One of the difficulties facing theologians and philosophers of religion has been to ascertain the relationship between God and time. Assuming God, is it more likely that God exists within time or outside of time? I’m going to suggest that either answer to this problem leads to undesirable results for theists, creating a dilemma.
Two Options for Theists
The two most popular options for explaining God’s relationship to time are to say that God has either always existed within time, stretching back to infinity, or to say that God somehow exists outside of time. I’ll explain each of these positions in greater detail from the perspective of respected Christian philosophers. Following that, I’ll discuss the potentially surprising result of how each option actually seems to decrease the plausibility of traditional theism. The position that God exists infinitely within time undermines some of the most popular arguments for God’s existence. On the other hand, the position that God is timelessly eternal conflicts with traditional assumptions about God’s nature.
God as Infinite
The most popular position is that God has simply always existed within time. The reason may be that theists tend to find this view easier to comprehend or perhaps they find the implications of the eternal view to conflict with other claims about God. As respected philosopher Stephen T. Davis says:
“In my view, this is a far simpler procedure, with far fewer theological dangers.”
According to Davis, the traditional view of Aquinas on the eternality of God (the view that God is timeless) seems to rob God of a number of traditional attributes. And Davis is not alone. This has also been pointed out by other incredibly prominent Christian philosophers, like Richard Swinburne. A lot of statements about God that involve temporal terms would lose their meaning and it’s not at all clear how God would perform acts within time, like acts in the Bible, as traditionally attributed. Consider the following statements:
- In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
- God finished creating the universe before he rested.
- God created Adam before Eve.
- God knew you would exist before you were born.
- God raised Jesus from the dead after he was crucified.
- Yesterday, God knew what I would have for breakfast.
These are just a few of potentially countless examples. Some are from the Bible and others are just statements we would likely attribute to God. Yet, if God does not exist within time, then temporal terms cannot really apply to God. It’s like saying Mars is North of Jupiter. Cardinal directions only make sense on Earth because they refer to our two poles. They do not make sense outside of their intended frame of reference. For the same reason, all of the above statements would be meaningless when applied to a timeless being. So, a God existing beyond time would make most of our assumptions about God suddenly false.
Due to these and other problems, Davis opts for the infinite view of God as more plausible. He asserts that:
“Time was not created; it exists necessarily (like numbers); it depends for its existence on nothing else. Time, perhaps, is an eternal aspect of God’s nature rather than a reality independent of God. But the point is that God, on this view, is a temporal being.”
Davis concludes that God has simply lived forever. It still allows for it to be an uncreated being with no beginning or end and avoids the difficulties offered by the timelessly eternal view.
God as Eternal
For the eternal position, I will describe the work of William Lane Craig. He recognized the difficulties presented by Davis and Swinburne, but he also does not support the infinite view. Craig has argued that the existence of an actually infinite number of past moments is absurd. Of course, if an infinite past did not occur, that must also mean God could also not have existed for an infinite number of past moments. So, Craig attempted to find a middle ground position.
Craig agrees that God in some respect must have been timeless, since he thinks God could not have always existed. But creation and other acts must have been temporal events. Quite simply, it takes time to do anything. You cannot have a thought, move across a room, create a chemical bond, build a tower, remove a man’s rib, etc. without some amount of time elapsing. Craig’s resolution is to say that God exists eternally in a changeless state except for the duration of the Universe, in relation to which he is temporal.
“With the creation of the universe, time began, and God entered into time at the moment of creation in virtue of His real relations with the created order. It follows that God must therefore be timeless without the universe and temporal with the universe.”
How can this be? It is confusing to assert that God fits into both categories of time. Craig himself sees the difficulty in this argument.
“Now this conclusion is startling and not a little odd. For on such a view, there seem to be two phases of God’s life, a timeless phase and a temporal phase, and the timeless phase seems to have existed earlier than the temporal phase. But this is logically incoherent, since to stand in a relation of earlier than is by all accounts to be temporal. How are we to escape this apparent antinomy?”
Craig goes on to describe his proposed resolution to this problem.
“What must be done is to dissolve the linear geometrical structure of pre-creation time. One must maintain that “prior” to creation there literally are no intervals of time at all. There would be no earlier and later, no enduring through successive intervals and, hence, no waiting, no temporal becoming. This state would pass away, not successively, but as a whole, at the moment of creation, when time begins.
But such a changeless, undifferentiated state looks suspiciously like a state of timelessness! It seems to me, therefore, that it is not only coherent but also plausible that God existing changelessly alone without creation is timeless and that He enters time at the moment of creation in virtue of His real relation to the temporal universe. The image of God existing idly before creation is just that: a figment of the imagination. 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.”
