God, Time and Eternity

Time is a perplexing subject.  Physicist, Lee Smolin wrote:

I have been studying the question of what time is for much of my adult life.  But I must admit ... that I am no closer to an answer now than I was then.  Indeed, even after all this study, I do not think we can answer even the simple question: 'What sort of thing is time?'[1] 

In Smolin's honesty we can hear echoes of Augustine when he wrote:

What then is time?  If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to a questioner, I do not know. (Confessions ch. XI sec. XIV)

The relationship of God and time is even more perplexing! 

Some precommitments

Before I start proper, I want to spell out some of my precommitments: God is lord of all - that includes time; Creator and creation are distinct; God is creator of all things; thus time is a creation.  I assume these points and shall argue form them.

What is time?

Before getting in to the relationship of God and time we need to pause to examine 'what is time?'  To do so we need to make some distinctions: distinctions between A and B theories of time, and absolute and relational (sometimes known as substantival) time.

A or B time

The distinction between A and B theories was first made by John McTaggart EllisMcTaggart (1866-1925).  The A-series of time is the commonsense view: the idea that time passes, that time is a succession of events.  Time could be compared to a flowing river.  This view is also known as the process view of time.  However, in the B-series of time, or a stasis view of time, space-time is viewed as a static 4-dimensional reality.  This view, while counter to commonsense, has support from relativity theory.  Einstein wrote: 'For us convinced physicists the distinction between past, present and future is an illusion, however persistent ...'.[2]  Time does not pass, all times are equally real.

On the B-series we have to replace tensed phrases such as 'before and after' with tenseless ones such as 'earlier and later'; e.g. 'We had a lecture on God and time before (past tense) lunch' becomes: 'We had a lecture on God and time earlier (tenseless) than lunch'.

Whilst science may endorse a B-series of time there are a number of problems that it raises. 

  • It dismisses our experience of time as a psychological quirk.  Genevieve Lloyd writes of the distinction between past, present and future as, 'an epistemological accretion which affects our perception of the world'![3]
  • It raises problems for the doctrine of the incarnation.  It makes mockery of the Nicene creed, which claims: 'The only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God...'  If God is in time, then there implies there was a time before the Son was not begotten ..![4]
  • It fails to fully explain creation ex nihilo. 
  • It cannot account for causality; i.e an event (E) can cause another (C)

Table 1.  A comparison of the A-series and B-series of time.

 

A-series

B-series

Also known as:

Process view

Stasis view

Time is:

Tensed

Tenseless

Passage of time is:

Real

Psychological quirk

Analogy:

River of time

Sea of ice

Relational or Absolute

Another distinction we need to make is that between relational and absolute time.  To see if you are an absolutist or a relativist ask yourself this question, 'Suppose the universe never came to exist - would there still be time?'  An absolutist would answer 'yes', a relativist 'no'.

This distinction between the relational and absolute views of time has a long history.  Aristotle advocated an absolute view; a view that was challenged by Archimedes.  The dominant view of time, until perhaps the beginning of the twentieth century, was a Newtonian absolute view of time.  Newton in his Principia (1687) wrote:

Absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself and from its own nature flows equably without relation to anything eternal.

Time for Newton was independent of the world; it was a kind of thing; and it flowed.

Leibniz challenged this view; he proposed a relational view of time.  For Leibniz events are more fundamental than moments.  In the relational view of time, time is derived from events, not events from time.  He also argued that it was absurd for instants to exist when there are no things.

In 1905 Einstein's formulated the Special theory of Relativity.  This was incompatible with the absolute view of time, but could be viewed as a development of the relational view of time. 

