The decisive Christian analogy concerning time is that between the eternal indwelling in time and the incarnation. Brilliantly, the classical exegetes taught that the creation of time is analogous to the incarnation in this way: The Father inhabits time, just as the Son inhabits human flesh.
“I am God and no human,” Hosea 11:9 declares boldly, and this declaration seems to mean that God is everything we as human beings—and mortal at that—are not. Thus, if we have temporality, God must not. If God is eternal, we are temporal. Theologians today—well, actually, for at least now and the past century or two—have questioned that claim and posed this question anew: How does Christian theology best understand God’s eternity?
This paper sets out to construct the most adequate way to understand God’s eternity by beginning with the Incarnation, and thereby engaging contemporary science, the needs of Christian life, as well as our scriptural and confessional heritage.
Before proceeding further, I would like to build on three interlocking theses.I realize that there is considerable scholarly output on the topic of God’s eternity—which I do not intend to upend—but I offer this three-step process as my contribution to the discussion of whether God is better described as temporal than as timeless. I argue for the former. (Thankfully, my reading of twentieth and twenty-first century theology is that the timelessness camp is in the minority. So at least I’m not facing an uphill battle.) I do not offer this three-step process as a necessary, deductive argument. Instead, I present each successive thesis is a reasonable conclusion from the preceding one.
- If Jesus is the paradigm, then God is intimately engaged in the world: By finding the most definitive nature of the Godhead in Christ, this implies that the Incarnate God is related to the world. In Christian theology, as defined, for example, by the Chalcedonian Definition, we worship the God who is not distinct from the natural world, but intimately engaged with it.
- If God is engaged with the world, then God’s eternity is best understood as supratemporality and not timelessness. One central implication of this relation is that the eternal God embraces, and yet transcends, temporality. Put another way, God is “supratemporal,” that is, God is not timeless or atemporal, but is also not defined by earthly time.
(The paper then extrapolates on key biblical texts and there three theses.)
I close with three theological implications for the eternal God who transcends time and is also intimately engaged with it.
First of all, the relationship with science and the question of the “block” universe: As I mentioned above, I, I like other theologians who conclude that God is temporal in some way, arrive at a conundrum. On the other hand, the concept of God’s temporality coheres brilliantly with evolutionary science as applied to biological life and even to the universe itself—that the world evolves. And yet, many physicists present the “block universe” concept, i.e., that time is epiphenomal and, at a basic level, does not exist. I am in agreement with the physicist and theologian Robert Russell’s work on this—the flow of time we experience is real and that we can have a non-natural flowing time that still takes the insights of special relativity seriously. Russell’s book, Time in Eternity, is brilliant and careful, and though I do not agree with every particular, I do commend it as one excellent way to bring relativity theory into the discussion.
Secondly, the eschatology of our spiritual life requires temporality: Spiritually, human beings have commonly held to a concern about change. We do know that time brings decay, loss of vitality, and pain. Thus, By God’s ensuring our life in a divine supratemporality, we have an ongoing defined existence. This makes sense of our fundamental temporality—and the temporality of the “new heavens and new earth” where there is music, and language, and thus history, all of which require temporality in some way. What do we do with our inherent temporality—indeed, is it a fundamental problem of existence and spiritual life? How could we have music, and prayer, and song, and conversation, and all the other forms of Christian life without some experience of time? These all require a sequence and progression. Music without temporality would be a drone. To conceive of our eschatological hope as timeless buys into the kind of Platonic “heaven” against which the New Testament scholar N. T. Wright, among others, consistently inveighs. And our view of the end, our goal, our telos, forms our Christian life today. To quote bishop Antje Jackelén, “If detemporalization is the goal of life, questions regarding the concrete shaping of life lose their urgency.” In sum, we certainly realize there is loss in our experience of time, but there is also something beautiful even as we desire the fulfillment of this life, which is not timelessness but everlasting time. Because life, as we know it—and as God created it—is about time.Thirdly, the concept of the God involved in our human lives in a real way is essential to our experience of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Here I am making an incredibly basic, intuitive point for the average churchgoer: Christians believe that God is intimately involved in their lives, for example, noting that Jesus has friendship with his followers in John 16, that God accompanies us as we worship in hymns and praise songs (“inhabits the praises of his people,” Psalm 22:3), and that the Holy Spirit prays with us with “grownings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). Plainly stated: I was in conversation with a fellow Christian yesterday who simply commented, “It’s good to know that God responds to prayer.” The most commonsensical conclusion is that God is involved in our temporal process. This means that for the Church, without some level of interaction of God and the world—without some interaction of God and us—there really is no relation and thus no Gospel. Here I note that the “scandal of the Cross” (as Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 1:18-21) is exactly here—this did not make sense to Judaism monotheism, nor may I add, to the early opponents of Christianity, nor to philosophical theism generally. But indeed it’s true. Put another way, if we can’t work out a theology where God is intimately involved in the world, then I find no reason to be a Christian, but to be a general monotheist. Rather than adjust the experience of God in the Scripture to an impassive, deity who has no relation with us, we need to change our doctrine of God.
I certainly do not hope to change all minds, but to add my voice to those contemporary and twentieth-century theologians who have let go of divine timelessness. R. T. Mullins closes his recent study of divine timelessness (The End of the Timeless God) with these words, “Divine timelessness has had a long run in Church history, but it is time to bury it and move on. We should not mourn its passing. It shall not be missed.” That goes too far. I am not so sure the doctrine will not be missed or mourned. I still hope that any resistance will not prevent the church from moving toward a fuller experience of the God who loves us and has a time-filled interaction with us in Jesus Christ. There we find the God who inhabits our time, just as the Son inhabits human flesh. That, to my mind, is the good news of the Gospel.