How does God relate to time?
Published: 1 April 2017 (GMT+10)
God exists without beginning or end; that much the Bible is clear on. But what does that mean about the nature of time and how God relates to it? Is He essentially timeless? Must He be in time? Or can God choose between being timeless and in time? Ethan P. from the United States writes:
Hey CMI! I have another question for you. I know I’m probably getting quite annoying, but I’m seriously confused about something else. You said in one of your articles that any angel that does something in a sequence has created a sort of time as an idea of sequential events. I was thinking that this must relate to God in the fact that He did create the universe and he existed before the universe he obviously does not transcend sequence in eternity. Of course God was the first person ever. But when did he start doing things? Also, there was no information other than God before he started creating, so how did he think? He also would have had to at one point start thinking obviously, because each thought is sequential. I’d really like to hear something besides God transcends sequence, because obviously he does not. I’d also like an answer besides we just can’t understand it, because I think we can, but if that’s the best answer you have, that’s the best I’ll take.
CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:
In a response to one of the comments on my article Did God create time?, I used the example of an angel thinking only to point out that our experience of time’s ‘movement’ from past to future is not just a physical phenomenon; it can also apply to spiritual entities. But just because it can apply to angels doesn’t mean it applies to God. As the sole self-sufficient, necessary, uncaused being in existence, God is a unique case. And this means God cannot have either beginning or end; He must be eternal.
But there are different ways of construing God’s eternity available to the Christian, because the Bible doesn’t fully explain the nature of God’s relation to time. One is called omnitemporality, which means that God has existed for an infinite duration of objectively temporal moments. This idea has become somewhat fashionable among some modern Christian philosophers. However, I see a deep incoherence in the idea. It seems impossible to count sequentially from –∞ to 0, much less –∞ to ∞. This means there can’t be an infinite series of moments (see Doubt your doubts! for more information). Even God’s omnipotence is irrelevant here, because not even omnipotence can do the logically impossible (such as make 2+2 equal 5, or make a married bachelor). See If God can do anything, then can He make a being more powerful than Himself? for more information.
Another way of thinking about God’s eternity is to say that He is essentially timeless. The common statement ‘God is outside of time’ reflects this general view of God’s eternity. This means that God is completely static; even His thinking does not change at all. This has been the traditional view of the church ever since at least the 4th and 5th centuries, largely due to the church father Augustine. However, this view of God is hard to reconcile with the dynamic relational depiction of God in the Bible, and especially Christ’s Incarnation. It also means that our experience of time is completely subjective, since on this view the only truly objective perspective is God’s timeless perspective. It also means that God is not really related to His creation in an objective temporal sense. The only way He is said to ‘change’ and ‘relate’ with respect to creation is as other beings around Him have a subjective experience of change. This is like how a father might appear to his son to get shorter through the years, when in fact the father’s height has remained constant, and only the son’s height has changed. The ‘change’ in the father is merely apparent and subjective; it’s not objectively real. Unlike omnitemporality, this view is not logically impossible. Moreover, it fits well with the depiction of God’s changelessness in Scripture (e.g. Malachi 3:6). And, since God is perfect, it might be argued that any change in God would necessarily be a change for the worse, which would of course be impossible, making God essentially unchangeable (and therefore timeless).1
A third view is the idea that God can choose whether to be timeless or temporal. Or, perhaps more correctly, He can choose to stay static, or become temporal. This avoids the metaphysical problems of omnitemporality. It also fits well with the dynamic relational depiction of God in Scripture, and Christ’s Incarnation. But it does mean we have to adopt a ‘softer’ form of changelessness to explain passages like Malachi 3:6. Moreover, the idea that God can ‘switch’ from a timeless to a temporal mode of existence is rather counterintuitive. And since God is perfect, may not any change in God be a change for the worse? This view would say that not every sort of change in a perfect being entails a change for the worse; there may be value-neutral changes that God can undergo (an example of such a value-neutral change might be God’s knowledge that it’s 3 pm changing to knowledge that it’s 3:01 pm a minute later). But again, I don’t think this view is demonstrably incoherent.2
As you can see, all the views on offer have their difficulties. And none of them are uniquely taught in or directly derivable from Scripture. This is an issue over which Bible believing Christians can disagree. Therefore, it’s not an issue CMI as a ministry takes a stand on.
