by Matt Slick
Is God outside of time? That would depend on what the phrase "outside of time" meant. It is an unclear statement to begin with.
As I have grown in my understanding of the Bible, apologetics, logic, and argumentation I have concluded that to say "God is outside of time," is problematic. I say this because we, as God's creation, don't know what it means to exist outside of time. We cannot understand it. We cannot relate to it - whatever "it" is. So, I've stopped using that phrase in reference to the Triune God. However, I am not saying that God is restricted to time, or that he must operate inside of time the same way we do, or that there is no time related to him. I just don't know what it means to say that "God is outside of time." Of course, God transcends time because He is not limited to it, or bound by it. And, as far as Jesus goes, it makes sense to say that there is a relationship that he has to time since he is a man like us. But how that further relates to God, the Triune Being, I do not know. So again, I have stopped using that phrase in relation to God, and I have changed articles on CARM to reflect this modification of thought.
My change in the use of the phrase has nothing to do with any atheist, agnostic, open theist, catholic, molinist, or philosopher's comments to me. It is stictly due to my thinking it through and realizing that I could not define sufficiently what the phrase means.
Nevertheless, people do use the phrase and will continue to do so. Therefore, perhaps we might explore possible explanations of the phrase "outside of time." After all, people use the phrase as it relates to God.
- There is no time to God.
- This sounds right. But, how would we know what that means? Does God have his own special "time" that is part of his essence but not part of our world or existence? I don't know. Also, if there is no time to God, then are all events to God eternally simultaneous which implies that God does not think, at least the way we do. Does He just know all things?
- If there is no time to God, is that even possible since he exists and it appears to us, that anything that exists, exists in time? I don't know and I do not know how to answer those questions.
- God is not restricted to our time reference
- This would seem to make sense since time appears to be a product of creation and God is not restricted to operating within his creation. In some way, somehow God is not restricted by time the way we are. We can only experience the "now." We will experience future events. We have experienced past events, but we will not experience those past events again. Does God relate the way we do to events that are in the past, present, and future? Can he experience our past, the present, and the future simultaneously? I don't know. It sounds lofty and spiritual to say he can, but I don't know what it means to say he can. I'm just pleading ignorance.
- God operates in a time frame that is different than ours
- Since I cannot explain how the Triune God relates to time in his eternal nature, then I would be hesitant to say much about it except that God relates to time differently than we do. But, I couldn't tell you what that would entail. Again, I don't know.
I hope you can see that speaking of the eternal God who is entirely different than we are and who has existed before the creation of the universe "forever" and then say that he does not relate to time the way we do or that he's outside of time is, as I have already stated, problematic. I must conclude that to say he is outside of time is a basically meaningless statement.
So, what about God and time?
As I've already stated, I do not know how God relates to time as we understand it. I do not have any reference point that is "outside of time" by which I can then explain what it means for God to exist "outside of time." But, I am confident in saying that God is not restricted to time the way we are since we can only experience "now." I do not know how God experiences what we call the past, present, and future. He is, after all, transcendent and completely different than we are. He is not restricted to or dependent upon time in the same way we are.
Nevertheless, I don't have a problem with people saying that God is outside of time. It is a generic kind of philosophical statement that is meant to convey the idea that God is not restricted or limited to time as we understand it.
Perhaps I am being too literal in my analysis of the phrase "outside of time." Perhaps I am making more out of this than needs to be made. But, for me, I've come to realize that I cannot explain what the phrase means sufficiently. Therefore, though I may continue to use the phrase in casual conversation, depending on context, I find the phrase problematic.
If I were in a debate with an atheist and I used the phrase "God is outside of time," and he asked me to define exactly what that meant in order to justify its use, I would have difficulty. I imagine being in such a debate where an atheist continually pressed me on the meaning of the phrase. He could legitimately ask me how I can understand a concept that I cannot relate to the slightest sense and then apply it to God. Of course, in a debate, I would state that is a phrase that is generally used to describe that God relates to time in a way that is different than ours and that he is not restricted to space and time as we are. I think such an answer would be sufficient, but, I could also see how an atheist could continue to pry a wedge of philosophical insufficiency into that phrase in his attack on God's existence.
What is time?
I suppose that by now, if we were to discuss God being in or outside of time, then we might want to define what time is. I did a search on the Internet and found the following three statements.
- "In the sciences generally, time is usually defined by its measurement: it is simply what a clock reads."1
- "Time is the progression of events from the past into the future....In classical mechanics, time is the same everywhere. Synchronized clocks remain in agreement. Yet, we know from Einstein's special and general relativity that time is relative."2
- "The system of those sequential relations that any event has to any other, as past, present, or future; indefinite and continuous duration regarded as that in which events succeed one another."3
Do these definitions and explanations help in our attempt to explain what the phrase about God is outside of time" actually means? I don't believe they do. The definitions can only relate to how we understand time, not how time relates to God. So we still have a problem trying to understand the relationship between time as we understand it and how it relates to God.
At the risk of repeating myself, I believe that using the phrase "God is outside of time" cannot be sufficiently defined and understood to justify its usage. But, I know that people will continue to use it and there may be times when I slip and use the phrase as well. After all, we use the common language, phrases, and idioms of our day. Nevertheless, I've come to realize that I don't understand what the phrase means as it relates to God. Therefore, I will curtail my usage of it substantially.