Is God Timeless?
- The First Motive: Divine Immutability
- The Second Motive: Divine Transcendence
- Timeless Creation
In our article "God's Everlasting Nature" (which is the first article in the series God and Time), we argue that the Bible characterizes God’s eternal nature as an everlasting one, which should be understood in temporal terms. The Bible teaches that God has always existed, does exist and will exist forever in the future. However, there is a different perspective of God's eternal nature that is alien to the biblical perspective of an everlasting God. This perspective is very much favored in traditional Christian philosophy, where God's eternal nature is understood in a timeless (atemporal) sense, as seen in the philosophy of Augustine, Boethius, Thomas Aquinas, Anselm, Schleiermacher, etc. According to such a philosophical perspective, God does not have an infinite duration in the past, i.e., he did not always exist in the past, but rather His existence is timeless, much akin to the existence of numbers and other abstract objects. On this view, it is wrong to say that God existed before creation; rather, His existence is characterized as being outside of time. Such an understanding of God's eternity is atemporal, i.e., God is not in time, but rather beyond time.
We will consider two philosophical motivations for the atemporal perspective of divine eternity. Both are associated with the ideas of God's perfection: the first one is connected with divine immutability, and the second with divine transcendence.
The First Motive: Divine Immutability
The idea of God's timelessness is associated with the concept of God's immutability, where 'immutability' is understood in the most absolute sense, i.e., God is absolutely unchangeable, He cannot change at all. (When talking about God's immutability, we will use the term 'immutability' in its most absolute sense, namely as absolute unchangeability, unless otherwise specified.) In ancient Greek philosophy, immutability was an ideal of perfection, which in turn influenced Christian philosophers such as Augustine, Boethius, Anselm and Thomas Aquinas. Hence, if one has a strong intuition that God's perfection requires divine immutability, it is only one small step further to add the attribute of timelessness to the theological construct of God's perfection.
Divine immutability is one of the cardinal divine attributes highly esteemed in traditional theology. What is the main motivation for assimilating this idea of Greek philosophy into the Christian traditional framework? The rationale for the doctrine of God's immutability is an argument from perfection, which goes as follows:
God must be changeless. For if God changed, the change must be either for the better or the worse: if for the better, then God had previously been less good than He might have been, and so was not the most perfect possible being and if for the worse, then He was subsequently less good than He might have been, and so was not the most perfect possible being.1
The argument depends on the faulty assumption that any change is either for the better or for the worse. However, as Alan G. Padget contends, immutability is always relative to essential divine attributes, those properties that constitute a divine Being,2 such as omnipotence or moral goodness. God's power and His moral character are indeed unchangeable. Nevertheless, God can change in relational ways in order to create or care for His creation, and such change is neither for the better or for the worse. On the contrary, Padget observes, God's mutability is a feature of His perfection: "Ability to change in response to others is part of what makes God a perfect Being."3
Another faulty assumption of the argument is, as J. R. Lucas notes, “that there is one linear scale of excellence, so that any two different states of affairs can be compared and ordered, one better, one worse. But this is not so. There are many different excellences, and it is perfectly possible to change from one sort of excellence, that is the best of its kind, to another, which is the best of its, quite different, kind.”4
What is the logical relation between immutability and timelessness? The idea of divine immutability is a logical consequence of the idea of God's timelessness; timelessness entails immutability.5 As Nelson Pike notes:
If an object changes, that object is different at a given time from what it was at an earlier time. … Thus, in order to change, an object must exist at two moments of time. It follows that if an object is timeless … it does not change.6
Pike also observes that the converse does not hold, i.e., immutability does not entail timelessness without further qualifications:
Even if time is in some sense a function of motion, a motionless being might be in time -- time that is a function of the motion of other beings. … Even if time is measured by motion, a motionless being might have a measurable duration -- a duration calculated by reference to the motion of other beings.7
However, as Pike further notes, we cannot reject the claim that "x is immutable" entails "x is timeless" on the basis of the above reasoning.8 The above line of reasoning shows that some motionless being might be in time, but not that this applies to every motionless being, such as to the immutable Being of God. The following argument attempts to more firmly establish that divine immutability entails divine timelessness.
An absolute immutable God is necessarily timeless, since there are no other beings prior to creation. ('Priority' in the expression "prior to creation" is understood in a logical, conceptual sense, and not in a chronological sense.) In the divine eternal realm prior to God's creation, God is the sole being, absolutely changeless, immutable. Time is a function of motion (change); if there were no motion, there would be no time. In the divine realm, there is no time, since there is no motion, i.e., there is no being other than immutable God. Since there are no motions of other beings and there is only one immovable being, viz. the absolute immutable God, God is necessarily timeless.
