Hey friends! I hope this blog post finds you well. I’m going to do something a little different today. A few months ago, I wrote a paper about how crazy time is and how God interacts with us throughout history. Is God within history? Outside of history? Beyond history? Does God move along with time? Is that even possible? Does time move?
The answers were somewhat shocking to me, honestly. According to Einstein, time is kind of amazing and mind-bending. This paper took a long time to write, and I’ve been meaning to turn it into a blog post for some time. However, having just read over the paper, I don’t really want to simplify it into a short blog post. I don’t think it makes any sense unless it is explained fully. So this is a longer post than I normally do, but if you have the time, I think that it will completely change the way you see everything. Seriously. If you make it through the whole thing, you will not regret it. The full 20 page paper is up on Google Docs if you want to read it…
However, for the purpose of this blog, I have cut out a few lengthy sections that are not completely essential for the point that I want to make today. Check it out and let me know what you think!
Many forests have given their lives over the years to provide theologians with the paper needed to pontificate over the nature of time and God’s relationship to us. Time is such an interesting concept because it is something that all humans know intrinsically but cannot easily define without using time itself as a reference. Saint Augustine summed up the problem fairly well when he wrote, “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know; but if I wish to explain it to one who asks, I know not”. We all sense the movement of time in some way or another. Caribbean societies are famous for their disregard of the passage of time while we in the industrialized world are ruled by the movements of tiny hands around circles on our wrists. It does often seem that the river of time is sweeping us all away with it. Many theologians have attempted to find God within this temporal tide and have come to different conclusions. There is no universal agreement as to whether God is bound by time as we are or if God is timeless. Questions of God’s omniscience and providence are based primarily on how one understands the nature of time and our relationship to it. In this paper, I will explore how Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and recent insights in Quantum Mechanics can help us to reconstruct our view of the universe and God’s relationship to us.
Our measurement and definition of time must be seen relative to something outside of ourselves. If one is asked when Jesus was born, they would likely answer, “About 2,000 years ago”. We can measure a year as the amount of time that it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun and then imagine 2,000 of those. That is a valid measure of time for the purpose of conversation, but it presupposes an understanding of time and the ability to measure it. It can be said that we perceive time and we claim to be able to measure its passage, but unless we can define what it is and with relation to what standard its movements are measured, we cannot say anything true about time itself. This presents some very striking problems for how we relate to God, pray for specific outcomes, and read biblical prophecies about future events.
Isaac Newton was one of the most brilliant scientists to ever live and is widely considered to be the father of classical physics. His laws of motion are the foundations of our knowledge of physics and their elegant simplicity is still useful today. In his magnum opus, Principia Mathematica, he was presented with a problem that would resurface in the 20th century. He was able to accurately describe the motion of planets and apples, but he realized that without something to compare them against, these measurements had no grounding and his entire system would collapse. His system did not collapse though. It worked so perfectly that he posited the concept of absolute time and space. For Newton, space and time are like the stage on which the action occurs. The actors will move, sets will be put up, and the play will happen, but the stage remains constant and unmoving.
Deleted section about how we normally perceive time, how Newton explained it, and how we normally talk about how God interacts with us. Read the full article here.
Einstein’s major discovery was that there is no absolute space or time. All measurements of distance and time are relative to the observer. If a police officer, brandishing a radar gun, is stationary on the side of the road, he or she will be able to measure your speed relative to his or her vantage point, and will hypothetically clock you going 70 mph. If that same police officer is driving on the same highway going 69.5 mph, your car will barely be moving according to the measurements from the same radar gun. In some sense, the police officer on the side of the road can be said to be standing still. If nothing else, he or she is standing still in relation to your car as it zooms past. However, that police officer is on the Earth which is spinning along its axis and orbiting the Sun which is itself orbiting the center of the Milky Way that is orbiting the center of gravity in the local system of galaxies which is also moving relative to other clusters. Without a central reference frame, there is no privileged position from which to measure time or distance, and this is where Einstein helps us with our understanding of time.
One of the stranger aspects of relativity was discovered by Einstein in 1915 and became what we know today as the Theory of General Relativity. Einstein discovered that time and space were not simply the unchanging stages on which reality played out its days. It turns out that not only are space and time ontologically linked, but they are malleable and easily bent by gravity. The equations of General Relativity predict that time should move slower when measured within a heavy gravitational field like that of the Earth because space-time is being bent by gravity. This was tested in 1962 using a pair of extremely sensitive atomic clocks, placing one on the ground and the other on top of a water tower. The clock on the ground feels the tug of the Earth slightly more than the clock on the water tower. While the differences in time were imperceptible to us, the clocks kept different times in the exact amount that Einstein’s theory predicts. This effect was more pronounced when the first GPS satellites were launched and became misaligned within a few days because their internal clocks were moving faster than ours on Earth.
