Questions on Time and Eternity, Part 2

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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.



About the Author

R.T. Mullins

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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