Friday, March 21, 2008

More on God and Time

The following is taken from a discussion I had with someone on another forum. I have edited some parts of my response in order to improve the sense and clarity of my response. My interlocutor wrote:

The main point I was trying to raise (and I admit my
explnation did
not make this as clear as it could have) was that an
action initiated
in heaven does not correspond to any particular time
on earth.

This is, at best, speculation, is it not? We have no
immediate experience with the realms above (i.e.
heaven). Therefore, how could we apodictically know
whether an action initiated in heaven failed to
correspond to any specified time here in the realms
below? Nicholas Wolterstorff, in an essay entitled
"God is Everlasting," makes an argument based on his
preferred form of divine cognizance (i.e. divine way
of knowing) that is loosely formulated thus:

(1) No one can know about some temporal event (E) that
it is occurring except when it is occurring.

(2) Before E begins to occur, one cannot know that E
is occurring, for it is not.

(3) After E ceases to occur, one cannot know that it
is occurring, for it is not.

(4) Every case of knowing that E is occurring
therefore seems to be infected by the temporality of

(5) Therefore, the act of knowing about E that it was
occurring and that it is occurring and the act of
knowing about E that it will be occurring are all
infected by the temporality of E.

(6) God (according to Scripture) performs all of these
acts of knowing since He knows what has happened, what
is happening and what will happen. Hence, some of
God's acts (His acts of knowing) are themselves
temporal events. Consequently, God is not timeless.

Now what I have presented is a very compact form of
Wolterstorff's argument. But I think it suffices to
show that what he is arguing is that if God knows about
some temporal event (E) and its occurring, then His
time-strand must (in some respects) correspond to
ours. Moreover, one of the strongest arguments for God's
temporality or sempiternality (in this regard) is the
divine response to prayer, which I may touch on later.

is often much confusion because we imagine the
material universe was
created in a preexisting vacuum of space within a
given timeframe in
a preexisting passage of time. This is completely
untrue. Space and
time are part of the material world and until its
creation space and
time did not exist.

With all due respect, sir, the foregoing
propositions are mere assertions and not arguments.
People generally assume that time and space are only
associated with the material universe. But how do we
really know this idea conforms to reality? Einstein's theory
won't tell us because it does not deal with conditions as they exist
in the spiritual heavenlies.
Subscribing to a positivistic theoretical framework
or Weltanschauung might
convince one that time is not a spiritual phenomenon at all.
But asseverations based on positivistic theories hardly seem convincing
when spiritual realities are the topic of discussion.
I'm still inclined to espouse William Lane Craig's
argument that God must be temporal, if an A-theory of
time (as opposed to a B-theory) is correct.

Many of the supposed contradictions of the
belief in God proposed by nonbelievers (involving
omniscience and
omnipotence) are based upon this confusion and have
led to the "less
than God" version of God proposed in open theism.
However, when we
understand the material categories are not justifiably
applied to the
heavenly realm (doing so implicitly makes God an
object in the material world), the contradictions
vanish. This also means any act initiated in heaven
is not subject to earthly limitations.

(1) It has yet to be demonstrated that time is a
"material category" only. How does one go about
demonstrating this point logically or scientifically ?

(2) I am a sempiternalist and yet I can assure you
that I do not believe God is "an object in the
material world." God completely transcends the created
cosmos or is antecedently related to it.
Nevertheless, it is possible that time is an
everlasting aspect of God's nature. If so, by creating
the universe in time, the Maker of all things lovingly
permitted rational creaturely essences to share in His
everlasting divine nature.

In one of his Gedanken,
Einstein mentally explores
the question of relative simultaneity. He uses the
example of a train and lightning striking in the view of
observers on the train. Now, according to Einstein's
theory, if the train is traveling West, then
lightning seems to strike first in the West and then in the
East. On the other hand, if the train is headed
East, the lightning strikes first in the East and then in
the West for the observers. If the train is in a
position of rest, the bolts of lightning seems to
strike simultaneously, in the East and the West.
Therefore, Einstein's theory did not really abolish
the notion of simultaneity altogether. It only says
that a "rigid reference body" or co-ordinate system
must be shared in order for simultaneity to occur.
The train is just such a co-ordinate system. Simultaneity
for Einstein is thus relative and not absolute.

Exactly my point. If there is no absolute
simultinaity on earth, events on earth cannot be
temporally mapped to events in heaven.