Now, both the second and third views have God existing in a timeless state apart from creation. But you hit upon an insightful question: how can a timeless being be personal? In our experience, thinking, willing, relating, and acting, all things that persons necessarily do, all take time to do, right? But must they? I don’t see why they must. For instance, why does God need time to think about e.g. His own goodness? Such a thought could simply be in His mind changelessly, and thus timelessly. God doesn’t learn anything through any sort of sequential process; God knows all truths innately and immediately. And while there are some things that God could not objectively do unless He were objectively ‘in time’ (such as relate to objectively temporal creatures), even that doesn’t mean He would be less than personal. It just means there are certain things He can only do in time.
Even ‘activity’ need not take time. For instance, if God’s action is ‘each of the divine persons relating perfectly to each other’, would that not be a changeless activity? After all, the very act of being God necessarily and changelessly entails the perfect love relation of the three divine persons. There is no reason to think that must involve any change, and thus sequence, at least apart from creation.3
Hopefully this answer is a little better than just saying ‘God transcends sequence’, which sounds pious, but doesn’t really explain anything. If we were to say that in a more fruitful way, we might say: ‘if God is essentially timeless, then our experience of time is purely subjective.’ What this shows is that ‘God transcending time’ is not so much a statement about God, but a statement about the nature of time. Is time a subjective or objective reality? If time is a subjective reality, God is timeless. If time is an objective reality, God is in time. I leave you to choose which one you think is best.
References and notes
- A good recent defence of this view is Helm, P., Eternal God: A Study of God without Time, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press, New York, 2010. Return to text.
- A good recent defence of this view is Craig, W.L., Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time, Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 2001. Return to text.
- A good defence of God’s personhood as a timeless being can be found here: Craig, W.L., Divine Timelessness and Personhood, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 43:109–124, 1998; reasonablefaith.org/divine-timelessness-and-personhood. And note that the author, Dr William Lane Craig, believes in the third view I outlined above on God’s eternity, so he’s not ruling out the objective reality of time. Return to text.
I think there is always a present, which makes the analogy to numbers not accurate. 0 isn't the present more than -424524 or 242442 is. There would always be a present in the past and in the future, so selecting 0 as a midpoint does not accurately describe time since 0 actually is the midpoint between infinite -0 and infinite +0. But the present is all of them, it is always there.
I actually don't think the present is reducible to any mathematical construct. However, it's not hard to see why zero is a convenient mathematical representation of the present. Negative numbers are 'before' zero and positive numbers come 'after' zero. But I'm certainly not saying that it's the only way to represent time numerically (e.g. one could conveniently use zero as representative of the beginning of time). However, to understand my use of numbers in rejecting the first view of God's eternity I mention, Doubt your doubts! has some crucial information.
Many of the above comments have the problem of God being one thing and then being another (timeless and in time). Ah, yes . . . the Trinity, one member of which was willing to become subjected to time while the others remained timeless.
Interestingly, I argued something similar in my article Spacetime and the Trinity. However, as a result of my reading further into the issue since I wrote that article, I think I would push the antithesis between a timeless and a temporal experience further. Following the timeless route, one could say that no change happened to the Son in the Incarnation because time itself is subjective, and past, present, and future all timelessly exist with God. Or, if temporal becoming is objective, the temporal experience of the Son in the Incarnation is a non-issue, because the Son was already in time well before the Incarnation. Personally, I think the temporal route is more elegant than the timeless route for explaining this datum, but there's more to consider than just this in formulating a coherent and cogent understanding of God's relation to time.
I'm surprised at you--you are almost admitting that Open Theism is within the pale of orthodoxy with your comments on time!! Even the best thinkers are allowed to change their minds, I supposed.
Great article and great responses to comments. Keep on thinking!
Thank you for the compliments. However, to be clear, I still consider open theism to be a blatant and disastrous contradiction of Scripture that e.g. fundamentally undermines God's ability to deliver on His promise of eternal life. Indeed, I do not see how any of my comments could reasonably be construed as allowing for open theism. I can only think of two reasons someone might think that.
First, someone might think that by allowing for God to be in time, I'm implicitly allowing for the idea that God doesn't know the future exhaustively. But I'm not. I don't think God being in time necessarily implies that He doesn't know the future exhaustively. Rather, there are a number of viable options available to the orthodox to harmonize God's exhaustive foreknowledge and God being in time (though exploring them would take me into territory beyond CMI's ministry purview). As such, I think God's relation to time is irrelevant to the question of whether or not God knows the future exhaustively.
Second, I can think that perhaps someone might think this comment makes room for open theism: "I agree that God doesn't know the future because He sees the whole timeline existing before Him, but because He has planned and purposed this world and its whole history from beginning to end." I presumed that the previous sentence made it clear that I was speaking about how God knows the future, not whether God knows the future: "At any rate, I don't think God's relation to time need imply anything about how God knows the future." Nonetheless, I have edited that sentence to clarify my point, just in case.
