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The Intractable Problem of Time

The problem of time is a serious conundrum for Christian and other Abrahamic religions: God, since he must have always existed, evidently waited a very long time before creating the world. In fact, he waited for an eternity. How can this be? How can it be that the author of the universe and everything in it spent an eternity before creating the cosmos? This question is relevant both to theism and to Deism; it is central to the question of any deity whatever.

Before attempting to explore this question, we should acknowledge that our conception of time is not a very reliable guide; our intuition regarding time may well lead us astray. For example, in view of Special Relativity the following questions make no sense: “What is happening right now at the event horizon of the super massive black hole at the center of the the Milky Way?” Or “What is happening right now at the singularity?” Or “What happened at the instant of the Big Bang?” The dimension of time is affected by changes in the gravitational field; we know this from purely empirical sources, such as satellite measurements. Time is a dimension that separates events, just as the three spatial dimensions that we are aware of also separate events. You might think that time is infinitely divisible. That is, you might think that between every two instants of time, there exists an infinity of instants, just as there are an infinite number of points between any two distinct points on a line in geometry. But this is not true, at least not in the view of modern physics. Planck Time is the shortest possible unit of time. Smaller values than Planck time (which is ~ 10 ^ -43 seconds) have no meaning in modern physics.[1] I bring this up to emphasize that our intuitive understanding of time must be viewed with a dose of skepticism.

This is the dilemma for the theist: Does God exist in time, or does he not? There doesn’t seem to be any purely rational way to decide between the two views. In the following discussion, we will examine both views, namely that God is either temporal or extratemporal. That is, time is a dimension by which God is measured, or God’s existence is outside of time. We denote these two views as TGod and EGod.

TGod is very well supported by the Biblical narrative. He created the world in six days, and throughout the Bible he reacts to events as they unfold. He drives Adam and Eve out of Eden only after they eat the forbidden fruit. He destroys the world with the flood after mankind turns out to be sinful. He turns Lot’s wife into a salt pillar only after she looks back. The Bible literalist has little choice but to believe in the TGod hypothesis. But how can TGod be true? It doesn’t make sense to suppose that God did absolutely nothing for an infinite period of time before creation.

One alternative is to suppose that he created an infinity of universes prior to ours, and that he will create an infinity of universes in the future. (Why should he stop now?) In this view, there will be an infinity of universes very similar to ours in which Jesus was crucified, and perhaps an infinite number in which he didn’t come to earth as our savior. In how many universes did Eve resist the temptation to eat the forbidden fruit? Are there now an infinity of people in Heaven, and in Hell? The very notion of an infinite past inevitably entails some very strange conclusions.

Another alternative is to suppose that time is somehow cyclical. God creates the very same universe again and again, and each instance is a replica of the last. Somehow this is unsatisfying. It implies that we experience the same moments of bliss or torment an infinite number of times, once for each cycle. This alternative, while it resolves the paradox, is quite alien to the theology of the Abrahamic religions. (Some versions of Hinduism adopt the cyclical model, but each cycle is different from the last. Since the purpose of this essay is an examination of the God of Abraham, we will not consider Hinduism.) However, we must keep in mind the nonintuitive nature of space-time; perhaps there is a view that accommodates the TGod hypothesis. I’m waiting for some apologist to explain it, but until then the TGod hypothesis stands as logically absurd. I suspect that very few theologians would support the TGod hypothesis.

The alternative is EGod. We avoid the impossible vision of imagining what God might have occupied himself with for an infinity of time, but there are new problems. First, as argued by Baake,[2] how can God do anything at all? If time measures God, how can he make a decision to create anything? Cause and effect imply that a cause and its effect are separated by an interval of time, because the cause must precede its effect. Timeless implies stasis, that is, nothing can happen. Without the dimension of time, there is no way to separate events; everything happens at once. Recall that our understanding of the nature of time is imperfect, and possibly distorted, but Baake’s argument is a serious one. It cannot be dismissed with a platitude about God being beyond human understanding. The EGod view was introduced to avoid the difficulties of the TGod view, and if it introduces new difficulties then it simply fails.

Let’s suppose that a timeless God could somehow create the universe anyway, in spite of Baake’s argument. I suspect that a talented Christian apologist (William Lane Craig comes to mind) could construct an argument to counter that of Baake. Since God exists outside of time, he sees every single point in our space-time at once. Indeed, the Catholic Church affirms that to God all moments of time are present in their immediacy. This is the sense of Catholic theology.[3] Even if you reject Roman Catholicism, this conclusion seems to be inescapable, given the divine attribute of omniscience. When coupled with omnipresence, we can logically extend this immediacy to every point in space-time. That is, from the instant of creation, he witnesses everything in our universe—every point that could be specified by the coordinates x, y, z, and t, for all permissible values of these variables. This instantaneous act of creation necessarily creates at a single stroke not only the initial condition, but everything that will exist at any future time. If a timeless God knows of an event at x,y,z,t, then that event exists for God in the same sense as the present moment exists for us.

If God, in a timeless, spaceless eternity creates the universe, and immediately sees every point in the space-time of that universe as is implied by his omniscience, then how can one deny that he has created each of those points? Each point exists instantly as a direct result of the creation act. How can we deny that he—and he alone—is immediately responsible for the holocaust, or for the 2004 tsunami, or for AIDS? How can we say that we are responsible for our actions when he himself created each of those actions in the very first instant of creation? If we accept the EGod hypothesis, I argue that there is no alternative to rigid predestination. Each of us, regardless of how we personally perceive our actions as the product of free choice, is as helpless as a leaf that falls into a stream. Our destiny is not merely inevitable; it is not just something that is bound to happen at some point in the future, it already exists because God created it and apprehends it. This can only mean that Free Will is, in a profound sense, an illusion, and that the quest for salvation is a sham. From the moment of creation, our salvation or damnation is locked in. (It looks like the Calvinists were at least partially right.)

A loving God cannot be thought to create one of his creatures existing in Hell at some future point in time, but that is exactly what the EGod hypothesis implies. Moreover, EGod seems utterly pointless. I concede that it is impossible in principle to read the mind of an infinite deity (although theists routinely presume to do this), but even so what is the point for us? According to EGod, we cannot alter our ultimate destiny, so religion is essentially valueless. In fact, we’d be better off without it; why should we worry about a destiny we are powerless to alter?

The usual strategy of theists is to mix ‘n match the two hypotheses. That is, they adopt TGod when it suits the purpose at hand, generally in cases where the faithful are expected to obey God (and his earthly representatives of course) and strive for individual salvation. But when the Intractable Problem of Time is raised, they revert to EGod in order to avoid the obvious eternal paradox. In my view, a theology that posits an omniscient God is inherently contradictory, and cannot be seriously entertained.

In closing I should mention that besides TGod and EGod there is a third hypothesis—NGod, the consequences of which are left as an exercise for the reader.


[1] To get a sense of what is meant by Planck time, the reader is encouraged to do an internet search on that subject. To quote specific references would necessarily entail quoting material that is too simplistic for the sophisticated reader, or quoting material that is far too technical for the average reader.

[2] “Cosmological Arguments Against the Existence of God“; Secular Web Kiosk article by David Baake.

[3] For a more comprehensive Roman Catholic view of the nature of God with respect to time see: newadvent.org/cathen/06612a.htm#IIA.

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