'Before Abraham Was, I Am': A God Outside of Time

Does God, existing in an eternal present, create chronological time for the benefit of our human minds?

Excerpted from The Fire in the Equations: Science, Religion, and the Search for God with permission of Templeton Press.

There is an old Texas aphorism: 'Time is how God keeps things from happening all at once.' Perhaps for God things do happen all at once, and 'time' as we know it is only an approximate description.

As long ago as the fourth and fifth centuries, the Christian philosopher Augustine of Hippo gave a great deal of thought and prayer to the subject of time. Like Aristotle and Islamic natural philosophers, Augustine concluded that time begins with the beginning of the universe. He made a sharp cut between the things that exist in time and space and what is outside time and space.

Augustine began with the question 'What was God doing before He created Heaven and Earth?' and decided that the question has no meaning because words such as 'before' and 'after' and 'then' can't apply where time as we know it doesn't exist." According to Augustine, time as we know it is part and parcel of this creation, not something that applies to God.

The timeless present tense in which Augustine proposed that God exists is difficult to imagine or describe. Augustine wrote: 'Who shall lay hold upon the mind of man, that it may stand and see that time with its past and future must be determined by eternity, which stands and does not pass, which has in itself no past or future."' Augustine doesn't say, you will notice, that eternity lasts for ever, though that's how most of us think of eternity. Eternity lasts no time at all. Eternity 'stands and does not pass'; and 'in eternity nothing passes but all is present'.


In this model of reality, you can't talk about a 'time' before time was created, any more than you can talk about it in Hawking's no-boundary universe. There was never a 'time' when time didn't exist. 'There can be no time apart from creation . . . Let them cease to talk such nonsense,' wrote Augustine. What he proposed instead of 'such nonsense' was that God, existing in an eternal present, creates chronological time for the benefit of our human minds and existence.

What would it be like if events were not ordered in chronological time? If God knows everything in the universe that ever has happened and ever will happen in the same way (except in infinitely more detail) that I know what's happening right now in the room with me, in what way would that affect God's power to affect this universe? What meaning could cause and effect have in such a setting? What would happen to 'predictability'? Where events are not filed chronologically, is there some other sort of filing system? Those are questions we have no hope of answering, but we can speculate a little.

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Kitty Ferguson
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