God, Time, and Foreknowledge

God and Time

The topics of the nature of time itself and God’s relationship to time contain some of the most complex issues in philosophy and science and I am no expert in these matters. The purpose here is not to settle these intricate subjects but simply to explain some of the important positions and which options freewill theists in general, and open theists in particular, should commit themselves to.

Open theists believe that God is a personal agent who experiences the give-and-take of historical life with his creatures.[1] God changes in his relationships as he works with us so God has a history. God has consciousness and experiences temporal sequence of one event happing after another. God is everlasting in that he was, is, and will be.[2] God experiences sequence (before and after) in his changing relationships with us. God is not timeless since a timeless being has no history. A timeless deity is more like an abstract concept such as the number 5, it just is and does not change or have reciprocal relations with us. It is commonly asked at this point if divine temporality means that time is uncreated. In order to answer this we need to distinguish metric (measured time) from psychological or personal time. Prior to a physical universe there are no bodies with distance between them. For us, without a sun and an earth there is nothing to measure. Metric time thus begins at creation. Psychological time, the experience of consciousness, has always been part of God’s life. J. R. Lucas explains that time in this sense is “a necessary concomitant of the existence of a personal being. . . .It exists because of God; not because of some act of will on His part, but because of His nature” as a personal being.[3] Time in this sense is not a “thing,” it simply refers to the sequence of events in God’s experience.

There are two major theories of time: the dynamic view (also called the tensed, process, or A-theory,) and the stasis view (also known as the tenseless, block, or B-theory,). For the dynamic theory, the present or now has a special ontological status because it exists in a way that past and future do not.[4]  The past no longer exists and the future does not yet exist. Though we speak about “the future” as though it were an entity it is really a conceptualization we use to understand our lives. Aquinas said, “The future. . . does not actually exist, and therefore is not knowable in itself; for so far as a thing falls short of being, so far does it fall short of being knowable.”[5] The dynamic view involves real change since things come into and go out of existence. At one point in time George Washington did not exist, then he existed, and now he no longer exists. Also, since at least part of the future is undetermined, it contains multiple possible scenarios of what might happen. Hence, in this view the future is open.

The stasis theory, on the other hand, holds that the past, present and future all have equal ontological status since all events of the past never go out of existence and all the events of the future never come into existence. Rather, every event exists always because every moment of time is just as ontologically real as any other moment. We can conceive of this by use of the spatial metaphor of a very long block. The present would be at some point on the block while all past events would extend in one direction from the present and all future events would extend in the other. All events exist in that they are always on the block so George Washington never comes into or goes out of existence. My death already exists but, fortunately, I have not yet experienced it. Since the future may be described in exhaustive detail as to what will, in fact, occur, nothing can be changed as to what will happen. Hence, in this view the future is closed.

Clearly, these two views have very different understandings of the ontological status of the future and this has immense significance for the foreknowledge discussion. If the future already exists ontologically (is real) and is fully describable in terms of what either will or not happen, then God must know it—must have exhaustive definite knowledge of the future. However, if the future does not exist then there is literally “no thing” or reality to know. Since future contingent events are not definite, they must be described in terms of what might or not happen.[6] This means that God’s knowledge must contain knowledge of what might possibly occur and cannot contain exhaustive definite foreknowledge if God knows reality as it is. Time should not be thought of as a linear block of past, present, and future that already exists in complete detail but as a set of possibilities that branch out from the present. The future is like a “create your own story” book.[7] [illustration using a sheet of paper.]

[Put this in a note?] Another way of getting at the ontological status of time is to distinguish four dimensionalism from three dimensionalism. Four dimensionalism means that there are four realms of existence, three for space and one for time: height, depth, width, and time. Time is reified: it is a “thing” which exists just as much as space so we speak of the “space-time continuum.” Three dimensionalism, on the other hand, affirms that height, depth and width are real but time is not a “thing.” This means that “time and space are fundamentally different and untranslatable. . . .Time can exist without space—in consciousness.”[8] In other words, psychological time does not require physical existence. Time and space are asymmetrical.[9]

Though divine temporality is affirmed by many contemporary freewill theists, historically, the vast majority of freewill theists have held that God is timeless. There are a number of good reasons to affirm divine timelessness, a few of which will be mentioned. For starters, our existence is temporary and subject to decay so it seems natural to desire something that persists, is stable, self-sufficient and transcendent. We tend to think of time as an imperfection due to its transience. A strongly immutable being is free of such imperfections and a being that never changes in any respect is timeless. Linguistically it just sounds bad to say God is “in time” since it sounds like time is bigger than God, “boxing him in” and hence, limiting him. It is also claimed that if God is in time then God must also be spatial. Some claim that relativity physics requires this to be the case.

