It should not be surprising to find God's relationship to time boiling down to two logically irreconcilable positions of an eternal God outside time or an everlasting God inside time. As Paul Helm has summarized the argument. “no individual can both be in time and outside time”. God must be one or the other, but neither alternative seems to be sufficient. This impasse is natural if we approach this matter only from elementary logic, for logic can only get us to what is knowable from our experience, and we only experience what our created senses can perceive. By its very nature the uncreated realm is closed to us and to our knowledge of it. If we are created beings then logic impels us to understand our Creator as substantially unlike us and so naturally imperceptible to us. But beyond this elementary philosophical fact we are bound to apophatic silence. We can say nothing about the nature of his existence as God. Yet the central Christian truth is that a bridge has been made between the created realm and the uncreated by which the creature can actually know the Creator: the Incarnation. Outside of that reality it would be futile to speak of God in any positive form. All our God-talk would be mere speculation and simplistic misleading anthropomorphisms.
Time and Eternity through the Chalcedonian Formula
It is the Incarnation of God in the man Jesus Christ that makes it possible to claim real knowledge of God that transcends mere anthropomorphisms because it reveals them to be real and true. In Jesus, God and man are united, the divine and human, and thus also the eternal and temporal. As T. F. Torrance put it:
As both God of God and Man of man Jesus Christ is the actual Mediator between God and man and man and God in all things, even in regard to space-time relations. He constitutes in Himself the rational and personal Medium in whom God meets man in his creaturely reality and brings man without.
The Creator enters into his creation and becomes part of it and thus perceptible and knowable to his creatures. This is not a tertium quid, a third plane of being, but an intersection of the two. Every aspect of the uncreated divine nature is made one with the created nature. Such a union is spelled out in the Chalcedonian formula and this formula can be used to reconcile time and eternity in Christ.
As Jesus is both fully divine and fully human without confusion or diminishing of the natures so also the eternal nature of his divinity is present to him every bit as much as is the temporal nature of his humanity. One can no more think of him as having “left” eternity to “become” temporal (such a concept is self-contradictory) any more than we are allowed to think of him leaving his divinity to become a man. Christ cannot be treated as just a man or as solely God, or even mostly a man or mostly God. He is both God and man equally and simultaneously even if we cannot understand how it works. In the same way we must approach the matter of time. To quote Torrance again:
we must learn to ask questions in two opposite direction at the same time, developing a relational and differential understanding of space and time in accordance with the nature and acts of God and in accordance with the nature and acts of man.
we must learn to ask questions in two opposite direction at the same time, developing a relational and differential understanding of space and time in accordance with the nature and acts of God and in accordance with the nature and acts of man.
What this means is that we cannot treat time as strictly one way or the other, as stasis or as process. God, who is the ground of whatever reality exists, not least that of time, exists as God the Son in both the eternal timelessness of his divinity and in the temporal time-bound nature of his humanity. Because of this both the process “A” series of time is true as well as the stasis “B” series. It can and must be said that the past and future do not exist, but only the present, as Aristotle as Augustine affirmed, while at the same time we are claiming that past and future have real existence NOW. This contradiction is bound up in the hypostatic union of the two natures in Christ.
In his divinity as God the Son, eternally begotten of the Father, Christ exists outside time. Or rather, he possesses an existence outside time. In this existence he is not bound or limited by the created nature which was made through him. For him all times are equally NOW, time being perceptible to him as a finite created thing. He is not measured by time nor changed within it. Whatever can be said about God in his eternal nature is true for Christ. Yet at the same time Christ also exists as the son of Mary, born into history, growing and changing as men do. He experiences only the present as NOW, the past being remembered and the future anticipated. In Christ God, dwells in time. He has a history, not just with us but within himself.
