Category Archives: Eternal Now

On Timelessness and the Eternal Now – A Problem for God’s Responsiveness

“By itself, the abstraction “impassible” can get us nowhere. It might even suggest something far more misleading than the most naïf Old Testament picture of a stormily emotional Jehovah. Either something inert, or something which was “Pure Act” in such a sense that it could take no account of events within the universe it had created.” CSL, Letters to Malcolm

This post will be short. My goal is to give the most devastating critique of the Eternal Now view – indeed to show why it cannot be true. Let me begin.

The Eternal Now view holds that God sees all moments in a “single glance.” Now, if this is so, we can imagine the universe and all of space time laid out like a block with God beholding all moments of it at once. Thus we have, in this modernized Watchtower Metaphor, God as an eternally passive receiver (EPR). Yet, if God is an EPR, he cannot either i) create the world; or ii) causally interact with it at particular times.

i) Cannot be true because to create the world requires him first bringing that into existence which he is now seeing. Therefore he was not always seeing it; but at one time making it. This point is more debatable than the second, because one could just say that God is “always seeing what he is making” – eternally. So I do not wish to push it. The real problem comes in point ii). To imagine God at one point “using” his eternal knowledge to causally interact with some point on the timeline posits a causal loop and is therefore self-contradictory. Let me show why.

Often those who hold to the Eternal Now view use it to explain prophecy. God can prophecy at time 1 what will happen at time 3 because he is “already seeing” time 3. Therefore he just uses what he sees in his interaction with time 1. But this cannot be true if God is eternally seeing all things in a single Now. For notice God has a single vision. What he sees at once already contains all that goes on in all of space-time. To say that he could therefore receive some data at time 3 and then go on from that or use that data to interact with time 1 is to really say that God is himself in a temporal, sequential process.

You see, on the Eternal Now view all of God’s actions really just reduce to one action; and all of his relations to creation really just reduce to one relation. His seeing of an isolated event at time 3 does not exclude his seeing of events all around time 3. But we certainly believe that God does such and such things because of the free actions of creatures in the timeline (like make a prophecy or answer a prayer.) God responds to his creation: he grieves at it, is pleased with it, and becomes man is crucified because of the evil acts that it does. God has the experiences that he has and performs some of the acts that he performs precisely because of what the creation does.

Now just try to imagine or explain how God could so respond to his creation on the Eternal Now view. Try to explain how what God sees – i.e. God’s knowledge of the creation – could ever in fact be used in the very creation itself. It cannot be done without dissolving God’s timelessness and making him sequential. Any reactionary action on God’s part creates a causal loop wherein God, receiving information at time 3, then goes on to make a determinate decision regarding creation at time 1 (think of prophecy.) But God in his moment of seeing time 3 is already seeing time 1 in that moment. He therefore either already sees himself so interacting with time 1 and giving the prophecy, which is circular because it cannot happen until he sees the event at time 3, at which all of space-time is already eternally there and eternally settled. Either that or God does not see himself already so interacting with time 1 and giving the prophecy, which makes it impossible for him to see everything in a single Eternal Now, and puts him in time.

The truth is, any sort of response between God and the World requires God to be sequential. He must experience a before and after. Otherwise, everything is a one way, top down causation and we are back to the Determinist picture again. Therefore God must in some sense be in time. He cannot be purely timeless, at least not in such a way that excludes his sequential action in time.

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On the Eternal Now – A Problem for God’s Knowledge

“If God sometimes speaks as though the Impassible could suffer passion and eternal fullness could be in want, and in want of those beings on whom it bestows all from their bare existence upwards, this can mean only, if it means anything intelligible by us, that God of mere miracle has made Himself able so to hunger and created in Himself that which we can satisfy.” CSL The Problem of Pain

To safeguard the notion of divine permission we must also have a solid notion of human freedom; but to maintain providence and god’s timelessness we must have a notion of God’s knowledge not being caused by the creation itself. Divine permission and human freedom should be safeguarded because without them, everything becomes God’s direction intentional will – including sin and the damnation of people. And timelessness should be safeguarded (it seems to me) because it’s the only way of keeping God truly transcendent in relation to the creation. If he is reduced to one more being who is in time, it seems we must go looking for another First Principle, another Unifying Source, another Original Maker of all that is.

But in trying to hold together both human freedom and divine timelessness we run into the following puzzle: when we think of God’s knowledge, it seems, on the one hand, that if we are free to do either A or B, then God must wait on us to do either A or B in order to know what we will do. But if God must wait, that puts him in time. On the other hand, if God does not have to wait, and if knows what we will do simply because his knowledge determines that we do it beforehand, that destroys human freedom. So we are left with a dilemma: God either first creates free beings, waits to see what they will do, then has his knowledge thereby determined; or he creates beings which have their actions imposed on them from his own initial will or idea concerning how they will freely behave in the first place. The first option upholds human freedom at the expense of God’s timelessness; the second upholds timelessness at the expense of freedom.