In response, temporalists maintain that God is not temporary or transient because he is everlasting. God is self-sufficient and transcendent and time as sequential consciousness is considered a perfection. God relates to us in changing ways appropriate to the context of the relationship. To fail to do this would be an imperfection. A being who changes in some respects experiences a before and an after to the change and thus, experiences time. Linguistically, it is incorrect to speak of God as existing “in time” since the preposition “in” presupposes that time is a thing, an ontological container.[10] This reifies time and assumes the block theory and four dimensionalism. In other words, the very way it is stated presumes theories of time that the proponent of divine temporality rejects. It is conceiving of time in spatial terms, a container or block. It is better to say that God experiences duration and sequence in his consciousness as he relates to us in history. God is not “in” time.[11] Also, though the most common interpretation of relativity physics supports the stasis theory, there is an empirically valid interpretation that is compatible with the dynamic theory.[12] Some conservative religious people may still find this difficult to swallow so I offer a final argument. Such people typically affirm that angels exist and that these beings are non physical. Yet, angels experience time. Hence, belief in angels entails that temporal beings can exist without being spatial. So psychological time does not necessitate that God be spatial.

Proponents of divine temporality cite a number of problems with divine timelessness. Divine timelessness is packaged with either the stasis or dynamic theories of time. Though there are a number of significant thinkers who affirm both divine timelessness and the dynamic theory of time, this combination seems to be in retreat since more and more people are claiming that timelessness requires the stasis theory.[13] A key problem for the combination of timeless and the dynamic theory is that it implies that God does not know what is happening right now, he is unaware what day or year it is presently. Certainly, God knows everything that happens in time but there is no “now” for a timeless God. This has some serious implications for religious belief. For instance, consider some doctrines important to Christianity such as the incarnation and crucifixion. If God is timeless, then God did not know these events were happening at the moment they took place. This means that the Son of God, incarnate in Jesus, could not know he was being crucified since the divine Son is timeless. The Son of God would know that the crucifixion is an event which happens in time but he would be unaware that it was taking place when it occurred. Needless to say, it sounds very strange to say that the Son of God was unaware when he was born, when he taught the disciples and when he was killed.

If the dynamic theory of time is true and things really do change from before to after then to know reality as it is requires the knower to have awareness that follows along with the reality.[14] A changing thing can only be known by a knower whose knowledge changes. God’s relation to a changing universe is a changing one. In other words, if the dynamic theory is true but it is also true that God is timeless, then God does not know reality as it actually is.

In recent years there is greater agreement that divine timelessness requires the stasis theory of time and is incompatible with the dynamic theory. However, there are a number of drawbacks as well for affirming both divine timelessness and the stasis theory of time. First, according to the stasis theory all events always exist. This means that all the good and all the evil in the world never go out of existence for they are timeless. Our sins never cease to exist. For those who believe that God will eventually overcome all evil in the eschaton, it is difficult to see how this can occur since evil always exists.

Second, the stasis theory implies determinism since there are no open possibilities. The block, which contains the past, present and future is completely definite. What we call the “future” is already actual or real even though it has different “temporal coordinates” from what we now experience. If the space-time continuum contains all events that actually happen then what the Secretary General of the United Nations does on July 17, 2055 is in the continuum and it cannot be changed.

