Doctrine of Creation (Part 7)

September 23, 2012     Time: 00:31:53

God’s Existing Timelessly sans Creation

The final objection to creation out of nothing that I just wanted to say a brief word about has to do with God’s relationship to time. Sometimes people will say, “If God created the universe – if he created time and space – then how could God have existed before the universe?” If there wasn’t any time before the universe you can’t say that God existed before the universe and then brought time and space into being because “before” is a temporal relation and that would, therefore, be incoherent and so you cannot have creation out of nothing.

Briefly, I think we’ve already talked about this problem when we looked at the divine attribute of God’s eternity in our section of the class on the attributes of God. The position that I defended, and I think is coherent, is to say that God exists timelessly without creation or, as I like to put it, using the word sans which means “without.” God is timeless sans creation and he is temporal since the moment of creation. That is to say, God existing without the universe exists changelessly and therefore timelessly with a timeless intention to bring a universe into being. The universe comes into being at the first moment of time and in virtue of his causal relationship with the universe God enters into time at that moment as well. So God is temporal – he is in time – from the moment of creation on. His creation of the universe is simultaneous with the beginning of time; they occur at the same moment of time. Without the universe, God is simply timeless.

It seems to me that that makes good sense of the relationship between God and the universe. God is not temporally prior to the universe, he is causally prior to the universe (or he is explanatorily prior to the universe but not temporally prior to the universe). Without the universe, God is simply timeless and then from the moment of creation on God is temporal; he is in time in order to sustain relations with the world that he has made. For those of you who are new to the class, by the word “temporal” I obviously don’t mean “temporary.” Sometimes people misunderstand the word “temporal” to mean finite in duration. When I say temporal, I simply mean in time – having a past, present and future – experiencing the flow of time. So God is timeless without creation and temporal, or in time, from the moment of creation on.


Question: I think you’ve taught us that God is an unembodied mind. So I guess before time he was just a mind, which I guess he still is, right? When I think of a mind, I think of thought processes and thoughts and sometimes, at least in my mind, those are in sequence – I think one thing and then I think another and then I think another. How does any kind of sequence of thoughts in God’s mind relate to time?

Answer: This is a very good question. You quite rightly perceives that in our minds we have what some authors have called a stream of consciousness, as one thought occurs after another in a kind of stream of ideas. If God is timeless without creation, what would that imply about God’s cognitive state? It would imply he doesn’t have a stream of consciousness. He is timeless and unchanging. He has a single, unchanging cognitive state – or mental state – without the universe. I think that the Doctrine of the Trinity can help us make good sense of this. When you think that all of the three persons of the Trinity are equally omniscient – they each know all the truth there is – there is nothing they can learn that is new because God knows everything.[1] It seems that the persons of the Trinity could enjoy a timeless, changeless, love relationship with each other without the universe in which there would be complete transparency and sharing of knowledge, love and will. What the Son knows, the Father and the Spirit know. What the Father loves, the Spirit and the Son love. What the Spirit wills, the Father and the Son will. Just a complete harmony of knowledge, love and will in a changeless, timeless state. I would say that insofar as God exists sans creation, there isn’t any need for a sequence of thoughts or a stream of consciousness. There is just this single changeless cognitive state that God is in.

Question: I would have to disagree with the idea that God existed changelessly and timelessly before creation of the universe. I define emotion as a change and we are told that God certainly has emotions – he is angry and then he is not angry and then he forgives us and so on. I also think that you have to have time if you have thoughts and I think God had thoughts before he had the universe. If you are going to hold to your view, how do you explain emotion? Would you say that God did not have emotion until after he created the universe? Because emotion you would have to say is a change.

Answer: If you think of the examples you gave, such as God’s anger with sin or his wrath upon mankind or things of that sort, these are in response to changing, temporal creatures and circumstances. I am only talking about God insofar as he exists sans creation. Once time comes to exist and God enters into relationship with time, certainly then one can imagine God having changing relationships and emotional reactions to people. But, insofar as he exists as just Father, Son and Holy Spirit alone without any universe, I don’t see any reason to think he has to be changing in his emotions – there would be just a complete interchange of love between the three members of the Trinity in perfect harmony with each other.

