A Commonsense View of Time and Eternity
I have the greatest respect for Ken Ham, and the marvelous work that he is doing at Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum. I have learned a great deal from him and the other authors whose works adorn his excellent website. I stand with him in his claim that Genesis, interpreted as true history, is the foundation and key to the whole rest of the Bible. Let nothing that is said here be taken as a personal attack. In this piece, I am only trying to advance the cause of truth by critiquing the consensus view of time and eternity. I might have picked any number of Christian authors who have made similar statements. This one came to my attention and seemed as suitable as any for my purpose.
In an article entitled, “What Was God Doing Before Creation?” Ken Ham stated:
Because of my stand on a young universe, a man approached me and said, “But it makes no sense to believe in a young universe. After all, what was God doing all that time before He created?”
I answered, “What time do you mean?”
The person answered, “Well, it doesn’t make sense to say that God has always existed, and yet He didn’t create the universe until just six thousand years ago.” Apparently, he was worried that God once had a lot of time on His hands with nothing to do.
I then went on to explain that because God has always existed, then it is meaningless to ask, “What was God doing all that time before He created?” No matter how far you were to go back in time, you would still have an infinite amount of time before He created! So even if the universe were billions or trillions or quadrillions of years old, you could still ask the same question.
So far, so good! But then Mr. Ham makes a common mistake:
I then answered, “But you are missing the fact that there was no time before God created.”
Absolute versus Relative Time
So there was no time before creation! Really! Here I must insist upon a crucial distinction between absolute and relative time. In his definition of “time”, Noah Webster states:
“Time is absolute or relative; absolute time is considered without any relation to bodies or their motions. Relative time is the sensible measure of any portion of duration, by means of motion. Thus the diurnal revolution of the sun measures a space of time or duration.” (An American Dictionary of the English Language, Noah Webster, 1828)
In this he follows Sir Isaac Newton:
“Absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature flows equably without regard to anything external, and by another name is called duration: relative, apparent, and common time, is some sensible and external (whether accurate or unequable) measure of duration by the means of motion, which is commonly used instead of true time; such as an hour, a day, a month, a year.” (Principia, p.77, Motte translation, 1846)
I grant that relative time may be said to have begun when the world was created; but absolute time must have been passing from all eternity. God is called “the ancient of days” because He is by far the Oldest Being. One does not grow old if there is no time. God always was – that is, He was from eternity. Always means “at all times”. When we say God was “from eternity”, the word, “from” is used in the same way as we would say, “from the day that…” It indicates a span of time which has passed since that day. One must get rid of the idea that eternity is something separate from time or opposed to it; for eternity is just time without beginning or end.
But Mr. Ham fails to recognize this all-important distinction. Time as he defines it had a beginning. Next he says:
“Time is actually a created entity. The first verse of the Bible reads: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth'” (Genesis 1:1, emphasis added).
But wait a minute. This verse says nothing about God creating time! Rather, it uses a phrase, “in the beginning”, that implies time already existed when He created. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” is not the same as “In the beginning God created time, space and matter.” Nor does the text read, “God created the beginning”. This text, therefore, says absolutely nothing in support of his hypothesis. I will have more to say on this later; but let us first see if he has any other proof. He next asserts:
“A study of this verse reveals that God created time, space, and matter on the first day of Creation Week.”
What Does the Text Say?
Alright then, let’s study the verse.
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:1-2)
Genesis 1:1 says that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” – that is, what was to become our familiar heaven and earth. Then it briefly describes their original condition. Then follows a record of the six days of creation, in which by further creative acts, God turned this formless, chaotic world into a finished cosmos. Moses elsewhere summarizes:
“For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.” (Exodus 20:11)
The second text contemplates the finished, “very good” heaven and earth as it was before the fall of man, and calls it “heaven and earth”.