Finally, whether one affirms the stasis or dynamic theories, there are many things that a timeless being cannot do. God cannot be said to plan, deliberate, have changing emotions, adjust his plans, anticipate or respond.[15] All such actions require a before and an after.[16]

Given the problems that divine timelessness and the stasis theory pose for freewill theists, it seems they need to reject these views and affirm divine temporality and the dynamic theory of time. There are numerous reasons given in support of divine temporality and the A-theory. Some of these reasons have already been mentioned. These positions avoid determinism and are compatible with libertarian freewill. Whereas timelessness and the stasis theory fit well with the doctrines of unconditional election, irresistible grace and that our prayers have no affect on God, divine temporality and the dynamic theory fit well with the freewill theistic doctrines of conditional election, resistible grace and that our prayers can affect God. Also, if reality is changing then God knows reality as it truly is, not some “similitude” of it. God knows what time it is now and knows what we are presently doing.[17] Also, it allows Christians to say that when the divine Son was on the cross God knew it was happening at that moment. This seems far more consonant with Christian worship than to say God only had knowledge that the crucifixion occurs at some point on the block of time. Another reason is that the dynamic view is our “common sense” perspective that the past is gone and the future has not happened. This means that our perception of time is not illusory. Things really do change, we do not encounter merely different temporal stages of a thing.

Exhaustive Definite Foreknowledge

It was mentioned above that it has been customary for omniscience to include exhaustive definite foreknowledge of future events. That is, God knows everything that will ever occur in history and God knows it as definite, not as what might happen. Classical theists hold that God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge because God determines everything. If you write the script then you know everything that happens in the story. The majority of freewill theists have affirmed that God possesses exhaustive definite foreknowledge but, in opposition to classical theism, have held that God obtains this foreknowledge by somehow “observing” all of history.[18] In other words, God is able to read the script of history without determining what happens in the story. This view is known as simple foreknowledge.

Open theists find fault with simple foreknowledge for a number of reasons. First, as argued above, if the dynamic theory of time is true then the future does not exist to be known and if God knows reality as it is, then there can be no such thing as definite foreknowledge of future contingent events. Second, as Aquinas argued, if God is temporal and has exhaustive definite foreknowledge, then the future is determined since the only way a temporal being can know the future in detail is if the knowledge is based on causal necessity. He reasoned that if God is temporal and humans have libertarian freedom, then God must have dynamic omniscience. Thomas did not affirm dynamic omniscience, he only claimed that if God was temporal, then this view is the only way to avoid determinism.[19] Third, simple foreknowledge is usually associated with divine timelessness. However, the affirmation of timelessness leads to incompatibilities with core beliefs of freewill theists. For instance, it is essential to freewill theism to affirm that God responds to and is affected by creatures, but such actions are impossible for a timeless being since they involve change. Fourth, and this is very important, it will be shown below that simple foreknowledge is literally useless—even if God has it, he cannot do anything with it.

Open theists believe that the dynamic omniscience view solves these problems and allows freewill theists to affirm their core beliefs with logical consistency. According to dynamic omniscience, God knows all the past and the present with exhaustive certainty. God knows what we call the future as partially definite or certain and partially indefinite or uncertain. God has knowledge of those events which, at present, are physically determined to occur and God knows his own intentions to bring about particular events in the future. Open theists believe that some events are definitely going to happen in the future, it is not completely open. This should not be described as a “partial future” since this language makes it sound as though there is an already existing future but it contains gaps in it.[20] Rather, the future is not a thing but mental conceptions we have of what might occur and what will definitely occur. Hence, for both God and us, knowledge of “the future” is an anticipatory knowledge. This means that we may speak of God having beliefs about events which might or might not happen. For example, God may believe that the Chicago Cubs will win the World Series next year. If so, then it is probable that this event will occur but it is not certain to occur. God will not believe that unlikely events will transpire though God would know them as possibilities.

For many religious people something of importance is lost if God lacks simple foreknowledge because this view has been used to explain how God relates to us. For example, it has been used to explain how God could, prior to creation, elect particular individuals to salvation without overriding human freedom. God simply “looked ahead” to see which people would exercise faith in God and God, on that basis, elected them. The same explanation has been used to explain how God answers prayer. God “sees” that we are going to make a request so God responds, before we even exist, to answer our prayer. Also, it functioned to explain how God could predict particular events ahead of time. God observed that X is going to happen so God has a prophet announce that X is going to happen. Hence, simple foreknowledge is used to explain a wide variety of divine actions regarding providence.

