Christian Doctrines, God and Time, philosophy, theology

Atonement and a Timeless God

One of my own struggles with Christianity as I began serious contemplation of its core doctrines is the doctrine of atonement. Specifically, I kept wondering how it is that Jesus’ death two thousand years ago could be used as atonement for my sins now. In order to overcome my difficulties figuring this out, I admittedly opted for a fideist type of approach and just assumed that God could do what He wanted, and if He wanted to forgive me because of something two thousand years ago, that was fine.

More recently, however, I’ve been thinking about God’s timeless nature. I touched on these thoughts in my last post, but wanted to get into more depth now.

Consider this: If God is timeless, then God’s existence occurs “all at once”; there is no sequence of events to God, only one eternal “now.” But then it follows that God the Son, Jesus Christ, is eternally crucified, eternally exalted, eternally reigning on high.

In some sense, if God is timeless, then it follows that while I am sinning, Christ is suffering on the cross. As I ask for forgiveness, He is rising from the tomb. As I read Scripture, Christ is speaking. I don’t mean these things temporally, of course, for on this view, god is atemporal–He is without time. Thus, I am not saying that “now”, Christ is dying in a temporal sense; rather, it is meant metaphorically. Christ is crucified in God’s eternal “now”; during which all events are “present.”

What does this mean for atonement? At least in my opinion, it seems to make a lot of sense out of the idea that Christ’s death pays for my sins. For there is no moment at which Christ is not suffering for my sins–a truly horrific thought. On the other hand, there is no moment at which Christ is not glorified with His Father in heaven. All of God’s experience occurs in an instant.

It should be noted again that these considerations are not intended to imply that all events are “simultaneous” in a temporal sense of “occurring at the same time”; rather, they are simultaneous in the sense that from God’s perspective, they have occurred; are occuring; and will occur. All events are eternally present to God. Neither does this mean that God has no sense of the order of events. God’s eternal now sees events in order of logical priority as opposed to temporal progression. Therefore, God knows that one event (x) occurs “before” another (y) in the sense that x is logically prior to y; x had to occur for y to happen. But God experiences all events as “now”; as the changeless, immutable deity, He is eternally crucified, eternally glorified; eternally paying for our sins, and eternally forgiving us for them.

At Communion today (Sunday), I was contemplating the implications of an atemporal God for atonement and justification. I was overcome with emotion as I thought deeply on the issue. As I was eating of the body and blood, Christ was being crucified for my sins; as my forgiveness was declared, Christ was rising.

Powerful thoughts. I think divine temporalists (those who hold that God is temporal) still have to deal with the doctrine of atonement: how does a death thousands of years ago atone for me now? Those who hold God is timeless can answer this question sufficiently: Christ is paying for your sins.



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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


18 thoughts on “Atonement and a Timeless God

  1. The present is the thing that is most like eternity. It is in the present that eternity is affected by man’s decisions. And, it is only when we consider eternity that we understand true reality. This temporal existence will wash away to reveal the true reality of eternity that always existed, exists, and will exist.

    The future is the thing that is least like eternity when we think of it as a specific point in time.
    –“When I have enough money to buy this house, then I’ll be happy.” “When I get a better job, things will go better for me.” “When I’m free of this illness, I can get back to living my real life.”–

    It is only in the here and now that eternity reaches down to be affected by man’s actions.

    Posted by Daniel | March 14, 2011, 10:51 AM
  2. The real question is why atonement is required. First, it isn’t just to hold people accountable for the sins of others. Second, little kids have no sins at all. It is cruel to create us imperfect, then sentence us to burn, then dangle a ‘salvation’ which billions can’t or won’t meet. Third, why is a blood sacrifice necessary even if Jesus was willing?

    An omnipotent God could have arranged things any way he likes. There are countless scenarios that are simpler, and more loving, than the crucifixion. The fact that God doesn’t forgive unconditionally (as Jesus suggested we do) and settled on such a barbaric method says a lot about His character.

    Posted by Don Severs | March 15, 2011, 6:56 AM
  3. Hmm, I’m not sure if I read your article correctly but it would seem that according to your view God is still leading the children of Israel out of Egypt? Is this correct? If this is in fact so, would it also be true to say that God has already created a new heaven and new earth and is in the midst of enjoying his new creation as is spoken of in the book of revelation? I’m just wondering if I’ve understood you correctly. My personal opinion is that I agree with Dr. Craig when he says that God was atemporal prior to creation and temporal subsequent to it.

