Does God Know When Now Is?: Revisiting God's Relationship to Time
What is God's relationship to time? Is He timeless or temporal? Does He remain untouched the by the temporality of His creation, or has He entered into the flow of time with His creation? Does He exist in an "eternal now" outside of time, or does He experience chronology and succession as we do? Does He transcend time so that He has His whole life before Him all at once without the ordering of temporal relations such as earlier than/later than, or does He experience His life moment by moment? Is it the case that from God's perspective "the entire series of temporal events is real and thus available for his causal influence at any point in history through a single timeless act,"1 or does God experience and act within the entire series of temporal events successively over time?
I am persuaded that it both Biblically sound and philosophically preferable that we understand God to be timeless without creation, and temporal subsequent to creation. With the act of creation God has entered into the flow of time, experiences chronology and succession, experiences His life moment by moment, and acts within the entire series of temporal events successfully over time. Before I argue for this conclusion, however, let's consider the nature of time itself.
Time is a Relation, not a Substance
Philosophers conceive of time in two different ways. Some see time as a substance that exists independent of the material universe, while others see time as a relation2 that obtains only in the presence of material objects. The substantivalist view of time allows for the existence of time prior to creation, while the relational view of time allows for time only subsequent to God's creative act. I am persuaded of the latter.
The creation account begins, "In the beginning God created ." (Genesis 1:1). When did God create? He did so at the beginning. By definition there is no time before the beginning. Creation was the demarcation line of time itself. The universe did not begin in time, but rather with time. It arose "concomitantly with the universe ex nihilo."3 Since time came into being with God's creative act we can rightly say time was created by God,4 but to say time was created does not mean it was manufactured as though it were a physical substance. Time is the measurement of motion; a relation arising from the duration of change in physical things. In the absence of changing things (physical events) there can be no instants of time.5 Since creation was the first event there could be no time "prior to" creation.6 In the words of Stuart Hackett, "Time is merely a relation among objects that are apprehended in an order of succession or that objectively exist in such an order: time is a form of perceptual experience and of objective processes in the external (to the mind) world."7
The way in which God created time is similar to the way in which we create the relation "next to" when we place two books next to each other. The spatial relation, next to, is automatically there in virtue of the location and proximity of the books. Likewise, time is automatically there in virtue of the creation of matter.8
God Must Be Temporal, but When?
Is God temporal subsequent to creation? Yes! The real question is when did He become temporal? While it may sound strange or even heretical to think of God as existing in time, the fact of the matter is that everyone who believes God became incarnate in Christ must confess that God entered the temporal sphere. Human existence is temporal in nature. To take up a human existence it was necessary that God enter time. At the very least, then, God became temporal in 5-4 BC. So why do some object when it is proposed that He did so earlier, at creation?
The question before us is not if God became temporal, but when He became temporal. Did He become temporal at the incarnation, or did He become temporal concomitantly with His creative act at the beginning of creation? There are good reasons to believe He became temporal at creation. Let us turn our attention to those reasons.
Arguments for Divine Temporality Subsequent to Creation
When it comes to God's relationship to time we are faced with two options. "Once time begins at the moment of creation, either  God becomes temporal in virtue of His real relation to the temporal world  or else He exists just as timelessly with creation as He does without it."9 There are two good reasons to opt for the former: (1) God's real relation to the temporal world, and (2) God's knowledge of tensed facts. We will explore each in turn.
God's Real Relation to the World
If God were not in time how could He act in time? Most adherents of divine eternality propose that while all of God's acts are from eternity, each act is executed temporally. This view seems rather incredible, if not incoherent. If God were outside of time He could not do X at time t1 and then do Y at time t2. In the absence of time both X and Y would be simultaneous in both cause and effect, not sequential, and yet clearly God's acts are executed sequentially in the flow of history. Consider a match. To light a match requires a sufficient cause. As soon as the sufficient cause exists the effect of the match being lit immediately follows. There is no temporal gap between the cause and its corresponding effect. How, then, could God delay the effects of His timeless (and hence simultaneous) acts so that the effects, unlike the cause, are executed temporally and successively? The possibility of such seems inconceivable. It stands to reason, then, that "an atemporal deity cannot be causally related to a temporal world."10 For God to be causally related to the world requires that He be temporal.