From the foregoing, this argument concludes that the concept of divine timelessness entails and is entailed by the concept of divine immutability.9
However, as we have seen, the very doctrine of divine immutability is not based upon a sound argument: the argument from perfection is founded upon a faulty assumption about the nature of change. Moreover, the doctrine cannot be established by the Bible if we follow sound principles of biblical hermeneutics. As J. R. Lucas notes: "The changelessness of God is not to be naturally read out of the Bible, but rather was read into it in the light of certain philosophical assumptions about the nature of God."10 While the Bible does teach that God is immutable, it is not in the same sense as taught in the traditional Christian philosophy. There are various understandings of divine immutability, and ours is that God is immutable only with respect to His essential properties, such as His power or moral character.
Given the questionable character of the traditional idea of divine immutability, the doctrine of divine timelessness becomes a less attractive position to maintain. Indeed, the idea of timelessness sounds very dubious unless there are other rational motives that can support it. The next section deals with the second motive for divine timelessness, which is equally spurious.
The Second Motive: Divine Transcendence
In the traditional theology, God is conceived as more perfect if He transcends time, i.e., He is not limited to the dimension of time, but is rather beyond it. The expression "God is in time" is traditionally understood as a limiting concept of God's perfection, while the expression "God is outside time" renders God unlimited. However, it is not entirely clear what God's transcendence beyond time would amount to. Let us examine some of the classic descriptions of God's transcendence beyond time.
Anselm's poetic description of God's timelessness is as follows:
Thou wast not, then, yesterday, nor wilt thou be tomorrow; but yesterday and today and tomorrow thou art; or, rather, neither yesterday, nor today nor tomorrow thou art; but simply, thou art, outside all time. For yesterday and today and tomorrow have no existence, except in time; but thou, although nothing exists without thee, nevertheless dost not exist in space or time, but all things exist in thee.11
According to Anselm, God does not exist in time, but rather outside of time; moreover, Anselm seems to assert that time exists in God.
According to Boethius' famous formula, God's eternity is "the complete and simultaneous possession of endless life."12 Following Boethius, Thomas Aquinas defines the term 'eternity' with this formula: "The simultaneous-whole and perfect possession of indeterminable life."13 The formula is explained as follows:
Two things are to be considered in time: time itself, which is successive; and the "now" of time, which is imperfect. Hence the expression "simultaneous-whole" is used to remove the idea of time, and the word "perfect" is used to exclude the "now" of time.14
Aquinas stresses that for God there is no past, present and future; neither before nor after: all is a "simultaneous-whole" for God.15
The standard interpretation of Boethius' and Aquinas' formulas of divine timelessness is that God lacks both duration and location in time.16 The difficult part is to understand the locution "simultaneous-whole." Pike's interpretation of the Boethian formula is that all temporal objects and events are simultaneously present to God "in the sense that he 'sees' or 'beholds' them, i.e., in the sense that He is directly aware of them."17 This idea of having all temporal objects and events present to God is closely related to the idea of the fullness of God's life, which "is such that He possesses the whole of his life together," where for God no moment of time is lost, and all moments of time are present.18 The lives of temporal beings lack this fullness because their moments are irretrievably lost in the past. This idea of the fullness of God's life has been eloquently described by Augustine in his Confessions:
Your years neither go nor come, but our years pass and others come after them, so that they all may come in their turn. Your years are completely present to you all at once, because they are at a permanent standstill. They do not move on, forced to give way before the advance of others because they never pass at all. But our years will all be completely only when they have all moved into the past. Your years are one day, yet your day does not come daily but is always today, because your today does not give place to any tomorrow nor does it take the place of any yesterday. Your today is eternity.19
Anselm also affirms that God's life exists as a whole at once, and not successively at different times:
If, however, at different times it exists, as a whole, in individual places, then, when it is in one place, there is in the meantime no good and no existence in other places, since without it absolutely nothing exists. But the absurdity of this supposition is proved by the existence of places themselves, which are not nothing, but something. Therefore, the supreme Nature does not exist, as a whole, in individual places at different times.20
The above perspectives of God's timelessness show how, on the one hand, the view involves a negative characterization, viz., "He lacks both duration and location in time." Thus, God's timelessness is in part defined in negative terms, i.e., in terms of what it is not or what is lacking. On the other hand, the perspective involves a positive characterization as well, viz., "God's life possesses a fulness such that all moments of time with their objects and events are present before God." Here we see divine timelessness defined in positive terms, i.e., in terms of what it is or what it possesses.
