Newsflash: God is timeless . . . I think

OK. This won't strike many of you as very exciting but it's exciting for me. Since about 1986 I have been dithering on the issue of whether God is timeless or everlasting (temporal but without beginning and end).

At first I was a convinced Open Theist (before that kind of terminology was being used by anyone). So I thought that God was everlasting but within time. I also thought that he did not know the future completely because it was not there to know.

I fairly quickly abandoned a full-blooded open theism and came to affirm total divine foreknowledge but was agnostic on the issue of divine timelessness and related doctrines.

Ever since then I have remained agnostic. I always had a soft spot for classical theism but . . . well, you know.

Anyway, after twenty-five years of pondering and being agnostic I think that I have finally come down on the timeless side of the discussion.

Worse than that — I am very sympathetic to that most neglected and despised of all classical Christian doctrines, divine simplicity. That is to say that God is not composed of parts but is an indivisible unity. His essence and his existence are one and the same (and are identical with his attributes). Still not quite convinced on this one (it is a notoriously difficult doctrine that many philosophers claim is incoherent) but the doctrine holds strong appeal.

In the end it came down to reading more and more patristic and medieval theology and finding the vision of God that dominated the tradition resonated.

Still unsure on matters of human freewill (compatibilism or libertarianism or . . . what?). I don't really mind which is true (I don't think that divine timelessness rules out libertarian views of freewill, though I am aware that some would disagree) but I would like to know what is right.

Not sure why I am bothering to blog this but classical theism sure is fun.


Anonymous said…
Consider what it might mean for God to transcend time.

Imagine that all space-time in which we live is like a tube coiled into a spring and that God can stand within it and observe and interact with any moment of time within the tube.

God can do this because He is outside of time and is able to gaze in upon it as though from a higher dimensional space onto a lower dimensional one.

Consider by way of example, Flat Land by Edwin Abbot and imagine God existing in dimensions higher than we experience as an analogy to describe what being outside of time might be like and clarifying the space-time tube metaphor.

The contents of the space-time tube would be in constant flux from uncertainty and the evolving Universal Clock, but we will assume that since God is God He can make some level of sense of this for the sake of the imagery.

(BTW - It really can't be a tube per se, but it makes it easier to think about. This probably also hints at the relationship of Old and New Creation, but I'll ignore that for the moment.)

Now from God's perspective all of creation is alive, He can see all of the tube at once. From the very beginning to the New Creation. He is truly the God of the Living and not the dead. Further, from His perspective there is no time between death and resurrection. So all are continuously alive in God. Death causes pain for Man, but it is not a stumbling block for God. Likewise, those 'taken' to be with God can be literally taken out of time.

When Jesus affirms to the thief that he will be in paradise 'today', it would be the literal outcome of his death and immediate resurrection by God in the New Creation at the end of time. Everyone is resurrected at the same time and no one has to wait. Even though we all die in our own time and the living of our time do have to wait. The perspective makes a big difference, whether we are God outside of time or Man bound in time.

There isn't any need for ideas like soul sleep or the concern about the fate of disembodies souls. Or making distinctions at death between the righteous and unrighteous souls since Judgement is at the resurrection and that is immediate and at the end of time. These are concerns when looking at time from Man's perspective and not God's.

From God's perspective Man goes from whole to new whole. It is only those of us caught in time that mourn and worry about the grave. For to us, time is very real indeed and the separation is long and painful. Even Jesus knew this and showed it when He wept.

For God, He triumphs over time and death and defeats it in His New Creation. Death is the last enemy and will be overcome as the Bible informs.

However, with all of that good news, there is a potential problem. Creation is probabilistic in its nature and so the appearance of time, even to God, may be unstable and would certainly be so should God insert Himself into it, which He can at any point causing ripples from there to the end of time. Likewise, should Man have free will these choices will cause ripples of uncertainty into the future. So God may be able to clearly see the big picture, but maybe the particulars are less clear unless He intentionally clarifies them, but in doing so causes ripples of His own.

Possibly, there is no better World than we have, and no better sight than God enjoys, but both are bound not by the limits of God, but His overall intent.
James Goetz said…
Hey Robin,

Thank you for sharing your ideas on God and time. I appreciate throwing around these ideas.

I recently came down on the side of God's original timelessness because an infinite past time's arrow could never have existed. But I came down on the side that God also entered time while his essence remains unchanged ("essential divine simplicity").

I also came down of the side of conjecturing open theism/futurism while I have no way to eliminate the possibility of mysterious simple foreknowledge.