Not only does the doctrine of divine timelessness make it difficult to account for divine agency in a temporal world, but it also makes it difficult to explain how God can be really related to His creation. To be related to temporal beings requires that you interact with them, and respond to them as they change over time. How is such interaction possible for a being that is static, unchanging, and temporally immobile?
Imagine for a moment that your parent or spouse were timeless. What would your relationship with them look like? When you asked them a question how could they respond? They could not speak, for it would require time to utter the words, which requires duration, which requires time. They could not move, for it would require time to change from one location to another. The same applies to a timeless God. If God were outside of the temporal realm He could not sustain real relations with His creation. While we could be really related to Him, He could not be really related to us.
This relationship is analogous to people walking around a pole. The pole is fixed and immobile. Our relationship to the pole may change as we move about it, but the pole's relationship to us is fixed. What moves is the person in relationship to the pole, not the pole in relationship to the person. If God exists atemporally (timelessly) He is as fixed and immobile as the pole. We are related to Him, but He is not related to us.
Most people are not willing to cede this point. They want to maintain that God is really related to us and we to Him, but at the same time insist that God is atemporal, not recognizing the contradiction between these two affirmations. But "if God is really related to the world, then it is extraordinarily difficult to see how God could remain untouched by the world's temporality. For simply in virtue of his being related to changing things (even if he himself somehow managed to remain intrinsically changeless), there would exist a before and after in God's life."11 God's free decision to create was a free decision to sustain a real relation to changing things, and hence enter the temporal realm. As Richard Swinburne explains, "[S]ince God coexists with the world and in the world there is change, surely there is a case for saying that God continues to exist for an endless time, rather than that he is timeless. In general that which remains the same while other things change is not said to be outside time, but to continue through time."12 This is reminiscent of the psalmist's words:
I said, "O my God, Do not take me away in the midst of my days; Your years are throughout all generations. Of old You laid the foundation of the earth, And the heavens are the work of Your hands. They will perish, but You will endure; Yes, they will all grow old like a garment; Like a cloak You will change them, And they will be changed. But You are the same, And Your years will have no end. (Psalm 102:24-27, NKJV)
God's continued existence through everlasting time lies at the heart of the doctrine of divine omnitemporality.
The only way to escape the conclusion that God is omnitemporal subsequent to creation is to deny that God is really related to the world (as Thomas Aquinas did), but this seems impossible, for at the moment of creation God came into a new relation of co-existing with and sustaining the universe-relations He did not possess before. At the very least God must have undergone an extrinsic change at creation. In virtue of His real relation to the temporal universe He was drawn into time, becoming temporal.13
God's real relation to the world does not necessitate an intrinsic change in God (i.e. that God experience change in Himself), but it does demand an extrinsic change for God (i.e. that God experience change in relationship to other changing things). It may be helpful at this point to clarify the distinction between these two forms of change. William Lane Craig summarized the distinction well:
An intrinsic change is a nonrelational change, involving only the subject. For example, and apple changes from green to red. An extrinsic change is a relational change, involving something else in relation to which the subject changes. For example, Jones becomes shorter than his son, not by undergoing an intrinsic change in his height, but by being related to his son as his son undergoes intrinsic change in his height. Jones changes extrinsically from being taller than his son to being shorter than him because his son is growing.14
In summation, God's real and causal relation to the world demands that we confess Him to be temporal subsequent to creation, meaning He experiences everlasting temporal duration; i.e. omnitemporality.