The Negative Characterization of Divine Timelessness
The main motive for the negative characterization of divine timelessness, where God is described with locutions "not in time" or "outside time," is to affirm God's transcendence, in accordance with the traditional intuition that transcendence is a mark of divine perfection. The theological construct of God's perfection is traditionally framed by the following principle, which can lead to the doctrine of divine timelessness:
Wherever possible, we should subordinate ontological categories to God rather than subsuming God under the categories. When applied to the category of time, this immediately yields the doctrine of divine timelessness.21
Following this principle, we can arrive at some true propositions about God that are taught by the Bible. For instance, by subordinating the category of created substance to God, we arrive at the truth that God is beyond all creation, since He created it. This would mean, among many things, that He transcends the physical universe, or that He is not limited by physical laws. However, it is our belief that this principle is not valid for Christian theology, since ontological categories are the most general, abstract kinds of being, and as such are not created entities. It makes sense to say of God that He transcends everything that He has created, but categories are not created "things." For instance, the category of personhood is not "something" that God has created, since God is essentially a person. Following Alston's principle with respect to the category of personhood, God would transcend Himself, and, thus, cease to exist, which is clearly nonsense.
Another important example worth mentioning is God's relation to logical laws. It is alien to Christian theology to suppose that God is beyond the laws of logic, or at least beyond some laws of logic that constitute a common core of all contemporary systems of logic, such as the principle of non-contradiction.22 If God transcended logic, He would be absolutely incomprehensible, with the consequence that communication between God and mankind would be impossible. All statements about God would be true, e.g., it would be true to say that God is both a created and non-created being, since the principle of non-contradiction would not apply to statements about God. There would be no logical law that would restrict our talk and reasoning to a meaningful discourse about God. Therefore, in order to avoid the reduction of our theology to logical incoherence, we should beware of attributing all kinds of transcendence to God. For this reason, we should rather follow Stephen T. Davis' advice:
I feel no need to exalt God's transcendence in every possible way. What Christians must do, I believe, is emphasize God's transcendence over his creation in the ways that scripture does and in ways that seem essential to Christian theism.23
Would divine timelessness constitute a kind of divine transcendence that leads to incoherence or meaningless theological discourse? If time were created by God, it would make sense to say that God is beyond time. However, the idea of the divine creation of time is a dubious concept, since, in general, the creation of an entity X implies that there was a moment of time T1 before the creation when X did not exist, and a moment of time T2 after the creation when X exists. In other words, a creation is an event involving change, and as such creation itself presupposes time. It follows that the statement about the divine creation of time would not make any sense. Consider if X were replaced with 'Time'; we would get the following absurd consequence: "There was a moment of time T1 before creation when Time did not exist." It is a self-contradictory statement, for it says that there was a time when time did not exist.
The conceptual unintelligibility of the idea of the creation of time can again be perceived in the associated concept of the beginning of time. "The beginning of time" is problematic because of the term 'beginning' figuring in the expression. How should we understand the term? Presumably in temporal terms, since it is maintained that something started to exist. But if the term is understood in temporal terms, the very idea of the beginning of time presupposes time. Time must already, so to speak, be in place in order for its beginning to start. Thus, the idea involves a vicious conceptual circle: the Beginning of T requires Time, which in turn is T, but T is not yet formed and will be formed at the Beginning of T. The result is an absolutely unintelligible concept, i.e., a concept that cannot in principle be understood, due to the presence of a conceptual vicious circle.
On the other hand, if 'beginning' is not understood in temporal terms, we would still have difficulty in understanding the idea due to the unavailability of good interpretations that would explain the sense of the term 'beginning'. One interpretation that is usually employed when talking about atemporal (timeless) relations is to understand 'beginning' in logical terms, i.e., 'beginning' does not mean a temporal priority, but a logical one. Does such an interpretation shed light on how the beginning of time is metaphysically possible? We do not see how it can, since logical relations are not metaphysical. We can talk about logical priority when dealing with abstract formal structures, e.g., mathematical relations, but when dealing with cosmological events, such as the creation, we are interested in understanding metaphysical claims, such as "time had a beginning" (is 'beginning' a temporal beginning?), or "there was no time before the creation of time" (is 'before' a temporal term?).
Hence, propositions such as "time had a beginning" and "there was no time before the creation of time" are conceptually unintelligible if 'before' and 'beginning' are not understood in temporal terms.
The problem of the intelligibility of 'the creation of time' presents a special case of a more general conceptual problem involving the idea of atemporal action and cause. The question whether an atemporal divine action, e.g., divine creation, is metaphysically possible is one of the central issues between temporalists and atemporalists. This issue will be further examined in the next sections, where we deal with the coherence of concepts associated with timelessness, such as 'atemporal causation'. Suffice to say here that some atemporalists, such as Craig, would understand the term 'before' not in temporal but in causal terms. To the question of how can God be timeless prior to creation, their answer is that God is causally, but not temporally, prior. He has the kind of "priority" that any cause has over its effect. They believe that it is possible for a cause and its effect to occur simultaneously. Kant’s famous example of a leaden ball’s causing the depression in the cushion upon which it is resting can illustrate the concept of simultaneous causality.24 The causal relation is asymmetrical—the cause is the source of the effect, and not the other way around. In that sense, the cause is "prior" to its effect.
