Is it true that for God everything is in the present now? He sees everything: past, now and future are in front of him. Does that make eternity primary and time secondary? If so, could we say that Jesus had a body already in eternity?
Thank you for your thought provoking questions. I’ll attempt to answer the first and the last, because that will, to a degree, determine the “terrain” in which the other questions should be located and answered. Your first question could briefly be answered “Yes, God is outside of time, and thus past, present, and future are simultaneous for him.” But even that does not accurately answer your question, much less do justice to God. Regarding your last question, the Lord Christ Jesus certainly does have a body that was once time-bound, but now is in eternity.
I can add more to those initial brief answers, but first allow me to sound some cautions. Mankind—even if we had never fallen into sin—could not understand God and eternity as he understands himself and eternity. As it is, we are fallen children of Adam, and sin renders all men guilty before the eternal God. Not only are we rendered guilty, but sin also makes us futile in our thinking, and darkened in our foolish hearts, to paraphrase Romans 1:21. You might be interested to explore the noetic effect of the fall of man (that is, sin’s effect on the human mind).
Scripture tells us very little about God’s consciousness of time. You probably are familiar with the apostle Peter’s teaching, “But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Pet. 3:8). Peter is echoing Moses’ more ancient words from Psalm 90:2, 4. Psalm 39:5 also teaches, “You, indeed, have made my days as handbreadths, and my lifetime as nothing before you. Truly each man at his best exists as but a breath.” The Bible makes plain that God is unchanging, and change is that by which we determine the passage of time—that inevitable movement from one instant to the next cautions us against trying to confine God within our linear perception of time. Yet God was, is, and will be “I am who I am” (Ex. 3:14).
Philosophers have penned whole libraries adding to the limits of Scripture, which end up profiting us nothing. I have found the teaching of Augustine, Bishop of Hippo to be helpful. You may be familiar with Augustine and his work. If you are not, then I would recommend taking a few minutes to learn something of this father in the faith; his shadow falls across church history.
Augustine wrote of his journey of faith in a book he called his “Confessions.” It is actually divided up into 13 sections that he calls books. If there were nothing in these 13 books on the Lord and eternity I would still encourage you to read it, if only for the prayers written there. However, Book 11 is devoted to God and time and is well worth reading. Allow me to share a few observations that might be helpful:
The opening paragraphs introduce us to Augustine’s understanding of time and the mind of God. He takes us to Genesis 1:1, which he considers the step from eternity as God knew it to time outworked before God. Also in these early sections there is a fascinating discourse on the creative Word—not a spoken word that is gone as soon as it is uttered, but the Co-eternal divine Word that is Christ. God the Son was always eternal, though the incarnation was necessary for salvation, and thus the resurrection and ascension take the God-man Christ Jesus beyond time and to eternity (more of this later).
Then from section or paragraph 11 onward Augustine lays out a reverential theory of God and eternity and time in the divine consciousness. “At no time, therefore, had you not made anything, because you had made time itself. And no times are co-eternal with you, because you remain for ever; but should these continue, they would not be times. For what is time? Who can easily and briefly explain it? Who even in thought can comprehend it, even to the pronouncing of a word concerning it?”
Augustine’s thinking owes much to Plato’s metaphysics. I’m not sure if that school of thought is behind his description of the passage of time, but there are moments in his writing when he sounds almost modern. For example, he sees time as the passage of a fraction of a fraction of a second, followed by another and another; he anticipates our milliseconds! For what it’s worth, Augustine referred to our mental awareness of and progress through time as “distention”—a word that referred to a nervous tension or spasm. This distention of or through time is man’s capacity to remember the past (imperfectly) and anticipate the future (faultily). Augustine uses music as an example, an example he returns to in Book 41. He writes, addressing God: “A person singing or listening to a song he knows well suffers a distension or stretching in feeling and in sense perception from the expectation of future sounds and the memory of past sound. With you it is otherwise. You are unchangeably eternal, that is, the truly eternal creator of minds.” Clearly this connects with your first question and your opening sentences. For Augustine, we are distended through time, God is the same and “his years do not fail” (Conf., XI, xxix, 39; Ps. 104:4).
In addition to this, as Augustine points out God’s moments, days, or weeks don’t come or go. God’s day is not any and every day but “Today.” Consequently, Augustine writes, “Your Today is eternity” (Conf., XI, xiii). If you want to read more of Augustine on this point then dip into City of God, XI, 21.
Your second question touches on part of the believer’s knowledge of and love for Christ. The miracle of the incarnation, which was the only way in which salvation could be accomplished, saw Christ ontologically bridge the gap between time and eternity. In John 8:58 we read, “Jesus said to them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.’” The same mind-blowing eternal existence is asserted in Revelation 1:17–18. Christ came from eternity and contracted himself into our time, in order to make the infinite atoning payment for our sin. The one who is outside of, above, and transcending time, which he personally created, enters into time, and then returns to eternity as the God-man. In eternity, he continues to bridge what to us is an unbridgeable divide. Sin results in death, which could be called the greatest change and confinement time places upon us.
The incarnation of our Lord happened in time, as did the victory of Calvary and the empty tomb. Yet, because of his victory, he ascended and entered eternity in a state different from that in which he left it when he came to earth. Now, because of the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Savior, there is a man in eternity—a human being, body and soul—in that particular realm that no human has been to. Sin has led to the confines of time, but Christ has defeated sin, and thus he is not constrained by time (or sin) as we are.
Only the believer, in and through Christ, can look beyond time. Therefore faith ought to enable us to live with the mind-stretching question you raised in your original email. United to him we can accept our human finitude but trust that he is the Yes and Amen guaranteeing our past, present and future in his eternal person, in the eternal “now.”
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