The Scriptures seem to identify a God in time, yet a God that is somehow beyond time, not constrained by it the way we are (1 Peter 3).
Put your thinking caps on today. We’re going to talk about time.
It’s common for us to make the comment “The spaceless, timeless God” or “Then we’ll pass out of time, into eternity.” However, the Scripture is not clear about God’s timelessness. Most of the verses seem to indicate God is in time: Rev 1:4; Rev 4:8, Ps 90, Jude 25, 2 Pet 3:8.
Two popular books describe a picture of God as timeless. Philip Yancey’s book Disappointment with God and C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity. Lewis and Yancey both flounder because of theological and philosophical problems that both seem unaware of.
Let’s define time and see if God qualifies as being in time.
First, we need a definition or a description of time that seems to capture our basic sense of it. Second, we need to see if this definition applies in any way to God. Third, we need to address some of the misconceptions—philosophical and theological—that Yancey seems to have overlooked.
What is time? To put it most simply, time is duration.
This is where clocks come in (any kind of clock). Clocks mark change or, more precisely, clocks are examples of change that seem to indicate the passage of time. One could say, then, that time is a necessary precondition for change and change is a sufficient condition to establish the passage of time. Maybe there can be time (duration) without change, but it doesn’t seem possible to have change without time.
Here’s why. If a certain state of affairs is followed by another state of affairs (a change in property exemplification, or relations, etc.) that had not already been contemporaneous—at the same “time”—with the first (as the sequence of numbers might be), then it seems a temporal change has taken place. In our normal way of speaking we say that the first state of affairs is past and the second is present. In other words, there is at least one true past-tensed fact.
It seems that if real change takes place then two entirely different conditions exist in temporal relationship to each other, one earlier and one later. (Notice I didn’t say “before and after.” These terms don’t necessarily imply time, only order. Numbers are in a particular order, but there doesn’t seem to be any temporal quality to that order.)
Whenever there’s change of any kind we know that time has passed.
So, we have a simple test for the existence of time. If there are tensed facts—in this case, a fact about the past—then time has passed. Duration has been measured. Therefore, time must exist. Further, agents, which participate in this change, must sustain change themselves, even if it is an extrinsic change in relations to the events in question. Therefore these agents are in time also.
Now, that seems pretty straightforward to me. If God is an agent of change, then He must be in time or at least enter time at the particular point that the change obtains. This is called the A-theory of time. Tenses are real and becoming is real because real change marks duration, distinguishing past from present from future.
There seems to be only one way to avoid this conclusion. Maybe the relations of “earlier than” and “later than” are not temporal at all, but causal in a non-temporal way, like one plate eternally resting upon another, the bottom one a-temporally causing the position of the top one (Lewis uses this illustration in another context).
Is it possible time can be reduced to a series of static events, causally related, yet not in time? Is it possible that all of history is one big space-time manifold—a “block universe”? From the inside we sense the “flow” of time, but in fact each moment is just a static, unmoving, slice of the story. This is Lewis and Yancey’s solution. It’s called the B-theory of time, but let’s just call it the storybook view.
There are Christian philosophers who hold to this view because it’s the only view that allows God to be totally timeless. But as we’ve seen in our definition, such people can’t admit to any change in the universe because change immediately thrusts us into time. We have to have God in a changeless state, and the time-space universe existing as a static storybook block.
Okay so far, but here’s the problem. When did God create the universe out of nothing? On the B-view, the universe would have had to exist in eternal causal dependence on God, but there never was a “time” when it came into existence. It always existed with God. He is the eternal cause of it—like those two plates, one resting upon the other for eternity—but it never came into existence at any time.
This seems to me to be too high of a price to pay to assert a timeless God.
If God does create, then the game is up. He may have had an eternal intention to do certain things, but then He must exercise His will, He must act with power, and He must create the universe. And it does seem to be that such a creation was a process, at least six days, and that means God was in time, at least by then.
What about God in a kind of hypertime? God can still act and create, but He can be above our time and intervene at different points in our timeline. This was Lewis’s view in Narnia. But there’s a problem. Yancey says it’s “like someone in the real world, who makes a brief appearance in a movie.” There is something unreal about this world. Imagine being a character in a book. What is missing? There is no “now.” Everything can be marked by a date, but what motivates action?
Further, any particular slice of the story doesn’t define any given character. The character is only a whole character when the complete story is viewed from beginning to end. No individual person is fully present in any given “moment.” On any given page of our story we don’t see real persons; we only view agents and events. It’s only after our story completely unfolds that we have our character in full.
This is actually one view of what a person is. It’s called the perdurance view. You never have a whole person at any given point of time, only slices of a person. All the events of that person’s life amount to the whole person. In a way, you’re not completely you until you’re gone.
Isn’t this a strange way to view persons? Doesn’t it seem that at this moment you are fully the person you are, the same actual person you were a year ago, and the same one you’ll be a year from now? Yes, you’ll change. You’ll learn more and forget some. You’ll gain weight or gain muscles over time. But in a very strict sense, you are still the same person; you are still the same you. That’s why we can try you for a crime you committed in the past. You’re still the same you, but such a thing would be impossible on this storybook view of time.
In our analysis of time, it seems clear that God cannot act in a temporally causal way and still be said to be timeless. If God acts to create, then this change in a state of affairs immediately becomes past to Him. God is characterized by duration at that point and tensed facts are true of Him (“In the Beginning God created [tensed] the heavens and the earth.”).
The only way to avoid this is to call our experience of time’s flow an illusion and opt for a storybook view of time. But this has its own problems. It’s hard to make any sense out of personal identity through the series of events. And the notion of “now” simply disappears.
Certainly, as Yancey points out, there is a difference between God’s perspective and our own. But the difference is in His knowledge, not in His relationship to time. God knows the future in advance; He doesn’t see it in His eternal present.
The critical issue in determinism is not whether the future is fixed or not, but rather what fixes it. If the future is to be a certain way (known through God’s perfect knowledge of future-tensed facts) because of individual choices He knows of, then there’s no threat of determinism.
The Scriptures seem to identify a God in time, yet a God that is somehow beyond time, not constrained by it the way we are (1 Peter 3). God could have existed during an unmetered duration—or during no “time” at all—with an eternal purpose to create the world He wanted, and an eternal purpose to accomplish particular things in each or our lives. And when He acted to create He entered into time, of necessity, now having a past and a present.
Tremendous comfort can still come from knowing that God has always been in control and will never relinquish it. One might also draw a deeper comfort from knowing that God is in time with me right now, not unreachably transcendent, but right in this moment with me. And because He’s in this moment He can act to respond to my needs and prayers.