Tuesday, September 9, 2014

God and Time

When it comes to statements on God’s relationship to time, laymen in the church usually hold logically contradictory positions. Oh, when you ask them what position they take, it’s typically only one. But if you listen long enough, the church has typically an incoherent view of God and time. While I don’t suspect that everyone will agree with the approach that I take, I do try to take a logically cohesive view that the biblical record at least allows for.

First, let’s show what I mean by “laymen incoherence.”[1] Well, a typical statement will come in the form of a biblical quote: “A day with the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years is as one day.” (2 Peter 3:8) From this, we are assured, “Time is meaningless to God; hence, God exists outside of time.” Yet in other conversations, virtually all of these same laymen will say things like “God knew from eternity past that you would do such-and-such,” or make some other reference to “eternity past.” Well, if God was in the past, that is a temporal relation, and so God exists inside temporal relations. But now we have a contradiction: God both exists inside and outside of time.

So, let’s see if we can solve the problem by appealing to the biblical text. “After all,” the concerned layman can reply, “If 2 Peter teaches that God is outside of time, I’ll just have to be more careful about speaking of ‘eternity past,’ is all. Problem solved.” But maybe not. Psalm 90:2 says, “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God” [emphasis mine]. If God lasts from an everlasting duration to an everlasting duration, then God is in time.

The atemporalist[2] can just insist that Psalms uses poetic language, however, and use 2 Peter 3:8 as a “control text” by which we can interpret other texts that seem to suggest God is in time. However, it isn’t clear this can be done so easily. Consider texts like “In the beginning…” from Genesis 1 and John 1 that seem to indicate divine temporal activity. Why does 2 Peter 3:8 get to be the control text and not Genesis 1:1?

Further, the biblical text itself does not intend to teach much, if anything, about the nature of time or God’s relationship to it. Consider, for an example, 1 Corinthians 2:7, which states in part that God “ordained before the world unto our glory” (KJV). Besides seemingly teaching that God is involved in temporal relations, the Greek word behind “world” is the word aiwvnwn. This is why other translations will render that last phrase as “before time began.” That, taken literally, is an incoherent concept. It’s like saying something is on Earth that is north of the North Pole. But we shouldn’t want to ascribe incoherence to the biblical record. Therefore, it’s most plausibly not trying to teach us about the nature of time or God’s relationship to it. In fact, at bottom, it’s not too difficult to see that the Bible isn’t trying to teach us about God’s relationship to time in 2 Peter 3:8. Context shows that Peter is teaching about judgment of those who mock and scoff at God’s Word. Peter makes an allusion to Noah’s Flood, which was a judgment, and contrasts that with a future judgment, a “Day of the Lord” (vs. 7, 10). Verse 7 talks about “the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.” Even though judgment has been reserved for the future, and even though it has been a long time without God’s coming (v. 4), nonetheless, God’s judgment is coming. This is the parallelism of verse 8. Oh, it seems like a long time with no judgment, but when it comes, it really comes! Further, Peter is explaining the reason for the delay of judgment: according to verse 9, God is not willing that any should perish. Peter’s just using figurative language to explain the context of what’s going on.

So, if the biblical text cannot settle the matter one way or the other, since it doesn’t seem to intend to teach on God and time, then have we any hope? I think we do, although we should hold such things tentatively. I want to explain my position and then present two brief arguments for it. My position is identical to William Lane Craig’s: I believe that time had a beginning, and thus God is atemporal without the creation, and temporal (in time) subsequent to creation. Here’s the argument for time’s beginning:

1.     If time had no beginning, then an actually infinite number of moments has elapsed.
2.     It is not the case that an actually infinite number of moments has elapsed.
3.     Therefore, time had a beginning.

I won’t go into detail defending (1) and (2) here, but most people on every side of the debate (inside of Christianity, and even science) agree that time had a beginning.

4.     If there are tensed truths, then God knows them.
5.     If God knows tensed truths, then he is in time.
6.     There are tensed truths.
7.     Therefore, God is in time.

These premises need brief defenses. (4) just is a consequence of omniscience. Since God is omniscient, he knows all true propositions and does not believe any false ones. We’ll get into what “tensed truths” are in a moment. So that should be set for orthodox Christians. But why should we think (5) is true? Take the tensed truth, “The plane will depart.” If God knows the tensed truth, “The plane will depart,” then it must be the case the plane will depart in the future. Why? If it were not to be the case that the plane will depart in the future, then God would have a false belief, which contradicts our conception of omniscience. But then this means the event of the plane’s leaving is in the future relative to God. But then it follows, by definition, that God stands in temporal relations (i.e., is in time). What about (6)? A tensed truth is a truth that intends the tense found in language to be a real feature of reality: It’s really true that I will go to sleep, and then I will no longer be asleep (at least, hopefully), so that I was asleep. Tensed-talk is so ingrained in not only our language but our very thought structure that it seems nearly crazy to claim that all of these descriptions are literally false. But if so, it would take a very powerful argument to make us think tensed truths are not real. So (6) seems to stay. But if that is the case, then God is in time.

I’m not going to pretend there are no responses to my position and arguments. But I do think that my position is a reasonable one to take, and one for which the Bible allows.

[1] Please do not view any of this as pejorative or as a superiority issue. We’re all brothers and sisters, and we’re all here, in part, to help sharpen each other’s thinking.

[2] “Atemporalist” is the term we use for those who say God exists outside of time.

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