ETERNAL NATURE OF GOD
Critically analyse different approaches to God’s eternity
God is often referred to as “eternal” but this can be interpreted in numerous ways. The subtleties involved in the different definitions and subsequent explanations leave us with varying descriptions of God and his characteristics. Given that many Churches within the Christian tradition have different beliefs and approaches to worship due to their understanding of God’s eternity, the issue is one which requires much analysis. In addition, [considering] the effect which one minor tweaking of a view can have on other aspects of God’s character, it is an area which requires a great deal of care to avoid the minefield of problems which can arise.
God’s eternity is often broken into two main areas: timeless and everlasting – although as we will see later, there are other less familiar approaches. The view that God is timeless has been heavily influenced by Greek Philosophy, as both Aristotle and Plato had believed that God was “immutable” and “transcendent” (beyond space and time). The obvious issue here is how this “Deist” God could be compatible with Christian thought. The idea here is that all events in time are “eternally present” to God – He sees everything at once. “Time” is something within creation and the universe but it can’t be applied to God, who is beyond it. Augustine summed this up by stating that “thy years neither come nor go; whereas ours both come and go”.Boethius is perhaps the scholar most associated with the timeless God. For him, God experiences his existence “all at once” – he knows what shirt you will be wearing tomorrow, but he observes it now! Crucially, he doesn’t know in advance. Boethius felt that this idea still retained human free will. Augustine also suggested that this issue could be overcome by suggesting that our freedom is retained by the fact that we still want to do certain actions, even though God knows what they will be. This is a theory I support – whether God knows what we are going to do or not, the fact that we still choose to do it means we are free. For example, I may know that a chocaholic will eat my Easter egg if I leave her in a room by herself for a few hours. However, she still freely chooses to do so and can decide not to. Although there is a degree of certainty in what we will do, we are still free not to as seen in the Truman Show when Christof tells Truman, “I know you better than you know yourself”, and Truman responds with “You never had a camera inside my head!” Therefore, for Boethius, God observes what we do without interfering, rather like a ‘voyeur’. Since the Big Bang, everything has happened at one simultaneous moment for God – he sees what we are doing but NOT what we are going to do.
Aquinas used the analogy of a man walking on a road, unable to see what lies ahead. As God has a bird’s eye view (almost panoramic), He can see what lies ahead AND what’s in the past. It’s a clever analogy and certainly evidences how our freedom is retained. Aquinas went further, to describe God as being “wholly simple” as he was “pure actuality” and therefore not subject to change, unlike corporeal substances. This raises the question of how we can know anything about God, which is why Aquinas developed his analogical approach as he felt that our language and universe was limited. To an extent this is successful as it ties in with John Hick’s idea of God deliberately being at an “epistemic distance” to preserve our free will – our knowledge will always be limited and I prefer Aquinas’ suggestion of approaching religious language non-cognitively to dismissing any talk of God completely. This will help overcome the criticism that a timeless God is too far removed.
Belief in a timeless God is not without its problems however. If God is outside of the universe, can he have full knowledge of what is happening within it? It raises huge question marks over God’s omniscience as He would also need to have “Middle Knowledge”, meaning an awareness of all the possible options that were ever open to us. In addition, if God simply “spectates”, what does this say about his omnipotence? It would seem that a timeless God of Greek influence cannot interact with his creation and therefore opens the risk of promoting a Deist God. Although I feel that this is a harsh criticism due to Boethius clearly stating that God STILL knows what we do (unlike Aristotle’s Prime Mover), the idea of God being able to have “genuine providence” (continuing to be active in the world out of goodness for His creation) is a much greater problem. Christian tradition has always stated that our relationship with God is an interactive one, hence the focus on prayer and worship. The timeless God sees everything at once so prayer would be meaningless, as God would not respond as He won’t know when you’re praying – time means nothing to Him! On the positive side, the view of a timeless God could be used as a theodicy – God cannot intervene to stop evil and prevent it flourishing because He doesn’t know when it’s happening. Personally, I think this renders God’s omnipotence worthless however – what is the point in God having this attribute of omnipotence if his lack of omniscience prevents him from using it? It’s rather like the daddy long legs’ lethal poison! I don’t see the debate surrounding Middle Knowledge as a huge threat to believing in a timeless God because if we take Aquinas’ road analogy further and add our own twist, God could see all the roads we didn’t take as well as the slip roads, or traffic jams ahead.
