Is God Outside of Time? Do We Have Free Will?
One of our brothers, Brian M., recently asked me to read this over. I always enjoy being challenged to think more carefully theologically and biblically. I appreciate Brian being willing to share his insights and thoughts with the rest of us. Hope you enjoy! — Ron Simkins
Is God within time or outside of time? Are our choices free or predetermined? I do not intend to present an exhaustive discussion of these interrelated questions, which would require an entire book (at least). Nor do I plan to list myriad “proof texts” for the position I advocate. Rather, I will present what I believe to be the overarching thrust of scripture, leaving you to devise your own justification for accepting or rejecting (or remaining agnostic about) the conclusions of this essay.
Theologians throughout the history of the church have suggested that God is “outside of time”: He is creator of all things, which means he clearly created time. It is logically absurd, these writers observe, that the One who created all things could be contained within or constrained by something that he created. A common metaphor depicts God as observing human history as we might observe a line on a graph. The line moves in one direction, but the external Observer sees the line’s beginning, midpoints, and end all at the same time. Similarly, God sees the history of this planet from a stance outside of his creation, observing simultaneously the beginning and the end and everything in between. (Advocates of this position have included Augustine, Boëthius, Aquinas, and C. S. Lewis.)
Millions of words have been written expounding different aspects of this belief. On this issue, for example, hang in part the various doctrines of predestination and almost all philosophies or theologies of “free will.” Related also to this question are endless theologies of how/why/whether prayer “works” (i.e., if prayer influences God’s actions, and thereby changes the future).
First, I must answer the first question posed in the title of this essay. Is God outside of time or within time? My answer is simple: I don’t have a clue.
However, I feel that we must proceed as if God is within time, and not follow the classical view that God sees the future in its entirety, even down to the smallest detail. I suggest that in God’s dealing with us and our world, he has chosen to relate to us without knowing every detail of the future.
I have less problem answering the second question in the essay title.
Any attempt to take scripture seriously must conclude that human beings are free in our thoughts and in our choices.
Of course, we are not totally free—many limits are built into the creation and into our cultures and into the physiology of our brains and even into our particular era of history (trivial examples: do you really think you are making a completely free choice when you choose to eat salmon rather than octopus—or vice versa, if you’re from certain Asian cultures—or when you describe your idea of the most beautiful/handsome woman/man?)
Yet, although they are circumscribed by our finite circumstances, we do have real choices.
Here is my understanding of scripture: God has given human beings radically free will. God waits to see what humans do, and reacts accordingly in his sovereignty and his grace. Humans are challenged from the first page of scripture through the last to choose God, to choose the path of righteousness, although they are capable of doing otherwise. In spite of endless intellectual gyrations of philosophers and theologians over many centuries, I believe the biblical calls to choose God/good/righteousness, or simply to make independent decisions (such as naming animals), make no sense unless freedom to choose includes the ability to make a decision that God does not control, and has not even completely anticipated.
A centuries-old question (the “omnipotence paradox”—usually intended, I believe, to demonstrate that God doesn’t exist) is, Can God create a rock that is too heavy for himself to lift? A similar question, the “omniscience paradox,” asks, Can an omniscient God coexist with creatures who have completely free will? For if God is outside of time, and if God knows my every move or thought before I make it, am I truly free?
Most people who have addressed the omniscience paradox hold to the view of a God who is omnipotent, omniscient, etc., because “of course” the God who created the universe must logically have those properties. In large part, those who have denied the existence of free will (e.g., Calvin) have done so because they were jealously attempting to guard/champion God’s glory—God is so powerful, so all-knowing, that he clearly knows all we do/think/feel even before we do; if we admit to having thoughts/feelings on our own, absent the directing hand of God, then we are admitting agency to mere creatures. And creaturely agency/independence detract from the omniscience and omnipotence that help define God’s unspeakable glory.
I want you to participate in a brief exercise that might help you understand this very important doctrine. Relax for a few seconds. Now let your mind expand in its vision and imagination, and picture a Being who knows everything, who can do anything. Imagine that that Being created humans. Consider that this Being, whom we call God, is so big, so powerful, that he knows EVERYTHING his creatures do, think, feel, etc., even before the people do/think/feel them. That’s how big God is.
The God who is so big that he knows the end of every individual act/thought from its very beginning in the mind of a human being—that God is too small!
The God of the Bible is so big that he was able to create, and gleefully chose to create, creatures who were so much like him—creative, artistic, original, free, unconstrained—that God himself wouldn’t even be able to know what they were going to do or think. THAT takes a really powerful, and may I say even daring, God!
That is a much bigger God than the one who is all-controlling, all-seeing, all-knowing. The God of scripture is SO big that he could bring into existence creatures who make independent decisions that surprise even their Creator—who even produce, of their own volition and from their own capacities, new creatures like themselves! (I refer to procreation here, in case you didn’t catch that—and creaturely procreation has enormously profound implications concerning the nature of God.)
For, you see, those are the kinds of creatures that, to use human terms, God would look forward to having over for a garden party.
