God and Time VI: Eternity in Holy Writ

Previously in this series, we looked at what Philosophy, Special Relativity, and General Relativity have to say about the nature of Time.   I argued that a) the idea that only one time exists "at once" is just a perception of creatures like us who live in Time, and in reality all of Time must exist, and b) God must experience Time as it really is, and therefore c) God must be eternal, i.e. outside of time.

Then we began to see what God has revealed in the Bible about the relationship between God and Time.  We discussed whether God can change (I argued no, but this requires considering some scriptures which talk as if God could change as "anthropomorphisms") and whether God knows the future (here I think the overall message of the Bible is really quite clear that he does).

Continuing on, I will ask if there are any Scriptures which directly speak of the relationship between God and Time.  If we want to know about the relationship between God and Time, it seems like a more reliable method to find places where the Bible treats this issue explicitly, rather than trying to deduce in passing from texts which are really about other things.  But are there any such Scriptures?

5. Eternal and Everlasting

It's easy enough to find passages which speak of God being everlasting (existing at every moment of time, having no beginning or end) but this is common ground in this discussion.  For example, the Book of Revelation uses as a title for God the triadic description:

Who is, and who was, and who is to come (Rev 1:4, 1:8, 4:8)

indicating that he exists in the present, the past, and the future.  But someone who thinks that God exists in time could easily interpret this as just meaning that God endures with time.  The question is whether he is also eternal (existing in an timeless present), i.e. whether he transcends our concepts of time altogether.

One could draw an analogy here with God and Space (as suggested by Relativity).  Theologically, we can say that God is "outside" of space, that is, he is not the kind of thing that is located in space at all.  This is a suave, philosophical way of saying things, which is not always the best.  It is more common to say that God is located everywhere in space, i.e. he is omnipresent; and this is equally true so long as we don't fall into the trap of thinking that he fills space in the same way that water fills a glass.  Unlike the glass of water, God does not have distinct "parts" residing in different locations.  Nor can he be said to be "contained" by this universe.  For as Solomon pointed out, even the biggest multiverse cannot contain him.  Rather, he is present at each location of space, in this sense: that every place is related to him by being an object in the divine mind, subject to his power and will.  The creation cannot be considered in isolation from its Creator; every point of spacetime is in his mind.

In the same way, if we speak of God as living "outside of time" in an eternal present, this should not be taken to deny that he is also present at each moment of time.  So if God is eternal, it is also true that he is everlasting.  (This is important to my argument, because otherwise passages like Rev 1:4 might be taken as evidence against God's eternity, and we'd just have a battle of the proof-texts.)

Furthermore, God may be specially present in places that are particularly conducive to the operation of his power and will.  This numinous haunting of particular places and people may seem embarrassing to more rationalistic theologians, as if it limited his omnipresence, but the Bible sees no contradiction between God's general presence everywhere, and his special presence in certain particular places such as the Temple.  Consider this key passage from St. Isaiah:

For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.  (Isaiah 57:15, KJV)

This strange phrase "inhabits eternity" might reasonably be taken to suggest that God is outside of time, that he is eternal and not just that he persists with time.  Now, I'm not a Hebrew scholar, but it sure looks to me like Isaiah took a noun that normally means something like "forever", metaphorically turned it into a location, and then said that God lives there.

Once you've turned "forever" into an abstract place where things can be, I think "eternity" is a good translation.  While it may seem surprising that such a fine philosophical distinction would be present in the (normally more earthy) Hebrew scriptures, this passage seems to have found a poetic way to communicate that God is eternal in the strict sense.   Some of the less literal translations like the NIV dynamically translate the phrase as just "lives forever", but the majority of translations seem to agree with the KJV here.

In any case, Isaiah sees no contradiction with telling us that God is also present elsewhere.  He does not just in the heavenly realms which serve as his tabernacle, but (paradoxically) he specially dwells with human beings who are humble and lowly, and who for that very reason are the ideal throne for his grace and love.  In the Hebrew mindset, this is perfectly compatible with the other statements.

