God Is Outside of Time

Jonathan Griffiths
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Consider how the book of Genesis opens: “In the beginning God created . . .” It makes sense to assume that “the beginning” to which the writer refers is the beginning of time. It is, as it were, when the stopwatch starts rolling, and for that watch to move there needed to be the conditions that God established on the first day:

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. (Gen. 1:3–5)

It takes days and nights, light and darkness, and the rotation of the earth for time to be counted. Time, as we understand it, only began with the creation events recorded here. And so, if time itself is part of God’s creation, then His own existence as Creator must stand above and before the creation. His own eternal existence must be timeless itself.

The very concept almost overwhelms our rational capacity. Yet that is exactly who God is: He is eternal.

The idea of time is actually something we struggle to grasp. By that I do not mean that some people are bad at timekeeping or poor at punctuality, but rather that all of us struggle to understand the notion of time and to articulate what it means. But as time-bound creatures, we struggle all the more with the notion of eternity. We cannot really imagine any kind of experience or reality that is not defined by time. The very concept almost overwhelms our rational capacity. Yet that is exactly who God is: He is eternal.

This is why God’s eternity is central to our understanding of Him and why it is at the heart of His revelation of Himself. When Moses asked God how he should refer to Him before Pharaoh, the Lord said to him, “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex. 3:14). God is the Great I AM. There is nothing to add, nothing to take away. He is the absolute existence—no development, no change, no growth, no reduction. There is nothing relative about God. He is in no sense constrained. He simply is. Therefore, when God came to earth and entered human history through the incarnation, Jesus the Son of God declared this same identity for Himself. John recorded it clearly in his gospel, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). Abraham had a beginning, but before him, says Jesus, “I am.” Absolute existence unbound by time.

Part of the reality of being time-bound creatures is that we experience everything in a progression. We move from one moment to another, encountering new things and new experiences all the time, and changing all the while as we pass through time. But it is not like that for the unchanging, eternal God. He, at once, holds time in its totality and sees history as a whole. God stands above time as the eternal One and as its Creator, but it is also true that He interacts with us in time. He is present and involved in the world, engaging with us as time-bound creatures. More than that, in the person of His Son, He has entered into human history. God speaks in history; reveals Himself in history; makes promises, gives warnings, responds to the sin and repentance of His people. He is patient in the unfolding of His will.

For God, however, the whole of history is more like a lake or an ocean.

All that is true, but at the very same time, He remains the eternal One. The distinction between time and eternity is not something we can pin down very well, but various people have tried at least to illustrate it in some way. So, for instance, consider the difference between a river, through which water travels, and a lake, where it is held.[1] We experience our own existence in time as a river. Time flows, and we only see or touch part of it at any given moment. For us, time is never static. As Isaac Watts’s great hymn puts it, “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, / bears all its sons away; / they fly, forgotten, as a dream / dies at the op’ning day.”[2] In this sense, for us, time is a river.

For God, however, the whole of history is more like a lake or an ocean. He can see and comprehend the whole in a way that we never could in our finite existence. It is all there, gathered at once before His eternal gaze. When the Scriptures declare that He is the “Alpha and the Omega . . . the beginning and the end” (Rev. 22:13; see also Isa. 46:9–10), it is not simply that God was there at the beginning and will be there at the end. No; His eternity encompasses it all. He is the beginning and He is the end, even now.

Unlike us, God does not look back wistfully on the past. Neither is He consumed by the present or troubled by waiting for the future. He sees all of time as a vivid whole before His eyes: creation, the fall, the flood, the call of Abram, the monarchy, the exile, the incarnation, the early church, the medieval period, the Reformation, the World Wars, the technological progress of the twenty-first century, and much more besides. None of history is lost or filed away in the distant past. As the psalmist says, “A thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night” (Ps. 90:4).

[1] Matthew Barrett draws upon Stephen Charnock for this image. See Barrett, None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019), 147.

[2] Isaac Watts, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” Hymnary.org, 1719, https://hymnary.org/text/our_god_our_help_in_ages_past_watts.

For Further Reading:

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