Compatibilism? Nah. : -)
Robin Parry said…

Have you been reading William Lane Craig?

Your view does differ from mine.

I am not convinced that your view is internally cosistent — a timeless God cannot change at all and so cannot "enter time" (unless we speak of incarnation but then it is Christ's human nature that is temporal and not his divine nature).

But I'll read some more Bill Craig and ponder it afresh.

James Goetz said…

Yes, reading Craig has helped me with cosmology and time. I might not have arrived at my above conjectures without him. But of course my de facto open futurism differs from Craig's Molinism.

My wording "God also entered time" might need some refinement while my consideration of the incarnation weighs heavily in my view that God is essentially timeless but somehow in time since the finite beginning of time.

I plan to develop a cosmology, so any criticism of potential inconsistencies in my view of God and time would be highly appreciated. And I suppose that my view is more consistent than Augustine's/Aquinas' divine simplicity.

James Goetz said…
"I also thought that he did not know the future completely because it was not there to know."


I have a clarifying question about your view.

Do you believe that the future is now?
Robin Parry said…

I do not believe that the future is "now". It is not now, it is future.

However, if you are asking whether I subscribe to a B theory of time then the answer is probably Yes. I think that divine timelessness entails a B theory of time (but I am open to correction).

Does that make sense?

Matt said…
I lean heavily toward open theism myself but from the point of view that time does not exist. God is not inside it and neither are we.

A whole lot of doctrinal & philosophical crud is avoided when we accept Einstein's point that time is merely a mode of thinking - it doesn't actually exist for God or us to be inside or outside of.
Robin Parry said…

I am no expert on Einstein so I would not like to make declarations on what he did and did not say. However, you are the first person that I have ever heard suggest that Einstein ever said anything like you say.

I know a few physicists (who do understand Einstein) and they all seem to think that time is real (or, rather, space-time)

It sounds to me like you are thinking of Kant rather than Einstein.

I guess that I am struggling to believe that you really BELIEVE that time is only in our minds. That was always one of those Kantian ideas I had a hard time taking seriously.

My suspicion is that the classical Christian view of divine timelessness is close to the Einstainian idea that space and time are inextricably linked. Thus Augustine claims that God did not create the universe "in time" but created time with the universe.

But on Open Theism time pre-dates the universe (because God is temporal) and so Einstein is mistaken — time really does exist apart from physical space. Or have I misunderstood something here? (Quite possibly)
Matt said…
Hi Robin,

The full Einstein quote is from Forsee, A. (1963). Albert Einstein: Theoretical physicist. New York: Macmillan. Page 81:

"Time and space are modes by which we think and not conditions in which we live."

If God is timeless then he is sequence-less, cannot respond or relate genuinely to anyone or anything, because they all require the ability to operate sequentially. The main issue the divine-timelessness proponents I've interacted is that God cannot be inside something that he has created (ie, time), but I would hold (truly!) that time doesn't exist (where is it?) but that both God and us have the ability to do things sequentially. For me sequentiality does not imply that time exists de facto, but rather that it is a mode of thinking to help us humans understand and measure change in the physical world (the rates of which alter as one approaches the speed of light, etc)

If, like me, your evidence is a mix of scripture, philosophy (and a bit of science) we still have to deal with the sequentiality of God in the Bible. The usual answer that it 'is for our benefit' remains highly unconvincing and hardly true to author's intention in the texts in question (for example God's exasperation at Moses' doubting, or any number of open theism texts where God is surprised).

I'm no expert on the (presentism/eternalism?) debate but God experiencing sequentiality and responding dynamically to events does really seem to be as assumption of the various authors of scripture. That, together with sequentiality not implying that time exists, and the particularly acute lack of evidence for the existence of time outside of a concept at all, is pretty well much my position.
Robin Parry said…

I agree with you that Open Theism has a good claim to being a biblical position. I have always maintained that it is an evangelical and biblically-based view. So I am not a crusader against Open Theism (I love Pinnock, Sander, Boyd, et al.)

I do not think that the Bible teaches divine timelessness. So it can only claim to be biblical in an indirect sense (i.e., on the basis of arguments that for God to be the God revealed in the Bible he has to be timeless).

That's why I don't think this is a foundational issue as far as orthodoxy goes.

You seem to consider time to be a measure of change. Fair enough — that is an ancient and noble view. My claim is that God does not change . . . AT ALL.

I understand that you fear that such a God is static and unable to be relational in the way Scripture requires. I disagree.

