Is God Inside or Outside of Time?

timeProbably one of the most fascinating studies concerning our universe is the concept of time.  This is especially true as it relates to our understanding of God.  However, before I go any further let me say that this topic is far beyond my mental facilities.  For an depth treatment of the concept I would recommend William Lane Craig’s book, Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time.  Craig’s work in this area is quite remarkable.  He is a Christian philosopher whom I greatly admire.  I have been following his ministry, Reasonable Faith, for years.

The first time I ever seriously considered the concept of time and its relationship to God was a few decades ago.  I was a young man, probably in my late-twenties. I was watching a documentary about the holocaust on TV.  I can vividly recall seeing the photograph of a young Jewish girl flash on the screen.  My heart broke as I saw her suffering at such a young age.  Then, without even thinking about what I was doing I uttered a prayer for her.  When I realized what I had done I felt foolish.  The photograph had been taken nearly 50 years before I had seen it.  Her ordeal, which had been depicted in the photo, had long been over.  The chances of her surviving the event were unlikely, and even if she had, she would most likely have been dead by the time I saw the photograph.  Praying for her seemed ridiculous.  Yet, I began to wonder: is it possible that God could take a prayer offered for a little girl 50 years after the fact and use it to her benefit?  Could God, in the 1940s, have heard a prayer whispered in the 1990s?  Could God, in the 1990s, have taken a prayer and reached back in time and applied it to an event that was long over?  Or, was it possible that God was still in the 1940s while at the same time in the 1990s?  I was overwhelmed by these thoughts.  I still am.

Understanding God in relationship to time is not an easy task.  Philosophers continue to grapple with the subject.  In response to the issue, William Lane Craig has written about two theories having to do with the subject of time.  For lack of better titles he calls them the “A” & “B” Theories of Time.  In layman’s terms, they would represent the arguments of God being inside or outside of time.  I will try my best to explain Craig’s theories.

By default most people see past events as something that no longer exists in reality.  In other words, a past event does not continue to happen.  We can remember it but we cannot visit it in reality because it no longer exists.  As well, our default view of future events is probably very similar.  Future events have the potential to exist, but they aren’t something that actually exists in reality.  We have this view because we ourselves are inside of time.

This default view is what Craig describes as The “A” Theory of Time or a Tensed Theory. He describes it as a theory in which tenses are necessary to understand time. For example, when speaking of historical events we use the past tense.  When speaking of the present we use the present tense and the future is described with future tenses.  Things have happened, things are happening, and things will happen.  It is a dynamic view of time because the present moment is constantly changing.

The fact that languages use tenses shows that this is our default understanding.  It’s how we most easily relate to events.  However, the trouble begins when we try to understand the nature of God in relationship to this view.  What if God were inside of time?  Take for instance my prayer for the little girl in the holocaust.  If God relates to time the same way we do, then He was powerless to use something in 1990 for an event in 1940.  That is because by the time 1990 rolls around, 1940 no longer exists in reality.  In a sense, 1940 is now lost to God.  He becomes as helpless as we are to affect it.  He can no longer be in 1940 because it no longer exists.  Likewise, He cannot be in the future because it does not exist.

This immediately makes us uncomfortable.  God is omnipotent, right? We don’t want to limit God. Therefore, we generally respond, “we are limited by time, but God is not because He exists outside of time.”  This seems like a great response because it seems to put God back in the position of control. However, by doing this we have moved God from the “A” Theory to what Craig describes as the “B” Theory.  It sees God’s relationship to time differently.  It’s not our “default” understanding of time, so let me explain.

Imagine a yard stick in front of you.  As you look at the yardstick you can see the 1 inch markyardstick to your left, the 18 inch mark in the center, and the 36 inch mark to your right.  It would be wrong to say that when you look at the 36 inch mark that the 1 inch mark ceases to exist.  Likewise, you cannot say that the 36 inch mark ceases to exist when you look at the 18 inch mark.  William Lane Craig’s “B” Theory of Time suggests something similar.  In this model, God is looking at time in the same sense that we look at the yardstick.  Instead of seeing only the present, God can view the entire length of time in one glance.  Instead of only the present being real, the entire “yardstick” exists in reality to God in the B Theory.

