Monday, 20 May 2013

A2 Religious Studies: God's Eternal Nature

When discussing the nature of God's eternity, there are two main perspectives:

The first is that God is timeless (or atemporal). This is the belief that God exists outside of time and is not limited by a time frame; he sees the past, present and future all at once.

Basic strengths:

  1. A timeless God is not limited in any way
  2. A timeless God seems logically omnipotent
  3. A timeless God is immutable (cannot change). This idea, first proposed by Plato, also adheres with the view that God is perfect, since a perfect God cannot change
  4. This definition adheres to Anselm's view that God is:
"That than which nothing greater can be conceived."

Basic weaknesses:
  • Can a timeless God be omnibenevolent? If God can see all suffering across time, why hasn't he stopped it?
  • A timeless God arguably renders prayer redundant - if God knows the future already, a simple prayer cannot change that, since he has perfect knowledge
  • A timeless God is impersonal, and contradicts many Biblical presentations of God
  • Who says that God can't be immutable and perfect?
  • The idea of all time existing at once is incoherent
The second concept is that God is everlasting (or sempiternal). This means that God exists on our timeline, but still has no beginning or end. He cannot change the past and the future is, to an extent, unknown to God. Therefore, this immediately rules out the Descartes view on omnipotence (God can change the past) and contradicts the view that an omniscient God can know absolutely everything, since he cannot fully know the future.

Basic strengths:
  1. An everlasting God is personable and can relate to us
  2. A personal God is capable of love, which adheres to many Biblical teachings
  3. An everlasting God adheres to stories in scripture
  4. God can be omnibenevolent
  5. Prayer is meaningful
Basic weaknesses:
  • An everlasting God cannot be omnipotent or omniscient (some argue)
  • Criticised for being too idealistic
  • Accepts that God can be immutable and perfect

Richard Swinburne argues for an everlasting God. He said that a timeless God is impersonal and therefore cannot love people, which goes against everything we are taught about God. He also criticised the notion that God is immutable, stating that love requires change, and pointed out examples of God appearing everlasting in the Bible, such as Hezekiah who prays to God to extend his life, and has his life extended by fifteen years. 

Between everlasting and timeless lies the belief that God is impassible. This means that he cannot feel pain/suffer, and is most closely associated with the timeless view.

Aquinas, who argued for a timeless God, agreed that God is also impassible; God cannot be changed by any external factors, so he cannot experience pain or pleasure. If he was affected by such factors, he would no longer be perfect.

This means, surely, that God cannot be impassible and omnibenevolent. If God cannot feel pain, some would argue that he cannot empathise with those who do suffer. This goes against Aquinas's view that just because we cannot be impassible and loving, it doesn't mean that the same applies to God. God doesn't change, other things just change around him.

Charles Hartshorne/Charles Darwin
Hartshorne, who argues for an everlasting God, criticises Aquinas and states that God is not impassible, and can feel pain. He says that by feeling pain, God is able to be loving. Hartshorne also put forward the notion of process theology. Process theology is the argument that God is everlasting and personable. It states that he doesn't know the future, so people have free will. The possibilities of the future are known to God, but he doesn't know which path people will take.

Boethius, who wrote The Consolation of Philosophy, argues for a timeless God. He likens God to a spectator at a chariot race:

"He watches the action, but does not cause it."

God is also immutable. Boethius described God's eternity as:

"The whole, simultaneous and perfect possession of unending life."

Boethius said that we realise how magnificent God is when we compare him to ourselves, which does wonders for self-esteem. He said that we experience life as a series of moments, whereas God sees and lives in all moments at once. God is eternal, we are temporal:

"Boundless life which is made clearer by comparison with temporal beings."

God is eternal because he lacks no future and doesn't lose any past - he knows it all at once. 

Boethius doing his 'OH YOU!' face
According to Boethius, God's knowledge is perfect. However, if he knows the whole future, the issue of free will undoubtedly arises. If God's knowledge of the future (or foreknowledge) is perfect, this means the future cannot change - so we cannot shape our own future. 

However, Boethius reacts to this point by arguing that our future is God's present. It hasn't necessarily already happened, since God views everything as more of an unchanging present. He gives the example of a man walking down a sunny street. We see the man and the sun; one is voluntary, the man, whilst the other is necessary, the sun. Similarly, just because God sees everything, it doesn't mean that he causes it. His foreknowledge is uncausal
  • But if God is perfect, he cannot be wrong - so how are we truly free? Is Boethius's argument a bit of an escape clause?
Anthony Kenny, who wrote The God of the Philosophers, argues for an everlasting God and criticises the timeless view. He states that the notion of all time being simultaneously present to God is incoherent and illogical. Swinburne agrees with this view, using it to enhance his argument for an everlasting God.
  • Paul Helm attacks Kenny, arguing that timeless simply means 'time free', and uses examples from the Bible to illustrate his point, such as when Joshua is helped by God in the battle at Ai and Jericho - according to Helm, this points towards a God who is timeless yet still personal.
"He is timeless in the sense of being time free."

But perhaps reliance on scripture is a flawed argument, as many suggest that anthropomorphic presentations of God in scripture are merely symbolic or metaphorical and shouldn't be taken literally.

A major issue surrounding a timeless God is the question of whether he can love and respond to his people. Prayer often comes into this - if God knows the future, is there any point in praying?

Aquinas (timeless God) argues that prayer is still important, since it is about being aware of God and not about making requests. Furthermore, Maurice Wiles states that God is always acting, and has no selective responses. Furthermore, many people suggest that we don't need God to change to feel loved by him - it's all down to our interpretation. It's like the analogy of a diamond - God is one, unchanging thing, but he can be viewed from many different sides.

God is timeless:
  • Boethius
  • Aquinas
  • Anselm
  • Helm (but Helm also states that God is personable)
God is everlasting:
  • Swinburne
  • Hartshorne
  • Kenny


  1. This is brilliant. Thanks for posting it. :)

    I have a question to ask though, if you were to come across a 35 marker on Boethius' view of timelessness, how would you go about answering it? We've learnt really basic stuff on him so unless we were comparing everlasting/timelessness, a lot of my class would struggle writing it.

    Thanks again. :)

  2. In reply to Tahera,
    You can still use your knowledge of the comparison of everlasting and timelessness but in doing so bring in Boethius to support the timeless side and the eternal side present as an argument against Boethius.
    For example
    Paragraph 1 - Outline the difference immediately breifly and mention Boethius supports timeless
    P2 - Go into detail into his argument for timeless (see's everything at once so we are still free agents as the 'future' is his 'present'
    P3- Swinburnes argument against, how the notion of simultaneous time is nonsense
    P4 - Put forward Swinburnes alternate view on everlasting and why Boethius rejects this.

    Hope this helps, currently revising this so sorry if it sounds jumbled!

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Both your RS and English Lit posts are so helpful in getting me through my A Levels, thank you!!!