God created heaven and earth out of nothing. Genesis 1:1 is not a summary of the following account of creation, but a statement about the fiat creation of the universe in its original mode of existence: an unformed mass of water and primeval substance in the midst of the unlighted heavens. Keil & Delitzsch point out that the use of the word “and” at the start of verse two requires verse one to be understood as having already taken place. Verse one is not a heading, and verse two is not a subordinate clause of a longer sentence.
If verse one is not a statement of ex nihilo creation, then there is none in this whole chapter; which I find incredible. For verse two obviously contemplates an existing world; but gives no hint where it came from. Verse one must explain this fact.
There are two key questions that concern us:
1. What was it that God is said to have created?
2. What is meant by “in the beginning?
1. What was it that God is said to have created?
The answer is “heaven and earth”. This is not a scientific description: nothing in the creation narrative is written in terms of twenty-first century scientific terminology. Nothing should be more apparent; but nothing is more common than the attempt to read it in terms of modern scientific concepts and models. The great diversity of opinion among modern commentators tells against this approach. The older commentators understood the text to be written in anthropomorphic and phenomenological language; which supposition yields a natural and understandable sense, and a general agreement.
It was addressed to ordinary men in an ancient agrarian culture; to be understood by them, and by all succeeding generations, regardless of the scientific model in vogue at any time. To import into the term, “heaven”, the idea of the astral heavens revealed by modern telescopy and exploration, would be an abuse of language. Barnes thinks that the heavenly bodies must be included, but these were not made until the fourth day. Gill thinks the celestial heavens, where God manifests Himself to the angels and His redeemed, may be included; but I believe that this is beyond the scope of the narrative.
The man of the first century Anno Mundi would know no other “heaven” than the visible sky, which appears as a solid dome, and in which appear the clouds and the astral bodies; and no other “earth” but the land upon which he stood. He would not need to know that the earth is a gigantic sphere, or that the sky is an ocean of gases surrounded by largely empty space. All of the particularity that we moderns ascribe to these words would be foreign to this context, which is characterized by concreteness and an elegant simplicity.
Every attempt that has been made to derive a description of the universe as scientists now understand it from the language of Genesis one has proved unsatisfactory and strained. For example, I refer you to Henry M. Morris’s influential The Genesis Record. While there is much in this book to appreciate, his attempt to expound Genesis 1:1 is not, in my opinion, very helpful.
To Morris, “the heavens” means what we call space, and “the beginning” is the beginning of time. This is plainly an importing of Morris’s idiosyncratic cosmology into the text. Newton would have said that this cannot be right, for it is self-evident that space and time are not created entities; and that they had no beginning. Morris says that “the earth” means matter, but the text says not “matter”, but “the earth”. It is obvious that the sun, moon and stars were not made out of “the earth”; for the latter was already fully-formed when the former were created. (I suspect that they were made ex nihilo, like the earth; but the text does not say.) Morris says that the universe is a “trinity” which he defines as “a continuum in which each component is itself co-existent and coterminous with the whole. That is, the universe is not part space, part time and part matter, but rather all space, all time, all matter, and so is a true tri-unity.” I have no idea what this is supposed to mean. But I am fairly sure that nothing like this was in the mind of the original author.
There are many opinions about the interpretation of verses one and two, but after consideration of all the principal views, I think Calvin is right when he says regarding them:
“…Moses simply intends to assert that the world was not perfected at its very commencement, in the manner in which it is now seen, but that it was created an empty chaos of heaven and earth. His language therefore may be thus explained: ‘When God in the beginning created the heaven and the earth, the earth was empty and waste.'”
He further states:
“There is no doubt that Moses gives the name of “heaven and earth” to that confused mass which he, shortly afterwards (verse 2), denominates waters. The reason of which is, that this matter was to be the seed of the whole world. Besides, this is the generally recognized division of the world.”
Calvin is referring to the fact that ancient Hebrew had no word equivalent to “cosmos” or “universe”. Accordingly, we find the phrase, “heaven and earth” used as an equivalent to “all creation” in many places in the Old Testament. But again, this should not be pressed as proof that the whole cosmos as now known to us was intended by the author in Genesis 1:1.