Omniscience Requires Knowledge of Tensed Facts
The argument for divine omnitemporality based on God's knowledge of tensed facts goes like this:
P1 If God exists outside of time He cannot know tensed facts
P2 If God cannot know tensed facts He cannot be omniscient
P3 God is omniscient
God exists in time and knows tensed facts
Tensed facts are facts set in a temporal frame of reference. "I left your house five minutes ago," "My meeting is starting right now," and "Tomorrow I will be 30 years old" are all examples of tensed facts. "Tensed facts can only be known by a temporally located being"15 who has first-person experience of temporal succession. If God were timeless He could not possess knowledge of tensed facts. How, then, could it be said that God is omniscient? God's ignorance of tensed facts would impugn His omniscience because tensed facts convey true propositional content, and by definition omniscience is knowledge of all true propositions. If God cannot know tensed facts because He is atemporal, then God cannot be omniscient.16 The doctrine of divine timelessness seems incompatible with maximal cognitive excellence.17
Some will try to escape the force of this argument by saying God has eternal knowledge of tensed facts, but all that means is that He knows the temporal relations between successive events. He still would not know when "now" is to know where we are currently at in the temporal stream of those successive events. There can be no "now" for a timeless being. God's knowledge would be limited to tenseless propositions.18
The knowledge of an atemporal being would be analogous to our having perfect knowledge of every event in a novel. While we may know the temporal relations between each event in the book, none of those events are present for us, the reader. For God to know the haecceity (this-ness) of the present the present must be present for Him, and this requires that He be temporally located. It is one thing to know August 11th 2005 is temporally prior to August 12th 2005 and temporally subsequent to August 10th 2005, but it wholly another thing to know that today is August 11th 2005. The only way God can know things with the property of presentness is for God to exist in the present, and hence in time.19 Craig expands on this and offers an analogy of his own:
In order to know the truth of propositions expressed by tensed sentences like "Christ is risen from the dead" God must exist temporally. For such knowledge locates the knower relative to the present. Hermetically sealed in timeless eternity, God could not know such tensed facts as whether Christ has died or has yet to be born. God's knowledge of the history of the world would be like the knowledge a film producer has of a movie as it lies in the can: he knows what is on every frame, but he has no idea what is now being projected on the screen. Similarly, all a timeless God could know would be tenseless truths like Christ dies in A.D. 30, but he would have no idea whether Christ has actually died yet or not.20
Craig raises an interesting point. When did God inspire the book of Acts, part the Red Sea, give the law to Moses, etc.? According to adherents of divine timelessness God has always done those things. He does them all from eternity. There may be a logical ordering of those events in God's mind, but He does not will them sequentially, even if they are instantiated sequentially in the temporal world. For God, creation occurs no sooner than the incarnation.21 In fact, God does not know which events He has willed have already transpired and which event are yet to come. He does not know if the universe has been created or if He has become incarnate. This seems patently absurd!
Furthermore, according to the doctrine of divine timelessness the "now" we perceive and the "now" God perceives are not the same now, and not present for each party in the same way. God's "now" is not a particular point in time that follows one point and precedes another as is our "now," but the whole of history perceived all at once. God's "now" is present for Him eternally, while our "now" is present for us temporally. His present is abiding and constant, whereas our present is fleeting and changing. Our "now" fades into the past as soon as it is experienced, while God's "now" remains fixed atemporally. I know what "now" is as opposed to "then," but God does not. Additionally I know that "then" is not occurring "now," but God does not. This could not be true of an omniscient being.
If we say God does know "then" is not occurring "now" He must have a past, and know that the past is past. Anything that has a past must be temporal. How do I know God has a past? In the same way I know anything else has a past: we know something has a past if it has undergone change. How do we know if something has undergone change? Something has undergone change if something could be said of it at one point in time that cannot be said of it at another. If the set of circumstances obtained at t2 were not obtained at t1, entity X is temporal.