Another set of passages which suggests God transcends time is this one:

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day,  (2 Peter 3:8)

where the last part of the statement is a quotation from a Psalm by St. Moses:

A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.  (Psalm 90:4)

This indicates that God's eternity takes the long view, that to God even a long delay of millennia is not slow (2 Peter 3:9); but behold he comes soon (Rev 22:7 + parallel passages).  Billions of years ago was like yesterday.  Even this unmanageably long blog series goes by as if it were a mere tweet!

In conformity with the New Testament's frequent shift of focus to the small and little things, St. Peter adds the reverse truth, that to God, a short interval of time, even a single picosecond, is itself a whole universe of interest and bustle.  To him it does not slip away, it is not evanescent, rather it continues to endure before his face.  God is not "too big" to appreciate the little things, any more than he is "too little" to comprehend the big things.  (As St. Pascal said, he embraces both Infinities, the infinitely big and the infinitely small.)

Taken together, St. Peter's statement indicates that to God, time does not actually "flow" at any particular rate.  He is not carried away by the timestream as we are, but he sees it all from his eternal perspective.

This brings us to another pair of striking attributes indicating God's eternity.  The Book of Revelation (following Isaiah 44:6) attributes to both the Father and the Son titles like:

I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last,
the Beginning and the End.  (Rev 22:13 + cross references)

What does this mean?  First note that Alpha (Α) is the first letter of the Greek alphabet, while Omega (Ω) is the last letter.  (I looked at the Greek text to see whether the letters were spelled out as words like Αλφα and Ωμέγα.  Somewhat to my surprise, I found that Αλφα is, but Ω isn't!)  So this is as if he said he was "the A and the Z".

Clearly, Α means the same thing as First and Beginning, while Ω means the same thing as Last and End.  Taken together, the titles are highly numinous and encourage us to think of Divinity as the limiting point of all our temporal and causal concepts.  Specifically:

  • When we say that Christ is the Ω, this indicates that he is the Final Cause, that he is the purpose of all things (Col 1:16, Rom 11:36), that he will continue to exist forever in order to bring the whole world into submission to the Father (1 Cor 15:8).  In order to have the last word on creation, he must also outlast everything else.

In this way Jesus is the "the Beginner [ἀρχηγὸν] and Ender [τελειωτὴν] of the faith" (Heb 12:2).  Here end is in the sense of fulfillment, not in the sense of destruction.

But someone might ask, how can he outlast us, given that we human beings are going to live forever in the New Heavens and Earth?  But one might just as well ask how he could be eternal to the past, if there was no Time previous to the Big Bang!  In that case there isn't an infinite duration in the past for him to have existed in.  If we say that existed "before time", isn't it strictly speaking a contradiction to say that there was a moment of time before time began?

If we think God is merely everlasting (existing at every time) then these antinomies are hard to answer.  But if God is eternal, these objections miss the point.  Whether time is finite or infinite (either to the past or to the future), God is both before it begins, and also after it ends.  Now in mathematics, there is no logical contradiction in saying that you have an infinite series (like the natural numbers 0, 1, 2, 3...) and then another element of the series, ω, which is after all of them!  This gives a hint or a metaphorical way to think about God's Ω-ness.

But note that the text says "I am the Alpha and Omega", not "I was the Alpha and will be the Omega.  If God is simultaneously before time and after time, then he must be outside of the time series altogether.  In other words, he is eternal, "I am".

6. An Eternal Sacrifice?

In a previous discussion, St. Dennis Jensen brought up the question (which he attributed to St. Lewis, but I can't recall it anywhere in his corpus, though I do recall this):

Are we to believe that Jesus has and will for the endless ages be enduring the agonies of the Passion?

Speaking from the perspective of Jesus' human nature, which is temporal, the answer is clearly No.  For the Bible says that Christ "suffered once for sins" (1 Peter 3:18 + cross references).  St. Paul says that "since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him" (Romans 6:9).