The timeless God of classical theism is misunderstood if taken to be static and lifeless. This God is pure act, pure life — dynamism in infinity mode.

God can act in the world. From God's timeless perspective such acts are timeless (not earlier, later, before, after, now, or whatever) but from the perspective of creatures these acts are in time (because we experience their effects in time).

So we can be in relationship with God and God can be relational (divine relationality is guaranteed by the triune nature of God).

But God is not simply like a very large disembodied human. God is a very different kind of thing than we are. Thinking of God as timeless reminds me of that.

God is presented in the Bible as experiencing events sequentially. The Christian tradition has usually seen such language as pictoral to help us to understand God a little. But not literal. (Presumably you would agree that the Bible does speak of God in picture language —e.g., he has eyes, ears, hands, a back, feet, etc.)

But how we interpret these texts will depend on our prior ideas about what God is and is not like. The texts themselves won't settle the issue.
James Goetz said…

Your view makes sense to me because I held to something similar for a couple of decades, but I recently shifted away from it after studying more about the philosophy and physics and time. I need to put this together in an article, and I will outline my thoughts here.

When I converted to Christianity in 1984, my first impression was that God Almighty could not foreknow the outcome of probabilistic events, unless God intervened and the events would no longer be probabilistic in any genuine sense. I also rejected compatibilism, which could explain exhaustive definite foreknowledge but makes stochastic events an illusion. But somebody persuaded me that the relativity of time means that God is outside of time and foreknows the outcome of contingent events. For the next quarter of a century, I accepted that as an explanation for simple foreknowledge (exhaustive definite foreknowledge without exhaustive determinism of contingencies).

Recently, I reviewed the philosophy of time, for example, I discovered that B Theory and all other eternalist/block theories of time indicate that sequences of events are an illusion. Some may try to synthesize A Theory and B Theory, but it has not been done and the definitions are mutually exclusive. We could say that B Theory analogizes simple foreknowledge, but we need to clarify the incompleteness of the analogy because sequences of events are not a mere illusion. We cannot say that B Theory explains simple foreknowledge. Well, I did that for a quarter of a century, but I recanted. : -)

After I realized that my scientific and philosophical basis for believing in simple foreknowledge was wrong, then I considered open theism. I found that only a couple scripture verses suggest simple foreknowledge, but the case was not strong enough for dogma. The concept of natural knowledge is also important, which means that God has always known all possibilities and his best possible responses to all possibilities. I conjecture open futurism while I am unconcerned if there is mysterious simple foreknowledge that is evidently impossible to investigate, so I consider myself a de facto open theist.

I appreciate Craig's conclusion for God going from timelessness to time and applied it to open theism. Tom Belt in personal communication within the last hour told me that Alan Rhoda is perhaps the first open theist to apply Craig's conclusion to open theism. (I saw your earlier comments about open theism and everlasting past time and asked Tom about it.) So Rhoda and I preserve God's original timelessness in the context of open theism. I also think that this works well with God's original simplicity, which is an important and powerful doctrine.
Matt said…

Thanks for your thorough and graciously delivered reply. You've identified areas for me that I need to go and explore & read in more depth, thanks for that!

For me, the anthropomorphist/picture language argument as an explanation for God interacting with our physical reality in a sequential manner (and the open theist texts where God is surprised/disappointed/regrets) has a number of real difficulties in that the degree to which one applies it is entirely arbitrary and often self-serving. While we can understand, for example, that the Lord's “outstretched hand” (Jeremiah 21:5; Psalm 136:12) is using a physical component of the human body to describe that no-one is beyond the power of God, it is unclear what some alleged anthropomorphisms could be trying to tell us if not what they actually say. For example, what could God “regretting” in Genesis 6:6 be an anthropomorphism for? It's not going to be "not regretting". (What about surprise/disappointment - what could they be picture language for?)

I think what I'm getting at is if God did “regret” (or did interact with the universe sequentially) how else could the various authors of the bible communicate this other than to say what they've already said? Calvin suggests (as you imply) that God speaks to us through scripture as a nurse “lisps” to a baby but there is no other written revelation from God to give us “adult speak” that could support his idea - how could he be sure of this?

There's also a difficulty in that in that there is no controlling hermeneutic. The reformist guys, Helm for example, divide scriptural descriptions of God into two categories: the “strong and clear” texts which control the “anthropomorphic and weaker statements” so that he can consolidate his own (strange) view of God and accuse Open Theism theologians of creating God in their own image. But why stop there? Why not consider the alleged "strong and clear" texts to be picture language too and say that God could be the flying spaghetti monster for all we know? While I don't agree where Helm draws his line (particularly as he does so in order to create support for his prior theological commitments to calvinism) the degree to which one applies the the picture-language argument appears to be arbitrary, and it must be almost impossible not to abuse it in order to create a wide enough gap to stick whatever view of God one has inside it.