This invites a question. If we were to analyze the mind of God at this present moment would He have perfect categorical knowledge of all that has happened, is currently happening, and is yet to happen in the universe? What if we analyzed God's mind again five minutes from now? Would His perfect knowledge of all that has happened, what is currently happening, and what is yet to happen have changed? If so He must exist in time.22 As Craig wrote, "His knowledge would be constantly changing, as more and more events become past. But at each successive moment he could know every past-tense truth that there is at that moment."23 The only way God can know all that has happened, is presently happening, and yet to happen is to exist within the flow of time and have first-person experience of temporal succession.
Earlier I argued that God's real and causal relation to creation merely requires that God undergo extrinsic change, but God's knowledge of tensed facts requires that He undergo intrinsic change as well. God not only changes in relation to others, but in relation to Himself. He ceased being timeless and began to be temporal at creation. As Craig noted, "In virtue of his real, causal relation to the temporal world, God must minimally undergo extrinsic change and therefore be temporal-at least since the moment of creation. Moreover, God's knowledge of tensed facts, implied by his omniscience, requires that since the moment of creation he undergoes intrinsic change as well, since he knows what is now happening in the universe."
To argue that God underwent change at creation invites an objection. How could God change if He is immutable? In Malachi 3:6 God said, "I am the Lord. I change not." Clearly God cannot both change and not change at the same time and in the same way. The apparent discrepancy lies not in the doctrine of divine omnitemporality, but in our understanding of Scripture. When God says He does not change it does not mean He is static and immobile. It means God's character does not change. He is faithful and consistent. The idea that divine immutability means God cannot experience any sort of change was imported from Greek philosophy and read into Scripture, not derived from an exegesis of Scripture itself. There is nothing in Scripture that demands God be unchanging in anything other than His character. If the doctrine of immutability means God cannot undergo any sort of change at all the incarnation would have been impossible, for becoming a man is a clear change in the way God exists.
In summation, if we confess that God has knowledge of tensed facts we must admit that He is temporal. If we deny that God has knowledge of tensed facts so as to preserve the doctrine of divine timelessness, we do so at the expense of the doctrine of divine omniscience.
What it Means to Say God is Temporal
To say God is temporal is to affirm that He exists within the flow of time, experiences change, is causally related to creation, and that His acts are ordered sequentially.24 It is not an affirmation that God began to exist in the finite past, or that God has endured through an infinite amount of time.
The doctrine of divine temporality does imply that God ages, but by "aging" we do not mean to say God degenerates over time as humans do. We simply mean that God experiences the passage of time. He possesses His life throughout time so that He experiences it sequentially. God is older today than He was yesterday. As the psalmist said, "Your years are throughout all generations. Your years will have no end. (Psalm 102:24, 27, NKJV)." How old is God, you ask? As old as the universe itself!
Solving a Theological Conundrum
You may be scratching your head at this point. We seem to be presented with three seemingly irreconcilable facts:
1. God exists in time (divine omnitemporality)
2. Time had a beginning
3. God did not have a beginning (divine eternality)
How do we account for these three facts without contradicting ourselves? The best way to synthesize them is to confess that God exists alone and timelessly without creation, but temporally subsequent to creation in virtue of His real relation to creation.25 In the words of Craig, "It seems, therefore, that it is not only coherent but also plausible that God existing changelessly without creation would be timeless and that he enters time at the moment of creation in virtue of his real relation to the temporal universe. Given that time began to exist, the most plausible view of God's relationship to time is that he is timeless without creation and temporal subsequent to creation."26
Reconciling the Two "Phases" of God's Existence
To argue that God was timeless without creation and omnitemporal subsequent to creation seems to create two phases in God's life-one without, and one with creation-the former being earlier than the latter. This construal seems absurd, however, because a phase requires duration, and duration requires time, and yet there was no time without creation. Brian Leftow stated the problem well: "If God is timeless, there is no before and after in His life. No phase of His life is earlier or later than any other phase, for only temporal durations and their phases stand in these relations. As it lacks earlier and later parts, an eternal life has no phases." He went on to argue:
If God is timeless and a universe or time exists, then, there is no phase of His life during which He is without a universe or time, even if the universe or time had a beginning. For a life without phases cannot have one phase which is without the universe or time and another phase which is with it. If God is timeless, the whole of His life is identical with the 'phase' of it during which the universe or time exists, whether or not the universe or time began.27
Leftow's point is true if God remained timeless subsequent to creation (and is an apt description of the nature of God's existence without creation), but not if He became temporal with creation. What are we to make of this, then? It seems absurd to argue as Leftow does that God's life without the universe is indistinguishable from God's life with the universe. Are we to believe that God cannot tell the difference between the existence of nothing and the existence of something, particularly when He caused that difference? How could He not tell the difference between existing alone and existing alongside His temporal creation? This is a weakness of Leftow's view of divine timelessness.