Even if we ignore the difficulties in the concept of simultaneous causation,25 the main problem is that the relation of simultaneity is a temporal relation, and by this token, causation involved in the creation is essentially a temporal event. Given its temporal character, the notion of creation of time is highly problematic: how can time have a beginning if there was no time before its beginning? Some atemporalists reply that it is meaningless to ask about the state of affairs before the creation of time (similarly to those who say that it is meaningless to ask what was before the Big Bang). Such defeatist reply only shows how rather meaningless is the very idea of the beginning of time. We will discuss more about the intelligibility of timeless causation in the section "Timeless Creation."
Divine transcendence with respect to the category of time seems to lead to much incoherence and unintelligibility. The idea of the creation of time, with its associated concepts 'the beginning of time' and 'before time', is either incoherent or a conceptually vicious circle, if the terms 'beginning' and 'before' are understood in their usual temporal sense. On the other hand, if they are not understood in a temporal sense, then the problem is that they become quite incomprehensible, since they are devoid of their standard meaning and it is difficult to find another meaning that would render the concept coherently intelligible.
As a consequence of the negative formulation of God's timelessness, it is not correct to say that God always existed in the past, and it is even wrong to say that God exists now.26 Such odd consequences of the doctrine of God's timelessness, as Nicholas Wolterstorff notes, practically amount to atheism.27 This question will be further examined in the next sections, where we deal with the coherence of concepts associated with timelessness, such as the concept of timeless creation or atemporal action.
The Positive Characterization of Timelessness
The positive characterization of God's timelessness is just as problematic as the negative characterization. In this case, the problem lies in the intelligibility of the atemporal characterization of simultaneity that figures in the traditional formulation of timeless eternity.
One important issue, as noted by Joshua Hoffman and Gary S. Rosenkratz, is the legitimacy of using the concept of simultaneity when explaining divine timelessness, since divine timelines are totally devoid of time, where temporal relations denoted by terms such as 'before', 'after', or 'simultaneous', do not apply.28 Hence, a coherent explanation of the concept "simultaneous possession of endless life" or "simultaneous-whole" is, in principle, impossible if the concept employs the terms 'simultaneity' and 'duration' with their standard temporal meaning. This can be seen with objections raised by Richard Swinburne and Anthony Kenny.29
Richard Swinburne argues:
The inner incoherence can be seen as follows: God's timelessness is said to consist in his existing at all moments of human time -- simultaneously. Thus he is said to be simultaneously present at (and witness of) what I did yesterday, what I am doing today, and what I will do tomorrow. But if t1 is simultaneous with t2 and t2 with t3, then t1 is simultaneous with t3. So if the instant at which God knows these things were simultaneous with both yesterday, today and tomorrow, then these days would be simultaneous with each other. So yesterday would be the same day as today and as tomorrow -- which is clearly nonsense.30
Anthony Kenny's critique strikes a similar note:
On St. Thomas' view, my typing of this paper is simultaneous with the whole of eternity. Again, on this view, the great fire of Rome is simultaneous with the whole of eternity. Therefore, while I type these very words, Nero fiddles heartlessly on.31
The above objections represent the type of argument known as the argument from simultaneity. The point with the argument is to show that the ordinary concept of simultaneity, i.e., a temporal, transitive relation between two events,32 is illegitimate to use in a definition of divine timelessness as it figures in Boethius' and Aquinas' formulations. The argument demonstrates that the Boethian/Aquinian formulation leads to incoherence or unintelligibility if simultaneity is understood in the standard, temporal sense.
A standard reply to Kenny and Swinburne's arguments is to point out that 'simultaneity' in the Boethian/Aquinian formula should not be understood in the temporal sense, but rather in a metaphorical sense. Hasker, who is neutral on this issue, notes:
It is to be hoped that by now the reader will not be overly impressed with [Anthony Kenny's] objection. Among other things that have been said, the assertion that God does not exist at any moment of our time should sufficiently indicate that God cannot be "simultaneous" with temporal things in the flatly literal sense required for Kenny's objection to go through. My own inclination would be to say that statement about simultaneity is simply a metaphorical way of putting the point that all of time is "present" in the "now" of eternity.33
Although Hasker is not "overly impressed" with the argument from simultaneity, Kenny's and Swinburne's arguments should be taken seriously precisely because not one good interpretation has yet been offered of the Boethian "simultaneous possession of endless life" or Aquinian "simultaneous-whole" figuring in the description of divine timelessness.
