We have, thus far, covered divine incomprehensibility, divine simplicity, divine infinity, and we now close with God’s eternity. Eternity is that doctrine of God, closely related to His infinity, which states that God is without time. In other words, God is timeless. We could say that God is forever. More precisely, we could say that God is without chronological limitation. He is not bound by time like creatures are.
The Interrelatedness of the Divine Attributes
As mentioned above, incomprehensibility, simplicity, infinity, and eternality are interrelated such that simplicity gives way to infinity, which gives way to eternality, etc. Eternality obtains in God necessarily in light of the fact that God is infinite. Remember back to our last installment in this series when we discussed the nature of infinity and how it means God is without limitation. Time would certainly be a limitation if God were subjected to it, but since God is infinite He therefore must be eternal.
Likewise, when we speak of God’s infinity, we know that God must be simple or not composed. Why is this the case? Because if God were composed of parts He would then be dependent upon those parts to be who He is. But this cannot be so if God is without limitations. Dependency is a form of limitation. A thing that is dependent is limited to those parts upon which that thing depends. It must have those things to be what it is. It is not necessary, but contingent upon parts more basic than itself to be what it is.
Eternity & Time
Like all of God’s incommunicable attributes (i.e. what we have covered thus far), eternity is difficult to understand, especially as it relates to time. We usually think of existing things as those which exist within the context of time, or at least some idea of time. Anytime we think of a thing, it often is thought of along with the baggage we bring to the table. Our experience is of that which suffers time. We have a hard time of conceiving of anything existing outside of time.
This has led some to reject the notion of timelessness altogether. It is thought that if anything exists, it must exist within time. But consider the attributes of the created order: time, space, and matter. If there is matter, there is space, and if there is space––there must be time. Motion from point (a) to point (b) assumes time; namely, the duration of an object’s movement from (a) to (b). Even if nothing moved, there would be distance, and it is therefore implied that if one were to transverse a static object, there would be a duration associated with that motion if it were to occur. So, there’s no reason to think time is dependent upon the manifestation of motion in order to exist.
In our particular universe, things wear down over time (cf. principle of entropy). This makes time apparent because everything undergoes one type of change or another. Either things move location, or they move in terms of degradation over time. Metal rusting is a type of motion just like a ripening banana is a type of motion.
Being non-spatial, God is non-material and therefore does not experience time. It is impossible for a non-spatial entity to move through space. There is no duration in God because God is not made up of that which is dependent or even coextensive with time. So, at creation, time came into being with space and matter. Moreover, if God is pure act then there is no passive potency in Him. He does not of the potential to exist at (a) and then successively exist at (b). That would mean God experiences moments. But if God is simple––Him being pure act––He does not move through moments of time as a contingent objects might.
God & Creation
What about creation? Christians, and even most secular thinkers, would say the universe came into being at some point. But, if we take the classical view––that time came into being at creation––then how did creation come to be? What “point” are we referencing at the time creation began? Doesn’t a beginning of creation entail a before creation? And wouldn’t a “before” refer to another point of time wherein something did not exist (i.e. creation)?
This seems to us impossible to understand. However, there is no logical reason we cannot say “time began.” A beginning of something does not necessarily entail its emergence out of a prior state in which time necessarily holds. Rather, a beginning of something entails that that thing was brought forth into existence by a prior cause. But how are we to understand this “prior” cause?
God exists ontologically prior to creation. Irrespective of time, God exists transcendentally of creation which is characterized by time, space, and matter. So, when we say, “God existed before creation came about,” we must not understand this in terms of a chronological prior existence, but a logical and ontological existence which accounts for the bringing forth of all contingent things (creation). The expression “before creation” does not have reference to anything prior to itself but rather to itself as it began to exist. The only context of the beginning of creation is God, who is eternal. There is no logically necessary reason to posit time prior to creation in order to say creation began. Thus, though hard to imagine, creation began relatively in front the backdrop of the immutable, timeless, objective reality of the Christian God who actualized creation.
How did God do something before time existed? Does not an action of God entail demarcation of time? This would indeed fit with our most common experiences. A thing usually has to move in order to cause something else to happen, and motion entails duration. More than this, wouldn’t God have to change from being not-Creator to Creator?
The first problem, the problem of beginning, is not an easy topic of discussion. It pushes the human mind to its absolute limit. Creation came into existence by the will of God and we often say there was a point at which creation was brought forth, but this is improper language. There was no point prior to creation because a point in chronology would indicate time prior to the creation of time. But this is impossible since time cannot both be and not be at the same time and in the same relationship. Our language begins to break down at this point and so the safest way to think of the issue is to understand the direction of our predication.
When we say, “Creation began,” the beginning is in relation to the created order, not any “point” chronologically prior to material existence. While mind-bending, there is nothing logically incompatible with these two truths: (1) creation began; and (2) there was no time behind the beginnings of creation.
It may also help to think less in terms of a linear plane and more in terms of two axes. The horizontal axis would be titled “space” and the vertical axis would be titled “time.” These two axes, or dimensions if you please, came into existence as a unit, brought forth by the eternal triune God of the universe.
As we think of God’s eternity, and as our intellect runs thin as it travels through the fathomless abyss of the Lord of glory, we are forced to stand in awe of our Creator. As we close this series, let’s not forget about where we started. God is incomprehensible to us and at some point, we must be satisfied with worshiping the God who is.