Followup: Can you not envision some circumstance in which he could have emotional changes concerning things beside mankind? Wouldn’t that be possible?

Answer: Yes, although at this point, remember we are talking sans creation – so there aren’t any external circumstances. We are talking about God insofar as it is just the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in perfect union with one another. I don’t think that thoughts have to involve change. The thought “I am God,” “I am eternal,” “I am omnipotent,” “I am three persons” – none of those thoughts take time to think. Those can all be held in a timeless, changeless way.

Followup: One more thing. I think the way you and I have differences on this – I have no idea what an entity such as God who has unlimited power and unlimited time would do before he created the universe. I would think that his creation of the universe may be a tiny, perhaps even insignificant, thing compared to what he may have done before that. It seems to me that since we don’t know what he did before that, because he had unlimited time and unlimited power, it is entirely reasonable to think that there are things associated with that period which could arouse emotion which therefore would be a change.

Answer: Alright, let me make one final response to that. We are presupposing here the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. That there is a point at which God brought every created thing into being. That is perfectly consistent, say, with there being angelic realms prior to the creation of this universe, or maybe other universes that he created prior to this one. But the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo affirms that there is a state of affairs in the actual world which is just God existing alone and that creation, in whatever form or shape it takes, is not co-eternal with God. He did not have to create – it is the free exercise of his will that brings into being something other than God. So I am asking us to think about what would God be like in that state of affairs which consists of God existing alone without anything else.[2]

Question: Do you believe that God needs to have libertarian free will in order to connect the timeless state of affairs into temporal creation. I have heard some Calvinists argue that libertarian free will is incoherent. I have argued that no theist can ever be a hard compatibilist.

Answer: I tend to agree with you. With respect to God – God must have libertarian freedom. He can’t be determined to do everything that he does. Particularly, the orthodox Doctrine of Creation – creatio ex nihilo – is, as I said, that creation is a free decision of God. He brought the universe into being by the exercise of his will, not by some internal compulsion of his nature. That is neo-Platonism. This was a doctrine that the church fathers confronted that came out of Greek philosophy. Neo-Platonism was the view that God is a sort of undifferentiated, ultimate reality and that the world flowed out of the being of God with necessity; the world emanated out of God. The church fathers rejected any sort of suggestion that creation is a necessary byproduct of God’s being. It is the result of his free will. God does have libertarian freedom and could have refrained from creation had he chosen to.

Followup: I feel like that the deterministic God sounds more like Spinozian pantheism.

Answer: Yes! It is like Spinoza. Spinoza was also one who believed that everything that exists exists necessarily. That is right.

Question: One apologetics program I was listening to, they introduced the concept of meta-time that was kind of like God’s time before time. I don’t know if that was a conventional concept or if that was just something they threw out there.

Answer: It is very unconventional. What it would suggest is that maybe there is a kind of hyper-time – that is the way I have usually heard it put, but meta-time would be the same thing. It is a time above time. What would that be like? How can we make sense of this? [Dr. Craig draws an illustration; see figure 1].

Figure 1: Hyper-Time

Let’s suppose that this line represents ordinary time. Time begins at the moment of creation at t=0 [which is t0 in figure 1] and then it advances up in one moment after another [t0, t1, t2, and t3 in figure 1]. This is the history of our universe beginning at t=0 and then it goes on and we are somewhere up there, up the line. That is our ordinary time. What would it be to say that there is a meta-time? What it would be is to say that there is another time that exists at a right angle to this time and our timeline endures through this hyper-time to later time. So hyper-time here is T0, T1, T2, and T3.

Our time itself endures through this hyper-time into the future hyper-time, whether that is finite or infinite. That is the idea; that there is this kind of second time dimension at right angles, or orthogonal as they would say, to our timeline and our timeline endures through hyper-time. Well, I think you can see this is a metaphysical extravagance which serves no purpose whatsoever because all the questions will re-arise on the level of hyper-time! Is God in hyper-time or is his timeless? And the whole debate is just replayed again on a second level. So I think that those folks, and I am thinking of someone like Hugh Ross who tries to appeal to a kind of hyper-time, are just inventing a sort of fifth wheel that doesn’t do any work and we might as well just stick with ordinary time rather than these sorts of metaphysical extravagances. Indeed, if you press Dr. Ross on this issue, he will admit in conversation that his talk of meta-time or hyper-time is just a metaphor. He doesn’t really mean that there is a second time dimension. It is just a metaphorical way of talking about a God who exists timelessly and transcends our temporal dimension.[3]

Followup: My second question is: if creation started time and, as far as the theory goes creation will end, will time end?

