Divine Timelessness and the Death of Jesus

If the doctrine of divine timelessness is true, then it turns out – perhaps surprisingly to some people – that materialist Christology – and in particular what it has to say about the death of Jesus – is given a helping hand.

One of the reasons you might initially have trouble with this is simply that people often have trouble with divine timelessness in general. Divine timelessness is God’s quality of not being in time. It’s common enough in everyday talk about God to say that God is “outside of time,” but spelling this out in any detail along with its implications is less common.

Divine timelessness has sometimes been stated by saying that God does not have “temporal parts.” What does that mean? “Temporal” means to do with time. You and I have temporal parts. This is to say that our existence can be broken up into parts measured in time, such as five-minute segments. We had some of our existence in the past, in a number of five-minute parts, and we will have more of our existence in the future, in more five-minute parts. Our existence is divisible in this way, but God’s existence, if God is timeless, is not. God has all of his existence. It might be tempting to say that God has all of his existence “at once,” but this could be misinterpreted to mean that God has all of his existence at a point in time. The point is that God’s existence isn’t extended in time.

This can seem strange at first – and of course it is strange because it’s nothing like our own existence. One way of expressing divine timelessness (which to some ears may only make things more confusing) is to say that God does not exist in any part of time, but at any point in time, God exists (timelessly).

If you’re familiar with scholarly discussions in philosophy of religion, you’ll know that not everyone who has thought about this agrees that God is timeless. Nicholas Wolterstorff, for example, rejects divine timelessness, and William Lane Craig’s position is that God is timeless without the Universe, but in the creation of the Universe God entered time. I am not here defending divine timelessness against these positions or against any objections. All I intend to do is to explain an implication of divine timelessness.

Here is that implication: If divine timelessness is real, then nothing – absolutely nothing at all, no matter what – that happens in time can affect God’s timeless existence. If God exists timelessly, then he does so at t1 (where t1 is a point in time), and at t2 and at t3 and t4, and God would exist timelessly even if the Universe had never existed and there was no time. This sounds obvious at first, because it is. And yet at times this rather obvious truth gets forgotten or overlooked in discussions about God. This truth raises an interesting issue when it comes to William Lane Craig’s view – that God is timeless without the Universe, but entered time in the creation of the universe. For if God is timeless without the Universe, then nothing at all about the creation of the Universe and the beginning of time can possibly bring it about that God is not timeless. Indeed, it is literally a timeless truth. If all of physical reality were to be annihilated, God’s existence would be unaffected. This is not necessarily to say that Bill’s view is impossible. It may be that God brought about a “projection” of himself in time that co-exists with the universe and interacts in time with it. The point is just that it would be nonsensical to say that God somehow lacks his property of being timeless, when he would have had that property without the universe.

The second issue that this implication of divine timelessness raises is the one that prompted me to write this. Christian orthodoxy maintains that Jesus of Nazareth is God. He is a person who is fully human and fully divine (which is typically expressed by saying that he has a human nature and a divine nature), having all of the attributes required to be human and yet being fully divine at the same time. The words “at the same time” are important here, because Jesus exists in time: He was conceived, born, raised, baptised, crucified and raised from the dead, and all of these things occurred in time. There is no other way for these things to occur, and the very fact that something “occurs” gives away the fact that it is in time, for nothing can change without time.

Saying that the logos entered time is not to say that the logos changed. This would be to misunderstand what it means for God to be timeless. The logos would only change if the logos had one set of attributes at t1 and then later had a different set of attributes at t2. But the very nature of divine timelessness means that the logos did not have existence in time prior to the incarnation. The first moment of the incarnation was the first moment in the “history” (that is, the existence in time) of the logos. Without the incarnation, the logos has timeless existence in God. However, recall that divine timelessness implies that nothing that happens in time can bring about any change to God’s timeless existence. If at any point in time it is true that God exists timelessly, then at every point in time it is true to say that God exists timelessly. Otherwise God’s existence would not be timeless; it would be affected by time. If the incarnation had never occurred, the divine logos would exist timelessly. During the incarnation, it continued to be true that the divine logos existed timelessly. Had the incarnate person Jesus of Nazareth somehow ceased to exist, the divine logos would exist timelessly, because – and I repeat this for emphasis – absolutely nothing that happens in time can affect whether or not the divine logos has timeless existence. Even if we say that the logos “entered time,” we need to understand what we are saying. We are not saying that for a time the logos existed outside of time and then after that the logos existed in time, as though “timeless” existence is just a different kind of existence in time. What we are saying is that somehow the divine logos appeared in time, and in the time immediately prior, the divine logos did not exist in time. The incarnation is an event on the plane of history, but the timeless existence of the logos is not. In the incarnation, something began to exist in time. But of course – as orthodox theologians have always maintained – there was never a time when the logos did not exist. This is because with or without the incarnation, the logos has timeless existence.

