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Could God be outside time?

Could God be outside time?

The question whether God is completely outside time or in some way bound to it is of utmost importance for Christian theology. The two positions involved – Eternalism (henceforth E) and Temporalism (henceforth T), respectively – have direct implications for such central doctrines as Christ’s incarnation, prayer or the God’s intervention in the physical world.

I shall argue against the E position, i.e. that God is outside time. Rather, I will advance a version of T that preserves the benefits that were thought of only E could provide while avoiding the unnatural and sometimes contradictory way in which E must respond to important questions. Our route begins with a clarification of the basic notions of eternalism, temporalism and sempiternalism and then leads through the three main issues, viz. causality, Christ’s incarnation and human free will together with divine foreknowledge. I shall look at both accounts for each of these issues, showing thereby that T is superior to E in its explicatory power. The fifth section reduces the problems of E to one common root and establishes a version of T that avoids the adverse consequences often ascribed to it.

I.     Eternalism, Temporalism and Sempiternalism

Eternalism is the view that God exists in an atemporal “moment”[1] and that the whole of time is simultaneously present to him, such that the temporal order is a B-series for him[2]. In this it stands in contrast to sempiternalism (or “everlastingness”), according to which God exists without beginning or end, but in a temporal way, so that he has a past, a present and a future. Sempiternalism thus presupposes temporalism, which states merely that God is located in time. Assuming that God does indeed not have a beginning or end I shall henceforth use the term “temporalism” or T for a sempiternalist temporalism.

II.   E’s and T’s accounts of causality

It is obvious that at least Christianity rests partly on the claim that God causes physical events in history to happen. How do E and T fare in accounting for this claim?

Let’s begin with E. Suppose the parting of the Red Sea happened on Oct 26, 1423 BC. The Bible clearly claims that God caused this event[3]. For an eternalist, it is contradictory to say that God caused the event on Oct 26, 1423 BC. This is because according to E, God exists in an atemporal eternity[4] and all of time has the characteristics of a B-series which is present to him all at once. God cannot therefore act at a given moment of history because he is not located in time and thus a fortiori also not at a particular moment of time. But apparently God did do things in history whose temporal effects humans clearly could observe[5]. So how can we establish an account of an eternal God acting in such a way that his actions have temporal effects?

One attempt has been made by Nicholas Wolterstorff[6]. Based on Thomas Aquinas, he sketches a theory of God acting eternally[7] and bringing about temporal effects by that acting:

All God’s actions are everlasting. None has either beginning or ending. Of these everlasting acts, the structure of some consists in God’s performing some action with respect to some event. And at least some of the events that God acts with respect to are temporal events. However, in no case does the temporality of the event that God acts with respect to infect the event of his acting. (Wolterstorff, op.cit. p. 129)

Wolterstorff concedes that the existence of some divine action “infected by temporality” would crush his theory. One way to show that such an action exists is laid out by Wolterstorff himself: God’s knowing of some events that they are past, present or future is clearly an act infected by temporality[8]. Richard Swinburne argues similarly by claiming that there are truths about periods of time which can only be known at certain periods of time[9], thus implying that God cannot know the whole of time all at once.

I see yet another way, namely that of God’s answering to prayer. When God responds to prayer, the response must occur later than the prayer, which infects the response with temporality – at least that’s the natural way of understanding “response to prayer”.

Is there any hope to establish an eternalist account for causality in the light of these problems? Stump & Kretzmann made the attempt. Concerning prayer, they doubt that responses to prayers must occur later than the prayers:

If at 3:00 a mother prepares a snack for her little boy because she believes that when he gets home at 3:30 he will ask for one, it does not seem unreasonable to describe her as preparing the food because of the child’s request…consider the case of Hannahs’s praying on a certain day to have a child and her conceiving several days afterward. Both the day of her prayer and the day of her conceiving are ET-simultaneous with the life of an eternal entity. If such an entity atemporally wills that Hannah conceive on a certain day after the day of her prayer, then such an entity’s bringing it about that Hannah conceives on that day is clearly a response to her prayer, even though the willing is ET-simultaneous with the prayer rather than later than it.

ET-simultaneity is a concept developed by Stump and Kretzmann that gives an account of how two events (one eternal and one temporal one) can be simultaneous[10]. Let’s assume, arguendo, that ET-simultaneity is coherent. Then, their account of petitionary prayer is coherent, too. However, it has strange consequences. For example, not only would God know that Hannah prays and answers her prayer eternally simultaneously, but also would he be sad about Peninna’s bullying childless Hannah and Hannah’s joy over her firstborn son eternally simultaneously. It can be impugned that God has such emotional states, but if he has them (as seems to me clear from the biblical account), it seems contradictory to claim that God is simultaneously in different, mutually exclusive emotional states. At any rate, Stump & Kretzmann’s eternalist account makes God feel remote and our prayers look much less influential, because they dont change anything in a God who eternally simultaneously perceives the prayer and answers it.

