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Questions on Time and Eternity, Part 2

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November 19, 2013 Tags: Earth, Universe & Time

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

Questions on Time and Eternity, Part 2

In part one of this series, I discussed several questions about the nature of time. In this post, I’ll examine how the answers to those questions relate to theology. In particular, I’ll discuss how these answers help one understand God’s relation to time.

From Time Back to Eternity

Now that we have a somewhat better understanding of the different positions on the fundamental nature of time, we can ask about the fundamental nature of eternity. Theologians and religious philosophers in the past have made a distinction between God’s eternity and the eternal life that God has granted humans. Historically, most theologians have said that God’s eternity is timeless whereas the eternal life that is granted to humans is not. To say that humans will have eternal life is to say that they will enjoy blissful lives without end. Beginning in the 17th century, theologians and philosophers began to reject the claim that God’s eternity is timeless. Instead, they said God’s eternity is temporal. Today, there is a serious debate over the nature of God’s eternity. All of this brings up a very important set of questions. What is timeless eternity? What is temporal eternity? How one answers these questions will depend upon how she answered the above questions on time.

When it comes to the task of articulating divine timelessness, theologians and philosophers have historically supported both presentism and the relational theory. To say that God is timeless is to say that God exists without beginning, without end, and without succession. God lacks succession because he does not undergo any changes of any sort. Since time is change in the relational theory, and God does not change, God does not exist in time. Further, God exists in a timeless present that lacks a before and after. Our present is fleeting in that it has a before and after. Humans endure through time by existing in the present, but they have moments of their lives that no longer exist and other anticipated moments that do not yet exist. These theologians would say that, unlike humans, God does not lose moments of his life, nor does he have moments that do not yet exist.

Other theologians and religious philosophers reject timeless eternity and instead hold to a temporal eternity. To say that God’s eternity is temporal is to say that God exists without beginning and without end. Yet they will say that God does have succession in his life. One reason for rejecting timeless eternity is that a timeless God cannot create a temporal universe. A standard claim among believers of monotheistic religions is that God created the universe ex nihilo—out of nothing. The universe has not always existed because God was not always creating it. The universe is not co-eternal with God. So the picture we have of creation is one where God exists without the universe, and then God creates and exists with the universe. Creation marks a new moment in the life of God. God was not always the creator, but became the creator. A second reason for rejecting divine timelessness is from the doctrine of divine sustaining. Once God has created the universe, he sustains it in existence moment by moment. The universe would not exist at any given moment without God actively sustaining it in existence. Given presentism, God would sustain one moment of time, and then cease to sustain it in existence as he sustains the next moment. Since the present is constantly moving forward, God would be continually sustaining new moments of time in existence and ceasing to sustain previous moments of time. As such, God’s life would involve succession and change as he sustains the universe in existence and providentially guides history to his desired goal.

Contemporary defenders of divine timelessness have a reply to these objections. The objections assume presentism. However, as noted above, presentism is not the only position one could hold. Today, most defenders of divine timelessness hold to eternalism whereby the past, present, and future all equally exist. In this picture of time, God is creating and sustaining all of time at once. There is a sense in which the universe is co-eternal with God because God never exists without the universe. So the problem of God beginning to create a universe does not arise because God never exists without the universe. God is eternally the creator. Further, the contemporary defender will say that the problem for God sustaining the universe goes away too. The picture of God sustaining a moment of time in existence, and then ceasing to sustain it, does not arise on eternalism, for all moments of time are co-eternal with God.

What Time Is It? What Eternity Is It?

At this point, one might wonder which understanding of God and time is correct. Unfortunately, such an answer would make this blog post far too long. I can, however, note some of the issues that arise from each picture of God and time.

