f The Wittenberg Door: Was Time Created?

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Commenting on Christendom, culture, history, and other oddities of life from an historic Protestant perspective.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Was Time Created?

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Dr. Peter May has a fine article at bethinking.org titled, Has Science Disproved God? In it he fortifies the Cosmological argument with scientific discovery.

I do have one disagreement, though. In his article, Dr. May suggests that time is a created thing:

We cannot speak about time before time existed. God, if he created the universe, must live outside of space and time.

Time as the Movement of a Clock

For scientists such as Einstein or Hawking, time must be physical because their worldview rules-out the existence of abstract entities. Therefore, they ascribe a beginning to time and describe it as, basically, the movement of the hands of the clock.

Christians too typically fall into this line of reasoning when they speak of God being “outside of time.” Time is seen as a creation of God that will someday be done away with. Until then, He will content Himself with being a sort of jack-in-the-box, jumping in and out of this box called time.

Eternal Now?

Another Christian explanation of God and time, sometimes called “eternal now,” was held by many of our Church Fathers, including Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, and Methodius.

This view puts God in a window overlooking a parade—the ever-present spectator, God is perched high-above, observing all events at once. Consequently, the creation of the earth, the crucifixion of Christ, and the consummation of the age are all happening at one time. As if all events were thrown into a cosmic Cuisinart.

Not only is there no hint of this in the Scriptures, there is, it seems to me, the problem of us experiencing something that God couldn’t, such as what it’s like to actually have a singular now, and what it’s like to have an experience of past events.

I heard someone say once that time is the stuff that keeps everything from happening at once. It seems that this would be true for God too.

Sequence

There is certainly a created aspect of time. But is it exclusively so? I don’t think believe it is. There seems to be an uncreated element that is a necessary consequence of God’s existence. Consider this: Time is usually defined as duration—that which passes between events. It seems to me that there is something else to consider: sequence, which includes the events themselves. Here’s what I mean:

There are two types of sequence: logical and temporal. An example of a logical sequence would be counting, 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. “2” logically follows “1.”

A temporal sequence would be a simple recounting of events. For example, if I numbered four popsicle sticks and then randomly laid them out, they might turnout like this: 4, 2, 1, 3. That’s a temporal sequence.

Temporality

Before God created the material universe there was a before. Before denotes a temporal sequence and is a hallmark of time. Therefore, since there was a before preceding the creation of the material universe, then time could not been part of that creation.

Here’s something else to consider: before that creation, God created a certain number of angles; and before He created them, He set a fixed number in His mind. This involves counting—logical sequences. Since God is not material, and since He is counting and creating, then neither logical nor temporal sequences are material; and since they necessarily precede his creative work, they themselves cannot be created; hence time cannot be material nor created.

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10 Comments:

Anonymous Rob said...

There is a very real possibility that I have misunderstood you here, or perhaps missed your point altogether, but consider:

There was no 'before' until something was created. To be more specific, I ask, can there be a 'before' if nothing exists? Now I would agree with you that time is immaterial, but it necessarily exists on account of other things existing.

We adduce from the scripture that there was a time when there was nothing but God - a time when nothing was created (I realise how sticky this is getting, as I am using the concept of time to demonstrate my point that time did not exist!)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. John 1:1-3

From this we see that all things that are, were at some point made by God. Now we might not say that John's argument here was about the creation, but we cannot ignore his allusion - 'In the beginning' corresponds to what we find in Genesis 1:1; 'In the beginning God...' Of course John tells us that in the beginning the word already existed with God. When God was, in the beginning, so was the word.

'In the beginning...'

Now the question is, 'The beginning of what?' Christians (and I use that term quite loosely) generally believe that God had no beginning, ie., he always existed. So we are not referring to God. So we still ask, 'The beginning of what?' Does it seem somewhat feasible to take it from passages such as Genesis 1, and John 1 that it is the beginning of created things? I think this is a reasonable thing to think. Now if there were no created things, according to the scripture, there would be nothing but God. If God had no beginning, and there were no created things, then what other beginning could there be? And if there is no beginning, could there be a 'before'? I would say not.

I realise this is not the best line of reasoning – but I think it has some merit. What do you think?

4:10 PM  
Blogger The Wittenberg Door said...

Greetings, Rob. Very thoughtful comments. I agree that John 1 is referring to the beginning of God’s creative work. What was before that? You answered that yourself, God. Since there was a before creation, which is a denotation of time, then time (i.e., sequences: before, during, after) could not be one of those things created.