Proponents and critics alike have claimed that if God knows something ahead of time, then God can act to prevent that event from happening. It is often assumed that a God with exhaustive definite foreknowledge would be in a maximally informed position to offer guidance and protection to those who petition him in prayer.  For instance, say Mandie asks God whether she should marry Matthew or Jim, believing that God knows how everything will turn out. Mandie believes, for instance, that God knows for a fact whether Jim will be loving or abusive towards her and would advise her appropriately. James Mill, the father of John Stuart Mill, used this same line of reasoning to criticize one version of Christian belief when he said, “Think of a being who would make a hell, who would create the race with the infallible foreknowledge that the majority of them were to be consigned to horrible and everlasting torment.”[21] According to this criticism, God should have only created those whom he foreknow would be redeemed.

However, both proponents and critics of simple foreknowledge misunderstand how it works. William Hasker puts his finger on the misunderstanding.

[I]t is clear that God’s foreknowledge cannot be used either to bring about the occurrence of a foreknown event or to prevent such an event from occurring. For what God foreknows is not certain antecedents which, unless interfered with in some way, will lead to the occurrence of the event; rather, it is the event itself that is foreknown as occurring, and it is contradictory to suppose that an event is known to occur but then also is prevented from occurring. In the logical order of dependence of events, one might say, by the “time” God knows something will happen, it is “too late” either to bring about its happening or to prevent it from happening.[22]

The problem arises because of the fact that what God previsions is what will actually occur (not what might occur). Once God has foreknowledge he cannot change what will happen for that would make his foreknowledge incorrect and foreknowledge, by definition, is always correct. God cannot make future actual events to be non-actual. If what will actually happen is, for example, that Mandie will marry Jim who turns out to be an abusive husband, then God knows it is going to happen and cannot prevent it from happening since his foreknowledge is never mistaken.  If God knows that particular individuals will definitely not accept his love, God cannot prevent them from being born. Finally, if God foresees the whole of life of a prophet, say Jeremiah, he has not yet (logically speaking) foreseen the return of the Israelites from exile. Once God previsions the events of the return from exile it is “too late” for God to go back and reveal through Jeremiah a prediction about this event during the life of prophet because when God previsioned Jeremiah’s life he never foresaw Jeremiah uttering such a prediction. Consequently, God cannot use simple foreknowledge to ensure that history goes the way God desires, or that our lives go well, or to make predictions of future events.

Please note, the claim here is not that divine foreknowledge implies determinism. Rather, the claim is that simple foreknowledge is useless. It offers God no advantages in the exercise of divine providence. In other words, the theory cannot fulfill the very purposes for which it was created: to explain divine providence, answered prayer, and predictions of future events. This is a crushing blow to the theory of simple foreknowledge. Once freewill theists understand this, they will either have to develop a solution to these problems or affirm the theory of dynamic omniscience. If the dynamic theory of time is correct and the future is open and God relates to us in give-and-take reciprocal relations, then dynamic omniscience is the only game in town.

[1] For a fuller account of the position given here see Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Unqualified Divine Temporality,” Gregory Ganssle ed., God & Time: Four Views (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2001), pp. 187-213, “God Everlasting,” in God and the Good, ed. C. J. Orlebeke and L. B. Smedes (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975), 181-203, William Hasker, God, Time and Knowledge, 144-185, and J. R. Lucas, The Future: An Essay on God, Temporality and Truth (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1989). These last two books address important questions such as the truth status of statements about the future, modal logic, and other philosophical matters related to the nature of time.

[2] Proponents of divine temporality are not committed to a position regarding whether God was temporal prior to creation. Dean Zimmerman says that it makes no sense to say an omniscient trinity experiences change prior to being in relation to creatures. See his “God Inside Time and Before Creation,” Gregory Ganssle and David Woodruff eds., God and Time: Essays on the Divine Nature (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 75-94. Craig says God was timeless prior to creation and temporal afterwards. Wolterstorff disagrees, holding that God has always been temporal. For Craig and Wolterstorff see God & Time: Four Views, pp. 159-160, 170-4.

[3] Lucas, The Future, p. 213.

[4] This is a “presentist” way of stating the dynamic theory. The expanding universe (the past continually expands from the present but no future exists) theory gives the present a distinct ontological status. Both presentism and the expanding universe views are compatible with open theism.