The purpose of this chapter of sacred narrative is to show us how our own familiar world came into existence by the omnipotence of a sovereign God, and what our place is in this world; not to exhaustively describe the entire universe. That this record is not meant to be exhaustive is seen in the significant fact that the creation of the angels, even, is not addressed at all! When He made the angels is not revealed; unless Job 38:7 is speaking of the angels, in which case they were made at some time before the earth was.
Keil and Delitzsch says concerning the first day:
“Though treating of the creation of the heaven and the earth, the writer, both here and in what follows, describes with minuteness the original condition and progressive formation of the earth alone, and says nothing more respecting the heaven than is actually requisite in order to show its connection with the earth. He is writing for inhabitants of the earth, and for religious ends; not to gratify curiosity, but to strengthen faith in God, the Creator of the universe. What is said in Genesis 1:2 of the chaotic condition of the earth, is equally applicable to the heaven, for the heaven proceeds from the same chaos as the earth.”
And Calvin, commenting on the waters above the firmament in 1:6 says:
“For, to my mind, this is a certain principle, that nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world. He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere. Here the Spirit of God would teach all men without exception; and therefore what Gregory declares falsely and in vain respecting statues and pictures is truly applicable to the history of the creation, namely, that it is the book of the unlearned. The things, therefore, which he relates, serve as the garniture of that theater which he places before our eyes. Whence I conclude, that the waters here meant are such as the rude and unlearned may perceive.”
Note: I am not saying that God did not create all things, visible and invisible, during Creation week. My remarks are only meant to confine us to the meaning of the terms of the text intended by the author. On the first day, God made the earth; and on the second, “the expanse” or “heaven”. On the fourth day, He made all the heavenly bodies that appear in our sky. The description is of things visible and familiar, according to the common perception of mankind.
The remainder of Genesis one details the progressive development and perfecting of the world whose original creation is recorded in the first verse. None of the elements of created reality that are essential from a human perspective are omitted. But of the origin of space itself, or of time in a generic sense, there is not a word!
2. What is the referent of the phrase “in the beginning”?
We might ask, “The beginning of what?” Since no reference point is explicitly stated, it must be clearly implied. Otherwise, the author has left us to guess, which is absurd. What does the context suggest? Since the subject is the creation of the world, it is obvious that the beginning of the world is meant. John uses the same expression in the same way in the prologue to his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.” (John 1:1-3). The meaning is clear. The eternal Word already “was” with God the Father in the beginning of the world. At that time, He made all things.
One can assert that it means the beginning of time itself; but to prove it from the words in Genesis 1:1 is another matter, since generic time is not referred to at all in any of them! The words rather denote a particular time period. Once again, the most natural meaning of the text in question is, that the world which we now know in its completed state was, in its beginning, created by God in an amorphous, undifferentiated, and undeveloped condition – and was subsequently perfected in the space of six days.
But Mr. Ham gives us no exposition of the text. This is fair, considering the nature and purpose of his piece: and no doubt his views are accessible in his other writings. I simply note the fact. What we are given is an unfortunate mix of bare assertions and shaky deductions, as follows:
“No one of these can have a meaningful existence without the others. God created the space-mass-time universe. Space and matter must exist in time, and time requires space and matter. Time is only meaningful if physical entities exist and events transpire during time.”
This is almost word-for-word from Henry Morris. The first statement, “No one of these can have a meaningful existence without the others”, is simply not true. Time and space can conceivably exist without mass or energy. In fact, they did exist before the material world, which is what the Bible says God created. God always existed, which could not be said if there was no always. “Always” has never meant anything else than “at all times”. And absolute space was already in existence from all eternity. For I cannot understand God’s immensity apart from the “void”, the infinite space which He fills.
