philosophers would probably define time as being a duration involving an earlier and a later. Time is a duration; a lasting according to an earlier and a later. Nothing else in reality is structured in that way. Space is similar to time but things in space are not ordered according to earlier and later in virtue of being spatial. They may be in front of or in back of each other, but they are not earlier or later than each other in space. Rather they are earlier and later than each other in time. So time is a duration involving an earlier and a later.
The question here we confront is: does God experience past, present, and future? Does God have an experience of earlier and later in the passage of time? Does God experience the passage of time? If he is timeless then the answer to that question is “no.” God does not experience the passage of time. He doesn’t have a past, present, or future. He is outside of time. On the other hand, if God is in time then he does have a past, present, and future and he experiences the flow of time.
Let me share two arguments with you. First an argument for God’s timelessness, and then an argument for God’s being in time, for his being temporal.
The argument for God’s timelessness that I find the most persuasive would be based upon what has been called “the incompleteness of temporal life.” That is to say, temporal life is fleeting. It is evanescent. We have no permanent grasp upon reality as temporal beings. The past is gone, and we no longer have it. Our future is not yet, and we do not grasp it. The only hold on existence we have is the fleeting moment of the present that vanishes away as soon as we experience it. You have no permanent hold on the present. The moment the present occurs, it becomes past. So our hold on existence is vanishingly tenuous. It is fleeting. It is ephemeral. It is evanescent. We have no firm grasp on existence. Temporal life is thus radically incomplete in this way.
The incompleteness of temporal life was brought home to me powerfully several years ago when I was reading to Charity and John when they were very young children Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book The Little House in the Big Woods. If you’ve ever read this book, you may recall that at the very end of the book, the final paragraphs of the book, are a scene in which Laura Ingalls is lying in bed, it is New Year’s Eve, and they are in the cabin there in the Wisconsin woods. The fire is burning in the fireplace illuminating the room, and Pa is playing on his fiddle as Laura falls to sleep. It is New Year’s Eve and Pa is singing Auld Lang Syne.
‘Shall auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Shall auld acquaintance be forgot,
And the days of auld lang syne?’
Laura, lying there, calls out to him and asks, “Pa, what are times of auld lang syne?”
Pa says to her, “Those are the times of long ago, Laura. But never mind now. You go to sleep.”
As she lay there, looking at Pa playing the fiddle, Ma sitting and knitting, rocking in her chair, the firelight gleaming on the hearth and on Pa’s brown fiddle, she thought to herself, “Now is now. It can never be long ago, because it is now.”
As I read those words, they struck me so powerfully because that moment which Laura Ingalls experienced as “now”, as so real, as so present, is of course for us times past. It is long ago. The moment that she thought could never be long ago now is past. Pa and Ma are dead. The American frontier which they struggled to win is now gone. Gone forever. Those days which Laura Ingalls called the happy, golden years are now gone, irretrievably lost in the past. Laura Ingalls herself now is gone. She’s dead. So that moment which to her seemed so real and so palpable is now gone forever. Time has a way of gnawing away at existence. Our grasp upon reality is so transitory, so ephemeral, that there is a radical incompleteness in temporal existence that seems incompatible with the life of a perfect being. A perfect being we might think would have to have his life all at once. He would not lose his experience in the past, or have a future yet to be gained. Rather, a perfect being would have all of life at once. This would be, of course, a timeless being. A being who just exists in an eternal now, that has neither past, present, nor future, but just is in a timeless way.
This is an argument that many philosophers have offered for God being timeless. The incompleteness and transitoriness of temporal life is simply incompatible with the life of a perfect being. Therefore God, as a perfect being, would have to be timeless.
I don’t think, however, that the argument is absolutely conclusive because for an omniscient being the passage of time would be a much less melancholy affair than it is for us temporal beings. For an omniscient being, he has complete recall of the past. He can experience those moments of the past as though they are as real as the present. He has complete foreknowledge of the future and he can experience the moments of the future as though they are really present. So for a being that is omniscient, the passage of time, the flow of time, is a much less melancholy affair than it is for us finite and limited beings.