    Posted by methodus | March 15, 2011, 4:32 PM
    • In some sense you are analyzing my view correctly, but you must be very careful–I deny that these events are “temporal”–God’s experience is atemporal, so it is false to say “still leading…” or “already created…” if you mean that temporally. God’s experience is changeless and timeless, so any temporal notion applied to God’s experience is necessarily false. Thus, if you are asking me “[Is] God… still leading the children of Israel out of Egypt?” I would say no, if what you mean is “at this moment, God is leading the children of Israel out of Egypt.” God’s experience is eternal and changeless, the temporal events are not.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 15, 2011, 4:38 PM
      • I don’t think that I have anything to say that you haven’t heard before nor do I feel all that qualified to speak on the subject but it does seem to me like action by definition can only take place within time. As I understand it, action by its very nature presupposes the realm of time and as such I can never quite understand how an atemporal God could at all act. To act he would at least have to enter time but once one has entered time there is no such thing as existing outside time (I think that here is where we could get into a disagreement). By that I mean, sure God could withdraw from our timeline but he could not withdraw from time itself given the fact that he would still have a past when he acted (this again might be refuted if you take the approach that there is no before or after to God but merely the present).

        I just find timelessness hard to reconcile with eschatology. If God is to destroy and remake the world, then in his eternal present, is he doing so already or rather, does he experience himself doing so already? And is this experience real or more like mere knowledge? If it is indeed real then in his present the world is already destroyed, the dead have already been judged or rather at this moment God is judging the dead etc. I think that this opens the way to a b-theory understanding of time and all of the faults thereof.

        Posted by methodus | March 15, 2011, 5:18 PM
  4. I feel that I should explain myself just a bit more. If God is in the eternal present, and his experience of the present is at all true, then it would be as true to say “God has yet to save the Israelites out of Egypt” as it is to say that “God is leading the Israelites out of Egypt”. In fact, it would be as true to say, “God has not yet to create the world” as it is to say “God is creating the world”. While one might appeal to logic in order to say that God knows which event would precede the other, yet in his present, no event would come chronologically prior to another and in fact if this eternal present is at all to be ‘true’ in every sense of the word then we have always existed, some of us are already burning in hell, Christ has yet to be born, Christ has yet to be enfleshed (and suddenly we have two Christ (prior to the hypostatic union and post this union) existing simultaneously in God’s very real eternal present. The question then becomes, how ‘real’ is God’s eternal present and if it is real, how then do we avert a b-theory of time and if it isn’t at all real then would it be adequate to say that God in the fullness of his existence, experiences time in a manner that is sub-par to our experience?

    Posted by methodus | March 15, 2011, 6:04 PM
    • Your comments are much appreciated and your insights are keen. My main answer to your objections is that in God’s eternal presence, He understands the order of events not chronologically but in terms of logical priority–that A is logically prior to B. But logical priority does not entail temporal priority. Further, if you hold to Craig’s view, as you said, then your argument that God cannot act seems to go against that. Craig’s view must presuppose that a timeless deity can act–but then he holds that if a timeless deity does act, it becomes temporal.

      However, it seems to me that this begs the question. Exactly why is it that in order to act, a deity must be temporal? What if all of God’s actions happened logically prior to temporal becoming–in other words, God’s actions occur “all at once” eternally but are logically prior to temporal becoming. Therefore, God’s action precedes temporal entailment by being logically prior to all time.

      Craig’s view must at least support this kind of argument because he holds that God is timeless without creation and temporal subsequent to creation. But on this view, a timeless God must at least be able to act, in order to bring creation into being. Therefore, God’s action would have to be logically prior to creation.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 15, 2011, 6:10 PM
      • By saying that an atemporal cannot act I meant that they cannot act and remain atemporal. If they wished to remain atemporal they would simply never act. I can certainly agree with you when it comes to logical comprehension of which events precede another by my main problem is that the eternal present of God seems to simply be a re-imagining of a b-theory view of time. In God’s eternal present it would be true to say that “the second person of the trinity is not joined to a human nature” and it is equally valid to say that “the second person of the trinity is joined to a human nature”. While logically, God could know which circumstance would follow the other, one could not say that “in God’s eternal present, the second person of the trinity has been enfleshed” yet paradoxically, one could say the opposite and it would also be equally true. My major problem is how one can hold onto the belief of an eternal present without believing that time is static? In a b-theory view of time we also could understood which events would logically precede another but it could not be said that one truly preceded another. Rather all events in the timeline would exist simultaneously and eternally. I really would appreciate your opinion on this.

        Posted by methodus | March 15, 2011, 6:38 PM
      • You’re quite correct in noting that timelessness in many ways seems to entail a B-theory of time. My primary counter to this has two stages:
        1) God has middle knowledge
        2) Similarly, God has actions “built in” to creation in the sense that just as He has eternal knowledge of true counterfactuals (middle knowledge), He can take actions based on counterfactuals which He knows from eternity. Because all of God’s actions are eternally set and eternally active, God experiences no change and is therefore timeless.

