How does a transcendent God relate to time?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

(Click here to read Monday Musings ... the place where I discuss the thinking that went into this article.)

Question: Is God simultaneously present in every moment of time? That is, is He currently present in the past, present, and future?

Answer:  Greetings friend. Thank you for touching down with us at Mainsail Ministries — and thank you for asking this interesting question about God and time. The answer to your question is yes. God lives in the “eternal now.” But God’s relationship to time is a lot more complex than that simple colloquial phrase can express. So, to answer this question, I’ll need to touch on some philosophical issues and introduce some specialized vocabulary.

The Bible gives us a lot of information about God, but it doesn’t give us a lot of information about how God relates to time. So, when discussing this, we are going to be in the realm of Natural Theology more so than in Biblical Theology. That is, we will be talking in philosophical terms because there is not enough biblical information to formulate a doctrine about how God relates to time. That being said, we do have a great passage to start us off:

“God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I am has sent me to you. ” (Exodus 3:14, NIV)

God defines himself as a being who exists… period… and when you are looking at a being that “merely” exists — that is, one who “essentially” exists… or that “noncontingently” exists — you wind up with the being like the one in your question… a being who always was, continually is — and just won’t go away!

Therefore, a good description of God is a “Self-Existent One” — and when you chase this concept out to its logical end, you will find that he is the only Self-Existent One (Deuteronomy 32:39). We have a special term to describe this noncontingent existence (self-existence): such a person possesses aseity — and this quality is the basis of how God relates to everything. But today we will focus on how God’s aseity lets him deal with time differently than we contingent beings.

The God you described in your question — the one who is who exists in all time at the same time — is said to be “omnitemporal.” Now, it’s an open question as to whether time itself has always existed... and that God eternally coexists with it... or if God created time when he created the physical creation. I subscribe to the latter... and this is critical to my next point: God is also transcendent over creation.

Any being who creates is transcendent over his or her creation. For example, a potter is transcendent over the pot. Now, it is often true that you will see the characteristics of the potter in the pot — and the potter may use the pot — that is, he or she can interface with it in its world. But the potter is always greater than and outside of the pot ontologically. That is, those are his conditions intrinsically as opposed to merely functionally.

So, if God created time as part of creation — and this is my stand — then — and no matter what else he does with time — he must also transcend it. So, how can a being that transcends time also be omnitemporal?

Before I answer this, please note that it is difficult to use time-based language like “before” or “after” when talking about events that occurred when time did not exist. However, even outside of time, things may proceed one after another logically… and that’s the kind of “before” and “after “we are talking about here.

So, from our perspective, there was a “time” when the universe did not exist… and whether or not God was omnitemporal or omnipresent before the universe existed is splitting hairs (… although I think he was those things). The point is that he was not functionally omnitemporal “before” he created time. Back then, God was just basking in his aseity… being transcendent over every possible iteration of every possible creation.

But when he created time and space — being omnipresent — he had to exist fully in this new physical universe. But one of the things Einstein taught us was that, although we often deal with time and space as if they were discrete entities — they are not essentially separate. In fact, scientists describe the universe’s physicality as space-time.

So — and this may be splitting hairs again — the fact that God is omnipresent — that is, he exists in all places at the same time — means that he must also be omnitemporal to pull that off… and I sometimes classify his omnitemporality under his omnipresence for that reason. But he never loses his transcendence under his omnipresence. One of the places God must always be is outside of time.

I pray that all this helped you more than it confused you. God bless you.

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20200120 What is God’s relationship to time?).

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