This might seem like splitting hairs at this level. What does it matter if a satellite is one millionth of a second faster than my watch? The implications for God’s relationship to the universe do not seem significant on this level, but it will become clear once we expand the equations to areas of greater distance and gravitational influence. One such place of great gravitational influence is a black hole. A black hole is a star that has become so massive that it has collapsed into itself under its own gravity. Its pull is so strong that not even light can escape it, and that is why it is dark. If you were to pilot a spacecraft close to the event horizon but not close enough to get sucked in, the intense gravitational impact would slow time down for you considerably. You could orbit the black hole for a few hours and return home to find that tens of thousands of years had passed without your knowledge! If you and a friend were both orbiting the black hole, and your friend strayed too close to it and got sucked in, the two of you would experience very different realities. From your point of view, your friend would be stuck, moving imperceptibly slowly into the blackness of the black hole. However, from your friends perspective, she would barely have time to realize her mistake before she was spaghettified and ripped apart by gravity. In that situation, which person can be said to be in the “present”? In a situation this extreme, words like “present” lose their meaning.
While most people do not understand what it means, E=MC² might be the most readily identifiable equation in popular culture. This is yet another one of Einstein’s insights that make our relationship to time difficult. In this equation, E is energy, M is mass, and C is the constant speed of light. What this equation means is that an object’s mass and energy are connected to each other. As an object increases in energy it also increases in mass which bends space-time and changes one’s conception of the “present”. One way to increase an object’s energy is to move it. At near-light-speeds, an object would experience the same time-bending effect as our friends around the black hole, but it is more interesting to note how this modification of time affects one’s perception over large distances.
Imagine space-time as a loaf of bread. Events can be said to be simultaneous when they are on the same slice of bread. If I walk towards you, my motion in relation to you imperceptibly speeds up my conception of time as compared to yours due to the increase in my energy. Therefore, if space-time is a loaf of bread, my slice will be ever-so-slightly skewed to one direction. Due to our proximity, that skewing will be of no consequence, but millions of light-years away, that slice has moved significantly askew and what I define as “present” is now hundreds of years in the future for some alien in another galaxy. In that moment, if I were to turn around and walk in the other direction, away from this distant alien, I would suddenly be hundreds of years in the past as far as they are concerned. Of course, it would take millions of years for light to reach them, so there would be no way to communicate with them and tell them what the winning lottery numbers would be in a week.
Without a privileged position from which to claim the “present”, time takes on a whole new meaning. The old picture of the flowing river of time might look more like a frozen river with ice skating children darting every which way. The present moment for me will be different than the present moment for you, the Pope, and an asteroid in the Andromeda Galaxy. If the equations of Einstein are truly an accurate description of the universe as they seem to be, then any present is no more or less real than any other present. The implications of this are enormous! In a very real way, Lincoln is still alive, World War 3 is already over, and dinosaurs are eating each other. If an asteroid is moving away from Earth at great speeds, then that asteroid’s “present” might include George Washington or Napoleon. This is incredibly hard to grasp because it is counter-intuitive to how we all experience reality. It makes no sense that the truth of our world should be so different from our experience, but Relativity has been proven again and again for decades. Regardless of our experience, we need to start rethinking how we think about the world.
God’s interaction with the world is easy to explain if you begin with certain logical presuppositions. Process theologians are very serious about God limiting God’s self when God created the universe. All creation is within God and God is within all creation as we all create this world together. This image of God as part flower bed and part gardener is very beautiful and has been useful for those who are suffering. When someone cuts down a forest or hurts a child, God feels it in God’s very nature. They teach that God is creating history along with humanity and truly does not know the future. While this is beautiful, it cannot be true. For God to exist as one of us trapped within time, God would need to have God’s own “present” which, depending on God’s location, velocity, and proximity to a gravitational well would differ vastly from other “presents”. Post-Einstein, it is simply not enough to talk about the present as if it were a thing or a universally accepted reality. It is not. If God were here with us in this hypothetical present moment, then God would not be with our great-grandchildren right now or with Moses on the mountainside.
God cannot be bound by time as much as God cannot be bound by space because space and time are two sides of the same coin. It would be foolish to go down the same route as Newton by attempting to create a distinction between “God’s time” and “created time”. Time is a physical construct. It is as much a product of the Big Bang as the particles around us. That being said, God has shown the ability and the desire to not only communicate with creation but to dwell with us in very real ways. When Jesus appeared to Thomas and told him to touch his hands and his side, that was not merely a play on words or a fancy metaphor. That was truly God having conquered sin and death, standing before them in that room in a body made out of carbon. If we truly take the Incarnation seriously, we can no longer ask whether God can enter into time and space. We must now ask how God enters time and space.
