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Questions on Time and Eternity, Part 1

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November 18, 2013 Tags: Earth, Universe & Time
Questions on Time and Eternity, Part 1

Today's entry was written by R.T. Mullins. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

What is time? What is eternity? Will humans always be asking these questions? Reflection on time and eternity has brought up all sorts of philosophical and theological conundrums. For instance, there is the ancient question, “What was God doing before he created the world?” There were two popular answers in the past. First, God was creating hell for people who ask such questions. This was usually seen as a joke response, though in some instances it was not. The second response was that God created time. As such, there is no before creation. Whether or not this is a good response is something I will set aside for the moment.

To say that these topics are bedeviling would be an understatement. Time is such a fundamental feature of reality and human experience. We are constantly thinking about time in various ways and have multiple metaphors for capturing some of its more comprehensible aspects. We wear time on our wrists and use it to decorate our rooms. We experience the ebb and flow of time’s passage every conscious moment of our existence. We thank God for time when a horrible event ends, or when an anticipated event arrives. We mourn when great moments in our lives pass us by or cease to be. Time is a fundamental feature of our lives and we can’t help but think about it.

But perhaps we could think about time and eternity more clearly than we presently do. In this post I will introduce you to some of the types of questions that need to be asked in order to understand the nature of time and God’s eternity. In the process of discussing these questions, some possible answers will begin to emerge. The hope is that we can begin to think more clearly about time and eternity.

The Fundamental Questions

I’ll begin by sorting out some of the questions that people typically ask about time and the types of responses that are often given. Once a better understanding of these questions and responses are grasped, one can begin to understand the nature of eternity. What types of questions will help us achieve this understanding?

There are two types of fundamental questions about time. How one answers these questions will shape how she answers questions about the nature of eternity. The first question is the metaphysical question. The second is the ontological question. Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that studies the basic fundamental features of reality. The metaphysical question is asking about the fundamental nature of time. What is time? Historically, there have been two broad answers. The first is sometimes called the “relational theory of time.” It can also be called the “reductive theory of time.” On this position, time is change. If there is a change, there is a time. If there is no change, there is no time. This is because change creates a before and after relationship. For example: previously, you were not reading this blog post. Then you began to read this blog post. You changed from the state of not reading, to a state of reading. You have a before and an after in your life. Imagine a somewhat different scenario. Imagine that the universe never existed. Perhaps after reading this blog post you wished that the universe never existed, but don’t think about it in that way. Instead, ask yourself a different question. If there were no universe, would time exist? Someone who holds to the relational theory would most likely say no. There needs to be something that exists that undergoes change in order to generate time.

Perhaps your gut is telling you something different. Maybe you think that time could exist even if the universe does not exist. If you feel this way, you are not alone, because there are thinkers who reject the relational theory of time. This brings us to the second position, which is called the “absolute theory of time.” It can also be called Platonism or substantivalism. In this understanding of time, time can exist without change. This is because time is duration, or the possibility of change. When changes take place, time takes place, but time could exist without change. During the 17th century, this view became quite popular. Along with its rise in popularity was a move away from the claim that God is timeless. Instead, various philosophers, theologians, and scientists came to equate time with God’s eternity. The idea was that time exists because God exists. Time necessarily flows from the divine nature. God has the perfect capacity to bring about any changes he so desires, and this capacity is all that is needed to generate time. The claim from thinkers within this camp is that God exists regardless of whether or not he decides to create anything. Further, since time necessarily flows from the nature of God, time exists regardless of the contingent things that exist within it. So time would exist even if God did not create a universe.

Of course, Christian theology claims that God has created this universe, and possibly others as well. To get a better grasp on the differences between the relational and absolute theory of time, focus your attention on our universe. Imagine that one day God paused the movements of the planets and everything else such that nothing within the universe continued to move until God unpaused it. Would time exist during this pause? The absolute theorist would say yes because time can exist without change. She might say that we could not measure the amount of time that passed during this pause, but she would still maintain that there was time during this pause. There was the moment when God paused the universe, then the pause, then the moment when God unpaused the universe. The relational theorist will most likely have none of this. If God pauses the universe such that there is no movement or change at all, she will say that there is no time occurring until God unpauses everything.

To recap, these two possibilities—relational versus absolute time—respond to the first fundamental question on time: the metaphysical question. The second fundamental question is called the ontological question. Ontology is the branch of philosophy that studies existence. The ontological question on time asks about what moments of time exist. There are three basic positions one can take. The first is called presentism. This is often said to be the “common sense view,” and it has been the most widespread view throughout history. In presentism, only the present moment of time exists. The past no longer exists, and the future does not yet exist. The second position is called the “growing block view.” It holds that the past and present both exist. Time is like an ever-growing block where the leading edge is the present moment. The third position is called “eternalism” and it says that the past, present, and future all exist.

