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How does God relate to time?

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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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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