First Key Idea: Duration
Another way of saying it is that God is of infinite duration, and duration is synonymous with time. As Sir Isaac Newton (who was reputed to know something about science, and also the Bible) said,
“He is eternal and infinite, omnipotent and omniscient ; that is, his duration reaches from eternity to eternity; his presence from infinity to infinity; he governs all things and knows all things, that are or can be done. He is not eternity or infinity, but eternal and infinite; he is not duration and space, but he endures and is present. He endures forever and is everywhere present; and by existing always and everywhere, he constitutes duration and space. Since every particle of space is always, and every indivisible moment of duration is everywhere, certainly the Maker and Lord of all things cannot be never and nowhere.” (Principia, p.505, Motte translation, 1846)
Mr. Ham’s next statement is a mere assertion: “God created the space-mass-time universe.” There is not a single text anywhere in God’s Word to support this; but nevertheless it seems to be the consensus view today among Christians who are scientists, old- and young-earthers alike.
Then he says, “Space and matter must exist in time, and time requires space and matter”, which is half true – the first half, that is – the second half isn’t. Time doesn’t imply the existence of matter at all! God was here for an eternity of time before He created the material world. When we say that God is “eternal”, we mean that He is infinitely extended in time; as God’s “immensity” means that He is infinitely extended in space.
I assert that there is no other way for us to think about these things. There is no other clear and definite concept of eternity, than that God is always; or of omnipresence, that God is everywhere in any man’s mind. To think of God in terms that have no temporal or spacial implications is impossible. All the words and phrases that Scripture uses to represent eternity are derived from temporal terms (See Addendum). No doubt God alone understands the true nature of time and space; but if we try to escape the bonds of the categories of reason which he has implanted in our finite minds, we will only end up in confusion.
Second Key Idea: Succession
But Mr. Ham thinks otherwise. He supports his claim that “time requires space and matter” with the following argument: “Time is only meaningful if physical entities exist and events transpire during time”. I take it that he means that the word, “time” has no meaning unless “physical entities exist and events transpire during time”. So he defines time more narrowly than I do, and limits it to the realm of what I would call history. But notice that Mr. Ham has recognized the two elements that belong to the essence of time. Without naming them, he points to the existence of duration (“entities exist”) and succession (“events transpire”).
It is necessary to distinguish these two aspects of time: duration and succession. I have before proved that duration must be as eternal as God. Now we must consider the other aspect of time, succession. Succession is implied in duration; for without a succession of moments there can be no duration.
Our innate idea of time is of something that moves. Moment succeeds moment. There is past, present and future; but what is now future will become present, and then past. This sequence is continuous, without intermission, and unending. This is what I mean by succession. Mr. Ham also has an idea of succession, but it is limited to created entities and events in history, and is inapplicable to the time before creation. Thus he makes the mistake of thinking that time began at creation.
The succession of which I speak is as real for God as it is for us. God reveals Himself as the One who “was, and is, and is to come”. He reminds us of what He has done in the past, tells us what He is doing in the present, and predicts what He will do in the future. It is not just our time in which He exists and acts; but the time that is common to us and Him. Or rather, it is His time, in which we have been made to share by virtue of our creation.
Immutability Implies Time
One of God’s perfections is unchangeableness, or immutability. If a perfect being were to change, He could not become more perfect; for perfection does not admit of degrees. And He could not become imperfect; for if He did, that would imply that He was already imperfect – that is, capable of corruption. God is incapable of any such thing. But God’s unchangeableness implies the existence of time; since change implies time. The word, “immutability” is only meaningful if there is a hypothetical possibility of, or opportunity for, change. There is nothing outside of God, or in the nature of the circumstances in which He exists, that can prevent Him from changing: only His own nature makes it impossible.
I am confident that Mr. Ham would never say that God became immutable only when time began: He was always immutable. But the reason he was immutable in eternity past was not because there was no time in which He might change. Rather, from moment to moment, as time went by, He remained the same, all the time, as a necessity of His perfect nature.
