God, Time and Eternity

Eternity photo_Time_EternityFotor

Isaiah 57:15a ESV

“For thus says the One who is high and lifted up,who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy.”

“If you picture Time as a straight line along which we have to travel, then you must picture God as the whole page on which the line is drawn.” C.S. Lewis – Mere Christianity.

God inhabits eternity. The Lord makes this declaration through the prophet Isaiah.

But how are we to understand this scripture? Does its declaration that God inhabits eternity refer to God being everlasting over the span of all time from beginning to end? Meaning, is it a reference to linear existence only: from a point in the eternal past to a point in the eternal future? This is how most would naturally understand the biblical term ‘eternity’ when speaking of God. Therefore, we would take this scripture to mean: God has always been and always will be. And it is true that Christian doctrine has always taught that God is everlasting. That his existence spans across all time. A reading from the Psalmist makes this doctrine, again, quite apparent. God has existed from time past and will continue to exist into an everlasting future.

Psalm 90:2 ESV
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.”

That God is everlasting is absolutely true. Scriptures from both the Old and New Testaments concur regarding God’s perpetuity (Habakkuk 1:12, Isaiah 41:4b, Revelation 1:17). But does the word ‘eternity’ used in the passage of Isaiah mean something more? There are many ways the bible uses the word eternity, and we’ll look at the Hebrew word for eternity ‘olam’ later, but for now I want to look at the word in the way Isaiah here uses it- that God inhabits eternity. The question we may ask is this? Is God, as well as being infinite across time, exist eternally in all of time? Does he occupy, or as Isaiah states, does the Lord inhabit eternity? Does he occupy all of time, and not just pass through it from beginning to end? My hope is to understand, through the course of this brief study, why this is important.

The use of the words everlasting and eternity may seem to be the same, and in various passages of scripture they are at times used interchangeably. But in this scripture Isaiah is making reference to God as inhabiting, or dwelling in time and not just existing, moment by moment, across time; as if to phase out of one moment into the next as humans do. According to the inspired writers of scripture God is not only everlasting, existing from moment to moment as spanning across time, but if we are to grasp the fuller meaning of the word eternity, we must agree with scripture that he is also timeless. Meaning he is also outside time, as well as inhabiting every moment of it, whether past, present or future.

Early church father Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.) said this about the eternity of God:

“In the eminence of your ever-present eternity, you are before all times past, and extend beyond all future times, for they are still to come — and when they have come, they will be past. But “You are always the Selfsame and your years shall have no end.” Your years neither go nor come; but ours both go and come in order that all separate moments may come to pass. All your years stand together as one, since they are abiding. Nor do your years past exclude the years to come because your years do not pass away. All these years of ours shall continue to be with you, even when all of them shall have ceased to be for us. Your years are but a day, and your day is not a passing of time, but is always today. Your “today” does not give way to tomorrow and does not follow yesterday. Your “today” is eternity.” (St. Augustine, Confessions, Book XI, Chapter XIII)

God’s existence is not a progressive existence, but an occupying of every moment in time- all at once. And of course to do so is to cease from talking about time, as we understand it, and instead enter upon the incomprehensible idea of eternity. Yea, it blows the mind but it nonetheless is a truth which is on par with many foundational biblical doctrines, such as the incarnation, the Trinity, and election to name a few. The eternity of God, therefore, is an existence that is not restricted to time in the physical sense, but to timelessness; where past, present, and future have no meaning. If God’s existence were bound by time then he would undergo change. The scriptures teach that God is unchanging. What theologians call the immutable nature of God (Malachi 3:6, James 1:17, Hebrews 13:8).

Today, the timelessness of God is under attack from some who hold a theologically liberal position. And mainly from those who ascribe to what is known as open theism.[1] It is both dangerous to a biblical understanding of the nature of God; to his sovereignty and providential character, as well as in our understanding of His existence in time and eternity.

