On the Timelessness of an In-Time God

The following is a response to Roger E. Olson’s short online article An Example of Unwarranted Theological Speculation: Divine Timelessness (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2015/02/an-example-of-unwarranted-theological-speculation-divine-timelessness/). Olson’s main thesis is that the idea of God’s timelessness is a flawed alien concept borrowed from Greek philosophy that has no basis in biblical Christianity. He claims that timelessness has no scriptural support, and that such a God could not possibly interact with creatures in time. Contrary to Olson, there is scriptural and logical warrant for the belief in a timeless God that interacts in time yet is not bound by it. This God can understand our time and interact in it, while also being eternally existent.

A Timeless God in the Book

Olson claims that the scriptures do not say or hint that God is outside of time. I present here a brief overview of what I think is compelling evidence to the contrary. Jesus is called the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the one who is, who was and who is to come (Rev. 1:8). By this, is it only meant that he lives long, and that he has always been? Or is this to be understood as a testament to God’s timelessness and in-timeness, since he exists in the future as well as the past? Again, one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years are as a day (1 Pet. 2:8). A short amount of time is long to God. A long amount of time is short to God. Does this not speak of (or least hint at) God’s being outside of time, or that time is a concept that does not bind God in his being? He is not a God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him (Luke 20:38). All currently live to God. He is currently the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who are apparently alive for him. Jesus states this in the context of the resurrection. Has the resurrection of the just and unjust occurred already? Perhaps it has in God’s perspective (he is currently the God of already-not-yet resurrected people). Jesus was before John the Baptist and Abraham, yet came after them (John 1:15; 8:56-58), before Abraham was (in the past), “I am” (in the present). He (Jesus) takes on himself many times the words “I am”, the one who is. He is YHWH, the God who is. The world and all in it will grow old and change, but God is the same (he does not change) and his years will have no end (Psalm 102:26-27).

Similarly, the creation event seems to point to God’s timelessness. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). Does this mean that God also had his beginning when he created the physical universe (including time)? Or was time not created, but existed, along with God for all eternity? From outside of scripture, we find evidence of the linkage of space with time—according to relativity theory, time is part and parcel of the physical universe. Time and space make up a continuum. If this is so, 1- God comes into being with the universe (in the beginning), or 2- the universe has no beginning (in conflict with much biblical and scientific evidence to the contrary), or 3- God created time. God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world (the creation of the physical universe) (Eph. 1:4) and perhaps Christ died before creation (Rev. 13:8). We existed for him to choose before anything existed. These things are spoken of as having taken place before time (if time was created in the beginning), and certainly they took place before we existed. Before I existed, I existed to him. In creation and throughout scripture, God points us to his being that is not bounded by time or by our line of events, and he does this by revealing himself in time.

Alien Invasion

Olson claims that the idea of timelessness came from Greek philosophy. There is no such thing. There are Greek philosophies, and there are many of them, but there is not one (maybe there was only one Greek philosophy at a time when there was only one Greek philosopher). There was more divergence, if possible, in Greek philosophical systems than there are in current philosophical systems. I am fairly sure that Olson is not ignorant of this fact, but he seems not tell us which specific Greek philosophy he is actually referring to—is he referring to some form of Platonist philosophy? Why put all Greek philosophy together and not name his opponent?

Olson uses invective language to say that this view “invaded” Christian theology from “alien sources.” Is this just rhetoric, or does he take his words seriously in these cases? Are Greek philosophers alien sources? Alien to what? They are humans. Aren’t humans the ones who do theology? I would think that at least some theology transpires among humans. These philosophers are not alien to me (I consider myself a human). Maybe Olson means alien to the Bible and/or the thoughts of the Biblical authors and audience, or the community of faith within Judeo-Christianity? By alien and invading, does he mean to say this influence is evil in some way? But aren’t the ideas of the philosophers and theologians that Olson quotes from (and whose arguments he borrows), like Pannenberg, Moltmann, Polkinghorne, and Torrence, also alien in similar ways? Might he be liable to taking away one alien view and replacing it with another, ideas that are outside of the minds of the biblical authors?

Is Greek philosophy not to be trusted as a source for truth? If a Greek philosopher were to argue for the existence of one God, must we reject his proposition because he is a Greek philosopher? (So that if a Greek philosopher says there is one God, he must be wrong; or do we mean he must be backed up by scripture for his words to be correct, and until that time his thoughts are incorrect?) Is the god of some ancient Greek philosophers the God of the Bible? Olson responds with a resounding “No”—different God entirely. It seems to me that perhaps Paul in Athens points to the idea that Greek philosophers might have some true knowledge about God: “In him we live and move and have our being” and “we are his offspring”—what is true of God to Greeks is true of the true God (Acts 17:28).

If we deny any and all truth about God in cultures outside of scriptural revelation (like that of Greek philosophers), we fail to recognize and appreciate that our own doctrines of Christ’s two natures and the Trinity are derived in part from the ideas of specific Greek philosophers. These would also seem to fall under the rhetoric of “invasions from alien sources.” Must we then deny the hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures and the substance of the Trinitarian creed for these reasons? And because the apostle John used the Greek concept Logos (with very important ties to specific Greek philosophers’ ideas) referring to God in Christ, must we also reject this revelation on the grounds that this is an alien concept invading the theological landscape? What languages were the NT scriptures written in? Greek? To whom were the NT scriptures written? Some Greeks? Does being Greek disqualify a human from knowing the truth? From being the object of revelation? From speaking truly about the true God?