I am always wary of invoking the god of science into theological discussions.  Paraphrasing Dean Inge, if theology marries the science of this age, it will find itself widowed in the next.  We also do well to recall Feyerabend's advice:

When I was a student I revered the sciences, and mocked religion and I felt rather grand doing that.  Now that I take a closer look at the matter, I am surprised to find how many dignitaries of the Church take seriously the superficial arguments I and my friends once used, and how ready they are to reduce their faith accordingly.  In this they treat the sciences as if they, to, formed a Church, only a Church of earlier times and with a more, primitive philosophy when one still believed in absolutely certain results.  A look at the history of the sciences, however, shows a very different picture.[5]

Where relativity theory supports a relational view of time, quantum theory 'took over completely Newton's notion of an absolute ideal time'.[6]  Smolin comments:

So, in theoretical physics, we have at present not one theory of nature but two theories: relativity and quantum mechanics, and they are based on different notions of time.[7]

On the relational view of time, time can be seen as a creation; on the absolute view of time, time is pre-existent.  Thus if time is a creation, Christians must adopt a relational view of time.[8]

Having dealt with time, we can now turn to God.

What does it mean God is eternal?

Christians have always advocated that God is eternal.  But just what does it mean to say that God is eternal?  There are two main explanations; we can call these divine timelessness and divine temporality.

Divine timelessness

This is the traditional view of God.  God is outside of time.  It is the position advocated by Augustine (AD 354-430), Boethius (c. AD 475-525), Anselm (1033-1109) and Aquinas (1225-1274) among others.

Thus, Boethius in his Consolation of Philosophy (Book 5.6) wrote:

It is the common judgement, then, of all creatures that live by reason that God is eternal.  So let us consider the nature of eternity, for this will make clear to us both the nature of God and his manner of knowing.  Eternity, then, is the complete, simultaneous and perfect possession of everlasting life... And if human and divine present may be compared, just as you see certain things in this your present time, so God sees all things in His eternal present.[9]

Aquinas:

[God's] knowledge, like his existence, is measured by eternity, which in one and the same instant encompasses all time; so his gaze is eternally focused on everything in time as on something present ...What happens in time is known by us in time, moment by moment, but by God in an eternal moment, above time.  (Summa Theologiæ 14.13)[10]

Divine temporality

The notion of the divine timelessness of God has recently come under sharp criticism by philosophers and theologians. 

A theologian, Oscar Cullmann:

Primitive Christianity knows nothing of a timeless God.  The 'eternal' God  is he who was in the beginning, is now and will be in all the future, 'who is, who was, and who will be' (Rev 1:4).  Accordingly, his eternity can and must be expresses in this 'naive' way, in terms of endless time.[11]

A philosopher, Richard Swinburne:

the claim that God is timeless ... seems to contain an inner incoherence and also to be incompatible with most things which theists ever wish to say about God.[12]

The recent defectors from the traditional position, as well as Swinburne and Cullmann, include: Nelson Pike, Nicholas Wolterstorff,  A.J.P. Kenny, the Process theologians (e.g. Whitehead, Birch and Cobb), Paul Tillich and William Hasker.  Older defectors included: John Duns Scotus (c.1266-1308) and William of Oakham (?-1347).

On this view, God's eternalness is expressed as being everlasting, i.e. without beginning and end, but he experiences time.  So, why have so many philosophers of religion adopted this a divine temporality position?  We will examine seven of their objections to divine timelessness.

Objections to divine timelessness

Neo-platonic

One objection is its neo-platonic origins.  Swinburne states: ‘the doctrine of God's timelessness seems to have entered Christian theology from neo-Platonism, and there from Augustine to Aquinas it reigned'.[13]

Indeed, Hasker, Kneale and Wolterstorff all show that it is strongly dependent upon a neo-platonic view of time and eternity.  Wolterstorff even goes so far as saying:

Every attempt to purge Christian theology of the traces of incompatible Hellenic patterns of thought must fail unless it removes the roadblock of the God of eternal tradition.  Around this roadblock there are no detours.[14]

Biblical language

Secondly, Hasker in Openness of God asserts that divine timelessness is not taught in the Bible and 'does not reflect the way the biblical writers understood God'.[15] 

Nature of God

A third objection arises from the nature of God.  Pike claims that creation and preservation implies some sort of temporal relationship.  Wolterstorff maintains that:

God the redeemer cannot be a God eternal.  This is so because God the redeemer is a God who changes.  And any being which changes is a being among whose states there is a temporal succession ... A theology which opts for God as eternal cannot avoid being in conflict with the confession of God as redeemer.[16]

Personality

Fourth, following from the above, the doctrine is incompatible with God as a person.  A person acts within time; God is a person; therefore he must act in time; if someone acts in time they must be in time. This is the approach is taken by William Kneale, J. R. Lucas and R. Swinburne.