Here a possible objection arises. Does this not imply that there were two Sons, two logai (plural of logos) at the same time, thus expanding the Trinity to a group of four, two of whom, paradoxically, are the same person? The answer is no. In order for there to exist two logai at the same time, there would need to be two logai that both existed in time at the same time. This, I hope it is clear, is not what I am proposing. Instead, the logos incarnate in the person of Jesus is the projection of the timeless Son of God in time. Although I may disagree with aspects of his view of God and time as well as his view of Christology, I do think Bill Craig draws a helpful analogy between the incarnation and the movie Avatar, where a paraplegic army veteran (Jake) enters an alien world via an avatar in virtual reality. Of course Jake does not cease to exist outside of the virtual reality machine, but neither are there now two Jakes. The analogy has its limits (and Bill did not intend to explain anything in terms of divine timelessness, as he maintains that God is now in time), but it does serve as something for the bewildered to grasp onto as a first step.

Hopefully I have not seemed too monotonous in stressing the implications of divine timelessness, but as I said, this is a point often overlooked in discussions about the incarnation and especially when discussing the death of Christ. I make no secret of the fact that I hold to a materialist view of human nature. One of the objections to this view is that it compromises the doctrine of the Trinity, because if Jesus really died and did not survive the death of his body as an immaterial being, then surely the Trinity was, for a couple of days at least, reduced to a union of only two persons – the Father and the Holy Spirit. This objection is also raised against those who think that the fate of those who reject God is final death and destruction, and who think that Jesus died in the place of sinners, saving them from that fate. It would follow from this that Jesus himself truly died, and hence, again, the Trinity was reduced to a unity of two for a couple of days. Robert Peterson makes this claim for example, saying that “To hold that the person of Christ ceased to exist in death [which, in context, simply means fully died and did not survive in a disembodied state – Glenn] is to explode the biblical doctrine of the Trinity. It is to assert that the second person of the Godhead went out of existence.”1

Given the stress that I placed on what divine timelessness implies earlier, however, I hope that it is obvious why this objection is mistaken. The objection supposes that the God, the Holy Trinity, only has existence in time, and hence if Jesus really died in time, then the Trinity, which exists in time, is changed. This is, quite clearly, simply to reject divine timelessness altogether.

In casual conversation – often a forum where people who disagree with you will suddenly latch onto arguments and beliefs they have never expressed before, on the spur of the moment, in order to show that you are wrong – I have encountered the off-the-cuff objection that if Jesus fully died but it continued to be true that the logos existed timelessly, then this amounts to a separation of Jesus’ divine and human nature. After all, I believe that Jesus, including his human nature, died, but the divine logos, existing timelessly, did not. But this objection too fails to come to terms with timelessness and also with the requirements of orthodox Christology. What orthodox Christology requires is that in the person of Jesus of Nazareth there is no separation of the divine and human natures. And there is no such separation in what I am proposing. Such a separation would need to happen in time if it happened at all, and it should be clear that I am proposing no such separation in the historic person of Jesus. Instead I am proposing that the whole person died. If I said that only his human nature died or that only his divine nature died, then there would be a problem (both theologically and conceptually, since persons die – not natures). But I don’t, so there isn’t.2

On a side note (although not an insignificant one), I do not think that divine timelessness is required in order to maintain a materialist view of human nature and the incarnation of God in Christ. I think that there are clues in the New Testament itself on how to proceed even without this orthodox view of God, although I realise that the solution under such conditions will have less appeal to many (the emphasis in Acts 2:27 on the fact that Christ was preserved even in death is important here). But if divine timelessness is true, the objections to a materialist view on human nature that I have outlined here seem obviously doomed.