The Living God
But while God’s being is forever immutable, God is active – not stationary, immobile, inactive. God has never been anything else but the living God. He did not wait until Creation to start doing things. He has been knowing, willing, determining, loving, communicating, and all the other things He does within Himself, from all eternity. These are internal acts of God, if I may so speak – things done within Himself, within the triune Godhead. His external acts required the existence of something outside Himself. He had to create that something first. At the beginning of this mysterious world in which we find ourselves, He was there, and spoke it into being. This was His first external act.
Time is therefore not meaningless apart from the existence of matter and events involving materiality, as Mr. Ham asserts. Neither were the eternal ages of time before the beginning of the world, in which only God existed, meaningless. Ask what God did then, and I will tell you that, among other things, He loved His people and willed their salvation. He loved them every second of every minute of every day, just as He does now, and always will. Eternity is not the absence of time; nor is it the annulment of time: it is time infinitely extended into the past and the future.
Mr. Ham concludes:
“In the beginning…” is when time began! There was no time before time was created!
He does not realize that he has just involved himself in a contradiction. What, after all, does “before time” mean? How can there be a before where there is no time? The word “before” implies succession, and therefore the existence of time. The claim that time had a beginning is therefore self-contradictory and nonsensical.
And if time is defined as the realm of change; then the beginning of time, which would be the greatest change of all, must take place at some time within the realm of change. Change cannot occur until time exists. Therefore, time must have existed before time, in order for time to come into existence. There is no escaping this plain contradiction.
And if there was no time before Creation, then God existed at no time before Creation.
The Mystery of Time: There is Only the Present
While time goes on forever, it is important to realize that, in an ultimate sense, the past and the future are nonexistent. Only the present exists. The past is so perfectly, exhaustively and persistently remembered by God that it is nearly real to Him; but He does not live, exist, or act in the past, any more than we do.
Likewise, the future is perfectly foreknown by Him, and He has always willed that it should become present and exist at the proper time; but the future does not yet exist. Else how could Paul use this language of God?
“…God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were.” (Romans 4:17)
God “called” Abraham “a father of many nations” long before it was true of him. Even now, the fulfillment of this is incomplete; for the whole number of the elect have not been gathered in. God was able to say this because with Him, the promise is as sure as if it had been kept. Notwithstanding, there is an absolute antithesis between “those things which be not” and those things that are.
A God who experienced as existent that which did not exist would not be a God of truth. The claim often made that time is irrelevant to God – that He exists “simultaneously” in the past, present and future – is therefore impossible.
The past leaves behind its consequences: that is all. It cannot be undone or altered, even by God. That is why our past sins cannot merely be erased. That would have solved everything, wouldn’t it? God could then have said, “Adam, Eve, that was a terrible thing you did, but I see that you are very sorry and will never make that mistake again; so I am just going to undo it, and we will start all over again at the beginning.” No, nothing can be done to change something that occurred in the past. But the consequences of sin – alienation from God, guilt, defilement – these can be fully dealt with by a God of infinite wisdom and power. And they have been!
There is no doubt that our mode of knowing is finite and imperfect. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, as the prophet declares. They are infinitely above our own. There is mystery everywhere in God’s creation; to say nothing of the mystery of mysteries: God Himself. We know nothing now as we shall know someday; and we will never know anything as God does, for what it really is.
Nevertheless, we do have true knowledge of a sort that is appropriate for us in our role as the image and representative of God. The ultimate ideas – time, space, matter, energy, causation, etc. are not uncertain or debatable. They are the foundations of intelligence, the roots of understanding. When they are perverted by men who have abandoned the Rock of Scripture; or when, in trying to reach higher than we were meant to, we lose our hold on the fundamental ideas, we end up understanding less – not more.
This age, with all its technical competence, is far inferior in understanding to the time of Bacon and Newton. Our theoretical physicists know nothing of metaphysics, and think everything can be measured and reduced to mathematical formulae; but the infinite, the eternal, the absolute are beyond the grasp of mathematics. Neither God nor truth can be computed, proved or disproved by calculation. The priceless gift of right reason will always, when exercised within its proper limits and subordinated to revelation, lead to the truth in such matters. We only need to be aware of what we really know and how we really think to solve many a riddle and untie many a Gordian knot.
