In discussing God’s omniscience and foreknowledge, I have heard many people say something like this: “God is not in time. He stands outside of time, looking down on it, so that He sees all of time at once. In the same way that God can see all of the universe’s 3-dimensional space at once, He sees all the events of history–past, present, and future–at once. God is timeless. He created time, after all. How could he be in it?!” C.S. Lewis famously held this view:
“God, I believe, does not live in a Time-series at all. His life is not dribbled out moment by moment like ours: with Him it is still 1920 and already 1960…God is outside and above the Time-line. In that case, what we call ‘tomorrow’ is visible to Him in just the same way as what we call ‘today.’ All the days are ‘Now’ for Him. He does not remember you doing things yesterday; He simply sees you doing them…He does not ‘foresee’ you doing things tomorrow; He simply sees you doing them: because, though tomorrow is not yet there for you, it is for Him.” —Mere Christianity (1944), pp.147-8
I want to attack this view of God’s relationship to time, which I shall call the timelessness view.
Quick disclaimer. A lot of people have written a lot of thoughtful stuff on this topic, and I’m not very well-versed in the discourse (although I’ll be drawing somewhat from McTaggart and Dummett). This is amateur hour. Moreover, this is an inherently slippery and abstract topic. Nevertheless, I hope to articulate why I think the timelessness view is wrong. Next time, I’ll argue that it’s unbiblical.
Here’s a question. Does it make sense to ask God: what time is it now? Or, what is going on the universe, right now?
The timelessness view says no. There is no “now” from God’s point of view. There isn’t a past, present, and future for Him. He doesn’t experience time anything like we do.
The timelessness view affirms what is called the B-series and rejects the A-series. Briefly, A-series means that moments in time are either past, present, or future (or all three in succession, as time changes). B-series means that all moments stand in an ordered relation to each other, so that any event is either earlier or later than any other event. So, the timelessness view says that from God’s point of view (which is presumably the ultimate or ‘right’ point of view), time is like a linear axis on which all the moments are placed in order. From His point of view, however, none of these moments is “present” or “past” or “future.” He only sees that one is after the other. So for example, it is not the case that your breakfast yesterday was future, and then was present, and now is past. But it is the case that yesterday’s breakfast ‘is’ before yesterday’s lunch, where ‘is’ is understood tenselessly.
The problem is that if this were true, then from God’s point of view nothing would ever change. The B-series without the A-series is completely static. All of the moments are just sitting there in order, and the order never changes, and none of them is ever past, present, or future. The moments do not go by one after the other, and there is no dot moving down the timeline or axis. If, as Lewis says, all moments are “now” for God, how could anything ever change? If God sees all of time timelessly, then the Book of the Exhaustively Complete History of the World has already been written and sealed from the ‘beginning’ (whatever that means). It does not contain the predicates “past” or “present” or “future,” or “was” or “is” or “will be” or any other tensed verbs.
Imagine that you are looking at a line on which a dot is moving (back and forth, say), i.e. its position x is changing over time. Then we can plot the dot’s motion by introducing a second axis to represent time, with points on a curve given by (x,t) representing the dot’s position x at time t. We can then use this curve to see the dot’s motion all at once, as it were. We see the dot’s history ‘timelessly.’ But notice: in the case of the 2-dimensional curve we have just drawn, the curve itself is not moving. It is static. Likewise, for any 2-dimensional (x,y)-plane in which dots or lines or objects or patterns are moving or changing (a la Conway’s Game of Life, for example–but anything will do), we can introduce a third axis to represent time, and build a 3-dimensional model which captures all of the information from the changing 2-dimensional plane using point (x,y,t) to represent point (x,y) at time t. Again, this 3-dimensional model will allow us to see all of the 2-D movements all at once or ‘timelessly,’ and again this model will itself be static.
Now, the timelessness view says that we just play one more iteration of this game (at least) to get at God’s point of view. He sees all events occurring in 3-dimensional space all at once, because he can see four-dimensionally: (x,y,z,t).
But this view, I think, fundamentally misrepresents the universe we live in. If this is what God sees, He does not see the universe as it actually is, or at least he does not see us as we actually are. Seeing the static 2-D plot of the dot’s 1-D motion is not the same thing as watching it move; nor is seeing the static 3-D plot of the 2-D plane changing the same as watching it change (otherwise, we could watch TV shows by scrutinizing 3-D blocks that capture all the appropriate pixel data). Now the timelessness view implies that God sees human beings and our world as static, unchanging: which I find completely unintelligible, because I cannot see or think in 4-D. But my point is that even if this were intelligible for God, He would not see what we are actually like. Movement and change are absolutely essential to ourselves, our experience, and our universe. Unchanging, timeless people are not people at all.
On the other hand, if God is to observe us as we actually are, in motion, undergoing change, then He must see us in moments, in time. He cannot watch me ride my bike unless He saw where I was, and sees where I am, and (possibly) will see where I will be. If He is watching me move, then there is a present (for Him) in which I am moving, and he is watching.
Moreover, if God saw humans timelessly and therefore statically, He could not interact with us. He could not engage in relationship with us, because relational interactions can only take place in time. And that leads me right into…
Next time: Is the timelessness view biblical?