Does God Exist Outside of Time?
Our friend Jeremy Jernigan wrote something recently that we wanted to share with you today. Jeremy is the author of Redeeming Pleasure and Teaching Pastor at Central Christian Church in Arizona. He blogs regularly at TomorrowsReflection.com. He’s the husband to Michelle and dad to five amazing little kids. You can connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
“Of course God exists outside of time!”
If that’s your default answer to the title of this post, you’re not alone. In fact, I even would have answered this way until recently. My journey started back a handful of years ago when I was exposed to the open view of God and the idea that the future contains open possibilities. This resulted from reading Greg Boyd’s book, God of the Possible. (Actually my very first exposure was Greg’s chapter in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views.) In this view, the future is partially unsettled until we resolve it with our free choices. And since future possibilities are real, the open view holds that God omnisciently knows the future partly as a realm of possibilities.
Obviously, not everyone is comfortable with this view of God’s foreknowledge since it appears at first glance that God is lacking something. Yet we also have to acknowledge that, as with stories of people like King Hezekiah, God sometimes changes His mind and changes what he intended to happen (see: 2 Kings 20:1-6). That doesn’t fit well with the typical Christian’s theology.
Now there are a number of ways I have in the past tried to explain why the open view of the future makes the most sense to me. Yet, in the past I tried to explain this while continuing to assume that God existed outside of time. This assumption made it more difficult to understand how anything on God’s created timeline could remain open from God’s timeless perspective. What I hadn’t considered until just recently was that the assumption that God exists outside of time is worth challenging.
I recently finished a book called Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek by Thorleif Boman. Through that book I realized how much the Greek way of thinking shapes our view of time today. That is interesting by itself, but the real shocker is how differently the Hebrew mindset views time. While it might be tempting to view this as ancient versus modern thought, it’s more accurate to view this as Eastern versus Western thought. We tend to see our view of time as obvious today (and therefore the only right view), but consider that it’s just one way of looking at it. And this way of looking at time might be leading us to forced assumptions about the nature of God.
Before I get into the specifics this book explores, let me point out that I’m writing about “time” in the common, or popular sense. I say this to alert academics who are reading this that I’m not using the more scientific definition of “time” as a social construct by which we measure change. I’ll leave that stuff to Greg.
The difference between the Greek and Hebrew views of time is reflected in their languages. Boman notes that “Greek developed definite verb-forms which could express the distinction between past, present, and future; Hebrew did not.” Just try to imagine time without thinking of it as past, present, future, and you’ll see how tied we are to the Greek way of viewing time. “In the Indo-European languages,” Boman writes, “the future is quite preponderantly thought to lie before us, while in Hebrew future events are always expressed as coming after us.” Much of the language we use to talk about time reflects this Greek mindset. According to Boman, “[w]e think of a space of time, a point of time, a time span, a segment of time; the past lies behind us and the future before us… our verbs can be illustrated accurately by means of points on a straight line.” So in Greek thought our past is behind us while in Hebrew thought our future is behind us.
The problem this Greek view can create for us is that “time, change, and transitoriness are synonymous terms.” In case that third term isn’t in your regular vocabulary, it means “not lasting, enduring, permanent, or eternal.” And this is why Greek philosophers argued that a perfect being like God had to exist outside of time.
The logic goes something like this (stay with me): time is transitory but God is not, therefore God cannot exist within time, therefore God exists outside of time, therefore time is a separate creation apart from God, and therefore God simultaneously knows all past, present and future events in one eternal moment. This Greek line of thinking captures the dominant view of most Christians throughout history and yet today. But what if the Greek view of time that leads to this conception of God is mistaken? I encourage you to try to suspend the Greek view for a moment to consider the Hebrew (and biblical) view of time.
“The Hebrews,” Boman writes, “have two tenses: complete… and incomplete…” What we in the west view as past would be the Hebrew idea of complete, and what we view as future would be the Hebrew idea of incomplete. Consider whether this distinction might not provide a better framework to consider time. “From the psychological viewpoint,” Boman argues, “it is absurd to say that we have the future before us and the past behind us, as though the future were visible to us and the past occluded. Quite the reverse is true,” according to Boman. “What our forebears have accomplished lies before us as their completed works… the present and the future are, on the contrary, still in process of coming and becoming.”
Within this Hebraic understanding of time, we must think of the past as what God and people have completed and the future as what God and people have not yet done. And in this view, there’s no need for God to exist outside of time. In fact, it makes no sense to think of God existing outside of time, because there are things God as well as people have not yet completed. Not only this, but the idea that God knows the future partly as a realm of possibilities presents no problem, for that is how the future actually is. And if it isn’t a pre-settled ‘timeline,’ we can more easily understand how God can interact with His creation in the present moment without a predetermined future.
You might be mentally stuck on passages like Psalm 90:2, which tell us that, “Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” Yet, to the Hebrew way of thinking, Boman writes, the expression ‘from eternity to eternity’ demonstrates that the endlessness of time stretches backwards (from our western perspective) as well as forward.” Basically, God has completed a lot but He’s not done yet.
In this book, Thorleif Boman provocatively points out that “it is no accident… that the Semites who can live without boundaries have been responsible for three world-religions; for them infinity or boundlessness is no problem.” That’s a crazy thought to consider and to connect it (possibly) to their understanding of time. And as widely accepted as the Greek view of time is, it makes you wonder how much it puts restraints on our thinking? As Boman suggests, “We must then ask whether the tenses of Hebrew verbs do not express time more clearly than do our own tenses.”
I, for one, think they do. The God of the Bible is not a being frozen in a timeless present moment. He’s a God who moves with us, and interacts with us, as we move from a completed past into a future that is open to numerous possibilities. And this understanding makes my conception of God much more alive and my sense about my life as his partner much more significant and exciting.