Indexicals

Fifthly, A. N. Prior and Wolterstorff claim that some truths to whose expression ‘now’ are essential. 

A timeless God cannot know truths, which require a 'now'.  For example, It is now 11 am; for God to know this he must exist at 11 am.  If he is timeless, he does not.  Thus, the idea that God is timeless entails a contradiction.

A sub-argument of the argument from indexicals is the argument from simultaneity, which goes something like the following: If God is timeless then he exists simultaneously with all moments of human time.  If A happens at the same time as B, and B happens at the same time as then A happens at the same time as C.  But, following Kenny,[17] my writing of this paper is simultaneous with the whole of eternity; likewise the battle of Hastings in 1066 is simultaneous with the whole of eternity; it follows then that I am lecturing while the Battle of Hastings is being fought!  Not a very coherent position to hold!

Dependent upon a B-theory of time

Sixthly, Delmas Lewis has pointed out that the traditional view of eternity entails a B-theory of time.[18]  We have already seen that a B-theory poses problems for the traditional theist.  Thus, Lewis concludes:

..the existence of an eternal God logically depends on the truth of the tenseless account of time.  The claim that God is eternal may well be a coherent piece of philosophical theology.  It remains to be shown that it is a coherent piece of Christian theology.

Answering the objections to divine timelessness

Neo-platonic

There is no doubt that the doctrine of divine eternity has platonic origins.  Boethius many times draws upon Plato. There is also no doubt that a platonic influence upon Christianity has been to Christianity's detriment.  However, to reject divine eternity on the sole basis of its platonic origins is to commit the genetic fallacy: the mistake in arguing that something is to be rejected because of its dubious origins. 

Biblical language

The biblical language indeed does talk of God acting within time.  He repents (Gen 6:6; Ex 32:12; 1 Sam 15:35; Jonah 3:4); he responds to prayer; he acts; he remembers; he speaks etc. 

However, the Bible also refers to God being in spatial locations; it refers to him having arms, hands, feet, eyes ... .  Does this then mean that God is to be located in certain spatial locations?  Does it mean that he has hands, feet, eyes etc?  If the temporalist is being consistent, then to assert that biblical language about God demands that he is in time, then she should also assert that biblical language demands that God is in space and that he has hands, arm, and eyes. 

The temporalmorphites do well to recall Calvin's riposte against the anthropomorphites: 'For who is so devoid of intellect as not to understand that God, in so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children?' (Institutes 1.13.1)

Nature of God

In many ways we can respond to the biblical language used of God in a similar way as above.  We are limited in using creaturely language to describe the Creator.  Our language is laden with temporalness, it is thus not surprising that attempts to refer to God are so 'tainted'.

We could also argue that 'God is so unlike [humans] that it is improbable that he is temporal...'[19]

Personality

The arguments from personality can be simplified as (1) -(3).  However we can use a parallel argument to show that God has a body: (1')-(3'). 

(1) All persons are in time           (1') All persons have a body

(2) God is a person                    (2') God is a person

(3) God is in time                       (3') God has a body

If we accept that God does not have a body, why then accept that God is in time?  The same argument is used to prove both.

Indexicals

Paul Helm[20] has argued that the indexical arguments for God being in time can be applied to God being in space.  God obviously cannot be located in any one space, so therefore we can reject these arguments to support the idea that God is in time.  The argument exactly parallel to the argument against divine timelessness is as follows:

If God is spaceless then he is spatially present at different places.  But if A is at the same place as B, and B is at the same place as C, then A is at the same place as C.  God is present with my son who at the moment is in Minehead, likewise God is present with me in Bristol.  Therefore, Bristol is in the same place as Minehead.  Not a very coherent position to hold!  Thus God cannot be spaceless.

