Doctrine of God (part 5)

March 29, 2010     Time: 00:37:49


I. B. 3. a. (2) (b) Argument for God’s timelessness: Incompleteness of temporal life. . . . I. B. 3. a. (2) (d) Evaluation of the arguments and a proposal.

1. Attributes of God
Lecture 5

Argument for God’s Timelessness

We have been talking about divine eternity, and last time, after surveying the scriptural data, we began to try to make sense of it. We saw that while the Scripture teaches clearly that God is without beginning and without end, that he exists permanently, that he never came into being and never will go out of being, nevertheless it is not clear as to whether we should understand God as existing timelessly, that is to say, outside of time, or whether we should think of God as existing everlastingly throughout time. Does God have a past, a present, and a future, which extend into the infinite past and into the infinite future, or does God have no past, present, and future at all? Is he simply beyond the dimension of time? We pointed out in response to questions last week that these are contradictories to each other. To say that God exists timelessly is simply to say he does not exist in time. So it is not a both/and proposition, unless you can find some way of qualifying this, because these are contradictory with each other. Either he exists timelessly or he exists temporally, and the question is, how should we best understand this?

In order to settle this question, we want to look at some arguments for divine timelessness and divine temporality. Let’s first talk about an argument for divine timelessness.

In my book Time and Eternity I survey what I think are the best, or most promising, arguments for divine timelessness, and I find that most of these are, frankly, very implausible or weak arguments, with the exception of one. This is the argument based on the incompleteness of temporal life. The idea here is that a temporal mode of existence is, by its very nature, a defective mode of existence. One has only the brief, fleeting present. The future is not yet – one does not yet possess one’s future. The past is gone, irretrievably lost. So all one has is one’s present, and that is ever changing, ever passing away, with no permanence, so that a temporal being cannot possess his life all at once. By contrast, a being which is timeless, outside of time, possesses all of its life at once. It simply has no past, present, or future – it just has a timelessly existing state. It has its life all at once. The claim is that this is a more perfect mode of existence, and, since God is the most perfect being, it would be incompatible with God to have a defective mode of existence. Therefore, God cannot exist temporally.

The defective nature of temporal life was brought home to me very powerfully a number of years ago when our children were small and I was reading to them after dinner one evening. We were reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book, Little House In The Big Woods, and as we came to the end of that book, I came to the following passage, which for me, who was studying the doctrine of divine eternity and time, was just shattering (though it didn’t have the same impact on my children!). This passage just spoke volumes. This is how the book ends,

The long winter evenings of firelight and music had come again. . . . Pa’s strong, sweet voice was softly singing:

‘Shall auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Shall auld acquaintance be forgot,
And the days of auld lang syne?
And the days of auld lang syne, my friend,
And the days of auld lang syne,
Shall auld acquaintance be forgot,
And the days of auld lang syne?’

When the fiddle had stopped singing, Laura called out softly, ‘What are days of auld lang syne, Pa?’

‘They are the days of a long time ago, Laura,’ Pa said. ‘Go to sleep, now.’

But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa’s fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods. She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the firelight gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle. She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting.

She thought to herself, ‘This is now.’

She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.1

What is so poignant about that passage, of course, is that that time, which for Laura Ingalls Wilder was so real and so present, now is long ago! Ma and Pa are gone. The American frontier which they struggled to win is gone. Laura Ingalls Wilder herself is gone. Time has a savage way of gnawing away at existence, claiming everything that exists, and taking it into the past where it is irretrievably lost, gone forever, never to be reclaimed.2

The argument here is that such a defective mode of existence is surely incompatible with the existence of a perfect being. Therefore, a perfect being cannot exist temporally but must exist timelessly.

I don’t think that this is a knock-down argument for divine timelessness, but I do think it appeals to very powerful intuitions about the transitoriness and ephemeralness of temporal life. Therefore, in the absence of any counter-balancing arguments for divine temporality, I think this can justifiably motivate a doctrine of divine timelessness.