First, consider the view that God is timeless and that eternalism is the right understanding of time. All moments of time are co-eternal with God. One worry that this raises is with regard to the problem of evil and suffering. If all moments of time equally exist, and are co-eternal with God, then evil and suffering are co-eternal with God. Think of yesterday morning when you got up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. Recall how you stubbed your toe while stumbling through the dark corridors of your home. In that moment of pain you cursed God with a loud voice of anguish. As the pain subsided, you might have thought it rather silly to have been so upset. Perhaps you asked for forgiveness for your swearing, or maybe you offered up praise thanking God that the moment of pain had now passed. On eternalism, that moment of time when you stubbed your toe exists. The you that exists at this moment is not experiencing that pain because you are experiencing the bliss of reading this blogpost. However, the you of yesterday morning is experiencing that pain because the you of yesterday exists just as much as the current you does, albeit at a different moment of time. The suffering you and the blissfully blog-reading you are both co-eternal with God. For some Christians, it might be difficult to believe that God and suffering are co-eternal in this way. Instead, some Christians might ask how this view of God and time can be reconciled with the promise that one day God will remove all suffering from the universe (Revelation 21:4). If the moments of suffering never cease to exist because they are co-eternal with God, how can God truly rid the world of evil?

Now consider the other view on which God is in time and presentism is the correct understanding of time. The temporal God is constantly changing as new moments of time come into existence. Consider again your unfortunate toe-stubbing incident from the night before. On presentism, that moment did not always exist, but it began to exist, then ceased to exist. God began to perceive that you were stubbing your toe. Then God began to perceive that you were cursing his name. Once you calmed down and asked for forgiveness, God began to forgive you. This certainly fits with certain biblical themes about God’s responsiveness to human prayer, his interaction with history, and the claim that God was not always incarnate but became incarnate at one point in history for the sake of salvation. However, some Christians might worry that this does not fit with the biblical theme of God’s immutability. Certain biblical passages seem to suggest that God is immutable or unchanging (e.g. Numbers 23:19; Malachi 3:6; James 1:17). As such, Christians might wonder how a temporal understanding of God can be reconciled with God’s immutability. How can a God who is constantly changing as he interacts with creatures truly be immutable?

Each position on God and time has its own answers to these worries, as well as other concerns that arise from the respective pictures of God and time. What those answers look like, and whether or not those answers are satisfying, will have to wait for another day. This is just the beginning of the discussion on God, time, and eternity. Hopefully, having a better sense of the fundamental questions will help us think more clearly about the God we worship, and help us come to appreciate his gift of eternal life.

 


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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GJDS - #83553

November 19th 2013

Time and motion (change) have always fascinated us. I would add that your blog assumes that our concepts and notions that we communicate between ourselves, contain the meaning that we would confer on God – such an assumption is dubious at best. 

An additional suggestion is the Universe (in the absence of human knowledge/intellect) would be one of motion, change, matter and energy. It is difficult to contemplate such a Universe as containing memories of past, present and future. 

When we human beings enter the discussion, we find it difficult to contemplate anything without time – however, two of the most important events in human existence preclude our understanding – namely, when we are born, and when we die. Yet the intrinsic aspect of time is that period we know as our life on this earth. Even moments can become enhanced memories, and future may be expectations, some of which may eventuate – and let us not forget that we can be certain of things in the future, such as the sun will rise tomorrow.

I suggest that we are unable to discuss God within our comprehension of time – but that does not lessen the fascination of the topic.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #83555

November 19th 2013

Ryan,

You have painted a compelling dualistic view of time as we understand it.  I agree with GJDS who wrote:

I suggest that we are unable to discuss God within our comprehension of time. . .  . 

However it do not think that this means we cannot understand time.  We need to understand time in light of our Trinitarian understanding of God, not the other way around.  

Jesus Christ is God and Jesus lived within time.  He was born and He died and yes He was raised on the third day within time.

I trust that you will rescue God from the philosophical box that Western thought has put God in.  If not, what happens?


Merv - #83558

November 19th 2013

First ... a quip back to Roger ...   If god is trapped in a box and can’t get out, then we probably have no business worshipping such an entity.  (I know that’s not what you meant ... but I couldn’t resist.)

Ryan, you noted that

One reason for rejecting timeless eternity is that a timeless God cannot create a temporal universe.

Where does this conclusion come from?  We barely (if at all) have the ability to comprehend what “timelessness” could be much less be able to evaluate what a timeless God can or cannot do!