Dependent upon a B-theory of time

If we concede that the timelessness of God depends upon a B-theory of time, it could be possible for God to be in a B-theory, but creation to be in an A-theory of time.  This may mean we have two conflicting theories of time, but as we have seen we have a precedent in science: QT demands an absolute theory; relativity a relative theory of time.  If science can live with contradictions, why not theology?

Another response is to suggest that the B and A theories of time are flawed.

Religious language

Part of the problem is our limited language.  We are creatures, language is also a creature how then can we use creaturely devices to describe the creator?  We cannot transcend time.  How then can we describe something that does?  That does not mean we have to surrender it as a 'mystery'; part of the task of philosphical theologians is to grope in the darkness of creaturely language to attempt to understand our creator.

Most discussions also fail to distinguish between human and divine perspectives.  We are doing our theology/ philosophy from below.

Back to precommitments

If God is lord of time, then it is difficult how he can be subject to time.

If God is creator of all, then time is a creature.  If God were subject to time, then it would blur the distinction between Creator and creation.


Further reading

Augustine Confessions chapter XI

Boethius The Consolation of Philosophy Book V

Oscar Cullman Christ and Time (London: SCM, 1962, 3rd edn)

Paul Helm The Eternal God: A Study of God Without Time (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988)

Quentin Smith and L. Nathan Oaklander Time, Change and Freedom: Introduction to Metaphysics (London: Routledge, 1995)

Thomas Torrance  Space, Time and the Incarnation (London: Oxford University Press, 1969)

G. J. Whitrow What is Time? (London: Thames and Hudson, 1972)

Appendix

Concept map showing the relationship between the different concepts.



[1] Lee Smolin 'What is time?' in J. Brockman and K. Matson (eds) How Things Are (London: Wiedenfield and Nicholson, 1995).  Also in Science , Mind & Cosmos (London: Phoenix Paperback) p. 44; page numbers are from this edn.

[2] Cited in Peter Coveney and Roger Highfield The Arrow of Time (London: Flamingo, 1991) p. 30.

[3] 'Time and existence' Philosophy 53 (1978) p. 215; cited in Delmas Lewis 'Eternity, time and tenselessness' Faith and Philosophy 5(1) (1988) p. 81.

[4] Paul Helm 'Eternal creation' Tyndale Bulletin 45(2) (1994)

[5] Farewell to Reason, Verso, 1987, p. 264

[6] Smolin 'What is time?' p.49.

[7] Smolin 'What is time?' p. 49.

[8] On the problems of theologians rejecting a relational view of time see T. F. Torrance Space, Time & Incarnation (London: Oxford University Press, 1969).

[9] Translated E. V. Watts (1969) Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, p. 163-5

[10] From Timothy McDermott (ed.) Summa Theologiæ: A Concise Translation (London: Methuen, 19991) p. 41-2

[11] Oscar Cullmann Christ and Time (London: SCM, 1962, 3rd edn) p. 63.  Cullman's methodology - though not all his conclusions - has been criticised by James Barr (Biblical Words for Time, London: SCM, 1962).  Barr contends that: “if such a thing as a Christian doctrine of time has to be developed, the work of discussing and developing it must belong not to biblical but to philosophical theology” (p. 149).

 

[12] The Coherence of Theism (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993, rev. edn) p. 228.

[13] Coherence p. 225.

[14] Nicholas Wolterstorff 'God everlasting' in S. M. Cahn and D. Shatz Contemporary Philosophy of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982) p. 79.

[15]William Hasker 'A philosophical perspective' in The Openness of God (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1994) p. 128.

[16] Wolterstorff 'God everlasting' p.78.

[17] God and the Philsophers ch. 4.

[18] Delmas Lewis 'Eternity, time and timelessness' Faith and Philosophy 5(1) (1988) pp.72-86.

[19] Richard Sturch The problem of the divine eternity' Religious Studies 10 (1974).

[20] Paul Helm The Eternal God: A Study of God Without Time (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988); 'God and spacelessness' in S. M. Cahn and D. Shatz Contemporary Philosophy of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982)

Steve Bishop is a lecturer at the City of Bristol College. He has degrees in Physics and in Applied Theology. 

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