Answer: OK, good question. I don’t think time will end once it has started. For one thing, creation never will end. What does the Bible say? It says that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him will not perish but – what will he have? – everlasting life.[4] He will live forever, for all time. So the promise of the Bible is that God is not going to annihilate creation. Rather, we will live forever in a new heavens and a new earth that will go on forever. So time will never be done away with even though our physical measures of time in this universe – our clocks – will be done away with as a new heavens and new earth are created. But that new heavens and new earth will still be temporal realities.

Question: Does time and the physical world start at the same time? What about spiritual worlds? Angels – were they in time?

Answer: That’s a really good question. I think that you have to say we don’t know when God created the angelic realms. It is certainly possible that prior to – and I mean this literally, temporally prior to – the beginning of the physical universe, God created these angelic realms. So time didn’t actually begin at the Big Bang, it began earlier than that when God created angels and other spiritual realities. But when you look at the Scriptures, it just is not at all clear when God created these entities. Genesis 1:1 just says “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Therefore, simply for the sake of simplicity, I am assuming that time begins at the moment of the Big Bang with his creation of the space-time universe. But that is just for the sake of simplicity. As you indicate, it is entirely possible that God could have been active doing things earlier than his creation of this universe.

Question: To say that God is in time, it sounds like he is becoming restricted. Does this put a limit on God?

Answer: This is a comment that people very often have – that this is putting a limit on God; that this somehow is restricting God. I think, frankly, that it is just the opposite. A God who is changeless and timeless is the one who is restricted because he can’t do anything different. He can’t change. He can’t act or react. A timeless being is frozen like an ice statue in immobility. So, in one sense, becoming temporal is liberating. I am speaking anthropomorphically here, obviously, but it means God now can act and react, he can have sequential thoughts, changing emotions, he can know what time it is, things of that sort. I think it is just misconceived to think of God’s choosing to enter into relationship with creation as somehow restrictive or limiting. In my opinion, it is not. Even if you do think that it is, well, that would just show that for our sake and our salvation, God is willing to condescend and stoop down to enter our mode of existence in order to have a relationship with us and in the incarnation he stoops even lower and takes on our own human nature in order to redeem us.

Followup: It seems like that would put something above God.

Answer: No, because it is his own free decision. Think of, for example, his willingness or free decision to create people with free will. That means he is not going to be able to control everything that they do because they have freedom of the will to disobey him and do things against his will. But that doesn’t put anything above God. It is up to him whether to create creatures with free will and he has chosen to do so. In the same way, I have emphasized that the decision to create a world – a reality other than himself – is a free decision on God’s part that he undertakes.[5]

Question: On your view, when God exists without creation you are saying that there was a point at which he decided to create – he was not compelled to create, he didn’t have to create. Therefore, don’t you have at least two points when God exists without creation? A point when he had not decided to create and then a point afterwards he decided to create. So don’t you have the passage of time and change?

Answer: I don’t think so. The way I conceive of this is that God’s decree to create, even though freely taken, is eternal. It is itself a timeless decision. It is something that God had in his timeless state – a decree to create a world with a beginning. What is required, I think, and is close to what you said is that even though the intention is timeless, there had to be an exercise of causal power in order to bring the universe into being. But I would say that exercise of causal power is simultaneous with the universe coming into being. When else could it be? It is when he exercises his causal power that the universe springs into existence and it would simply be technically incorrect to say that there was a time before he exercised his causal power. That is purely a product of human imagination thinking of, say, one hour before creation. That is just an imaginary product of our minds but there really literally isn’t any such moment.