Yet this divine history does not begin in temporal terms with the birth of Christ or the Annunciation, for the Incarnation, as we have seen, is not just the ultimate and fullest manner in which God relates and reveals himself to us. It is the very means by which he does this at all times. Since the Incarnation is the means by which the invisible God of spirit is known to man in the flesh it follows that all of his actions by which he is known would come through some form of incarnation revealing himself in material form. Incarnation is the means whereby God is enabled to interact with his creation, the “chosen path of God's rationality in which He interacts with the world”4, an extension of the uncreated and timeless into the created and temporal. God creates an intersection between the infinite and the finite whereby he can enter space and time and have a reciprocal relationship with his embodied children dwelling in time. Through the reality of the Incarnation God could speak to Adam in one moment before the Fall and question him later after the Fall. He could call Abram, ague with him over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah and hear the cries of Israel in Egypt. The sequence of these events would be as real for him as they were for his people because God has made himself part of the temporal process. His history with us is not merely an illusion created by our memory of his actions in time. It is part of his nature “now”. Without ceasing to be uncreated and timeless he has taken created time into himself. Thus he could truthfully reveal himself to Israel as the God who rescued them and who will bless them in the future if they keep his covenant.
The concept that the Incarnation represents a reality that pre-dates the historical life of Jesus and is present from the very beginning of time is buttressed when looking at the Incarnation from the divine and eternally timeless side of the equation. Since in God's timeless nature there can be no change or temporal sequence there cannot be a time when that timeless nature was not temporally incarnate just as there cannot be a time when the Son was not begotten of the Father. These actions taking place within the divine realm must partake of the divine nature. They must be timeless actions. The Son is always “born of the Father” and he is always related to creation through union with it, which is the ground and essence of the Incarnation. As Helm states:
there was no time when the Son of God was not willing himself to be incarnate, but only decided at a particular time to become incarnate in our history God did not exist and then at some later point decide to become incarnate, for there is no change or succession possible in the timeless eternity of God's life.
But there is also a model for this concept within the commonly understood beginning of the Incarnation as it is defended in the Catholic faith. The chronologically determined point in which God took flesh can be related to his visible entry into the world in his birth in Bethlehem. But the orthodox faith understands this visible entry to be merely that, a visible one. Before that moment, within the womb, God was already Incarnate, though not made fully manifest. This point was driven home in the Nestorian controversy. God did not adopt a pre-existing flesh. That flesh even in Mary's womb was his flesh, making her the mother of God Incarnate. By analogy we can thus understand all “pre-incarnational” manifestations of God to be like his existence within the womb, fully incarnate but not fully manifest. The incarnation is eternally present to the world, but its manifestation is temporally received and comprehended.
The Hypostatic union of eternity and time.
The hypostatic union of Christ's nature means that he does not alternate between natures but works in and through them simultaneously, each nature functioning according to its properties. It was not through Christ's divinity that he died on the cross but through his humanity, just as it was not through his humanity that he was one with the Father's but through his divinity. Yet each nature partook of the benefits of the other through union in the one person of Christ so that we can say that it is the man Jesus that is one with the Father and that it was the Son of God who died and was raised. Christ is always united in both natures but his various works will be understood better through one nature or the other. This means that while some of his works will not be fully understandable from the perspective of his humanity, or alternatively of his divinity, yet every moment of Jesus' existence will be perceptible as fully human or as fully divine.
In the same way each facet of God's relationship to time is real from the perspective of either of the two natures. To us, dwelling in a linear temporal process, God's actions change as history is “unfolded”. From our perspective we can see the Incarnation as beginning in history circa 6 BC. But in God's timeless nature 6 BC is not experienced later than 5,000 BC or earlier than 2010 AD. All days are experienced as one. In such a timeless relationship with created time no chronological causality or sequence can exist. But just as the two natures in Christ do not cancel each other out so both the chronological sequence of time and its simultaneity in eternity exist alongside each other in Christ, and this coexistence would be true for every experience he has of time.