What is your controlling hermeneutic for scripture that describes God? How do you avoid not marking the whole lot as picture-language?
Robin Parry said…

Well, I can't get into detailed discussions on B Theories of time — not least because I'd need to read up on the debate. But I don't think they can be reject so fast. They have plenty of capable defenders (as well as opponents).

My instinct is as follows:

If B-Theories of time are conceptually possible (I suspect they are), and if divine timeless requires them to be true (I suspect it does) then I have a good reason to think that they are true (i.e., divine eternity).

Of course, if they are conceptually impossible then that is that. Or perhaps divine eternity does not require B theories. If someone can show that then fair enough.

Such are my thoughts

Robin Parry said…

You concern is absolutely legitimate but you imply that Open Theists are in a better position in relation to the problem than classical theists. I tend to think that we all face the same problem.

We all agree that some biblical language is not to be taken literally and that that some can be. So we all have to decide.

Classical theists do indeed use their theological ideas about God to help decide on such matters but so do all Christians.

You are right that if God really did change his mind then he could communicate this by saying that he changed his mind (and he may get frustrated that all the Bible readers keep taking this non-literally). But, of course, the same goes for claims about God's arm. Suppose that God does literally have a body — you laugh, but the idea that gods had literal bodies, albeit heavenly ones, was common in the ANE and it would not surprise me in the slightest if some biblical authors did think that God had such a body — and says so in the Bible. He'd be in heaven (literally in the sky — again, do not laugh because that is exactly what most of the biblical authors did think) getting really frustrated that Christian readers keep thinking that such language was anthropomorphic.

It is inevitable that interpretation of biblical God-talk will engage theological-philosophical conceptions of God.

So Christians have always felt that for God to literally regret would imply that God made a mistake and that, we believe, is impossible. So whatever that biblical image is about it cannot be saying that God made a mistake and, given a second shot, would have done things differently (e.g., not created the world).

Because that idea makes no sense if God is perfect, Christians have interpreted it as an anthropomorphism.

What does it mean? Not sure — I'm being called down for dinner and don't have time to think. Well, it does not mean that "God did not regret." Presumably it pictures God as a person who has been badly let down and who reacts by wiping the slate clean (sending the flood).

I actually think that we need to be much more inteligent in dealing with this issue that most of us have been so far (myself included).

The issue you raise is spot on!

I hope to say something more useful about it . . . on a few years.

Anonymous said…
Obviously, I'm carelessly waltzing past a complex and long-debated theological issue with this, but I don't see how God could possibly have to exist within time, a construct of physical reality, when God created our physical universe. Eternality seems like the only possible description of God's relationship to time.
Anonymous said…
Great discussion. Thanks.

Check out Tom Weinandy too and an article in Heythrop on pastoral benefits of Impassibility published some time ago.
Anonymous said…

Sorry to come on this very, very, (very!) late.

But I was wondering how you squared God's timelessness with Jesus' humanity?

I believe you, like many Christians and (I think) myself, subscribe to a view of the trinity in which the three persons existing as something like three centres of consciousness. So the Father is conscious timelessly, the Son is conscious timelessly and the Spirit is conscious timelessly.

But in the incarnation, Jesus is also conscious within time.

Doesn't this make 4 centres of consciousness? Sure, you could argue that the Son has two different centres of consciousness in him - one human, one divine. Frankly this sounds a bit Nestorian to me, but I understand many do it - the 'two minds' view of the incarnation. But firstly this seems just kind of weird - surely the whole reason people came up with the doctrine of the trinity in the first place was to explain how one centre of consciousness, i.e. the guy Jesus, could interact with another centre of consciousness, the Father, and still be the same God. But if we think that a single 'person' - Jesus' - can have two consciousnesses anyway, why not just say God has a single divine consciousness (God) and a single human consciousness (Jesus). But they didn't go for that, so I think the assumption has to they thought a person could only have one centre of consciousness - that's what makes it a person!

Perhaps the solution is that even Jesus' human consciousness becomes 'enlarged' and, with the ascension, becomes timeless? This seems to cause issues' with Christ's humanity, but perhaps Luther's doctrine of ubiquity could help us here?



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