The traditional solution to this puzzle has been to say that God exists in an “Eternal Now.” That is, all of reality exists for God in a single, thick moment. He does not do one thing “before” or “after” another (which would reduce him to a temporal process). Rather, he simply does his acts all at once, eternally or always. Yet for the Eternal Now view there has always been a problem here regarding God’s knowledge. Traditionally it has been said that God knows free actions simply by “seeing” them outside of time. That is, since God is above the timeline everything in it is “there” for him. So, with respect to free choices, rather than knowing them by determinately causing them, he knows them simply by observing what he sees.

The problem with this view, however, is this.

Even if it is granted that God exists in a higher dimension capable of containing the entire flow of time “at once,” and even if it is granted that this is how God knows what creatures freely do, it would not explain the idea of Divine Permission. This is because the theory, at least as it is presented above, leaves no room for God’s causal interaction with what he knows. Here is why. If God sees all moments of past, present and future in an Eternal Now, this means that whatever he sees is already fixed and “there” for him to see. If, as the classic analogy goes, God is in the Watchtower of Eternity beholding all things below him, then those “all things” must already be below him. He must already be beholding a completed picture of reality. But now here comes the question – just how did that reality get there?

If you say that God first put it there, you are simply back to the original question: when God put it there, did he know what free choices would be made there or not. You cannot say that, granting the completed picture of reality that God sees from the Watchtower, God then uses his knowledge to tinker with the picture. For i) that would destroy the picture (which is all of past, present and future to begin with); and ii) put God back in time. On the other hand neither can you say that the Completed Picture has simply just been there as “given” forever, for then you have a reality that exists alongside of God which he did not make. This, obviously, is highly problematic as well. On the Christian view the universe is not something that is uncreated. The claim is that the whole space-time manifold has itself been brought into being and is being held in existence at every point by God’s own causal powers.

In other words, the Eternal Now view, while it may show how God can know all things, does not explain how he could do anything with the knowledge he gains. He knows things too late to make a difference. The moment he sees things, all of history is already there. Therefore if he were to reach back into the time line and alter this or that event in response to what he knows, he would destroy the entirety of the picture to begin with.

Is there a way out of this dilemma? It seems to me maybe so. The first step out is to reconstruct a more accurate image of God’s relation to the world. God is not simply timelessly “looking at” as something over and against himself as a lover of art beholds a pre-existing painting. Rather, while God does in fact “see” his creation, he also makes it and causes within it the form and beauty that it has. As Lewis loved to say, the Christian view of reality is much more complex than God simply passively “seeing” what takes place in the universe. He sees it, yes, but what he sees is a product of his own making; and thus he sees what he makes.

God therefore exists not only outside of time but also at every point of time itself. This second clause if often fatally overlooked, and therefore bears repeating. God’s mode of existence is not only one which transcends time, but is also one which takes up every moment of time altogether. God’s timelessness, then, whatever else it means, should not be taken in a sense which excludes connection and interaction with temporal events.

It seems to me much more appropriate then to say that God “gains” knowledge of the free choices of creatures by working in and through the very created free beings themselves. God is not standing across from us, as we stand across from one another, and having his knowledge determined by light waves that hit his retina as matter moves through the air. Rather, God’s very actions themselves – and therefore his knowledge of his actions – are what they are by working through free creatures. The artist knows his painting as he paints it because he works with a particular paintbrush and knows what he is doing with it. In the same way I think we should think of God knowing our actions – which are free – by knowing his own action through us. 

But doesn’t this mean that God’s knowledge is itself determined by our free response, for wouldn’t his knowledge be different if we had done – or now choose to do – different things? In fact isn’t God’s very experience and knowledge itself whatever it is precisely because of our free choices?

To these questions I would have to reply that yes, it seems impossible to deny that God’s knowledge and feelings are what they are precisely because of what we do. How could anyone who believed that God became a man in Christ – who suffered and cried and groaned and laughed – possibly believe that God’s being was not effected by the creation?

But also, doesn’t this view mean that God is in time? For he must be acting and knowing as he acts in time itself. And again, I would say that any mode of God’s timelessness which excludes his also being in time must be false, since if he were only simply timeless, that fact could not explain his real give and take with the world.

The real question is this. Why cannot God will to make himself thus vulnerable, thus able to be determined and effected by free beings? Remember, in doing this God need not be reduced to one more temporal cause in a long domino chain of causes. That would require us to think of God and ourselves existing on the same plane and have us as really distinct from and other than Him. But we do not so exist independently of God like we do of other things, of other people and bits of matter separated by space. “In Him we live and move and have our being.” God can still be the First Cause; it’s just that his first free action is to so make himself vulnerable and able to relate to creatures. If therefore we can impact God, it is only because God has first willed to allow himself to be so impacted. But, assuming he does will this – why can’t his mode of existence be one in which he is also acted on, in the sense of him acting in and through free beings? Is is not possible for an omnipotent being, of his own choosing, to so make himself such that his own thoughts and desires are what they are precisely due to the free actions of beings other than himself?