Our temporal understanding of Christ's actions with and in the world occurs as a series of definite events following one after the other. The broad scheme can be boiled down to three events or phases. Creation, Incarnation, and Parousia. In this the Incarnation is seen as the middle point of time, what has been called the hinge of history. All time since the Creation was leading up to it, and since its occurrence it has become the foundation for the new age that is to come in the Parousia. But seen only from this temporal perspective the historical event that began with the Annunciation seems like a secondary development, temporally speaking, to the act of creation. It may be a natural development, planned from the beginning, a perfection or culmination of creation, but it is still secondary in chronology and thus stands in dependence upon what comes before as preparation. To then speak of Incarnation as an operative principle behind all of God's relationship with creation, behind even the event of Creation itself, would make the historical event we encounter in the Gospel as but one instance, even if the supreme instance, of such an incarnational property in God. Seen only this way, the birth of Christ would seem to diminish in importance. How could we really claim or believe that God did something new when he was really doing it all along?
But if we turn the hypostatic union around and examine the same event from the side of God's eternity a different relationship emerges between Christ's taking flesh in Mary's womb and every other action of Christ in space and time. Here all instances of God's interactions in the world through the Medium of Incarnation, including being born of a virgin, can be seen as a single event. Even Creation and the end of the world followed by the new Creation are wrapped up in this one timeless event. Their ordering in time follows the flow of time, but in eternity they are ordered by no temporal movement. Causality follows a logical rather than chronological pattern. Just as the Son is logically, not chronologically, dependent upon the Father for his being, so all instances of incarnational relating stand in logical dependence upon that which establishes the reality of Incarnation.
The birth of Jesus whereby God became man can be described as the culmination of the Incarnation which began in Creation. Since Jesus said that those who had seen him had seen the Father we can assume that no greater union of God to man will come but only the removal of fleshly barriers to see this union. Jesus the God-man is thus the end of the Incarnation. A matter's end, temporally speaking, stands dependent upon its beginning, but understood as purpose the “end” is what all others are logically dependent upon for existence. Thus from the eternal perspective all incarnational acts of God are dependent upon his taking flesh 2000 years ago. Creation itself is logically dependent upon this “later” historical event. Paul uses a similar non-chronological reasoning when he says that if there is no resurrection of the dead then Christ is not raised (1Cor. 15:13). Since the universe that God created is one in which he would be a part, this universe must necessarily have been created with that in mind. The reality of the Incarnation was logically the ground upon which the universe and time itself were created. In this way a fuller understanding of “The world was made through him” becomes clear. The distinction between the Father and Son in which the world is made by the Father but through the Son lies in the Son's Incarnation being the operative premise of creation and the template through which it is made.
Just as creation's beginning is dependent upon the Incarnation of God in Christ so is every moment of its existence in time, as all are alike simultaneous in eternity in the “moment” of creation. The timeless aspect of creation makes every day a day of creation. This would align perfectly with Jonathan Edwards' concept of God's continuous creation of the world by constantly willing it into existence.
God’s upholding created substance, or causing its existence in each successive moment, is altogether equivalent to an immediate production out of nothing, at each moment, because its existence at this moment is not merely in part from God, but wholly from him; and not in any part, or degree, from its antecedent existence.
But rather than seeing this as a series of separate acts of willing, as Edwards does, it should be seen as a single act in eternity. Every moment in time is willed into being through God's one act of creation. The very nature of time whereby things in time change from moment to moment, being different now than they were before, is but a facet of God's willing into being what was previously not. The existence of the universe is expressed through the nature of becoming, and this existence is possible because the nature of becoming exists in Christ in his eternally willing to become part of the universe.
