A Reflection on God, Time, and Eternity

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“As a result of God’s creation of, and entry into time, He is now with us literally moment by moment as we live and breathe, sharing our every second.  He is and will be always with us.” ~ William Lane Craig

 

Recently, I had the great pleasure of getting to take a class with Dr. William Lane Craig during my last semester of graduate school. The subject was the relationship of God to time – a subject for which Craig has pioneered some fascinating and important research. This opportunity was such a gift for me, too! I cannot express how indebted I feel to him and his ministry, Reasonable Faith, for helping me through a season of doubt in which I came very close to abandoning my belief in God. (I really wanted to give him a big hug, but Dr. Craig doesn’t seem like a hugger, so I refrained. I’ll give him one in heaven someday.)

Dr. Craig’s view of God’s relationship to time is novel, to say the least, as he rejects the classical view that God exists outside of time. I believe that he has very convincingly shown this view’s weaknesses. Craig’s conclusion is that God is timeless sans creation but temporal subsequent to the moment He created space/time.

Below are some of my reflections on the class. I hope you enjoy reading them and your curiosity is piqued to delve deeper into this very important topic.

The Biblical Testimony of God’s Relationship With Time 

Though the bulk of Scripture affirms that God engages in temporal activities with His creation (like foreknowing the future, remembering the past, or existing eternally in terms of temporal duration), it also contains some key passages that indicate that He transcends time. These passages are all concerned with His acts of creation. Dr. Craig remarks that “it may well be the case that in the context of the doctrine of creation the biblical writers were led to reflect on God’s relationship to time and chose to affirm His transcendence.” This is in contrast to the bulk of Scripture that speaks of His intimate interaction with His creation and His people. In other words, the relative dearth of references to God’s timelessness as compared to his temporality may merely reflect the fact that far fewer passages touch on the doctrine of creation. Scripture is more concerned with God’s activity in time with his creatures.

In the Old Testament, the two pertinent passages are Gen. 1.1 and Prov. 8.22-23. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” speaks of an absolute beginning of space and time. This is reinforced just a few verses later with “there was evening and there was morning, one day.”

The New Testament seems to support this interpretation in several places, as well, the most important of which is the prologue to John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” This speaks to the Word’s pre-existence in relation to all created things, like time. Also, John’s adoption of Philo’s term Logos (Word) indicates that the original hearers would have connected it with Philo’s understanding that time began with creation. So, as echoing both the Genesis account and Philo’s teachings, the opening part of John lends support to the idea of God’s timelessness – that time is a created thing.

Harkening back to Genesis 1, Proverbs 8:22-23 also speaks of a beginning of time. In this passage, Wisdom speaks, saying, “The LORD possessed me at the beginning of His way,/ Before His works of old./ From everlasting I was established, /From the beginning, from the earliest times of the earth.” Wisdom emphasizes both her antiquity and the fact that there was a point at which she began – she came into existence at the beginning of time.

In the New Testament, Jude 25 speaks of time’s beginning (“before time began”), Titus 1:2-3 and II Timothy 1:9 both speak of a “before age-long time,” and 1 Corinthians 2:7 speaks of God’s decree before the ages (which points back to similar language in the Septuagint translation of Psalm 54:20 which describes God as “the one who exists before the ages”). Finally, in several passages the writers reference God and His decrees existing before the foundations of the world – Jn. 17.24; Eph. 1.4; I Pet. 1.20; cf. Rev. 13.8. All of these confirm that the New Testament writers thought of God as existing before the beginning of the ages of time, making Him atemporal sans creation.

In the end, two contradictory pictures arise: a God that creates time and a God that engages with time in such a way to suggest that He is temporal and eternal. Most commentators concede that “the biblical data concerning God’s relationship to time are indeterminative.” Some even conclude, like Paul Davies, that the doctrine of God as presented in the Bible is incoherent because He cannot be both temporal and timeless. This leads Dr. Craig and others to conclude that in order to establish a coherent doctrine of time that speaks to both pictures, one must resort to philosophical rather than biblical theology

What is the relation between God and time?

Craig’s view is as follows: God is timeless without (or sans) the universe and temporal with the universe. Time began with God’s first creative act – the creation of time and space. This creative act would also be the first moment of time at which God exists. God’s decision to create a temporal world reveals His decision to move from atemporal existence to temporality, from timelessness to an everlasting temporality. For Craig, this is the best way to resolve the tension in Scripture that pictures God as both temporal (existing eternally) and timeless.

I am reminded of a passage from one of Augustine’s homilies on I John. Though he refers to God’s relationship to time in the classical sense, his words can also be applied to this view: “For you He became temporal, that you might become eternal…” God freely entered time when He created the universe, supremely relational being that He is.

There are many reasons to accept this view as more plausible than the classical view of God’s continued timelessness outside of created time. According to Craig, the classical view is driven by the controversial philosophical doctrines of divine simplicity and immutability. These doctrines paint a picture of an immovable, removed, and Aristotelian God. Yet, this picture flatly contradicts the one that Scripture paints of God being intimately associated with his creatures (not to mention that it seems to commit us to a tenseless, B theory of time which has many additional difficulties – though B-theory does make for some great science fiction).

Craig’s view preserves the very personal nature of God’s activity in human history while keeping His sovereignty and knowledge of the future intact (given a Molinist model of scientia media as including a conceptual knowledge of future contingent truths). Also, the view that God moves from atemporal existence to temporality at creation rests on the more plausible A theory of time, thus our intuition that past, present, and future are indeed real is preserved (a tensed view of time as opposed to a tenseless one).

