God Is Not Outside of Time

One of the things I hear assumed by Christians all the time is that God is outside of time. It’s odd, I think, to make this assumption, because it’s not biblical, it’s Platonic. There’s a verse in 2 Peter that often gets cited — “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” — but that is a reflection on God’s experience of time, not God’s independence from time.

As human beings, we are hedged in on all sides by time, completely circumscribed by it. Our impending deaths remind us daily of this reality. Try as we might, we simply cannot conceive of being free from time.

That’s not to say that time isn’t fluid. In the 20th century, we became aware that time can be slightly bent, and in the 21st century, we’re starting to hear that maybe time can take place more complexly than we’ve previously known.

Nevertheless, time is a condition of our existence, and it’s inescapable.

In the book I’m currently writing, the questions I’m trying to answer have to do with where was God on Good Friday? What is God’s relationship to the cross? And what is God’s culpability in the death of Jesus? God’s relationship to time is implicated in all of these questions. And I’m coming to rest with the idea that God is voluntarily bound to time, that part of God’s longstanding story of humility and self-limitation is that God abdicated timelessness in order to have an authentic relationship with timebound beings. Because if God were outside of time, relationship with those of us inside of time would be impossible.

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  • Joey Richard

    Tony, this is something I have thought about before, and I must say I agree with your conclusion. Great thoughts!

  • Dustin Hite

    This would be more in line with what Open Theists (free will theists) say, although without going fully to the realm of process thought, where it seems basically God is restricted by something outside of God’s self.

    Good thoughts!

  • Daniel Mann

    Tony, There are several biblical considerations that would argue in favor of God existing outside of time:

    1. If time is relative to space and matter, as science now asserts, and if in the beginning, God created the heaven and earth, this means that he also created time and transcends time.

    2. He alone inhabits eternity (1 Tim. 6:16.)

    3. An actual eternity of time is incoherent. If time is eternal, then, it would be logically incoherent to ever be able to arrive at the present, having an eternity of years passed.

    • http://morechrist.blogspot.com K.W. Leslie

      (1) True, God created time, and transcends time. Yet, though we say God created space, and transcends space, we nonetheless say he fills space. Why then not time? (Especially since space and time are the same.)

      (2) 1 Timothy 6.16: “God alone is immortal, living in inaccessible light, never seen by humans; nor is one able to.” That’s not a description of eternity. That’s God’s transcendence. Hence the lack of access. It’s why he had to come down.

      (3) Sounds like the Zeno’s Arrow paradox. If God fills time, then all times are, to him, now. He doesn’t “arrive” to the present time; he was already here. He doesn’t recall the past or foresee the future; he’s already there. Yeah, talking about God in this way starts to get timey-wimey, but it’s not much different than most of the outside-of-time descriptions of God.

      • Daniel Mann

        1) To be omnipotent (present all over) is not to say that He fills it (making Him contiguous with space, also suggesting that He fills my toilet bowl).

        3) Outside-of-time descriptions of God are mind-boggling. However, if God created time, space and matter, He is not limited (stuck within) them.

    • john

      I’m not sure what conclusions I’ll come to on this whole discussion, but as for your third point, I don’t think it’s quite valid. That sounds like a version of Zeno’s Paradox, only with regard to time rather than space. The argument basically goes, “If you shoot an arrow at a target, the arrow will fly halfway to the target. And then halfway again. And again. An infinite number of times. And yet somehow, miraculously, the arrow hits the target.” So it seems like a mathematical infinity can be traversed.

      • Daniel Mann

        Zeno’s arrow is something different. It merely deals with a potential infinity (It never arrives.) An actual infinity of time is incoherent. Logically, you could never arrive at a past infinity of years.

  • Billy North

    Very interesting Mr. Jones! This is going to start getting into philosophy and physics… Quantum theory. Uh oh….hang on for the ride!!!

  • http://morechrist.blogspot.com K.W. Leslie

    I used to teach God was outside of time myself, till I realized since space and time are the same thing, and God is omnipresent, it’s entirely inconsistent of me (and, for that matter, the scriptures) to say he fills one and not the other.

    I had a worship leader object once, but I pointed out, “You keep claiming God loves music and surrounds himself with it. How can he surround himself with something utterly based on time, yet live outside it?” Flummoxed her.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/ Tony Jones

      It was similar conversations about prayer that got me to the place I am.

