Is God inside or outside of time?

Q. Do you believe that God is the creator of time and hence outside of it, or that he is in time like the rest of us? If you believe God is outside time, and is its creator, why wouldn’t it be possible for God to simply view all of history, past and future, like a canvas or movie, without infringing on human free will?

I don’t think that “inside” and “outside” are quite the right terms to use when thinking about God’s relationship with time.  Let me explain what I mean by analogy to God’s relationship with space (the physical creation), the other part of the space-time continuum.

God is immanent in creation, that is, God is present in every single part of it.  But that doesn’t mean that God is “inside” creation, in the sense of being contained within it.  That would be pantheism.

Because we know that God is not contained within creation, we also confess that God is transcendent beyond creation.  But that does not mean God is separated or excluded from creation.  That would be gnosticism, with its radical spirit-matter distinction.

To avoid both of these errors, Christians have historically confessed that God is both immanent in creation and transcendent beyond creation, and I think we should understand God’s relationship to time in the same way.  God is immanent in time in the sense of being present at every single moment of time, but God is also transcendent beyond time (as its creator, as you say), not bound or limited by it the way we are.

So does this mean that God can simultaneously view all moments in time and know what is going to happen in the future without infringing on human free will?

Let me answer that question with another question, based again on an analogy to space:  Can God be present in a place that doesn’t exist?  No, that’s not what we understand God’s immanence to mean.  It means that God is present in all places that really do exist within the creation that God made.

Similarly, God cannot be present in a time that does not exist.  And the future does not exist yet.  The existence of the creation that God made unfolds in “real time” (so to speak)—that’s simply its character—so there’s nowhere to be (actually, “nowhen” to be) until time moves forward.

It is possible to view all of a canvas (painting) at the same time.  But it’s not possible to view every single moment in a movie all at the same time.  If a movie has been recorded and we have the capacity to rewind or fast forward, we can view any particular moment in it that we wish.  In that sense we have the same relationship to the characters and events in the movie that God, being transcendent, has in relationship to time.

But we can’t do this with a movie that hasn’t been made yet.  And so it is no limitation on God’s transcendence in relationship to time (one aspect of God’s omnipresence) that God can’t do this with the future that does not yet exist, either.  This is really the same point that I’ve made in several previous posts when discussing God’s omniscience:  it is no defect in omniscience not to know what cannot be known (the “last digit” of pi, for example).

God knows His own plans for the future, how He wants to bring human history to its culmination, and that’s what’s described for us in the Bible in places like the book of Revelation.  But God will actually fulfill His own plans in creative response to the millions and billions of free choices that people will make between now and then.  God can’t jump ahead into a future that does not yet exist in order to know in advance how everything will turn out.  But God can know, and tell us, how everything will turn out in the end because He will shape the destiny of history by His own sovereign power and authority.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

10 thoughts on “Is God inside or outside of time?”

  1. Thank you for this article it was very interesting. I must confess, up till now I was probably a bit of a gnostic in my thinking in terms of God’s relationship to space and time.

    In terms of time I easily slip into committing the error of reification that Neil Postman has written a lot about. That is, making the mistake of talking / thinking about an abstract concept as though is was a concrete “thing”. That’s not to say that all things are merely linguistic constructs but even such concrete “things” as chairs and tables are fundamentally more processes than “things”.

    Anyways, all that to say that it certainly makes sense to say that time, a process itself, does not in fact “exist” beyond the present and therefore it becomes logically incoherent to say that God “knows” the future.

    You already answered my next question by discussing God’s knowledge of the future in terms of revelation and prophecy. It makes sense to think of God’s certainty more in relation to his own action which he can obviously guarantee rather than in relation to the yet unknown future.

    Thanks a lot!

  2. Thanks for this stimulating article. This is something that I think about a lot as a physicist. I have come to support a different understanding myself. The more I was able to accept the consequences of general and special relativity, the more I realized that time is not an exceedingly special coordinate of the universe, relative to the spatial coordinates; rather it is really just another (slightly special, yes) coordinate defining one’s location in four-dimensional space-time. I think of this space-time as part of the underlying structure of the universe, part of the created universe. Could time have been built differently into the universe? Yes. This is a design choice that I feel fits under God’s authority as creator. To put God inside a certain construction of time would, to me, immediately imply a will beyond and before God. This view gives new and special meaning to, “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep.” What I see here is a universe at the beginning without form, even those aspects of form that we take so thoroughly for granted that we only recently were able to realize they exist as part of the form of the universe at all, like time.