It sounds a bit like sentient flat images from “2-D” world saying ... “We don’t think it’s possible that someone existing in a 3-D world could create or paint on our 2-D world, because they aren’t themselves in it.”

To which a 3-D worlder could only give the recondite reply ...  “huh!?”


Ryan Mullins - #83562

November 19th 2013

Merv, thank you for the comment. The conclusion comes from a series of arguments that myself, and others, have published in various articles and books. A short version of the argument is discussed in the paragraph that you quote from. 

Obviously, I disagree with the claim that we barely have the ability to comprehend what timelessness could be since I articulated the classical understanding of divine timelessness in the post. Further, Christians have traditionally said that God cannot do that which is logically and metaphysically impossible. Even scripture tells us that God cannot lie or be tempted to sin. God cannot do that which goes against His nature, covenantal promises, and purposes for creation. I believe that this helps us begin to think through what God can and cannot do.

Perhaps you could say more to help me understand why we cannot comprehend timelessness. Appeals to flatlander have never persuaded me, so perhaps you could say something else. 


Merv - #83564

November 19th 2013

Thanks for your reply, Ryan —- (Dr. Mullins?)    To be safer I should have said “I” rather than “we” barely comprehend ...    But even so, you surprise me if you make a strong claim of understanding of a level of existence that we ourselves do not directly experience, but must conceptualize with models.  So the limitation of analysis by lack of experience would actually seem to apply more to us than to a Deity with access to both.  Classic Christianity doesn’t imagine this kind of symmetry between God and man. 

You seem to have reason for confidence in study that you or others have done, and to the extent that you can impart some of that here in blogworld or point us towards available resources, it sounds like I would have homework to do if I were to press any criticism further.

I do agree (or at least can understand) the notion that God cannot manufacture logical contradictions.  Here intuition seems to help us out (at least to the extent that we may accept the proposition.)

I’ve enjoyed reading, and look forward to more.


Merv - #83565

November 19th 2013

You wrote:

Today, most defenders of divine timelessness hold to eternalism whereby the past, present, and future all equally exist. In this picture of time, God is creating and sustaining all of time at once. There is a sense in which the universe is co-eternal with God because God never exists without the universe.

The proposed “eternalism” model is one that I feel I have the best shot at ‘maybe’ comprehending ... until you reached the paragraph above, which I either misunderstand, or else it could use more unpacking (likely both).

I have heard something like eternalism defended before, (granted—the defender I refer to doesn’t hold a philosophy degree); he would not in the least have claimed that this made the universe co-eternal with God or that God’s existence then becomes contingent on the existence of the universe.  Again, wouldn’t this be a radical departure from Classical Christianity in which creation has an absolute, non-mutual dependence on God?

p.s.  The reason I like the flat-worlder examples is that it gives me at least one model for how one dimension could appear into another and maybe even seem magical or far-fetched to the more limited dimension.  So if I imagine a ‘timeless’ God standing outside a timeline, able to see all of it at once (as we might hover over a numberline and not be limited to a serialized travel along it) then this seems to me like a ‘timeless’ God, though the very act of imagining God “doing things” is to put him into some sort of time context again which my model (and imagination) can’t entirely escape.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #83559

November 19th 2013

Merv wrote:

if god is trapped in a box…..

The issue is that we act as if God is trapped in some box of our own making, and pretend that this is God’s problem when actually it is ours.  We are diminished when we diminish God in our minds, whether we are believers or non-believers.  

The problem that both of us are pointing out IMHO is that the Reality of God does not conform to basically human philosophical concepts. 

We have choices, 1) cling to the old that no longer works, 2) stop thinking in a philosophical manner, or 3) change our understanding of philosophy so that it conforms both to the scientific and theological needs of our day.  

My preference is that the third alternative, which is the most demanding and most productive as well a theologically most sound. 


Ryan Mullins - #83563

November 19th 2013

GJDS and Roger. I really appreciate your comments. Could either, or both, of you explain why we cannot understand God with our comprehension of time? 