Some atemporalists, such as Paul Helm, would agree with Hasker in understanding the statement about simultaneity in the Boethian/Aquinian formula as a metaphor.34 Using metaphors and analogies to explain some idea can be very helpful as a heuristic device to make the idea intelligible. Nevertheless, explanations by metaphors and analogies cannot be sufficient to verify the coherence of a philosophical conception if the conception prima facie integrates mutually exclusive concepts, such as 'simultaneous' and 'lack of temporal location'.
There are some attempts to explain the Boethian formula, such as Stump and Kretzmann's concepts of eternal-temporal (ET) simultaneity and atemporal duration. ET-simultaneity is constructed by appealing to the analogy of the Special Theory of Relativity, where modes of existence (eternal and temporal modes) are thought of as analogous with reference frames. The basic idea is as follows. Let X be some eternal being and let Y be some temporal being. These two are ET-simultaneous if and only if:
relative to some observer in the eternal reference frame, X is eternally present and Y is observed as temporally present; and
relative to some observer in any temporal reference frame, X is observed as eternally present and Y is temporally present.
Stump and Kretzmann believe that their account is immune to Kenny's and Swinburne's kind of objections because ET-simultaneity is neither reflexive nor transitive. Rather, ET-simultaneity posits a relation between entities where one is eternal and the other is temporal. The pertinent question is whether their account of ET-simultaneity explains the relation of X and Y being both present when one of the relata is temporal and the other is eternal. As Hasker notes:
For an entity to be temporal, after all, just is for the entity's existence to be spread out in a temporal sequence--but in eternity, nothing exists in temporal sequence, so how can a temporal "y" be present in eternity? Again, to be eternal means to exist in a "total present" without temporal sequence, whereas time is precisely the medium of temporal succession, so how can an eternal "x" be present in time? If there are not good answers to these question, the notion of ET-simultaneity will collapse.35
Many other philosophers36 have put forward serious objections towards Stump and Kretzmann's concept of ET-simultaneity, characterizing it as obscure or explanatorily vacuous.37 Moreover, it has been pointed out that the appeal to the analogy of the Special Theory of Relativity represents a misapplication of the theory.38
For these reasons, Kenny's and Swinburne's arguments from simultaneity remain in force.
Nevertheless, an atemporalist theologian would insist that God would lack fullness of life if He were essentially temporal. For instance, according to Paul Helm, God's perfection does not allow that "God [be] subject to the vicissitudes of temporal passage, with more and more of his life irretrievably over and done with."39 But is it true that God's perfection precludes His undergoing changes through time? Would God's life be irretrievably lost with the passage of time? While it is true for human beings that their lives deteriorate with age, this is not the case with God. His wisdom, moral character and power remain the same with the passage of time. That is what we mean by saying that God is immutable: God does not change with respect to His essential attributes over time. Moreover, God has a perfect memory by virtue of His perfect omniscience, and through this perfect memory God can re-experience past moments in complete detail if He so wishes. From these considerations, we can conclude that God does not lose anything of His life through the passage of time.
Traditional theology maintains that God has created the world timelessly. The problem is to make sense of such an idea. A standard explanation among traditionalists is that God's act of creation was the cause of the world's existence, but this causation should not be understood as something that temporarily preceded the effect, i.e., the world's existence, or that the act of creation had temporal duration. The act of creation as a cause was an instantaneous event, as Aquinas explains:
First, we should show that it is not necessary that an agent cause, in this case God, precede in time that which he causes, if he should so will. This can be shown in several ways. First, no cause instantaneously producing its effect necessarily precedes the effect in time. God, however, is a cause that produces effects not through motion but instantaneously. Therefore, it is not necessary that he precede his effects in time. … But in an instantaneous action, the beginning and the end of the action are simultaneous, indeed identical, as is clear in the case of all indivisible things. Hence, at whatever moment an agent instantaneously producing an effect exists, the end of its action can exist as well. The end of the action, however, is simultaneous with the thing made. Therefore, there is no contradiction if we suppose that a cause instantaneously producing an effect does not precede its effect in time.40
The explanation above argues for the idea that God's creation of the world was an instantaneous causation, where the cause, viz., the divine action of creation, did not temporarily precede the produced effect, viz., the world's existence, but was rather instantaneous and simultaneous with the effect. The problem with the explanation is that it only focuses upon one temporal relation between the cause and its effect, namely the relation of temporal priority, where the cause temporally precedes its effect. However, it seems that Aquinas overlooks another temporal relation that is present in an instantaneous causation, even though he himself mentions it in the quoted passage, namely the relation of being temporally simultaneous, where the cause is temporally simultaneous with its effect. Although the cause (the divine act of creation) did not precede the effect (the world's existence), it nevertheless has a temporal relation with its effect, namely the relation of simultaneity.
