Transcript: Podcast 17 - Doctrine of God: God and Time

6 August 2008

This podcast is the first in a series on the doctrine of God from a philosophical perspective. For this month’s episode we will take a look at God’s relationship to time. Classic Christian doctrine holds that God is eternal, but does this mean that God is timeless, or does it mean that He exists at every moment of time? For the book review I will look at Fabricating Jesus by Craig Evans. First, let’s take a look at the news.

News

Perhaps the most important news concerning apologetics in the past month is the story of the ancient tablet known as “Gabriel’s Revelation.” The tablet is inscribed with an apocalyptic message typical of Jewish writings. The message is written in first person by the purported author Gabriel.

The upshot of this discovery is the claim by several scholars, most notably Israel Knohl, that the message probably contains reference to the idea of a resurrection of a person before the end of the age. This may signify that the concept of a resurrecting Messiah was present in ancient Judaism even before Christ. 1

This discovery potentially affects apologetics because one of the arguments used in defense of the resurrection is the point that such an event completely violated Jewish expectations at that time. Since Christ’s death and resurrection was so counterintuitive to his Jewish followers of the day, we have good reason to suspect that something radical occurred to get this thought into the head of Christ’s Jewish following.

However, it turns out that Knohl’s thesis may be a bit premature. As it happens, much of the text of Gabriel’s Revelation is difficult or impossible to decipher, especially in places that are crucial for Knohl’s argument. Basically, while Gabriel probably does mention something about what will happen “in three days,” it remains unknown whether Gabriel was speaking of a resurrection. The phrase “in three days” was a common Jewish idiom, so the use of these words is not all that surprising. Thus, Knohl’s thesis hangs on his best guess that Gabriel was speaking of a resurrection in three days.

Should Knohl turn out to be right, the finding would severely limit the apologetic point that Jesus’ resurrection would have been totally unexpected by first century Jews. However, in the broad scheme of these things it is not too damaging. As long as there is other compelling evidence for the resurrection, we need not be particularly troubled about this finding. Gary Habermas, a scholar who frequently defends the historicity of the resurrection, considers this point to be a minor one anyways. Moreover, he points out that Knohl’s interpretation of Gabriel’s Revelation would give more credence to the Christian notion that the Old Testament and the New Testament can be linked because the Old Testament points toward a suffering and rising Messiah. 2

In other news, the cover story of the popular magazine “Christianity Today” featured an article entitled “God is Not Dead Yet,” authored by the Christian philosopher William Lane Craig. In the article, Craig attempts to achieve two goals. First, Craig takes a brief look at some of the philosophical and scientific arguments for God’s existence that are taking the forefront today among Christian intellectuals. This includes the cosmological argument, the kalam cosmological argument, the teleological argument, the moral argument, and the ontological argument. The second goal Craig pursues is an attempt to demonstrate that these types of arguments really matter. In order to do this, he argues that, contrary to popular belief, we do not live in a postmodern culture. Postmodernism, broadly speaking, is the idea that truth is relative and that there is no true, objective ‘narrative’ to life. Craig argues that virtually nobody in our society, even if they pay lip-service to postmodernism, actually practice it. Almost everyone takes scientific facts as objectively true, for example. Everybody believes that there is a true meaning to the words that appear on medicine bottles, and they follow them carefully. Many people are skeptical about the truth value of religious and ethical claims. However, Craig argues that this is actually indicative of a modernistic cultural perspective, heavily influenced by the Enlightenment. According to this perspective, things like science tell us the truth about reality, while things like religious beliefs are merely subjective.

In any case, the article is an interesting read, and I’m glad to see apologetics getting a bit of exposure. You can read the article for yourself at Craig’s site- www.reasonablefaith.org. (Note: For the direct article link, click here.)

Main Feature: God and Time

While all orthodox Christians and classical theists hold that God is eternal, there is some disagreement about how we should characterize God’s relationship to time. A philosophical analysis of this complex issue can be very fruitful, particularly since this is an area that cannot be solved on the basis of biblical exegesis alone.

Consider some representative biblical statements;

Isaiah 57:15 declares that God is “the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity.”