That is a big "if." I tend to prefer Einstein's
interpretation, but I don't know if I buy the no
absolute simultaneity argument ex toto.
At any rate, I think it is wrong-headed to use Einsteinian relativity
to solve the problem of divine timelessness or

In "Divine Timelessness and Necessary Existence" (an
article you can find online), William Lane Craig
criticizes one of Brian Leftow's arguments for God's
atemporality based on relativity theory. Here is part
of Craig's rejoinder:

"This argument is, however, unsound. In the first
place, one could dispute the argument on purely
physical grounds alone in that it fails to take
sufficient cognizance of the difference between
coordinate time and parameter time. It is true that
insofar as time plays the role of a coordinate, it is
connected with a system of spatial coordinates, so
that anything to which a temporal coordinate can be
assigned is such that spatial coordinates are
assignable to it as well. But insofar as time
functions as a parameter, it is independent of space,
and something which possesses temporal location and
extension need not be held to exist in space as well
as time. In Newtonian mechanics time plays the role of
a parameter, not a coordinate, and, interestingly, the
same is true of Einstein's formulation of the Special
Theory of Relativity (STR)--the now familiar
space-time formulation derives later from Minkowski.
STR can be validly formulated in either way. Moreover,
since STR is a local theory only, we must, in order to
achieve a global perspective, consider time as it
functions in cosmological models based on the General
Theory of Relativity (GTR), on which matter Leftow is

When I spoke of "time as we know it", I was not
referring to a
subjective time in the mind of the user but time in
the material
world as a whole. The "as we know it" was used to
underline the fact
that time is material in nature and not separate from

I did not interpret your "as we know it" statement to
mean you had subjective time in mind. But I was
underlining the fact that we can only (confidently)
speak about our experience with time and it thus seems
somewhat ill-advised to conclude that because our
experience with tempus or xronos is material that all
such experiences must be associated with material
conditions. This is akin to saying that since all
bodies that we know of are fleshly and extended in
space (res extensa)
that a non-fleshly body cannot exist in possible world W1.
Tertullian certainly thought
otherwise and with good reason, I think, in light of
what Paul wrote in 1 Cor 15:42-44.

The verse in Psalm 90 you cited is not intended to
tell us anything
about metaphysics. The phrase speaks of God existing
everlasting to everlasting.

Literally, the phrase says that God is from "time
indefinite to time indefinite" or from boundless time
to boundless time. Gesenius, if I remember correctly,
prefers the definition "hidden time" for olam:

"The commonest word for boundless time is olam;
according to the most widespread and likeliest
explanation the word is derived from alam meaning 'hide, conceal'" (Thorleif Boman, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, page 151).

I agree that the thrust of the writer's words is that
God has always existed and will always exist. But I
believe we miss his general thesis if we weaken the
translation and eviscerate the temporal element in the


vasileios78 said...

Dear Edgar,

I am making a reseach on the origin of the neoplatonic timeless emanation and its relationship with eternal generation of the Son from the Father in Origen. I would like to ask you few things, but I would like to do this via e-mail, not publickly. If you don't mind, please sent me your e-mail, because I don't have it.

Vasileios Tsialas

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Anonymous said...


Thanks for your posts on God's relationship to time.

I was wondering if you could recommend a book (or three) that are a good comprehensive introduction to the issue, its positions and the arguments.

Also, I'm currently studying with a witness and I have a question from the chapter on Jesus. In chapter 4, page 42 it states, "Jehovah and his firstborn Son enjoyed close association for billions of years -- long before the starry heavens and the earth were created." If you agree with WLC's position that God is temporal with creation, then wouldn't Jesus' creation as a spirit creature be a temporal event? If so, would that have occurred sometime after (during) the big bang? The reason I ask is that today's scientific speculation measures the time between the big bang and the first stars at about 400 million years, not billions. Is this a mistake on the Watchtowers part, or do you think the time between events might indeed be longer? Or was Jesus' creation prior (temporally) to the creation of the universe? If so, then God's temporality seems unconnected to the physical universe as WLC would understand it.



Edgar Foster said...

Hello Kevin,

Here are suggestions for reading on the subject of God and time:

Craig, William Lane. (2001a). Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

DeWeese, Garrett J. (2004). God and the Nature of Time. Hampshire UK: Ashgate.

Hasker, William.(1989). God, Time, and Knowledge. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Padgett, Alan G. (1992). God, Eternity and the Nature of Time. London: Macmillan. (Reprint, Wipf and Stock, 2000).

You might also remember that WLC wrote a series of books, one which was about the A-theory of time, one about the B-theory, then a third volume (I believe) on God and time. I read them all in grad school. If you need bibliographical details for those works, I can provide them later. Nicholas Wolterstorff also has a good piece that appears in different anthologies where he argues for God's temporal nature.

Edgar Foster said...

Regarding the question about Jesus:

As I understand matters, Jehovah's Witnesses do believe that the creation of Jesus was a temporal event, but the organization usually has said that Jehovah is "from time indefinite to time indefinite" (old rendering of Psalm 90:2). The implications of that verse and its use of OLAM traditionally have been that Jehovah is sempiternal or everlasting (although the "sempiternal" language is mine, not the organization of Jehovah's Witnesses). So Jesus would be created prior to the material universe, but his creation would still be temporal when understood in these terms.