Thursday, September 15, 2022

God, Creation, and Time

Did time exist before the creation of the world? Many Christians believe that time was created along with the physical universe, and that there was no time "before" creation. Is this feasible?

First, let's consider the nature of time. What is "time"? Time is closely associated with changeWe measure the passage of time by observing changeperhaps physically by means of a clock, the varying position of the sun, or even mentally by our flow of thoughts. 

"Time" is that which makes change possible within that which exists.  A "moment" of time is how the universe is at one particular time. No change occurs within any individual moment, but only over a succession of moments. Time creates moments and orders them. Thus, time enables the occurrence of events and processes. A world without time is a static frozen world where nothing ever happens. 

Creation and Time 

The Bible, in its very first verse, relates, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth". Elsewhere, this beginning is referred to as "the beginning of creation" (Mark 10:6), not necessarily the beginning of time itself.

If time was created along with the universe, then the universe has always existed, in the sense that at no time did the universe not exist. Indeed, if there was no time before creation then we cannot even speak of anything "before" creation.

It seems clear from the Bible, however, that God existed before he created the universe. God self-exists, and is the source of all other existence. The Christian notion of creation from nothing (creatio ex nihilo) implies that there was a time when only God existed, whereafter he created the material universe from nothing, other than his Plan and his spoken Word.

The Bible consistently presents God as enduring throughout endless years, but unchanged in his being and character: Or,

Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but you are the same, and your years have no end. (Psalm 102:25-27; Hebr. 1:10-12)

God is the living God, who acts. "But the Lord is the true God; he is the living God and the everlasting King" (Jer. 10:10). God is not timeless, in the sense of not being or acting in time, but, rather, supra-temporal, in that he has no temporal limits. God is fully present always, at each and every moment of time.

Moreover, God fully determines what happens at each moment of time, as well as the flow from one moment to the next. R.J. Mullins ("The Divine Timemaker", Philosophia Christi 22 (2):211-237) argues that, since God necessarily exists and has attributes like freedom and omnipotence, time could be considered an attribute of God. Time is certainly closely linked to the divine attribute of eternity.

Time Before Creation

If God has always existed, what did he do before he created the world? The Bible specifically mentions two divine activities done "before the foundation of the world" or "before the ages".

1. Fellowship among the Trinity

"Before the foundation of the world" the Father loved his Son (John 17:24) and glorified him: "Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory I had with you before the earth existed" (John 17:4). Evidently, before creation, there was love, glory, and fellowship within the persons of the divine Trinity.

2. Establishment of the Grand Plan.

Before creation, God prepared his Grand Plan for the universe. He chose us, the elect (Eph.1:4; Rev.13:8), entered our names in the Book of Life (Rev.17:8), ordained Christ to redeem the elect (1 Peter 1:20), and prepared the Kingdom to be inherited by the elect (Matt.25:34). This detailed plan encompasses all things in heaven and earth, which, in the fulness of time, will all be united in Christ (Eph.1:3-11). Nothing can happen without God's will. God providentially guides the universe throughout history to ensure that his Plan is completely fulfilled. The Plan's ultimate goal is to reveal God's magnificent glory (Ps.19:1; Isa.43:7). 

Dynamic versus static time

Is the passing of time real, or just an illusion? The common-sense view is that only the present "now" moment of time exists, ever moving from no longer existing past moments to as yet not existing future moments. This view of time is called presentism or dynamic time (also as tensed time or A-theory time). The present exists, the past has passed away, and the future is yet to come. 

Some philosophers and physicists (including Einstein) believe that the world is a four-dimensional space-time "block" universe, where the past, present, and future are equally real. The apparent flow of time that we all experience must then be considered just an illusion. This is known as eternalism, static time, tenseless time, or B-theory time.

The Bible, however, seems to reflect the common-sense dynamic view of time. It views history as real, with only the present existing. For example, God says:

"Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them." (Isa. 42:9)

God is referred to as he "who is, and who was, and who is to come" (Rev. 1:8).

Presentism entails that time is not relative to the observer, but that there is an absolute, universal time, determined by God's view of things. At creation, God freely created the first moment t1 of our physical universe, followed by a succession of moments t2, t3, ... wherein his Plan is actualized. 

Note that, according to presentism, time travel to the past is impossible since the past no longer exists. We can only travel forward in time, towards the yet-to-be future.

If the future does not as yet exist, how can God know the future? God does not literally "see" the future. However, God does know his established Plan, which fully encompasses the future in all its detail. The Plan can be likened to a book or movie, where each page or frame is analogous to a moment of time. The Plan, which God sees as one unified whole, contains the whole potential history of the universe. The Plan, taken as a whole, is analogous to static time, in that it covers all prospective moments of time.  Yet the Plan differs from actual history, in that each page of the Plan is merely a divine idea until its actualization makes it a concretely real historical fact. In the concrete historical actualization of the Plan, only the current page representing the present has real existence, making history unfold in dynamic time.

Time everlasting

A basic tenet of the Christian faith, expressed in the Apostle's Creed (as well as the Athanasian and Nicene Creeds), is the belief in "life everlasting", an endless future life in which believers praise God and reign with him forever (Rev.22:5).

