Predestination, God, and Time

Reconciling human freedom and God’s predestination is one of the perennial tasks of Christian theology. The apparent contradiction in affirming both that we are free and that God has complete sovereignty over all that comes to pass is manifested in several puzzles which revolve around concepts of God’s foreknowledge of the future, his permitting of evils, and his overall plan in creation. In this post I want to explore some of these difficulties and offer what I think is a possible way to avoid calling them “contradictions.”

No one who has read the New Testament closely can deny that it uses strong language regarding God’s sovereignty over creation. I will not quote any passages here, but it speaks of events being “foreordained before the foundation of the world” and “foreknown according to the determinate plan of God.” In several places the word “predestination” is used as well.

Now the problem here is that such passages imply that God has pre-determined that things will go a certain way no matter what. It’s as if for each person he has created a particular groove for us to roll through throughout our life. And since he has placed us in such a grove with a certain amount of previous momentum, our trajectory is indeflectable. We can no more escape our pre-ordained path than a drop of water can escape rolling down the side of a roof a bowling ball can escape falling to the ground when it is dropped out of a window.

You will notice that in these examples of the rain drop and the bowling ball we are assuming that a certain view of God and time is true. In particular, we are assuming that God is “in” time and that he goes through a series of temporal processes in interacting with us. Hence first he “sets things up” such that “later” they will go such and such a way. He gets the ball rolling – he places us all in a particular circumstance and then hits start – and simply sits back and watches it all play out. Notice here the temporal process: the progression of things, the ordering, the first-this-then-that sequencing. All these examples assume that God is in time and that he is moving along the timeline with us.

Now if this is true and if God is moving along the timeline WITH us, it would be very hard to reconcile our freedom with his foreknowledge and predestining plan. For God would ALREADY know what we are going to do and how things will go even before we do anything. And if that’s the case we would not have the freedom to make God’s knowledge false or change his plan. His knowledge and plan would be what they were BEFORE we ever exercised our freedom – indeed before we even existed. Therefore it would be incompatible to affirm, if God is in time and if he knows the future and if he has a purposeful plan for all that comes to pass, ALSO that we are truly free.

Although I will not get into this in this post, there are many Christian thinkers – some of them very bright – who, being constrained by the logic just laid out, actually affirm that God in fact does NOT know the future and does NOT have a predestined plan that takes into account and justifies all evil acts. That view of God is called Open Theism. I think it is false for reasons I won’t get into now (but will in a later post.) I want only to point out the fact that several people feel the weight of the problem of God “foreknowing” and “predestining” events that depend on the free action of human beings.

The traditional way to reconcile our freedom and God’s knowledge of and plan for the future is to say that God exists outside of time. And although this idea has a lot of mystery to it, I think it is the best way to synthesize the two supposedly antithetical truths. Here is the way I begin to think about the matter.

The first thing to avoid is imagining God’s eternity or timelessness as simply an OLDER time. The idea is not that God existed “before” the universe began and “then” one day created it. That would put God in time and make him guilty of a pre-determination of things that destroys our freedom. The idea is that God exists in a mode of being beyond or above time, in a mode that is BIGGER than our temporal mode of past, present, and future. And in this mode of being, since it lacks succession (which would again imply time) God is able to see, attend to, and interact with SMALLER modes of being at once, without “waiting” or without some of his being “passing away.” The classic way to think of it is to imagine a line drawn on a solid piece of paper. The line represents our time. As it goes from left to right it goes from past to present to future. But the page on which the entire line is drawn represents God. He is not simply the particular corner of the paper on which a part of the line is drawn. Rather, he is the whole paper, at once, without any division. He possesses the whole line all at once – there is no “space” or “distance,” either physically or temporally, between him (the paper) and us (the line itself.) He is eternally present to the entire thing.

Of course, we cannot perfectly imagine such a mode of existence. As I’ve already said it would have to possess everything “all at once,” and it could never “move” or “go from” one state of being to another such that part of its life passes away. This is because all these sort of changes would necessarily involve some temporal process involving matter and space. But we can, I think, get just a FAINT IDEA of a perfectly eternal, changeless (i.e. “immutable”) being, who sees and does things “all at once.” And that leaves room, however small, for the possibility that maybe such a mode of being IS how God exists.