Argument for God’s Being Everlasting

However, it does seem that there are also good arguments on the other side. Let me look first at the argument for God’s being everlasting based on his changing relations with the world. God is a God who acts in history. He is causally related to events in time – first causing one event, then causing another event after that, then causing another. God is intimately involved in the temporal process. He parts the Red Sea, he calls the children of Israel out of Egypt, he sends Christ into the world. The incarnation of the second person of the Trinity is an especially problematic doctrine for those who think that God is timeless. Here God himself enters into human history in the person of Jesus Christ. It seems self-evident that there was a time before which the second person of the Trinity had a human nature. There was a time when the second person of the Trinity was not yet incarnate, and there was a time after which the second person of the Trinity was intimately united to a human nature. It would seem from God’s changing relations with the world that he would have to be in time. Anything that changes has a before and an after. That just is to be in time.

Let me throw in one other argument for divine temporality. I think this is easy to understand and also very powerful. This would be an argument based upon God’s omniscience. As an omniscient being, God must know all truths – he must know all the facts that there are. But there are clearly truths which are tensed truths. Sentences are not in just in tenseless modes; they have tense to them– future tense, past tense, present tense, and other tenses. God must know these tensed truths if he is truly omniscient. For example, God must know that Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492. But at one time, that wasn’t true. In 1490, it was true that Christopher Columbus will discover America, and God must have known that truth. But if God knows these tensed truths, then that means that his knowledge is constantly changing, as future-tense truths become false and the present-tense versions becomes true. “Christopher Columbus will discover America” was true at one time, then it became false, and it became true that “Christopher Columbus is discovering America.” Then that became false and the past-tense statement “Christopher Columbus did discover America” became true.3 So God’s knowledge would be constantly changing, and therefore he would be in time.

It seems that both of these arguments, the argument from God’s changing relations, and the argument from God’s knowledge of constantly changing tensed truths, provide very powerful arguments for God’s being in time.

Evaluation of the Arguments

How should we evaluate these arguments? How we evaluate these arguments is largely going to depend upon our view of time. How you construe God’s eternity will stand or fall with your understanding of the nature of time. Philosophers have distinguished two views of time which are often conveniently called the A-Theory and the B-Theory. Those initials do not stand for anything; they are just a handy way of categorizing them. Sometimes the A-Theory of time is called the “tensed theory” or “dynamic theory,” and the B-Theory of time is called the “tenseless theory” or “static theory.”

What are these theories of time? According to the A-Theory of time, events are ordered as past, present, and future. The only thing that really exists is the present moment. The future is just potential; it does not yet exist. It hasn’t come into being. The past no longer exists – it once did exist, but it has now passed away. There is an objective difference between the past, present, and the future in terms of their reality. Things in the future and the past are not real; only things in the present are real. On this view, temporal becoming is a real and objective feature of the world. Things come into being, and they go out of being. Temporal becoming is a real and objective feature of the world.

By contrast, the B-Theory of time says that the difference between past, present, and future is just a subjective illusion of human consciousness. In fact, all events in time – whether past, present, or future – are equally real. There is no objective difference between the past, the present, and the future. It is just a matter of your subjective viewpoint. For the people in 2008, the events of 2008 are present, and the events of 2050 are future. But for the people in 2050, who are just as real as we are, the events of 2050 are real and present, but the events of 2008 are past. What is past or present or future on this view is just a matter of your subjective perspective. In reality, everything is equally real, whether past, present, or future, and temporal becoming is just an illusion of human consciousness. So we are victims in a sense of a massive illusion on the B-Theory of time, insofar as we think that things really come to exist and cease to exist. Really, things don’t come into being or cease to be. They all exist at their respective stations on the time line, and they are all equally real and there. We just have the illusion that we are moving along the time line, when in fact we are not. There is no dynamic nature to this picture at all. The notion of moving time or becoming is just illusory.