Revelation 4:8 declares, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”

Psalm 90:2 says, “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting thou art God.”

We can easily see from these passages and many similar ones that God is without beginning or end. Yet, we cannot declare with confidence on the basis of these texts the nature of God’s relationship to time. Should we conceive of God as completely outside of time altogether, in a state of absolute timelessness? Or, should we say that God exists everlastingly- according to which He exists at every time?

Before we develop a doctrine of God’s relationship to time, it is important to first establish exactly what time is in the first place. Unfortunately, this is no easy task. The nature of time is one of the most perplexing philosophical issues ever conceived. St. Augustine perhaps stated it best when he asked, “What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know; but if I wish to explain it to one who asks, I know not.” 3 Even though we all have a feel for what time is, it is tremendously difficult to understand in a rigorous fashion.

There are two main theories of time that are seriously discussed by philosophers today- the A-Theory of Time and the B-Theory of Time. Before embarking on a discussion of God’s relationship to time, we will take a closer look at these competing models to determine which view of time is the most compelling. This will help us to construct a satisfactory account of God’s relationship to time.

The A-Theory of time is also called the Tensed Theory or the Dynamic Theory of time. According to this model, there really is an objective ‘now’ and things really do come into and go out of existence. Essentially, this is the view held by the vast majority of laypeople who simply reflect on the nature of time. Despite its intuitive appeal, however, this model is not without challenges, as we shall see in due time.

The B-Theory of time is also called the Tenseless Theory or the Static Theory of time. This model holds that ‘now’ is just a subjective feature of consciousness and that things do not really come into or go out of existence. On this view, past, present, and future events are all equally real. According to this model we can classify events according to the relations of before, after, and simultaneous with, but we cannot correctly ascribe to them the properties of pastness, presentness, and futurity. Though this theory may initially strike us as bizarre, it is defended by a great number of philosophers of time and, according to these theorists, is well-supported by modern scientific findings.

The main support in favor of the B-Theory of time is Einstein’s theory of relativity, with which most of us have at least a passing familiarity. According to his special theory of relativity, time is not absolute but depends on reference frames. Thus, for example, time slows down as objects move faster and faster. On Einstein’s interpretation of his theory, this implies that there is no privileged reference frame- no absolute time.

Now, this theory is compatible with the A-Theory of time, and by itself gives us no reason to accept the B-Theory; though it could wreak havoc for our conception of God’s relationship to time. After all, if Einstein’s interpretation is correct, then we must naturally ask the question- which reference frame is God in? Classical theists will want to maintain the superiority and perfection of God’s frame of reference, but in light of the infinite and equally valid number of reference frames exhibited in Einstein’s theory, they will have difficulty maintaining such a conception.

Nevertheless, this is not the end of the story, for most scientists have gone beyond the simple Einsteinian interpretation of the special theory of relativity to adopt the so-called Minkowskian interpretation of space-time. In fact, Einstein himself later adopted this view. But what is the Minkowskian interpretation?

Many listeners will likely be familiar with the term space-time. This term reflects the idea that space and time are intimately linked and not easily divided. Indeed, on this view time should be conceived as a fourth dimension. Reality is not the evolution of a three-dimensional existence- it is a four-dimensional structure. Minkowski derived this interpretation mathematically from the special theory of relativity, so it is entirely consistent with Einstein’s theory. But in the estimation of many scientists, Einstein included, it allows for a more coherent picture of the world. Instead of a disparate and crazy world of an infinite number of distinct temporal reference frames, Minkowski’s model simply and elegantly explains the structure of the universe.

Now we can easily see the relevance of this discussion for the B-Theory of time. If reality is really a collection of space-time points existing in a four-dimensional structure, then we must conclude that there is no objective ‘now’ and that therefore the A-Theory of time is false. No time is privileged on this view, just like no space is privileged. Thus, if the Minkowskian interpretation of space-time is correct, we have good reason to accept the B-Theory.

As persuasive as this case may be, the resulting picture of time is so bizarre and counterintuitive that we may be hesitant to accept its conclusion. So let us now turn to the main justifications offered on behalf of the A-Theory of time.