This willingness, even eagerness, to honor the choices of another and respond to them—isn’t it essential to any joy-giving relationship? How could God enjoy such risky/loving relationships unless they involved beings who would make creative choices that God could honor? Isn’t this in fact what we mean by “loving” someone? Doesn’t genuine love always include a degree of uncertainty? What’s the pleasure of being loved by someone who has no choice but to love you? How could God know the joy of the vulnerability inherent in love, unless he loved creatures whose freedom and even capriciousness made God himself vulnerable?
The dark side, the brightest side
It goes without saying that creatures possessing such profound freedom would be capable of going their own way, of creating not only joyous wonders (think Mozart, Michelangelo, Martha Graham) but also staggering horrors (think Torquemada, Hitler, Idi Amin). The Creator could not prevent the horrors without abolishing his creatures’ freedom [please see the excerpt from Julian of Norwich at the end of this essay]. Determined that he would in the end have his much-desired community of totally free, creative, loving, delightful, God-like creatures, but knowing they would never be able to extricate themselves from the darkness they might create, God chose a most astounding path: He would take the fall; he would bear the pain, the darkness, the paroxysms of torment; he would absorb all the evil into himself, leaving his creatures free to do not only their best but also their worst—yet never abrogating their freedom—until their hearts were so overwhelmed by his grace that they would forever choose to freely lay their God-likeness at his feet, only to receive it back transformed into the brightness of eternal goodwill and graciousness.
God will have his City of Light and Joy. He does indeed see the overall end from the beginning, because he has, from the beginning, provided the path to that City—for the Lamb was slain from the foundation of the world (see Revelation 13:8, I Peter 1:19-20)! At the same time the Creator, stubbornly determined to maintain his creatures’ freedom (at dreadful cost to himself), watches over and interacts with his creatures as they exercise their autonomy. Even though on the grand scale he will in the end forge his creation into what he wants, the Creator can’t predict with complete accuracy what any one of his creatures might choose to do on a microscale. That’s the way he programmed us—to be unpredictable!
It seems necessary at this point to move from the near-poetical (imaginative? metaphorical? tropological?) language of the previous few paragraphs to more down-to-earth considerations. The question naturally arises: If God doesn’t know the future with certainty, except for the grand scheme, just what does he and does he not know? Again, I don’t have a clue. But here is my guess concerning restraints on God’s knowledge as well as restraints on our freedom:
Imagine observing your child at play. If you know your child extremely well, in many cases you can predict what she will do next. She is making free decisions, but you are so familiar with her personality, and with the ways she has responded in the past, that in some cases you can say, with remarkable accuracy, “OK, next thing she is going to do is toddle in to the den and grab a crayon from the table.”
Now imagine an incredibly large and fast computer that contains all possible information on this planet. Do you not think that, in many circumstances, that computer could predict, with a high degree of accuracy, what any given person will do? And God is infinitely greater than the most efficient computer imaginable. I suspect that, simply based on his knowledge alone, God can predict quite accurately what is about to happen with most people on most occasions. Moreover, he clearly can read our thoughts (I know this from experience, as do millions of Christians who daily converse wordlessly with our Lord). So God has a pretty good lead on the future. And yet we are free. God’s infinite knowledge does not include every decision we might make, because he created us specifically so that we would dazzle him. It must remain the case that, in endless situations, we make decisions that surprise God. I believe, in fact, that he delights to see what we come up with (assuming it’s good stuff and not evil stuff).
Consider the question of “inspiration” of artists or musicians. There clearly are times when the Holy Spirit provides a special grace to an individual to create a work of art. Let me speak from my own experience. I write songs. On more than one occasion, I have asked God to “give” me a song for a particular purpose. Once I realized I had forgotten to get a birthday gift for a close friend, so I asked God to give me a song for her, and immediately a song flowed into my mind—fifteen minutes later I had it down on paper, both music and words. Yet I believe God does not invent works of art out of whole cloth and implant them into our imaginations. If that were the case, why wouldn’t all artists, all musicians, create great art/music that is identical in style? I believe J. S. Bach and Mozart were inspired by the hand of God as much as any artists ever have been inspired, but their music differs significantly. I will even claim that I was inspired to write the song for my friend. God didn’t write it. I wrote it, although in some mysterious way (I have no idea how this stuff works!) the Holy Spirit played a foundational role.
If God is as I have described in these paragraphs, then I imagine that he somehow provides input, talent, special anointing, or whatever (I’m grabbing at near-random terms here), but in the end—say, after Mozart completed his Piano Concerto #24 in C minor—God exclaimed, “Good job, Wolfgang! I love it!” What joy would it give our Creator if he observed human events with absolute knowledge of what was going to happen every second? What pleasure would God have experienced had he known note-for-note exactly what Mozart was going to compose before it happened? I can imagine that God, who knows all that has happened and who is really, really smart, could have made very successful guesses about where Mozart was going with any given phrase—but I suspect the final opus was to a certain extent a most pleasant, delightful surprise to God. That’s the kind of spontaneity, of creativity, of consummate freedom that God built into his creation. It was his delight to do so.