This line of thinking can be pretty confusing, so let me summarize the flow of Craig’s argument. Actual infinites are not possible, according to Craig, so God cannot exist infinitely in a temporal state. To avoid this problem, God is considered essentially outside of time. Yet, God created the world, so that means God has relation to the world. This relation has to be temporal in order for creation to happen. So, God is temporal in reference to the Universe. Both ideas have to be true – one in reference to the non-existence of the Universe and one in reference to the existence of the Universe. As of this moment, and for all the history of the Universe, God is temporal and can act within time. Without the Universe, God is timeless and changeless. God cannot act in this latter state because that would imply a passing of time for the action to take place.
As much as I lean toward the infinite view as sounding more coherent, it doesn’t really matter in the end because both views lead to decreasing theism’s plausibility. So, let’s discuss the two horns of this dilemma.
The Infinity Horn
If you think that time has always existed, and God has existed within time, then you actually may be helping the atheist case. Two of the most popular arguments in favor of God’s existence—the Kalam (or other cosmological arguments) and the Fine Tuning Argument—rest upon an assumption that the past is not infinite. In the case of the Kalam, it’s pretty easy to see this because one of the premises states, “The Universe began to exist.” Obviously, if the Universe is infinitely old, this is false. The objection to the Fine Tuning Argument takes a bit more explanation. This is an extension of the point I made in the comment section of this article.
If there is some natural universe creation mechanism, like there is a natural star creation mechanism, then there is some chance for the natural creation of our universe from a previously existing state of affairs. Most, however, will claim the chance that certain constants in our universe would be what they are is very small. We might respond to this in one of two ways.
The first response might say that this is just naturally determined from the previously existing state and this determinism just stretches back indefinitely, so there’s just not anything interesting to discuss. Perhaps that’s the case, but we should also discuss the pervasive chance problem to be thorough.
The second response says there isn’t really a chance problem. Let’s make up a number and say the odds are 1 in 10^50 to make a universe like ours. Now, let’s define the time it would take for the mechanism to create a randomly delivered universe and call it “m” moments (m could be a second, a billion years, whatever it takes). So, for every m that passes, on average, the mechanism creates some universe. Probably many of these do not support life or don’t last very long.
So, if we can say that the mechanism has existed for more than 10^50m, then the small chance problem shouldn’t bother us. In the case of an infinite past, then we can definitely say the mechanism has existed much longer than 10^50m. If only 1m or 1,000m or 1,000,000m had passed, then the chance might be reason for concern. But for the infinite past, it’s no problem.
Consider this analogy. If you roll a die three times in a row, the chance of rolling six all three times is approximately 0.5%. You might be surprised if you sat down once and rolled the die with a goal of three sixes in a row and got it on the first try. However, what if you did a million trials and it happened? Then, it wouldn’t be a big deal. That is essentially my point. It’s not that it’s necessary, but that it is no longer a surprising or unexpected result.
So, the plausibility of an infinite past provides what I consider to be strong counterarguments to both cosmological and fine tuning arguments.
The Eternal Horn
Many theists, however, reject the infinite God view. They may reject it because of the undesirable results given above, because of interpretation of scripture, or perhaps even because they just find the possibility of actually existing infinites to be absurd. Whatever the reason, this alternative view brings its own negative consequence for theists.
If, as Craig suggests, God existed at some point outside of time, then God’s first act must have brought time into existence. This is because there can’t be any action without the passing of time. So, God’s first act and the first moment of time must have been simultaneous. Now, let’s recognize just how broad my usage of “act” is here. There could not be any movement by a physical being or any sort of thought in a non-physical being like God. As Craig admits, God must have been completely changeless (no pondering, planning, daydreaming, etc.). But this has an interesting consequence. This means that, necessarily, God’s first act must have been unintentional. That is a very strange result and I honestly have no idea how a theist would handle it theologically. It certainly has implications for the traditional omni properties of God and perhaps also has implications for God’s praiseworthiness and other aspects. To say that God had an unintentional action in its past might just be irreconcilable with traditional notions of God, giving us an impossibility argument that, to my knowledge, has not been raised in the literature.
So, if theists want to assume that God is infinite, then they have to assign more plausibility to the creation of the universe being a natural event. Or, if theists opt for an eternal view of God, like the one presented here, they face my objection regarding the impossibility of a variety of attributes of God. Of course, my take from this dilemma is that, if neither option of God’s relationship to time makes sense, then perhaps it’s simply a good indicator that the traditional notion of an omni-God is incoherent.
- On Absurdity: William Lane Craig and Actual Infinites
- Fine Tuning and a Beginningless Past
- The Sherlock Holmes Defense