There are two eternalist conceptions of divine creation. The first one views the act of creation as an instantaneous event initiated, as discussed above. The second one does not view the act of creation as an event, but rather as a metaphysical relation of dependence, where the world's existence completely depends on God's power. We will discuss both views.
The Creation as an Event
If the creation was an event that marks the beginning of the created world, an eternalist41 has much explaining to do. The most challenging task is to explain how God can create the temporal world without having a temporal relation with the world. An eternalist has to meet objections such as those raised in the section "The Negative Characterization of Divine Timelessness," where one has to make sense of the term 'before' when talking about the nonexistence of the world before its creation. We have seen the difficulties that arise when the standard temporal sense of 'before' is not allowed in an atemporalist theological framework. If the world had a beginning, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that there was time before the world's formation, namely the time when the world did not exist. For this reason, it is not easy to make sense of terms such as 'beginning' and 'before' if they are devoid of their standard temporal meanings. In the absence of plausible atemporal meanings of these terms, the eternalist view of creation is problematic.
Moreover, at the beginning of the world, God enters into a new metaphysical relation, namely the relation of being the creator and the sustainer of our temporal world. A sempiternalist42 questions how God can remain timelessly immutable as the initiator of the substantial metaphysical change in reality effected by His act of creation. There are two problems.
First, how can God remain immutable if He exercises power that brings change? One cannot meaningfully talk about a change of some object without using temporal terms. For instance, if I paint a white ball with red paint, the ball will change its color. Before my act of painting, the ball had a different color (white) than the one after the painting (red). We cannot make sense of the change without using temporal terms 'before' and 'after'. Would not the agent, however, whose actions changed some object, also be changed during the performance of the action, regardless of whether the action is instantaneous? Prior to the action, the agent was passive with respect to the action in question, while during the action, they were active. Likewise, would not God be passive before His act of creation, yet active at the creation of the world, if the world had a beginning and the creation were an event marking the beginning of the world?
Second, with His act of creation, God enters into new relations that were absent in His timeless sphere of existence, namely relations with our temporal world--such as the relation of sustaining it. These relations were not present before the event of creation; God had no relations with a non-divine agent. We will discuss two possible eternalist replies commonly found in the literature.
First, an eternalist following the traditional view of divine eternity, with the Boethian formula "the complete and simultaneous possession of endless life," can argue that God timelessly has a relation with all times of the world at once; He encompasses all times. However, as we have seen in the section discussing the positive characterization of divine timelessness, this Boethian formula lacks a coherently intelligible explanation.
Second, an eternalist might reply that divine relations to the world are not intrinsic to God's being, so there is no intrinsic change involved with God.43 Even if it is granted that such change is not intrinsic, it is problematic to maintain God's timelessness in view of certain extrinsic relations that bring mutability into some of His essential attributes. One such extrinsic relation is His knowledge of tense facts, which are constantly in flux given their temporal character, as for instance the fact that Barak Obama is the current president of the United States now, in October 2015 (at the time of writing). This fact is true at present, but it was false before January 20, 2009. Since God is omniscient, God undergoes a change with respect to His knowledge of tense facts given their temporal nature. Omniscience is an essential attribute that is unique to God; God would not be God if He were not omniscient. How can God be timeless, given the mutability of one of His essential attributes? (As we have seen, immutability and timelessness are logically connected concepts; if something is not immutable, it is not timeless.)
The Creation as a Metaphysical Relation
Some eternalists, such as Paul Helm, seem to concede that it is an impossible task to make sense of the divine act of creation if it is understood as a temporal event:
Of course if [God's creation] is a temporal event then we can raise the question whether God exists before (temporally) that event, or at the time of that event, and if the answer to such questions is yes (as it appears that it would have to be) then God's timeless eternity would be fatally compromised. But then God would not cease to be timelessly eternal, for he would never have been so.44
For this reason eternalists do not regard the creation as an event at all, but rather as a metaphysical order where the world is contingent upon God's timeless will and decrees: the world exists because God decreed its existence. Its existence is not metaphysically necessary, because it could have happened that God did not decree the world's existence. In other words, the world's existence is not necessary, but rather contingent.45
Both eternalists and sempiternalists46 agree that the world's existence is contingent, but disagree on the question whether the contingency of the world implies that the world has a beginning. An eternalist can allow that the world has always existed, but its existence is due to God's timeless creation of the world. For instance, Aquinas' On The Eternity of the World argues that it is not logically contradictory to maintain both that God created the world and that the world is beginningless. Contemporary eternalists, such as Paul Helm, follow Aquinas' view:
The eternalist argues that God has a relation to the universe that he might not have had, and that nevertheless this relation is eternal. … There is a tendency to confuse time with contingency. Scripture implies, if it does not affirm, the contingency of the universe in two respects: that its existence is not logically necessary, and that it owes its existence to the agency of God--it depends on him. But it does not follow from the contingency of the universe in these senses that there was a time when the world was not, only that there might not have been a universe. If the universe is beginningless, without a first event, it does not follow from this that it is not contingent.47
It is interesting that an eternalist allows for the world to have a temporal beginningless existence, but denies this to God--something that it is quite counterintuitive for the sempiternalist position. Nevertheless, the eternalist's interpretation of the term 'create' is distorted when compared to the standard, common sense meaning of the term. In biblical hermeneutics, we should prefer a standard, natural meaning of the words unless there are compelling textual reasons for adopting a non-standard meaning. The eternalist's motivation for adopting such a highly counterintuitive interpretation of God's creative act is philosophical, since it would be a much more challenging task to explain the timelessness of God's creative act if the world had a beginning in time.