  • Scot Miller

    This reminds me of Augustine’s joke (or the one he retold) in Confessions IX. To paraphrase:
    Q. What was God doing before God created the heavens and the earth?
    A. God was preparing a hell for people who asks about the mysteries of God and time and eternity.

  • Buck_Eschaton

    I don’t think the Bible supports the idea of linear history. “Creation” occurs throughout the Bible, I think James Alison in his course the “Forgiving Victim” (which is absolutely awesome btw) alleges that the definitive “Creation” occurs during the crucifixion and the resurrection. Each atonement ritual and jubilee proclamation was a “Creation” or “Re-creation”. The Genesis narrative might even be called a “prophecy”. After the resurrection Jesus breathes into the disciples the same way Yahweh breathes into Adam in Genesis, and of course Jesus as Yahweh meeting Mary in the Garden of Eden, when she was looking into the Holy of Holies and the angels in the living ark of covenant speak to her.

    Eternity is not a really long time, “Eternity” in the Bible is Beginning and End at the same time, encompassing everything. (Margaret Barker talks about that in the Holy of Holies, which was beyond time or was Eternity one could see all “time” or everything. She says “The holy of holies was also beyond time. To enter was to enter eternity.” http://www.margaretbarker.com/Papers/BeyondtheVeil.pdf )

  • john

    You’re killing me with this stuff! A Better Atonement was good, and hit me at just the right time, but I’m so stoked for the full book. Can’t wait!

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/ Tony Jones

      Thanks, John! I’m pounding out words every day.

  • JimA

    It seems to me that some of this is overly complicated. The jump to
    “outside of time” is for most probably a simple (if questionable)
    conclusion that if Creation is characterized by space and time, …then
    the Creator is not. It’s an attractive notion because it would appear to
    give God great freedom to manipulate things in that universe (upon
    request?) without being constrained by time.

    But looking at our own experience (an admittedly limited view), as creators we humans do not create things that are of some substance other than what we are made of, or what we have experience of. Our creations may do something new,
    but that is a different matter from what they are made of.

    In that light, we might reason that God experiences, in some way, something
    related to time; exactly what or how, we are not privy to.

    Alternatively, we can certainly posit that God is indeed outside of
    time, but we should also recognize the weaknesses of that speculation.

    I think we want God to be outside time in our attributions, mostly for reasons that fit our desires or interpretations of Scripture. But that seems to fly in the face of our growing awareness of the immensity of the universe (quite unnecessary if we are the sole focus and objective of divine Creation), and our search for truth as diminutive and time-constrained citizens of this island-planet somewhere well away from the center of this Creation.

    We pretty clearly struggle with allowing our theological understandings to evolve, even as understandings do in every other facet of life and experience; …in this context, understandings of ourselves, of our own place in this universe, and of its Creator. I guess that’s an intrinsic artifact of traditions, which evolve slowly and reluctantly, if at all.

  • S_i_m_o_n

    Is there any reason why God could not be both inside and outside of time?

    • Zac

      Only if you accept the law of non-contradiction.

      • S_i_m_o_n

        How is it a contradiction?

        • Zac

          If he were in time he would be temporal, if he were outside of time he would be timeless. But God couldn’t be temporal and timeless at the same time. It’s just not logically possible.

          • S_i_m_o_n

            That still doesn’t violate the law of non-contradiction. The law states that ‘A’ cannot be both ‘A’ and non-’A’ at the same time and in the same relation. That something (be it God or anything else) relates to time differently when inside of time and outside of time, even at the same time is not a contradiction.

            • Zac

              Timeless = not temporal

              • S_i_m_o_n

                And inside =/= outside

        • LoneWolf343

          Seems to meet the definition of “transcendence” to me.

    • Craig

      A variation of Simon’s question: why is it impossible for a being who is not, as we are, entirely confined to act within time? If it isn’t impossible, then what prevents a god who is not entirely confined to acting within time (and so is in this sense also “outside of time”) from having a relationship with us?

  • http://tracimsmith.wordpress.com/ Traci

    Yeah, so I can hang with God being “in” time on the one hand, but if God *created* time, isn’t God necessarily outside of it? The only way I can reconcile “no” is if I come to a conclusion that God *is* time, which makes my brain hurt. Maybe I’m seriously missing something!

  • Steven Kurtz

    is time a something? Maybe it’s just a relationship between a body in motion and a reference point.

    • Tim

      That would seem to be the case from a physics perspective. Time is relative both to the static observer (reference point) and the body in motion.

  • JenellYB

    this idea many have slipped in and been popularized through those trying to reconcile the doctrine of election with Arminian free will. That perhaps instead of God having “pre-elected (chosen)” some to salvation and others not, He was outside of time, knew all of what was going to happen, which are going to choose “whosoever will’ and not, and therefore “pre-knew” them.

  • LoneWolf343

    A friend of mine once defined time as merely another name for “entropy” and by that definition saying that God is in time would mean that God decays.

  • SG12

    Unfortunately, I can’t quite agree with you there. But in some ways I do. I have to say that I can’t see why it can’t be both. Interesting to ponder…

  • Ken Bussell

    A Theory and B Theory of time have implications for the calvinism and arminianism debate. If God exists outside of time, then all moments in time are equally real, thus there is no temporal becoming and no true freewill (only the illusion of it). To say God exists outside of time creates all sorts of implications that most do not take “time” to consider. I believe God began to exist in time, of necessity, when time was created.

  • Dean

    I have to admit, when I first read The Openness of God by Clark Pinnock, et. al, I thought my brain was going to explode. But after thinking about it for a bit, it seems like Open Theism is the only view that makes any sense, at least it makes much more sense than any other competing theology. It seems to me that the very act of creation requires God to subject himself to the passage of time. What is creation if not something that didn’t exist in the past?

  • http://tehanna.com/ T E Hanna

    I don’t see how the paradox of God being both timeless and temporal is any different than the paradox of God’s immanence and transcendence. Plus, if we accept God as creator, and we accept the existence of space-time as a creation, then doesn’t that make God the creator of time?

    If God created time, then at some point God existed without time, which makes Him timeless in some aspect. I do acknowledge, however, the difficulty of specifying a “time” when there was no “time”.

  • http://ericsenglish.com/ Eric English

    Huh? So are you making a positive argument that God is within time? Interesting, but seems rather confusing since time is a by-product of the cosmos, which in turn is a product of God’s creative hand (unless of course God did not create).

    Perhaps there is a conflict between “perspective” and “language”. For example, of course God is not “outside of time”. To presume there exists an “outside” is to still be within time. It also assumes a geometry to time, which can’t possibly exist.

    However, with all of that said…just because I can’t fathom the possibility of atemporality doesn’t mean it can’t exist. Our existence is contingent upon time, Nothing about God’s nature suggest that he has to be bound by time.

    Furthermore, wouldn’t it mean that God has not always existed? I also wonder, how God could he be the product of his own creation?

  • Billy North

    Tony, I’ve been continuing to think about this since your post. This morning I thought about Eph 5:16. Redeem (ransom) the “time”… Because the days are evil. Jesus ransoms us… And we are supposed to ransom time… I wonder what the implications are for that. Hmm… I’m going to chew on that for awhile…

  • Cion Barnett

    Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. Corinthians 1:25.

  • rtoz

    God Is Outside of Time only.He is beyond time.Everything is coming from only.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bmz1xaVKM-4

  • Baz

    The sad thing is that instead of asking ‘Is god outside of time?’ or ‘How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?’, people could be asking better questions like ‘how do(es) quantum mechanics/physics/chemistry/biological organisms work and what does that tell us about the world we live in?’ or ‘Why would the universe need a creator if that alleged creator didn’t need one?’ or better yet ‘How can we make the world a better place for everyone, not just people that believe the same things that I do?’

  • Mark Kirschieper

    I agree with Tony…God is not outside of time. In fact, I believe the inverse is actually true; time is inside of God. Regards God, there is no such thing as “outside”. God contains everything, and therefore everything is inside God. “Outside” is irrelevant, regards any context or aspect, of God.

  • Margaret

    “Now when he was alone, those around him with the twelve began questioning him about the illustrations. He said to them, “To you the sacred secret of the Kingdom of God has been given, but to those outside all things are illustrations, so that, though looking, they may look and still not see, and though hearing, they may hear and still not get the sense of it; nor will they ever turn back and receive forgiveness.” Mark 4:10


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