God, Time and paradoxes

  • Question 170, from Paul F

    What does the Bible tell us about God’s relationship to time? I often hear people say that God is outside of time but am unsure of the grounding for such a claim.

    One of the problems with Biblical translators using the word ‘eternal’ is that it implies a sense of timelessness. However, a better translation would be ‘endless duration’. The Biblical depiction of God is of a being who is not temporary, but in a sense is temporal, in that God acts within time and those actions and plans are time-bound.

    Within the realms of religious philosophy there have been numerous attempts to resolve the paradox of a being that is unaffected by time, and yet interacts with a creation that is governed by time.

    Some of the attempts to resolve the paradox can be summed up as:

    • a) God experiences all time simultaneously, which means he therefore knows all causes and all effects – this renders the universe as totally deterministic with every action predetermined and unalterable.
    • b) God exists completely outside time (and therefore outside our physical universe), but occasionally interacts with it.
    • c) God created the time-bound universe and has subsequently ‘stepped back’ to let the universe run its course, whereupon it will be restored to perfection through re-union with God (a form of Deism).
    • d)God experiences ‘time’ as a set of dimensions similar to the way humans experience space, and therefore is not bound to a set point in time (or space). The populist Christian writer Rob bell explores this point in his DVD ‘Everything is Spiritual’.
    • e) Time itself is part of creation and only ‘began’ when God created the universe – although for this to make complete logical sense it would mean God only ‘began’ to exist when the universe began as there was no ‘time’ before the universe.
    • f) God is subject to time, in that God has willingly submitted to time, or is in some kind of ‘process of becoming’. The idea of a ‘developing God’ (to put it crudely) was popular in ‘Process theology’ in the 20th Century.

    Interestingly, modern cosmological physics, with its idea of a multiverse and multiple dimensions hidden from our universe offers an intriguing alternative to the paradox. Although asking whether universes functioning in parallel to one another can influence each other leads into the same kind of theoretical issues that dog the religious philosophers.

    Returning to the Biblical statements about God (for example, as ‘everlasting’, ‘steadfast’, ‘the same yesterday, today and forever’), it may be more satisfactory perhaps to see these terms as aspects of God’s character rather than God’s nature. God is revealed as reliable and consistent within the context of this universe, which is where humans are located and where those characteristics matter.

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