As for those who this being once knew and who have now died because they are temporal, of course they are not lost to God because they are present to God in the afterlife. He would know them as they exist now and he could remember them as they once existed in their earthly lives. So the argument, I think, has force; it is a powerful argument. But I don’t think it is absolutely decisive. The question will be: are their good arguments on the other side for thinking that God is in time that would balance out this argument for God’s timelessness.
That takes us to the other argument that I wanted to share. This is an argument for God’s being in time. This would be an argument based upon God’s changing relationships with the world. It could be argued that if God is really related to the world then he must be in time. For after all God acts in history. The God of the Bible is a God who is involved in history, in human affairs. He parts the Red Sea. He brings the Israelites out of Egypt. He causes the incarnation of Christ at Christmas time. He raises Christ from the dead. And so forth. God is involved in the acts of human history. First causing one event, then causing a later event. The incarnation, in particular, seems to require that God is in time. The second person of the Trinity took upon human flesh and entered into human history. It is difficult to see how the incarnation could be possible for a timeless being. Clearly it seems there was a time when the second person of the Trinity had not yet taken to himself a human nature, was not yet incarnate, and then there was a time after which that second person of the Trinity was incarnate. So it would seem that the second person of the Trinity must be in time in virtue of the incarnation. There was a time when he was not yet incarnate, then there was a time when he became incarnate, and a time after which he has been incarnate. So if God is involved in acts of history, causing events in the universe, this would seem to give good grounds for thinking that God must be in time.
Is this a sound argument? I think this will depend upon our view of time. That is to say, whether or not we think that the past, the present, and the future are equally real or not. Philosophers have distinguished between two theories of time. One is called the A-theory of time, and the other one is called the B-theory of time. On the A-theory of time, the difference between the past, the present, and the future is an objective difference in reality. Things in the future do not yet in any sense exist. The future is just purely potential. The past no longer exists. It is ceased to exist. All that exists is the present moment. It is the present, and the present alone, which has reality. On this A-theory of time, temporal becoming is real. Things really do come into being and then go out of being as time passes. Temporal becoming is a real and objective feature of reality, and there is a real, objective difference between past, present, and future. That is the A-theory of time.
On the B-theory of time, by contrast, the difference between past, present, and future is just a subjective illusion of human consciousness. People who hold to the B-theory of time would say that things in the past have not really ceased to exist. They are real. Things in the future exist as well. The future and the past are just as real as the present. It is just our subjective perspective that makes us think that the present is somehow privileged. Because we exist in 2003, we think that 2003 is real in some special way. But, for the people in 1868, they think that 1868 is present and real in a special way. And for the people in 2050, well, they think that 2050 is real and present in a special way. But in fact all of those different perspectives are just subjective. They are just subjective illusions of consciousness. In reality every moment of time is equally real and the people at those different times are equally real, and each one just regards his time as now. But to people at other times they would regard those times as being past or future. For example, for the people in 1868, 1868 is now and 2003 is future. But to the people in 2050, 1868 and 2003 are both past and 2050 is now. So on this B-theory of time, the difference between past, present, and future is really illusory. It isn’t an objective feature of reality.
Those are two competing theories of time. I think whether you think of God as timeless or not will depend upon which theory of time you adopt. If you adopt the B-theory of time, according to which all moments of time are equally real, then I think it makes sense to say that God is outside of time. Because on that view of time, time is stretched out like a yardstick, and the different moments of time are like the different inches on the yardstick. They are all equally real, and God would be like an observer who has the yardstick in front of him and is able to causally interact with the yardstick. He could be causing things to happen on the first inch, on the middle inch, and on the final inch, all simultaneously. He would just sustain a single changeless relationship to that whole time line. Therefore, he would not need to be changing in order to interact with it. So it would be false to say that there was a time when the second person of the Trinity didn’t have a human nature, and then there was a time after which he did have a human nature. Time would just be something on the yardstick so to speak. But the second person of the Trinity, God, would be outside of it and would simply be causing things on the yardstick to take place when they do. So the incarnation would just be something that occurs on one inch of the yardstick, but the parting of the Red Sea and the return of Christ would be equally real and they would be taking place at their times as well. So if you have this B-theory of time, I think you can hold that God is timeless and outside of time.
