The traditional view of God’s relation to time says that God is in full possession at once of all of his life, and that he “sees” all moments of time at once. This has very important implications for our understanding of the nature of time itself.
In a previous post I mentioned the illustration designed to represent God’s perspective on time as compared to ours. Time, so it is said, is like a long wagon train moving down the road. God is like a man on a high hill who is able to see all the moments of time at once, while a person standing next to the road sees just the wagon in front of him.
In many ways this is an imperfect illustration for the traditional view of God’s relation to time, for two important reasons: First, the man on the high hill can look down on the one standing next to the road, and he sees that person as standing still. But that is not how God sees us (in the traditional view of his relation to time). Instead, he would see us standing next to every wagon in the train simultaneously. Second, the man on the hill is still able to see that the wagon train is moving down the road. But on the traditional view of God’s relation to time, God sees all of time is “standing still.”
In my last post, I tried to point out some of the theological implications of the traditional view; but now, we see some philosophical implications for the nature of time itself: If the traditional view of God’s relation to time is correct, then time is static – it is “standing still.”
You might not be familiar with J. M. E. McTaggart, the early 20th century philosopher who had much to say about time. McTaggart’s conclusions aren’t all that important (some say they were a bit crazy); but nevertheless, he has had a lasting impact on the debate because he came up with a convenient way to describe the distinction between conceptions of time.
McTaggart suggested that when it comes to thinking about events in time, you can think of them as occurring at certain “positions” in time; and there are two ways of thinking about how the positions of various events relate to one another. One the one hand, you can have positions in time being earlier or later than other positions. On the other hand, you can think of certain positions of time being past or future. From this, he called the “earlier than / later than” distinction the “B Series,” and the “past / future” distinction the “A Series.”
The practical distinction here is that the B Series is a theory of static time; while the A Series is a theory of dynamic time. To understand the B Series, think of a number line. The number 2 (in one sense) comes “earlier than” the number 4. But this does not imply any numerical “becoming” or any kind of dynamic movement. In a similar way, if time is a static B Series, then we can say that July 25th, 1975 is “before” August 13th, 2014; but that is not to imply any temporal becoming or any kind of dynamic temporal movement.
The A Series theory, on the other hand, is what common sense and observation would tell you. It is what most people typically think of when they think about time. July 25th, 1975 isn’t merely “before August 13th, 2014 on the temporal line.” Rather, July 25th, 1975 is actually in the past. On the dynamic A Series theory, you started reading this post at some time in the past; and you won’t finish reading until some time in the future. But on the static B Series theory, your starting to read this post is simply at an “earlier” position on the temporal line relative to the moment you read this sentence; and your finishing the post is simply at a “later” position.
The take away is this: on the traditional view of God’s relation to time, time actually is a B Series. Much has been said about this in the literature covering the debate. Theologian and philosopher Paul Helm, for example, developed what he calls the “doctrine of the two standpoints.” A defender of the traditional view, Helm basically says that from God’s perspective, time is a static B Series; but from our perspective time is a dynamic A Series.
Helm doesn’t address it quite this way, but I can’t help but think of an obvious question that goes along with his “doctrine of the two standpoints.” If God sees time in one way, and we see time in a totally different way… Which perspective is correct? Which accurately and rightly conceives of time? If there are two standpoints, and two ways of understanding the nature of time, the conclusion seems to be inescapable: God’s way of understanding time is the correct way, and our way of seeing time is incorrect. On the traditional view, God can “see” all moments of the past and all moments of the future. And if God sees them, then they are there to be seen. Indeed, all moments on the temporal spectrum are equally real, likewise the persons, things, and events at those moments. All moments of the past and all moments of the future exist equally. The events occurring on July 25th, 1975 are just as real as those on August 13th, 2014, and just as real as June 15th, 2525.
Clearly we don’t see things that way. But if the traditional view of God’s relation to time is correct, then our very perception of time as dynamic is an illusion. We think that the past is over and done with, but it isn’t. We think that the future is really “not yet,” but it isn’t. On the traditional view of God’s relation to time, all moments of the past and future are equally real.