So there’s this idea that I’ve been kicking around in my mind for awhile now. It’s sort of a nerdy, egghead-ish thing. But it interests me, so I figured I’d write about it. On top of that, every now and again I hear a fellow Christian do this thing, espousing a view of God’s relationship with time and then argue for the existence of God using an argument whose validity rests on one rejecting the very view of God and time they just proffered.
In other words…
The Cosmological Argument
One of the most common arguments for the existence of God is what is known as the cosmological argument. In short, the argument goes something like this:
Premise 1: Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
Premise 2: The universe began to exist.
Conclusion: Therefore, the universe has a cause.
Here’s a pretty great video presenting this argument:
As with any good logical syllogism, the conclusion’s soundness is dependent (partially) on whether or not the premises are true. So, for instance, in order for the conclusion above (the universe has a cause) to be true, premise 2 (the universe began to exist) must be true.
So, did the universe begin to exist at some point? I think most of us would agree that, yes, about 13.8 billion years ago (give or take a few million) there was a cataclysmic event in which the singularity of everything exploded into what we now know of as the space-time universe. This so-called Big Bang marks the beginning of everything science can observe, and is the prevailing cosmological model today. So we can say that the universe did indeed have a beginning, which for Christian pastors and apologists means there is a strong likelihood that the cosmological argument is sound since (à la, premise 1) large and complex things don’t just pop uncaused into existence.
Now, to be fair, Big Bang cosmology does not say that there was nothing before the start of the universe. On the contrary, before that Big Bang there was a singularity, meaning that everything in the space-time universe was condensed into an incredibly dense phase. So let’s not say that the Big Bang is an event in which everything came from nothing. Rather, everything came from a singularity. Nevertheless, in a singularity all laws of physics (i.e., physical causality) break down. So the cosmological argument can still hang its hat on the Big Bang model, because it would still take something outside of the space-time universe acting on it to cause it to come into existence (or so the thinking goes).
More on that later. But for now, let’s talk about another thing that many Christians believe.
Something you will often hear believers say is that God is not bound by time, or that God exists outside of time. In other words, God is said to be atemporal, which is a term that combines “a-” (from the Greek, meaning “not”) with “temporal” (meaning of or relating to time). So, God is said to be without time.
This seems to be assumed in the notion that God created everything. After all, time is a thing, right? And if God created every thing, then God must have created time. And if God created time, then He must not be bound by time.
In this sense, when we talk about eternity in the theological (esp. eschatological) sense, we are not talking about time without end, but rather timelessness.
So, for instance, imagine drawing a line on a piece of paper, like so…
The line represents time (past, present, and future) and all the empty white space surrounding the line is what we might call eternity.
According to the doctrine of divine atemporality, God lives in the white space outside of time. From this vantage point, God can see all of time in an instant. This is how many Christians make sense of God knowing the future, because He can see it, He observes it objectively. In other words, God’s relationship with time is such that all of time (past, present, and future) exists simultaneously and He experiences all of time as an ever-present “now,” even though we humans can only experience a single moment of the time line at once.
A and B Theories of Time
I’m sure you can see the problem here. No? That’s okay. I didn’t see the contradiction in these two beliefs until a year or two back when I was listening to a debate titled, “The Existence of God in Light of Contemporary Cosmology,” between Christian philosopher and apologist, William Lane Craig, and atheist cosmologist and physics professor, Sean M. Carroll.
The two academics spent the majority of the debate talking past one another until finally, very near to the end, it became apparent that the reason Craig on the one hand was saying, “the universe had a beginning, so something must have caused it to come into existence,” and Carroll on the other hand was saying, “the universe may have a beginning, but that doesn’t mean anything caused it to come into existence,” was because the two men were operating with (and assuming) different philosophies of time.
You see, Craig holds to what is known as the A Theory of time, which assumes that our experience of time as sequential is true to how time really is. In this view, the only part of time that is actual is the present. All else, the past and future, exist merely as memories or projections, but not as reality.1 Because of this, when Craig talks about the beginning of the universe he is referring to the moment when the universe really did come into existence, prior to which it did not exist. And the force of the cosmological argument for God’s existence really sort of depends on this being the case.
Carroll, however, holds to what is called the B Theory of time (philosophers are great at naming stuff), which assumes that all of time exists simultaneously and our experience of time as sequential is subjective to our perspective as finite points on the timeline, and is therefore inaccurate to how time truly is. In this view, the universe certainly has a beginning, much in the same way that a buffet line has a beginning, but that doesn’t mean that this beginning marks the point at which it actually started to exist.
After all, even though the subjective experience of a buffet line starts at the beginning where you get your plate and silverware, the people putting the buffet line together don’t necessarily begin by putting out the dishes and utensils, followed by the entrees, and then the dessert. In fact, the entrees are generally put out last so they are still warm when people put them on their plates, and the dishes are often the last thing to be put out. And if we’re talking about a church potluck, the entire thing is just piecemealed together.
Anyhow, you get the idea.
The point is simply that the notion of divine atemporality is a theological way of talking about the B Theory of time, which undermines the cosmological argument for the existence of God. Because of this, I think Christian pastors and apologists are trying to have their cake and eat it too when they advocate both divine atemporality and the cosmological argument. If you are going to argue for the existence of God on the basis of the universe’s beginning, then that beginning needs to actually mean something. And if the nature of time is such that it can be experienced all at once, even by a supreme atemporal Being, then the beginning of the universe doesn’t have the same punch for theists that it otherwise would.
This is just one of the reasons that I reject the doctrine of divine atemporality. As a theistic viewpoint, it sort of implicitly shoots theism in the foot (to say nothing of what it does to the love-personhood of God).
Anyhow, I’ll just leave you with this excellent poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
Time, Real and Imaginary: An Allegory2
On the wide level of a mountain’s head
(I knew not where, but ’twas some faery place),
Their pinions, ostrich-like, for sails outspread,
Two lovely children run an endless race,
A sister and a brother!
This far outstripp’d the other;
Yet ever runs she with reverted face,
And looks and listens for the boy behind:
For he, alas! is blind!
O’er rough and smooth with even step he pass’d,
And knows not whether he be first or last.
1: This is the view that open and relational theologies tend to assume, that God is not atemporal (outside of time), but omni-temporal (present all throughout time). Craig is not an open theist, but a Molinist, so he tends to view God as being supra-temporal (existing before and after time, but present in time). Either way, these are all theological perspectives that assume the A Theory.
2: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Oxford Book of English Verse, ed. Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1919, [c1901]), http://www.bartleby.com/101/553.html.