Undoubtedly one of the great strengths of the A-Theory is the overwhelming support it receives from our intuitions. Even defenders of the B-Theory admit that their view conflicts with the intuitions of virtually everyone. Now, we must avoid two possible errors here. The first error would be to hold our intuitions firmly and reject out of hand any evidence that conflicts with them. It is certainly true that our intuitions are often mistaken, so we must be willing to give them up in the face of the evidence. The second error is, I think, very common in this field of discussion. This is the error of discounting intuitions as all but useless. People often claim that science has repeatedly dispelled our common intuitions, and so we should simply follow science wherever it leads and pay no attention to our intuitions. But this, I think, overlooks some important considerations. First of all, even if scientific evidence does force us to abandon our intuitions, we should not conclude that intuitions have no value. It still is the case that, all things being equal, we should believe our intuitions. Indeed, it is impossible for us to operate any other way. We have no choice but to start with our intuitions and proceed from there. Without a starting point of some sort, we could never get off the ground.

A second consideration relevant here is that, usually, scientific evidence is compatible with several different metaphysical interpretations. In fact, this appears to be the case concerning Einsteinian relativity, as we’ve already seen. Neither the basic Einsteinian interpretation nor the Minkowskian space-time interpretation are strictly entailed by the evidence. Both are consistent with the scientific findings of relativity theory. And, in fact, there is another interpretation of the evidence which is very consistent with the A-Theory of time, which we will analyze in a few moments. Therefore, if our intuitions strongly inform us that the A-Theory is true, then we should accept it unless we have very strong reasons to reject it.

Let us consider briefly the range of intuitions we have concerning this topic. The most basic feeling we have is the presentness of experience. We recognize that what we are experiencing now is actually happening now. We also have differing reactions towards the past and the future. We have nostalgia or regret about the past, while we have dread or anticipation of the future. Indeed, the very same event can evince a range of differing emotions, depending on its location in time. We will dread an upcoming painful surgery while it is still to take place in the future, experience pain during that surgery, and regret the painful surgery when it is past. This same event- the surgery- causes different attitudes whether it is past, present, or future. And surely we should admit that these conceptions are rational.

But, on a B-Theory of time, these attitudes must ultimately be regarded as irrational. If past, present, and future are all equally real, then it makes no sense for me to express relief at my pain being over. On a B-Theory of time, what we really must mean when we say, “Thank God that I’m done with that surgery,” is something like, “Thank God the end of that surgery was on June 30th, 2008 at 4:31 P.M.” But this is clearly not what we mean, and, moreover, the second statement doesn’t give us any reason at all to be thankful.

Finally, it is important to note that our experience of the passage of time is more basic than our belief in an external world. It is easy to imagine that we are simply a brain in a vat, prodded to believe in the existence of a physical world. However, even the illusion of the passage of time requires the passage of time. It is almost impossible to deny our intuition that time passes in the sense implied by the A-Theory.

What should we say about the scientific evidence offered on behalf of the B-Theory? It turns out that there is a competing interpretation of relativity known as Lorentzian relativity. Lorentz was a contemporary of Einstein and his mathematical work is at the core of the special theory of relativity. According to Lorentzian relativity, absolute motion, absolute length, and absolute time exist, but there is no way to discern these experimentally, since motion affects one’s measuring instruments. For example, a clock that is moving at a high speed will physically slow down. On this interpretation, absolute time is not affected at all.

Since this theory seems to be empirically equivalent to Einsteinian relativity, we must decide which interpretation to accept based on metaphysical considerations. Here, it seems to me, the result is obvious. If we accept the Lorentzian interpretation, we avoid the problems posed by both the Einsteinian interpretation and the Minkowskian interpretation of relativity. Remember that, according to the basic Einsteinian interpretation, there is no absolute time. Objects moving at different speeds and in different places have their own frame of reference. But this interpretation creates a bizarre, fractured view of reality with endless different timelines. Moreover, on this basic interpretation there is no explanation for relativistic phenomenon, they must simply be accepted as facts. But the view fails to explain why objects have no intrinsic properties like length, shape, mass, and duration.