In this view, one doesn’t speak about events with the past, present, and future tenses because they don’t relate to one another in that way.  You could say something like “the 7 inch mark is on this side of the 14 inch mark,” but since they both exist simultaneously you cannot say that one is past and the other is future.

If God sees time like this, than time is laid out completely in front of Him.  He can see it all in one sweeping glance. He knows the future because He sees it. He can visit our past because it is before Him in the same real way that the present is.   Time is not dynamic or changing, but is static.

The first problem with the “B” Theory – seeing God outside of time – is that the Bible doesn’t directly dictate that conclusion.  Scripture teaches us that God is “I Am”.  He is always present.  That suggests more of being in time than out.  Yes, He is eternal and the beginning and the end, but no Biblical writer ever plainly recorded that God exists outside of time.  Even though the concept may be true, we have no one authoritatively telling us it is so.

But there are bigger problems with seeing God outside of time than just lack of Biblical mandate.  For example, any event in the past which was evil would always continue to be evil for God.  In this way, evil would never be overcome.  For example, if an evil event occurs at the “14 inch mark,” then that same evil event would always exist before God.  Even if a longer lasting good event occurs at the “16 inch mark” the evil event would still be present. In that sense evil is never overcome.  Its mark is always present as God views “the yardstick.”

Another very serious problem with God being outside of time is that some argue He cannot effectively interact with those of us who are in time.  Imagine the yardstick again.  Because every increment exists simultaneously, you cannot change any part of it without the nature of the entire yardstick being changed.  It exists as one static thing or event.  By its own nature it remains an unchanging object.  Likewise, it may be just as impossible for God to interact with the present as it would the past and future since they are all one static unit.

As we can see, both the A & B Theories of Time have their problems as they relate to God.  If God is inside of time then only the present moment is something that God has access to since neither the past or future exist in reality.  Furthermore, if God is inside of time, then His own past no longer exists in reality and we could also speak of God as now having a future.  On the other hand, if God is outside of time, then all evil events and actions that have ever occurred will exist continually before God without being overcome.  These problems are perplexing to say the least.

So, let’s get back to the original question: is God inside or outside of time?  My answer is that I do not know.  It’s a complex issue and I do not have the mental resources to work through the answer.  However, I must admit that I find myself gravitating toward the A Theory, that God is in time with us.  If for no other reason I am drawn to this approach because there is something incredibly intriguing about God being in time with us.  That is, once time was created, and God enters it with us, it would seem logically impossible for there ever to be a return to a timeless state.  This has incredible implications.  Let me explain.

In a timeless state there is no past, present, or future (think of the yardstick in which it all exists simultaneously). As a result, you would never use the past tense because there is no past.  If time ended and everything returned to a timeless state, then we would have a logical inconsistency.  Namely, in the timeless state it would still be true that there had been a time when time existed.  Yet, in a timeless state there is no past tense.  These two things cannot both be true.  We cannot have a timeless state with no past tense while something had truly happened in the past.

The implication of this is mind-blowing.  This suggests that if God created and entered into time, then He committed Himself to never again returning to a timeless state.  Not only did Jesus empty himself of heaven to become one of us (Phil. 2:7), but He left behind the pleasures and glories of being timeless to live with His creation in time – with no going back – ever!

It makes me wonder if we have only scratched the surface of what God has done for us.  My soul is quieted as I contemplate that my God may have abandoned a timeless state for no other reason than to be with us, never to return again. What kind of love is that?

Peace,

dane

Dane Cramer is a backpacker, Christian blogger, jail chaplain, amateur filmmaker, and author of two books: Romancing the Trail and The Nephilim: A Monster Among Us.

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