The Evangelical and The Open Theist

Issues of Time and Timelessness

Hubble Peers at the Heart of a Spiral Galaxy

x Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center under CC 2.0.

What follows is an excerpt from my book The Evangelical and The Open Theist. This is the last of two posts specifically addressing divine foreknowledge. 

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While the nature of time is beyond the scope of this book and indeed far beyond the scope of this field of study, some have attempted to use scientific understandings of time to argue in favor of traditional theism. I generally believe this type of approach to theological studies to be a mistake, conflating two separate areas of study that rarely intersect. Nevertheless, for the sake of these arguments, open theists must recognize scientific discoveries applicable to their philosophical model of time.

According to modern scientific theory, there was a time prior to the big bang when the entire universe was compacted into an infinitesimally small and infinitely dense state of existence. In this condition, all scientific laws were nonexistent, at least in the sense that modern science understands them. Any events that may have occurred “prior” to this time are insignificant for they would have no effect on present conditions because those events would not have any observable consequences. “One may say that time had a beginning at the big bang, in the sense that earlier times simply would not be defined.”[1]

Of course, this opens up another controversial debate surrounding the interpretation of Genesis 1 in relation to modern science, which is well beyond the scope of this book. Suffice it to say that God could have created the universe through the big bang, or he could have created an expanding universe that only suggests a big bang. The point is simply that the universe’s state of constant expansion “does not preclude a creator, but it does place limits on when he might have carried out his job!”[2] This is all simply to say that the human concept of time has no meaning prior to the existence of the universe.[3] God’s existence prior to the creation of the universe therefore demands that time is not an eternally existent entity with God.

Clearly then, God is beyond the scope of, or “above,” time. Since time and space are not completely separable concepts but rather exist in combination with one another to form one object referred to as space-time,[4] it stands to reason that time requires space and mass to exist, and temporal experience, as far as science can tell, applies only to that which is bound by space-time.[5] Therefore, God, as creator of the universe, is not bound by space-time and therefore must not experience time in the same way as human beings.

Einstein’s general theory of relativity states that space and time both act upon and are acted upon by every occurrence in the universe because “when a body moves, or a force acts, it affects the curvature of space and time—and in turn the structure of space-time affects the way in which bodies move and forces act.”[6] Consequently, to talk about the application or existence of space-time outside of the universe is meaningless.[7] To apply the human temporal experience to God is therefore problematic, unless Christians accept God as existing only within realm of this universe. This may be acceptable to some forms of process thought, but not to open—or evangelical—theology. The argument that God experiences time just as humans do is not an accurate expression of open theism.

Contrary to popular belief, however, Einstein’s theory of relativity did not demonstrate time to be an illusion. Rather, it disproved the Newtonian and Aristotelian concepts of time. Newton and Aristotle both believed that the time between two events could be measured unambiguously no matter who measured it. This understanding presents time as existing independent of space, an understanding which science has demonstrated to be untenable.[8]

In other words, the theory of relativity put an end to the idea of absolute time! It appeared that each observer must have his own measure of time, as recorded by a clock carried by him, and that identical clocks carried by different observers would not necessarily agree.[9]

An individual’s relative experience of time is affected by that individual’s proximity to bodies of extreme mass and the speed at which the individual is traveling relative to the speed of light. For example, an individual living on a mountain will age faster relative to an individual living at the mountain’s base,[10] and an individual traveling in a rocket ship near the speed of light will age significantly slower in relation to an individual who remains on earth. This seems to be paradoxical, but there is only a paradox if the concept of absolute time is presupposed. “In the theory of relativity, there is no unique absolute time, but instead each individual has his own personal measure of time that depends on where he is and how he is moving.”[11]

According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, human beings rely on light to carry information of reality to them because “if light cannot get from one region to another, no other information can.”[12] Therefore, all human experience is delayed by the amount of time it takes light to transmit that information.

For example, if the sun were to cease to shine at this very moment, it would not affect things on earth at the present time because they would be in the elsewhere of the event when the sun went out. We would know about it only after eight minutes, the time it takes light to reach us from the sun. Only then would events on earth lie in the future light cone of the event at which the sun went out. Similarly, we do not know what is happening at the moment farther away in the universe: the light that we see from distance galaxies left them millions of years ago, and in the case of the most distant object that we have seen, the light left some eight thousand million years ago. Thus, when we look at the universe, we are seeing it as it was in the past.[13]

Even a common occurrence, such as a plate falling and shattering on the floor, becomes the present for an observer after the event actually happened relative to the plate because the observer must wait on the light reflected from the event to reach him. While the delay is incomprehensibly small, because of the finitude of the speed of light, there is a delay nonetheless.

It stands to reason, then, that God as an infinite being would not be dependent on light for his information, but would rather receive his information immediately. Indeed, returning to the example of distant galaxies, from our perspective, there are places in the universe where God—relative to us—sees “eight thousand million years” into the future. Considered in this light, God’s knowledge of future events takes on a more complex and nuanced form.

God’s “time” would therefore become absolute time. As an infinite being, God is able to reference one all-encompassing single point in time, an experience impossible for finite beings.

This means that God’s experience of others is not dependent on (relative to) the speed of light. He doesn’t need to “wait” for information to arrive to him via the speed of light. He is “there” when the information originates. This means that for God—but for no one else—there can be an all-embracing “now” in which all the relative “nows” experienced by finite observers coincide.[14]

Science simply has nothing to say about how God experiences time or reality, but it does demonstrate human limitations in the experiencing of reality, suggesting that there are limitations in human experience that do not apply to God. This, however, does not negate sequential experience in the divine understanding of reality.