Contra Leftow God does have two phases of His life-one without creation and one with creation-but they are not related to each other as earlier-than and later-than. His timeless "phase" is not chronologically prior to His temporal phase, but causally prior; similar to the way in which the singularity is causally prior, but not temporally prior to the spatio-temporal universe. Just as the singularity is the boundary of time, God's timeless state is the boundary between God's existence without the universe and God's existence with the universe. While it is tempting to think of God as existing prior to creation, it is a meaningless concept confined to our imagination.28 God exists ontologically, logically, and causally prior to the creation; not temporally prior to the creation.29
God did not exist at one time without the universe and at another time with the universe because there was no time without the universe. God's timeless state simply passed away in an instant when time began. "God's act of creating the world may be taken to be simultaneous with the world's coming into being. The first event is the event of creation, the moment at which the temporal phase of God's life begins."30
How Can God be Eternal and Temporal at the Same Time?
Some suppose that the doctrine of divine omnitemporality is a denial of divine eternality, or at least an affirmation that God ceased being eternal at creation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Temporality stands in contrast to atemporality, not eternality. Atemporality and temporality are two different ways in which one can exist eternally.31 God was and is eternal, but being eternal and being timeless is not same thing. Minimally, that which is eternal is that which is without beginning or end. As it applies to God, it means He neither comes into, nor goes out of existence.
Does the doctrine of divine temporality-in which God exists timelessly without creation and temporally subsequent to creation-satisfy this minimalist definition of eternality? Yes. If God existed atemporally without creation He had no beginning, and if God exists omnitemporally subsequent to creation He has no end. All that is required for God to be without beginning (and hence eternal) is to have "started out" atemporally, not that He remain so. God could become temporal and yet remain eternal so long as His temporality is without end. The notion that God exists atemporally without creation and temporally subsequent to creation, then, does not encroach on the doctrine of divine eternality. Atemporality and temporality are merely subsets of divine eternality, describing the ways in which God exists eternally.
We often pit eternality against temporality because temporal things typically have their origin in the temporal realm, and thus cannot be eternal. In the case of God, however, His existence did not originate in the temporal world. God existed timelessly without the temporal world, and continued to exist subsequent to the creation of the temporal world, in the temporal world. For God, then, eternality and temporality are not mutually exclusive. Only atemporality and temporality are mutually exclusive. God can be eternal and temporal simultaneously. He simply cannot be both atemporal and temporal at the same time.
The doctrine of divine omnitemporality is not a radical redefining of God's essential attribute. It is a doctrine accepted by all conservative Christians who confess a genuine incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. All that remains to be determined is whether God became temporal prior to the incarnation, concomitant with the beginning of creation. God's real and causal relation to creation, as well as His knowledge of tensed facts supports the notion that He did.