Christians find the views of Boethius and Augustine to be unappealing for the most part, possibly due to the implications for the role of Jesus and belief in the Incarnation. If God is beyond space and time then surely He wouldn’t have known to send Jesus when he did. Was this a fluke? In addition, this raises question marks about each of us having a purpose. Although some would suggest that too much focus on this Divine foreknowledge takes away from other important issues within Christianity, I feel that it is a crucial debate due to the centrality of beliefs about Jesus in the creeds and for our understanding of existence and our role in the universe in general. We may need to dismiss much of the Bible, certainly a propositional approach to it based on our findings here. Supporters of the timeless God would suggest a more symbolic/analogical approach to scripture instead of a literal one and this would certainly help overcome many of the issues. Aquinas was very keen to keep Christ as God and Christ as man separate to overcome the problems associated with the Incarnation. A deep understanding of the Trinity can also assist with this task and so through a combination of Aquinas’ logic and non-cognitive approaches to scripture the problem is solved.
There is much to like about the timeless approach to God’s eternity. In the Greek sense, He is able to retain his perfection as he is unaffected and immutable. Wolterstorff added that this characteristic further evidenced how God is different and ultimately exists necessarily. Perhaps the most intriguing and to an extent appealing suggestion is the claim that God is NOT a person. To suggest He is (and I see the contradiction of calling God “He” here) is a misuse of language. Certainly the timeless God can point towards more of a substance than a person and this will avoid all the issues of anthropomorphising God. Although some Christians would again raise questions about the incarnation, as a Christian myself I feel that God “The Father”/Creator is actually more like a substance and this what is meant by God’s “Unity” in Christian theology, a concept lost on many today.
As we’ve seen, the timeless God is incompatible with much of Christian thought with scholars such as Kenny and Swinburne concluding that the claims were “incoherent”. Maurice Wiles, a modern theologian, was keen to stress that God was always acting through sustaining the world and therefore couldn’t possibly be timeless. Therefore, for these scholars, the everlasting God is more appealing with Oscar Cullman pointing to the Bible texts as evidence that “eternity” should be interpreted as meaning “everlasting”. He uses the phrase “endless duration” to stress that God is not outside of time.
Many suggest that God’s omnipotence can be preserved in the everlasting approach. This because an everlasting God created, continues to sustain, performs miracles, responds to prayers, etc. This will of course depend on how we interpret prayer and miracles and as I prefer a non-literal approach to such issues, I would have to disagree. As I alluded to earlier, I think that God’s omnipotence CAN be preserved in the timeless approach but it is simply rendered useless to due to His lack of omniscience. With the everlasting approach however, an over-emphasis on the supernatural in order to preserve God’s omnipotence is a weaker solution. Process theology is much more preferable here as it suggests that God is powerful but NOT omnipotent. If God is moving within time, I’d be inclined to agree based on logic. This theory, developed by Whitehead and Hartshorne, is similar to the everlasting God in that God moves within time BUT it differs in that it suggests that the universe and God are interdependent. It also states that God’s role in creation was LIMITED (again meaning He can’t be omnipotent) to merely starting off the evolutionary process.
In both Process Theology AND the everlasting God approach, God IS affected by us and therefore cannot be perfect. Although it is comforting to think that God is with us and experiences how we feel, there is no way that key attributes such as perfection and immutability can be retained. In addition, to claim that God moves with us suggests that He is somehow human in character and this will only tempt us to anthropomorphisise him, an approach I’ve already dismissed.
An appealing aspect of the everlasting view of God’s eternity is Swinburne’s assessment on how it retains God’s omniscience. It would seem that this is impossible if God is within the universe but Swinburne cleverly defines omniscience as being “everything that is logically possible to know”. This successfully fits with the everlasting God and is a fair definition of omniscience. Perhaps God has even deliberately limited his omniscience, as suggested by Plantinga, in order to retain our freedom. Either way, I don’t believe that God needs to know EVERYTHING in order to be omniscient so this issue isn’t a problem for the everlasting God. My view, however, would be rejected by traditional Christianity.
So far we’ve assumed that the word “eternal” must refer to time, whether God be inside it or separate from it. A simple and superb solution to the issue of God’s eternity comes from DZ Phillips, who suggested that “eternal” was qualitative and nothing to do with time, just as he claimed that “eternal life” meant the quality of life on Earth. For Phillips, God is the greatest being that cannot be comprehended and although I would never advocate NOT seeking answers or stubbornly refusing to enter into debate, perhaps this is something we should accept. As I mentioned earlier, the debate on eternity in a temporal way is a crucial one for Christian belief and purpose, but seeing it as a symbolic way to refer to the quality of our lives still gives us focus and purpose without venturing in to what is ultimately unknowable given God’s ineffability.
From a student at All Saints Catholic College