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. God's timelessness sans Creation

God’s Timelessness sans Creation

Question:

Dr. Craig,

I am a longtime admirer of your work. Although I am no longer a Christian, your work as a philosopher and theologian has played a significant role in the formation of my own views and I am fully persuaded of theism, although I still have lots of questions about it. I think your analysis of God's relationship to time is plausible, but I always get stuck on the idea that God is timeless apart from creation, but temporal since creation.

Let me preface by explaining where I'm coming from. I am thoroughly convinced that an actually infinite past series of events is impossible, and this would include any mental events that occurred even if there were no physical world. Time cannot be without a beginning (at least that is my understanding but feel free to correct me). Since I believe in the objective reality of temporal becoming, I reject the B theory of time and accept the A theory. Furthermore, I am in full agreement with the first premise of the kalam argument, that everything that begins to exist must have a cause, and so I don't even hold atheism open as an option. On all of this, I agree with you.

Logically, then, I understand how we wind up with this idea of God's timelessness apart from creation, and temporality since creation. If I had to take a position in the matter, I would take this one, because it seems the least absurd to me of all other options. But at the end of the day, it does still strike me as absurd, and that troubles me. So here's where I get stuck with it:

On your view of God's relationship to time (or at least, my understanding of your view), it is true now that God is temporal; he is not timeless. It is also true that God will never exist timelessly again (assuming that God intends for humans to live forever). However, it is also true that God did not "used to" exist timelessly. The question of when God existed in a timeless state is meaningless. But then, how can God have a timeless "phase" in his life? How are these phases related to each other if not temporally? Even to say, as I said a moment ago, that God will never exist timelessly "again" seems problematic.

Suppose that God decides to revoke creation, so to speak, and destroys everything so that he is the only thing left in existence, and since he never wills to create anything else, he enters into a changeless state. I can't see any logical impossibility with this scenario. But then it seems that we would have a finite temporal phase sandwiched somehow between two different timeless phases. How can this be? Doesn't this negate the idea of God's existing timelessly altogether?

As a final question, I notice that in Time and Eternity the only examples you mention of things that could exist timelessly, besides God, are abstract objects. But suppose I don't believe that abstract objects even exist. Are there other examples of timeless beings? Or would it just be God? And if it's impossible to offer an intelligible picture of divine timelessness, does that render the concept useless?

I'm not personally being drawn to atheism; I am just trying to keep my head from exploding. Please help.

Sincerely,

Dan
United States

Dr. Craig responds:

Although I’m saddened by your loss of Christian faith--which I hope will prove to be merely temporary, as it has been for many others--, I’m grateful for your provocative question, Dan. Believe it or not, your question was addressed by al-Ghazali in his brilliant, classic work The Incoherence of the Philosophers. I have discussed Ghazali’s response in an unpublished article “The Coherence of the Incoherence: Al-Ghazali on God, Time, and Creation,” which I wrote several years ago for a projected volume of essays to be edited by Paul Helm that unfortunately never came to fruition. I’ll share here some of the contents of that article.

Ghazali holds that time begins at the moment of creation, so that God sans the universe exists timelessly. He then imagines what it would be like if God annihilated the universe so that reality consists of a timeless state of God existing sans creation.1 The question arises as to how these timeless states are differentiated from each other. Intuitively, we want to say that the one state is before the world exists and the other one afterwards; but that cannot be literally true. As you note, “The question of when God existed in a timeless state is meaningless. But then, how can God have a timeless ‘phase’ in his life? How are these phases related to each other if not temporally?

Ghazali’s answer is brilliant and anticipates modern mathematical physics. He makes it clear that the two states of God existing without the world are not to be distinguished from each other in that one is past and the other future. They are simply timeless states, which, as he says, include only the existence of one being (God) and the non-existence of the other (the world). These states can be coherently described as God existing alone without the world. The one is no more before the world and the other after the world than there is something spatially above the world or below the world. So how are we to understand locutions like “God existed before the world”? Ghazali answers,

… when we are asked whether the world has a ‘before,’ we may answer: If that means whether the existence of the world has a beginning—i.e., one of its own limits at which it began—it has a ‘before’. . . . But if you mean by the ‘before’ something else, then the world has no ‘before’. . . . Its ‘before’ is the beginning of its existence whereby it is limited (in that direction). It has nothing external to it which could be called its ‘before’.2

We can formulate a parallel explication with respect to locutions like “God will exist after the world”:

When we are asked whether the world has an ‘after,’ we may answer: If that means whether the existence of the world has an end—i.e., one of its own limits at which it will end—it has an ‘after.’ But if you mean by the ‘after’ something else, then the world has no ‘after’. Its ‘after’ is the end of its existence whereby it is limited (in that direction). It has nothing external to it which could be called its ‘after’.

Here Ghazali, like contemporary mathematical physicists, formulates his understanding of the beginning (and end) of time in terms of the world’s internal topological properties, rather than illicitly postulating some external relation to states before or after the world. This procedure suggests that Ghazali could distinguish the two states of God’s existing without the world in terms of their connection with the present: the one is reached by regressing in the past to its limit at the beginning of time, while the other is reached by progressing into the future to its limit at the end of time. Since these two states are thus discernible it follows from the Principle of the Indiscernibility of Identicals that they are distinct, if intrinsically similar, states.

You protest, “But then it seems that we would have a finite temporal phase sandwiched somehow between two different timeless phases. How can this be? Doesn't this negate the idea of God's existing timelessly altogether?” Ghazali would rightly deny your inference. As he points out, there is no external dimension in which God and the world are embedded. So there is no sandwiching, temporally speaking. You just reach the different timeless phases by following the internal arrow of time in opposite directions.

As to your last question, I can’t think of any other kind of object which philosophers have taken to exist timelessly apart from God and various abstract objects. No material, concrete object can exist timelessly, since there will always be at least atomic motion going on. So a timelessly existing concrete object other than God would have to be something like an angelic being, but these are not normally taken to exist timelessly.

But, hey, why be so begrudging of abstract objects? This is just a broad ontological category which includes all sorts of different things: numbers, sets, functions, other mathematical objects, propositions, properties, possible worlds, and so on. Those are examples enough of things often taken to exist timelessly. The point of appealing to such examples, of course, is not to claim that such abstracta really exist, but merely to show the coherence of the idea of timelessly existing entities. That suffices to silence the critic who is so bold as to assert that timeless existence is impossible.

Notes

[1] Note that my view differs from Ghazali’s in that he thinks that in creating the universe God does not cease to be timeless, so that God on his view would not resume a state of timelessness. Rather God exists uninterruptedly timelessly, and the temporal world just ceases to exist. On my view, having become temporal at the moment of creation, God can never revert to timelessness, since even if God annihilated the world and reverted to state of changelessness, God would still have memories of the past and it would be forever true that God used to be temporal.

[2] Al-Ghazali, Tahafut al-Falasifah, trans. S. A. Kamali (Lahore: Pakistan Philosophical Congress, 1963), pp. 40-41.