Christianity teaches that God’s greatness is beyond expression in human words. Search creation for great creatures, survey the thesaurus of human language, and strain the imagination to the limit and you will not find an adequate rendering or a fitting analogy for God’s infinite perfection. God possesses the perfection of all creatures combined, and more. But the Lord of all suffers none of creation’s imperfection. God does not live his life divided by time and space. The past is not dim, nor the present spread out in space, nor the future dark. God is light, and his presence illuminates all creatures great and small.
Hence the language of Christian worship and theology combines two types of expression about God. The first affirms God’s possession of all the perfection found in creatures: the glory of the heavens, the power of the storm, the light of human reason, the best of human love, the stability of the mountains, the tenderness of a good mother, the protection of good father; indeed every creature bears some likeness to its Creator. For God made all things good! However, since no creature possesses any good quality to the same degree and in the same way that God possesses it, Christian worship and theology also use the language of negation. We say that God is like but also unlike a rock. God lives like living creatures but also unlike living creatures. We use words like “beyond” or “transcendent” or “surpassing” or “excelling” or “super” to say that God is greater than anything we can experience or image. And we use negative prefixes (in, im, un, a) to negate qualities we consider imperfect.
Time, movement, and change; appearing, growth, and death. These are qualities all creatures possess, and they have positive as well as negative aspects. Apart from time we would not exist, and no one wants to “run out of time.” For us, time and being go together. But living in time means that the past is gone, the present is fleeting, and the future is uncertain. Movement and change can mean advance and improvement. But they can also bring decline and death. As I said above, God possess the perfection of all creatures and none of the imperfections. God possesses being, which is associated with time, but God does not suffer separation, decline, or death. The language of worship exclaims,
“Before the mountains were born
or you brought forth the whole world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You turn people back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.”
4 A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by,
or like a watch in the night.” (Ps 90:2-4).
And God’s uniqueness is lauded in these words from 1 Timothy:
“God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen” 1Timothy 6:15-16).
God lives and reigns “from everlasting to everlasting”! This biblical expression emphasizes God’s immortality, his complete immunity from needing to come into being or the possibility of dying. Unlike creatures, God does not depend on any other power for his life. To the contrary, all other powers depend on him for their existence. God is his being and life. Or we could say, God is being and life itself. To generalize the biblical claim that God lives “from everlasting to everlasting,” we can say that God does not suffer any of the negative aspects of time that afflict creatures but possesses and surpasses all the positive aspects of time that bless creatures. So, to gain a deeper understanding of God’s everlastingness we need to remove from our conception of God’s life all the negative aspects of time but leave the positive aspects and surpass them.
And this has already been done by the church fathers and summed up by the Latin Christian writer Boethius. He articulated a definition of God’s eternity that almost all theologians accept until this day. (Some do not accept it, and I will deal with them in another post.) Before I quote Boethius, however, I will quote a passage from Paul that speaks of God as eternal:
“Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, 26 but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith— 27 to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen” (Romans 16:25-27).
In verse 26, Paul speaks of God as “the eternal God.” He uses a Greek word that could be translated “the ages” or “a long time.” In fact, in verse 25 the same Greek word is translated “ages.” Paul and the rest of the New Testament writers use this term (Greek aionios) when speaking of “eternal life” to mean unending life or immortality. When used of God it is probably not meant in the Platonic sense of timelessness but in the Old Testament sense of “everlasting to everlasting.” With that said, I shall quote Boethius:
“The common opinion, according to all men living, is that God is eternal. Let us therefore consider what is eternity… Eternity is the simultaneous and complete possession of infinite life. This will appear more clearly if we compare it with temporal things. All that lives under the conditions of time moves through the present from the past to the future; there is nothing set in time which can at one moment grasp the whole space of its lifetime. It cannot yet comprehend tomorrow; yesterday it has already lost. And in this life of today your life is no more than a changing, passing moment…What we should rightly call eternal is that which grasps and possesses wholly and simultaneously the fullness of unending life, which asks naught of the future, and has lost naught of the fleeting past; and such an existence must be ever present in itself to control and aid itself, and also must keep present with itself the infinity of changing time” (The Consolation of Philosophy).
Admittedly, neither the Old nor the New Testament articulates God’s relationship to time in this philosophical way. They do not define eternity as the “simultaneous and complete possession of infinite life.” But the early church saw this definition implicit in the way the Bible speaks about God’s immortality and everlastingness. Boethius carries out the project of affirming the positive qualities of time but removing the imperfections, which is certainly what the Biblical writers intend to affirm. In this sense Boethius merely restates the biblical affirmation that God is everlasting in a way that avoids misunderstanding it to imply everlasting change, growth, and dependence.
Hence, when in worship we affirm God’s everlastingness or eternity we can put our whole souls into our praise because we know that we are attributing to God all the perfections of temporal creatures and none of the defects. We can rejoice that the immortal God is fully capable of enabling us to share in his eternal life because he is completely free from time’s power! Time wears us down, and our fleeting lives come to an end. But God is as much the Lord of time as he is the Lord of everything else! With our brother Paul can joyfully exclaim, “to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.”
I appreciate this nuanced account of God’s relationship to time. If I understand you correctly, it seems like you are resisting the common diction of God being “outside of time” or “timeless.” Not in time’s power, certainly, but perhaps avoiding some philosophical issues of being absolutely temporal. Positive aspects of differentiated time’s passage such as taking action may be safely retained for God.
You are correct. Eternity is not the logical equivalent of the negation of time. The complete negation of time would be nothing because time includes the notion of being. If you negate time, you negate being. Eternity includes the positive aspects of being and time without the defects. That is what Boethius contended, and I have found no better formulation of the issue. Thanks!
This is a really beautiful explanation of God’s eternity. In my separateness from myself (temporally and spatially), it is impossible for me to even begin to fathom how God can be with me and in me at the same time as he as with and in every other creature on the planet that has ever existed. God blows my mind, he is so awesome! This is definitely a topic I have been and wish to continue thinking about and studying. I know I will never fully understand it, but thinking, talking, and reading about is always a humbling experience that compels me to worship and adore him.
Greatness can be terrifying, and weakness can call forth pity. Greatness alone is not necessarily beautiful; nor is powerlessness alone admirable. But greatness that embraces weakness for the sake of the weak…that is beautiful! Nothing is more beautiful than love, and no greater love can be conceived than that the infinitely great God pours himself out to the point of embracing shame and death not simply for the weak but for the undeserving and the ungrateful. Such love is worth contemplating. It will change us. “We love because he first loved us.”