Also remember that God, by logical necessity, established the number of angels he would create before creating them. This involves counting, where you have 1 coming before 2 and 3 coming after 2. Because these sequences, temporal and logical, happened before God created, they themselves cannot be part of that creation. Make sense?

4:33 PM  
Anonymous Rob said...

So are you suggesting that time is an attribute of God?

6:03 PM  
Blogger The Wittenberg Door said...

It’s a good question, Rob. I’m not sure if that’s the correct way to describe His relationship to time. But, as a consequent, since God does have a relationship to time, that would seem to mean, that in addition to being eternal, He is also temporal (but He Himself would not be transitory). Since eternality is an attribute, temporality concerning His thoughts and actions could likewise be; I’m just not sure.

7:21 PM  
Anonymous E. I. Sanchez said...

My general understanding is that God had no beginning, and that Time was created (e.g. one of the dimensions of the universe/creation). Time had to be created in that nanosecond - right before - the 1st created being was created - for to be created - you had to "start" existing -- and to start - you need time...

This would go alone the same line as: What was God doing before the creation of the universe? St. Augustine says: it is foolish to ask what God was doing before Creation because before Creation there was no "Time". When the creation was made, Time was part of it. Therefore, it is illogical to ask - what God was doing "BEFORE" when there was no “before”. He also explains that in God, there's no change, there's no pause, there's no time. God has existed eternally -- willing everything eternally & speaking all words eternally. In other words, God doesn't speak one word at the time or thinks one thought at the time. God thinks everything, speaks everything, and wills everything eternally - because otherwise, he would be mutable & subject to change. Source: Confessions
Any thoughts? This is a wonderful topic too; and there is much room for learning.

8:18 PM  
Blogger The Wittenberg Door said...

Greetings, Edger. You’re right; there is much room for learning. I could be wrong, but it won’t be because of Augustine’s comments. (Please understand that, as someone who considers himself an Augustinian in most things, I differ with great fear and trembling.)

Augustine asserts that it is foolish to ask what God was doing before time was created because there was no before. This strikes me as self-refuting. How would you state this without using a time indicator such as before?

Augustine further asserts that all of God’s actions and thoughts were at once. Why would I believe such a thing? I read in Scripture where God is intervening and acting in His creation at various points and for thousands of years (e.g., He created the world, walked in the garden with Adam, caused David’s son to die, He overshadowed the virgin). How does this make any sense if everything God did was at once?

As far as His immutability, that has to do with His nature—He can’t be unjust; He cannot not be God; He cannot make rocks so big that He can’t move them, etc. How are any of His attributes done away with if He can count or act in a series of events?

All of our knowledge is derivative. We think our thoughts after God. In order for us to do so, God must have thoughts. Being created in His image, we are able to love, form propositions, do mathematics, etc. Mathematics requires logical sequences. 2+2=4 because it’s so in God’s mind. This means that God can do math, which means that He thinks sequentially; and if He thinks sequentially, He is engaged in this thing called time (as I argued in my post).

What from the Scriptures would lead you to believe that God did nothing nor thought anything before creation?

This is a tough issue, and highly theoretical. But I think it is important because of the implications of the view held by most Christians. There are many mysteries when it comes to God, but we must take care not to invent new ones. I’d like to hear more from you on this topic. Thank you for helping me and my readers work through this issue.

3:21 PM  
Blogger Agkyra said...

It's a very interesting question, isn't it. I take the line that time is created, too. I was influenced as a youngster by Edwin Abbot's "Flatland" to see time as a spatial dimension in which we are "flat," and not extended, which is the momentariness of our experience of time.

Just a couple thoughts about the course of the discussion. First, we have to be careful when reading Scripture's language about time, because those are intended to communicate with us, who are finite and temporal. In other words, it might be reading more than was intended into the word "before." The point of those passages isn't to give us insight into God's relation to time, but to communicate to us, who are temporal what happened in a way that is understandable to us. It might also give us insight into God's relation with time, but that would seem to require special pleading since that's not the intent of the passages.

Second, either time is real or it isn't. If it is, then to affirm that God exists in time is to circumscribe him, to put him in a container. It would also make something equally ultimate. "In the beginning God (and time)." The idea that time is an attribute of God would be a way around this, but how we could experience the world in an attribute of God as mundane as time isn't intelligible to me. If, on the other hand, time is not real, then it seems that we are led to something like Kant's idea that time is a construct of our thought, a conclusion we should want to avoid (and can easily because it's wrong).

