Religion

Time before Time after Time again.

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Revelation 22: 13.

Doing F.P. this year has given me a new perspective on many things, but really just on one thing. Through that perspective on one thing, the perspective on everything else comes into true focus. The perspective it has given me is that of God’s character, and I’m not just talking about His personality – if I was, I would of course be talking about every possible personality, because from where did any one personality come if not from God himself as its source? It is here, straight away, that we encounter our first ‘problem’ (only the fickle human mind could refer to it as such).

If I am saying that no personality was given to anyone without God’s ordinance that it would be given to them, you (or I) could then retort ‘but what about the ones we dislike? What about the people who we consider, frankly, not to be very nice people at all? Surely their personality did not come solely from God; surely something must have gone wrong somewhere.’

Often, though (if not always), you will find that God’s blessings are not saved exclusively for ‘nice’ people, or at least those who, in your not-so-humble opinion, ‘deserve’ it. This serves to contradict the idea that God favours nice people, and it is often these ‘nice’ people who are then guilty of pride in thinking they deserve any better than what they have. In reality, none of us are nice enough to meet God’s requirements for blessings. The fact that we get them anyway is a sign of His grace, His most glorious characteristic, towards us.

Now, my intention here is not to get into that debate which your next possible question could initiate (something regarding the extent to which simple things like parental-taught manners affect our God-given personalities, I believe), but to use this example in making an overriding point: that God blesses as he, and only He, sees fit. Most of the time our opinion does not fall in line with it, but in faith you will likely realise in the end that this is a good thing; that we do not, actually, have any idea in the first place what is good for ourselves.

It is partly this realisation that will help us understand slightly more those characteristics of God which are impossible to understand fully. His omniscience (knowledge of everything); His omnipresence (being everywhere at once); His all-knowing, past, present and future combined existence outside of time itself.

Time, like everything else we know, is a creation of God’s. This should come as no real surprise to anyone. It’s the first and most immediately obvious truth spoken in the Bible: one need not look any further than the first three words of Genesis for confirmation of it. Genesis 1 starts “In the beginning…God created” – which implies that God had (and has) a state of existence outside of beginning anything.

Before He created, nothing that we now know existed, because everything that we know, apart from God himself, was created by Him (also realise that when I say before creation, I am saying it from our point of view within time rather than God’s point of view, from which there is no ‘before’ – in a sense, for us, the beginning is when before began, therefore there can be no ‘before’ from that point. But for not wanting to cause confusion which I am no doubt doing anyway, I am using it to highlight the point that God is separate from time created: not necessarily totally before it or completely outside of it, but not bound by it in any case).

If we consider, then, that God created time (or that He ‘set it in motion’, if you have trouble picturing time as an actual ‘thing’ over a state of perception), it would surely be logical to assume that He should rightly know everything contained within it. He is, as we would describe it, ‘omniscient’ in this sense (I say ‘in this sense’ because we do not currently know if there are any other senses in which He may not be omniscient – we are only thinking here within our own contextual knowledge of time and reality as something in which we are restrained but God is not).

It would be a little contradictory if this was not the case, right? How can we put total trust in a God who we pray to for good things, if we are not confident that all of time is already in His hands? Otherwise He would not have the power in the first place to orchestrate those good things into our path. Nor would we have the privilege I mentioned before; of being able to look back later and realise why God did not answer our prayer, or what good God brought out of bad situations. We would not be able to do this (or at least, it would not be true. Maybe it would be possible for people to continue claiming its truth, as they claim truth for a great many other things that do not merit it) because God would have no more power to know the future than we have; a suggestion that really sounds sillier the more you say it in reference to an all-powerful being that created the universe.

Despite this, people continue to have problems with the concept of an omniscient God, mostly for the headache that it means if you are to try getting your head around it fully. Perhaps there is a bit of misunderstanding about it too – the extent to which I’ve felt the need to clarify a few terms thus far is proof of that. Another misunderstanding comes in when we try to reconcile the fact of an omniscient God with the equal claim that each one of us also has a little thing called ‘free will’.

According to the Oxford dictionary, the term ‘free will’ means “the power to act according to your own wishes”. I think that is a satisfying definition for those of us who do not dispute the fact that we have this ‘free will’ thing. I would say whether or not we believe that it came from God is another matter, but I’m not sure that would be entirely true. You see, many people find that this idea of free will is intertwined with their belief, or lack of one, in God. I believe so too; were it not for my free will, I would not be able to repent of my sins and accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour, taking responsibility for my own fate. He would have had no need to die for me, and Christianity would have no need to exist in the form that it does, built on a foundation of selfless sacrifice.

Likewise, the unbeliever who finds his problem with the Christian faith to be an intellectual one; that is, he may find the ‘paradox’ of free will co-existing with an all-knowing God to be an irreconcilable one, because how can we possibly have free will if God already knows what decisions we are to make? They decide they can only accept one of these two things and, as free will is the one most readily obvious to them in their everyday lives, it turns out not to be much of a contest.

