Humans and other creatures live and move in time. The Greek word used in the New Testament that describes time that is most familiar to us is chronos, which means time according to the calendar, or a clock, or a sequence of events. Another word used is Kairos, which is used to refer to the “fullness of time,” or the “right time,” or “God’s special time.” The meaning of Kairos is mysterious. Many people understand it to mean a time in history when God chooses to act, or to do something very important. But, if it is God’s special time, is it just within history? Many theologians argue that God is outside of time, and that we perceive His actions as being a part of history, simply because that is the only way that humans can perceive His actions.
Because we are so accustomed to thinking in terms of time, most traditional Christian theological threads follow a time frame of reference. At a certain point in time, humans were all that God created them to be—good, and in close relationship with Him. Then at a later point in time, the humans committed a sin and severed this relationship. At yet another point in time, God came to us as Jesus to die on the Cross for our sin, and after three days Jesus rose from the dead. Therefore, when a human who puts his trust in Jesus dies, he will live forever in heaven. Then, at yet another point in time, Jesus will return to earth.
It is very evident to many Christians, and it is biblical, that God is active in history; in the history of His people as well as in our individual lives from our conception until our death. We have to live in a time framework, at least in this life. Our decisions and our actions are all in the context of time. We ask God to provide for our future. We ask Him to help us to get through circumstances we deal with in the present. And we trust Him because we remember what He has done for us in our past. The view that God acted in history is very clear in the writings of the Israelites, and some of the Psalms celebrate His actions. These writings and poems helped sustain their faith and trust. A wonderful example is Psalm 105:
He is the Lord our God;
His judgments are in all the earth.
He is mindful of his covenant forever,
Of the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations,
the covenant that he made with Abraham,
his sworn promise to Isaac,
which he confirmed to Jacob as a statute,
to Israel as an everlasting covenant,
saying, “To you I will give the land of Canaan
as your portion for an inheritance.” (vs. 7-11).
It goes on to describe many other events in history where God worked to save His people and keep His covenant with them. Scripture leaves no room to doubt that God is active in history.
Yet a theology that is based completely on this time and history frame of reference raises a number of questions, and some Christians have difficulties embracing it. God is certainly active in time. But is He bound by time, as we are? Time has a beginning that scientists today call the Big Bang. God has no beginning. And does God change through time, as He seems to through the history of the Bible? Or, is it His people and what is revealed to them that change? Theologians are still debating this. One difficulty in arguing that God operates outside of time is the fact that biblical writers had no concept of anything not being bound by time. So, some theologians argue that the view that God is not limited by time is unbiblical. They are right. The closest the Bible comes to saying He is outside of time is the word usually translated as “eternity,” or “eternal”—olam in Hebrew, aeonios in Greek, which does not mean “forever” but means “of the ages.” Still, an age is a period of time with a beginning and an end.
But what we know today convinces me that God, though he is active in our history, is not bound by time. Time is not an absolute measure of anything. As a youngster, I became fascinated with the theory that people on a spaceship approaching the speed of light will experience time and age much slower than humans back on earth. Astronauts on an interstellar voyage would return to earth to find their former peers much older than they are, or they might even return to find that their great-grandchildren are older than they are! Now we know that time and aging progresses differently even for people who live on earth at different altitudes. Modern physics tells us that in order for there to be time, there must be matter. God is not matter (although He voluntarily took on matter in the Incarnation). In fact, God created matter. And so, He created time. I am very comfortable with the theory that the universe began with the Big Bang, which is essentially the same as “God speaking the universe into existence.” But the amateur scientist is led to speculate “But what was before the Big Bang?” The question is asked simply because we humans tend to see everything within our experience of time. In truth, the phrase “Before the Big Bang” is meaningless. There was no “Before.” There was no time. Only “After the Big Bang” is meaningful. However, the beginning of God cannot be put anywhere in history. Nor can any of God’s truths.
If we recognize that God operates both in and outside of time, we can better grasp a theological world view that does not restrict God to some of the rigid structures of fundamentalist theology.