One final point. The Catechizer raises an interesting point that if God does not exist in time, then we have experiences that he doesn't have such as past events. Does that mean that we're somehow greater than God in that respect? I don't think so because (a) the incarnation and (b) our temporality is part of our finitude. God also doesn't have a personal experience of not being in only one place (except in the incarnation), and that's not a deficiency on his part. He doesn't have the experience of being me. To put it in general terms, God's unfamiliarity with what it is to be a creature is just because he is the creator! That's no shortcoming on his part. I'm sure I could express this better, but I've got to go get ready for church!

Thanks for such an interesting topic. I might have to blog about it myself.

4:40 AM  
Blogger The Wittenberg Door said...

Greetings, Agkyra. Regarding the use of Scripture, I haven’t used it because I haven’t found any passage that directly relate (although some on your side misuse the “day as 1,000 years” passage). But I have drawn conclusions based on what I know about God and about us, His image bearers. For example, 2+3=5 because it’s that way in God’s mind. This means that it’s part of who God is. Since mathematics (which are, by nature, logical sequences) require time markers (in the equation, 2 comes before 3 and 5 comes after 5), then those same time markers apply to God’s reasoning. And since we know that, when it comes to God’s nature, He can’t change, then there was no time when those time markers didn’t apply to His thinking. (They are not outside of Him, for they are part of who He is—thus it would be a category error to suggest that time is as “ultimate” as God.

To your caution about putting God into a container, it doesn’t apply to my arguments. It does, however, apply to yours (i.e., God is jumping in and out of this box called time). And, of course, time is real. Where, in anything I wrote, would lead you to believe that I don’t think time is real? Or that I’m Kantian-like in my thinking?

Regarding your point about God not being able to experience other things (like finitude), it’s a good point, and I’ll have to chew on it some more.

Agkyra, I want you to understand that I appreciate your comments and am grateful for you taking the time to help me work through these issues. That being said, I want to share with you my frustrations. It’s not just you, but each and every Christian I’ve discussed this with has simply assumed time is created, and offered no specific refutations to my argument regarding sequences and time markers.

Why should I believe that time was created? Why should I believe that before He created He didn’t think (was He comatose?), plan (e.g., when would the consummation of the age be), add (e.g., establish the number of angels He’d create), love (inner-Trinitarian), etc.? Why would I believe that before before there was no before (which is obviously self-refuting)? Why would I believe that right now, to God, He is talking to Moses, bringing the plagues upon Egypt, being crucified in the person of Christ, bringing about the consummation of the age, ect?

What I want is someone to give either (or both) a rational argument for time being created and not applying to God, and a refutation of my argument. I haven’t received, nor read, either.

It is a difficult issue, and highly speculative and mysterious. As I’ve said before, we must take care not to make-up new mysteries. I could be completely wrong about this, but to know that I am, I’m going to need somebody to show me by refuting my arguments and proving (not assuming) that time is a created thing.

Thanks again for taking the time to talk, and also thank you for being very gracious.

Your brother,

Shawn

4:20 PM  
Blogger Agkyra said...

In my comment, I wasn't careful to point out that I wasn't really responding to anyone in particular, just putting out my thoughts about the whole topic. So, I do see that you're not basing your case on a (mis)interpretation of some Scripture, and I didn't mean to insinuate that you were, in case that's how other readers took it. Also, I didn't mean to imply that you don't think time is real or that you interpret it as Kant would. I was just trying to analyze some of the options that are available to any thinker--either time is real or it isn't--and seeing where that would lead.

I do think it's a good topic. I appreciate that you don't want just to assume that time is created. I'm quite sure I can't prove to you that it is, but I think I can give some reasons to think that it might be.

1. If it's the case that God is extra-temporal, i.e., there is no past, present, future for him, then the question of what God was doing "before" creation is itself a category error, and when you claim that there was a "before" the creation, you have begged the question. It sure is hard for us to conceive of someone really existing timelessly or of a reality "before" there was time, but that might just be because we are created to live in time. We aren't eternal, even though we will exist eternally (extending from a definite beginning in time), so our inability to get away from a sense of "before" and "after" is just due to an attribute of our creatureliness. We're meant to experience things as before and after, but that doesn't mean God does. It's also hard to for us to conceive of God's transcendence with respect to space, but that's just because we exist in space. I think if we don't have difficulty understanding God's spatial transcendence, it's because we haven't really come face to face with what Francis Schaeffer described, I think, as the NOTHING-nothing prior to the creation. As I understand it, he would draw a big empty circle on a blackboard, and that was supposed to show an empty universe. Before God created the universe, however, there was NOTHING-nothing, and he would erase the circle. Not only can we not comprehend God's spatial transcendence, we don't even have the mental equipment to begin to think about it. There's a disanalogy between God and us with respect to our relationship to space. I think that's true of time too.