Whether you think that God is timeless or temporal will stand or fall on whether you adopt an A-Theory of time or a B-Theory of time.4 If you believe in the existence of God on the A-Theory of time, then God cannot be equally present to the past and the future because those things don’t exist. They are simply unreal. What he is related to causally is the present event. He is causing the present events to exist, and he conserves them in being, and tomorrow he will cause different events to occur and sustain them in being, and so on and so forth. But the only events that God is causally related to are the present events. Moreover, as explained earlier, on the A-Theory there are these tensed truths that are constantly changing. God knows that the 2008 election is currently taking place. He knows that the 1980 election is already over and that the election in 2012 has not yet occurred (if we are now living in 2008). So on the A-Theory, you have got to say that God exists in time because of his changing relations with the world and his knowledge of tensed facts.

By contract, if you adopt the B-Theory of time, then it is very easy to see how God could exist outside of time and be causally related to every event in time because they are all equally real. From his eternal, timeless standpoint, his causing the parting of the Red Sea, his causing the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, his causing the second coming of Christ, everything is equally real, and God outside of time simply sustains them all in being. There is no temporal becoming; there is no change in that sense.

Moreover, on the B-Theory, there are no tensed truths. We may have tensed sentences, but our English sentences which are tensed are just our subjective ways of expressing what are, in fact, really tenseless truths. For example, “In 1492 Columbus discovers America” – the verb there “discovers” isn’t present tense, it’s just tenseless. Our tensed sentences express tenseless truths. Another example would be that the truth that “Hillary Clinton lost the primary” could be expressed by saying, “Hillary Clinton loses the 2008 primary,” and that is a tenseless sentence. The tense of the verb is just an illusion. An analogy would be the difference between “here” and “there.” On the B-Theory, to say that something is occurring “now” is kind of like saying it is occurring “here.” There is no objective place called “here.” For someone sitting in room A, that room A is “here.” For someone sitting in room B, that room “B” is “here,” and room A would be “there.” But for that person in room A, room B would be “there.” There isn’t any objective place in the world called “here;” that is just a subjective viewpoint. Similarly, with regard to the concept of “now,” there is no “now” on this view – it is just an illusion of your personal consciousness. On this view, there are no tensed truths for God to know. All God knows are all these tenseless facts about what occurs at certain dates and times.

How do you decide between these two views? If your view of God’s eternity is going to stand or fall on whether you adopt the A-Theory or B-Theory, how should you decide? Everybody in this debate admits that the A-Theory is the common sense view of time. The average person thinks that there is a difference between past, present, and future and that things do come into existence and do go out of existence. Everybody, even B-Theorist, acknowledges that the common-sense view of time is the A-Theory. The A-Theory is deeply rooted in our experience of temporal becoming. We not only experience temporal becoming in the world around us, as we see change in flux all around us; but even in the interior world of consciousness, we experience the becoming of mental events. We experience a stream of consciousness of one thought occurring after another – a stream of consciousness that is wholly independent of the external world. There is nothing that could be more intimate to us than the experience of temporal becoming.5 Even our experience of the external world cannot be compared to the intimacy and the clarity of our experience of temporal becoming because we experience not only the becoming of the external world, but even the interior world of the life of the mind, as we experience a stream of consciousness.

So the B-Theorist would have to give us very powerful reasons for abandoning this common sense view of time and denying our intimate experience of temporal becoming and tense. I would simply say that my reasoned judgment is that there is no good reason to deny that experience. If you are interested in pursuing this further, take a look at my book Time and Eternity, where in a couple of chapters I look at the principal arguments for and against the A-Theory and for and against the B-Theory. I do not think there are any good reasons for thinking that our experience of temporal reality is illusory and so should be denied. So philosophically I do not see any good reason to adopt a B-Theory.

