The Bible describes God as an eternal being. God never came into existence and he will never go out of existence. Because human beings came into existence at a certain point in time, we are not eternal beings but are finite.
Because we have always lived in time, it is impossible for us to completely comprehend what it means for God to be eternal. However, one way to think about what it may mean for God to be eternal is to think about what time is and how time affects our everyday lives. Granted, this is no easy task because as noted by Christian philosopher, William Lane Craig, apart from the idea of God itself, there is no concept “so profound and so baffling as that of time.” [William Lane Craig, Time and Eternity, pgs. 22, 27 (2001)]
Nevertheless, considering some general concepts about time can help us conceptualize what it means for God to be eternal and why his eternalness is important for each one of us.
| Article Index
The Bible Correctly Describes a Universe with a Beginning, Including a Beginning of Time Itself (skip to>>)
Limitations of Living in Time —
How is Living in Time Different than Being Eternal?
We Live in a Half (½) Dimension of Time that Only Proceeds Forward
As explained by Christian astronomer and apologist, Hugh Ross, “[t]he universe and everything in it is confined to a single, finite dimension of time. Time in that dimension proceeds only and always forward. The flow of time can never be reversed. Nor can it be stopped. Because it has a beginning [see below] and can move in only one direction, time is really just a half a dimension.”[Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos, pg. 112 (2001)] As discussed below, even though we are constrained by one (or more precisely, a half dimension of time), an eternal (timeless or time-full) being, such as the God described in the Bible, is not so limited.
Many people assume that time has always existed; however, neither modern day science nor the Bible permits such an assumption.
According to current cosmological theory, the universe (including all space, time, matter and energy) came into existence a finite time ago. As stated by Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose (the physicists who developed the space-time theorem of general relativity), “almost everyone now believes that the universe, and time itself, had a beginning at the big bang.” (Emphasis added.) [Hawking & Penrose, Nature of Space and Time, pg. 20 (1996); see also, William Lane Craig, Time and Eternity, pgs. 217-233 (2001); Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos, pgs. 101-102 (2001)]
|NOTE: Although many Christians reject the idea of a big bang beginning of the universe, others maintain that the Bible not only describes a big bang beginning to the universe but that unlike other religious writings, the Bible’s description of the beginning of the universe is uniquely consistent with what scientists have learned about the beginning of the universe. [See, Hugh Ross, Creation and Time (1994), Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos (2001), Robert Newman & Perry Phillips, Genesis One and the Origin of Earth, 2nd Ed. (2007)] For summaries of the different views of the creation account in the Bible, go here.]|
Regardless of one’s particular point of view concerning the Big Bang, all Christians can agree the Bible (which was written thousands of years before the space-time theorems of general relativity were developed) is consistent with current cosmological theory which states time has not always existed but had a beginning.
The following Bible passages, which were written thousands of years ago, specifically reference that time did not always exist but had a beginning:
Genesis, the first book of the Bible, starts with the phrase: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1);
1 Corinthians 2:7 references God’s secret wisdom which “God destined for our glory before time began.”
The existence of time is what allows one thing to occur before another or after another. Without time, successive events (i.e., events that occur one after the other) could not occur. As explained by physicist John Wheeler, “[t]ime is what keeps everything from happening at once.” [See, William Lane Craig, Time and Eternity, pg. 13 (2001) citing to Wheeler] In fact, if time did not exist, all of the following words and phrases (and many others) would have to be eliminated from our vocabulary: before, after, earlier, later, then, prior to, when, as soon as, while, during, etc. All past tense and future tense forms of every verb would also have to be eliminated. In a state of timelessness, everything would be experienced now.
As noted by Professors Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli of Boston College, everything in the universe is constantly changing and “[t]he measure of that change is what we call ‘time.’” Everything men think and do takes time and is experienced within time. [Peter Kreeft & Ronald Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, pg. 93; see also, William Lane Craig, Time and Eternity, pg. 233 (2001)] Without time, no cause and effect phenomena could occur because causes always precede effects and produce change. For this reason, Christian astronomer, Hugh Ross suggests that time “can be defined as a dimension along which cause-and-effect phenomena occur.” [Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos, pg. 108 (2001)]
What Does it Mean for God to be Eternal?
The Bible reveals God as an eternal being:
Isaiah 57:15 describes God as “the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity.”
Finally, perhaps one of the most well-known Bible verses, John 3:16, states: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Minimally speaking, “it may be said that God’s being eternal means that God exists without beginning or end. He never comes into or goes out of existence; rather His existence is permanent.” [William Lane Craig, Time and Eternity, pg. 14 (2001)] Beyond this very basic definition, there is disagreement over how God’s eternalness should be understood. As cautioned by Christian philosopher, William Lane Craig, because much is yet to be understood about time and eternity, any theory regarding God’s eternality should be held tentatively. Craig further cautions that Christians who choose to publicly address the issue of God’s relation to time should only do so after carefully considering all the issues involved so they do not unintentionally promote confusion or error. [William Lane Craig, Time and Eternity, pgs. 22, 27 (2001)] With those thoughts in mind, the following viewpoints have been proposed regarding how God’s eternalness should be understood:
Viewpoint No. 1 – God is Timeless
Several classical theologians proposed the view that God is timeless. If God is timeless, it means he transcends time, i.e., he doesn’t exist in time. In this view, because God exists in an “infinite present without past or future”, God does not experience a succession of moments of time as we do, rather, God experiences everything at once. [See, Kenneth Samples, A World of Difference, pg. 144 (2007); see also, J.P. Moreland & William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, pgs. 511-515 (2003); William Lane Craig, Time and Eternity, pg. 15 (2001)] As a timeless being, God would not look forward in time or back in time, rather, he would see everything in a single, eternal act.