The Minkowskian interpretation is superior in just these respects. It allows us to reaffirm a unified reality, and it offers an explanation for the lack of intrinsic properties of mass, etc. This is the case because three-dimensional objects do not really exist, only four-dimensional objects are real. The different mass, duration, and so on of these objects is merely a matter of looking at these four-dimensional objects from different angles.

So, I think that the Minkowskian interpretation is superior to the relativity interpretation. However, we have already seen the counterintuitive results that face us once we accept the former model. If reality is actually a four-dimensional space-time, then we have to conclude that there is no objective now, and that there is no such thing as past, present, and future. This is simply a remarkable conclusion which we should be hesitant to accept.

Thankfully, the Lorentzian interpretation avoids this difficulty. On a Lorentzian view, absolute time really exists, and we can say that there is an objective now. Reality remains a coherent whole, and we can accept the universal intuition that there is a difference between past, present, and future.

However, before accepting the A-Theory we should address a fundamental conundrum. How long is the present? This is a longstanding puzzle that has faced philosophers of time. There are basically three options here.

1. The present time is an instant.
2. There is no specific metrical present because the present is not a metrical concept.
3. There are fundamental, indivisible units of time.

The first option, that the present time is an instant, faces some pretty serious difficulties. If the present moment is literally an instant, how is there ever any passage of time? You could stack up a million instantaneous slices of time and still get no duration. The passage of time becomes a major difficulty on this view.

The second view advises us to drop the metric of time. We conceptually mathematize time and view it as a series of points in a line. But, perhaps this conceptualization, while useful, leads us astray. On this view, there is no such thing as a basic unit of time. In my view, this answer is not very helpful. It seems entirely rational to ask the question “What is the smallest unit of time,” just like we may ask “What is the smallest unit of matter?” To deny the legitimacy of this question seems a bit extreme.

The third solution may be able to avoid both of these problems. On this view, the smallest unit of time, commonly called a chronon, simply cannot be divided into smaller units. I cannot see anything strictly incoherent or problematic about this view, so it seems at least a live possibility for the advocate of the A-Theory of time. Thus, the problem of the extent of the present may be perplexing, but it is not ultimately fatal to the A-Theorist.

In conclusion, I think that the A-Theory is the preferred model of time. We have strong intuitions and strong experiential evidence in favor of the A-Theory, and there are no sufficient challenges to cause us to reject the model. Moreover, the leading competitor faces major implausibilities. Thus, we should tentatively accept the A-Theory of time.

This preliminary discussion about the nature of time out of the way, we are now prepared to look more closely at the doctrine of God’s relationship to time. If we accept the A-Theory of time, what should we think about God’s time? It seems to me that we have two strong reasons to endorse the view that God is in time- one dealing with God’s power and one dealing with God’s knowledge.

First, let us analyze the implications of the Christian doctrine that God is omniscient. As an omniscient being, God knows all true propositions and disbelieves all false propositions. But if God knows all things, then surely He knows what time it is. Surely He knows the fact, “Kyle is writing a podcast about my relationship to time now.” These sorts of facts, which refer to past, present, or future states of affairs, are called tensed facts. It is not difficult to think of examples of these kinds of facts. For example, “It is now 3:52 A.M.” is a tensed fact that refers to the present. “Kyle went to class yesterday” is a tensed fact that refers to the past. Finally, “Obama will win the Presidential election” is a tensed fact that refers to the future.

Clearly, the classical Christian theist will want to say that God knows these facts. But, if He is entirely outside time, then He simply cannot know these kinds of facts. From His perspective, He would have no idea whether the Battle of Hastings was occurring, had already occurred, or was yet to occur. Everything is present to God at once in an eternal ‘now.’ The only successful way to escape this unacceptable conclusion is to argue that tensed facts don’t really exist. But this is to retreat back into the B-Theory of time, which has little to commend itself, as we have seen.

The second reason to embrace the everlasting view of God’s relationship to time has to do with His power. Classical Christian theists do not believe in a God who merely created the world and let it run on its own. God is involved in history. Indeed, the Bible can be seen as a story of God’s interaction with and involvement in the created realm. But if we deny that God is inside of time, then it is hard to see how God could act in a world that is in time.

