Everlasting God

Do you not know?  Have you not heard?  The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.  Isaiah 40: 28.

Philosophers and theologians have long-debated the question of whether God is everlasting or whether he is eternal.  Put differently, does God exist within time or is God’s existence timeless?  The proponents of each position insist that a proper understanding of the fundamental nature of God is at stake.  Each side can produce scriptural authority and a reasonable philosophical foundation to support its position.  Each side can reasonably argue that its position preserves the true nature of God, while the other does not.  I will argue that the most satisfactory position is that God is everlasting, rather than eternal.    In so doing, I freely acknowledge that the answer to this question cannot be determined with absolute confidence.  Like so many of the questions attendant to a discussion of the nature of God, this one should be approached with humility.  I will attempt to do so.

Initially, we should frame the discussion.  To say that God is “everlasting,” is to say that God has always existed and always will exist.  As Creation unfolds in time, God is present in time with it.  God is not outside, above or beyond time.  He exists as part of time, and proceeds through time with his Creation.  To say that God is “eternal,” on the other hand, is to say that God is timeless.  In this view, God transcends time and exists completely independently of it.  Proponents of this position typically say that time is meaningless to God, and that he exists in a perpetual present, simultaneously occupying what we perceive as past, present and future.

The ramifications of the respective positions show that the question is not a mere theoretical puzzle.  The answer to the question has profound implications to the very nature of God.  Proponents of God’s eternality will argue, for example, that if God exists within time then he is finite, not immutable, not omniscient, and is therefore denied fundamental characteristics of his divinity.  Proponents of an everlasting God, on the other hand, argue that if God exists outside of time, and experiences all of time simultaneously, then humans have no true free will, prayer is meaningless, and the problem of evil cannot be solved satisfactorily.  That the answer to this question has important repercussions is seemingly undeniable.

Recognizing the gravity of the question, I submit that the most satisfactory answer to it is that God is everlasting, rather than eternal.  I submit that the position that God is everlasting is biblically sound, that it best reflects the character of God as revealed in Scripture, and that it best preserves the essential fundamental characteristic of God, which is love.  I will acknowledge that there are reasonable objections to my position, and that those who advocate God’s eternality have reasonable evidence upon which to rely.  But I will contend that the notion of God’s eternality derives more from Hellenistic philosophy than from God’s revelation and his revealed character.

The Bible is filled with stories of God interacting with humans within time.  It teaches that God experiences grief, regret and surprise, and that he sometimes changes his mind.  The Bible teaches that God will change an intended course of conduct, for example, depending upon how humans behave or exercise their free will.  The Bible is filled with examples of the efficacy of petitionary prayer, and Jesus himself taught his followers to pray that God’s will be done on earth—seeming to reveal both that God’s will is not always done on earth, and that prayer can affect whether his will is done on earth, or not.   As Nicholas Wolterstorff argues, a Redeemer God is necessarily a God who changes.  

Of course, those who prefer the eternality of God respond that most of these passages are mere anthropomorphisms.  Further, they can muster their own scriptural support for the proposition that God is immutable. 

But it seems to me that to dismiss all this scripture as anthropomorphic, particularly when there is no apparent reason why God would reveal these matters anthropomorphically, does too much violence to the text.  I submit that the Hebrew conception of God—as a Creator who travels with his creation through time, instructing and loving us as he does, properly reflects the character of God as revealed in Scripture and history.  The idea that God instantly actualized all of eternity, and is now somehow waiting for us at the finish line as we slug through it temporally, simply does not seem to square with God’s historical and continuing interaction with humanity.

This subject’s implications to free will are obvious.  If all of what we perceive as the future is already actualized in the mind of God, and fully known to him, then the future is as fixed and as immutable as the eternalists believe God to be.  We cannot alter the course of future events, without altering the mind and knowledge of God.  Because it is obvious that we have no ability to negate that which God knows, then our futures are determined.  Thus, if God is eternal rather than everlasting, then determinism prevails over libertarianism.  If libertarianism fails, then love fails, because love cannot exist without free will.  If determinism prevails, then love loses.  Only if determinism is false does love win.  Thus, I conclude that God must exist inside time, in order to best preserve free will and love. 