Eternity sure sounds like a very long time :-\ But is it? What is existence without time? What is time without existence? Can this truly be answered by a finite mind? Don't lose any sleep over it ! Were gonna find out...in due time. :-)
Time is a deep and difficult subject, for sure. And in trying to define it, we find we can only go so far, and no further. Nonetheless, I do think it's possible to give something of a meaningful response to your questions, even now.
For instance, will there be time in eternity? In our experience, yes, eternity will be a long time; a never-ending succession of moments. See The new earth.
The idea that 'time will be no more' in the eternal state derives from a faulty interpretation of Revelation 10:6 (KJV): "And sware by him that liveth for ever and ever ... that there should be time no longer [emphasis added]". The point of the angel's oath in this passage is that the seventh trumpet (Revelation 10:7), which opens the heavenly tabernacle out of which initiates the pouring out of God's wrath in the seven bowls and the completion of God's wrath (Revelation 15:1), will no longer be delayed. It is a response to the saints' question in Revelation 6:10: "How long, Sovereign Master, holy and true, before you judge those who live on the earth and avenge our blood?" This is why most modern translations render the clause "There will be no more delay!"
(This merely concerns the internal coherence of narrative framework of Revelation's vision. I make no comment on how that vision relates to history, since that's outside the purview of our ministry—End-times and Early-times.)
At any rate, in the New Heavens and Earth is "the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month [emphasis added]" (Revelation 22:2). Which clearly implies temporal duration.
Existence without time, I suggest, is existence without change. Where there is no succession of events, one changing into another, there is no time, since time is really a relation between (earlier and later) events. Of course, this would mean that there would be no time if nothing existed.
It would be wise to acknowledge that our best attempts at explaining God will still fall short of who He actually is. This is similar to Plato's assertion that all human attempts at the arts (whether music or creative pursuits), is a poor imitation of the 'ideal'.
Not to worry as the article is still a brave attempt at explaining the unexplainable. At day's end, the words of 1 Corinthians 2:9 perfectly sum this conundrum - But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. (KJV). God bless.
I certainly agree that there is no fathoming the depths of God for us mere creatures. One of the purposes of looking into these sorts of questions is rather to show that the faith is reasonable when faced with objections like 'God can't be personal if He is eternal'. As such, it's not so much about knowing the unknowable, as it is about showing what is reasonable, as far as we can.
Analogies that might help understand this issue would be the relationship between a brilliant author and the characters in his stories, and between the player of a video game and his character(s). If one imagines the limitations of a fictional character, which only exists as such in the mind of the author, readers, and players (i.e. even as words on a page or code on a drive, such a character doesn't exist as such: the information must be worked upon by a thinking mind for the character in the words to become a thinking being.) As a reader, when you close the book and go to work, or turn off the computer running the game, the characters vanish. When you return, they resume without even the slightest hint that their existence was interrupted; they're inherently incapable of being aware of it because they don't have any knowledge of their context as being in a book or game.
As these characters are to us, we are to God as His creation. Of course, it isn't a very good analogy, as we have more free will than a character allowed to write his own story in the mind of his author, but I don't think it's useless either.
I suppose the way we can see God step into time and hold it still, i.e. timeless, are the examples:
- of Joshua and the Israelites fighting and the sun staying high in the sky until all their enemy was vanquished. The earth kept orbiting around the sun but at that specific locations time stood still.
- when the Israelites travelled for forty years in the desert their clothes didn't wear out yet the people who were to die passed on.
- and I think it was Gideon (not sure) who asked God to make the shadow go backwards. Again the earth sun relationship held true yet that location stopped following the laws of space-time continuum.
In the fallen state creation groans and everything wears out, decays and fails yet by God's will everything can be renewed and time can't affect that which He holds time still for. We see a glimpse of His timeless nature and yet in this fallen state we struggle to understand it because we only see sequences that lead to death.
I suppose the way I see it if God can bestow the gift of prophecy such that He can see how events transpire before they happen then to God time has already happened. It is rolled out before Him like a map of a journey already traveled. Yet to us and I suppose this includes part of the metaphysical world, angels etc, we are en route walking the pathways on the map and can't see the end until we reach it, which is the final judgement, eternity with God, free and in bliss, or damnation. Only THEN can we know what timeless really is. I suppose the metaphysical creation don't feel this effect as much and so fallen angels deceive others by claiming that they can foretell the future through fortune tellers, which is only clever deception, knowing where the pathway will LIKELY lead since God has already made it known to us.