[5] Aquinas, Summa Theologica,

[6] I have tried to word this in such a way that all proponents of dynamic omniscience will agree. [See what Tom Belt wrote in his thesis—openness debate/truth values, his thesis is in openness papers by others] However, proponents of dynamic omniscience are not of one mind regarding how to state the relationship between truth and the future. At least five options are available to them. The first three agree that God knows all truths, but they disagree as to what constitutes a truth (these three positions are discussed by Lucas, The Future, 75-77). (1) They can deny the principle of bivalence (all propositions are either true or false or if not true then false). Bivalence is denied by claiming that statements about the future, what will or will not happen, are neither true nor false because there are no facts of the matter that presently make them true. Statements about the future have no truth value; they come to be true or false. In this way it may be said that God knows all truths (J. R. Lucas and Dale Tuggy). (2) Bivalence may be affirmed yet it can be denied that statements about future contingent events are propositions. That is, bivalence works with propositional truths and, just as many of our ordinary language statements are not propositions, it could be argued that statements about future contingent events simply are not propositions. For example, “I will wash the car tomorrow” and “the present king of France is bald,” are not propositions. Hence, God would know all true propositions. (3) One can affirm bivalence and that statements about future contingent events are propositions, but argue that what “will or will not” definitely happen are not contradictories but contraries. Instead, what might happen is the contradictory of what will not happen. Propositions about what will and will not happen regarding contingent events are both false since there is presently no ontological truth of the matter if the future is truly contingent. Hence, God knows all truths (Alan Rhoda and Gregory Boyd).  (4) One may affirm bivalence and that statements about future contingent events are propositions, but deny that they are knowable by any being. That is, God knows all that is logically possible to know at any time but there are truths about the future that God cannot know. So, God does not know all truths (Swinburne and Hasker).  (5) One could argue that bivalence applies to first order predicate logic and claim that statements about the future are not analyzable by the rules of first order logic. There are numerous types of logics and it is debated among theorists of logic which types of logics apply to which kinds of statements. This is similar to issues surrounding epistemic and deontic logic.  Some critics accuse those open theists who reject bivalence of giving up on truth. However, there are philosophers, such as W. V. O Quine and Susan Haack, who do not affirm dynamic omniscience but who do raise serious metalogical questions about the validity of the principle of bivalence (even for statements about the present). Bivalence does not go unquestioned in philosophy.

[7] Dale Tuggy applies this model of time to omniscience and concludes that God cannot have either exhaustive definite foreknowledge or middle knowledge if the branching model of time is correct. See his “Three Roads to Open Theism,” Faith & Philosophy (Forthcoming, 2006). Alan Rhoda, Greg Boyd and Thomas Belt also make use of this model in their “Open Theism, Omniscience, and the Nature of the Future” Faith and Philosophy, (forthcoming 2006).

[8] Keith Ward, “The Temporality of God,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 50 (Dec. 2001), p. 161

[9] Some claim that because both space and time are continua and measurable that time must be a real dimension like space. However, a great many things are measurable but that does not make them a fifth or sixth dimension that have the same fundamental metaphysical reality as space. See Hasker, God, Time and Knowledge, p. 182.

[10] We think of time in terms of a commodity (“don’t waste your time away”), as distance (“that is far behind us now”) and as a container (something is either in or out of time). In each of these usages we abstract from our physical experiences to conceptualize time.

[11] Einstein, correcting what he took to be a misunderstanding of his relativity theories, said that “Physical objects are not in space, but these objects are spatially extended.” In the same way physical objects do not exist, he says, “in time” but are “processional in nature.” Albert Einstein, Relativity: The Special and General Theory (New York: Random House, 1961), p. vii.

[12] See William Lane Craig, “The Elimination of Absolute Time by the Special Theory of Relativity,” Ganssle and Woodruff eds., God and Time, pp. 129-152. William Hasker writes: “There is, in fact, an alternative, neo-Lorenzian, version of relativity theory, which is mathematically and observationally equivalent to Einstein’s but which does not deny the existence of absolute simultaneity and does not force us to adopt the stasis theory. The choice between the two versions is philosophical—and was dictated, in Einstein’s case, by his positivism.” Hasker, “God’s Time,” unpublished paper, pp. 17-18. Craig elaborates on the effect Einstein’s positivism had on his interpretation of the theory.

