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.