What was God doing before time? According to Scripture, God created everything (Gen 1:1) and apart from him nothing was made (John 1:3). So God alone is uncreated. And this means God existed before creation, before the universe, and, I think we can say, before all time. He is, after all, said to “alone possess immortality” (1 Tim 6:16). And it is impossible for him to have a beginning if nothing but him existed before any created thing came into existence.
How then can we conceive of God before all time? And how can God relate to us in time? It is an odd question but one that, I think, has an answer that leads to profound worship.
To begin to answer this question, we need to first discuss and define time. In the first place, time has no essence. Time measures change. The earth rotates around the sun every 365 days. We define this change or movement by the word “year.” The earth also spins on its axis, and when it reaches a full spin, we call this “day.” And we also measure the increments of its spin by the term “hour.” Time measures change or movement.
In this way, God created time because he created moving and growing entities. Trees grow, die, and dissolve. We grow taller, then a bit shorter, and then stop any growth once our cells cease from multiplying. Since we come into being by birth, grow year-by-year, and die as mortals, we are in time. Our changes from life to death signify participation in time since time merely measures our development and change.
Since God has no beginning nor mortal death, he does not appear to enter into time as we do. Now, perhaps we could say that God changes by growing or developing and so in this way has a temporal existence. But if God is perfect, then any growth would imply that he lacked perfection. And that statement is incoherent. A perfect being needs nothing to make it perfect for it is already perfect.
So any change would imply that God became less than perfect. But that too makes little sense since a perfect being cannot lose perfection (since perfection means not having the capacity to be imperfect).
And yet God speaks to people in Scripture. He enacts miracles for Israel. He appears on Mount Sinai. So surely this means that God somehow relates to time. But we need maintain this assertion alongside the other sure truth that God has no origin, growth, or mortal nature. Hence, he does not have the markers that would allow us to measure him temporally as we do with created things.
If God does not change (at least in any way like we do due to our mortal and corruptible nature), then God must exist timelessly. The classic definition of God’s timelessness occurs on Boethius who writes, “Eternity, then, is the complete, simultaneous and perfect possession of everlasting life.”
So God is eternal. And God, therefore, has “complete, simultaneous and perfect possession of everlasting life.” The word simultaneous here is important. If we can conceive of a changeless and so timeless being, this being would have to exist differently than we do. And this is true about God who is “above all being” since he alone possesses immortality via being uncreated and so eternal. We have no perfect analogy for such a being.
Everything we say about such a being is therefore analogical yet not exact (univocal knowledge). Hence, such a being would, from our point of view, have to act in one simple or simultaneous way. An act of a timeless or changeless being would have to be one and singular and outside of our normal measurements.
Christianity conceives of this act as a pure act. The idea of pure act relates to the Christian confession that God is simple. Returning again to Boethius, he defines divine simplicity in this way: “God is simply and entirely God, for He is nothing else than what He is, and therefore is, through simple existence, God.”
God, as eternal, unchanging, timeless, acts singularly and simply apart from any created conception of sequence since sequence involves change, development, growth. Such things belong to created beings, not to uncreated beings. And God is an uncreated being. So he cannot change nor work in sequence at least in ways that we conceive of sequence.
This discussion sets us up to understand what God was doing before time and begin to answer how what God does after time.
God did nothing before time that he does not do after time. If time measures change and God does not change but acts singularly and simply as pure act, then the conception of “before time” does not apply to God. He did not grow into time as process theologians claim. Nor did he exist timeless before creation and then temporally after creation as William Lane Craig, for example, maintains.
The way in which God relates to creation does not involve time. Time is for creatures, not for the creator. God does certainly relate to time-bound creatures since he speaks with changeable creatures. Yet that relationship involves a dependence of being.
I started this article by citing Genesis 1 and John 1. Those passages confirm that nothing exists apart from God. And something exists because God gives it being. And God “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb 1:3). At every moment, we relate in some way to God via dependence upon him for life. God is life itself; we are gifted with life.
