This article is part of “The Biblical Foundations For Freedom” series.
“Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.” —Douglas Adams
“Many people do not like the idea that time has a beginning, probably because it smacks of divine intervention.” —Stephen Hawking
Taking Time for Granted
Our presuppositions determine what we think is real. Most of us believe, as a matter of course, in the reality of the physical universe. We distinguish ourselves from the rest of reality. We don’t hesitate to say “I” and “you” or, pointing to coffee in our cup, “it.” When a room is too hot, we turn on the air conditioner or go out for a swim. We alter the room or our location; we don’t try to alter our perception or our beliefs.
We also take time for granted. We believe in before and after, now and then, sooner and later. We honor teatime or happy hour. We take April 15th as an absolute. We believe that time is objective. Most of us live out these presuppositions without a second thought.
Most of us. Not all. There are religions and philosophies that actually question or reject outright all of these notions. Pantheism, for instance, has no place for space and time. If all is one, then all differences, whether material, spatial, or temporal, are necessarily illusions.
Our main concern here will be with belief in time. “Time is an illusion” has become a popular mantra, first in the New Age community and now among Western physicists. For the serious pantheist, whether he be Eastern mystic or Western physicist, time is a Western invention, something Western science and technology have imposed on a non-temporal reality. This disillusionment with time however is nothing new.
Time in Circles
The religions of antiquity believed that history cycled endlessly through death and rebirth. History sprang out of chaos, but declined over weary years into impotence and stagnation. Only a ritual return to chaos could reinvigorate history and society. On the propitious day, men embraced lawlessness and perversity, broke every taboo, as a means of social regeneration. For a day, chaos reigned, and the world was reborn.
Later came the Greek philosophers, whose rationalism was deeply religious, though anti-theistic. Most believed that time was eternal. Repetitious cataclysms kept humanity from noticing that fact. But time, they said, had no beginning and no end. Stephen Hawking has suggested that an end smacked too much of divine intervention—that is, of a Judgment Day. The distance from ancient paganism to modern physics is in this regard remarkably short.
Space-Time and the Oscillating Universe
Einstein’s general theory of relativity bound time and space into a single continuum, and that meant that time could not precede space. As Alexander Friedmann pointed out (1922), general relativity thus suggested a beginning and, maybe, an end for the universe. His work set forth three possibilities for the universe: expansion, contraction, and oscillation. As a pantheist in the tradition of Spinoza, Einstein insisted on a static universe and turned up his nose at Friedmann’s models—as long as he could.
In 1929 Edwin Hubble’s’ observations of red shift in the spectra of distant galaxies handed us an expanding universe. His empirical evidence, however, was met with religious resistance from the scientific community—and then with amazing creativity. In 1948 Gold and Bondi put forward a steady-state model of the universe in which non-existence could create hydrogen atoms to fill in the gaps that formed as galaxies sped away from one another. Non-being could restore average density to the universe. Oddly enough, the scientific community did not have a problem with this flagrant violation of thermodynamic law.
Later discoveries, however, overturned the stead-state model, and the Big Bang theory captured the field. The Big Bang could point to the heat death of the universe; but it might also be an end point for an oscillating universe, a universe that expands only so far before gravity pulls it back into a Big Crunch—and everything starts over again…forever and forever.
Prof. Stephen Hawking has chronicled much of this modern history in his popular book, A Brief History of Time (Bantam, 1988). He also records his own pilgrimage to his present convictions: The universe is finite, but bounded in such a way that time and space have no beginning or end. (Think of the surface of a globe.) The universe is self-contained and self-existent. No deity is necessary. He admits this is all theory. So why does he believe it so passionately? Is he, too, uncomfortable with the thought of divine intervention?
Time in a Christian Perspective
Scripture says that time had a beginning; that God created time just as He created space and matter (Gen. 1:1). This means that God exists outside of time. In other words, God does not experience reality as a succession of moments: He does not move from one moment to the next. He inhabits eternity, and we can have no clear understanding of His mode of self-consciousness. On the other hand, He understands time and its constraints perfectly well, and He can speak intelligibly into the temporal universe.
God says that He created time five days before He created man. Five days: God counted them off. Neither general nor special relativity is relevant here. The point of reference was the surface of our planet, and its velocity in the heavens was well short of the speed of light. God could have created the universe in an instant; but He made a point of using objectively measurable days, though there was no man there to do the measuring.
Unlike God, man is inescapably a temporal creature. This does not mean that man generates time or imposes it on an external reality, either by choice or out of some sort of psychological necessity. Time is a given for man, precisely because God has given it. Scripture gives us created, predestined, purposeful, forward-moving time. It gives us history; that is, story—a meaningful series of interrelated events that move toward a climax and an end. Scripture not only allows for historical progress, but it holds such progress before man as one of his primary responsibilities (Gen. 1:28). Scripture teaches a Last Judgment that ends this epoch of history (redemption) and introduces a new epoch: eternity. For time has no end; it is eternal, though only in one direction. The Last Judgment ends redemptive history, but not man’s temporal existence. Man continues, moment by moment, either in the New Creation or in the Lake of Fire.
Today traditional Christianity is beset, within and without, by theologians and teachers who are uncomfortable with the historicity of Genesis One. They want to turn the days of creation, particularly the first five, into “Five Divine Themes” or “Five Big Ideas” about God. Apparently, clock and calendar have no place for them until man’s arrival. The resemblance of all this to Gnosticism is alarming. If God can’t count or tell time, we have problems, and the theological problems are just the beginning.
Presuppositions ought to matter. Yet how many physicists really want to relocate to India in order to find a more congenial intellectual environment? How many cosmologists want to study at the feet of the Dali Lama? How many believe that 1 + 1 = 1? How many want to give up their lunch time or Thanksgiving Day, because, after all, it’s an illusion?
It may seem very brave or trendy to say that time is an illusion, but no one lives that way. Not Eastern mystics; not Western physicists. We all live as if time is objective, constant, and relentless. But we rarely give a thought to where it came from or where it is going. This is incredibly foolish. “Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die” has always been bad advice (1 Cor. 15:32). Scripture tells us rather to number our days so that we might apply our hearts to wisdom (Ps. 90:12). We live in a time that desperately cries out for wisdom. Get it while you are still able.
For further reading: Stanley L. Jaki, God and the Cosmologists (Washington, D.C.: Regenery Gateway, 1989).