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!
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.