A further objection to the eternalist's view of God's creation is that God does not appear to be great as the creator of the world if the world is merely sustained, rather than formed out of nothing. As Craig notes, the eternalist view of God's creation implies that
God never really brings the universe into being; as a whole it coexists timelessly with him.
Such an emasculated doctrine of creatio ex nihilo does not do justice to the biblical data, which gives us clearly to understand that God and the universe do not timelessly coexist but that the actual world includes a state of affairs that is God's existing alone without the universe.48
A sempiternalist understands God's creation of the world in the terms of formation, viz., something that comes into being. This is possible only if we suppose a temporal order of reality: there was a particular moment in time when the world came into being, prior to which it did not exist. This understanding is a common sense understanding, which is powerfully supported by the Bible, as we discuss in our article "God's Everlasting Nature and His Creativity."
In this article, we have examined the traditional view of divine timelessness and reached the conclusion that the view is conceptually incoherent. The traditional view is motivated by two related doctrines: (1) God's absolute immutability, and (2) God's transcendence.
With respect to divine immutability, we have seen that the doctrine of absolute immutability is not based upon a sound argument. Given the questionable character of the traditional idea of divine immutability, the doctrine of divine timelessness becomes a less attractive position to maintain.
With respect to divine transcendence, God's timelessness constitutes a kind of divine transcendence that leads to incoherence or meaningless theological discourse when trying to make sense of the idea of the creation of time.
At the end of the article, we have shown how the doctrine of God's timelessness is at odds with the doctrine of divine creation.
This article focuses primarily on philosophical objections against the doctrine of God's timelessness. However, we also have biblical reasons for believing that the doctrine of God's timelessness is false. The biblical reasons for our view are explained in our article "God's Everlasting Nature and His Creativity."
This version of the argument is taken from J. R. Lucas, The Future (Basil Blackwell Ltd., Cambridge, 1989), p. 216.↩︎
Alan G. Padgett, "Eternity as Relative Timelessness," in: God & Time - Four Views, ed. Gregory E. Ganssle (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2001), p. 109.↩︎
J. R. Lucas, The Future (Basil Blackwell Ltd., Cambridge, 1989), p. 216.↩︎
For a detailed demonstration, see for instance Nelson Pike, God and Timelessness (Wipf and Stock Publishers, Eugene, OR, 2002), ch. 3.↩︎
Nelson Pike, God and Timelessness (Wipf and Stock Publishers, Eugene, OR, 2002), p. 39.↩︎
Ibid., p. 42.↩︎
Ibid., pp. 42-44, where Pike offers an argument for the claim that the immutability of God entails God's timelessness.↩︎
A formal rigorous formulation of the conclusion, following Pike's notation, is as follows: "N(x) (If x is God, then N(x lacks temporal position and extension))" entails and is entailed by "N(x) (If x is God, then N(x does not change))," where 'N' means 'necessarily' or 'it could not fail that'; see Pike, op. cit., 46.↩︎
Lucas, op. cit., p. 215.↩︎
Anselm, Proslogium, Translated by Sidney Norton Deane, ch. 19, p. 50, in: St. Anselm Basic Writings (Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Grand Rapids, MI, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/anselm/basic_works.pdf, accessed 10 October 2015).↩︎
Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, ed. James J. Buchanan (Frederick Ungarn, New York, NY, 1957), Book 5, Prose 6.↩︎
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Translated by Father Laurence Shapcote of the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, I, Q. 10, Art. 1, in: Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 17 (Encyclopædia Britannica, Chicago, IL, 1994).↩︎
Summa Theologica, I, Q. 10, Art. 1, ad. 5.↩︎
Summa Theologica, I, Q. 10, Art. 4, s. c.↩︎
For a detailed exposition of this interpretation, see Pike, op. cit., ch. 1.↩︎
Pike, op. cit., p. 11.↩︎
Paul Helm, "Divine Timeless Eternity," in: God & Time, p. 30.↩︎
Augustine, The Confessions, Translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin, Book XI, ch. 13, in: Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 16, (Encyclopædia Britannica, Chicago, IL, 1994).↩︎
