The Incompleteness of Temporal Life & God’s Eternal Existence

Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God” [Psalm 90:2].

To the only God our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority before all time and now and forever.” [Jude 25]

The Psalmist was a poet, Jude was writing an exultation; neither writer was a philosopher, and neither spell out for us an account of God’s eternal existence. So, just precisely what is the eternal mode of God’s existence? At the very least to be eternal means to be without beginning or end. In other words God did not come into existence and will not go out of existence. However, theologians have debated precisely what this amounts to. There are two broad conceptions of God’s eternal existence: interestingly each reflected in one of the verses cited above.

1. Omnitemporality. This view is that God exists in time. At any point in time stretching into infinity past we will find that God exists and at every point in the future God will exist. God therefore exists at every point in time. God existed 30 million years ago. He exists now. He will exist in 1000 years. This is the sense of everlastingness that is perhaps captured by the Psalmist.

2. Timelessness. On this view God exists outside of time altogether. So, God exists but he doesn’t exist “now.” God transcends time, having neither past nor future. This is perhaps what Jude means when he says “before all time,” (though Jude complicates it somewhat by then speaking of “now” and “forever!”).

In any event the biblical data on God’s eternal existence is generally regarded as under-determinative on just how God exists in relation to time. It is therefore to philosophical arguments that we must turn.

In this article I want to examine just one popular argument in favour of divine timelessness: the argument from the incompleteness of temporal life.

Advocates of divine timelessness – such as Brian Leftow and Eleonore Stump – seek to show that temporal existence is in some way an incomplete mode of being. Our past has gone, never to be relived, whilst the future is constantly just outside our grasp. In fact, our only hold on existence is this brief and fleeting present, which is continually passing us by and carrying us to our inevitable death. As temporal beings this is the only hold on existence we possess. Advocates of divine timelessness think such a mode of existence is in some way incompatible with God being the most perfect being.

Is this a good argument? I don’t think it’s half as good as its advocates think. Of course, it’s true enough that we find as we get older that our days slip away from us never to be lived again. Our past is gone – forever. William Lane Craig, who isn’t an advocate of God’s essential timelessness despite expressing sympathy with this argument, writes: “Time has a savage way of gnawing away at existence, making our claim upon existence tenuous and fleeting.” In a very real way being temporal beings harms us.

But must a perfect being – as God is supposed to be – possess his life all at once, such that it never passes away and is never yet to come?

I don’t think so. In fact the argument is rather anthropomorphic, resting on a human experience of time’s passage rather than temporal passing in and of itself. Human beings are indeed ravaged by time’s passing; our grip on existence is indeed tenuous. But such is not the case with respect to a being whose existence is of a different order to ours in a number of very significant ways. Why is time so savage to us? Because we age, we lose memory of the past, we weaken as we move into the future, and ultimately we will waste away and die with all the loss of opportunity, sadness, worry and pain that this often entails. We grow anxious and uncertain about the future. We regret many things we have done in the past and can no longer fix, or else we regret not doing things we no longer have the health for.

However, God doesn’t exist in the same way. Firstly, being omniscient, God does not forget his past. He can remember and relive it vividly at will. God’s mental faculties do not decrease as the years go by. Moreover, he knows the future just as fully as he knows the past and the present. Secondly, as an omnipotent being, his powers and abilities do not weaken with age. He does not get slower, he loses not an iota of his competency, and his strength is the same now as it was 50,000 years ago. Time does not weary Him, nor do the years condemn. Thirdly, his omnipresence allows Him to be aware of and causally active at every point of space. He thus misses no opportunities; there is no point of reality He misses out on. Lastly, though temporal he would still exist necessarily – meaning he did not come into existence and cannot go out of existence. Therefore, to describe His temporal existence as “fleeting” or “tenuous” neglects one of His core attributes: necessity.

For such a being the passage of time would not at all be the melancholic affair it inevitably is for finite and contingent beings like us. The argument from the incompleteness of temporal life rest chiefly on very strong intuitions about the loss experienced as time passes, but such intuitions are – alas – all too human ones. The problem is really with finite existence, not temporal existence.

We could leave the matter there, but we can go even further by presenting a positive case: stating why the life of a perfect being doesn’t necessarily imply a timeless existence, but rather that a temporal existence may well be preferable in a number of ways. I will briefly mention three:

(1) Even from our human point of view we experience that the flow of time can be a wonderful thing: as when we watch a play or listen to a piece of music. Many pleasures may well require a temporal existence to enjoy.

(2) A timeless being would not, it seems to me, be capable of interacting with his creation. Such a being wouldn’t be able to do anything at all: he couldn’t act or react and would be completely unrelated to us. In fact, could such a being really be a creator in the true sense of that word and remain timeless? I have my doubts. It would appear, then, that such a mode of existence is not obviously perfect.

(3) If God is timeless then he doesn’t know tensed facts – such as, “Stephen Graham posted a blog article today,” or “Bob was born 36 years ago,” or “there is currently an uprising in Ukraine.” A tensed fact concerns the relationship of an event to the present moment. However, in order to know a temporal fact a being must be temporally located. If God is a perfect being then he is omniscient – maximally cognitively excellent. If God is maximally cognitively excellent then he knows all tensed facts, and if he knows all tensed facts then he is temporal. Therefore, not only is temporal existence compatible with perfect being it might even be entailed by it.

It is fair, then, to conclude that it is not at all obvious that a perfect being would necessarily exist timelessly. There are, of course, other arguments for divine timelessness but this very popular one turns out to be less than persuasive. I’d say that its popularity is due more to its intuitive appeal than to any real cogency it possesses. In the final analysis it confuses temporal existence with finite existence.

Stephen J Graham

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