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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  • I concluded a few years ago that, just as God created space yet fills and transcends it, God likewise created time yet fills and transcends it. Space and time are the same thing anyway. To say God is immanent, yet outside of time, is a contradiction.

    God learns the same way we do (for we’re made in his image): He experiences an event in time, and it informs him, or even surprises or shocks him. This doesn’t mean he’s not omniscient; instead it explains how he’s omniscient. Having gained all this knowledge, he retroactively applies it to the rest of time. Hence the death of Jesus atones for the future sins of humanity, and not just past sins. Hence God’s constant insight into the future: It’s not merely educated guesses, as the open theists have it, but experiential knowledge.

  • Scot Miller

    Process theism attempts to unite the eternal and temporal, the one and the many, the transcendent and immanent, the immutable and mutable in “dipolar theism.” All actual entities (including God) have a dual nature that can be distinguished but are inseparable in reality. Whitehead calls the eternal aspect of God the “primordial nature” of God and the temporal aspect the “consequent nature” of God. God thus embodies the eternal aims of harmony, beauty, and intensity from God’s primordial nature while simultaneously responding to the free responses of other actual entities in the divine consequent nature. While I’ve become suspicious of metaphysics in general, process can be helpful as a model for thinking about God as eternal and temporal (in my opinion).

    • Jesse

      Why doesn’t Tony quit fooling around, join us and just become a process thinker already?!?

      This is an important epiphany Tony has reached, though. For so long this concept of God’s timeless eternity has allowed a God of loving vulnerability to be replaced with a God who could not be affected by the suffering, cries or prayers of her creatures.

      • As I’m sure you both know, Wolterstorff is not even close to Process.

        • Jesse

          I actually have never heard of him, but I’d bet he’s a reformed thinker 🙂

          • Yep! Buddies with Alvin Plantinga. They’re from the good Reformed camp. 🙂

            • Ann

              Glad to hear you believe there is a “good” Reformed camp.

      • Stan Theman

        You’re projecting and then telling the rest of the world “This is god; worship him/her/it/them”.
        Please find something else to do with your life.

  • Scott Paeth

    Hm. It’s an intriguing argument, but I think it runs squarely into the objections that you, me, and Wolterstorff would all have with Process theology. To say that God is “everlasting” puts God innately into a dependent relationship with the temporal categories of the created universe. “Everlasting” is a term that presupposes existence within time and space. Yet, while God may act within the temporal sphere, God does not exist within the temporal sphere. Rather, God’s existence is, to go Lutheran here for a moment “in, with, and under” as well as beyond, all things that are.

    If God is the “ground of being” then God must necessarily exist “prior” to time as it is understood within the universe per se. That is what I understand to be meant by the term “eternal.” I don’t think the idea of “everlastingness” conveys that ontological priority in the same way that “eternity” does. But at the same time, I acknowledge that this may be a semantic distinction which could be overcome by a closer examination of how Wolterstorff and I are each using the terms under consideration.

  • Ann

    What are we to do with all the hymns speaking of God being eternal then?

    • Ben Hammond

      I’d see that as a low level concern, but in my experience when people come to conclusions where it looks like hymns may turn out to be wrong they have to make a decision as to whether they still want to use them (or change them).

      In my own experience it has varied. There are some hymns that I don’t do anymore, since the ideas they communicate might actually reinforce wrong views that lead to destructive behavior. In other cases I decide that maybe they still belong, even if they don’t line up with what I think. I generally try to error on creating space for views to belong, since church history is quite varied. Who am I to say that my hold on it is that tight?

      • Ann

        I was being facetious 🙂

  • Ann

    How is everlasting different than eternal? A simple dictionary search tells me that the 2 words are synonyms.

    • Sarah Raymond Cunningham

      The average person uses them interchangeably, but *I think* this discussion (and the precise theological dicing) describe ‘eternal’ as “that which exists now exists in the same way forever” while ‘everlasting’ allows room for a being to evolve, but exist forever.

      • Right on, sister.

      • I needed that kind of clarity. Thanks.

      • But “eternal” is in the definition of “forever,” so we’re back to square one.

    • Sharla Hulsey

      I hadn’t ever thought about the difference between “eternal” and “everlasting,” but it does make sense. They might be synonyms in common usage today, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have different shades of meaning.

      For some reason what is coming to my mind is something that may only make sense to a music theory geek like me–the difference between, say, A sharp and B flat. On the piano they’re the same; in equal temperament they’re the same, but otherwise they are not the same. When I discovered that, it opened whole new universes to my musical understanding.