On the other hand, though, if you hold to the A-theory and you think that time really does have this dynamic quality to it then clearly God cannot be causally related to things in the past and the future because they don’t exist. They are unreal. The only thing that exists would be the present. Therefore, God could only be casually related to things in the present. Therefore, as the present changes, as things come to be and pass away, God would sustain changing relationships with the universe. So in virtue of being related to a temporal universe, God would be in time. He would literally exist now at every successive moment.
How do we decide between these two views? I don’t have the time or the inclination to go into an assessment of the A-vs-B theory of time. That would take us, I think, too far afield. But let me simply say this. The A-theory of time is acknowledged on all hands to be the common sense of reality. This is the view of the man in the street. This is the common sense view that most of us hold – the past, present, and future are not equally real, temporal becoming is a real and objective feature of the world, things do come into being and pass away. This common sense view is rooted in our experience of temporal becoming. We experience the passage of time. We experience in our thought life ‘before’ and ‘after.’ Having studied this issue for many years – for well over a decade – my studied conclusion is that there is simply no good reason to deny that experience. I think that philosophically there is no reason to deny the reality of that experience of temporal becoming. Therefore, I am inclined to say that the common sense view of time – the A-theory of time – is correct.
Moreover, I think one might raise a theological objection to the B-theory of time, namely, it emasculates the Christian doctrine of creation. When we get to the Christian doctrine of creation, we’ll see that this involves God bringing the universe into being out of nothing. In one sense we can say that there is a state of reality in which God alone exists. God exists all by himself, and then he brings into existence the universe. But that is impossible on a B-theory of time because, you see, on a B-theory of time things never come into being or go out of being. The past, the present, and the future are just all equally real. To say that the time line has a beginning on the B-theory of time is to simply say that that yardstick has a first inch. It has a front edge. But that first inch never comes into being. The whole yardstick just exists co-eternally with God. To say that time has a beginning just means that the yardstick is finite in its length, that there is a first inch, there is a first moment of time. But it never really comes into being. In other words, the B-theory of time makes the universe co-eternal with God. It attributes to creation an attribute which belongs properly to God, namely, the attribute of being eternal.
Therefore, both philosophically and theologically I am persuaded that the common sense view of time – the A-theory view of time – is correct, and that therefore it would follow that God insofar as he exists with the universe does exist in time. I think that God exists right now, and he will continue to exist throughout all time into the future.
But this can’t be the end of the story because we saw from Jude that God existed somehow before the creation of time; God created time. So how does that make sense? If God is in time and time had a beginning, but God didn’t have a beginning then how are we to understand God’s relationship to time? I think what we will want to say is something like this: God is timeless without creation and he is in time subsequent to creation. God is timeless without the universe. Insofar as he exists alone without any world, God is timeless. Time begins at the moment of creation. At that moment, God enters into relationship with the temporal world and therefore enters into time. So the decision to create the universe on God’s part is a decision not only to create the world but also to enter into relationship with it and to enter into time. That would be my studied opinion of the issue. God is timeless without the universe, and temporal (in time) subsequent to the creation of the universe.
I want to emphasize that this is simply my opinion as a Christian philosopher and theologian. As we said, the biblical data are indeterminative. But you need to keep in mind that if you say that God is timeless, that is your opinion, too. Both of us are giving our studied opinions here, and therefore we cannot say that these are dogmatically correct. The biblical data are not determinative. But what we do is we do our best to reflect on the biblical data and give a studied view that makes the most sense. I am persuaded that this view does make the most sense.
In any case, however, I think we can all agree that God’s eternity means minimally that God never began to exist and he will never cease to exist. Whether you believe that God is timeless or eternal throughout all time, we can all agree on this minimal bare-boned definition of eternity – God never began to exist nor will he ever cease to exist. God always is.
What application does the attribute of divine eternity have to our lives? First of all, there is what I call the paradox of time. On the one hand, there is all the time in the world and more! God is never forced to hurry. As an eternal God he has no deadlines, he has no schedule to keep. God has all the time in the world and even more to accomplish his purposes. Therefore, God isn’t rushed about things. Look at, for example, Moses. God calls Moses when he is forty years old. You would think, well, he’s in the prime of his life. He is ready now to deliver Egypt. But what does God do with Moses? He sends him out into the Egyptian desert for forty more years until he is eighty years old, and then finally Moses is ready to deliver God’s people. God is obviously in no hurry about things. 2 Peter 3:8 says God is not troubled about temporal things as we are because a thousand years are as a day with the Lord and a day is as a thousand years. So God’s timetable is right on schedule, and we don’t need to worry that somehow he is not getting things done in time.