Anselm, Monologium, Translated by Sidney Norton Deane, ch. 21, p. 94, in: St. Anselm Basic Writings (Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Grand Rapids, MI, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/anselm/basic_works.pdf, accessed 10 October 2015).↩︎
According to William Hasker, the principle was formulated by William P. Alston; see William Hasker, God, Time, and Knowledge (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 1989), p. 178.↩︎
The principle of non-contradiction states that an unambiguous assertoric statement and its negation cannot be both true at the same time. Alternatively formulated, contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time, e.g., the two propositions "A is B" and "A is not B" are mutually exclusive.↩︎
Stephen T. Davis, Logic and the Nature of God (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1983), p. 24.↩︎
Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, A203/B248-49.↩︎
See for instance Robin Le Poidevin, Change, Cause and Contradiction (Palgrave Macmillan, 1991), ch. 6 “Causation and Simultaneity,” where Robin Le Poidevin gives a "proof that causes are never – arguably, could never be – simultaneous with their effects."↩︎
Pike, op. cit., pp. 7, 10.↩︎
Nicholas Wolterstorff, "Response to Paul Helm" in: God & Time, p. 74.↩︎
Joshua Hoffman & Garry S. Rosenkrantz, The Divine Attributes (Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2002), pp. 98-99.↩︎
Richard Swinburne, The Coherence of Theism (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1977), pp. 220-21. Anthony Kenny, The God of the Philosophers (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1979), pp. 38-39.↩︎
Richard Swinburne, The Coherence of Theism (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1977), pp. 220-221.↩︎
Anthony Kenny, The God of the Philosophers (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1979), pp. 38-39.↩︎
A transitive relation R is defined as follows: If A is related to B, and B is related to C, then A is related to C as well. Simultaneity is a transitive relation between events: if an event E1 is simultaneous with E2, and E2 with E3, then E1 is also simultaneous with E3.↩︎
William Hasker, God, Time, and Knowledge (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 1989), p. 163.↩︎
Helm, op. cit., pp. 37-38.↩︎
Hasker, op. cit., p. 164.↩︎
J. R. Lucas, William Lane Craig, Joshua Hoffman and Garry S. Rosenkrantz, Stephen T. Davies, William Hasker, Paul Helm, etc.↩︎
See for instance William L. Craig, "Timelessness & Omnitemporality," in: God & Time, p. 142; Davies, op. cit., p. 20.↩︎
Lucas, op. cit., pp. 218-221.↩︎
Helm, op. cit., pp. 30-31.↩︎
Thomas Aquinas, On The Eternity of the World, Translated by Robert T. Miller, paragraphs 7-8 (Internet Medieval Source Book, Paul Halsall, 1997, Fordham University website, http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/aquinas-eternity.asp, last accessed 3 October 2015).↩︎
For the sake of simplicity, we will reserve the term 'eternalist' for someone who subscribes to the doctrine of a timeless God, while 'sempiternalist' refers to someone who denies the eternalist doctrine.↩︎
For the use of the terms 'eternalist' and 'sempiternalist', see note 41.↩︎
Such a reply was Aquinas' solution to the problem of God's timeless relation to the temporal world. See Craig's discussion about this problem in his article "Timelessness and Omnitemporality," in: Philosophia Christi, Series 2, Vol. 2, No. 1, 2000, pp. 29-33.↩︎
Helm, op. cit., pp. 48-49.↩︎
A contingent relation or truth is one that is not metaphysically necessary. For instance, one contingent truth is that the planet Earth has one natural moon. This truth is contingent because it is not metaphysically necessary: it is possible to imagine that the earth could have more than one moon. Notice that 'contingence' is defined in terms of metaphysical necessity, namely something that is not metaphysically necessary. Metaphysical necessity is understood as the strictest form of necessity, i.e., a relation of things, actions, or events that must obtain no matter what. In other words, a metaphysical relation of things, actions, or events is necessary if and only if the description of the relation is logically true. In modal logical terms, a logical true proposition is true in all possible worlds. A possible world, in modal logic, can be understood as a possible imagined situation, both real and not real, e.g., a situation where the planet Earth is the third planet from the sun, or where the grass is pink, etc.↩︎
For the use of the terms 'eternalist' and 'sempiternalist', see note 41.↩︎
Helm, op.cit., p. 50.↩︎
William Lane Craig, "Response to Paul Helm: William Lane Craig," in: God & Time, p. 66.↩︎