  • Bob Ramsey

    French people are going to have a hard time with this. They translate YHWH as “L’eternel”

  • Steven Kurtz

    I’m increasingly concerned about the problem of basic coherence. We can say phrases like “temporal sphere” and “primordial nature” but is that actually coherent? We speak of God as ontologically separate from creation, and yet the source of all that exists. Can we have it both ways? Can we even have this discussion without importing a lot of Platonic concepts and categories that we may not even wish to defend on their own merits? Is the Hebrew distinction between this age and the age to come the same as physical world of time and non-physical world of eternity? On my reading this is what NT Wright argues so strongly against.

    • This is probably the most important reply. The shoehorning of God’s mysterious properties into discernible categories is useful INSOFAR as we get coherent tools we can employ for further logical derivation.

      For the most part, laypeople think “eternal” is synonymous with “everlasting.” So, right from the start, we’re fighting against the tsunami of the pop dictionary. I can’t be comfortable sharing this blog post because, at a glance (which is what most people afford), it looks wildly heretical, even though I agree that God is not eternal (as defined as “outside of time,” whatever that means, or “completely changeless, yet active”)! Words are stupid like that.

      The biggest problem with God being “outside of time” (whatever that means) or “completely changeless, yet active” is not that people believe in them and call it good. Who cares? The biggest problem is that nobody even knows what those things could even mean, AND THEN believers therein will attempt to found claims upon those jelly-like premises.

      When it comes to vague mysteries and incoherent concepts, the problem is not SO MUCH that they’re believed; the biggest problem is that they’re theologically leveraged/utilized while simultaneously being incoherent (this effectively works like a logical wildcard, and so people are, depressingly, incentivized to do this horrid thing).

  • To throw another monkey wrench in this whole discussion. Not only isn’t God eternal but I’d say God isn’t a being and thus also can’t properly said to exist or not exist.
    That God is beyond even the category of everlasting would be a fairly consistent assertion within the orthodox and catholic tradition of the church well into the early middle ages, I would think (that is if they had bothered to make the distinction). Of course that probably leads to distinctions that no longer make much sense to us, that is the distinction between “energies” and “essence” of God. The description of God changing in the Scriptures are in this line of thought attributed to God’s “energies”, where as God’s “essence” is not accessible to our categories of thought, including concepts such as eternal and everlasting.
    Of course all this is complicated since the theology of this period accepted the Greek philosophical understanding of theos, though I’d argue along with Meyendorff, Florovsky, and Schmemann that they also altered them significantly possibly even in a deconstructive mode. Thus Derrida’s own interest and puzzlement around the apophatic theological strain of orthodoxy.

  • FredClark

    The logic of “if God were eternal, God could not be the object of any human action whatsoever” eludes me and sends me back to Edwin Abbott’s “Flatland,” a story that couldn’t be told if that were true.

    Our hero and narrator, the two-dimensional square, was able to interact with the inhabitants of Lineland, even though to them he appeared to be as they were, as a single dot on a line. Mr. Square was also able to interact with the three-dimensional sphere who visited Flatland, even though to the square, he appeared as just another Flatlander — a circle with the odd tendency to grow and shrink in circumference as the sphere moved up and down in relationship to the plane of Flatland.

    “Up and down,” were, of course, mind-blowing, impossible-to-grasp concepts for our narrator the square, who insisted on reinterpreting them as north and south because otherwise this weird visitor the “sphere” was just babbling nonsense. I’m not entirely convinced that Wolterstorff isn’t doing the same thing here.

    To figure that out, though, I’d probably have to understand what guys like Brian Greene are talking about. And I really, really don’t.

  • First principles. If we hold the Chalcedonian decree to be true, and I believe it is, then God co-exists in time and out of it. Time is, a relative construct as it is. Time cannot be distinguished from space if general relativity is correct and it has not come close to being disproven. At the quantum level it all gets strange, but mathematically sound.

    We need to understand something about how time functions in the physical universe. It is not linear as this understanding of change seems to imply. Black holes, ideas of multidimensional spaces, and all of the weird fluctuations that happen in the physical universe we don’t see every day have to do with the way time exists apart from how we perceive time to exist.

    So what is it that we mean by time if defining it as a simple function of “change” is too simplistic?

    Even if we say that time is a linear function of change, is it necessary to come to a rational conclusion about how the nature of God interacts with time? It is logically impossible for Christ to be both fully God and fully human with two wills. Yet this does not make it not true. I am comfortable with mystery when I reach a theological aporia until otherwise revealed…in time.

  • David

    It seems like God’s triune nature would have some relevance upon the understanding of YHWH’s nature being Eternal and Everlasting. Honestly haven’t pondered it much…but I tend to want to hang onto Eternal more for the “prior to everything else” aspect of God and Everlasting for the continuing on forward to a point YHWH is heading for but journeying alongside me as the same time. SImple thoughts….

  • Three Problems:

    1. Theologians are trying to precisely define something for which they have no publicly verifiable data.

    2. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Scientists aren’t quite so arrogant as theologians, and have learned that there is a limit to the precision that two complimentary variables can be determined.