Continuing Creation

Let’s now turn to the subject of continuing creation. You will recall that continuing creation involved two aspects. First was what was called conservatio (in Latin) or “conservation.” Then the other aspect of continuing creation was concursus or “concurrence.” I’ve already argued that God’s conservation of the world in being should not properly be thought of as a type of creation, otherwise, you get into this weird view that nothing ever endures from one moment to the next but rather at every moment God creates a new thing in its place which would be crazy. It would mean that you are not the same being that came into this room initially; you haven’t endured through time. We really should not think of conservation as God’s recreation of things at each successive moment. Rather, you will recall I gave the following definition of divine conservation:

God conserves some entity e if and only if God acts upon e to bring about e’s existing from some time t until some later time t* through every sub-interval in the interval t to t*.

In this case, conservation is not a type of creation. The object is there and God acts upon it to preserve it in being until a later time. It differs from creation in that it does not take place at one moment of time; rather, it takes place across time as God preserves something in being and it is not like creation in that it does presuppose a prior subject. In creation, God simply posits the subject in being but in conservation God preserves the subject in being from one moment to the next.

Scriptural Data

What biblical data might be appealed to in order to support a doctrine of conservation? Surprisingly, I think, the biblical evidence for the doctrine of conservation is, to put it honestly, pretty thin.[6] There really aren’t very many passages in the Bible that I can find that support the doctrine that God has to conserve things in being from one moment to the next. This is initially surprising because modern theologians are so terrified of bumping up against empirical science that they have abandoned the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo largely in favor of a doctrine of conservation. Creation is re-interpreted to mean that God conserves or preserves things in being, not that a finite time ago God brought everything into being. One theologian, for example, has said that the Doctrine of Creation is not the doctrine that God lit the fuse that ignited the Big Bang. Well, apart from the metaphor, I think that is exactly what the Doctrine of Creation is – that God brought the universe into being at some time in the finite past. Therefore, it is odd that the Doctrine of Creation should be so widely abandoned in favor of conservation when the biblical data for creation is so much more powerful then the biblical data in support of conservation. As I said earlier, the very use of the past tense in the Scripture with respect to verbs of creation indicate that an event at some time in the past is in view, not God’s conserving the world in being moment by moment. It is almost always in the past tense that God created the world or the things that he created. But nevertheless, let me just mention three passages that could be used to support a doctrine of conservation. First, Colossians 1:16-17, talking about the person and work of Christ, says,

for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities – all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

It is that last phrase that could be interpreted to mean conservation. He not only brought all things into being – all things were created through him – but in him all things hold together. Christ is the one who upholds the universe, who conserves it, in being. Also Hebrews 1:3, again speaking of Christ, “He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power.” Again it is that last phrase – Christ upholds the universe by his Word of power. Notice the present tense there. This is an ongoing activity – upholding the universe by his powerful Word. That could be interpreted to mean conservation of the universe in being from one moment to the next. Finally, in Acts 17:28, which is Paul’s famous address on Mars Hill, Paul says, “for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’.” We have our very being in God. That might again be interpreted in terms of God’s conserving the world in being. So this would be the biblical data, I think, that could motivate a doctrine of conservation that God is responsible, not simply for creating things in the beginning and then leaving them to run on their own devices, but he upholds or conserves the universe in being moment by moment from that initial moment of creation.


Question: The theologians that you refer to who hold to a doctrine of conservation in place of creatio ex nihilo – would that mean that they believe in an eternal universe?[7]

Answer: Some of them might. Some of them may say that the universe has always existed, but it is radically dependent upon God because he conserves it from moment to moment at every moment of its being. So it isn’t pantheism, that’s clear. This is positing a radical contingency of the universe upon God from moment to moment but it would just say those moments go back forever. Not all of them would say that but I think what they would say is this: whether the universe began or not is irrelevant to the Doctrine of Creation. It is just an irrelevant question. Why do they say that? It is because they have collapsed the Doctrine of Creation to conservation and it is irrelevant to the doctrine of conservation whether God’s conserving activity had a temporal beginning or not. That can have gone on forever.

I have already given a definition of continuing creation or conservation and I am not aware of any further problems with that once you get rid of the notion that conservation is a type of creation. What we will do next time is look at this second aspect of so-called continuing creation which is God’s concurrence. This is the doctrine that God causes everything that happens to happen in the world.[8]


[1] 4:56

[2] 9:56

[3] 15:06

[4] cf. John 3:16

[5] 20:06

[6] 25:02

[7] 30:10

[8] Total Running Time: 31:53 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)