In order to get a better grasp on the ontological question, consider another thought experiment. Imagine that you are sitting in your living room watching TV. All of a sudden a blue police box appears in your room, and a man in a sharp suit and wild hair bursts out of it calling himself “the Doctor.” With mad gestures and unnerving but exciting facial expressions, the Doctor tells you that he has a machine. If you come with him in this machine, he says that he can take you anywhere in space and to any “when” in time. All you have to do is say when and where, and he will take you there. Say you want to go back to the 17th century to hear Samuel Clarke and G.W. Leibniz debate the absolute and relational theory of time. Or maybe you want to go back and chat up Caroline, the Princess of Wales, whilst the debate is going on. Is this possible? That depends on several things, one of which is the ontology of time.

If presentism is true, the good Doctor may be able to take you anywhere, but he cannot take you to any when. In presentism, this is impossible since the past no longer exists. There is no moment in the past to go back to in order to flirt with the Princess of Wales. However, if the growing block theory is true, the Doctor could take you there, since the past does exist in this theory. But perhaps you decide you want to see the future instead of chatting up some 17th Century Welsh princess. Say you want to know who will win the 2016 United States presidential election. If presentism or the growing block theory is true, the Doctor cannot take you to the future because the future does not exist in either theory. But if eternalism is true, he can, since the past, present, and future all exist. (Of course, this is assuming that time travel is even a possibility. Many philosophers argue that time travel is not logically possible since it always involves a paradox of some sort, but that issue will have to wait for another day.)

Throughout this first post, I have alluded to the fact that how one answers these fundamental questions will shape how one understands God’s relation to time. In the next post, I’ll discuss how these questions of time come to bear on God’s eternal nature and his relationship with our temporal universe.


R.T. Mullins (PhD University of St Andrews) has expertise in philosophy of religion, philosophical theology, and systematic theology. His research primarily focuses on the nature of God, alternative models of the God-world relationship, and the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation. He is currently writing a monograph on God, time, and eternity. He has published on topics such as disability theology and the resurrection, divine eternality, divine simplicity, and the philosophy of time. Currently he is the Analytic Theology Fellow at the University of Notre Dame Center for Philosophy of Religion.

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Roger A. Sawtelle - #83547

November 18th 2013

I think that we are starting in the wrong place.  We need to start with God, which means for the Christian the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This translates easily into Past, Present, and Future interdependent on each other.

Time is not a thing, but an aspect of reality.  When we change the present, we change the future.  When we change our understanding of the past, we cahne our understanding of the present.

History is written into our genes, our laws, our understanding of ourselves and our world. 

It is relational because God is relational and our world is relational.  Some people might think that God is absolute,but that is not the YHWH God found in my Bible.      

Ryan Mullins - #83561

November 19th 2013

Roger, thank you for the comment. One of the issues in the contemporary debate over God and time does surround the very thing you bring up. Which should be discussed first—God or time? For several years, I thought that God should be discussed first. I want to affirm that the relational God of the Bible is providentially guiding history, so I thought that this would be the best place to start. However, I eventually noticed that all such conversations presupposed some unstated understanding of time. For instance, take the claim that God is timeless. This view denies of God all aspects of time. One cannot deny time of God unless one has some sort of understanding of time. What is this understanding of time? That needs to be made clear. Once this view of time is made clear, I think we can begin to start talking about God’s relationship to time. Again, I wish to emphasize that you bring up a very good point. It is such an important point that my forthcoming book has a section addressing this.


My worry, Roger, is that your comment also presupposes some sort of unstated understanding of time. There is nothing wrong with presupposing an understanding of time. We all do it. As you say, it is written into our genes. We can’t help but think about time. However, what understanding of time are you working with? It is not clear to me that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit easily translates into Past, Present, and Future. Perhaps you could say more to help me understand why this is this case. 

beaglelady - #83548

November 18th 2013

Who is Ryan Mullins? The link doesn’t provide any biographical information. 

beaglelady - #83568

November 19th 2013

One time I went to an evening lecture on the topic of time at the American Museum of Natural History. It coincided with the special exhibition on Einstein, which we toured.  

You know, it really is hard to say exactly what time is!  One person asked the scientist giving the talk, “What is time?”

He humbly replied, “I don’t know.”

glsi - #83569

November 19th 2013

Interesting.  That reminds me of a radio interview I heard some months ago with an expert on gravity.  When the interviewer asked him, “What is gravity?”, he fumbled around and finally said that he couldn’t really say.  You can describe and predict it’s effects on matter, but apparently it remains a very mysterious force of nature.

beaglelady - #83576

November 20th 2013

We know that it works by bending the fabric of space-time.

beaglelady - #83574

November 20th 2013

 What, then, is time? If no one ask of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not. 


-Saint Augustine

Roger A. Sawtelle - #83575

November 20th 2013


Thank you for the clarification.

I do not think that I have an unstated view of time, but it seems to me that the God Who reveals Godself in time as the Father/ Creator, Son/Redeemer and the Spirit/Love cannot be timeless. 

Eternal or beyond time, Yes.  But timeless, No.   

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