My view on this has always been to imagine something simple. Draw a horizontal line on a sheet of paper. On the far left, label it creation. On the far right, label it Rev 21. Now draw a stick figure above the line that can walk back and forth freely at will.
The timeline is fixed, God is not.
While reading this something occurred to me that I had never realized before. Well, parts of it I had realized, but other parts of it were new. What I mean is this:
First, time on Earth is determined by (1) its rotation on its axis, and (2) its orbit around the sun. Second, time for you or me is determined by where we are located on the Earth. Third, at the same time that something happens to me at, say, 3p on Tuesday, something else happens to another person at the exact same instance, except that for them it is 5p on Tuesday. Fourth, everything that God creates reflects Him and His nature in one fashion or another. Fifth, God is eternal and timeless. This all comprises what I already knew, and might be seen as premises for the paragraph that follows.
The following is what was new to me: The way in which we determine time is actually a reflection *of* God's timelessness. That is, lots of things happen all over the Earth at the exact same instant, and while we, as created beings, comprehend this in terms of time and sequence, there *is* an aspect of timelessness to it. With that in mind, you could say that Earth's rotation on its axis is a created reflection of God's timelessness.
You wrote that God is static/unchangeable. While that is certainly meaningful and descriptive, it occurred to me that *our* changeable nature can be a reflection of our sinfulness, but only with respect or in comparison to God's righteousness. Thus, when a culture's values change, it reflects how they are moving toward or away from God's righteousness. The point is, God is the measure of all these things. *HE* is the standard by which they are judged. Or, as Christ put it, "Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:48, NASB).
I sometimes wonder how this relates to God's eternal plan to create the world and redeem His people. If God's purposes are eternal and unchanging, then God would have forever had these plans in mind. How then can we speak of God forming His Plans? Would that not imply that there was a "time" when He had not yet formed his Plans? To say that his plans are eternal seems to imply that the specific details of his plans are not the result of his sovereign choosing, but are rooted and frozen in the very character of God.
I wonder therefore if it is possible that God dwells and thinks in a sort of "meta-time" that is somehow analogous to created time, but transcends it, and would permit us to speak of God's "planning" and "purposing" as if they were somehow sequential acts and distinguishable from the substance and character of God himself.
Of course, perhaps this is one of those mysteries that must remain unanswered. Scripture does speak of God "forming" his plans, yet it also says that his plans were formed from eternity. But it does not necessarily tell us how to reconcile these two truths.
It is true that there never was a time when God didn't have the plans in mind that He has. However, it doesn't follow that He had to have the plans in mind that He did. Just because something is eternal doesn't mean it has to exist. God is both eternal and necessary, but God could've existed alone, so the created world isn't necessary (see Process theism for more information).
Moreover, I would suggest that talk of God forming plans is anthropomorphic. Since God is all-knowing, He doesn't need time to deliberate His decisions. Rather, He just freely acts with full cognizance of His plans. What makes them free? They don't have to be the way they are, and nothing outside of God's nature determines Him to act (nor can it). God doesn't need time to plan the world He wants to make. He can do it instantly. God can have a timeless, though contingent, intention to create this world.
As to a 'meta-time', I think that if it were genuinely analogous to our 'time', we still have to ask the same questions of it: is 'meta-temporal' becoming objective or subjective? If the former, then God still doesn't experience all His 'meta-temporal' moments at once, and we lose the theological benefits of such an idea. If the latter, though, it seems that it's reducible to 'ordinary' timelessness, making a 'meta-time' superfluous.
Whilst (temporal) time began on the first day of creation (“in the beginning”) - which is consistent with Einstein’s findings that time and space (space-time) are both parts of the fabric of space within which every material thing exists - communication within the Trinity prior to creation implies the existence of a former type of time sequence. This cursed creation will pass away (Rev 6:14) - and with it (temporal) time - to be replaced by the New Creation, in which there will be no cycles of day and night, but that does not imply timelessness for the new creation (Rev 21:23-25).
Will we age in the new creation? Well, Jesus was the only human who never sinned, yet he was born a baby and died a man, so yes he aged while he was here on earth. Following his death, he was physically resurrected to new life, though his body saw no decay (e.g., Acts 13:37) and is now seated at the right hand of God the Father. His resurrection has conquered death - his physical body continues to live and cannot die again, but will it continue to age, or did it age only whilst in the current creation? I expect our new physical bodies will age (or not) as does Christ’s (the first-born of the new creation). See New Earth
You equate the statements “God is timeless”, “God is outside of time” and “God is unchangeable”, which begs the question “how can a timeless being be personal?”
