Timeless Eternity Or Temporal Existence

by Vaughn Baker

I am fascinated by watches and clocks.

Perhaps the intricate movement fascinates me, movement easily seen if the watch face isFinal author clear. I like to look into its “skeleton:” the wheels, gears and mechanisms for measuring time.

Time itself fascinates me. I read Jules Verne as a teenager and I tried to imagine what it might be like to time-travel. The idea is central to scores of present-day books and movies

In college, I began reading theological books by John Stott, J.I. Packer and C.S. Lewis. I don’t recall reading anything in them about tensions between genuine freedom and absolute foreknowledge. I do remember thinking if God was omnipresent in space, He could likewise occupy all points of time at once.

I had not yet read Boethius during this period, let alone having heard of him, but I began to think as he did: we can reconcile genuine creaturely freedom with God’s exhaustive foreknowledge by thinking of God as being eternally timeless. The key was to imagine God experiencing all moments simultaneously, at once.

Eventually my thinking moved away from the Boethian model. Divine timelessness created more problems than solutions. In particular, creaturely freedom was hard to understand. The problem of evil was difficult, too. I couldn’t imagine how a timeless God has real give-and-receive relations of love with time-full or temporal creatures.

My “re-think” of the timeless God began when taking a class in seminary. In that class, I was exposed to the writings of Charles Hartshorne, John Cobb, Schubert Ogden and Alfred North Whitehead. These process thinkers taught that reality is in process. Life is less about “arriving” than about “becoming.” They said reality is fundamentally constituted by relationships and these thinkers introduced me to alternative interpretations of God’s attributes.

During this time, I also read about a “hybrid” theological perspective. It was then called free-will theism, and later open theism or open theology. Being hybrid, open theology embraces some classical notions such as God’s omnipotence and creation ex nihilo, but open theology affirms general sovereignty, not determinism. Advocates of open theology say absolute divine sovereignty and libertarian creaturely freedom are incompatible. God cannot be in complete control and creatures be genuinely free.

What stands out most, however, is this. Open theology rejects the usual view of God’s foreknowledge. Like the process thinkers, open theologians say God knows all there is to know. The future, however, does not yet exist to be known. Because the future is open, creatures are genuinely free to choose. What creatures decide, and even chance events, offer new information to God.

Open theology says the creatures are genuinely free and enjoy a give-and-take relationship with God and others. God makes this freedom possible by self-giving or emptying (kenosis), as the Apostle Paul puts it in Philippians 2. God is affected by others (is passible) and God’s experience changes (is mutable), yet God’s essential nature is unchanging.

God being affected by others also implies God’s experience is temporal, in the sense of being time-full rather than timeless. God is not the exception to moment-by-moment existence but the supreme exemplification of it. In short, thinking God is in time draws me closer to the biblical witness about God and His providential care and love.

Augustine said he knew what time was …until you asked him. He also said God created time when God created the universe. God made the sun, moon, stars and our planet, said Augustine, and by these objects we measure years, months, days, hours, minutes and seconds.

While we can agree with Augustine that God created everything, this doesn’t mean temporal experience is bound by the movement of physical bodies, not even at the sub-atomic level. My watch, for instance, measures time. It doesn’t create it. If my watch is running five minutes slow, this doesn’t mean time has slowed down. Even planetary bodies, e.g., our moon and earth are slowing down. Does this slowing of creation mean that “time is itself slowing down?” Hardly, if by the time we mean the experience of duration. Time is more than metrics!

Scripture suggests genuine relationships existed before the creation of the world but it says nothing about God being timeless in all respects. The Bible is very clear about God being love. I am among many who think God is essentially loving and relational throughout all eternity. I cannot imagine how a timeless God, whose existence would be nonrelational, unaffected, and unchanging, could love others perfectly.

In fact, the idea that God creates out of nothing, creation ex nihilo, suggests some kind of time or sequential experience of duration for God. A timeless being cannot create a temporal existence at some point “in time” and remain timeless. A temporal God, however, could create at any point of time.

I further have difficulty imagining how a timeless God could relate to a temporal world, including ongoing creation, providence, miracles and the incarnation. In other words, the doctrine of divine timelessness offers me no help in understanding God’s providential governance of the world.

In The Uncontrolling Love of God, Thomas Oord says “God’s ongoing presence in all moments of time is time-full, not timeless.” I agree. He goes further and says “essential kenosis takes the time-full reality of existence and God’s time-full existing as crucial for understanding why God cannot foreknow or prevent genuine evil.” I also agree.

If God exists everlastingly in time, the future is open even for God. This view is starkly different from conventional theology’s interpretation of eternity, with its closed future. Nicholas Wolterstorff notes, “at least some of [God’s] aspects stand in temporal order-relations to each other. Thus God, too, has a time-strand. His life and existence is itself temporal.”

In sum, open and relational models of God affirm a time-full God. God experiences time analogously to how my watch measures time: moment by moment. That makes a whole lot more sense to me than the idea that God is timeless!

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