Moreover, the B-Theory is theologically objectionable on a number of grounds. I think there are problems with it theologically. For one thing, it emasculates the Christian doctrine of creation. I take it to be essential to the Christian doctrine of creation that there is a state of affairs in the actual world which consists of God alone, without the universe, and that he then brings the universe into being. But on the B-Theory that is false. On the B-Theory, God never brings the universe into existence, since temporal becoming is illusory. Rather God just exists timelessly, and the universe exists co-eternally with God. The difference between God and the universe is that the universe has an internal dimension called time, which structures the events as earlier and later. But viewed from an external standpoint, the universe exists just as timelessly as God – it is just there with God. God never actually brings the universe into being. This seems to emasculate the Christian doctrine of creation out of nothing, which surely does teach that God existed alone and brought the universe into being.

Moreover, think of the problem of evil on the B-Theory of time and what implications this has. What it means, for example, is that all the evil and the sin in the world is never really done away with. The stain of evil is still indelibly there. Someday Christ will come again, and thereafter there will be no more evil. But all the evil that existed previously never ceases to exist. It is never really annihilated; indeed, in one sense, Christ still hangs on the cross on this view. Granted, thereafter, there is his resurrection, but the event of the crucifixion is just as real as the event of the resurrection. Christ is timelessly on the cross in this view, which is surely theologically very problematic. I think we want to say that evil will be vanquished, that it will be done away with, and God will say, “Thank goodness, that’s over!,” so to speak. So we have no good reason philosophically for adopting the B-Theory, and we have good theological reasons for opposing the B-Theory. Therefore, I cast my lot with the A-Theory of time.

A Proposal

How should we understand God’s eternity, then? Here I want to make a proposal. Here is a view that I think can unite both of the arguments that we’ve seen so far. I want to suggest that we understand God’s eternity to mean that God is timeless without creation, and he is temporal subsequent to the moment of creation. God is timeless without creation. Existing alone without the universe, God exists timelessly. With the creation of the world, time begins and God enters into time in virtue of his changing relationships with the temporal world and his knowledge of tensed truths.

In a sense, I have come back to the model that someone suggested earlier, when it was asked why couldn’t God be both? I said, “Not both unless you qualify it.” But I think we can qualify it. God is timeless without creation, and he is temporal with creation. That makes sense of the passage in Jude, which says, “. . . before all time and now and forever.” That is a way of expressing in ordinary language God’s existing timelessly without creation, time begins at creation, and God now and forever exists in time.6


Question: I am not convinced that because God interacts in time that he is bound by time. Let me give a spatial example as an analogy. If you think of a piece of paper on the table, that is two-dimensional. I can be above that paper and write things on the paper such that the two-dimensions is changed, yet I am in the third dimension – I am not bound in the two-dimensional space. In the same way, why can’t God be considered unbound to time?

Answer: You can make sense of that on the B-Theory because what this does is make time a spatial dimension. It is all strung out there in front of you. So the being in the higher dimension can interact with anything on that surface. But that just is to presuppose that time is just a B-Theory, where things in time are all equally existent. So the being that is outside of time can interact with them. That analogy really does illustrate well the B-Theory of time. You could say, “But wait a minute, isn’t the pencil moving, and doesn’t that imply time as well?” Right, that would mean God doesn’t exist timelessly. That would make God exist in a kind of hyper-time, a second time dimension, which doesn’t gain you anything. You only moved him from our time dimension to a higher time dimension. I think that analogy really does support what I said – it is going to mean that you have to be a B-Theorist.

Question: The A-Theory indicates that God exists in time, but when God created the universe, he created time for his creatures to dwell inside of. It seems like he could look down upon time and see and recognize current time as it goes along the time line but still be above time or be timeless.