In Isa 46:10, (“I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.’”) I doubt whether God knows the end from the beginning because he is outside of time (seeing past, present and future like a reel of film), but because his creation is constrained by his infinite power and wisdom to follow his unchangeable purpose. (Gen 45:4-5; Rom 8:28, Eph 2:10; Phil 2:13)
In this, “Making known what is still to come” (prophesy) shows forth God’s purpose and his power: his supernatural revelation of himself, and his unceasing love and re-assurance to his fallen creation. The cycles of detailed prophesy and fulfilment unfold along the story-line of the Bible: a testament to his trustworthiness, his unchanging nature, and his divine ability to act in us in order to fulfil his good purpose.
God walked with Adam and Eve before the Fall (Gen 3:8), Jesus walked with us during the 30+ years of his earthly ministry, and God will be physically present with us again in the New Creation (Rev 21). Until then, those who are “in Christ” can have a personal relationship with God the Father, through the Son, by his indwelling Holy Spirit. Though we see them not, the indwelling is temporal, here and now, as we converse via prayer and Bible reading.
I do equate the statements 'God is outside of time' and 'God is timeless', since to be "outside" time would seem to entail that God is not 'in' time like we clearly are. However, I do not equate these statements to the statement 'God is unchangeable', since I stress that there are different conceptions of what it means for God to be unchangeable.
Rather, I think the question "How can a timeless being be personal?" arises from the fact I think an actually infinite series of equal-length temporal moments is impossible (see Doubt your doubts! for more information). As such, either God is essentially timeless, or God sans a sequence of events (e.g. apart from creation) is timeless.
At any rate, I don't think God's relation to time need imply anything about how God knows the future. I agree that God knows the future not because He sees the whole timeline existing before Him, but because He has planned and purposed this world and its whole history from beginning to end.
I recently read Luke 22, where there is a wonderful example of Jesus' awareness of temporal sequences: "Behold, when ye are entered into the city, there shall a man meet you, bearing a pitcher of water; follow him into the house where he entereth in. And ye shall say unto the goodman of the house, The Master saith unto thee, Where is the guestchamber, where I shall eat the passover with my disciples? And he shall shew you a large upper room furnished: there make ready. And they went, and found as he had said unto them: and they made ready the passover. More wonderful still, is the fact that despite his divine power, Jesus was in submission to the Father's redemptive purpose in that fateful hour. Such love, though beyond our understanding, is deeply revealing as to the nature of God and eternity, and gives us every assurance over the many things we cannot now even begin to fathom.
While thinking on this topic a thought came to mind considering time itself. From my most basic understanding of what time is itself, it is a quantity derived from a certain sequence of events. Case in point, how scientists calculate a second. I may be wrong here but doesn't this require energy to be dispelled in some way or form? Entropy also came to my mind and from what I am picking up, this speaks of a system gradually losing energy to perform a specific process and going into a state of disarray? Following this thought process, can "time" then be considered a dispelling of energy through sequences of events? If I am reasoning right, then with God being the source of an endless supply of energy, would he not be considered "timeless" seeing that he cannot ever be depleted? With everything around us gradually losing energy and slowing down, some things faster than others, would it not be that we are then subject to this effect that I reason to myself to be considered "Time"?
I would be hesitant to describe God's power in terms of energy output. For instance, if temporal becoming is objective even for God, then God merely counting in sequence in His own mind would bring time into being, even apart from creating anything else. Or, if God were essentially timeless, then an angel counting would achieve much the same effect if temporal becoming were subjective. And it's difficult to see how either God or angels counting can be construed in terms of entropy, since neither are bound by physics. As such I think a simpler definition of 'time' (as far as that's possible) which is dependent on the existence of events would just be 'an earlier than/later than sequence of events'. Entropy or the dispelling of energy don't come into the equation.
Talking about time is complicated and gives me a headache.
I often look out the window and watch my bees coming and going and wonder do they have a sense of time?
I doubt they do. They go about their tasks in a sequential manner from my perspective but I really do not think the bees have any feeling of "time" passing, it is just something they do.
Of course time can be very flexible for us as well, good times pass quickly, bad time not so much.
Maybe we can get so tied up in this whole philosophical discussion we cannot see the wood for the trees. The time issue could be simple. God exists and has always existed outside of time as we know it, but can do things in a sequential manner from our perspective. Asking when or at what point in time he decided to create our universe is a pointless or null question.