Is God “outside” of Time? Dr. John Sanders February 2023
It is commonplace to hear people say that God is “outside of time.” However, many theists, not only open theists, affirm that God is temporal in that God experiences one event after another. Even some critics of open theism reject divine timelessness (atemporality).
A common objection is that divine temporality means that God is “inside” of time. Proponents of divine temporality respond in several ways. To begin, the word “inside” means that time is a container and since containers are larger than the contents inside them, then time must be larger than God which is a rather “naughty” theological idea. However, divine temporalists say this way of stating the issue assumes a particular way of understanding time that divine temporalists reject. That is, the question is phrased in a way that that favors divine atemporality.
Sanders argues that time is best understood as the experience of one event after another (Theology in the Flesh, 2016, pages 106-113). We explain these events in different ways such as we are moving towards an event or the event is moving towards us (e. g., “Spring is almost upon us.”), or, we use the experience of before and after (e. g., “Spring follows winter”). It is really events and change we perceive and we develop different understandings of “time” to get at our experience. It is events, not the abstraction “time”, that humans experience. We experience petting a dog or cat, cooking a meal for someone, and talking to others. These events have duration and sequence from which we develop the mental abstraction of time. We experience sunrises and sunsets, the phases of the moon, and the annual revolution of the earth around the sun which provide us with ways to measure the duration of events. Again, what humans experience is events when we interact with objects, not the mental abstraction “time”.
The person who says an object is “in” time is reifying the abstraction—making the abstraction into an object. It conceives of time in spatial terms, such as a container or block. This way of thinking assumes the block theory of time (sometimes called four dimensionalism). In this view, all events past, present, and future, always exist and they cannot be changed. This view is deterministic and rules out freewill. Divine temporalists reject this theory of time and affirm the dynamic view of time (also called the A-theory of time).
Divine temporalists affirm that God experiences duration and sequence as God relates to creatures. There is a before and an after to God’s experience with, for example, Abraham. This does not mean that God is limited by “time” because God is everlasting (without beginning or end). Divine temporalists believe this position better makes sense of the common religious teaching that God is the “living God.”
Is God “outside” of time?
Again, notice that the word “outside” implies that time is a container. If we do not use the container metaphor and ask whether God experiences duration (existence over a period of events) or sequence (before and after), then we have evidence from ancient texts. The biblical texts as well as the polytheism of the ancient Near East and Greece depicted the gods as having duration and sequence (before and after), just as humans do. Hence, the gods experienced events and thus, “time.”
Most humans consider change the crucial element for distinguishing between different events. For example we experience changes in the series of events before we were petting the dog, petting the dog, and then no longer petting the dog. It is changes between experiences that allow us to differentiate them. However, the ancient Greek thinker Parmenides denied that change is real. We think we changed from petting the dog to no longer petting it but this is an illusion. He said being (what is) is full and complete. Heraclitus claimed that everything changes except the idea of change itself (the idea of change never changes). Plato molded these ideas into his system in which the Forms (pure ideas) never change but anything that has matter, such as humans and dogs, is subject to change (time). In his, Timaeus, Plato says that God does not change and so only the verb “is” applies to God, not before and after. Many followers of Plato developed the idea that God does not experiencing events (time). This was taken up by Philo of Alexandria (Jewish) who claimed that God is timeless and changeless. Many Christian thinkers adopted this view.
At some point in history, the idea developed that “time” is the cosmic container of all things that change. My hunch it was with the Neo-Platonists and early Jewish and Christian thinkers. The container metaphor is the origin of the expression “God is outside of time.”
In conclusion, there are good reasons to believe God experiences events and so has a before and an after. God is everlastingly temporal. The container metaphor with its logic of inside/outside is rejected by those who affirm that God experiences events as they occur. Without the container metaphor, the criticism that God is limited by time loses its power.