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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God’s relationship to time is a topic of vast philosophical import. I can honestly say I didn’t even know it was so hotly debated until very recently. The topic has served to show me once again that the more I read, the more I learn, the more I will realize I have so much more to learn.
So why the heated debate? What are the sides? How do we research such a topic?
The sides of the debate are (probably not limited to):
1. God is timeless- on this view, God transcends time altogether (Craig, 29). It is also defined by saying, “God… exists, but exists at no time” (Leftow, xi)
2. God is temporal (or, keeping with the trend of listing God’s attributes as the omni-‘s–omnitemporal)- on this view (usually), God existed timelessly before the creation of the world, but is temporal once time and the world have come into being. “God co-exists only with the present moment or ‘now.’ He is eternal in the sense that He endures forever” (Craig, 77).
Why the heated debate? Again, it may be surprising that I have never been attuned to this debate once the implications of God’s relationship with time become clear. Indeed, God’s relationship with time is almost basic to any understanding of God’s attributes. God’s omnipotence, omniscience, etc. will be entirely different if God is temporal as opposed to timeless and vice-versa. How so? Let’s look at just one example. Take the conjunction “God is omniscient and omnipotent” (hereafter O). Now, if God is temporal, O seems to have a few problems that need working through. For if God is omniscient and temporal, then He knows in advance what He is going to do, which seems to limit God’s power, thus making O seem unlikely. However, if God is timeless, then He doesn’t really know anything in advance, He just knows all things tenselessly (in other words, He knows things in advance from our, temporal view, but because God is outside of time, such temporal terms simply do not apply to God). This means there is no limit on God’s omnipotence because such a problem relies on a tensed, temporal view of God (there is much more to be said on this issue, but I am simplifying it for the sake of an example). Further, any view on God’s relationship with time will also involve God’s relationship with His creation.
Thus, it seems extremely important to develop a view on God and time, which is exactly what I intend to do in this series of posts. I will be exploring the issue by looking through Bible passages which discuss God and time, by reading books and articles on the subject, and by condensing my studies into posts.
Craig, William Lane. Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time. Crossway. 2001.
Leftow, Brian. Time and Eternity. Cornell University Press. 1991.