The issue is not time itself. The issue is experience. Open theists argue that God can exist outside of time—as we understand it—while still experiencing reality sequentially, rather than in some sort of eternal now. That being said, however, Christians should be careful how they apply the laws of science to their metaphysical understanding of God, since science has nothing to say about the supernatural realm. The scientific understanding of time as real (though relative) implies that it is real to humanity and so must be real to God insofar as he relates to humanity, but it says nothing about how God experiences reality in relation to himself.

In reality, the issue of God’s existence outside of time, or his timelessness, is a product of theological and not scientific thought, most notably immutability (discussed above). From Parmenides to Plato to Plotinus, philosophical thought finds that perfection both metaphysically and valuationally necessitates permanence over change. God must therefore be changeless. This philosophical school of thought developed a strong doctrine of divine immutability which gave rise to the doctrine of divine timelessness, “since timelessness is the most effective way (and perhaps the only way) to rule out, once and for all, the possibility of change in God.”[15]

The implications of this doctrine are immense, for if

God were to experience two moments in time simultaneously, they would have to be simultaneous and thus the same moment! The view that God “sees” all moments in time simultaneously entails that all time is reduced to one moment. Our experience of temporal succession would then be an illusion. But if there is no real temporal succession there would be no real change either, and impetratory prayer for things to happen would become meaningless.[16]

There is simply no real scriptural basis to support the elaborate metaphysical paradigm developed to support divine timelessness.[17] Furthermore, it is simply too difficult to make sense of the doctrine. How can a timeless God residing in a static existence act in history, be aware of developing earthly circumstances and events, or respond to his people as he does throughout Scripture? How can he become a human being and experience life and reality as any other man? Moreover, its strong connection with the now widely dismissed doctrine of divine simplicity should give pause to those so quick to accept it as dogma.[18]

Evangelicalism is the branch of Christian thought most synonymous with a strong reliance on biblical authority. There seems to be no justification for making divine timelessness and whatever it entails a tenet of evangelical theology considering its lack of biblical support. At some point, Ockham’s razor should come into play. If God reveals himself as a God experiencing events sequentially along with his people and interacting with his people within time, then God probably does experience reality sequentially. Developing elaborate and complex systematic and philosophical understandings of God’s relationship to time without compelling biblical evidence to do so seems unnecessary when a much simpler explanation is so readily available. Developing complex arguments that straightforward biblical passages are simply phenomenological, not corresponding to an ontological reality, is hermeneutically and philosophically irresponsible.

For the sake of argument, however, what if, as an ontological reality, God is timeless in the traditional sense (experiencing reality in an eternal now)? What value is there in ascribing such a state to God being as such an expression of “reality” is meaningless to time-bound humanity? How can those who are time-bound begin to comprehend what it means to be outside of time? Perhaps God does not experience reality sequentially, but such an understanding of reality is beyond the grasp of those who do.

This is demonstrated even in the way proponents of divine timelessness describe the doctrine. Words and phrases such as “simultaneous experience,” “eternal now,” and “all moments” demonstrate the human inability to understand a timeless reality, since they are all temporal words. Proponents of divine timelessness are unable to explain their position without reverting to temporal vocabulary, rendering the tenability of the doctrine at the very least suspect.

How can human beings even attempt to grasp what the experience of static reality, apart from sequential experience, entails? How can human beings begin to understand what characterizes a non-sequential reality? “We can say that God is temporal because we can only speak of him as he exists in relation to us. Whatever eternity means, it cannot contradict the truth that God is temporally related to us as creatures.”[19]

Through Scripture, God has revealed himself to humanity through a diminished, finite manifestation of himself, which can only be assumed to be as true to his infinite, undiminished self as humanity can possibly comprehend. God is, by nature, unknowable. He allows man to know him, however, by accommodating to his finitude and condescending to his level. Attempts to ascend to God’s level in an effort to attain a knowledge of reality mankind cannot possibly grasp is counterproductive to theological pursuits. As Augustine stated in his own contemplation of God’s relationship to time,

If anyone finds your simultaneity beyond his understanding, it is not for me to explain it. Let him be content to say “What is this?” (Exod. 16:15). So too let him rejoice and delight in finding you who are beyond discovery rather than fail to find you by supposing you to be discoverable.[20]

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[1] Stephen Hawking, The Illustrated A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), 14.

[2] Ibid., 14-15.

[3] Ibid., 13.

[4] Ibid., 34.

[5] Obviously, this section on time is an overwhelmingly simplistic rendering of modern scientific understandings. Theoretical concepts such as the finite but boundless nature of space-time (see Hawking, 145) or issues created by antimatter, black holes, and wormholes are well beyond the realm of this book’s purpose and my own expertise.

[6] Ibid., 44.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 28.

[9] Ibid., 32.

[10] “This is because there is a relation between the energy of light and its frequency (that is, the number of waves of light per second): the greater the energy, the higher the frequency. As light travels upward in the earth’s gravitational field, it loses energy, and so its frequency goes down. (This means that the length of time between one wave crest and the next goes up). To someone high up, it would appear that everything down below was taking longer to happen” (Hawking, 43).

[11] Ibid., 43-44.

[12] Ibid., 156.

[13] Ibid., 38.

[14] Boyd, God of the Possible, 132-33.

[15] Hasker, 129.

[16] Keith Ward, Divine Action. London: Collins, 1990, 163, quoted in Terrance Tiessen, Providence & Prayer: How Does God Work in the World? (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 83-84.

[17] Hasker, 128. Open theists could argue that God is timeless in the sense that he exists outside humanity’s understanding and experience of time. Divine timelessness here and throughout the remainder of this argument refers to the traditional understanding of divine timelessness, that is, God does not experience a sequential reality.

[18] Hasker, 128-29.

[19] Tiessen, 82.

[20] Augustine, Confessions 1.10.


See Also:

Divine Foreknowledge

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