Their misunderstanding of God’s relationship to time (it being the key to this issue) is what has caused this ‘irreconcilable contradiction’. They think of God as a being who can see forward into the future and sees all of our future decisions; He knows what is to happen, every decision and subsequent mistake we are set to make. Therefore they do not see how we are ‘free’, because if we decided upon something that God had not foreseen, then He would not be all-knowing, and if He is all-knowing, then our future decisions must already be set in stone and that would mean we are not free.

But as I’ve shown, this is perhaps not the situation God is in (2 Peter 3: 8 speaks of how, “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day”). While God does indeed see the future, it is not something He has to look ahead to see. He sees the future as now. C. S. Lewis sums it up best in Miracles (1947):

“Time is probably (like perspective) the mode of our perception. There is therefore no question of God’s at one point in time (the moment of creation) adapting the material history of the universe in advance to free acts which you or I are to perform at a later point in time. To Him all the physical events and all the human acts are the present in an eternal Now. The liberation of finite wills and the creation of the whole material history of the universe (related to the acts of those wills in all the necessary complexity) is to Him a single operation. In this sense God did not create the universe long ago but creates it at this minute – at every minute.”

Therefore, when God created ‘in the beginning’, there was no question that He already knew how it would end; the end itself was part of the creation. As was free will. As was all of our decisions resulting from that free will to take place within the bubble of reality called ‘time’ that God had given us.

Often when I’ve tried to answer this question in the past, I have said something like this: ‘yes, God knows all of the decisions we are set to make, but this is not to say he makes those decisions for us, or forces us into them’. The second part of this statement is, again, not entirely true. Because there is, of course, a second issue that arises once we have established that it may be possible for free will and an all-knowing God to co-exist after all.

This comes not from a misunderstanding of God’s relation to time, but from a second misunderstanding: what free will actually means for us. It does not mean we are free to do whatever we please without limitation. As humans, God’s creation, limits have been placed on us regarding our individual skills, abilities, wisdom and overall power. We know that none of us have the free will to choose to become as powerful as God, for example, because we are merely human creations (I should add the word ‘realistically’ to the sentence, because there have been cases of certain unrealistic beings challenging the notion – and dramatically failing). With this ‘free will’ that we have, we can only go so far, we can only achieve so much before we realise how limited in our human capacity we truly are.

In this sense ‘true’ free will is something only God has, as He’s the only being who can do whatever He pleases, without limits placed on Him from an outside force. We are limited by things that we have no control over: who our parents are, where we are born, whether we are born male or female, personality traits, even personal tastes in food, drink, style, men or women, books, film. And the biggest of these limitations: being born into a world already tainted by sin, our own nature tainted with it.

In such things we have no option but to trust God. It is from Him that all of these things come. So yes, in this sense, God does make some of our most important decisions for us. Essentially, He decides who we are, and puts things in place to make us into who we become.

The question then comes to the elephant in the room. What about the big bad thing; sin? Did God also make that decision for us? If I answer with an honest ‘yes’ you may consider Him incredibly unfair. If I answer ‘no’ then you may not consider Him totally sovereign in all things. The answer is… well, both. And neither. Thinking of it in black and white, as if it is a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, is not, I would say, how we are to go about this.

The true answer actually lies in my previous theological blog posts. It lies at the cross; at the resurrection; at Jesus Christ, and what His life, death and new life meant for us (2 Corinthians 5: 17-21). It took us, these merely human creations, and made us into something so much greater than we could ever have chosen for ourselves. He makes us righteous, holy; He makes us like God (Romans 8: 14-17/ 29-30). Free will, while setting us apart in allowing us to choose something other than God, was never our greatest gift. Christ is. Do you see how it has worked? Oh, I do love the sheer irony and scandal of it all (Romans 5: 15-21)! God had this in mind for us all along (Ephesians 1: 3-6, 2 Timothy 1: 9). Through our first sin to the last day of judgment, Christ (God incarnate, the way, the truth and the life) was always at the centre of this glorious storm of creation (John 1: 2-5). I could go on for so much longer about it, throwing out more biblical references for you to go and see for yourself, but I think we’ve done quite enough for one (not so) little blog post.

One final note before I sign off on this particular topic. If, as is likely for some of you, most of what you’ve read here hasn’t made a lot of sense, and you’ve somehow made it to the end nonetheless, I would urge you not to worry too much. The vagueness of the issue of time and God’s place in relation to us in the wider context of the cosmos is, I would argue, like that for a reason. There are some things we are not meant to understand fully in our current state of existence (who knows if that may be different at another point?); some of us may be more suited to grappling with the ideas than others. That’s not to say we should be completely ignorant on the issue, especially not in this age of scepticism. So, as per usual, I’ve tried to keep the majority of what I’ve written here in quite simple terms because it’s good for us to be clear on some stuff. The part about Jesus towards the end is the most important part to grasp, if you haven’t already. The rest? Well, I just enjoy thinking about it. You may not. Either way, I’d like you to stick around. My next ‘theological’ post will be more, shall we say, ‘topical’…

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