        2) does not entail B-theory because God remains changeless regardless of whether His actions occur temporally or not, for God Himself does not change. All of His actions occur “from eternity.” In some sense, one could say that they are “triggered” or “built in” to creation. But that doesn’t mean God is not responsive, because His activity is based upon His middle knowledge, which knows the free choices we make. However, His actions are not based on the choices we make “now” (temporally). Thus, God’s actions are already set from eternity to occur at various times, which allows for A-theory (I proceed from x->y in time, which leads to God taking action Z)–while still maintaining God’s changeless (and therefore timeless) nature (for His actions occur from eternity).

        There are other possible accounts such as Leftow’s spaceless timelessness of which Craig is heavily critical. I think Craig’s critique does damage the plausibility of Leftow’s account somewhat, but it does not show that it is not possible. And if Leftow’s account is possible, timelessness with A-theory is possible.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 15, 2011, 7:35 PM
  5. Now at this point I don’t want to make it seem as if I’m beating a dead horse here but I feel as though we’re overlooking a crucial point here. Yet before that, I should say that your above explanations do in fact save you from the trappings of my argument except for, as I believe, when we get into the details of salvation history. That is, if it is true to say that God at this very moment is leading the children of Israel out of Egypt, then does that mean that these individuals are real entities as well? If his eternal present is to be distinguished from mere memory (as in God remembering that he lead the children of Israel out of Egypt and as such this event only residing in memory and not possessive of any fundamental reality other than that it once existed as the “present”) then this would mean that this event is really happening. As such Israel is still really crossing the red sea, Moses is still really leading them to the promised land etc. Pharao, Moses, Joshua, Aaron–all these individuals still exist in the same capacity and fullness that they exhibited when the events of the book of Exodus were contemporary. I then fail to see how this is not merely a re-garnishing of a b-theory view of time?

    The crucial aspect then is how real God’s eternal present really is? Is it truly and distinctively as real as the present is (in the fullest sense of the word) or is it merely another name for memory/knowledge? Can in such a view Christ both be enfleshed and without a human nature simultaneously? All I mean to say is that when we examine God’s interaction with creation throughout history, it doesn’t seem like the concept of ‘eternal present’ is able to harmonize all of these things. Once more, I await your reply.

    Posted by methodus | March 17, 2011, 4:22 PM
    • I think the confusion comes from viewing God’s eternal present as a temporal present. To say that something is “still happening” in God’s eternal present doesn’t imply anything about time. It means exactly what is said: it is still happening in God’s eternal present. But neither does that preclude God knowing the order of events, because He knows about logical priority, and therefore sees things happening in terms of cause-effect, while not viewing them temporally ordered.

      So the events you point out don’t imply anything about the temporal world. Those events aren’t “still happening” now in the temporal sense, but the eternal, timeless sense. Further, with the Incarnation, you asked “Can in such a view Christ both be enfleshed and without a human nature simultaneously?” Again, I deny the temporal implications of this sentence. If you mean simultaneously in the sense of “In God’s eternal present, is God both enfleshed and without a human nature?” I would answer “Yes, but God still knows about logical priority, so they are not overlapping.”

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 18, 2011, 9:38 AM
  6. Hi J.W.

    I’d like to ask about your:

    “What does this mean for atonement? At least in my opinion, it seems to make a lot of sense out of the idea that Christ’s death pays for my sins. FOR THERE IS NO MOMENT THAT CHRIST IS NOT SUFFERING FOR MY SINS–a truly horrific thought. On the other hand, there is no moment at which Christ is not glorified with His Father in heaven. All of God’s experience occurs in an instant.”
    And your

    “It should be noted again that these considerations are not intended to imply that all events are “simultaneous” in a temporal sense of “occurring at the same time”; rather, they are simultaneous in the sense that from God’s perspective, they have occurred; are occuring; and will occur.”

    Your descriptions seem to have much in common with Roman Catholic thought.

    The incarnational eternity of Christ is open to much philosophical speculation. What we can be sure about, though, is that Christ suffered once and for all, and is not suffering in his glory. I’ll try to explain:

    According to Roman Catholicism, Christ was not sacrificed once and for all, but is sacrificed constantly – in the Mass. From this idea it’s no big leap to imagine that every time Christ is “offered” as a sacrifice in the Mass, He also thirsts (for souls) as he did at His crucifixion.

