Time, Eternity, and Predestination
This short article is intended to examine the idea of time, and Godís relationship to time. Specifically, can it, or should it be said that God exists in the past, present, and future simultaneously? The author takes the position that such a statement cannot, and should not be said of God due to the very nature of time, and the nature of God Himself.
The importance of this study as it relates to theology is twofold. Our understanding of time affects our understanding on the nature of eternity, and our understanding of the relationship between Godís foreknowledge, predestination, and human free-will. Concerning the former, a misunderstanding of the nature of time leads one to believe that eternity is a timeless existence. This causes problems for us in the area of physics. Concerning the latter, a misunderstanding of the nature of time can lead to an ideology that manís actions are relegated to a meaningless status, being only the acting out of what God has already made to happen in the future.
To begin this study we will first look at the nature of time, and then examine the theological implications to the conclusions drawn.
God created time. Time is not a part of God's essential being or essence. He is transcendent in His relationship to time. God created time when he created matter and space in the beginning.1 We call it the time-space-matter continuum. Time, space, and matter are inseparably connected to one another. Human existence cannot exist without all three elements. Motion is inter-dependent on time because actions, thoughts, and feelings cannot take place in this physical universe without it. To go from point A to point B requires a durative period of time. To think through a problem or about something also requires a durative period of time. Action is linear, not punctiliar. Motion is progressive. It requires time for it to be performed.
Time is part of God's creation, just as squirrels, trees, mountains, and people. Just as God interacts with the rest of His creation, He interacts with time. Because time is created, it precludes God from having His existence rooted in, and bound by time.
As humans, we conceive three aspects to time: past, present, and future. These three aspects are three divisions of time that we are consciously aware of. Of these divisions, how can the past and future be, if the past no longer is, and the future is not yet?2 We can remember past events and thoughts, but we understand that while we are remembering them, they are not happening again. We can think of what the future might be like, but we understand that our thoughts are occurring in the present, and that which we have thought has not yet happened.
It is imperative to understand that God did not create the past, present, and future. God only created time. Time is a one-way flow, untouchable, and unalterable. The past and the future do not exist, i.e. they are not objectively real. The past did exist, and the future will exist, but all that does exist is the present. The past can be considered real in that it truly existed at one point in time, but it is no longer real in the sense that it cannot be accessed in our world. We only have access to the present. Likewise the future can be considered real because it will truly exist, but is not yet real in the sense that it cannot be accessed.
It is crucial to understand that past and future are not created entities. They are only human perspectives on time from the standpoint of the present (the only aspect of time that does exist and in which we move and have our being). From the standpoint of the present we can remember what has happened already. From the present we can imagine what will happen in the future, but we do not live in the future. The nature of time is such that what we imagined to occur in the future will suddenly occur in the present once that point is reached, at which time the present instantaneously becomes the past. This process is infinite and immeasurable.
The nature of the present cannot be anymore than that of a mere instant. If the present was longer than an instant, it would be durative, and therefore could be divided. If it could be divided even into the most minute of fractions, it would cease just being the present because it would be durative. The present has no duration.3 If it did it could be divided into a past, present, and future. If the present can be divided in such a manner so as to include the past and future, the idea of a present would be meaningless.
The past and future are not actual. The past never can be accessed, and the future can only be accessed as the present passes away into the past, until we reach the point in the future that was imagined, which upon reaching, would immediately flow into the past. The future is only actualized when it is accomplished in the present. Something can be anticipated to occur in the future, but until it actually occurs it cannot be said to be objectively real. I "know" that I will get up and go to work tomorrow, but my foreknowledge of this does not make it real. It becomes real once I show up, because it is possible that I would not go to work for one reason or another.
The future is non-existent. It can be anticipated, but not fully known, or experienced. We understand the concept of "future" because we have experienced arriving at a point in time which at one point was only imagined in our mind. On July 13th we imagined what we would be doing on July 14th, and then suddenly after the passing of a series of "nows" we arrived at July 14th. Before the sun went down and came up again, July 14th was only imagined, but now it is a present reality.
Many speak of changing the future, but the future cannot be changed. It is as meaningless to speak of changing the future as it is to speak of changing the past. We live in this world by going forward in a series of nows, from an irretrievable past to an uncertain future. The now is where we live. The future has no reality other than what we make of it. We form our future in the present. It is the present that affects our future, not our future that affects our present, because our future is not objectively real until it becomes the present through the process of the passing of a series of nows.
If the past and future do not exist, why are we aware of them? We are even aware of periods of elapsed time. How can this be if all that we have is the present, and the present is nothing more than an indivisible instant? How is it that we can remember the past if the past is not objectively real? How were the prophets aware of the future if the future does not exist? How could they see what is not there? The fact that the future can be seen by divine revelation, and the past can be seen in the mind of the knower, shows that the past and future do exist. The question is where does the past and future exist? The only place that the past and future can exist is in the mind of the knower as he remembers the past, or imagines the future, but the activities of remembering and imagining can only take place in the present. Time is recorded in our minds, because actions are recorded in our minds, and action requires the duration of time. The mind performs three functions: memory, attention, and expectation,4 but all of these functions work in the present. With this understanding it can be concluded that "the present of past things is the memory; the present of present things is direct perception; and the present of future things is expectation."5 Only in this sense do the past and future exist.