That brings us to a more general point about E. E seems to imply divine ontological immutability, which seems to be at odds with the biblical picture of God. As it pertains to sections III-V as well, I shall examine this point in section VI.

A last argument against the coherence of E’s account of divine causality concerns the past. Swinburne defines the past as follows:

…the past is that real of the logically contingent which it is not logically possible that any agent can not affect… (Swinburne, op.cit., p. 211)

E in principle allows for backward causation and therefore stands in contradiction to this very reasonable principle. One might reply that it is only for us humans that affecting the past is logically impossible and that God might have this ability. As I do not have the space here to dive deeply into that topic, I leave the argument here as another challenge to E’s account of causality.

What about T? Does it fare better? In my view, it does. To begin with the last point just made, it has no problem with acknowledging backward causation as impossible, because according to T, God is subject to the same temporal laws as humans and hence cannot affect the past. With T, we can interpret petitionary prayer totally naturally; God’s answers to our prayers are indeed later than our prayers because God has a history with earlier and later parts. And finally, on T there is no problem with God’s acts being “infected by temporality”, because they are temporal instead of eternal.

So it seems that although E can provide a coherent account of causality, which, however, fares worse than T’s equally coherent account when it comes to how naturally they fit into our perception of the world. The next challenge we’re looking at is, strictly speaking, a special case of causality, however one with unsurpassable importance for Christianity.

III.E’s and T’s accounts of Christ’s incarnation

The incarnation of Christ is a foundational doctrine of Christianity. According to it, some two thousand years ago God took on flesh and walked this earth as a man for roughly 33 years. One way to put the biblical account is as follows (let t0 be the moment of Christ’s conception In Mary’s womb):

  • At at all instants tm < t0, Christ existed as the second person of the Trinity without a human body.
  • At moment t0, God took on a human body.
  • At all instants tn > t0, Christ existed and continues to exist as the second person of the Trinity with a human body.

T has no problems at all accommodating the historicity of Christ’s incarnation. A God that is located in time has a past, a present and a future. Let us go back to the time of Christ’s incarnation: then t0 is God’s present. In that present, God is about to change in so far that the second person of the Trinity is about to take on human flesh. With respect to that present, God existed prior to it as a purely spiritual being. With respect to that present, God continues to exist in the future as a being of which one part has a body.

What about E? As there is no temporal succession for an eternal being, the states (i) through (iii) must all be eternally simultaneous for God. This is not only counterintuitive, but also seems like a downright contradiction. Even an eternal being cannot have simultaneous states (in fact, all that being’s states are simultaneous) that are mutually exclusive. Either Christ has a body or he has not; on E, both states must be eternally simultaneously (not just ET-simultaneously!) true, which is a contradiction.

Still, Stump and Kretzmann argue that God’s eternality is compatible with the historicity of the Incarnation. Their approach is based on the doctrine of the dual nature of Christ, according to which Christ eternally simultaneously possesses a divine and a human nature.

The doctrine of the dual nature maintains that the second person of the Trinity has not merely one essence or nature…but two: one the divine nature common to all the persons of the Trinity, the other the human nature of the Incarnation. (Stump & Kretzmann, op. cit., p. 452; emphasis added)

They go on to write that though Christ’s divine nature cannot become temporal, “at some temporal instants…the human nature of the second person has been temporally actual.” (Stump & Kretzmann, op. cit., p. 453). I see three severe difficulties here. First, Stump and Kretzmann seem to contradict themselves by first claiming that Christ’s human nature is eternal and then ascribing it to the Incarnation, a clearly temporal event. Second, the argument misses the point that, even if we take Christ’s human nature to be eternal (or sempiternal), his having a body seems to be undoubtedly a temporal thing. Whatever it means for Christ’s human nature to be “actual”, he cannot both have a body and not have it. And third, according to the New Testament, Christ’s having a body is a continuing state. When he ascended to Heaven, he did so with his body; he shall return to earth as a bodily being[11]. One would have to include Christ’s “incarnatedness” in the notion of his human nature to make it compatible with E. It goes without saying that this raises massive problems like the question how the Creator can eternally have, even partly, a created body. Additionally, it would weaken, if not nullify our awe for Christ’s condescension in becoming a man. Bible passages like Philippians 2:6-8 would become a sham. For how can we reasonably speak of a being that eternally and therefore necessarily has a human nature and perhaps a human body that it “emptied” and “humbled” himself by taking on that very form?