The created world has a definite beginning, a finite time ago, but will continue forever, without end. God, on the other hand, exists with a beginningless past and an endless future: "before...ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting, you are God" (Psalm 90:2).

Some philosophers have objected to the notion of a beginningless past (e.g., William L. Craig (with Quentin Smith) 1993 Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology (Oxford: Oxford University Press)). The prime objection to a beginningless past, they allege, is that to reach the present moment, an actually infinite number of past moments must then have occurred. This they deem to be impossible. On the other hand, they claim that an endless future merely involves a potential infinity, in that the number of passing moments becomes ever larger but always remains finite, never reaching actual infinity. The time between now and any particular future event is always finite, no matter how distant it is.

Yet, one cannot view the future as merely potentially infinite but not actually so. Consider, for example, God's Plan. If God's Plan encompasses the entire future, we could correlate the Plan's first moment t1 with integer 1, the second moment t2 with integer 2, and so on. Then the entire set of positive integers will be contained within the plan, yielding an actually infinite set. Thus, if an actually infinite set of moments is to be banned, this applies as much to an endless future as it does to a beginningless past.

If we can correlate the positive integers with the moments after creation, why could we not similarly correlate the moments before creation, still existing in God's memory, with the negative numbers? It would seem that a beginningless past has the same ontological status as an endless future, at least for God. 

Many of the alleged contradictions inherent in infinite time seem to stem from applying properties of finite sets to infinite sets. Infinite sets have some properties that may seem to be counter-intuitive to those used to dealing with finite sets. Nevertheless, such properties involve no logical contradictions. There is nothing logically or mathematically incoherent about infinite sets; mathematicians use them all the time. For a detailed critique of Craig's arguments against an infinite past, see Wes Morriston ("Beginningless past, endless future, and the actual infinite", Faith and Philosophy 27 (2010): 439-450).

There is a further problem. Philosophical arguments against a beginningless past conclude only that the past must be finite, without yielding any specific numerical limit. In that case, for any past number of moments  N you care to name, you could increase it to, say, (N+1) since (N+1) is also finite. It follows that N clearly has no upper bound. Hence, the present can be reached from any past point, no matter how distant. This entails that the past is infinite. This is similar to the negative integers, which as a whole form an infinite set, even though none of them is actually infinite, and even though the distance between any two particular negative numbers is always finite.

In short, it seems feasible, at least on logical and mathematical grounds, that time could persist from a beginningless past to an endless future.


In sum, there seem to be good Biblical grounds for viewing time as an attribute of God, in that He fully controls time's flow and content. God uses time to actualize and fulfill His plan. The Bible reflects the common sense view that only the present moment exists. There are no valid logical or mathematical objections to the notion that God persists throughout time from a beginningless past to an endless future.




Wes Bredenhof said...

John, have you read the excursus "Problems of Time and Eternity" in Joel Beeke & Paul Smalley's Reformed Systematic Theology vol. 1? I'd be curious to hear what you think.

john byl said...

Not yet. I'm sure it would be a worthwhile read but I understand this is part of a 3600 page, 3 volume set which I don't own, and is not in any local library.

Jim Pemberton said...

This assumes a passage of macroscopic time that is distinct from quantum mechanics. It's sufficient for us to operate with this understanding, just as it is sufficient to talk about the sun rising, but we end up with these kinds of problems if we push our perceptions too far.

However, if we desire to press into it, I suggest that the issues may be answered by understanding the limitations of our common perception and unifying quantum mechanics with what we perceive as the passage of time. I offer no solutions here, but only a suggestion of a direction for thinking about these things. If, for example, the formation of subatomic particles are due to divergent quantum temporal frames of reference, then it's easy to see how all of creation comes from the mind of God operating not within time as we understand it, but in a way that transcends time. God can create the means for his own operation that is beyond our ability to theorize. It almost certainly isn't time as we perceive it.

john byl said...

Thanks for your comment, Jim. I am arguing for a presentist view of time, flowing in an absolute, “God’s view” sense. Infinite time with no beginning and no end. This seems to me the simplest view of time consistent with both a plain reading of the Bible and common sense.

You refer to quantum mechanics which, unlike general relativity, is seen by many as supporting presentism. Nevertheless, I am very leery of drawing metaphysical or theological conclusions from physical theories, particularly when these contradict Biblical knowledge or our most basic perceptions (e.g., relativity is claimed to prove that our perceived flow of time is an illusion, that time cannot exist without space or matter; quantum mechanics is claimed to prove idealism and/or pure randomness, etc).

Such claims are generally based not on actual observations, but on a particular interpretation of a scientific theory purporting to explain those observations. Often they simply reflect the metaphysical background of that interpretation. Usually, other interpretations can be formulated within a competing metaphysical framework. Furthermore, general relativity and quantum mechanics are both incomplete theories that contradict each other. There is as yet no generally accepted theory of quantum gravity.

In short, I see no compelling scientific grounds that might rule out the view of time I defend.

I shall probably address this topic in more detail in a future post.