Similarly, the letter to the Hebrews denies that Christ would need to suffer repeatedly in history, saying that:

He did not do this to offer Himself many times, as the high priest enters the sanctuary yearly with the blood of another. Otherwise, He would have had to suffer many times since the foundation of the world. But now He has appeared one time, at the end of the ages, for the removal of sin by the sacrifice of Himself.  And just as it is appointed for people to die once—and after this, judgment— so also the Messiah, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for Him.  (Heb. 9:25-28)

So we see that Christ's death happened only once, without repetition.  And yet, this striking phrase "from/since the foundation of the world" (ἀπὸ καταβολῆς κόσμου) appears elsewhere in the New Testament, in a way which suggests that Christ's sacrifice has an eternal aspect.  We read in the Book of Revelation:

And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him [the beast], whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.  (KJV, Rev. 13:8)

The translators disagree over whether the modifier "from the foundation of the world" attaches to the slaughter of the Lamb, or whether it attaches to the names being written in the Book of Life.   The first reading more naturally corresponds to the order of words in the Greek (although Greek is normally much more flexible about word order than English is.)  The second reading is more parallel to Rev. 17:8 (which incidentally is a potential Calvinist proof text, raising severe difficulties for Open Theism, less so for classic Arminian views which allow God to have foreknowledge of the future.)  In that case, the text would simply be another verse talking about being predestined in Christ, like 2 Tim 1:9-10 (some other examples were in the post on foreknowledge).

Even if "from the foundation of the world" modifies the names being written in the book of life, one could still ask why there are names in this book.  The answer presumably still has to do with the death of Jesus.  If God foresees the Cross and takes it into consideration in advance, then this would also suggest that the Lamb's sacrifice is, in a way, an eternal reality.

Supposing the temporally mind-bending translation to be correct, this would seem to indicate that Christ's death was not only a temporal event (from the perspective of his humanity) but also an eternal event (from the perspective of his divinity).  Christ's death was in some way taken up into, or appropriated by, the divine nature.  For this reason, it makes a difference even to those who lived before 30 AD, indeed it was relevant before the time the world was created.  But this interpretation makes sense only if Christ is eternal, so that he transcends our ordinary notions of time.

Quite apart from how we translate this particular verse, on any Christian view, Christ's sacrifice was eternal in the sense that he died for the sins of those who lived before he was born, as well as those who lived during and after his human life.  But what this implies about God and Time, and how the Atonement works, is a deep question.

To me, it seems like the most natural thing to say is that Christ's sacrifice is retroactive; not limited by time in any way.  This implies that it is an eternal reality.  But, one could also imagine the Atonement more along the analogy of owing money to someone, where it can be acceptable for a debt to remain outstanding for a period of time, so long as it eventually gets paid (cf. Romans 3:25).  So on this point, I think the Scriptures are inconclusive.

7. Eternal self-existence

I admit that many of these passages so far have involved some contestable translations and interpretations.  But I have saved the best for last...

There is a key passage in Scripture which I don't really think can be taken to imply anything but that God is eternal in a sense that transcends our usual notions of temporality.  And it is not a matter of excavating some obscure implication; it comes straight from one of the central verses of the New Testament.  Here it is:

Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly I say to you:
Before Abraham was, I am.  (John 8:58)

The words "I am" are the usual Greek first person pronoun "I" (ἐγὼ) followed by the usual first person existence verb for "am" (εἰμί).  Contrary to certain modern day followers of Arius, the translation "I am" is correctly translated as a present tense in this verse.  However, the use of these words is highly unusual.

One minor point is that Greek verbs already indicate the person and number of the subject of the sentence.  Thus, the verb "εἰμί", by itself, already implies that the speaker is referring to himself.  In fact, it is common in Greek to omit the "ἐγὼ" entirely in most cases; it's optional because the hearer can already deduce from the verb who the subject of the sentence is.  For this reason, the pronoun ἐγὼ is included only when the speaker wishes to emphasize that word in the sentence.  (Likely Jesus' original words were in Aramaic, but I am presuming that St. John is correctly translating the thrust of the original saying.)

