Aquinas: God and Time

Fun little hypothetical today: can God change the past? Aquinas says no, but it’s interesting to think about the possibilities. No preamble today – let’s get to it. We’re dealing with 1a.25.4. Firstly, I’m not really sure why Aquinas is asking this question. I don’t necessarily see how it feeds into the questions that come after. That said, it does build on content from the previous question, which we dealt with last week, regarding God’s omnipotence.

So Aquinas argues that God can’t change the past for a very simple reason: it involves a contradiction. An event that happened in the past cannot both be and not be – that would be contradictory, and as we’ve seen, contradictions lie outside of God’s omnipotence. Immediately this argument throws up problems though. Say an event happens – say, ah, at 10:00 AM Socrates stands up from his chair and leaves the room. We wait until 10:05 AM, and it becomes an event that happened in the past – five minutes ago, we say, Socrates stood and left. But then God changes the past so that Socrates never stood and left, and in fact is still in the room. According to Aquinas, this is a contradiction, because the act of Socrates standing and leaving must both be and not be. But that’s not quite the case. Really, the act of Socrates standing and leaving did happen in the past, up until 10:05 AM, when God changed the past so that Socrates never stood and left. Thus the event existed in the past up until 10:05 AM, at which point it ceased to exist as an action in the past. It’s not a paradox at all. Consider a similar situation: historically, there was a time where Socrates had not been born. Later, he was born. Now in the present day, we can say that Socrates was historically both born and not born. That sounds contradictory, but all we mean is that at one time he wasn’t born and at another time he was. So I think it’s a weak argument from Aquinas. (As a side note, if you think this is ultimately silly and pointless speculation, you’re probably best to leave now – it’s only going to get worse.)

So can God change the past? I’m not going to try and prove that He can. But I think it’s interesting to note some of the technical issues surrounding the issue. Let’s start with something more basic, work our way back up to changing the past. Here’s the first question – when did God create time? We talk about how God created the universe – presumably as part of that creation He made time. So when did He make it? The problem here is that you can’t locate the creation of time on a temporal scale – that is, you can’t say that God created time at a particular time. So then how do we talk about the creation of time? Obviously there’s like a moment where the universe is set to 00:00:00:00 – the very first moment of creation. And then there’s the first second, and the second second – but what came before the creation of time? Really, we can’t even talk about ‘before the creation of time’, because there is no such thing as ‘before’ before the creation of time. It’s a temporal word, so it doesn’t apply.

There are a bunch of other questions to ask from here. For instance, we might ask what time is in the first place. Augustine has some opinions, and they’re pretty excellent, but we’re not going to talk about them here. Instead, let me suggest what the problem is with talking about when God created time. Here it is: we don’t know how to talk about the relationship between God and reality. We know that God is outside and above time, right, because time is a created thing that doesn’t apply to God. Or at least, we’re assuming that that’s the case for now. So assuming that God created time, and is therefore above and outside of time, how does He perform miracles? Or rather, when does He perform miracles? Let’s go back to Socrates. From our perspective, God performs a miracle at 10:05 AM. That’s the moment where He reaches back and changes the past. But how does God experience that moment? Is He just trundling along through time with us? Did He have to wait five minutes between 10:00 AM and 10:05?

What we’re getting towards is this: how does God experience time? Does He see everything at once? This is super important for ideas around predestination, by the way. Is God trapped in the present with us, or is He above the present, and able to look backwards and forwards, up and down the length of time at will? Are all of our human moments really the same moment for God? From His perspective, has the world already ended? Imagine that – creation and apocalypse viewed as one in the eternal now. When we’re asking whether God can change the past, then, the bigger question is really about how God experiences time. If all moments seem like the same moment to Him, is it really changing the past?

Let’s take another example, this time from TF Torrance’s Space, Time, and Incarnation. If you’re interested in the sorts of questions we’re discussing here, this is the book for you. Torrance is basically talking about some of the philosophical problems of the Incarnation. For example, we say that Jesus came down from heaven into the world – but what do we mean by ‘came down’? Obviously heaven isn’t ‘up there’, in any literal sense. It’s probably not a physical place, right, it’s probably on like a spiritual plane or something like that. So how does Jesus get into the physical realm? What’s the interface like between heaven, which is not a space, and the universe, which is? Torrance is really asking the same question about the interface between the universe and God. He does discuss time, but the spatial question is equally important. It’s a similar sort of question, right. Torrance says that “the relation between God and space is not a spatial relation,” which is basically what we’ve been saying about time throughout. The relation between God and time is not a temporal relation. We probably shouldn’t ask when God created time, because ‘when’ is probably an inappropriate term. So then given that God potentially doesn’t care about time, is it really that wrong to say He can’t change the past?

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