I am aware that these remarks, and this view of things, will (to say the least) be met with skepticism. After all, Mr. Ham represents a consensus view that in some respects goes back to Augustine. But all errors are old; and many have been widely accepted at times. I only ask for a prayerful and careful consideration of the substance of my argument. If I am wrong, it should not be hard for Mr. Ham (or for someone else among the very many others who are wiser and abler than I am) to prove it.
ADDENDUM: THE BIBLICAL VOCABULARY OF ETERNITY
If we take the language of scripture as it stands, we find no trace of a non-temporal concept of eternity. The Hebrew and Greek words used are all temporal words, and picture eternity as the extension of time without limit.
The Hebrew words for “eternal” and “everlasting”
Deuteronomy 33:27 The eternalH6924 GodH430 is thy refuge,H4585 and underneathH4480 H8478 are the everlastingH5769 arms:H2220
WORD/ STRONG’S NUMBER/ LITERAL MEANING
keh’-dem 6924 “the front” from the beginning
From a root, 6923 that means to precede, or go before. To the Hebrews, the front of anything was the east side, so it is used often of “the east”. But in temporal contexts, it refers to that which is ancient, which is before some reference point, or before all things else. This is the language of temporal succession.
o-lawm’ 5769 “concealed” always, forever
Strong gives the following: “properly concealed, that is, the vanishing point; generally time out of mind (past or future), that is, (practically) eternity”. The idea is time infinitely extended into the past or the future.
Isaiah 57:15 ForH3588 thusH3541 saithH559 the highH7311 and lofty OneH5375 that inhabitethH7931 eternity,H5703 whose nameH8034 is Holy;H6918 I dwellH7931 in the highH4791 and holyH6918 place,
ad’ 5703 “terminus” of perpetual duration
Strong gives: “properly a (peremptory) terminus, that is, (by implication) duration, in the sense of perpetuity”. With its equivalent, 5704, ad’ appears 112 times in the Hebrew Old Testament. It is commonly used in conjunction with o-lawm’. When used alone, it is most often translated “ever” (meaning always) or “for ever”. This highlights the temporal idea of duration.
Only in Isaiah 57:15, in the memorable phrase, “who inhabitest eternity” is ad’ ever translated as a noun in the A.V. Though this makes beautiful poetry, there is no linguistic necessity for this unique translation. The verb rendered “inhabitest”, coming from the root, to lie (down), means to dwell or to remain; it would therefore be proper to translate, “who abideth eternally”. Brenton’s English translation of the phrase from the Septuagint reads, “who dwells on high for ever”. Delitzsch gives us “the eternally dwelling One”. This text gives no color to Augustine’s speculation that God somehow “dwells outside time”.
The Greek words for “forever”, “eternal” and “everlasting”
Matthew 6:13 ForG3754 thineG4675 isG2076 theG3588 kingdom,G932 andG2532 theG3588 power,G1411 andG2532 theG3588 glory,G1391 for ever.G1519 G165
165 αἰών “age” forever
Strong: “properly an age; by extension perpetuity (also past)”. An aion or age is a long period of time. The phrase eis tous aionas (into the ages) used here means perpetually or forever.
Romans 16:26 ButG1161 nowG3568 is made manifest,G5319 andG5037 byG1223 the scripturesG1124 of the prophets,G4397 accordingG2596 to the commandmentG2003 of theG3588 everlastingG166 God,G2316 made knownG1107 toG1519 allG3956 nationsG1484 forG1519 the obedienceG5218 of faith:G4102
166 αἰώνios from αἰών, “age” eternal, everlasting
This word is just an adjective formed from αἰών that means perpetual.
All of the words and phrases used in the Bible to express the idea of eternity have the quality of temporality. They imply succession and/or duration, both of which are temporal concepts. There is nothing in any of these words to imply that eternity is anything other than time extended infinitely into the past and the future.