    3. For the physics folks who actually do have publicly verifiable evidence, the concept of “time” itself is a controversial subject. It is a dissenting scientific opinion that time even exists other than a cultural illusion. livescience.com/29081-time-real-illusion-smolin.html

    Next, how many angels can dance on the split end of a hair?

    • Honey Badger

      And even worse, they get huffy about it. A little (or a lot, in this case) of humility would be most welcome.

    • JeanM

      Since theology is not science, your point is moot. Why bring it up here? Looking at theology through the lens of science is like looking at art through the lens of science. Sure, there are certain physical attributes that can be described, but it completely misses the point.

      • Then theology should avoid aspects of the universe that science addresses, such as time, if theology doesn’t want shown to be a moot point.

        • JeanM

          That’s silly. Theology certainly shouldn’t try to answer the specific questions that science poses, and vice versa, I grant you, but both science and theology, and art for that matter, are seeking the Truth, simplistically speaking – science through the brain, theology through the spirit, and art through the heart. They are not mutually exclusive.

          • Theology is less seeking truth and more seeking power over other people’s minds. Comparing it to politics, not art or science, would be more accurate.

            • JeanM

              Theology is simply the study of God, although it has certainly been used as a political club, especially lately. This is horribly wrong, in my opinion, and I’m sorry for whatever harm you have suffered in the name of theology.

              • Early on, theology was a political club,as evidenced in chapter 7, entitled “The Ruler of the Whole World: The Invention of the Totalitarian State by the First Christian Emperor of Rome” in Jonathan Kirsch’s text God Against The Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism. (Viking, 2004)

                And it has been ever since. /wiki/European_wars_of_religion Can’t wait to see the article on /wiki/European_wars_of_art.

                > harm you have suffered

                How can you assume that? Your arrogance is only a variation on the “bitterness and resentment” theme, whereby dissent is dismissed as ill-being. Nice try.

                • JeanM

                  I’m sorry I assumed. It’s just that, in my experience, people who sound as angry as you do about religion have usually been harmed by it in the past. I’ll take that back, if I may. Sorry again!

  • denisemo1

    Not sure I understand how change necessitates temporality.

    Are we being semantically bound by the words and unable to get around them? For example, I sometimes contemplate the idea that ‘perfection’ may require ongoing growth and is not static. Am I, in this case, no longer allowed to use the word ‘perfection’?

  • Rebecca Trotter

    My understanding is that God exists outside of time, but chooses to enter into time in order to interact with his creation. Outside of time, all that ever was exists as a complete whole, giving God his everlasting, unchanging nature. I explain it here:
    A scientist friend of mine says that it is actually consistent with some scientist’s thinking about the nature of time and the material world as well. So there’s that.

  • Point 1 of that argument is the kind of thing a good fundamentalist might say about the creation texts. It is quite baffling how literal the bible can be read by people who rightly refute others for a similarly literal reading.

    In short, grounding an argument in “what the bible clearly teaches” is, well, it’s not really an argument at all.

  • IntegralShaman

    Eastern thought, such as Advaita, tends to resolve this fairly elegantly. We have the concept of Saguna Brahman, “The Absolute with Qualities”, and Nirguna Brahman, “The Absolute without Qualities”. The Absolute has two faces, one of which takes on infinite forms, interacts with time, is immanent, etc. The other is absolute, with no characteristics that can be defined, very much like “The Cloud of Unknowing”. In a trans-rational vision, both are true.

  • Stan Theman

    I think there are problems in theology because it’s nonsense; you’re trying to base your life on a fairy tale.

    • JeanM

      I am completely at a loss as to why you even read this blog, much less post on it. Your comment adds nothing, and will convince no one.

      • Stan Theman

        But you post on here and your posts haven’t convinced anyone either; judging by church/religious attendance figures, you’re losing membership faster than the polar icecaps are losing ice.

        • JeanM

          Yes, but this is a religious blog, and I am a religious person. Therefore, I am interested in the content. But you just seem to be a troll (in the Internet comment sense). The comments sections of blogs are to comment on what the blog said, not make sweeping philosophical statements of your own that have nothing to do with what’s going on. By that token, my reply to you is also trolling, so I’d better not continue this. Also, you didn’t answer my question (probably because I didn’t phrase it in the form of a question). Why did you post?

  • Steve Miller

    The problem is attempting to define God by any single attribute is going to fail. God is larger than time. He is not in time as much as time fits inside of Him, it is an extension of His unchanging nature. Our vantage point is faulty, it does not allow us to see the big picture because we are stuck inside the picture frame. The Bible helps us describe God, but it was never meant to define Him; His boundaries are beyond our ability to reason (which is not to imply He is unknowable.)