Some find the doctrine of divine omnitemporality discomfiting because it appears to teach that God ceased being eternal. It goes unnoticed that any concerns about God ceasing to be eternal are equally manifested in the incarnation. The fact remains that the doctrine of divine omnitemporality does not claim God ceased being eternal at creation; it claims God ceased being timeless at creation. Temporality does not stand in contrast to eternality, but atemporality. Omnitemporality and atemporality are two different ways in which one can experience eternality.
The implications of divine timelessness are abundant. Among other things it means God is within the same flow of time you and I are: He understands and experiences chronology and succession, and knows that this moment is "now" as opposed to "then." This does not limit His knowledge to the present and past (as in openness theology), but it does show that His knowledge of temporal relations is not incommensurate to our own.
God's relationship to time may be best summarized by Jude's doxology: "To the only God our Savior through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time, and now, and for all eternity." (Jude 25, NET Bible)
1. William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 511.
2. Relations have no ontological existence, but obtain among two ontological entities. An example would be "to the left of" which obtains when two ontological entities are placed in a certain spatiotemporal relationship.
3. William Lane Craig, "God, Time, and Eternity," Religious Studies 14 (1979): 497-503; available from http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/eternity.html; Internet; accessed 26 November 2004.
4. God's creation of time was not a direct act, but an indirect act. God was the efficient cause of matter (mediate cause), and the existence of changing matter is the efficient cause of time (immediate cause).
5. William Lane Craig, "God and the Beginning of Time," International Philosophical Quarterly 41 (2001): 17-31; available from http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/time.html; Internet; accessed 24 November 2004.
6. "The beginning of the universe-the singularity-is not chronologically prior to the universe, but it is logically and causally prior to the universe. It is the boundary of time, not the first instant of time." [William Lane Craig, "God and the Beginning of Time," International Philosophical Quarterly 41 (2001): 17-31; available from http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/time.html; Internet; accessed 24 November 2004.]
7. Stuart C. Hackett, The Resurrection of Theism (Chicago: Moody Press, 1957), 263.
8. Greg Koukl, Stand to Reason radio show, KBRT 740 AM, 01 January 2002.
9. William Lane Craig, "Timelessness and Omnitemporality"; available from http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/omnitemporality.html; Internet; accessed 28 November 2004.
11. William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 512.
12. R. G. Swinburne, "The Timelessness of God," Church Quarterly Review CLXVI (1965), 331.
13. William Lane Craig, "Timelessness and Omnitemporality"; available from http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/omnitemporality.html; Internet; accessed 28 November 2004.
14. William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 512.
15. William Lane Craig, "Omniscience, Tensed Facts, and Divine Eternity"; available from http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/menmoved.html; Internet; accessed 02 December 2004.
18. On this view God experiences B-time while we experience A-time.
19. William Lane Craig, "Omniscience, Tensed Facts, and Divine Eternity"; available from http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/menmoved.html; Internet; accessed 02 December 2004.
20. William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 513.
21. Greg Koukl, Stand to Reason radio broadcast, January 1, 2005, KBRT AM 740.
23. William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 378.
24. Greg Koukl, Stand to Reason radio broadcast, January 1, 2005, KBRT AM 740.
25. William Lane Craig, "Timelessness and Omnitemporality"; available from http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/omnitemporality.html; Internet; accessed 28 November 2004.
26. William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 515.
27. Brian Leftow, "Why Didn't God Create the World Sooner?"
28. William Lane Craig, "God and the Beginning of Time," International Philosophical Quarterly 41 (2001): 17-31; available from http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/time.html; Internet; accessed 24 November 2004.
29. William Lane Craig, "Timelessness and Omnitemporality"; available from http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/omnitemporality.html; Internet; accessed 28 November 2004.
30. William Lane Craig, "God and the Beginning of Time," International Philosophical Quarterly 41 (2001): 17-31; available from http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/time.html; Internet; accessed 24 November 2004.
31. These are mutually exclusive categories when exhibited simultaneously, but not when exhibited consecutively.
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