And let us not forget the ultimate case of God’s interaction with the created order, found in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The fact of the incarnation stretches the credulity of the timelessness model. Jesus Christ clearly was not timeless, he was a living human being who experienced the passage of time. The only way to salvage the timeless view of God given this crucial Biblical fact and given the truth of the A-Theory of time is to say that only Christ’s human nature experienced time, while his divine nature remained timeless. In addition to being borderline incoherent, however, this view comes perilously close to violating the Chalcedonian Creed, which states that the two natures of Jesus Christ exist without division.

Once again, please note that the previous arguments are only effective if the truth of the A-Theory is granted. Since the A-Theory is to be preferred, we should also conceive of God as in time, though everlasting.

However, the two main reasons provided for God’s relationship to time were based on the existence of a created universe that is in time. Given that a universe exists, it seems that God must be in time in order to be perfectly knowledgeable and powerful. However, this does not answer the question of God’s status without the universe. According to classical Christian doctrine, the universe has not existed for eternity but was rather created a finite time ago. Christian doctrine also holds that God was free to create or not to create. He may well have decided to refrain from creating anything. Thus, there are some possible worlds in which God exists alone. We may thus ask the two related questions;

1.) Was God in time before the universe was created?
2.) Would God be in time even if He had decided to refrain from creating anything?

The first question is notoriously difficult, because it seems incoherent to speak of God being in time “before” the universe was created. Since the beginning of the universe also marks the beginning of time, such a question seems malformed. William Lane Craig prefers instead to ask whether God is in time without the universe. While this does make the question semantically meaningful, it does not make it much easier to comprehend.

I think we would do well, then, to ponder the second of our two questions first. Should we arrive at a solid conclusion at this point, then we can surely make progress with respect to answering the first question. So, how should we think about this issue?

Well, one advantage of conceiving of God as in time is that it seems more intelligible. It is very difficult to grasp the idea of a timeless being, especially one who is supposed to be personal. Thus, there is a certain intuitive appeal to this option.

However, this does create a significant problem- if God has existed for an infinite amount of time, then why didn’t He create the universe any sooner? What possible rational reason could God have for delaying the creation of the universe for an infinite number of years? This model seems to create a silly parody of God twiddling His thumbs year after year until He finally decides to create.

There are at least two ways we can try to resolve this dilemma. The first is to deny that God exists in a time that is exactly similar to the physical time that we measure. Indeed, as an immaterial and eternal being, it seems quite reasonable to expect that God would exist in a type of time different than what we experience. Alan Padgett takes this view, holding that God exists in “relative timelessness” before the creation of the universe. 4 On this view, God’s time is not our physical, measurable time. Indeed, on this view, God’s time does not have temporal intervals. This view is also called metric conventionalism. Since ‘conventionalism’ means that there is no objective fact about the matter, and metric has to do with the measure of time, metric conventionalism is the thesis that, for God, there is no actual, objective measure of time.

This view may or may not still succumb to the difficulty posed by the question, “Why didn’t God create the world sooner?” Nevertheless, a discussion of this point would take us quite far afield. For what it is worth, I find this view considerably attractive and I think that it may hold the key to unraveling the mystery of God’s relationship to time.

The second way to resolve the dilemma is to simply deny that God exists in time without creation. This is Craig’s view, who frequently says that God exists timelessly sans creation and temporally since creation. 5 This answers the dilemma about why God didn’t create the world sooner, because it renders the question moot. On this view, there simply was no time before the creation of the universe.

The only significant disadvantage I can find with this view is that it seems bizarre and hard to accept. Not only is it difficult to perceive of a timeless, personal being, but on this view we also have to try to make sense of God having two different stages, or modes of existence- one timeless and one in time. Nonetheless, I don’t think we should be too surprised if the correct answer to the type of question we set out to answer turned out to be extraordinarily difficult to truly grasp.

The upshot of this discussion is that it seems we have at least two logically possible and coherent accounts of God’s relationship to time. These accounts allows us to reconcile God’s knowledge of the world and his action in the world as well. As such, our discussion of God’s relationship to time may prove to be apologetically useful.