Timelessly In-time

Olson argues that “a timeless being cannot interact with temporal beings.” This does not seem to me to be a true statement. By timeless, we do not mean (unless we are transcendentalists of some kind) that God does not or cannot interact with and in time. We do not mean that God exists only outside of time (or that God has parts that exist in time and others that exist outside of time). If we acknowledge that God exists everywhere spatially, we similarly acknowledge that God exists everywhere temporally (we seem to live in a space-time continuum after all).

No Time & G-Time

In the comments on Olson’s blog post, Olson remarks that “I tend to agree that God created time and entered into it with us. ‘Before’ time began there was either no time or (Barth) ‘divine temporality’ that is somehow different from our time.” If Olson agrees that God created time, then God exists outside of time (to create it). That does not mean he does not also exist in time. He created the universe from not-universe, he created time from not-time. If Olson believes in a God before creation without time, this God is timeless (there was a God who was timeless, even if for Olson he is not timeless now). Olson seems to me to believe in what he denies (the possibility of a God who is timeless). If God can be timeless before creation, and yet create the universe (even if he is not acknowledged to be timeless now by Olson), apparently a timeless being can interact with beings in time (by creating). The creation event seems to me to provide logical warrant for belief in a timeless God (and this warrant exists in Olson’s perspective as well, though this does not go acknowledged).

Belief in the creation of time (and belief in a God existing in no-time “before” creation) seems to be either 1: belief in a God that came into being with the creation of the universe (something opposed to scripture), or 2: belief in a God that exists outside of time creating time (along with creating the universe). I don’t imagine that Olson believes 1, so we are left with 2. If he believes 2, then God was at some point timeless (and this with justification from scripture—he created the universe in the beginning). If God was timeless and interacted with time (to create it), then this is possible, and Olson’s argument losses its force: a timeless being interacted with temporal beings at creation, even for Olson.

On the other hand, what if Barth is correct and there is some different divine temporality (other kind of time) outside of our time, in which God existed to create the universe (this has been called by some “G-time”)? If G-time is not the time we speak of when we talk about time in our universe, then it is not time (it is outside of our time, which is all we need to mean when we say that God is “timeless”—he is not restricted by time and/or is outside of our time, though he is not bounded by his timelessness and can still be in our time). On the other hand, if by time we mean “that by which we judge the progression of events”, then we might ask “how is God’s divine temporality different than ours?” Perhaps we might say that ours is created and dependent on materiality, while divine temporality is not? Then I agree that God is not bound by our created time that is dependent on materiality. But we should understand that by acknowledging this, we are also saying that our progression of events is possibly of another sort than God’s (though it is not to say that he does not participate in our progression of events). My tomorrow is not of necessity his tomorrow. If that is true, we are back to the timelessness of God under a different name (G-time/divine temporality and our time).

A God Who Can Tell Time

Olson argues that a timeless God cannot know that “today is February 18, 2015.” But for Olson, can a God who exists in G-time know that the day of creation is the day of creation? Or can a God who existed without time “before” creation know the day of creation is the day of creation? Olson might respond that because God is no longer timeless he can tell the time of day (he has entered into time now). One question: for God, is the day Olson speaks of the 18th or the 17th of February (which time zone does God live in)? If God does not live in a time zone, and it is both the 17th and 18th for God, we are dealing with a God not bound by our time. If we have a God bound by time (as in Olson’s conception, unless I misunderstand him), we also have a God bound by space (he must be in a specific part of the universe, and only that part). If God is only in our time, he cannot be omnipresent as it is traditionally understood (and conversely, if God is omnipresent, he cannot only be in our time).

Can a timeless God know that “today is February 18, 2015” for me? In Olson’s blog post, he states that “today is February 18, 2015.” I believe that I understand what he means, even though today’s date (for me) as I write this is February 24th. I understand that for him it was the 18th when he originally wrote his article. For him, in that writing, it is the 18th. I am outside of that, and for me it is the 24th, yet my knowledge of that event is not bound by my time. I can enter into the world of Olson and know what it is for the day’s date to be February 18th for him. Similarly, I can read a book of fiction in which I live completely outside of the world of the story, and I can know that “today is February 18, 2015” for the characters in the story. I am in a timeless place relative to the characters in the story world, yet I know the day’s date in that world. I could have written the story myself, and for me, relative to the story characters, I live in a timeless place (their world is an eternal now to me). I can still know that “today is February 18, 2015” for the characters in the story at a specific point in time for that world. If I write myself into the story, and interact with story characters within their world and time, I am not thus bound to their time. I can exist in their time and without it. By analogy, can this not also be true of God?

Conclusion

Asserting the timelessness of God is not to deny that God is in time, but that he is beyond and not bound by it. We can affirm with Olson and others that God does indeed act in and for creatures in time. That he lives in time with us and for us. And that we live in and for him. We should additionally affirm, though, that God is not bound by this time, by this space. And we can affirm this timelessness based on scripture, on logic, and on analogy. As the creator of time and space, he is, and there is none like him.

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