So then, the corollary to God’s timelessness and the problems of predestination, free will, and foreknowledge would be this. Since God does not “go from” having not created the universe to “then” creating it, the whole picture of him setting things up BEFOREHAND or “pre-determining” would be false. In fact if we follow the logic through if God is eternal and beyond time then we cannot REALLY speak of him using words with a past or future tense at all. Strictly speaking God would not PRE-destine or FORE-know anything. He would simply eternally know and arrange all things in a single mode of being that comprehends all of OUR perspectives of past, present, and future at once. Think of the line on the paper. God may eternally intend to allow something to happen at, say, time1 (t1) on the line in order to bring about a particular effect, say, at t2. He may allow you to fail your exam because by allowing this he sees that you become even more dedicated to studying and so become a better student. Since he sees all things in his mode of being AT ONCE he does not have to “wait and see” what you will do. He does not watch them progress in front of him like we watch a movie (that again puts him in time.) All moments are simply THERE to him, eternally. And if this is so he can eternally order them – or DESTINE and KNOW them – however he wills. He does not see-then-arrange, like we do when we see a mess in the kitchen and THEN clean it up. Rather, he eternally sees-and-arranges, at once, in a mode of being beyond time.

That is difficult to take in and think about, I know. (But should we EXPECT God to be easy to understand? If Calculus and Physics can get as weird and complicated as they do, why can’t God be tough to understand?)

As I said, the idea of a timeless God is nothing new – I certainly did not just make it up. (As a rule, be suspicious of any theological point I make that IS something I just made up or something you’ve never heard before.) However, as you can probably imagine, many people feel forced to reject the idea for consequences that seem untenable. I will briefly go over some of these, and try to offer some answers.

The first problem with a timeless God is that it seems to require the very thing it is brought forward to deny: namely, human freedom. How, the objection goes, can we be free if the future is already real or “out there” for God to see? A timeless view of God implies what is called “four-dimensionalism” or the view that the universe as it exists in ultimate reality is a singularity in which the past, present, and future are all REAL (i.e. in a four-dimensional block). But if this is so, isn’t our future ALREADY set?

The answer to this is that the whole problem is due to a mistake caused by the imagination. The future is only set insofar as we are doing whatever we will be doing IN THE FUTURE. It is not “already” set, because that would imply that the present and the future occur at the same time. Think again about the line drawn on the paper. One point of the line is not “already” at another point. Each point is equally real. The truth is simply that in God’s ultimate reality the future is occurring as well as all other points in time: he sees the whole line at once, but the whole line AS A LINE does not exist at once. And this is compatible with saying that each moment, as WE experience it as present, is open to our own free determining power. Again the future is not “already” set: it is simply set “in the future” or at that particular point on the timeline.

Another objection is that if God “receives” information or does things “because” we do things in time, then he cannot be timeless. If for instance God answers a prayer because you prayed, then God would have to be in time to hear your prayer and “gain” his knowledge in order to react.

This, however, does not follow. It is true that if God is outside of time he cannot change. He must be eternally and unchangeably involved and related to all points of time. But that does not mean he cannot “receive” or “respond” to what goes on in time. It simply means that he doesn’t move like a temporal object moves. He does not “go from” doing this to doing that.

In one sense God is certainly MOVED by what we do. Scripture attests to this and since God is responsive to and knowledgeable of his creation we must be able to “affect” him. But in saying God is immutable the idea is that we do not DISPLACE him or cause him to “pass into” or “go from” a certain state of being like a physical object where his experiences are broken up into a fragmentary series of past, present, and future. Our imagination here will constantly deceive us and constantly draw up pictures of God as moving in time. We must always remember that if the timeless view of God is true then he is at EVERY point of time and space upholding all that exists. We do not arrive at places “before” God, nor does he “flow” into a non-existent future. He is eternally in all times and all places. Even our free actions are what they are only because God is eternally working IN and THROUGH our very beings. In fact it is primarily God who is acting instrumentally THROUGH our free agency at every point in time. You could say that this is where he “gets” his knowledge of our free actions: not as someone standing OVER and AGAINST a parallel reality, but as someone working IN and THROUGH every atom and every moment of a created reality.

All this is no doubt very mysterious. God is in some mode of being where he can be both “active” and “passive” at once (though not in the same respect). He can “hear” a prayer at t1 and “respond” to it at t3. These moments are separate to US, but in God, if he is timeless, they must somehow be united into a singular mode of being. This is similar to the mystery of how God can be both justice and love or human and divine. Again these are qualities or attributes which seem to reflect different properties from OUR perspective but which nevertheless are somehow UNITED in God himself. I want to suggest that that is because God exists in a bigger metaphysical reality than we do. Our time, I believe, is INSIDE God’s eternal, fullness of life. We swim in him like the fish does the sea. The fish cannot out-swim the sea. No matter how far and how long it swims, it will still be always surrounded by it. So, too, does God’s being SUBSUME or totally ENCOMPASS all of time. As St. Paul says, “in him we live, move, and have our being.” A mystery certainly, but a contradiction? I am not so sure.

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