Science in Review: Is God Outside of Time?

filmstrip photo

Do we need to let go of our filmstrip picture of time? (Photo by gothick_matt )

Housekeeping: This is my final response to the reader question on time (earlier responses here, here, and here). A follow-up to Kevin Birth’s reflections on time and Lent is forthcoming.

HC asks:

How would you describe time? How do you make sense of God as a being that is outside of time, and yet has created it, interacts with his creations that are confined to it, and at one specific point in history entered into time in the person of Jesus?

God is frequently described as “outside of time.” Growing up in Christian circles, I certainly heard the phrase often. Picturing God outside of time makes it easy to understand how he knows the future. Time becomes a sort of movie strip; we can only live in one frame of film at a time–the one we call ‘now’–but God can see all of the frames at once. This God is the great auteur of our lives and we simply have to act out our appointed roles.

This view of God may actually seem more plausible in light of recent developments in cosmology, the study of the universe on the largest scales. For centuries, scientists believed that time and space were eternal and unchanging. It’s harder (although not impossible with the right geometry and topology) to imagine God existing outside of time when time goes on forever towards the past and the future. Then we observed that the universe was expanding. Distant galaxies are getting further away from us, but they are not getting closer to anything. That pattern of movement can’t be explained by drifting through space; space itself must be expanding between them. Working backwards, everything shrinks back to a point (give or take; the math gets tricky at that very first moment). Time and space have a finite extent; there’s a clear “outside” for God to occupy.

Then we factor in Einstein’s general relativity which unites time and space. Now the universe we occupy, the one we can see, becomes a tidy four dimensional bubble of spacetime. Even more tantalizing, the only hope for an objective view of time is outside that bubble. Because the speed of light is absolute and time is not, measurements of durations are relative and even simultaneity becomes relative. Some people see event A happen before event B; some see B before A. If there is an absolute frame of reference for deciding which option is the truth, it’s not inside the bubble. Good thing God’s on the outside!

painting of the Trinity

Time may be an inevitable result of God’s trinitarian nature. (Trinity by Andrei Rublev)

The only trouble with that picture is that as Christians, we believe God isn’t exclusively outside the bubble. We believe God was incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, a historical person who occupied particular points of space and time within the bubble. From that point forward (at the very least), God became entangled with the rest of us and a participant in our spacetime. So if it ever made sense to describe God as outside of time, I’m not so sure it applies any longer.

God starting outside of time and coming inside is a tricky notion. When did that transition take place? We can talk about a specific moment from our perspective on the inside, but how do you talk about “when” outside of time? It’s a little like asking which room of your house your backyard is in. Even the notion of a transition that doesn’t take place in time is mind-bendy.

Of course, just because we don’t know how to describe something or how to think about it doesn’t mean it’s not true. We can always appeal to the possibility that this aspect of God is beyond our comprehension. But is that necessary? What happens if we suppose that God was never outside of time?

We’ve talked about relativity; the other pillar of 20th century physics is quantum mechanics. Both have been verified empirically to an astonishing extent, but there are places where the two theories make different predictions that have not been reconciled. One or both are incomplete. In an effort to reconcile the two, some physicists have proposed that space and time actually emerge from the interactions of entities on the tiny scale of quantum mechanics. In other words, if you can zoom in small enough there is no time or space; time and space are what happen when enough bits of matter and energy interact. (The concept is not without precedent; for example, individual water molecules are not wet.)

As Christians, we believe in a God who is relational. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit exist within the fellowship of the trinity. Perhaps some form of time emerges from their interactions. It needn’t be the exact same time as the one we occupy, meaning that God can have a history which is distinct from the history of the universe. It simply needs to have time-like properties, allowing us to talk sensibly about “when” God acts from his perspective. We can still say that God has existed for all of time, because time does not precede God. But neither does God precede time, for a God who is not interacting within the fellowship of the trinity is a fundamentally different entity. Time emerges automatically from God’s nature.