As was stated earlier, I have no expectation that I will be able to solve the mysteries of the Incarnation with a set of equations, and the reader will most likely be left wondering at the end of this paper. That is precisely the point. Just as Rembrandt used his knowledge of the human face and his skill as a painter to create images of Jesus that were actually human, so we create sloppy theological finger-paintings for God’s refrigerator with the tools that we have. In this case, those tools are General Relativity and the biblical teachings about the Incarnation.
Christians might not agree about much, but one thing that we generally can come to terms with is that God became human in the person of Jesus. Something mysterious and miraculous happened to Mary nine months before Christmas, and we are still feeling the effects of it today. In the instant that Jesus was conceived, God broke into time. Knowing the precise instant that it happened is not very important because as we have stated before, that moment that Jesus was conceived could be in the “present” for some alien or space-rock right now. In a very real way, Jesus is born in Bethlehem. Jesus’ humble entrance into time and space is exactly as real as this moment which you are reading this page. In a very real sense, From the moment of the Big Bang, Jesus was born. It brings a whole new meaning to the name of God, “I am”.
That might sound counter-intuitive, but much of Relativity does not flow with our current worldview. When the writer of Revelation, writing in colorful language, calls Jesus, “the lamb that was slain from the foundation of the Earth”, he was unintentionally speaking an incredibly profound truth. Before the heavy elements that make up the Earth had gathered together to form this planet, Jesus had already been born, died, and rose again. Following this logic, the final eschaton is very real and present as well. From the very instant that this universe was created, all moments exist. The Fall, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and the Second Coming are real and present realities. Ted Peters and other recent theologians have argued that God necessarily creates from the future. “The destiny of all things determines what they are”. According to he and his colleagues, the eschaton changes reality now. We are, in effect, living in the shadow of our final reconciliation and therefore feel its effects today. There is truth in this, but it does not go far enough. It is not the shadow of the eschaton that renews creation today, but the ever-reaching ripples of redemption caused by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Before we dive into the rationale and implications of this, it will be helpful to identify an example in nature that will help to illuminate the point.
Deleted section about Quantum Physics and experiments that seem to show effects happening before their causes. Check out the full version if you’re curious.
When presented with the question of how God who is outside of time and space can interact with humanity, the answer lies in that humble manger in Bethlehem. God was able to walk in the Garden of Eden, talk to Moses, and dwell in the Temple because Jesus became human. The moment of the Incarnation is like the umbilical cord between God and the universe. The eternal God became a carbon-based life form and in so doing, married the eternal and the temporal. Our great hope comes from the consummation of that relationship after the great resurrection when we will be truly united to Christ, but today we live in the shadow of that great and eventual reality. Jesus’ birth did more than introduce the beginning stages of our redemption. It retroactively changed the very nature of the universe and God’s relationship to it. From the moment of the Big Bang, Jesus had already entered the world, redeemed it, and had come back to consummate that union.
It seems odd that if God truly wants to save the entire world that he would choose to elect a small people group for salvation and then only the people who believed in His son who came from that people group. It’s a very weird strategy unless we believe that God had already redeemed the world from the outset. This is the same God who died for us, “while we were still sinners” and cried out from the cross, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing”. This is the God who redeems people before they even know that they need redemption. God did not make up an ad hoc solution to an unforeseen problem. God is not experimenting with redemption. God has had a handle on this universe since it began in a very real and tangible way.
If God has truly “drawn all peoples to [him]self” and if it is true that “every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord”, then in some manner, this has already happened. Jesus has already saved us, and we are being lead to that reality. Those who have not knowingly acknowledged Him will surely see the risen Lord and feel a familiar tug. The ripples of redemption that started at the cross have worked their way throughout the entire universe. There is no corner of the cosmos, no darkened heart, and no rebellious spirit that is safe from redemption. Time is an artifact of the created universe in the same way that space is, and in the end of this universe, it will be made perfect as our bodies are made perfect in Christ. It is a mystery what perfected time will be like, but we can feel its ripples even now. Just as the sunrise begins in London before Philadelphia, so the sunrise of Christ’s final redemption draws nearer to us. In a very real way, it has already dawned and we are already being redeemed. Let us live in that reality that we have been redeemed and brought into a real relationship with Christ. Let us learn to see the ripples of redemption and ride them to Christ while inviting others to do the same with the knowledge that Christ has redeemed them from the very first nanosecond of the universe. Let us be people who treat the past, present, and future as tangible realities as we remember Jesus’ life and look forward to his coming, and in all things, let us love those who have not yet deserved it.