I've been asked to write about the relationship between God and Time. I believe that God is not a part of Time, that he is eternal and unchanging, and that therefore he knows (what we consider to be) past, the present, and the future equally. I believe that there are good reasons to believe this coming from 3 different fields of study: 1) metaphysics, 2) physics, and 3) biblical theology.
(Of course, it is also true that the Son of God
came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary, and was made man. He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered [παθόντα, which can also mean "was passively acted upon"] and was buried. On the third day...
In other words, he united himself to a human being who was, like us, part of the flow of time. In this sense, God is in Time, but to allow this to be truly and properly a life-giving paradox, we need to assert that it was the Eternal and Immortal who suffered and died for us. The more we anthropomorphize the divine nature, the less significant is the Incarnation.)
In order to address this question, we need to know two things: what is Time and who is God? To some extent we can begin to explore the metaphysics of Time without discussing who God is, although eventually we must place every created thing in the context of the One who created it.
So let's start with Time. There are two main views on this, which are rather boringly called the A-theory and the B-theory (although there are variants I won't consider). This is, as far as I can tell, due to a 1908 article by the philosopher John McTaggart arguing for the Unreality of Time. McTaggart was basically a Hegelian mystic and yet, despite the later backlash against Hegel in the subsequent era of Logical Positivism, this paper has became one of the foundational articles for contemporary Analytic Philosophy!
(Recently I've been reading the records of the Oxford Socratic Club, a club for debate between Christians and Atheists/Agnostics, of which St. Lewis was President, whose Digest has recently become available from Lulu thanks to St. Joel Heck. The talks were given around the time of WWII, which was a particularly interesting time for Philosophy since it was during the overlap period when both Idealism and Logical Positivism were taken seriously.)
Anyway, the A-theory (a.k.a presentism) claims that time flows from the past to the future, in such a way that neither the past and future really exist, but only the present moment is real. However, the past was real and the future will be real, since time is really flowing from past to future.
The B-theory (a.k.a. eternalism) claims that all times (past, present, and future) exist equally, and that the word "present" is like the word "here", an index to refer to the location of the speaker within the timestream. Thus, there is no objective fact about which time is really "present", any more than there is an objective fact about whether "here" is located in the USA or Australia.
One of my commenters explained the difference in this way:
The first is called the A-theory, or tensed time. Only the present is real; the past and future do not exist. The second is called the B-theory, tenseless time, the block view of timespace, or Minkowski or Minkowskian spacetime. All of time—past, present, and future—is complete and actual in this view. In some unperceived way, all of time is occurring now.
I mostly agree with this statement (although I'm not sure what "complete" means) but take issue with the last sentence. The B-theorist would not say that all of time is literally now anymore than we would say that all places are here. The past indeed exists, but does not exist "in the present" because for an A-theorist that means "at the same time as the speaker is located."
Really what that last sentence does is explain the B-theory view in terms of the A-theory view. According to the A-theory view, only the Present moment is real. Saying "all times exist now" is really shorthand for "The B-theorist ascribes to the Past and Future the same type of reality which the A-theorist only ascribes to the Present."
Can we return the compliment and describe the A-theory in terms of the B-theory? Actually we cannot. If all you have are B-theory ideas, there is no way to make the A-theory clear. If an A theorist says that the past does not yet exist, the B-theorist will translate "does not yet exist" to "exists at a moment previous to the current moment ", and if he says that the future is going to exist, she translates this to mean just that the future is in the future!
In this sense the A-theory contains a vicious circle in it, as pointed out by McTaggart (although I don't agree with his conclusion that time is therefore "unreal"). When we say that a physical object is changing or flowing, this means that it changes with respect to time, that if we plotted it out on a graph, there would be a physical parameter such that the time derivative is nonzero: . When we say that time itself is flowing, either we mean (time goes at one second per second) which is a trivial calculus tautology which says nothing, or we mean that it is flowing with respect to some other meta-time coordinate. But that's absurd, if we can only explain time with respect to a deeper time. (And if that deeper time "really flows" we will need a 3rd timestream to parametrize that, and so on.)