If the past and future are not objectively real, and if God did not create the past or the future, but instead perfectly knows them, how can it be said that God exists in the past, present, and future at the same time? God is a timeless being, other than His existence as the Son in which He does exist in time, and is dependent upon time in the same manner that all matter is. For matter to exist, time must be present, because matter moves and changes, and any action requires time for its completion in the physical world. God in His humanity (immanence) is subject to time as it is part of His nature, but God in His transcendence as Spirit is timeless in nature. God interacts with human beings in the present. He cannot interact with us in the past, because the past does not exist. It can not be accessed. God cannot interact with us in the future because the future is not real. This is not to say that God does not know the past or future. We know the past and can have some anticipatory-knowledge of the future, but God knows everything about the past and the future. For God to interact with his creation, he must interact with time. Since time only objectively exists in the present, and therefore creation only exists in the present, God can only exist and interact in the present. If time is a one-way flow that is untouchable and unalterable, there would be no reason to say that God exists in the past, present, and future all at the same time.
If matter can only exist in time because it requires time for any action or thought to occur, then the eternal state of man must also exist in time for there to be a physical bodily resurrection. The Bible teaches that in the heavenly state we will have physical bodies, which inhabit a physical city, which rests on a physical earth. As such, we must exist in time. Some may argue that the nature of the new earth and our resurrected bodies will be such that we will not need to operate in the time-space-matter continuum. Although this is possible, the Scripture does not support such a hypothesis. Jesusí glorified body still operated within time, and there is no indication that our existence in our glorified body will be any different than His.
Some have believed that there is no time in eternity based off of Revelation 10:6b where an angel proclaimed "that there should be time no longer." In context, this is not referring to the end of the existence of time, but the end of the great tribulation. Verse seven proclaims that when the seventh angels sounds his trumpet, the mystery of God will be finished; however, there is still the return of the Lord, the 1000 year reign of Christ, and the judgment of the dead that is yet to take place (Revelation 19:11-20:15). The angel is referring to the shortness of time left before the revealing of Christ which would end the great tribulation. The NET Bible captures the meaning of the Greek when it translates the phrase as follows: "There will be no delay any longer!"
Eternity is not timelessness per se, but is never-ending time. Time will be irrelevant in eternity. We will not measure time, and therefore will not be conscious of its passing, but nevertheless it will still exist. We use the sun, stars, and moon to measure the passing of time in our present world. With such, we come up with ideas such as hours, days, weeks, months, years and so on. In eternity there will be no cosmos to measure time. There will be no night because Jesus will light the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:23-26).
Predestination, Foreknowledge, and Human Action
The second implication is very important to the doctrine of predestination. Many have asked, "If God knows everything that is going to happen in the future, why does it still need to happen? If God knows the future, then we cannot avoid but to fulfill it, because God cannot be found to be wrong. Everything will happen as God has foreseen. Does this not relegate human action to mere acting?" Although much could be said on this topic, I will limit my comments to the topic at hand.
Such a question mistakes foreknowledge with determinism. Knowing something will happen is not the same thing as making it happen. God has a priori knowledge (before experience) about everything that will occur, but He does not write the script. It is like a stop-light. As I approach a red light, I have foreknowledge that it will turn green soon, but I did not, and cannot make it turn green. Someone else was responsible for that. Godís foreknowledge of future events does not determine the course of events, rather the course of events that will be acted out in the future by free-will determines some of what God knows about the future.6
Our actions cannot be considered mere acting. If the future does not objectively exist, and it cannot be said to be real other than the thought of its pending existence, then actions which are foreknown cannot be considered to be real until they are actually performed. Going back to the stop-light illustration, even though I knew the light would turn green, the fact remained that in the present the light was not green. My foreknowledge of what would happen could only be actualized as it happened in time. Without the light turning green, my foreknowledge was yet subjective. God does not determine what we will do, and then make us do it, rather He "peers" into anticipated time (future) and sees what will happen.
Godís thoughts and foreknowledge do not become real until what will happen actually happens in time. Jesus is said to be the lamb slain from the foundation of the world. In Godís mind, Jesus was considered sacrificed for the sins of the world before He ever went to Calvary. The fact remained that when the fullness of time came, Jesus actually did die at Calvary. Upon this basis we can be forgiven of our sins. We were not forgiven when Jesus was crucified only in Godís foreknowledge. We were able to be forgiven only after the sacrifice was actualized in time. If Godís knowledge of our future makes our present unnecessary, or the mere acting out of a script, then we would have to conclude that Jesusí death was not necessary. God should have just forgiven us based upon the thought of Jesus being slain. The fact that Jesus had to come and die in time gives precedence to the fact that the actuation of events in time is necessary for the foreknown events to be considered real to God.
Time is a creation by God which is necessary for the existence of the created reality. Present time is the only time that truly exists. The past and present are only perspectives of time from the mind of the knower. Though the past is real in that it did happen, and the future will be real in that it will happen, the only time that exists is the present. This understanding of time leads us to believe that eternity will not be timelessness, but will be never-ending time. It also leads us to believe that the outworkings of our lives are of the utmost importance to God, and that His foreknowledge of the future does not make human action meaningless or unnecessary.
1. This is based off of Genesis 1:1 where it says, "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth." "Beginning" indicates the creation of time; "heaven" indicates the creation of space; "earth" indicates the creation of matter. <back>
2. Augustine, Confessions (London: Penguin Books, 1961), p. 264. <back>
3. Ibid., 266. <back>
4. Ibid., 277. <back>
5. Ibid., 269. <back>
6. I say "some" because I do not mean to say here that the future is entirely determined by man's actions. At times God intervenes in His creation to bring His will to pass, irregardless of man's will. If we do not confess this to be true, we end up relegating prophecy to nothing more than God foretelling what man will do. The Biblical portrait of prophecy is God foretelling man what He will do, and what He will bring to pass. This does not eliminate human freedom, but it does subject it to God's freedom. <back>
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