How does God’s relation to time change the way we think of His relationship with us? 

With this, I go back to reinterpret the passage from Augustine’s beautiful homily on 1 John:

“The river of temporal things hurries one along: but like a tree sprung up beside the river is our Lord Jesus Christ. He assumed flesh, died, rose again, ascended into heaven. It was His will to plant Himself, in a manner, beside the river of the things of time. Are you rushing down the stream to the headlong deep? Hold fast the tree. Is love of the world whirling you on? Hold fast Christ. For you He became temporal, that you might become eternal; because He also in such sort became temporal, that He remained still eternal. Something was added to Him from time, not anything went from His eternity. But you were born temporal, and by sin wast made temporal: you were made temporal by sin, He was made temporal by mercy in remitting sins.”

Though the passage most likely speaks of the classical view that God exists outside of time, it can also be reinterpreted with Craig’s view that has God entering time at the moment He created it.

Unlike the classical picture of a God that is somehow trapped in an immutable transcendence far removed from temporal contingencies, Craig’s view speaks of a God that would not be limited by His transcendence, but is so intimately connected with His creation, He enters it in the act of creating – not merely in the Incarnation, as classical theorists would have. This is why Jesus says that we can call God Abba, Father. This is how we can become His children in a very real sense, not merely from our own perspective (as Aquinas would indicate with his analogical view). It’s hard to imagine Aquinas’s immutable, immovable, emotionless God as father-like. Craig’s view makes God more personal. Of course, He is super-personal as implied by the Trinity, so this view is consistent with that other, most essential doctrine of our faith.

Providentially, it tells me that God does not merely exist outside all of the pains and difficulties of temporal existence – looking at all of time as a timeline of events like a student studies history. He looks along time, with us. He is not like Shakespeare, perusing the pages of a book of his plays. Instead, God is a playwright that enters the play. He knew before Creation what would happen (in His timeless state), and then entered time and experiences it like we do.

In addition, He experiences the passage of time – except with perfect knowledge of what is to come and with perfect recall, so He does not experience memories in the same, often regret-tinged way that we do.

All of this only increases the intimacy that God has with His Creation and with us (His middle knowledge presupposes perfect knowledge of us – “before a word is on our tongue, He knows it!”). The metaphor of a playwright and his play, as powerful as it is, is not sufficient in conveying the intimacy God has with us.

So, all in all, I am both confounded and comforted that God entered time for my sake. For humans, the experience of time is a double-edged sword. We can’t return to the past, which at times causes deep pain, and we cannot see the future – we have to practice the virtue of hope when it comes to this unknown, resting in our faith in God’s goodness.

It’s comforting that God is with us right here, right now, experiencing the passage of time as we do, but perfectly. Being with us, He is the everlasting tree to which we can cling when we are overwhelmed with the ravages of time.


My favorite part of the class? When Dr. Craig read this passage from Little House in the Big Woods – one of my favorite books as a child.

Dr. Craig: “The fleeting nature of temporal life was brought home to me unexpectedly and powerfully when our children Charity and John were small, as I read aloud to them Laura Ingalls Wilder’s account of life in the American Midwest during the late 1800s in her Little House in the Big Woods.  Here are the final paragraphs of that book:

The long winter evenings of firelight and music had come again . . . . Pa’s strong, sweet voice was softly singing:

‘Shall auld acquaintance be forgot,

And never brought to mind?

Shall auld acquaintance be forgot,

And the days of auld lang syne?

And the days of auld lang syne, my friend,

And the days of auld lang syne,

Shall auld acquaintance be forgot,

And the days of auld lang syne?’

When the fiddle had stopped singing Laura called out softly, ‘What are days of auld lang syne, Pa?’

‘They are the days of a long time ago, Laura,’ Pa said.  ‘Go to sleep, now.’

But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa’s fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods.  She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the firelight gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle.  She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting.

She thought to herself, ‘This is now.’

She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now.  They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now.  It can never be a long time ago.[1]

What makes this passage so poignant is that as we read it today we realize that the time which for Laura Ingalls was so real, was ‘now,’ is no longer now, but is gone forever.  Pa and Ma are gone, the American frontier which they struggled to win is gone, the years which Laura Ingalls called ‘those happy golden days’ are all gone, gone forever, never to be reclaimed.  Time has a savage way of gnawing away at life, leaving it transitory and incomplete, so that life in its fullness can never be enjoyed by any temporal being.” ~Dr. Craig

But as the opening quote says: “As a result of God’s creation of, and entry into time, He is now with us literally moment by moment as we live and breathe, sharing our every second.  He is and will be always with us.” ~ William Lane Craig

Until the end of the age.

For more on Craig’s views on God and Time, here is an interview he gave for PBS’ “Closer to Truth” –

Part One: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T3N_RAvksP4

Part Two: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VbirUdSnZLU

[1] Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods (New York:  Harper & Row, 1932), pp.237-8.

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One thought on “A Reflection on God, Time, and Eternity

  1. Have you ever thought of looking at these ideas from the perspective of physics? A book called The Physics of God, though written by a non-believer, brings up some fascinating possibilities. It reminded me very much of the cosmic dance at the end of C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra.

    Liked by 1 person

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