Doctrine of God (part 4)March 15, 2010 Time: 00:31:13
I. B. 2. b. Application. . . . I. B. 3. Eternity a. Analysis (2) Systematic Summary (a) The Bible does not distinguish God's being timeless or everlasting.
1. Attributes of God
We have been talking about God’s self-existence. I have been arguing that we should parse out the notion of God’s self-existence in terms of God’s metaphysical necessity, that is to say, God is a being which cannot not exist, it is impossible for God to fail to exist. God doesn’t just happen to exist, rather God’s existence is metaphysically necessary. And then, secondly, I said it means that everything else that exists is contingent upon God for its existence. Everything else that exists is created by God and depends upon God for its existence. So God’s self-existence means he is a metaphysically necessary being upon whom everything else in existence depends for its being.
This doctrine is not just some abstract, airy-fairy theological truth. It has some important applications to our lives. Let me share two of these.1
First, it means that God ought to be our ultimate concern in life. The theologian Paul Tillich defined God as “the object of ultimate concern.” Since God is the ultimate being, the metaphysically necessary source of all other being, he is properly the object of ultimate concern because he is the ultimate being. Therefore, to substitute anything else for God is literally a form of idolatry. If I were to ask for a show of hands of how many idolaters we have in the class today, how many would raise their hands? We probably wouldn’t get too many hands. But if I were to ask instead, “What is your ultimate concern in life?,” I wonder how many other answers we would get than “knowing God and serving him.” If there is anything else other than “knowing and serving God,” then really you are falling into idolatry – you are worshiping a lesser God. God ought to be our ultimate concern in life, the very focus and center of our existence. In the most absolute sense, then, he is Lord. Everything else depends upon him, he depends upon nothing. Therefore, we need to depend upon the one who depends upon no one.
Second, God’s self-existence excludes our selfishness. Another word for “self-existence” is “independence.” To be self-existent is to be independent, not dependent upon anything. This is exactly what Satan and man want – independence. They want to be independent. When we go our own way and seek to live independently of God, we are in effect challenging our self-hood to God’s self-existent being. We are opposing our self-hood to his self-existence, our self to God’s great I AM. On the one hand, I think selfishness seems very natural. When we just think about ourselves and life, as we struggle to get through it, it seems very natural to be selfish and look out for your own self-interest. But when you contemplate God’s self-existence and our dependency on God for our very next breath, for our existence moment by moment, then I think you can see how absurd it is for creatures to raise their selfish persons against the self-existence of God, upon whom they depend moment by moment for their very being. Once you understand how radically contingent we are, how we depend upon God and his pleasure for our very existence moment by moment, then to live independently of God is madness.2 Rather our whole life ought to be lived in dependence upon this person upon whom we depend on our existence moment by moment.
Job 42:1-6 describes Job’s dialogue with God after seeing the tremendous vision of God in the whirlwind, the greatness of God:
Then Job answered the LORD: “I know that thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of thine can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’ I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
Here, Job, once he came to see the vision of the greatness of God and how all of God’s purpose and will will be accomplished, comes to a position of humility and self-abasement and humbleness before God and repents in dust and ashes. That is an expression of the kind of humility that we need to have before God, this self-existent being upon whom we depend.
Those would be two applications of understanding God’s self-existence: first, that God ought to be our ultimate concern in life and that, second, we can no longer live simply for self but must live for God, upon whom we depend.
Question: People like Richard Dawkins see God’s forbearance and his love as God’s weakness or his non-existence. But, he is, himself, dependent every moment for the air that God has given him to breathe, and it is tragic.
Answer: I think you are absolutely right. It shows the remarkable forbearance and patience of God that he would give sinners the breath to blaspheme him and that he would keep and sustain them in existence so they can continue to reject and spurn him. It is the remarkable forbearance and love of God. Again, you see how these attributes of God tie together because we will be talking about God’s love later on, but you see an expression of it in God’s self-existence as well.
Question: God should be our first concern. You actually see that in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says don’t be concerned about what you are going to eat. If you do, you can’t make the Father your concern.
Answer: Yes, very much so! Matthew 6:33 says, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be yours as well.” So don’t be concerned about them. That is absolutely right.
The next attribute of God that we want to discuss is God’s eternity. Let’s look at some scriptural data concerning God’s being eternal.
First of all, the Bible affirms that God exists without beginning or end. Psalm 90:1-4:
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 confirms God’s everlasting duration from eternity past into eternity future – God exists without beginning or end.3
Also, Psalm 41:13 teaches something similar: “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting! Amen and Amen.” Here again you have this expression that God exists from everlasting to everlasting without beginning or end of his existence.