  • john

    For another interesting minority report on this, see “Divine Sempiternality and ‘Constructed’ Foreknowledge” in vol. 8 iss. 1 of the Stone-Campbell Journal. The author is evangelical/fundamentalist, but makes a similar argument from a non-Reformed viewpoint.

  • Tony, I’m curious how you think Moltmann’s Coming of God fits here. Moltmann seems to suggest God’s eternal nature and his involvement in time. Eternal need not only mean duration or time, it also can mean fullness, expansiveness. Time exists within the space of God’s withdrawal.

    Wolterstorf here suggests being eternal is the opposite of being able to change, I don’t see how that’s a logical connection, more of a curious assumption, though one based on traditional interpretations of God’s impassivity.

    Since the creation of the world, God’s eternal power has been evident, according to Paul, so there’s a pretty substantive testimony. To put the declaration of God’s eternal nature (Biblical) as being in conflict with assumptions of God’s impassivity (not as Biblical), seems like it’s shaky ground.

  • The eternal has been variously conceived as both infinite time and as atemporal. Whichever one’s approach, still, as with other putative divine attributes, we wonder which of our conceptions deserve univocal, analogical or equivocal predication vis a vis creatures and creator. So, there is an analytic aspect to this question, as we query each theological stance probing its treatment of such attributes.

    An atemporal conception would imply a wholly equivocal predication, since time, itself, would be a creature, alongside other emergent primitives like space, mass and energy, all integrally presupposing a causal reality, aseity (the uncaused) being another divine attribute predicated equivocally.

    An infinite time would imply an analogical predication because, while one might choose to somehow predicate time univocally of creatures and creator, still, like necessity and aseity, nowhere do we encounter instantiations of infinity in physical reality. So, by the attribution of infinity to any putative temporality, a divine particularity and uniqueness, gets rescued by the via eminentia, even when time is otherwise univocally predicated.

    If one conceives the eternal — not narrowly as nontemporal, but- as atemporal in the fuller sense of being an entirely different category beyond temporality per se, then neither excluded middle nor noncontradiction apply and God could experience both.

    We cannot a priori know how divine attributes are to be predicated of creatures vs creator, so neither analytic philosophy nor onto-theology resolve such issues. It does seem to me that a theo-ontology proceeding -not from descriptive sciences and nnormative philosophies, but- consistent with same, while issuing from our faith, our existential orientations to our ultimate concerns, will draw lessons from the incarnation and the divine’s acquaintance with the immensity of human suffering and our acquaintance with the enormity of divine love.

    Scotus, thereby, concluded that the incarnation was in the cards from the cosmic get-go, not otherwise occasioned by some felix culpa. Free will & open & process theists, thereby, concluded that such a radical love necessarily entailed radical freedom, so, some constellation of kenotic self-limitation and divine vulnerability must be in play. Divine interactivity must be characterized by neither indifference nor interference but, instead, by intercommunion and an intervention that invites participatory cooperation without co-opting, in any measure, human volition. Love, eminently experienced by God, is univocally predicated of both creatures and creator.

    God’s breaking into time, experiencing creation via divine indwelling, coaxing greenness out of every blade of grass, provides Him an omnipathic knowledge of how we will feel about, evaluate, it all, in the fullness of time, which, atemporally & eternally, happens proleptically, ever now and again, in a kairos that transcends chronos.

    A very interesting question arises, which, stipulating that God experiences temporality, hence change, whether the pXtian comedic redemptive narrative should be linear (Moltmann), nonlinear (Flora Keshgegian) or both, because a solely linear view can appear to trivialize human tragedy, trauma and evil as experienced in our painful now-ness. Our eschatological hope lies, not in any apocalyptic, coercive rescue but in the overwhelming (not overpowering) efficacies of a love via eminentia, creatio ex amore.

  • nomoredevil

    This is probably covered thoroughly somewhere (and please point me there if it has), but the idea that God is not eternal b/c He changes presupposes a reading of Scripture that the things “God said” are actually things God said, rather than flawed individuals interpretation and understanding of what “God said.” The view of Scripture views it essentially as God’s story to man, instead man’s evolving understanding of who and what God is. I don’t really see it as nonsensical to believe that while *God* is eternal, *we* have greatly misunderstood who that eternal God is.

  • Quinn Olinger

    You guys are REIFYing time. Time is not an entity. Time is not a “thing” or an “entity” that God can be inside or outside of. God existed before He created the universe – and if we are talking about Trinitarian metaphysics here – then there was a divine relationship within the trinity that occurred independent of and before the creation of the universe. God creating the universe where He can have people share in that sort of loving relationship is, in my mind at least, just a creative extension or outpouring of God’s trinitarian love. Isn’t saying that really all that we need to say about the topic of how God relates to His creation without creating any kind of philosophical or theological problems?