God and Time

The relationship between God and time has fascinated philosophers and theologians alike for thousands of years. The question of whether The Supreme Being is everlastingly temporal or eternally timeless has often been viewed as essential to understanding His nature. This is because time is widely seen as the most fundamental facet of reality. However, this whole analytical endeavour has often been undertaken with the assumption that time exists. In my view, this assumption is deeply flawed.

I trust that it is universally agreed upon that concrete actualities can have no relationship to mere abstractions. God is a concrete actuality (I.E. a real being) and I hold that time is a mere abstraction (I.E. a mental construct having no objective reality). In his essay The Unreality of Time, J. M. E. McTaggart showed that the predicates of time are self-contradictory. McTaggart distinguished positions in time into two main categories: the A series (past, present, future) and the B series (earlier, later). In the following extract, he explains the problems that arise from the A series distinction.

“Past, present, and future are incompatible determinations. Every event must be one or the other, but no event can be more than one. This is essential to the meaning of the terms. And, if it were not so, the A series would be insufficient to give us, in combination with the C series, the result of time. For time, as we have seen, involves change, and the only change we can get is from future to present, and from present to past.

The characteristics, therefore, are incompatible. But every event has them all. If M is past, it has been present and future. If it is future, it will be present and past. If it is present, it has been future and will be past. Thus all the three incompatible terms are predicable of each event which is obviously inconsistent with their being incompatible, and inconsistent with their producing change.

It may seem that this can easily be explained. Indeed it has been impossible to state the difficulty without almost giving the explanation, since our language has verb-forms for the past, present, and future, but no form that is common to all three. It is never true, the answer will run, that M is present, past and future. It is present, will be past, and has been future. Or it is past, and has been future and present, or again is future and will be present and past. The characteristics are only incompatible when they are simultaneous, and there is no contradiction to this in the fact that each term has all of them successively.

But this explanation involves a vicious circle. For it assumes the existence of time in order to account for the way in which moments are past, present and future. Time then must be pre-supposed to account for the A series. But we have already seen that the A series has to be assumed in order to account for time. Accordingly the A series has to be pre-supposed in order to account for the A series. And this is clearly a vicious circle. “

There are also problems with the seemingly more intuitive B series:

“It would, I suppose, be universally admitted that time involves change. A particular thing, indeed, may exist unchanged through any amount of time. But when we ask what we mean by saying that there were different moments of time, or a certain duration of time, through which the thing was the same, we find that we mean that it remained the same while other things were changing. A universe in which nothing whatever changed (including the thoughts of the conscious beings in it) would be a timeless universe.

If, then, a B series without an A series can constitute time, change must be possible without an A series. Let us suppose that the distinction of past, present and future does not apply to reality. Can change apply to reality? What is it that changes?

Could we say that, in a time which formed a B series but not an A series, the change consisted in the fact that an event ceased to be an event, while another event began to be an event? If this were the case, we should certainly have got a change.

But this is impossible. An event can never cease to be an event. It can never get out of any time series in which it once is. If N is ever earlier than O and later than M, it will always be, and has always been, earlier than O and later than M, since the relations of earlier and later are permanent. And as, by our present hypothesis, time is constituted by a B series alone, N will always have a position in a time series, and has always had one.{1} That is, it will always be, and has always been, an event, and cannot begin or cease to be an event. “

What the above passages indicate is that when time is intellectually scrutinized, one finds that the concept is inherently circular and absurd. Therefore, it would be correct to view time as unreal. Having established this, how does the unreality of time change the way we should view God?

Well, we surmise that God can be neither inside or outside of time, given that there is nothing of which to be “in” or “out”. I have already stated that God, The Ultimate Reality, can only have relations to other real things. Thus, He has relationships with His creatures (including humans) as The Creator. His creatures are actualities because God decided make them “actual” by creating them. However, abstractions like time, numbers and so forth are purely subjective potentialities which have no objective ontological status.

It should, however, be noted that although time is not objectively real, it is still proper to use time-related language. For although when we use words such as “before” “after” “future” or “past” we are not referring to predicates of a real thing, because of the fact that there are no sufficient terms to employ as alternatives, we must continue to use temporal language. Therefore, we can still use the word “Eternal” to describe that fact that God has always existed. It’s just that “Eternal” should no longer be understood as “timeless” but rather as “not born or created”. This would be a more accurate understanding.


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