You might reject divine timelessness. I am currently inclined to disagree with you, but I have not sought to defend divine timelessness here. I have only pointed out, hopefully with some clarity, that if you do embrace divine timelessness, then you cannot claim that the real, total death of Jesus of Nazareth in time undercuts the doctrine of the Trinity or an orthodox Christology.

Glenn Peoples

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  1. Robert Peterson, “A Traditionalist Response to Conditionalism” in Two Views of Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialogue (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000), 106. []
  2. Unfortunately it is not just hasty, casual conversations in which this objection is raised. John Cooper raises it in Body, Soul, & Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 144-145. []
{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Jason October 17, 2013, 8:05 pm

    Divine timelessness has an intuitive appeal to me, although my intuitions aren’t necessarily correct.

    So the Logos exists timelessly, but is also embodied in Jesus temporally. It can’t be said to be “at the same time” because only one part is timebound, the other just is. I don’t hold with cessation at death, so the Logos embodied in Jesus would just be elsewhere, not gone, and after the ascension the embodied Logos is now enthroned timelessly with the Father.

    That said, my head is hurting. It’s hard for a temporally bound person to contemplate timelessness and relate it to the temporally bound.

  • Dan Shire October 17, 2013, 8:55 pm

    Glenn, excellent article. Question: when Jesus died, are you saying that, at that point, the logos ceased to be in time? And at His resurrection, He reentered time? I was inspired by your article. I have a theory: there are at least two dimensions of time (maybe more). God is in transcendent time, which corresponds to His timelessness, and there is the dimension which we are on, immanent time. God is in each moment of time, interacting with us, in time (sustaining the existence of the physical universe as well). When Christ was born, God entered time in a special way which He had never done before. Just some thoughts – I have more, but, I don’t want to be too verbose.

  • Glenn October 17, 2013, 10:14 pm

    “the embodied Logos is now enthroned timelessly”

    Jason, a physical object can’t be timeless, so the only two options are: Firstly that Jesus is still bodily and in time, or secondly that somehow Jesus left time – which would just mean that he disappeared, and the only sense in which the Logos exists is timelessly, just like before the incarnation, and that the Logos will enter history again int he future when Christ returns.

    Orthodoxy would definitely favour the former (“I was dead but behold I am alive forevermore,” or the view that Christ is currently doing something by way of intercession for us), although the latter doesn’t specifically entail any of the usual heresies.

  • Glenn October 17, 2013, 10:19 pm

    Thanks Dan. 🙂

    “Question: when Jesus died, are you saying that, at that point, the logos ceased to be in time? And at His resurrection, He reentered time?”

    Possibly. I guess the main thing I’m saying is that if that did happen, it’s not the end of the world, thanks to divine timelessness. The danger in putting it like that, however, is that it can give the impression that the divine nature disappeared while the human nature didn’t. I think the most biblically faithful thing to say is that the person of Jesus died.

    When you say that God is “in each moment in time” and thereby interacting with us, it sounds like really you’re denying the classical view that God is timeless. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that because it’s a terrible thing, many theologians do deny this.)

  • Steve D. October 24, 2013, 1:31 am

    I think a great deal of this speculation depends on how you define “timeless.” Does it mean completely outside of time, or does it mean existing in time but being unaffected by it? (And what would THAT mean?)

    For instance, if God is completely outside time, and men are “in time,” then there is no way for God to interact with men, or vice versa, no? We experience everything sequentially, and as a succession of cause and effect. If God is in none of the moments of time, we can never experience Him (or if we somehow could, we could never make sense of the experience). If He is in all of them, unchanging, we can. So I suppose the formulation I would prefer would be that God is in time, but not affected by it…just as He is in all places, but does not therefore have a physical existence (except in the person of Jesus of Nazareth), nor is He in any way constrained by or to the dimensions of physical reality.

    I have no formal theological training, nor am I particularly well-read, and this is probably elementary stuff to you, but not to me. I have always believed that what the church teaches is this: that God is present in all moments, and all moments are eternally present in and to Him; but that He is unaffected by the flow of time, or by cause and effect–except in the person of Jesus Christ, who must necessarily have experienced time exactly as we do. The qualities I always associated with this description are “eternal” and “omnipresent”; I’m not exactly sure what the term “timeless” actually refers to, if it’s something different.

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