    The term “constant” is from Pope John Paul II. In his teaching of the sacrifice of the Mass, Pope John Paul II writes:

    . . . the Church is the instrument of man’s salvation. It both contains and continually (my italics) draws upon the mystery of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice. Through the shedding of His own blood, Jesus Christ constantly (my italics) “enters into God’s sanctuary thus obtaining eternal redemption” (cf. Heb 9:12). (Pope John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (New York: Knopf, 1995, p. 139). The underlined section is the Pope’s rendition of Hebrews 9:12.).

    The Pope’s “constantly enters” resonates with the Council of Trent’s declaration that the Mass is not merely a “re-enactment”, but a real propitiatory sacrifice, which is repeated at every consecration of the wafer and the wine.2

    The first part of John Paul’s statement – “continually draws upon the mystery of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice” – does not conflict with the Bible. However, just because the Church “continually draws upon the…sacrifice” this does not mean that Jesus Christ is constantly sacrificed.

    After quoting what he says is Hebrews 9:12, the Pope ends with “(cf. Heb 9:12).” “Cf’” means see/refer to/compare Hebrews 9:12. Let’s do so. Here is the complete verse of Hebrews 9:12 from the Roman Catholic Douay-Rheims Bible translation (I underline the part of the verse that the Pope has asked us to compare with his):

    “Neither by the blood of goats, or of calves, but by his own blood, entered ONCE into the holies, having obtained eternal redemption.”(My emphasis).

    Here is the Pope’s rendition: Through the shedding of His own blood, Jesus Christ constantly “enters into God’s sanctuary thus obtaining eternal redemption” (cf. Heb 9:12).

    John Paul replaces ‘entered once’ with ‘enters, and ends up with:

    “(Jesus) constantly ‘enters (entered once – crossed out) into God’s sanctuary thus obtaining eternal redemption’ (cf. Heb 9:12).’” John Paul changed “entered” to “enters,” to fit in with his “constantly.” Whether a Pope is interpreting ex cathedra (that is, by infallible inspiration of the Holy Spirit) or in his personal capacity, the practical effect on many devout Roman Catholics is the same. If Christ is constantly sacrificed (for souls), it’s no big leap to imagine that He is constantly thirsting (for souls), which is seems to be a spin-off of the “eternal” sacrifice of the mass.


    You posted a question on Derek4Messiah’s blog, namely,
    “I have a question, however. Who exactly do you believe “Yeshua”/Jesus is? Is he God, as Christians (like myself) claim, or something else? Why do you believe either way? I tried to get the answer from this page, but I can’t quite figure out what you’re saying about Yeshua. Thanks.”

    I don’t see any reply on Derek’s blog. Did you ever get an answer to your question?

    Posted by bography | March 23, 2011, 4:01 AM
    • Sorry, the italics and underling did no come out in my post, but I don’t think this affects the meaning.

      Posted by bography | March 23, 2011, 8:35 AM
    • First, thanks for your comment and all the thought you put into it! If I miss what you’re trying to argue, I apologize. Feel free to correct me.

      Your parallels with Roman Catholic thought are very intriguing. It seems as though you’re arguing that my view is either friendly to or identical with Roman Catholic interpretations of the Eucharist. I don’t find that a strike against the timelessness of God.

      Most important for my account presented here is that when I say “there is no moment at which Christ is not suffering…” I mean this only metaphorically. A timeless God does not exist in moments, but outside of time. As Brian Leftow put it, it is the claim that “God exists, but exists at no time.” So when I say things about God which reference moments, they are, at best, metaphors. So I think that it would be false to say that “_Now_ we are sacrificing Christ” (said at the Mass). Rather, it would be true to say that “God experiences incarnational suffering eternally.” Here using “eternity” to refer to God’s timeless existence.

      A timeless God does not experience things in temporal order. So to say that “What we can be sure about, though, is that Christ suffered once and for all, and is not suffering in his glory”, as you said, is correct, but it must be noted that it is not a temporal kind of first-then. It would be okay to say that “(metaphorically) contemporaneous with my sinning, Christ is suffering.” However, this again does not imply that Hebrews 9:12 is wrong. When it says “He entered once for all” it is talking temporally. Christ, in time, suffered once for all. But that does not preclude His suffering in the eternal present. To say otherwise would beg the question against divine timelessness, for timelessness necessarily entails that all which God experiences, He experiences eternally.

      I hope that clears up the issue a bit. I admit that I was speaking highly metaphorically in this post.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 23, 2011, 7:25 PM
    • Oh, and I never got a response to my question on Messianic Judaism. There have been comments from the author after my question, so I’m gonna guess he just chooses to not answer it, which makes me sad because I was asking from genuine curiosity.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 23, 2011, 11:26 PM

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