Roger, I agree that we must reflect upon the revelation of the triune God to get a better understanding of time. That is certainly one of the things that I have sought to do in my own research. It is unclear to me how I have failed in this regard. What exactly is a “dualistic view of time,” and what is wrong with it? 

Roger, you ask about how I will save God from the philosopher’s box. That is a long, but incredibly important, conversation. Too long for this forum. I would recommend reading some of my published and forthcoming papers on this topic. 

I can say this much. I do not think that (1) is an option. However, I do not think that (2) and (3) are our only other choices. Given the nature of human persons, we cannot stop thinking philosophically. Further, I think science and theology need careful philosophical thinking. Clarity and coherence are always virtues, and understanding how to follow an argument or evidence are deeply important. Philosophy can contribute this to theology and science. Yet, I agree that science and theology can, and in some cases should, change our philosophy. You are right, this is demanding, but it is important to do so.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #83566

November 19th 2013

Ryan,

Thank you for responding to our comments.

Let me start at the end.  When I speak of philosophy I speak about thinking about thinking, which does seem to correspond to your idea about philosophy.

My primary concern is worldview, which is the basic way we understand reality.  Today we seem to have two strong worldviews which are tearing at the heart of Western culture and the Church. 

We have Modernism which affirms the Absolute and sees reality in dualistic terms.  An the other hand we have Postmodernism which affirms the Relative and sees reality in monistic terms.  These two camps, which seem to be opposite in every sense, are represented by your two concepts of time, Eternal or Relational.

Monists are really dualists who put body over mind, or perhaps mind over body.  Dualists preserve some of the balance between body and mind, but this does not really work either.  Reality is composed of body, mind, and spirit, so dualism does not work because it is false.

You have set up a dualistic framework between time and eternity.  I don’t see how you can solve this problem unless you destroy this framework and I am interested in how you accomplish this. 

I am interested in reading your papers and hope that maybe you might be interested in reading some of my writings also.  You are correct in saying that this medium does not seem to be condusive to addressing this type of problem.     


GJDS - #83570

November 19th 2013

Hi, Ryan,

My comment has more to do with our understanding/comprehension when we speak of God, be it as an eternal being, or one who becomes involved with His creation.

If we have a hard time saying what time is (no pun intended), it seems odd that we should then attribute something that is either meaningless, or at best poorly understood, to and of God.

I may illustrate with one example. This phrase is often used, “God created from nothing”. We all more or less understand what this may mean, but we can easily ask, “what is nothing?” Is it an absence of a thing? Is it negation? Is such a term even meaningful to us - perhaps evacuating a box should give us nothing. In any event, we speak of God, He did so and so, but in many cases it is in human terms and these have human meaning.

This does not detract from our conversations - but when we invoke the name of God, we may get into very difficult discussions. So we attribute eternity to God, but we may find it difficult to understand what this may mean. I think that dealing with moments, a past and a future, is more to do with our human existence, but that is all we have.

So I end this post with my own comment - I do not fully understand the meaning of eternity and timeless, but I feel and experience my life as within a time-line. I wonder how God feels and what He experiences?


Roger A. Sawtelle - #83573

November 20th 2013

Ryan,

Please allow to add tohat I said above.

When dealing with a monist point of view, one asks the question which is real, time or eternity?  The answer for most is time, even though eternity is also real.

When dealing with the dualist point of view, one asks the question, which is prior, time or eternity?  Here there is no true answer, although most people have preference.

When dealing with the complex/one point of view, one asks the question, what is the proper relationship between time and eternity?  They are different, but not exclusive, anf form the basis of the continuum of history.        


David Oh - #83636

November 25th 2013

Would it be tenable to say that God was timeless until He created time?

Meaning, His creation of time “changed” Him.

Just as Jesus entering into time “changed” the Godhead.

So, both the creation of time and the incarnatoin had a profound “time” effect on God.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #83655

November 25th 2013

David,

We really cannot speculate on what happened before God created the universe.

However, I would say that the Bible reveals to us that God is Relational in that God is Love.  Since Time is also relational it is possible that God knew time before the creation of the universe.

