Recently, a series of comments on different threads and from different people has convinced me that far more people believe that God lives outside of time than I would have suspected. I think the idea of a timeless God is a-scriptural and unworkable in the context of Mormon theology. The problems I see with divine timelessness fall into two categories. The first category involves conflicts that arise because change cannot happen in a timeless existence. The second category has to do with the lack of an intersection between time and timelessness. Let’s consider each one.
Change and Timelessness
The lack of change in a timeless existence may not strike you as a problem right off the bat, since we often say that God is unchanging. However, the concept of change is central to many things we take for granted, like moving and thinking.
First, let’s just state explicitly why change relies on time. The very concept of change is based on the passage of time. When we say something has changed, what we mean is that it was one way at time T and then a different way at time T+1. If I want to change my shirt, there must be a time in the future in which I can wear a different shirt than the one I am wearing now.
Of course, in order to change my shirt, I will have to take this one off (the one I am wearing now), which requires me to move my arms. Movement is a type of change, in which my arm is in one position at time T and then a different position at time T+1. In order to move my arm, there must be time. If there was no time, I couldn’t have an arm that is in one position now and a different position later, because there would be no such thing as “now” or “later.”
Of course, before I ever move my arm to change my shirt, I will have a thought in which I decide to change my shirt. Thinking involves a stream of consciousness–one thought leads to another, or something in my environment (an uncomfortable shirt perhaps) leads me to take an action. Now, the “stream” in stream of consciousness should be a pretty good clue that thought involves change. It takes time for you to consider the argument I am making now–this point surprises me constantly, even though it should be obvious. If you were to think through the issue on your own, in your own mind, it would take you time to do so. You would have to consider one thing, and then another, and then the consequences of that thing on yet another. Thinking, planning, and reasoning all require time. Stop for a moment and consider what it would mean to think in a timeless existence. What it is to “think” is eviscerated by timelessness.
From the discussion above, I conclude that if you maintain that God is outside of time, you must also maintain that he does not think, he does not move, and he does not change his clothes. For our evangelical friends, this might be fine, but for Latter-day Saints who worship a corporeal God this will never do. After all, our God does wear clothes. He has a body which moves from place to place. He is in one location now, and a different location later. Consider these verses from Abraham’s vision of the heavens:
9 And thus there shall be the reckoning of the time of one planet above another, until thou come nigh unto Kolob, which Kolob is after the reckoning of the Lord’s time; which Kolob is set nigh unto the throne of God, to govern all those planets which belong to the same order as that upon which thou standest.
10 And it is given unto thee to know the set time of all the stars that are set to give light, until thou come near unto the throne of God.
11 Thus I, Abraham, talked with the Lord, face to face, as one man talketh with another; and he told me of the works which his hands had made;
12 And he said unto me: My son, my son (and his hand was stretched out), behold I will show you all these. And he put his hand upon mine eyes, and I saw those things which his hands had made, which were many; and they multiplied before mine eyes, and I could not see the end thereof. (Abraham 3)
Verse 9 explicitly states that there is such a thing as the â€œreckoning of the Lord’s time, and the whole passage places God inside a universe with time. His time may be reckoned differently (more slowly according to that chapter), but it is quite clear in describing God as experiencing time and duration. Notice, additionally, that all the phrases I italicized above require time or they become incoherent. These verses were later the launching pad for a question asked of the prophet Joseph Smith:
4 In answer to the question–Is not the reckoning of God’s time, angel’s time, prophet’s time, and man’s time, according to the planet on which they reside?
5 I answer, Yes. (D&C 130)
And thus we see that God’s existence in time is explicitly taught in modern revelation and required by our notions of who God is and the kind of existence he leads.
The intersection of time and timelessness
I have already made mention of the fact that God is known for doing things that require time. He appeared to his apostles and ate fish with them (chewing requires one to move one’s jaw). He appeared to the Nephites after being resurrected and glorified. He has been known to converse with men from time to time as he did with Moses on the Mount or Joseph Smith in the Grove. Notice that having a conversation involves the existence of time since one person speaks and then later listens while the other speaks. God listened to Joseph’s prayer at time T and then responded at time T+1. This requires time.
Obviously, those who wish to put God outside of time are aware that humans live inside time. Any interaction with humans will necessarily entail a foray into time. Perhaps God lives outside of time, but just enters into time as necessary to interact with man. The trouble with this is that it is impossible to conceive of what it would mean to move in and out of time. To even speak of it, I just had to use the word move. But how does a timeless being move into time? Even worse, when does He move into time? There simply is no intersection between time and timelessness, so to talk about such an intersection gives rise to contradictions and nonsense.
The whole idea of a timeless God precludes His entrance into time. What is true about a timeless God is always true (or else he would have changed, which is disallowed). If God entered time and ate a fish, then it must be true now and always that God is in time eating a fish. But if God is in time eating a fish, then how can he said to be outside of time?
The only remaining option for a person who holds to divine timelessness seems to be an appeal to mystery. We don’t know how he does it, he just does. It doesn’t make sense, and that is what makes God so amazing! With such an argument, God goes back to being unknown and unknowable–totally other, as the classical theists would have it. With such an appeal to mystery, we flush the genius of Joseph Smith and the beauty of the restored gospel down the toilet and replace it with the very creeds God condemned in the First Vision.
So, here’s your chance, all of you who think God lives outside of time. Let me have it.