God and Time

These notes summarize arguments in the article "Eternity" by Paul Helm in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. You might want to read that also (or instead)!

“Eternal” can mean two things:

  1. The traditional meaning: timelessness, atemporality (Boethius 480-525, Augustine 354-430), i.e., the claim “for any time t, God exists at t” is false. This view is called eternalism.

    Boethius: “Eternity, then is the complete, simultaneous and perfect possession of everlasting life.” Eternalism means it’s false to say, e.g., that God has always existed and will always exist, because references to past and future simply do not apply to God. Paul Helm puts the view like this: according to eternalism, "God does not exist in time at all.”

    Note the interesting use of the term “life” in Boethius. According to Boethius, numbers and abstract ideas cannot be eternal, since they are not alive. What does Boethius mean by “life” then? See notes on Aristotle's De Anima.

  2. An alternative meaning (Swinburne, Kenny): everlastingness, sempiternity, agelessness. It’s true that for any time t, God exists at t. This view is called temporalism.

Arguments for eternalism

It is consistent with some other attributes of God: God’s total transcendence, simplicity (God is supposed to not have parts), fullness, self-sufficiency, perfection, and omniscience. God and his knowledge are not limited or bound by time, as created beings are.

Eternalism must be correct, because if eternalism were not correct, God would have earlier and later phases, i.e., "at any time, a part of his life is earlier than another part.” (Helm) This is what temporalism claims. According to temporalism, God is "backward-everlasting" — there never was a time when God was not. But according to eternalism, God can't be merely backward-everlasting, because if God were backward-everlasting, then there would be "segments of his life which ... are presently inaccessible to him except by memory.”(Helm) But such a notion is incompatible with God’s supposed fullness and self-sufficiency. He is supposed to have no limitations; his access to his past cannot be dependent on anything. So eternalism must be correct.

God can be fully actual only if eternalism is correct. If God really exists in the year 1900 and really exists in the year 2000, then in the year 1900 he merely has the potential to exist in the year 2000, but he doesn’t yet actually exist in the year 2000. But God is supposed to be totally actual (to have no unrealized potential). So temporalism must be wrong, and eternalism correct.

Furthermore, if God is omniscient, AND eternalism were false, God could not actually know everything about the future. This is because if eternalism is false, for any time t, God exists at t, i.e. temporalism, is true. God cannot exist simultaneously in different times, so his knowledge of events at t-plus-100-years must be derivative and by inference only: God knows what will happen at t-plus-100-years because he knows the laws of the universe, and knows what they predict, but the events predicted have not actually occurred. That's not omniscience, though. Omniscience means God does actually know everything about the future in the fullest sense, non-inferentially. Therefore to preserve omnipotence, eternalism must be true.

Divine simplicity is generally thought to entail eternalism.


Arguments for temporalism

Eternalism is incoherent (Swinburne, Kenny). It is straightforwardly contradictory to say God has no past or future, that he exists simultaneously with all events in the universe. That means, for example, that for God, the statements “It is now the year 2006” and “It is now the year 2005” are both true. The law of the excluded middle says two propositions cannot be true in the same sense at the same time.

If God is omniscient, then God must know the truth values of propositions containing words like “now” and “tomorrow” and “then”. If temporalism were false, God could not know these things, and thus would not be omniscient. Therefore, to preserve consistency with omniscience, temporalism must be correct.

If eternalism is true, God cannot be “alive” or “personal”. According to Helm, “a living God must be affectable by the goings-on of the temporal universe, and so be in time.” God is supposed to be personal in this way; so eternalism must be false. God supposedly responds to the free actions of human beings. If all human actions are temporal, then God’s responses must be temporal as well.

If eternalism is true, then God exists outside of time. But he is also supposedly the creator of the universe. God is supposedly “a causal agent who brings about changes in the world.” If he is the creator, he must be in time. William Lane Craig says:

Imagine God existing changelessly alone without creation, with a changeless and eternal determination to create a temporal world. Since God is omnipotent, his will is done, and a temporal world begins to exist…. Once time begins at the moment of creation, God either becomes temporal in virtue of his real, causal relation to time and the world or else he exists as timelessly with creation as he does sans creation. But this second alternative seems quite impossible. At the first moment of time, God stands in a new relation in which he did not stand before … this is a real, causal relation which is at that moment new to God and which he does not have in the state of existing sans creation.

If eternalism is true, then neither God nor humans are free, if “free” means able to actually bring about alternative events in the universe. God can’t be said to “do” or “want” anything at all; intentional predicates cannot apply to an eternalist God.


Argument against both eternalism and temporalism

Both views are contrary to the modern physical view that time and space are one thing. The whole debate is outdated.


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