Answer: It seems that what this is trying to do is combine the A-Theory and B-Theory into a kind of A-B-Theory, a quasi-theory. What this would say is that past, present, and future are all equally real, but the present kind of moves along the time line, like a spotlight moving along a row of pilings or something. This is the way the “now” moves across the time line. I talk about this in the book. I think that really is incoherent in the end, unless you posit a higher time dimension, because if the “now” really is moving across the time line, then there is a second time dimension in which the “now” is moving. The “now” is at every moment in the time line, right? It goes across all of them. If you say first it is here, then it is here, then it is here, you posit a second time dimension in which the lapse of the first dimension is taking place. That really doesn’t get you anywhere. It means God would have to be either in the hyper-time dimension, in which case he is still temporal, or if he is not, he can’t know what time the moving “now” is on. If he knows the moving “now” is now at 2008, then he has temporally located himself. He can only know that the moving “now” is at every point in the time line, unless you introduce this second time dimension.7

Question: I am definitely entrenched in the B-Theory or something like what you just described. Because God is described as the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end. “All of my days are numbered before there is even one of them.” My days are written in his book already. Would this be fair to say? If he knows I am going to die when I’m 86, he will also know every prayer that I am going to pray and every response he will have to that. From God’s standpoint, that is done. God to me is outside of this time line that moves along.

Answer: What this question does is tie the discussion of divine eternity very nicely with the discussion of God’s omniscience, which we will get to. You did! It was a beautiful segue! When we talk about God’s foreknowledge of the future, we have to agree, as biblical Christians, that God knows when we are going to die. He knows the prayers that we will pray; he knows the answers he will give. I entirely agree! The question, however, is: does God know these things because they exist out there and he timelessly sees them and so he knows what is going to happen, or is it that God knows what will happen in the future, but it is not because he looks and sees that it is already done? It is because he knows that this is the way that you will freely act, and he will act in response in a certain way. These are not the same view; these are two quite different views of God’s knowledge of the future.

Question: I am undecided as to which theory I really believe in, but I do think that God cannot exist temporally, because if he was bound by time when he is interacting with the world through his miracles, he would be bound by something that is really set into the laws of science and nature. But God should be able to circumvent these laws – and I think he can because he is outside of that realm, outside those laws. As soon as he enters that temporal state, he would be bound by time and would not be able to circumvent those laws.

Answer: Let me say a couple of things in response. I certainly think we want to say that God isn’t bound by scientific laws. He could have created a universe operating according to totally different laws. But when we are talking about his relationship to time, this is not a matter of scientific law. This is more of metaphysics. It is not physics. So it really doesn’t have anything to do with God’s being bound by science.

The question here is this: is it true that having a temporal mode of existence is binding oneself in the way you describe? Is it limiting oneself? I am not sure if that language isn’t emotionally loaded. In one sense, becoming temporal is a way of liberating oneself, liberating oneself to act and to react, to have intercourse with other persons, to be responsive and active. A timeless being is a being that is frozen into immobility, that cannot change in any way, lest a before and after should exist. So in some ways I think this is an emotional matter. In some ways you can think of God’s entering into time as God’s bursting out into this tremendous activity in creating a world and interacting with it and so forth.

One more thing – I would say this: a way of thinking of this is as an act of condescension on God’s part. In creating a temporal world, God condescends to give up his mode of atemporal existence and to take on our mode of temporal existence for our sake and our salvation. Then in the incarnation, he condescends even further to take on not merely our mode of existence but our very humanity. I think that is very characteristic of the biblical God – a God who humbles himself and condescends to take on our mode of existence and our humanity.

So let me just say that these are controversial issues. As I said, this is not a biblical issue on which one goes to the wall, and so you are entirely at liberty to disagree with what I present here without being unbiblical in anyway. I am not presenting this as biblical truth, but as my best effort to make sense of biblical truth that God is eternal.8


1 Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods (New York: Harper & Row, 1932), pp. 237-238.

2 6:19

3 10:23

4 15:01

5 20:00

6 25:32

7 30:21

8 Total Running Time: 37:49