Of course, the whole saying is emphasized still further by phrasing it as a double oath or promise: Truly truly, a phrase used many times in the Gospel of John.  This suggests that whatever follows is a matter of the most solemn importance.

The second thing to note is that there is no predicate, express or implied, by the verb "am".  Thus, in this verse, Jesus is not claiming to be any particular thing, e.g. I am the Light of the World, or the Living Bread, or the Good Shepherd.  Instead he is just claiming to exist, to be there.  (There is also no predicate attached to "I am" in the earlier verses 8:24 or 8:28, as well as the later verses 13:19, 18:5-8, but there is is less obvious that no predicate is implied.)

But the really odd thing is that this claim to exist, despite being in the present tense, is also referred to a past moment of time, namely "before Abraham was".  This is not a usual grammatical construction in Greek.  In fact, the grammar doesn't even make sense unless Jesus' divine nature is outside of time!  It is deeply weird to say that something exists in the present, while simultaneously saying that it exists before something in the past.  The present tense must therefore, in this case, indicate that Jesus exists timelessly.

(One could draw a parallel with the odd pronoun usage in Gen 3:22, Psalm 45:7 or Zech 12:10, which also don't make much grammatical sense apart from the doctrine of the Trinity.)

So far, this strongly suggests that Jesus was staking out a claim to divinity.  But there is more.  The fact that "I am" is emphasized so strongly would also make any pious Jewish reader immediately call to mind the fact that "I am" is also an allusion to the Name of God given to Moses at the burning bush.

After God reveals himself by saying "I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob", Moses still wishes to have more personal information about which god this really is.  It is written:

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’  Then what shall I tell them?”

God said to Moses, “I am who I am.  This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’ ”

God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘YHWH [which sounds like the Hebrew for "I am"] the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.  This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation.”  (Exodus 3:13-15)

This is not some obscure passage from the Old Testament, rather it is a central passage of the Torah, the beginning of his revelation to Moses and Israel!

I am given to understand that in the Hebrew, the phrase "I am who I am" is ambiguous, and it could also be understood as a future tense: "I will be who I will be", giving a somewhat more dynamic impression of divine existence.  But the Septuagint translated this as as ἐγὼ εἰμί, and in the Gospel of St. John, Jesus seems to have endorsed the present-tense translation.  (The phrase ἐγὼ εἰμί also appears in  several other Septuagint passages in which God speaks, especially in the long discourse in Isaiah 41-48 in which God speaks of his eternity, and his ability to predict the future.)

Thus we find God claiming to be, not merely the historical deity who revealed himself to Abraham and his descendents, but also the God of the Philosophers, the one who has the property of "self-existence" (i.e. having absolute necessary existence, rather than existence derived from some other source), the one who is the most fundamental being, which underlies all other existence, which does not exist for some other reason outside of itself, but just IS.  But this fundamental existence is also personal—the love which existed before time began—and therefore speaks in the first person: I AM.

In response to some theologians (called "theistic personalists") who claim that Classical Theism is incompatible with the the biblical accounts of a changing, personal God, St. Ed Feser points out that the Bible itself has passages which suggest that God should be conceived of in a more metaphysical way:

For instance, Malachi 3:6 describes God as unchanging.  Exodus 3:14 tells us that God refers to himself as “I AM,” which has sounded to a  lot of interpreters over the centuries like he is indicating that he is Being Itself.  John 14: 6 tells us that Christ is the truth, and John 4:6 tells us that God is love -- as opposed to merely instantiating or having love.  (Why don’t theistic personalists ever say: “How can a person be love?  That’s Greek philosophy speaking, not the great self of the Bible!”  Why don’t they complain: “How can God be truth?  Are we supposed to believe that he is a conjunction of propositions?”

[One could also add to this Deut 6:4, the Shema, which has traditionally been understood by Jews and Christians to imply that God is simple, i.e. not divisible into parts.]