Perhaps you have heard the statement that God was relational (Love) before the Creation because the Father Loved the Son though the Spirit.

The Incarnation did not change the Trinity.  It did not change its nature nor its character.  God is not timeless, but God is not bound by time. 


David Oh - #83659

November 25th 2013

My question is a more simplified treatment of a very complex subject.

I have found the discussion here quite compelling: http://www.iep.utm.edu/god-time/

I am drawn more towards William Lane Craig’s position.

What are your thoughts, Ryan?


Ryan Mullins - #83681

November 26th 2013

Sorry everyone for not being able to respond sooner. I have been busy with the American Academy of Religion conference. Again, great comments everyone. I will try to give more complete responses soon. 

David, I greatly appreciate Craig’s work on God and time. However, I cannot quite understand what it means to say that God is timeless sans creation, but temporal with creation. Craig is trying to say that God did not exist temporally ‘before’ creation because that would entail a temporal relation, and God would thus be temporal prior to creation. So, instead Craig has to say that God is causally before, but not temporally before. Personally, I find this mysterious. Many people in the contemporary debates do not understand Craig’s claim either. For a critique of Craig’s view I would recommend the second edition of Paul Helm’s “Eternal God.” 

Craig is thinks that the Kalam cosmological argument for the existence of God leads to his view on God and time. I disagree with this. Garrett DeWeese’s book “God and the Nature of Time” deals with this issue quite well. 

My own view would be closer to Richard Swinburne and Dean Zimmerman. I think that God existed temporally prior to creation. Part of this has to do with the fact that I think time can exist without change. This is something that Swinburne and Zimmerman affirm, but Craig denies. 

If you go to my academia.edu page, you can see some of my papers on this topic to get more details. Also, you can find out a bit how I deal with scripture and the Trinity with regards to time and eternity. 


David Oh - #83682

November 26th 2013

Ryan, thanks for sharing your thoughts and the references. Really appreciate it! Cheers!


GJDS - #83694

November 27th 2013

Hi Ryan,

I enjoyed reading your article, “Time and the Everlasting God”. My previous remarks concerning the meaning of statements we make draws on St John Chrysostom, who discusses what we may lawfully and meaningfully say about God, and how in many ways we may not adequately discuss other attributes that are outside of human comprehension.

 

In your articles, you state, “If God undergoes a mere Cambridge change He is in time in some sense.” And in a similar vein, “However, God was not always the creator of the universe. God was not in any sort of relation to the universe when the universe did not exist.”

I make one or two scant remarks on a very difficult subject; it seems to me that since any and all discussion we can make concerning the attributes of God result from revelation and furthermore, only the Holy Spirit can truly know what and who God is, a useful starting point for these discussions may be, “What is revelation?” By this, I mean, just what is it about human beings that enables revelation – it too is an act of God within the framework of human existence. If this is correct, any knowledge about God must, by necessity, be given within the context of human existence and human comprehension. I propose, for this short comment, that both physical and metaphysical conceptions of time are comprehensible within this context. Through this revelation, we have a basis for attributing to God His sustaining of creation, His Son as Saviour, and He as the Father of all He has called through His Son.

The remaining arguments about eternity and everlasting have a similar ‘feel’ to those concerning the laws of Nature. Is God subject to them? Has God voluntarily chosen to allow the Universe (the creation) to run along until it ceases? Or is He involved in the directing and sustaining? The short answer is yes, God can decide on anything, since that is God “by definition”. While we cannot measure God’s metaphysical time, colloquially we may say that God can, if He wishes, let us know He has done something (and we would understand it within our time-frame), but He can also decide not to let us know.Yes, I think that “this is an epistemological problem”. However I am prone to consider Paul’s statement that various attributes concerning God may be comprehended from the creation, and this may include a deeper understanding of time as it applies to us from God. For example, God’s involvement in human affairs may mean the creation has been for-ordained to include such possibilities.

I am not sure these remarks contribute much to your article, but at the very least, we should consider the matter as one in which God does not have a problem within human time, or outside human time, since He is able to deal with both possibilities.


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