Secondly, God’s eternity contrasts with the transitory nature of man and the brevity of man’s temporal existence. Psalm 102:11-12 and 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.
Here the life of man and the life of the whole universe are contrasted with God’s eternal duration. They pass away; they are transitory in their existence, like yesterday when it is past. But God will endure forever.
Psalm 90:5-6 goes on to contrast the eternity of God with man’s transitory nature: “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.” Here man’s existence is compared to a kind of dream that, once you wake up, vanishes. It just endures for such a brief time; it is ephemeral in its existence rather than substantial, as is God’s eternal duration.
Compare Job 36:26 and Isaiah 41:4. Job says, “Behold, God is great, and we know him not; the number of his years is unsearchable.” It is to say that God’s existence is infinite; the number of his years are unsearchable; there is no finite number that you can give to the number of years that God exists. Then Isaiah says, “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 God is there at the beginning; he is there at the end of human history; he is the self-existent one, the one who endures forever. God’s eternity contrasts with the brief and ephemeral existence that we human beings have.
Thirdly, God existed “before” time began. There are several places in the New Testament where it speaks of God as existing before the foundations of the world; before the ages began, God existed. One example is Jude 25, which is a wonderful doxology that has some very interesting expressions with respect to God’s relationship to time: “ To the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” Isn’t that interesting? It gives glory, majesty, dominion, and authority to God, before all time, now (presently), and forever on into the future.4 It seems to suggest that time itself is not infinite in the past; time doesn’t just go back forever. There was a beginning to time, and, in some difficult to express way, “before” time began, there is God existing alone without the universe.
Those are some of the scriptural data pertinent to God’s eternity.
Question: Years ago I looked up the definition of time in the concordance, and its definition was “the distance between the eternities.”
Answer: That is an interesting definition. Most Bible dictionaries don’t give definitions of time; they usually would reserve that for philosophical or scientific discussions. If I think I understand it right, it is saying that God existing alone without the world is eternal, and then it seems to imagine that there is this sort of eternity at the other end (the future) after human history plays itself out, perhaps after Judgment Day or something like that. So time, then, on this view is this interval between the two eternities. Although that sounds very mystical, it is expressing a view that is worth exploring. I am not so sure I like that definition because of this: it seems to me that if we take the resurrection seriously, it doesn’t teach that time comes to an end. Rather there will be a new heavens and a new Earth which will involve physical bodily existence. We will have physical resurrection bodies like Jesus’ resurrection body in which he appeared to the disciples. And of course that resurrection body is in space and time. So while this universe will certainly come to an end, it seems that if we take the doctrine of the resurrection seriously, time won’t come to an end. Time will go on forever because, unlike creation – where God creates the world –, he is not going to annihilate the world. This view seems to presuppose that there is going to be an annihilation of the world similar to the creation of the world so that everything reverts back to just God existing alone in eternity. But that is not the Christian view. The Christian view is that God has created the world and that he is not going to annihilate it. He is going to transform it. There will be a transformation of this world into a new heaves and a new Earth in which we will live forever. But thank you for sharing that very interesting definition! I never heard that before.
Let’s talk about a systematic summary of this biblical material concerning divine eternity. Theologians are divided over the meaning of divine eternity. Minimally, to say that God is eternal is to say that God’s existence has neither beginning nor end. God is permanent. But, beyond that, the doctrine of eternity is controversial. Does the doctrine mean that God endures throughout infinite time, from infinite past to infinite future? Does God exist in time, but he exists forever throughout all time, from infinite past to the infinite future? Or does it mean that God transcends time altogether?5 That is to say, God exists timelessly. He is not in time at all; he is outside of time.
Those are two different views of divine eternity that are radically distinct from each other. The Bible, for better or worse, is not clear on whether God is timeless or everlasting. Certainly some of the biblical data seem to speak of God as everlasting. Remember we read in the Psalms: “from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.” God is he who was, and is, and is to come. Those are temporal, tensed verbs and seem to suggest that God does exist in time. He has existed forever, and he will exist forever.
But on the other hand, when you come to these passages that talk about God’s existing before time, like Jude 25, there you have the idea that time itself is not infinite. Time itself is not beginningless; time itself was created by God. And in order to create time, God would have to be outside time. He would have to be timeless.
This is an issue which really cannot be decided biblically. It is one that has to be decided or explored philosophically, as we look at the arguments for and against divine timelessness.