Book Reviews

Fabricating Jesus

There are lots of silly ideas about Jesus going around these days. While fringe scholars have always offered their crackpot theories, we live in a day and age where these authors can actually get a hearing. Ludicrous ideas about Jesus Christ are promoted all over the Internet, and books providing outlandish theories of Christ are consumed by hundreds of thousands.

In his new book “Fabricating Jesus”, Craig Evans turns a critical eye towards these distortions of the life of Christ. He criticizes two problems with what he terms the “New Skepticism.” The first problem is misplaced faith- placing one’s faith in the wrong things. Even many Christians are guilty of this problem. Faith may be placed in the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, or it may depend on us being able to fully harmonize the Gospels. While biblical inerrancy may be an important doctrine, it is unwise to place our faith wholeheartedly on this belief. Misplaced faith can lead to apostasy, and one very prominent example is Bart Ehrman. Ehrman seemed to place so much emphasis on the inerrancy of Scripture that, when he began to doubt this doctrine, it led to the destruction of his faith in Christ. Evans rightly points out that this is a case of severely misplaced priorities. It also explains why some ultra-fundamentalist preachers eventually convert to atheism and become the most intense critics of the Christian worldview. They have placed their faith in the wrong thing.

The second problem is misguided skepticism, which usually follows from unreasonable assumptions that Jesus’ contemporaries were incapable or uninterested in accurately recalling the words and deeds of Jesus Christ. Misguided skepticism also follows from overly strict critical methods and unproven assumptions. Some of these assumptions- such that Jesus had no interest in Scripture, or that Jesus had no interest in eschatology, flatly contradict the general tenor of Christ’s message as recorded in the New Testament. These assumptions thus artificially restrict the types of things that Jesus might have said or done during his earthly ministry.

After discussing the general problems with the new skepticism, Evans goes on to discuss some particulars. He criticizes the authenticity and validity of the apocryphal writings favored by some critics of classical Christianity. Even though renowned scholars like John Dominic Crossan have made much of these documents, Evans thoroughly demonstrates that these documents are all late, of dubious authenticity, and totally lacking credibility.

Moreover, Evans criticizes the way that liberal and fringe scholars completely divorce Jesus from his historical and social setting in order to advance their theories. Evans reminds his readers that Jesus was a Jew, who lived in a thoroughly Jewish town. Thus, those scholars who try to turn Jesus into a wandering Jewish Cynic or some sort of pagan philosopher have completely lost touch with the historical facts.

Finally, a common theme advocated by some scholars is the idea of multiple Christianities in the first century. Rather than speak of Christianity as a monolithic religious tradition, scholars like Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman advocate the plural idea of “Christianities.” Evans counters this idea by demonstrating that, while there were some conflicts within the Christian church about peripheral doctrinal matters in the first century, there was unity on the person, work, and necessity of Jesus Christ and his sacrifice. The only way to find other Christianities is to illegitimately import 2nd century documents into the 1st century.

In the final chapter, Evans takes a positive approach to uncover what we can about the true person of Jesus Christ. He argues that the evidence actually favors the classical Christian conception of Christ’s person and work. Although some may balk at his conservative views, Evans is actually very fair throughout and he does not overstate his case.

Fabricating Jesus is an essential book for the times because someone needs to counter the fringe theories propounded by critics of Christianity. Some of these theories are so incredible that real scholars virtually ignore them, but it is important for the sake of the man on the street that resources be available to answer these kinds of questions. Evans’ does an admirable job of setting the historical record straight without slipping into simple-minded conservatism. The result is a book well worth reading.

My rating: 4 stars out of 5.

NOTES:

1.AFP: Mystery tablet could redefine Jewish-Christian links.” Google. 7 July 2008. 16 Aug. 2008 .

2. Habermas, Gary. “Gabriels Vision and the Resurrection of Jesus.” Online Resource for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. 1 July 2008. 16 Aug. 2008 .

3. Augustine, Confessions, 11.14.

4. Craig, William Lane, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Alan Padgett, and Paul Helm. God & Time: 4 Views. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002.

5. Craig, William Lane. Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time. Leicester, England: Crossway Books, 2001.

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