In the view of Christian philosophers, Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, God sees each thing as it is embedded in its time, place and circumstance and God has this eternal vision because every creature is “embedded” in him, the Creator and Source of all being. [Peter Kreeft & Ronald Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, pg. 93 (1994)]
Viewpoint No. 2 – God’s is Everlasting
Other theologians suggest that God’s eternalness “should be understood as an endless duration of time over which God has always existed (God is everlasting).” [Kenneth Samples, A World of Difference, pg. 144 (2007)] In this view God is seen as omnitemporal, i.e., he exists at every moment of time there ever is. [See, William Lane Craig, Time and Eternity, 15 (2001); see also, J.P. Moreland & William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, pgs. 511-516, 558-560 (2003)]
Viewpoint No. 3 – God was Timeless Before Creation but Has Been Temporal Since Creation
Christian philosopher, William Lane Craig, explains that, in his view, although God could exist timelessly without (“before”) creation, it is difficult to see how God could stand in relation to a temporal world (a world within time) and still remain timeless himself. However, because of the law of non-contradiction, God cannot be both timeless and temporal at the same time and the same manner. Therefore, God must either be timeless or temporal. Logic demands that either God existed before the universe or he did not. If it is asserted that God existed before creation of the universe, that would require God to be temporal, not timeless, “since to exist prior to some event is to be in time.” [See, William Lane Craig, Time and Eternity, pg. 86 (2001)]
If God was timeless before time was created, then once time began, he either became temporal in relation to the temporal world or he continued to exist timelessly. Craig concludes that God could not remain untouched by the world’s temporality because as soon as time was created, God would stand in a new relation which he did not stand in before. Whether God simply began to co-exist with the universe or began to sustain the universe, he would be in new relationship with his creation which did not exist before and, therefore, he would be temporal. This does not mean that God had to undergo an intrinsic change but it does require that he experience an extrinsic relational change with respect to the newly created universe. [J.P. Moreland & William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, pg. 559 (2003)]
Craig further explains: “So even if God is timeless without creation [i.e., “before” creation], His free decision to create a temporal world would also constitute a free decision on His part to exist temporally.” Accordingly, as posited by Craig and Moreland, “[g]iven that time began to exist, the most plausible view of God’s relationship to time is that he is timeless without creation and temporal subsequent to creation.” [See, William Lane Craig, Time and Eternity, pgs. 233-236 (2001); J.P. Moreland & William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, pgs. 514-515, 558-560 (2003)]
The Bible describes God as an self-existent, eternal, transcendent being who brought the entire universe into existence. The very first verse of the Bible states that “[i]n the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (“shamayim” and “erets“).” Christian astronomerand apologist, Hugh Ross points out that when the two Hebrew words (“shamayim” and “erets“) are used together, the phrase always refers to the entire physical universe of galaxies, stars, planets, etc. [Hugh Ross, Creation and Time, pg. 151(1994) citing to Waltke, “Creation and Chaos: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Biblical Cosmology” (Portland, OR: Western Conservative Baptist Seminary, pgs. 20,25-26 (1974)] Consequently, Ross maintains the Bible correctly describes that the universe had a beginning and that beginning included all space-time dimensions of the universe, including time itself, which is consistent with what scientists have recently discovered about the universe. [Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos, pgs.23-24, 108 (2001)] As further argued by Ross, all worldviews and religions which maintain that time has always existed or that God exists within time or that God created within time, are inconsistent with modern day science. [Hugh Ross, Creation and Time, pg. 126 (2001)]
What Does the Existence of an Eternal
God Mean to Each One of Us Personally?
Some of the practical implications of the existence of an eternal God include the following:
Because God is not confined by time, he can see and know the past, present and future as claimed in the Bible (see, e.g., Isaiah 46:10).
© 2012 by Andrina G. Hanson
Published: May 25, 2012 / Last Updated: April 28, 2013
QUICK LINKS TO SOURCES REFERENCED OR RELIED ON IN THIS ARTICLE
William Lane Craig, Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time(Crossway Books, 2001)
Peter J. Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics(IVP Academic; 1St Edition, 1994)
J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview(IVP Academic, 2003)
Robert Newman and Phillips, Perry, Genesis One and the Origin of Earth, 2nd Ed. (2007) (C) free download available at: www.newmanlib.ibri.org/NewmanPhillips_Gen1OrigEar/GN1OE-pics-071109-small.pdf
Hugh Ross, Creation and Time: A Biblical and Scientific Perspective on the Creation-Date Controversy(Navpress Publishing Group, March 1994)
Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos: How the Greatest Scientific Discoveries of the Century Reveal God(Navpress; 2 edition, 1995)
Kenneth Richard Samples, World of Difference, A: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test (Reasons to Believe)(Baker Books, 2007)
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Slideshow Photo: The photograph, taken by Lauri Kangus, and downloaded from www.nasa.gov, depicts the sun rising and light from the sun being reflected off ice crystals with the surrounding fog and clouds looking like billowing smoke.