    Certain other statements that we have about God mesh well with other aspects of this view of the universe. In particular, the structure of the trinity seems quite inexplicable. Why should God complicate himself with such an existence? But it makes some sense if we operate with the understanding, from considerations of information theory, that a complete knowledge of the universe cannot be possibly contained inside the universe itself. This explains, for example, why the incarnate Christ was not omniscient. It also explains why God the father need not be governed by the principles of causality. If God exists outside of the physical universe then he can view it like a painting, viewing the future and the past just like we might view the left and the right side of a painting. This foreknowledge does not inhibit our free will, since his “view,” of the future does not solidify a certain reality in our present–as observation within the universe would certainly do. Nor does this limit his power to act in our universe. This is, naturally, difficult for us to understand, since we will find it very difficult to think about any theory of existence without subconsciously applying aspects of causality that only really apply inside the space-time structure of the present, created universe of our everyday experience.

    I wouldn’t know how to start to explain how exactly it is that God structures his interventions into the universe, though I don’t doubt that He can. How might people in a two-dimensional world understand us if we started poking them from outside their flat universe? Not at all, I think.

    1. Thanks for this stimulating comment! I do agree that “a complete knowledge of the universe cannot be possibly contained inside the universe itself.” But whether, from outside the universe, God can “view it like a painting, viewing the future and the past just like we might view the left and the right side of a painting,” I’m still not sure. But you’ve given us all even more to think about. Thank you!

    2. I read an article in New Scientist, I believe, that explained that it seems like time could have gone in either direction and it is just a “fluke” that it goes in the direction it does. They were saying it might move in the direction it does due to entropy in some way or other. If that is the case it makes me wonder if God is capable of somehow “flipping the switch” on entropy and viewing things in reverse (though that might still not be possible if the future truly doesn’t exist yet). I do feel as though there is no causal connection between simple “viewing” and “free will”. On the other hand, God might know all true counterfactuals in the universe and thereby know something of a yet unexisting future, as put forward in Molinism, but that simply feels like determinism one step removed. It’s all quite a conundrum…

  3. We are told that god is timeless, but what does this mean? Believers say that god exists outside of time, but how is this really possible? If god created the universe, then there was a moment when god existed alone, before he created the universe, and then there was a moment when god exists with the universe, after he created it. But you cannot have concepts of “before” and “after” without time. In order for god to do anything, there must be a time before, and a time after he does it. Therefore, it is logically impossible for god to exist outside of time.

    1. Our only reliable source of knowledge is Scripture. Reject that and the discussion ends abruptly.
      Since God states He is “the beginning and the end,” implies He is sovereign over time.
      All we know of time is that the sun rises and the moon waxes and wanes.
      the implication is then that God is atemporal or outside of created time.
      God declares Himself to be eternal, “He is Yahweh, the eternally self-existent one, i.e., not subject to created time.
      This raises the question, “what God are we talking about?

  4. Interesting article I’ve been searching this answer, but I have a question, then why Jesus know what will happen in the future, Example that Peter will deny him 3 times.

    I would like to share something It is not about the topic, but it is interesting. Sometime I dream what will happen into the future and it happened. Suddenly i felt something strange then I remember that I have dreamed that.

    1. In this post and several others I make the argument that God created humans with a freedom that was so radical that human moral choices can’t be known in advance. And it is no defect in omniscience not to know what cannot be known. But I think Jesus had prophetic insight into choices that had, in effect, already been made. Peter boasted that he would never abandon Jesus even if all the other disciples did. This betrayed a dangerous pride that would surely lead to his downfall when Jesus’ opponents moved against him, and he knew the time was ripe for this. We do have to be impressed that Jesus knew in advance that Peter would deny him three times. Details like that are enough to keep us humble about our understanding of God’s relationship to time and the future. But if I need to stress one side or another of a paradox, I prefer to stress human freedom, because of how important it is for us to take moral responsibility for our actions. As for the “déjà vu” experiences you describe, many of us have those and various explanations are offered for them. I’d just observe that they’re different from prophecies in that we don’t realize we’ve foreseen something until after it happens, while one important purpose of prophecy, which I believe is a legitimate gift from God, is to warn us in advance about what will happen, for good or for bad, if we stay on the same course. And so it serves either to get us to change our ways, or to encourage us to continue on the right path even if that is difficult.

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