From the metaphysical picture of God as Being Itself found in Exodus 3, one could then argue directly that he must be outside of Time, and therefore Eternal.  Although this would (in my opinion) provide a good argument for God's timelessness, there is no need for somebody who accepts the New Testament to take this round-about philosophical route.  For Jesus made his own view of the matter clear:

Before Abraham was, I am.

In light of this astonishing claim, it is not surprising that the Jews recognized that Jesus was claiming to be YHWH, and immediately "picked up stones to stone him" (John 8:59).   What may pass unnoticed at first, is that this is the clearest expression of God's relationship to Time anywhere in the Bible.  (As St. E. Stanley Jones pointed out somewhere, one way we know it is not idolatrous to worship Jesus, is that whenever we apply our concepts of Jesus to the concept of God, we only find that it makes our idea of God bigger and nobler, not smaller and more constricted.)

And, of course, once we know that Jesus used this phrase ἐγὼ εἰμί as a claim of divinity, it is probably fair to read this meaning back into the other "I am" sayings in John's gospel too.  In fact, there are even "I am" sayings in the Synoptic Gospels, such as when he walks on water (Matt 14:27/Mark 6:5/John 6:20) like God did in Psalm 77:19, and when he confesses his identity at his trial (Mark 14:62/Luke 22:70), which the High Priest at any rate interpreted as blasphemy.   Some less likely (but still possible) candidates for this usage are when he refers to the claims made by false Messiahs (Mark 13:6/Luke 21:8), and when he says ἐγώ εἰμι αὐτός ("I am myself") to indicate that he is not a ghost in Luke 24:39, after the Resurrection.  But I should emphasize that, considered in itself, ἐγὼ εἰμί is a perfectly ordinary Greek phrase that anyone might say; it is only the context which can make it into something more.

To summarize, any responsible interpretation of John 8:58 must deal with both 1) the literal present tense meaning of ἐγὼ εἰμί (which implies timelessness and pre-existence) and 2) the obvious allusion to Exodus 3 (which implies divinity and self-existence).

If Jesus had merely wanted to claim that he pre-existed before Abraham was born, he should have said, "Before Abraham was, I was".  On the other hand, if he wished to claim to be divine, but without endorsing the view that divinity is timeless, he could have dropped the phrase "I am" into a present tense construction (in some way that indicated the reference to Exodus 3).  The tense twisting was unnecessary, except as a claim to exist timelessly.

So all in the space of a couple breaths, he manages to suggest that he is an Eternal Being, that he is YHWH of the burning bush, and that he inspired both the Patriarchs and the Philosophers!  Such staggering blasphemy, if it is not the truth...

Putting all this together, I think the simplest and best way to process this evidence, is to conclude that God is eternal.  In addition to being the traditional view, held by most Christian theologians historically, it is also the one that fits best with modern physics, and also with the overall message of God's Word.

About Aron Wall

In 2019, I will be studying quantum gravity and black hole thermodynamics as a Lecturer at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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One Response to God and Time VI: Eternity in Holy Writ

  1. willie says:

    Aron
    I admire your ability to integrate your view on theology and science so consistently. You have established scripturally, inter alia, that God exists outside of time, eternal, everlasting.
    I feel compelled to suggest, but may be off the mark: In eternity there exists no history. History started only at creation of time-space. In eternity creation of time-space might be merely a finite speck. But God infinite "existed before” the appearance of the speck and is now coexisting with it. I can imagine that in eternal everlasting unchanging reality, God, the One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place -- still in that unchanging place of abode, still changeless and unchanging, upholding the time-space creation.
    In Kim Griest’s presentation, The Mystery of Empty Space, (here) he suggests that vacuum energy to be classed omnipresent. Vacuum energy, for me then, is an entity that can be associated with the attribute of God namely his omnipresence. Therefore I wonder if God, in essence, is not completely outside of the time-space creation but is intimately associated in time-space creation, maybe through the mysterious omnipresent vacuum energy or similar entity.

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