This nature of becoming provides us with a bright dividing line between the eternal creation of the universe and the eternal begetting of the Son from the Father. This line is necessary if we are to preserve the essence of God's transcendence over creation. Both the creation of the world and the begetting of the Son originate from God in a timeless moment such that we cannot claim any moment when they did not exist. Thus there is no period of time when Christ was begotten of the Father while the world was not yet created. This makes it hard to perceive the distinction between the Son and creation. For if they both timelessly derive their being from God how are they different? The difference lies in the difference between becoming and being. The nature of becoming, which defines creation, is different from being in that what becomes, what comes to be, also has the possibility of ceasing to be. The divine essence, which the Son has from the Father, gives the Son the power to be in himself. As Jesus said, God “has granted the Son also to have life in himself”, (John 5:26). Consequently, the Son cannot cease to be. The universe, on the other hand, has it in its nature to fall out of existence unless it is sustained by the Son. All that exists through coming into being exists in and only in Christ who is the author of its becoming. Outside of him there can be no existence of anything that was created.
Since the purpose of the Incarnation is to reveal in human flesh and in human history the God who created both flesh and history we must conclude that such media are the only natural means by which the infinite divinity of God can be supremely revealed in the world. Time is as necessary as flesh to make God manifest. Jesus, born of a woman in a specific time and place, is the natural embodiment of God. He was born in the moment in time that was created for him, for God's creation of time included not just the process of time's succession but all the times that would occur within that process. Time was created as a unit. This block of time, or space-time, as Einstein saw it and as it is now known in physocs, is, like the man Jesus, the natural expression of its divine counterpart. It is eternity made flesh. And when eternity takes “flesh” it naturally does so as history.
One consequence of this view of time's creation from eternity is that for God the future is set because it already exists in God's eternity even if it has not yet come into being in time. Our future and past exist equally with the present for God in his divine nature. All times share this simultaneous existence in eternity, while retaining their chronological sequential nature outside eternity in created time. In time the future is not set because it does not exist. What we do now effects what it will be. The present creates the future, but only from a chronological perspective where causality works only in a forward direction. But in God's eternity there is no chronological causality but rather a theological one, a causality which binds all times together and allows the future to be as much a creative force for the past as the past is for the future. But such theological causality only functions because all times are united in Christ, through whom they came into being. Thus any backward causality of the future upon the past, especially reflected in prophetic knowledge of the future, only occurs through the mediation of the Incarnation, not through any process natural to the created realm. Real knowledge of the future is possible because the Incarnate Lord who reveals it in the past is the same one who exists in Eternity where the future already IS. Specific instances of “future knowledge” throughout time are interwoven in the same act of creation as all times were when they were created. The creation of time paradoxes, such as killing one's own father before one was conceived, is eliminated because the future that is created is the one that will be accomplished even with knowledge of it interwoven into the past through the nexus of eternity.
The Monophysite question: does history end in eternal timelessness?
So far the question has involved the beginning of time and how its progress relates to God's timelessness. But another question looms that the Chalcedonian formula will help illuminate: Does time come to an end? We are left with two choices: Either time ceases to be, terminating in a mirror image of its beginning, or it continues on forever
There is a strong Christian tradition dating at least as far back as Augustine that time will cease at the end of the age when we are resurrected and fully united with God in all his glory. History will be over and our eternity will begin, so to speak. Certainly Scripture speaks volumes of history leading toward a final consummation. Heaven and earth will pass away and history as we know it will cease to be. Modern physics also give us a similar apocalyptic forecast of an end to the universe, and with its end the end of time. While there is a debate about whether the universe will continue to expand until all its matter evaporates into simple radiation following the second law of thermodynamics, or whether gravity will finally stop its expansion and reverse it until it ends in another singularity, a Big Crunch, both of these theories have the same end result: no universe, no time.
On the philosophical side it is easier to contrast the infinite nature of God with the finite nature of creation and define that finiteness by its being finite on the end as well as at the beginning. This removes the difficult questions of how God could comprehend a creation if it is infinite too? Can one infinity be greater than another? It is easier to conceptualize how God can see all of time if the sum of all times is still finite. But this is the problem with conceptualizing the infinity and finiteness with measure. We naturally do this because measure is what we know by nature. But infinite measure, like zero, can neither be increased by multiplication or addition nor can it be decreased by division or subtraction. One infinity is effectively like another. Thus God's infinity can only be seen as greater than creation if creation, now matter how large, is limited in measurement. But the problem here comes when we try to measure them up against one another. Against the infinite defined by unending measure the finite shrinks into nothing. If times' finite existence is contrasted with a never ending eternity it is hard to see how time's existence has any effectual reality.
