Time and Eternity

One of the things that seems to be forgotten in discussions about how God is involved in creation is the fact that he is eternal, and creation is not. I’m thinking principally of the biological aspects of creation, and of discussions about whether God set up the laws and initial conditions and stood back (essentially the Deist position, as held now by many Open Theist TEs), or whether creation is an ongoing activity, such as the admittedly rather indefinite “unfolding through evolution” picture in Kerry Fulcher’s video on BioLogos. It also impinges on questions in ID (or more often, thrown at ID) of how God introduces design into nature and so on.
The classical Augustinian formulation is that God exists outside time, and that view fits well with what we now know of time as an entity that itself had a beginning in the Big Bang. In this view,  God is independent of time. Minimally he can travel through it at will, as we can travel through the vertical dimension (unlike the Flatlander, whose world might move vertically, but who has no freedom in that dimension). More correctly, God can be said to be at all times at once, existing in an eternal “now”, just as (also unlike us) he is omnipresent, open to all places at once. That creates all kinds of difficulties for us, but maybe we ought to accept that God has always managed it quite easily.

So far so good, but what kind of analogy can we draw of the interaction between an eternal God and a Universe constrained by the arrow of time? One reasonable illustration might be that of a film director making a feature film. I must immediately limit the analogy with the caveat that God is not creating any kind of illusion (he is not producing The Matrix) but reality, though reality of a lower order than his own existence.

But the film director, like God, is effectively freed from real-time in the execution of his work. It would be an extremely rare movie in which shooting commenced with the start of the script and worked through it, with cameras rolling, to the final credits. It would not be unusual for the action scenes, including the big finish, to be done first, leaving the more subtle, small-scale drama, until later. Quite possibly, the beginning might be filmed last, once the Director finally knew where it has to get to.

As far as the completed movie goes, there is absolute cause and effect continuity. The plot plays out with logical consistency through time, barring the use of flashbacks and so on – funny how the “timeless” business of film production has inured us to the strangeness of those techniques. Even then, the logic of the script means that the story makes sense – we are caught up in the alternative reality it creates. And in as much as it is good art, the reality it portrays is truthful.

The director’s production programme too follows reason and logic – only it is a completely different logic from that of the story-line. All kinds of factors may affect it, from the availability of studios, crew or actors to the need to take 5000 extras to the Himalayas at the right time of year and do all the location scenes in as short a time as practicable. It need hardly be said, though, that the one underlying priority for the director is his vision for the finished product, which in the end is the created work, rather than simply a means of paying the mortgages of the crew and cast of thousands.

In God’s case, we have to remind ourselves of another difference from the cinematographer’s art: there is no separate finished product of which the director can wash his hands and go on to something else. In the case of the world, the finished product is what happens on location and in the studio – at least as far as we are concerned. As far as the Creator, and maybe even his angels, are concerned, the whole thing is laid out before him on the bench, being worked on as one piece from Big Bang to whatever its end is to be.

The whole Deistic conception, then, is incoherent. No film was ever produced by the Director’s laying down some rules and setting up initial conditions before withdrawing to his villa in Spain. One could conceive of his delegating the work to his trusty assistant-director, but that is merely a detail of working practice. Someone still has to do the ongoing work outside “real time”, because films do not make themselves. It is not just that God maintains the Universe constantly – though that is true – but that he is responsible for all that it is, not moment by moment, but in one eternal moment. We just experience his involvement moment by moment.

The “unfolding through evolution” viewpoint is problematic too. There may, to a variable extent, be a cause-and-effect logic to the history of the world. But God, like the a-temporal film-director, cannot be subjected to the same temporal logic. He works by logic and reason, to be sure, but in the frame of eternity – and it is even harder for us to conceive how that would seem to the Lord of All than it is for us to guess how Stephen Spielberg goes about putting a blockbuster together. We can, however, consider some obvious examples. God could start by creating man in his own image, and then work out a process for how to get there involving, say, fine tuning cosmological constants. It would be no more absurd than the screenwriter who first decides that his hero needs to jump from a burning building, and only later writes the story that puts him there in the first place. The goal is the cause.

Let’s run with that small example (though I really ought to have used God’s ultimate purpose, since in truth his will, like his essence, is simple – Ephesians 1.10). So we’ll say he has an aim – the appearance of mankind. He has a starting point – the Big Bang. In between, he joins the dots. Now, in fact only God knows how to create man from nothing. Maybe there are many ways, but all we can do is trace out the path he seems actually to have taken, which might well include setting initial conditions, “random” or chaotic events (each chosen by him), and even the activities of teleological agents in creation (thinking mainly here of the possibility of self-organising creatures). Given the ongoing nature of God’s involvement, the exclusion of miracles in this process now seems to be rather arbitrary.

Science will uncover a true causal chain in time, since God has created, like the film-maker, a self-consistent reality. It may, of course, arbitrarily exclude causes it doesn’t like, such as miracles, but that doesn’t effect the issue in time. But for a Christian to imagine that to be the whole truth of God’s creative activity would be foolish. To use the chain’s existence as evidence for a process independent of God altogether would be utter madness: “I’ve seen that movie, and Spielberg had nothing to do with it – it was that guy Schindler who saved all those people.”

No, the net result of seeing God’s creative involvement in eternal terms is that it not only shows that every cause we can uncover is his work – but that there’s a whole lot more he’s doing here that we’ll never be able to see this side of eternity.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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