It's like those time travel stories where somebody goes back and changes the past. But if you think about it, that's a crazy contradiction. Time just is the way we parametrize change. The moments of time cannot themselves change or flow in the same way that things change or flow, since there is no other timestream to parametrize their change. (Well, maybe in science fiction there is, but in the real world there's no reason to postulate this.)
We can put it another way. The A-theorist maintains that the past and future do not exist. But if this is true, it is impossible to distinguish it from a radical presentism in which one maintains that only the present moment will ever exist. Suppose that right now (e.g. 9:18 pm March 2, 2015) is the only instant that will ever exist. The past is just a delusion of our memory, and the future is a just delusion of anticipation. None of it is real. Clearly an absurd form of skepticism. But really, the A-theory implies this. For it says that the future exists only in the future and that the past exists only in the past and that both of these are forms of nonexistence. So the future does not really exist, and neither does the past. No amount of protesting about the fact that the future is going to exist or the past having existed implies anything about it actually ever existing, unless you secretly smuggle in the B-theory view that these modalities refer to ways of existing.
One might worry, though, that the B-theory is radically foreign to our own experiences. Whatever we say philosophically, isn't it obvious if we inspect our own conscious experiences that it feels as if time is ever flowing and changing? Each moment is so slight that we hardly grasp it before the next is upon us.
I admit that this worry has some psychological tug on me, but in the end I don't think it implies the A-theory. After all, it also feels as if my own experiences are more real than the experiences of others, and that here (wherever I am) is more real than there (wherever I am not) but these things I am happy to discount as illusions, without incorporating them into my metaphysics. Furthermore, my brain cannot really detect a single instant: it takes a second or two for me to consciously process my sensory data. Thus what I experience as now is always really a moment that has a finite amount of thickness in time. If only the a single instant existed at once, that sliver would actually be too small for any conscious experiences to fit inside of it. But if more than one instant can exist, it is simplest to say that they all exist, but that my self simply does not experience them all together in one lump.
Thus I conclude that only the B view makes logical sense. Some might say that this means Time is an illusion; but I would instead say I am asserting that all of Time is real.
Now if God is omniscient, then he experiences everything as it actually is. But we have seen that the idea that time itself "flows" and "changes" (as opposed to saying that things change with respect to time), makes no sense. If the B-theory is correct, then God must experience it as being correct, that is he must himself be eternal and unchanging.
But this is also what we would conclude if we instead started with the nature of God as understood by classical theism. Here, you will recall, God is conceived of as the fundamental being whose existence is explains everything else. As I argued before, the fundamental reality, however we conceive of it, must be eternal:
If the fundamental entities are necessary, then it stands to reason that they are also eternal, since something that exists necessarily cannot come into being, or cease to be, or indeed change in any way. They must just exist timelessly. Besides which, if they explain what happens at all moments of time, it doesn't seem plausible that they should only exist for certain moments of time. For similar reasons, one can argue that the fundamental entities can't be limited to just one region of space. Their influence must be present everywhere.
For God to be in Time, would mean that there is a part of God which changes and develops and changes, even if it is only the part that observes "what time is it right now". But that would mean that God is actually divided into pieces, some of which (the past versions of God) help to explain others (the future versions of God). This is inconsistent with the unity and eternity which befits the divine nature, which is fully real and cannot pass away like shifting shadows.
This is why proponents of Classical Theism have generally maintained that Time, rather than being some Metaphysical Ultimate, is actually part of created reality. It exists contingently as part of the physical world, because God created it. This view was developed by Philo, St. Augustine and others, but in the next
post two posts we shall see that it is also supported by modern physics: especially Einstein's theories of Relativity. Then in the third last post posts I will argue that the view that God is eternal and unchanging is also to be found in the Bible.
Next: Special Relativity