This was the same problem the Monophysites had. Their heresy proposed that Jesus' divinity consumed his humanity once he returned into heaven, for the uncreated divinity is infinitely greater than created humanity. This made his humanity a passing thing of little eternal importance. The orthodox response was to say that his humanity remained as critical with him on the throne as on the cross, for it was not just our redemption at stake but our union with God. If Jesus was no longer fully man he no longer could be our bridge to God. The Monophysites exalted the divine at the expense of the human but ignored the fact that we are and remain human and so need the human nature to remain in Christ for us to be connected to God through him.
The same critique, mutatis mutandis, can be made against the idea of time ending, for this idea rests upon the superiority of eternity as a mode of existence. It presupposes that eternity is the genuine reality and time a passing phase, practically an illusion because it lacks true being, having it only for what will effectively be of an infinitely short duration. This is again the trap of comparing immeasurable timelessness with measurable time. But therein lies the proof against a Monophysite view of time, for we cannot help but imagine eternity as infinite time because we are created for time, and time for us. Temporality is not just our nature now. It is our nature forever, for it is the nature of all created things. Yet if time is a facet of the nature of creation, which all created things bear, then only by ceasing to be created can we escape existing in some form of time. But we will never and can never cease to be created beings no matter what change we undergo or how close we get to God. What is created can never become uncreated. Only the never-created can be uncreated, so only God can be timeless.
The doctrine of the Resurrection is proof enough that our existence after the end of this age will be analogous to our present embodied state. Even If we are embodied with spiritual bodies substantially different from our mere carnal bodies now, still they will be bodies nonetheless,. And if we are in some way embodied then we are bound to time as well. Time will not end as long as we exist. But the nature of our experience of time may change.
From the beginning we have experienced time as a two-edged sword. It is the arena of growth but also of decay. This has made time seem such an inferior mode of existence to the philosophers. Where there is time there is the potential for change, so any state of perfection would be unstable. It is the cessation of such negative change and the final achievement of perfection that is believed and anticipated in the “End of time”. But this need not entail a cessation of all forms of change unless the definition of perfection is a state that cannot be improved. But this is itself a finite form of perfection. If perfection is defined simply as the absence of corruption or anything disharmonious with a state of goodness then it is easy to conceive of an eternity, or everlastingness of growing from perfection to perfection. This is Gregory of Nyssa's image of time in the angelic realm, constantly growing in understanding of God's infinite goodness and glory.
What the Parousia and Resurrection mark is the end of a specific dispensation of time which has existed since Creation. In this era we live as sinners fallen from Grace and redeemed back into it. We wrestle against Sin, the World and the Devil, and God's kingdom is expanded. It is an age of battle of good against evil. But that battle will end, and with it an age, and we will have achieved the perfection we will have (with the possibility of continuing to perfect it) in the everlasting eternity. Like the angels we will never fall away from God again but will continue to grow in glory. That our bodies will be “spiritual” may signify that, just as Christ after the Resurrection was still embodied, yet without being limited by that embodiment as we are now (he could pass through walls and disappear into the heavens), so, along with this new corporeal existence, we might find our temporal existence expanded or “perfected”. We might call this form of temporality Resurrection Time. Akin to what others, like Barth, have called Divine time, it would be the nature of temporal existence that God had created us to have from the beginning. As the Incarnation has always been understood to be the divine affirmation of the goodness of our corporeal existence, reaffirmed by our resurrection into new flesh (a fact sadly forgotten in much of our contemporary gnostic visions of heaven), so it also should be seen as God's affirmation of time. God chose to dwell in time. Thus time is good. And in the Resurrection we will finally be perfected enough to experience it properly.