To sum it up: Christ’s incarnation poses seemingly insuperable challenges for E. It seems that in order to maintain E, we would have to give up our traditional notion of Christ’s Incarnation and opt for one that radically changes our concept of salvation.

IV. E’s and T’s accounts of divine foreknowledge and human free will

It is obvious that E entails divine knowledge of all things in time, whether (to us) past, present or future, because they are all present to God at once; hence, E necessarily entails divine foreknowledge. But how can E and human free will be combined in a coherent way? The locus classicus for that endeavor is to be found in Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy[12]:

…no necessity compels a man who is walking of his own accord to proceed, though it is necessary that, if he is walking, he should be proceeding. In the same way, if Providence sees any thing as present, that thing must be, though it has no necessity of its own nature; and, of course, God sees as present those future things which come to pass through free will. Therefore free acts, when referred to the divine intuition, become necessary in the conditional sense because God’s knowledge provides that condition; on the other hand, viewed by themselves, they do not lose the perfect freedom of their nature.

Clearly, Boethius seeks to escape the conclusion that a human action must be necessary (and thus not free) if God knows it beforehand. His solution is conditional necessity: It is only necessary that a man walk if God watches him walk; the cause of the man walking is still the man’s own free decision. Therefore human actions remain free while God’s foreknowledge (as we saw above an essential part of E) is maintained.

The pitfall lies in the statement “because God’s knowledge provides that condition”. Boethius takes this as support for the claim that God’s (fore)knowledge makes human actions necessary only in the conditional sense. However, it can be argued that divine foreknowledge makes human actions necessary in the simple (unconditional) sense. Nelson Pike unfolds this as follows[13]:

  1. God existed at T1″ entails „If Jones did X at T2, God believed at T1 that Jones would do X at T
  2. “God believes X” entails “’X’ is true.”
  3. It is not within one’s power at a given time to do something having a description that is logically contradictory.
  4. It is not within one’s power at a given time to do something that would bring it about that someone who held a certain belief at a time prior to the time in question did not hold that belief at the time prior to the time in question.
  5. It is not within one’s power at a given time to do something that would bring it about that a person who existed at an earlier time did not exist at that earlier time.
  6. If God existed at T, and if God believed at T1 that Jones would do X at T2, then if it was within Jones’s power at T2 to refrain from doing X, then (i) it was within Jones’s power at T2 to do something that would have brought it about that God held a false belief at TI. or (2) it was within Jones’s power at T2 to do something which would have brought it about that God did not hold the belief He hcld at T,, or (3) it was within Jones’s power at T2 to do something that would have brought it about that any person who believed at T1 that Jones would do X at T2 (one of whom was, by hypothesis, God) held a false belief and thus was not God-that is, that God (who by hypothesis existed at T1) did not exist at T
  7. Alternative 1 in the consequent of item 6 is false (from 2 and
  8. Alternative 2 in the consequent of item 6 is false (from 4).
  9. Alternative 3 in the consequent of item 6 is false (from 5).
  10. Therefore, if God existed at T1 and if God believed at T1 that Jones would do X at T2, then it was not within Jones’s power at T2 to refrain from doing X (from 6 through 9).
  11. Therefore, if God existed at T1, and if Jones did X at T2, it was not within Jones’s power at T2 to refrain from doing X (from 1 and 10).

The pivotal point here is proposition 2. If all of God’s beliefs are true – a reasonable claim commonly held by theists – a human being would need to have the power to (1) either turn one of God’s beliefs false, or (2) “annihilate” one of God’s beliefs, or (3) “annihilate” God’s existence (see proposition 6). None of these alternatives seems acceptable for a theist. The only solution is to abandon the notion of human free will.

That is clearly not necessary on a T account. If the future is still ahead even for God, he cannot know all about it, in particular how human beings will freely decide. The problem arising here is, of course, how to maintain the notion of divine omniscience. I propose the following definition of God’s omniscience that is compatible with human free will:

God is omniscient =df (i) For any moment t, God knows all true propositions at that moment and of all moments prior to t, plus all the counterfactuals of freedom that a free agent has and (ii) for all moments later than t, God knows those true propositions that are in his power to strongly actualize[14].

Part (i) states that an omniscient God knows all present and past true propositions and includes the concept of middle knowledge, according to which God does not know what a free agent will do but all the options the free agent has. Part (ii) extends that knowledge to future states of affairs which God can strongly actualize, i.e. without the aid of another free agent. This approach also explains biblical prophecy, which at first sight seems to presuppose divine foreknowledge in the E sense: God knows all things that he is going to do (like Christ’s incarnation and death on the cross) plus all the counterfactuals of freedom of every human agent, which allows him to “calculate” developments like those described in the book of Revelation.