2. Following on the analogy between transcendence with respect to time and that with respect to space, it seems to me that if God exists in time (or with time if it's a part of his nature, but again, I don't really understand what that would mean), then maybe he also exists in space. After all, God is "somewhere" isn't he? (BTW, I'm not using quotation marks to parody your or anyone else's language, just to draw attention to the language people might use to talk about these things.) I think the best understanding of God's transcendence rules out the view that he exists in space.

3. I follow your argument about logical and temporal sequences, but I don't think it works for two reasons. First, I don't think logical sequences do require time markers. They do for us when we're counting them out sequentially, but that doesn't mean that they do metaphysically. Philosophy of mathematics is big area with a vast literature, so I'm getting beyond my competence here (as if I wasn't already).

Believe it or not, I had a similar discussion with my father, who is a mathematician, many years ago. We were talking about the sum of an infinite series of increasingly small, fractional numbers. I don't remember exactly what it was, but he expressed it using summation notation and told me that the sum was equal to 1. I disputed that because "we will never get there. The fractions get smaller and smaller, so you never actually get to 1." His response was that time has nothing to do with it; that's just a problem for us when we're manually trying to add the sequence up, but the sum just is 1. He was right, and I didn't grasp it until years later.

The second reason I don't think the argument works is because it begs the question. Just because we can't conceive of how God could actually do things "before" time, including things that seem to require a temporal sequence for us, doesn't defeat the argument that that's a manifestation of a temporal nature, which is how God created us and wants us to be.

So, you see why I don't think it's possible to prove one way or another whether time is created. Either position is underdetermined by the evidence, which essentially amounts to the fact that we can't conceive of there not being time. Maybe that's because time is necessary, because even God exists in time. Or maybe it's just because we are made to exist in time and so we aren't equipped to think of it differently, even though it is. No one can say conclusively, I don't think.

I'll leave off now. I've burdened you too much already, because even if you have easy answers to my objections, you're semi-obligated to type them all out, and who has time for that. Also, if you do care to reply to this, I'll let you have the last word so as not to consume all the time that you could be spending writing new posts. So you can speak your peace without fear of being inundated by a lengthy reply next time.

Looking forward to what you have to say!

5:56 PM  
Blogger The Wittenberg Door said...

Hello again, Agkyra. Here’s a quick reply:

The “if/then” of the consequence of God being extra-temporal is the conclusion that has yet to be argued. If God is not temporal (while eternal), then there are serious problems, as I’ve argued (such as God having no thoughts before His creative work, because thoughts are sequential which necessitate time markers). In addition, the assertion that before before there was no before is obviously self-refuting. Since the Laws of Logic exist because they reflect God’s thinking, then something that applies to God cannot violate those Laws.

Regarding space, it is concrete, while time is abstract. Only if you assume that time is created and physical could you mount such a case, but that is the very thing in question, so it begs the question. Plus, Scripture is clear regarding God, angels and demons, and our inner-man transcending space/matter. (This is one of the issues where Calvin’s comment about God talking to us like a nursemaid talks to a child is apropos. We think of heaven as being “up there,” hell being “down there,” and our immaterial-self being “in us” when these categories don’t apply.) As we’ve discussed, Scripture is silent on this issue. Therefore, we must draw conclusion based on what we know about God, as I’ve argued. And utilizing the reasoning tools God gave us.

You say that logical sequences don’t require time markers. What evidence do you have for this? You mentioned the discussion you had with your father. I’m not really sure what point you were making, but it does remind me of Zeno of Elea’s Achilles and the Tortoise argument, which pertains to infinite regress (it also shows why the universe cannot be eternal—you can never reach an actual infinite by adding one number to another).

I’m going to cut it here because each of the things you bring-up suffers from the same problem: they are alternate explanations, not arguments—and an alternate explanation is not a refutation. (Maybe we’re just butterflies dreaming, as the ancient Taoist Chuang Tzu pondered?—Kidding)

I greatly appreciate your contribution to the topic, and the spirit in which you’ve conducted yourself. “As iron sharpens iron . . .”

May our Lord bless you and the fine work you’re doing at your blog.

4:20 PM  

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