That is on the one hand. On the other hand, the Bible often does talk about how the time is short. For example, Romans 13:11-12a, Paul says,
Paul is saying there that time is short; time is pressing. Similarly, Jesus himself says in the Gospel of John in John 9:4, “We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work.”
So on the one hand time is short because we are temporal beings. Our existence is transitory and we must do the works of the Kingdom while there is yet time.
I think on the one hand that this paradox can be a comfort to those who are exhausted, but it is also an incentive to those who are lazy. To those who are exhausted in the Lord’s work, who are burned out and overstressed, God is saying, “Look, my timetable is right on schedule. I’ve got things under control. You don’t need to be harried or exhausted.” It has been said that there are enough hours in every day to do all of the will of God. I think that can be a comfort to those who are exhausted and tired in the Lord’s work.
On the other hand, it is an incentive to those who are lazy. Those who are just sort of going through the Christian life twiddling their thumbs and not really investing their time in God’s Kingdom. Then the Lord says the time is short. You are going to be called to an account for your life. What have you done for Christ? How have you lived? How have you used the seventy or some-odd years that God has given you in this life? Wake up and be involved in the work of his Kingdom. That is the paradox of time.
Secondly, I think that God’s eternity is a call for us to live our lives in light of eternity. God’s eternity is an incentive to right-living. James 4:13-16 says,
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and get gain”; whereas you do not know about tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and we shall do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.
We need to be prepared to die, in effect. James says you don’t know about your life. You really don’t know how much time you have. When you make promises for the future, you ought to do so only in the acute consciousness that this will be only if the Lord wills to prolong your life to that time. Romans 13:12b-14, Paul goes on to say after the passage we read a moment ago,
Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Here Paul is saying that in light of the shortness of the time we need to slough off all of the sin and the things that hold us back and to live as befits servants of Christ. This is also a comfort in times of suffering when we experience pain and evil. What Paul tells us in Scripture is that this life is just a cramped and narrow foyer that leads into the great banquet hall of divine eternity. This can make our trials in this life tolerable when we compare them to divine eternity. 2 Corinthians 4:17-18, Paul says,
For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
Here Paul weighs the sufferings of this present life against the eternity that we will have with our Father in heaven, and he says that the sufferings of this life are just a slight momentary affliction because they are transient and ephemeral. By contrast, the things that are eternal will last forever. And this will be the glory that awaits us. When we look at our sufferings and pain, in light of eternity, I think we can see that these trials are short by comparison. This can give us courage and strength to endure them.
Finally, God’s eternity is also a wonderful prospect. For us who are in Christ, all of eternity awaits us. John 3:16, a verse we all know, says “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Everlasting life awaits us.
Ephesians 2:7 speaks of the salvation that we have in Christ. He says, “in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” God is going to spend eternal ages, showering upon us his immeasurable grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
1 Corinthians 15:32b contrasts what the transitoriness of this life means for the Christian with the non-Christian. Paul says, “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’” Shakespeare put it so poignantly in MacBeth. He wrote,
Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
For those who are outside of Christ, time is a devouring beast with every fleeting moment. As it passes their existence is eaten away, coming to an end, and ultimately it is all for nothing, like that brief candle, that walking shadow. Ecclesiastes says all is a vanity, all is a striving after wind. Finally, there is the prospect of judgment at the end of all of that. So for the non-Christian, for those outside of Christ, time is a tremendous enemy. But for those of us who are in Christ, we have the wonderful prospect of eternal, everlasting life in which God will shower upon us the riches of his grace in Christ Jesus.
So for us God’s eternity is, I think, a wonderful truth. It is an incentive to right-living. It is comfort in time of suffering. It is a wonderful prospect and hope that we have. He who is from everlasting to everlasting has given us everlasting life. God be praised.
 Total Running Time: 44:45 (Copyright © 2007 William Lane Craig)