There clearly are times, according to scripture, when God sovereignly decides that enough is enough. In the prequel to the Exodus, the Hebrew text says concerning the first five plagues either that Pharaoh’s heart “was hardened” or that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (two different Hebrew verbs are used, so it’s more complicated than this, but for purposes of this discussion I feel comfortable using the English text; the gist of the narrative remains the same). By the time of the sixth plague, we begin to read of Yahweh’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart. The writer of the original text was no dummy, nor was he unsophisticated. He knew precisely what he was trying to convey: At first, Pharaoh had the choice to let the Israelites go or not; but after Pharaoh had sealed his decision in marble, Yahweh decided to go with Pharaoh’s final decision and simply to begin using Pharaoh, willy-nilly, for Yahweh’s own purposes.
I do not doubt that God often has used people throughout history in similar ways. At some point he says, in effect, “OK, you’ve had your chance to freely choose the honorable path, yet you have become committed to self-importance. So I’m taking over now, and I’m going to use you in whatever way I see fit—you have just chosen to give up your ability to choose.” (Note: this does NOT say anything about what might happen to that person after death, anymore than Paul’s discussion of Pharaoh in Romans 9 referred to Pharaoh’s afterlife—Paul was referring to how God used Pharaoh in this life, not to Pharaoh’s eternal itinerary!).
There are other occasions when, for important ends, God temporarily abrogates an individual’s freedom. The clearest examples I have encountered have involved criminal court judges, whose sometimes cursory decisions can have life-long effects on people who come before them. I have heard many tales from serial criminals who, by any reasonable standard, expected to be sentenced to long—even lifetime—prison terms. Yet out of their judges’ mouths came such statements as, “I don’t know why I’m doing this, but. . .” and the offenders would receive probation, or a sentence of only a few months in jail. I heard all these stories from people whose lives subsequently (or in many cases, shortly before their court appearance) had been radically transformed by Jesus, and who are now ministering in the power of the Holy Spirit to drug addicts, criminals, etc. In these instances, it seems clear that God sovereignly declared something like, “Judge O’Hara, I know the long sentence that you would pronounce, but for a few minutes I’m taking over here, and I’m going to overrule you, and you are going to release this person because I have plans for her. . .” I do not doubt that God acts in a similar fashion in myriad other situations, but legal proceedings are the only ones with which I’m familiar.
Is God outside of time, as so many theologians have written? I don’t know. I feel strongly, however, based on the consistent message of the scriptures, that we should proceed as if God is in time, for that is the way he presents himself within scripture.
It seems unambiguously the case, moreover, that we must proceed on the assumption that we are free creatures. God knows a great deal, of course (to put it mildly). What I have written here in no way is intended to detract from the power of such passages as Psalm 139, Isaiah 41, and Isaiah 46. Yet in order to understand our Lord in the deepest possible way, we need to consider every hint he has given us about himself; and many of those hints suggest that we should see ourselves as free creatures whose actions—at least in part—are creatively determining the course of this world’s history.
When God told the first humans to creatively tend the garden, for example, and to give names to the animals, I don’t think it is consistent with the overall thrust of scripture to claim that God knew from the start the names the animals would receive, and the exact designs the humans would create for their paradise. The point of the creation stories, I believe, was that God was giving his creatures a free hand, and was eager to stand back and say, as it were, “It will be fun to see what you guys do with this planet.” (Please note: The theological import of these passages is the same whether you take the stories to be literally/historically true or metaphorical.)
The really, really good news is that, even before that happened, God had committed to redeeming all the darkness and evil that his free creatures spawned, by bearing it within himself—so that, in the end, we will all be free indeed!
Excerpt from Revelations of Divine Love
by Julian of Norwich (b. 1342)
[Text in italics is from the mouth of Jesus]
adapted by Brian Mustain
Often I wondered why
by the great foreseeing wisdom of God
the beginning of sin was not hindered:
for then, I thought, all should have been well.
Sin could not be prevented, but plays a crucial part; and all shall be well.
After this the Lord brought to my mind the longing that I earlier had for Him.
And I saw that nothing prevented me but sin.
And so I looked, generally, upon us all, and thought:
If sin had not been, we should all have been clean and like our Lord, as He made us.
And thus, in my folly, until this time often I wondered why
by the great foreseeing wisdom of God
the beginning of sin was not prevented:
for then, I thought, all should have been well.
This stirring of mind was much to be forsaken,
but nevertheless I mourned and sorrowed greatly for it, without reason and discretion.
But Jesus, who in this Vision informed me of all that is needful to me,
answered by this word and said:
I could not prevent that there should be sin;
but all shall be well, and all shall be well,
and all manner of thing shall be well.
Thanks Brian. As always, if you have any questions or thoughts about this post, or if there is another topic you’d like me to explore in a future post, please leave a comment. I always enjoy your questions and thoughts./Ron