Pastor and theologian Dr. Derek Thomas says this about the timelessness of God:
“There is no sequence of time with God. There is no yesterday, or today, or tomorrow. There’s no becoming in God. God lives in a realm that is outside time. That has been standard orthodox belief until, as you might guess, recently.” (From his sermon on the Self-existence of God)

Now, I’m not an expert on matters of time. And there are philosophically and theologically more in depth explanations among Christian scholars and theologians of whom I cannot even hold a candle. But I pose the question as important to the Christian who seeks to glorify God in His attributes surrounding His sovereignty, providence, omnipresence and omniscience. I also seek to dispel the current notion among some theologians who espouse the false doctrine of open theism. Which in their view (open theism), does not hold to the eternal nature of God as the bible claims and orthodox Christianity has taught for millenia. This erroneous position easily moves into a fatal error which diminishes the sovereign, providential, omnipresent, and omniscient aspects of God’s character, which I believe are concurrent with sound and clear biblical teaching.

God Inhabits Eternity
If God inhabits eternity does that mean He exists in a future that has not happened yet? And as well can the same be said of Him regarding all past happenings? If the bible purports God to exist outside time that would mean He always exists in the now, for the Lord said of himself “I AM” (Exodus 3:14). Therefore, God must not only know the past or future but he must inhabit or occupy it in order to truly be omnipresent. The biblical teaching that God has all knowledge of the past and future may answer to the doctrine of God’s omniscience (all knowing) but it does not answer to his omnipresence (everywhere present). If God’s omnipresence is restricted by time then there must be a space of time He no longer inhabits in the past, or is yet to inhabit in the future. God may know the end from the beginning but the bigger question is does He inhabit it? And can the claim of Isaiah still stand true that God inhabits eternity if there are moments of time in the past or future that He no longer inhabits nor yet inhabits? If the past and the future are part of what makes up eternity, and God no longer nor does He inhabit those points in time, than how can it be said that God inhabits eternity? To be truly omnipresent, the Lord must occupy every moment of time-past, present, and future in totality and at the same moment if He is to be atemporal or eternal. Some have stated that past, present and future are before Him. Now, it might seem easier to say that all events- past, present and future are before him, but Isaiah is particular in his view of God and time when he states that God inhabits eternity. Time is not only before Him, but the scripture says He dwells in it- all of it. God not only transcends physical time and space, He dwells or exists in eternity, where time and space are no more. If He is in fact not only everlasting but eternal, the claim is far more staggering: God is present in a future that has not occurred yet and present in a past that has already happened.

Again I quote Lewis from his published work Mere Christianity dated 1952:

“Almost certainly God is not in Time. His life does not consist of moments following one another… But God, I believe, does not live in a Time-series at all. His life is not dribbled out moment by moment like ours: with Him it is, so to speak, still 1920 and already 1960. For His life is Himself.”

It seems to me for God not to be actively existing in the future and the past is to fall into the heresy of open theism; a theology where God continues to exist as time unfolds, where He gains knowledge of things as they come into existence through the movement of time. It appears from scripture, however, through the prophet Isaiah, that God inhabits or dwells in eternity. Which is to say there is no place in time- past, present or future where He does not exist. A timeless God is not bound by time but time is bound by God.

Consider what the Christian theologian and philosopher Anselm had to say (1033 – 1109 AD):

“Indeed You exist neither yesterday nor today nor tomorrow but are absolutely outside all time. For yesterday and today and tomorrow are completely in time; however, You, though nothing can be without You, are nevertheless not in place or time but all things are in You. For nothing contains you, but You contain all things.” (Proslogion, Chapter 19).

This may defy all human logic and the laws of physics but God is not physical (John 4:24) and transcends human logic and intelligence. On the contrary, He created all things, even logic and the laws of physics (Colossians 1:16, Hebrews 11:3). He is not under their authority but they are under His.

Physicists believe that time began with the Big Bang when the cosmos exploded into being.[2] The bible, however, states that God created the universe and so precedes time itself. Meaning, before there was a universe, wherein time itself began, God existed.

In the New Testament, Jude makes a reference to God as existing before all time.

Jude verse 25
“to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” ESV

There is no chronology with God as it pertains to his eternality. There is no before or after in a timeless, spaceless reality. Yet God is able to enter physical time, and adhere to as well as supersede it’s properties, once He takes on a physical body as He did in the person of Jesus Christ.

God in Every Place 
The scriptures declare that God inhabits spatially all at once.

“Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.” Psalm 139:7-10 ESV

I propose because God exists simultaneously in every spatial location, as the above scripture indicates, he can inhabit eternity at every point in time simultaneously as well. If not, then we must assume that if God is not omnipresent (everywhere present in time and space) then he must lack omniscience (all knowledge) as well. For that would mean that there is, was or is about to be something wherein God does not have complete knowledge since He does not occupy that particular moment in time and space. God, therefore, could not have knowledge of everything that occurred, is occurring or will occur since He would not dwell at every point in time and space- past, present and future. In other words, if future moments are coming into existence and waiting to be actuallized, then not even God can know fully what is to happen, because he is not there to know what will happen. Alternately, an appeal may be made for God’s omniscience but not for omnipresence. Which means that even though He may not be there(omnipresent) in a future that has not yet arrived He would still know(omniscient) what is going to happen. But a view such as this makes God less than eternal in nature; something I believe the scriptures speak doctrinally against. Unless we can separate time from space we must acknowledge that both are equally not only in the purview of God but inhabited by Him. And though, we as humans, can occupy the same space for long periods of time, we cannot occupy the same time in multiple locations. But God can, as I believe the scriptures declare, occupy all time and all space, making Him eternal and us temporal. Another way to explain it would be that God actively exists in every place (spatially) and at every point in time (eternally).

I quote C.S. Lewis:

“But suppose God is outside and above the Time-line. In that case, what we call “tomorrow” is visible to Him in just the same way as what we call today.” All the days are “Now” for Him. He does not remember you doing things yesterday, He simply sees you doing them: because, though you have lost yesterday, He has not. He does not “foresee” you doing things tomorrow, He simply sees you doing them: because, though tomorrow is not yet there for you, it is for Him. You never supposed that your actions at this moment were any less free because God knows what you are doing. Well, He knows your tomorrow’s actions in just the same way–because He is already in tomorrow and can simply watch you. In a sense, He does not know your action till you have done it: but then the moment at which you have done it is already “Now” for Him.” 

This prompts the next question: Can God occupy all of eternity at once without respect to the boundaries of time and space? It appears so. For how could the psalmist claim that God knows our thoughts before we think them if in fact God does not transcend time?

“…you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.” Psalm 139:2b-4 ESV

God must exist in future moments before we think our thoughts in order for this declaration in the psalm to be true. If God does not exist in the future or if He is not timeless, then we must resign ourselves to the ridiculous notion that God is a real good guesser when it comes to knowing our thoughts before we think them and they leave our lips. Now consider that God knows the thoughts of every person that has ever lived on the planet. Yea, my head hurts too! And if He is there in the future to know our thoughts before we think them, we can conclude that He can exist, actually, at every point in the eternal future. Some may argue that this is resolved by the omniscient (all-knowing) nature of God alone. Which may be true. But it does not resolve the nature of God’s omnipresence, which is under discussion. And if He has perfect knowledge of all things, He too must be perfectly omnipresent as well, or eternal in nature. At best, how God knows what we are thinking before we think it is incomprehensible for us to understand. So too, the idea that God is everywhere and at every time present. The idea of timeless existence is beyond the scope of human comprehension since we live and exist as beings bound to space-time relationships. But it is not as if God has not given us some capacity to believe His timeless or eternal nature to be true. There are many examples of things which are impossible for us to understand but are nonetheless declared in scripture as truth. Declarations made by God through inspired writers which understand God to be far above the thoughts or wisdom of mere men.

Isaiah 55:8-9 ESV
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

and Romans 11:33 ESV  “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways.”

For instance, how can God retain his entire attributes as deity and at the same time become human without adding or taking anything away from his deity. Is this not in fact the Incarnation?(Matthew 1:20) How can three persons be the one God ? And yet this is the core of Trinitarian doctrine (Matthew 28:19). How can God make all things out of nothing?( Hebrews 11:3) Is this not the doctrine of creation ex nihilo (Genesis 1:1) How can God manipulate the properties of fire by not allowing it to burn up a bush as witnessed by Moses? (Exodus 3:2) Or preserve human flesh in an oven as He did Daniel’ s friends? (Daniel 3:25) Does not God have sovereignty over all creation as the scriptures say?(Psalm 103:19) He upholds all things (Colossians 1:17). Even humans exist and move and have their being in Him (Acts 17:28). Can we even adequately explain our own existence? Have you ever thought, why ME? Why do I exist? What is this I that everyone knows as Steve? Outside the grace of God as the reason for my existence or essence as a living soul, it is all together impossible to provide a reasonable explanation for my existence. How much more the impossibility to comprehend the being of God.