The eternalists will respond that a God who is bound by time is finite and not fully omniscient.  But I would respectfully respond that this objection proceeds from a misunderstanding of omniscience.  An everlasting God who exists within time is fully omniscient.  The fact that such a God has not already experienced the future, or that he may not fully “know” every future event before it occurs, does not compromise his omniscience at all.  Just as God’s omnipotence is defined as his ability to do all things that may logically be done, God’s omniscience should be understood as his ability to know all things that can be logically known.  God can no more know the unrealized future in a world full of free agents, than he can make a square circle or a married bachelor.  Of course, because God is omnipotent, he has the power to compel anything he chooses.  The proponents of an everlasting God do not therefore sacrifice predictive/decretal prophecy.  God has declared, for example, that Jesus will return to earth.  That event will absolutely occur, because God has decreed that he will cause it to occur.  It is very unlikely, on the other hand, that God has decreed the precise words I will type in the next paragraph of this post.  Those words will be the result of my free will, uncompelled by God, and therefore, as discomforting as it may be to say, unknown to him as of this moment. 

God’s divinity is not compromised by any limitation he imposed on himself with regard to time, any more than it is by the freedom that he has allowed humans.  God allows humans free will, because free will is essential to true love.  And it is through love that God and humans ultimately relate.  Because I believe true libertarian free will to be essential to love, I conclude that God must be everlasting, rather than eternal.

God’s existence inside time not only best preserves free will and love, but it also best accounts for the problem of evil.  The problem of evil cannot be sufficiently unpacked here, but suffice it to say that I conclude that it can only be satisfactorily explained by divine allowance of free will.  Because I conclude that if God exists outside of time then free will is compromised, I also conclude that the existence of God outside of time makes the problem of evil more problematic, if not inexplicable.

Finally, it seems to me that the efficacy of prayer requires that God exist and act inside of time.  If the future is fully unfolded before an eternal God, then it would seem impossible that humans could influence events by prayer.  As argued above, a fully actualized future, already “known” to God, is fixed and unchangeable.  Such a situation would seem to make petitionary prayer pointless.  Yet the experiences of believers for thousands of years reveal the efficacy of prayer.  This too, I suggest, favors the conclusion that God is everlasting, rather than eternal.

Thus, while no absolutely unchallengeable answer exists to this question, it seems to me that the conclusion that God is everlasting, rather than eternal, is the most satisfactory.

Love Wins

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4 comments on “Everlasting God

  1. jubilare says:

    Forgive me for the length of this reply?
    You present your thoughts well, but I don’t find my own position represented. I agree that we can’t be certain, and I intend to be respectful of your beliefs, but I would like to explain mine a little. I feel that you miss the nuance that can and often does exist for those who believe that time, or at least our timeline, is something to which God is not subject.
    .
    “Proponents of an everlasting God… argue that if God exists outside of time, and experiences all of time simultaneously, then humans have no true free will, prayer is meaningless, and the problem of evil cannot be solved satisfactorily.”
    .
    I believe in a God outside of my time, true free will, answered prayers, and I find little difficulty with the problem of evil. I’m not a theologian, but I am a thinker and a puzzler. Sometimes, too much so, because I have broken myself against the boundaries of my own abilities and suffered the consequences. That is to say, I have given this a lot of thought rather than parroting back anything I have been taught.
    .