What does this emergent picture of time tell us about the future? I’ll admit it’s harder to imagine that God can read the future by scanning ahead on a film strip if we think of time as a product of God’s interactions within himself and with his creation. Of course, if that’s not really how God interacts with the future, then setting aside that particular metaphor is a good thing. Maybe we should imagine God interacting with creation in the present to build the future, not detached and watching from the outside. Even apart from the incarnation, the testimony of scripture reveals a responsive God, one who participates in conversations and answers prayers. Maybe God can do all that from outside time, but I believe Immanuel was and remains present with us on the inside.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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2 Comments

  • mikstell@gmail.com'
    mikstelltheolog commented on March 3, 2016 Reply

    Andy – thanks for this, as always. I am not going to comment on the science, because I have nothing to add. However, as a theologian, I think there are a couple of issues which need to be addressed. First, I think you are correct to think of the connection between time and space when it comes to God. We do not think of God in terms of occupying space because he is non-material. In a similar way, God does not experience time because he is not “in time.” But this is not a statement of physics, but metaphysics. God’s lack of space does not mean that he is not present at each point in space, but that his presence is not one of physicality. Augustine famously said that God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. It seems like God’s relationship to time is the same; it is a metaphysical difference, which is why theologians talk about God being eternally in the present. God cannot experience change in time on a metaphysical level because he does not change metaphysically. So we can “talk” about a kind of time among the members of the Holy Trinity, but that is only a metaphorical way of speaking, because we have no other way of speaking. This is why theologians at these points fall back on the apophatic theology of negation. While I agree that we should not simply say “mystery” whenever we get to some difficult, I do think that our language runs up against its own limitations. “History” never has a use which does not imply time. However, because God does not change, the relations of the members of the Trinity does not change, and consequently, I think we cannot say that time passes among the members of the Trinity in the same way that we cannot say that the Son sits the right of the Father and the Holy Spirit sits to the left. The Incarnation, then, is not a change in God, but a change in humanity or a change in creation might be better.

    Second, I think the idea of God knowing the future through the mediated knowledge of the future is problematic. Classically we have said that God’s knowledge is immediate; that God does not know discursively the way that we know. God’s knowledge cannot be added to or taken from. God knows the future in the same way that he knows the past. So the filmstrip analogy is a poor one indeed because it implies that God is gaining knowledge.

    • drandrewwalsh@gmail.com'
      Andy Walsh commented on March 6, 2016 Reply

      Mike – Your input is appreciated; I can only dabble in what I know are deep theological waters.

      The statement about God “being eternally in the present” intrigued me. Arguably, we all exist in the present. I presume the key distinction then is the “eternally” part? In my experience, when people describe God as “outside of time” I think they have something different in mind, that humans are distinct from God both because they are finite and because they are bound to the present in a way that God isn’t.

      At BioLogos, I was introduced to the concept of perichoresis. I’ll confess that I’m having a hard time understanding that concept without some element of dynamics, which is to say some time dimension to God’s existence. Relatedly, if the relations of the members of the Trinity do not change, and if the Incarnation is not a change in God, then is the Son eternally forsaken by the Father (as expressed on the cross) while presumably also eternally reconciled to him?

      I think I understand your concerns about a mediated knowledge of the future. I believe I can just about imagine how a God who does not know discursively can nevertheless engage in a dialogue (cf. Exodus 4), but it is challenging for me. Perhaps my imagination on that particular point is biased by science fiction stories about characters whose knowledge is immediate. Dr. Manhattan from “Watchmen” is a popular example; he is depicted as unable to meaningfully relate to others since he knows how every conversation and interaction will end before it even starts–“starting” and “ending” from the perspective of the other characters.

      Still, putting aside the mechanics of dialogue, I find myself wondering how free God is if he knows the future in the same way that he knows the past. For that matter, is freedom even a relevant category for a God who doesn’t change? Maybe I’ve answered my own question; maybe freedom is a human concern but not one for God (at least for himself). Still, I’d be curious to know if there are other approaches to relating freedom and immediate (fore)knowledge.

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