V.   Upshot: the root of E’s problems and a palatable version of T

It looks from the arguments just laid out that T clearly wins the day. The basic problem of E that perpetually shines through is, in my view, its commitment to divine immutability. This commitment is inevitable; for if God exists timelessly, all states of God’s life are true at once[15]. But if they are true at once, there is no “later” or “earlier” as to these states (implied by the definition of eternity), and so no change to them, because change necessarily needs a temporal order. The upshot is that a timeless being can undergo no change, which is what “immutability” means.

Construed in the classical, ontological sense, divine immutability raises three main problems which I have treated above:

  • It demands a “strange”, surreal account of causality: God must cause all physical events eternally simultaneously lest there be a moment in which he has caused A but not B, and a moment in which he has caused both A and B.
  • It makes Christ’s Incarnation look less real, if not impossible. Understood classically, the Incarnation requires changes in the Trinity.
  • It precludes changes in divine knowledge and hence causes strong tensions with human free will.

I suggest to construe divine immutability in a different, namely moral sense. Clearly, God does not change, for example, concerning his promises; he cannot break them. He can also not change his moral attitude to, say, adultery or idolatry. I am aware that this approach may require a revision or even abandonment of divine simplicity; however, it is beyond the scope of this essay to explore this.

Now, with all argumentative superiority of T, there is one reason to opt for E which we have not considered so far. It is the deep-seated conviction that an eternal and changeless being is somehow superior to a temporal being which entails change. The fear is that, if we understand God as a temporal being, we diminish his glory. This need not be so. Richard Swinburne has suggested a construal of an everlasting God that goes roughly as follows:

Before creating the world, God existed; this existence should be understood as timeless in the everlasting sense. The timelessness of God’s existence sans creation is entailed by the lack of laws of nature which are the presupposition for measuring time; however, there could still have been a succession of mental acts of God in which there is no distinction between perception and memory. Swinburne goes on:

If God had left himself like that, the aspects of time which seem to threaten his sovereignty would not hold. (…) God’s whole experience would remain qualitatively indistinguishable from an experience that lasted only a millisecond. God cannot affect the past, but all there would ever be to the past is having his one divine act, that is, what he is always aware of in his own experience.

(…)But God need not leave things like that…God may choose to create a universe distinct from himself, governed by laws of nature. In that case there will be a temporal metric… [16]

So we can think of a sempiternal temporalist account of God in which God maintains his sovereignty over time, because it is he who chose to create a temporal universe to whose laws he freely submits.


[1] Such a moment can be construed in either of two ways: as a durationless instant or an extended period. Richard Swinburne in “God and Time” (ed. Stump E., 1993, Reasoned Faith, pp. 204-222) rejects the instant-view: “A state of affairs must last for a period of time; it cannot occur at an instant. God cannot be omnipotent or omniscient just at an instant” (p. 216). The construal also depends on whether one views God’s eternality as “point-like” (which favors the instant view) or extended. Brian Leftow pointed out that the point model stands in contradiction to God being a living entity. He suggests to think of eternality in both ways, analogous to the wave-particle-dualism (Leftow, Brian, “The Roots of Eternity”, Religious Studies Vol. 24 No. 2, Cambridge University Press, pp. 189-193)

[2] Helm, Paul, „Eternity“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/eternity/>

[3] Exodus 14:21

[4] Proponents of divine simplicity such as Th. Aquinas and Anselm of Canterbury even hold that God is eternity, for a simple God cannot be distinct from his attributes. See also: Leftow, op. cit., p. 193-195.

[5] One might object here that perhaps the Bible does not speak of those events historically, but rather metaphorically, conveying that no such event has actually taken place. To settle this question, however, is not within the scope of the present essay. I shall, arguendo, assume that the biblical events did take place as described.

[6] Wolterstorff, Nicholas: „God is Everlasting“, in: God and the Good, ed. C. Orlebeke and L. Smedes, Wm. B. Eerdmans 1975

[7] Wolterstorff uses the term “everlasting” to denote those acts.

[8] Wolterstorff, op. cit., p. 130

[9] Swinburne, op. cit., p. 215

[10] Stump E. & Kretzmann N., “Eternity”, The Journal of Philosophy Vol 78, No. 8, pp. 429-458; p. 439

[11] Acts 1:9-11

[12] The Consolation of Philosophy, ed. James T. Buchanan. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1957.

[13] Pike, Nelson, Divine Omniscience and Voluntary Action, Philosophical Review Vol. 74 No. 1, p. 27-46, 1965

[14] I owe this expression to Edward Wierenga, Omnipotence, in: The Nature of God, Cornell University Press 1989

[15] This is what Boethius meant with his famous formula interminabilis vitae tota simul et perfecta possessio.

[16] Swinburne, op.cit., p. 220-221


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