    “Because it is obvious that we have no ability to negate that which God knows, then our futures are determined.”
    .
    This is not so obvious to me. I’ve come to the conclusion that unless I had foreknowledge of God’s knowledge, the question of negating His knowledge is nonsense. It makes no difference to my choices because my choices are made, by me, within my time. The knowledge of those choices by someone out of time makes them (in my opinion) no less freely made by me. I realize this is a stop for many people, but I think it is unfair to conclude that the concept of true free will and an eternal God are “obviously” incompatible. You may argue that my view of free will is not the same as yours, but my answer to that is your view of determinism is not the same as mine. Somewhere between there is a disconnect, and perhaps somewhere between lies the truth?
    .
    On to anthropomorphism. I do not think the mentions of God in the Old Testament are cases of us anthropomorphizing God. I think God is not restricted from the timeline simply by not being contained within it. Even with my belief in His existence beyond time-as-we-know-it (to be differentiated from time-of-any-kind, on which I have no opinion), I do not believe that He is a creator-observer taking the whole timeline into account at once and waiting for us to reach the end of it. I know a few people who believe that, but I am not one of them. I believe in a more nuanced relationship between God and time and God and us. The concept that any moment in our timeline can be Now to Him is, in my mind, not incompatible with His presence with us along the timeline. This has a lot to do with how I write stories, but more on that anon. As I see no conflict between true freewill and a God outside of our time, I struggle less with the problem of evil than you would under the “eternal God” creed you describe.
    .
    “God can no more know the unrealized future in a world full of free agents, than he can make a square circle or a married bachelor.” I disagree with this statement. I know my brother well enough that I can predict most of his actions. It is reasonable to conjecture that a God who knows us as deeply as scripture suggests, could be flawless in predicting not only physical happenings, but human choices, adjusting for each choice and circumstance ad infinitum. I am not saying it is so. Frankly, the thought freaks me out because, to me, it is a contradiction of freewill in a way that a God outside of our time is not. I mention it merely to show a counter-argument to what I feel is a false assumption.
    .
    “God’s divinity is not compromised by any limitation he imposed on himself with regard to time, any more than it is by the freedom that he has allowed humans.” I agree with this completely. If it is true that God is within our time, then that will not shake my faith. It is just that more things make sense to me if He is beyond our time, and I like it when things make sense to me. I have (reluctantly) learned to accept my limitations, though, and I am well aware that I cannot, in this life and maybe ever, come close to understanding everything.
    .
    And on to prayer. The assumption that God outside of our time means a fixed and immutable timeline is, I think, too great an assumption. This discussion is in difficult territory when it comes to words, but this is especially troublesome. I do not think that God beyond time means that God is outside of some kind of bubble that he formed. I can only get close to what I mean by a very imperfect comparison:
    .
    I write stories. From the very start, I found that my characters have, or seem to have, wills of their own. Herding them makes for bad stories, while letting them loose on the page works wonders. While I am writing a scene, I may have some idea of what will happen, but the characters dictate it and I am often surprised. In that moment of writing, I am keeping pace with their timeline, experiencing each moment as they do. Even so, I am quite beyond their timeline. I can jump forward and back, see the arc (that they have created for themselves) and change details where something is amiss (plot holes, sloppy prose…) This psychological phenomenon is common to many writers, though I also have a writer friend who, like you, is disturbed (she is actually horrified, but she considers any interference of a higher power to be horrific) by the supposedly fixed nature of the timelines I work with. She writes from a moment, and when past, nothing in that moment can change.
    .
    I do not claim that God’s relationship to us is akin to mine and my fictional creations. There are many reasons why the comparison is doomed. All I do claim is that there may be ground to stand on between the two sides you represent in this post. If not, I am standing on sand, and I pray that God will one day open my eyes. Be that as it may, I find no real conflict between a God that is beyond our time, true free will, true love, and God being present with us, within time. It may simply be the difference in our minds and the ways we perceive. That is one question among the countless I can’t answer.
    .
    Again, sorry for the length, but I hope I am at least a little comprehensible.

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  2. jubilare says:

    p.s: After thinking for a bit, I was struck by an implication in this statement that I missed: “God’s divinity is not compromised by any limitation he imposed on himself with regard to time, any more than it is by the freedom that he has allowed humans.”

    If you believe that God has intentionally restricted Himself to our time in order to give us true free will, then you also believe He is not necessarily bound by time. That is very different, in my opinion, to believing that He is naturally subject to time as we know it. Suddenly our positions draw much closer together. Instead of a complete difference, it becomes a matter of degrees. The question seems to become “How completely has God bound Himself to time as we know it?”

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    • Bill says:

      Thanks for the excellent and thoughtful comments. You are correct that this view is premised on the idea of some divine self-limitation in order to permit human free will. This self-limitation includes the notion that God has chosen voluntarily to act and exist within time (as Jesus did). There are theologians who believe that God is ontologically within time, but they often also suggest a radical rethinking of the nature of omnipotence, beyond that to which most Open Theists could agree.

      I’d like to say more about your comments, but it’s late so that will have to wait till another day. thanks again

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  3. […] Everlasting God.  Once we tired of debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, we took up things like […]

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