The Vanishing Point
But to remain on topic I will end with a very brief look into the meaning of the word ‘eternity’ as used in Isaiah 57:15a. The Hebrew word is Olam (Strong’s #5769) which comes from alam (Strong’s #5966), where alam means to conceal or hide to the vanishing point. The word olam itself has a variety of meanings all relating to eternity, everlasting, perpetuity, etc. In fact, one of the many Old Testament names for God is El Olam, meaning the Everlasting God.

If we go to the root meaning of the Hebrew word alam, where once more the word means to conceal or hide to the vanishing point, we are given as is common in Hebrew words an interesting and mysterious picture. For something to be at the vanishing point is to say that it is beyond our line of sight. It is beyond our field of vision. We can look out across the ocean and see the horizon, but we have reached the vanishing point. Anything beyond the horizon or the vanishing point is hidden to us. We know there is something beyond the horizon but we are unable to see it. This Hebrew word picture helps us to understand something of the eternity of God using physical creation as an example. With this illustration in mind, I suggest that what the word eternity means as the prophet Isaiah is using it is this. We as humans live inside the horizon of time. But beyond the horizon of time, is the vanishing point or eternity. When God speaks of himself as dwelling in eternity, he is declaring himself to be beyond the boundaries of time. Eternity or God’s dwelling is beyond the time’s horizon. Therefore, the word olam, with its meaning as the vanishing point is a vivd description of God being timeless or outside the view of time. If eternity, according to Isaiah, means that God dwells at the vanishing point, that means His existence transcends, or is beyond what can be realized in a time-space continuum. God exists outside time, as we know it, and exists beyond the horizon or the limits of time and on into the vanishing point, or in eternity.

A study on the eternity of God may seem to some as either unimportant and/or a lesson which is theologically overkill. But what is at stake in defining the eternity of God affects at least four things in regards to God’s nature. His sovereignty, his omniscience, his providence and his omnipresence. To reduce or obscure these divine qualities in any measure is to strip away attributes that are the perfections of his being and nature as declared by holy scripture. For God to be truly sovereign (in control) over all things, he must therefore not only create and command time but he must transcend it and dwell in it- past, present, and future. If he is to be truly omniscient (all-knowing), he must know all things- past, present, and future. And if he is to be providential (decreeing the course of all events), he must exist as the eternal Creator in all such events in an ever present NOW. If he is to be the self-named “I AM that I AM” he must be self-existent and eternal. This is what Isaiah declares of God’s timelessness and the bible discloses about the being of God, who exists not only in time but outside time, beyond the horizon of time and into the vanishing point.

“to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” Jude 1:25 ESV

You may also like the teaching audio: The Rhythm of Life

copyright © Steve Covarrubias October 2015

1- From Monergism.com. “open theism is a sub-Christian theological construct which claims that God’s highest goal is to enter into a reciprocal relationship with man. In this scheme, the Bible is interpreted without any anthropomorphisms – that is, all references to God’s feelings, surprise and lack of knowledge are literal and the result of His choice to create a world where He can be affected by man’s choices. God’s exhaustive knowledge does not include future free will choices by mankind because they have not yet occurred.” So what does all this mean? It means God does not have exhaustive knowledge of the future. God learns. God makes mistakes, to name a few. For more info see: open theism

2-“Astronomers combine mathematical models with observations to develop workable theories of how the Universe came to be. The mathematical underpinnings of the Big Bang theory include Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity along with standard theories of fundamental particles. Today NASA spacecraft such as the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope continue measuring the expansion of the Universe.” Taken From: NASA Science Astrophysics  August 2015. Because the universe is expanding astronomers conclude that there must have been an infinitesimal point (singularity) at which an explosion occurred and everything that is in creation came into being. Thus, the name- The Big Bang.