Such an analogy of being cannot imply a gradation between God and creation. The two exist in entirely different ontological planes. So this relationship of being preserves and reinforces the distinction between God as creator and his creation. No ladder of being exists between the two.
And so we may say that “before time” or “after time” have no meaning when applied to God, or at least no real meaning. Since we change and act one way one day and another way another day, we may metaphorically move from God’s left to his right (very metaphorically). We change, but God still stands at the centre (very very metaphorically). These changes, or Cambridge changes, describe our movement around God but not God’s movement. And they give us an intellectual tool to partially conceive of how God relates to creation.
Creation like any other act of God relates to his pure act, his verbness. This explains why John can claim that the lamb was slain before the world was founded in Revelation 13:8 (τοῦ ἀρνίου τοῦ ἐσφαγμένου ἀπὸ καταβολῆς κόσμου). There was never a time when God did not create nor redeem simply because there is no time in God.
Remember the words of Boethius. The eternal God acts simultaneously with his one simple and pure act. Or at least, that is how we conceive of it. Admittedly, we do not really know how to conceive by finite thinking how an infinite being can act without change. We simply do not have the capacity—remember also the ontological difference between creator and creation.
So there is no “when” before God created, nor “while” as he created, nor “during” while creation exists, nor “future” when God will act. It is, for God, one and simple. Every act of God in creation is his one simple act.
But to conceive of how this works goes beyond conception. Yet it does happen. And so we must stop here and glory in praise with the apostle for we honour God here more by our silence than by our explanation:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
“For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
Great article. I was wondering if John 17:24 fit in here somewhere ala Michael Reeves’ Delighting in the Trinity. Maybe that veers into a different part of God’s attributes than this article addresses.
Henry Paasonen says
Thank you for the clarity of your article. The directly next question would be, why did God create? Colossians tells us all was created “by and for Christ”. Therefore, “before” the creation of time the simultaneous intentionality of the Father was the Father’s expression of love for the Son. Through the centuries several theologians have then seen creation as an “overflow” of that Triune love (for various reason, then given). Mm. I am not completely satisfied with that answer.
Mike Piles says
John 17:24 NASB “Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me, for You loved Me before the foundation of the world.
The Father was loving the Son.
Fielding Poe says
I seem to recall Saint Augustine being asked this question about what God was doing before time , and he replied creating a hell for people who asked those questions. I suppose even the great Saint Augustine had a sense of humor.
Good article. I have a question, you said that there is no time in God, but the scriptures says that we have our being in Him, so in my understanding, it means that nothing exists outside God, would that not imply that time exists in God?
Ray Bobo says
Actually, I have a question. In a Sunday School class on Providence the question was asked about the fall of Satan; specifically when did he fall; more specifically in light of Genesis 1 & 2 where does Satan’s fall fit? Certainly after the “and God saw it was good” phrases, but before the temptation of Eve. I have heard it suggested they the fall of mankind and of Satan were simultaneous. Any suggestion(s) for reading?
Same question I’ve been wondering lately but if only I could see answers on this page.
Lee Salzman says
More precisely, time is a measure of ‘cyclical’ changes (or repeating events such as rotating planets, pulsating atoms or beating hearts). So It might be more accurate to say it is heaven–where God resides–that is eternal since it resides above these things (firmament). This also comports with the coming Kingdom of God, where we all will have eternal life on the new Earth and its cyclical markers will disappear (sun, moon, stars, blood). Since terms such as ‘eternal’ and ‘infinite’ are also associated with time, it may not be an error to consider them another example of God’s condescension to us to help our feeble minds understand an even more majestic and awesome truth (see further Augustine’s theories on time in his Confessions).
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Ray Bobo says
Just a suggestion about human existence in the coming kingdom. I have always hesitated to call it “eternal” life, opting instead for “everlasting” life. Unless, of course, one want’s to include as part of human existence the “idea”, “purpose”, “decree” of God to create them, that is, for lack of a better way to say it, when they existed in the mind of God but not yet physically conceived (particularly the elect, but even the non-elect unless one also believes in annihilation of the “vessels fitted for destruction”, at which time they would cease to exist at all).