[13] William Lane Craig, Paul Helm, Alan Padgett, Nicholas Wolterstorff and Gregory Ganssle claim that timelessness entails the stasis theory (God and Time: Four Views) and Craig, “Omniscience, Tensed Facts and Divine Eternity,” Faith & Philosophy 17.2 (April 2000): 225-241. Jonathan Kvanvig and Edward Wierenga claim that the A-theory is compatible with divine timelessness and Craig responds to there claims in an exchange in Faith & Philosophy. See Kvanvig, “Omniscience and Eternity: A Reply to Craig and Craig, “Kvanvig no A-Theorist” (18.3, 2001, pp. 369-380); Wierenga, “Omniscience and Time, One More Time: A Reply to Craig” and Craig, “Wierenga No A-Theorist Either” (21.1, 2004, pp. 90-7, 105-109.

[14] See Hasker, God, Time and Knowledge, p. 159. Hasker raises an additional problem: a timeless deity does not work with humans in the here and now. Rather, God works with timeless representations of us. These “similitudes,” as Aquinas called them, contain all the information content of us but it is not really us. This places a distance between God and his people that prohibits the types of reciprocal relations portrayed in the scriptural narrative and calls into question the forms of spirituality practiced by many Christians. This might be satisfactory for some “high church” types but it means that the type of covenant relationship that the majority of Christians believe they have with God is an illusion.

[15] This is shown by Norman Kretzman and Eleonore Stump, “Eternity,” Journal of Philosophy 78 (1981): 429-458.

[16] Nicholas Wolterstorff points out that according to timelessness “none of God’s actions is a response to what we human beings do; indeed, not only is none of God actions a response to what we do, but nothing at all in God’s life is a response to what occurs among God’s creatures.” Wolterstorff, “Unqualified Divine Timelessness,” Ganssle ed., God and Time, p. 205. Note that Helm does try to claim that there is a highly qualified way that a timeless God may be said to “respond” but Wolterstorff shows that Helm’s claim fails (pp. 232-3).

[17] Roderick M. Chisholm and Dean W. Zimmerman show that theology does not require tenseless propositions for God or for “eternal verities.” See their “Theology and Tense,” Nous 31, no. 2 (June 1997): 262-5.

[18] Critics of open theism typically fail to understand: (1) the fundamental agreement between simple foreknowledge and dynamic omniscience regarding the mode of divine knowing and (2) the fundamental disagreement between these two views and classical theism over the mode of divine knowing. See Steven M. Studebaker, “The Mode of Divine Knowledge in Reformation Arminianism and Open Theism,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 47.3 (September, 2004): 469-480; and John Sanders, “Open Theism: a Radical Revision or Miniscule Modification of Arminianism?” Wesleyan Theological Journal 38.2 (Fall 2003): 69-102

[19] See Christopher Hughes, On a Complex Theory of a Simple God: An Investigation in Aquinas’ Philosophical Theology (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989), 128-130 and Harm J. M. J. Goris, Free Creatures of an Eternal God: Thomas Aquinas on God’s Infallible Foreknowledge and Irresistible Will, Publications of the Thomas Instituut te Utrecht, vol. 5 (Utrecht, Netherlands: Peeters Leuven, 1996), 220-245. Goris has an extensive discussion of Aquinas on bivalence.

[20] Such language has misled some critics to accuse open theists of saying the future both exists and does not exist. Millard Erickson misunderstands the position when he says, “The problem here is that part of the future is settled, or has ontological reality, but part does not” (What Does God Know and When Does He Know It? The Current Controversy Over Divine Foreknowledge. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2003), 177.

[21]Quoted in McCabe, Foreknowledge of God, 25.

     [22]Hasker, God, Time, and Knowledge, 57-8.

John Sanders

John E. Sanders is an American theologian who is a professor of religious studies at Hendrix College. He has published on four main topics: (1) open theism, (2) Christian views on the salvation of non-Christians, (3) Christian views on the nature of hell, and (4) applying cognitive linguistics to theology.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *