God Is Not Eternal

God Is Not Eternal February 12, 2014

Writing a book on the atonement is like peeling the layers of an onion. Everything theological dilemma you solve only brings up two more dilemmas. So it was that I needed to write a section in the book on God’s relationship to time, because it seemed to make no sense to talk about God’s relationship to Jesus’ crucifixion unless I could explain God’s relationship to time.

So a couple weeks back, I write a post arguing that God is not outside of time. When he read that, Keith DeRose sent me Nicholas Wolterstorff‘s classic essay, “God Everlasting” (in Contemporary Philosophy of Religion, New York: Oxford, 1982).

In that essay, Wolterstorff argues that God is not eternal, God is everlasting.

His argument proceeds thusly:

1) The biblical narrative clearly tells of a God who changes, and any hermeneutic that denies this is tortured.

2) Any being who changes is necessarily, in part, temporal.

3) “Eternal” is a totalizing characteristic. It is not possible for a thing to be partly temporal and partly eternal.

4) Therefore, God is not eternal.

Money quote:

What I shall argue is that if we are to accept this picture of God as acting for the renewal of human life, we must conceive of him as everlasting rather than eternal. God the Redeemer cannot be a God eternal. This is so because God the Redeemer is a God who changes. And any being which changes is a being among whose states there is temporal succession. Of course, there is an important sense in which God as presented in the Scriptures is changeless: he is steadfast in his redeeming intent and ever faithful to his children. Yet, ontologically, God cannot be a redeeming God without there being changeful variation among his states.

Some will argue that God could be eternal and still involved with time. Wolterstorff debunks that claim in a section that begins,

As with any argument, one can here choose to deny the premisses rather than to accept the conclusion. Instead of agreeing that God is fundamentally noneternal because he changes with respect to his knowledge, his memory, and his planning, one could try to save one’s conviction that God is eternal by denying that he knows what is or was or will be occurring, that he remembers what has occurred, and that he brings about what he has planned. It seems to me, however, that this is clearly to give up the notion of God as a redeeming God; and in turn it seems to me that to give this up is to give up what is central to the biblical vision of God. To sustain this latter claim would of course require an extensive hermeneutical inquiry. But lest someone be tempted to go this route of trying to save God’s eternity by treating all the biblical language about God the redeemer as either false or misleadingly metaphorical, let me observe that if God were eternal he could not be the object of any human action whatsoever.

For me, in solving the enigma that is the crucifixion of Jesus, God’s relationship to time is essential, and Wolterstorff opened a new vista of understanding in this essay. It’s that last sentence that really seals it for me. I don’t see any logical way that an eternal being could be engaged in temporal human affairs, and surely not in the way that’s described in the Bible.

What do you think is God’s relationship to time?

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