In order to address this question, we have to grapple with the even more fundamental question, “What is time?” One student on his philosophy exam answered that question by saying, “Time is a weekly news magazine.” At one level that is true; but we want to understand what time is as that dimension in which we live and experience life. Even the great theologian, St. Augustine, confessed that he found himself confronted with a dilemma that we all can identify with. Augustine said, “When no one asks me what time is, then, of course, I know what it is. But as soon as someone asks me for a definition, then I do not know what time is.” It is very difficult to define time in any sort of non-circular way.
As a working definition, we can define time by saying that it is a duration involving an earlier and later. Time is a kind of dimension of reality whose elements are ordered by the relations earlier than and later than. As such, time is distinct from space. Space is also a kind of interval, but the points of space are not ordered by the relations earlier than and later than. Points of space have nothing comparable to this earlier than/later than relation among its points. It is this relation that orders the moments of time which seems to make time distinctive, to make time what it is. Its elements are related by earlier and later relations.
The question is: does God experience past, present, and future – are the moments of his life related by earlier than/later than relations? Does God have a present in which he exists and a past which he remembers – “Yes, I did those things; yes, I remember those things.” Does he have a future which he foreknows? “I know that I will do these things. I know what will happen in the future. So I can give revelatory knowledge to prophets to tell human beings what will happen in the future because I know what will happen in the future.” Does God have a past, present, and future? Or does God simply exist outside of time, so that he has no past, present, and future? He just exists timelessly, and the past, present, and future are what we experience and live in, who are denizens of the world of time and space. That is the question before us.6
Question: On the issue of whether God exists inside and outside of time, has anyone ever proposed the idea that God exists in both, as if I filled up a sink full of water, and I stuck my hand in it, and I would be both wet and dry.
Answer: This is an excellent question, and certainly people have proposed that. But the difficulty with that view is that timeless and temporal are contradictories to each other. The way that you define “timeless” is to say something is not temporal. If God is timeless, than he is atemporal. So to say God is both timeless and temporal is to utter a self-contradiction, unless you can provide some kind of a model for it. For example, some things can be both black and white, if it is black on one side and white on the other side. So there you provided a model. Or you could say that something is black at one moment, but it is white at another moment, as a marshmallow is originally white, but after it is roasted in a fire, it turns black. The marshmallow is both black and white but at different moments in time. If you want to say that God is both timeless and temporal, you have got to qualify it in some way in order to avoid a self contradiction.
The difficulty with your analogy of the hand in the sink is that God doesn’t have physical parts, so you can’t say that God is timeless in one part but temporal in another part. God doesn’t have any parts; he is not a physical object, so that won’t work. Could you say he is timeless at one time, and temporal at another time? That won’t work; that is self contradictory – to say he is timeless at one time. The intuition behind this is a good one – to ask if we can combine these in some way –, but to do that, you have to come up with some kind of a model, some kind of qualification to avoid a contradiction. In fact, that is what I am going to try to do later on; but for now let’s just see if we can look at arguments for and against divine timelessness.
Question: Are we limiting the answer to that which we can understand? You are saying either-or but couldn’t there be a third alternative that is beyond our understanding?
Answer: The answer to that is the answer I just gave to the previous question, namely, theology does nothing to exalt God by affirming contradictions. To say of God that “A” is both true and not true does not exalt God. That is just to utter nonsense. What we want to do, if we believe that God is rational, is find some sort of an understanding that is consistent. That isn’t to say we can understand everything about God. Certainly God remains beyond our comprehension, but we have got to do better than just utter self-contradictions about God; otherwise, that is like saying that God both exists and does not exist. It is just nonsense.
Question: Is it possible that different persons of the Trinity relate to time differently? For example, Jesus Christ was and still is a human being, so can he relate to time differently than the other persons of the Trinity?
Answer: We certainly could say that Christ, in his human nature, is temporal. And maybe you can say in his divine nature he is atemporal. That might be a way to try to do this. But then the question is going to be, how do you get these two together? You are back to the same problem again – how do you unite a divine nature that is atemporal with a human nature that is temporal? I do not think you can say that Christ’s divine nature is temporal, but that the Father and the Holy Spirit are atemporal, because then you split the Godhead in three pieces – somehow you pulled God apart and destroyed the unity of God, if there is a part of God that is temporal and another part of that is atemporal. While I think you can do it with the divinity and humanity of Christ, I don’t think you can do it with just the divine nature.
What we will do next time is to begin to look at some arguments as to why we ought to think that God is timeless and we will look at some arguments to think that God is temporal. Then, on the basis of those arguments, we will attempt to draft a coherent understanding of God’s eternity and God’s relationship to time.7
1 I am indebted to my former Pastor Paul Cox for the application sections of all these lectures on God’s attributes.
7 Total Running Time: 31:12