Most Christians I know typically say that God is “outside of time.” I think the reason for this is that the Bible says He’s eternal. The Bible also affirms that there was a beginning to creation, which was the beginning of time. God existing without creation would be timeless. It also seems to put less restraint on God. Surely we wouldn’t want to say that God is bound by time, right?
Another argument I’ve heard is that God, being a perfect being, would have full access to the whole of His existence. This argument for the timelessness of God has an emotional appeal to it. If there is a past to God, then He doesn’t have access to that past time anymore, and if there’s a future to God, then that future time is untouchable to God. For us humans, our memories can sometimes serve as a poignant reminder of our finitude. Good times that I had in the past are gone. They don’t exist anymore. They were fleeting, infinitesimal moments in the vast expanse of universal history. There’s a sort of incompleteness in our lives due to our temporality. Surely a being like God would experience His life fully and completely. Still, I’m not yet convinced by the arguments that God is “outside of time,” either philosophically or biblically. If God is timeless, then He must be completely immutable, but the Bible shows God changing in many ways (at least extrinsically). He changes the way He interacts with creation and the second Person of the Trinity took on a human nature. If God is completely timeless, how does He interact with a temporal creation at all? He would be completely immobile it seems. Let’s explore this further.
Wayne Grudem, a renowned theologian from Phoenix Seminary, says in his book, Bible Doctrine, that God’s eternity means He “has no beginning, end, or succession of moments in his own being, and he sees all of time equally vividly, yet God sees events in time and acts in time,” (pg. 76, emphasis mine). I agree that God has no beginning or end, but it’s the succession of moments I’m sceptical about. Several verses used to support this definition would be
Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. (Psalm 90:2)
The number of his years is unsearchable. (Job 36:26)
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Rev. 1:8)
For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night. (Psalm 90:4)
. . . with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. (2 Peter 3:8)
Taking these verses by themselves, I don’t think we’re justified in inferring that God is completely timeless or that he doesn’t experience succession of some kind. They certainly support God’s eternal existence and even show He has a different perspective on time than we do, but they don’t say that God doesn’t experience succession. Revelation 1 speaks of God in temporal terms. Psalm 90:4 and 2 Peter need not imply a lack of succession in God’s experience either. The fact that God knows all of time with equal vividness doesn’t mean past, present, and future is all equally there to Him as if it’s all “now.” It’s just a testament to His omniscience: His perfect knowledge of all things, including all of history.
People will also infer God’s timelesness by the fact that time began, whereas God didn’t. When creation began, time began, so without creation, there is no time, which means no succession of moments. Since God existed without creation, He must not have experienced succession. This argument makes sense for God without creation, but that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t experience a succession of moments with creation Why couldn’t He experience succession when creation is actually there? Proponents of timelessness will then add that God, being a necessary being, has only necessary properties (necessarily omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, etc.). If God is timeless without creation, then He is necessarily timeless, and to say that He goes from being necessarily timeless to necessarily temporal is absurd. If His properties are necessary, such an ontological change can’t happen, those properties are stuck. However, beings don’t only have necessary properties that they must have to be what they are; they also have relational properties that are contingent. A necessary property of being a human is that I have a human soul. A relational property would be that I’m in front of a computer or interacting with a friend. God’s timelessness/temporality can be seen as a relational property of God. Without creation, God is timeless because He is not interacting with a temporal creation separate from Himself. With creation, however, He is interacting with a temporal creation outside of Himself that is constantly changing.
This, to me, is consistent with the Bible’s evidence that God changes the way He behaves and reacts to different situations (Judgmentally in Genesis 19:24, Mercifully in Jonah 3:10). It also gives a more satisfying account as to why God seems to learn something new in the text. When Abraham is about to sacrifice his son, Isaac, God stops him and says this:
But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” (Genesis 22:11-12)
Considering the Bible’s very clear teaching that God is omniscient, God couldn’t have literally meant that He just now learned that Abraham feared Him. From the temporal view of God, He still would have known the event was coming, but in that moment He would know it experientially. Cognitively, God knew it would happen, but He could say at that He knew “now” at that moment because He experienced it.
This makes sense in human experience as well. If I take my child to the hospital for a surgery, I know what is going to happen, but that doesn’t prevent me from experiencing worry and anxiety when it is actually happening. My “foreknowledge” in this case does not preclude the appropriate emotional responses when it comes. I know that family members and friends will die one day, but that will not keep me from grieving their deaths.
How can a temporal God know the future since He hasn’t gotten there yet. There’s a couple different ways to see it and I’m not going to advocate one in this post. One way He can know the future is that He planned it. If He planned and ordered all of history, then He knows what’s coming up. Another way to explain it is that God, being omniscient, knows and believes all true propositions. Some of these propositions are future tensed. So if it’s true that “Kyle will wear an orange sweater tomorrow,” then God would know it. In that way He can know the future.
Those are just some general thoughts of mine. Feel free to criticize. I’m open to changing my mind here.