Obviously, the Bible was written about a period of history (as well as about a particular part of the world and a particular ethnic group). Many who form their theology through a time and history frame of reference are led to the conclusion that God changed over time. There is the jealous, judgmental, violent God that we see in some of the Old Testament, and then there is the kind, loving God that is also found in the Old Testament and that Jesus exemplified. Of course there are problems with the view that God changed, so theology is sometimes developed to show that while God Himself did not change, the way He relates to people changed. For instance, Jesus said “No one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6b), but it is noted in Hebrews 11 that many characters of the Old Testament were saved by their faith. A school of theology called “Dispensationalism” maintains that in different ages of time, God administered His plan differently. “Dispensation” means an administration of affairs, or a way of dealing. Dispensationalists might argue that the statement in John 14 applies only to people living during and after the time it was spoken. In other words, beginning with Jesus, God required belief in His Son in order to enter heaven. So, God changes his requirements. God changes His mind. He changes His very nature.
This just doesn’t make sense to me, and it is confusing to many people. A case in point is the story of the flood in Genesis. God (though He knew that He would eventually redeem humankind by sending His Son), is sorry that He created people and decides to blot them out. He saves one family, the only one that found favor with Him. (Years later, of course, He chooses to save humans who do not find favor with Him through the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross). I suppose that most Christians today do not find the flood narratives (Most scholars believe there were actually two narratives combined into one story) confusing, because we are so accustomed to them. But what about those who are not so familiar with the story? What about those who have only begun their faith journey and all they have read is the Gospel of John, which reads “For God so loved the world”? And what about impressionable children?
Before I even learned to read, my mother bought me a Bible story book and told me she would read the stories to me. I examined the book and saw that Mama had torn out some of the pages. She explained that there were some stories she thought would be confusing to children as young as I, and she did not want me to ask that she read me these stories. I later learned that these censored stories included those about Noah’s Ark and David and Goliath, two stories that we know are very popular with children. And inevitably, it wasn’t very long before I picked up these stories from other children, Sunday school, television, etc. My mother explained to me that she did not believe that God really killed people or wanted us to kill others. Her view was that the writers of these stories did not completely understand what God is like, and after Jesus came we understand Him better. Mama’s explanation made sense to me.
But consider the questions raised by a theology that says the flood narratives of Genesis are historically and literally true. Did the same God who created humans later change His mind and regret His decision? Did the same God who destroyed almost all of humankind later save all of humankind? And is the God who was interested only in saving the righteous (Noah and his family) later interested in saving those who are unrighteous?
Of course, theological camps have evolved that attempt to answer these questions. Dispensationalism is an example. I’m not saying that these views are wrong, but those that hold to a literal, inerrant interpretation of the Bible do not resonate with me. They may not with you, either, and certainly they do not for all people. My theology is much like that of my mother, whose views I have described. And I must say that my own perspective is but a human attempt to make sense out of the stories in the Bible. I must humbly admit that it is impossible for us humans to completely know the thoughts of God. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8). However, I have developed an understanding that works for me.
A Christian theology that is not confined to a time and history frame of reference can teach that God and His nature are timeless. The Son of God is timeless. The Cross is timeless. The Resurrection is timeless. These simply emerged as events in history and are often perceived as new dispensations of God. God does not change, but people’s understanding of God changes.
God’s requirements do not change, but there is a sense in which I believe that through history God has changed the way He relates to His people. That is, God meets us where we are. And where we are changes through history and is also different among various cultural groups. Abraham did not know Jesus. He had never heard of a cross. However, he knew the same God known by both early and modern day Christians, which was the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (even though didn’t think of God as three persons). God could not save Abraham through his awareness of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but He chose to save Abraham by his faith. His faith was, as we know, demonstrated on Mount Moriah, where first God gave him the faith to sacrifice his son Isaac, and then showed him that only his faith was important, that Abraham did not need to follow through with the sacrifice of Isaac. He, God, would provide the sacrifice. Hebrews chapter 11 says that Abraham was saved by faith. I marvel at how little Abraham understood the way in which God really would provide the sacrifice! But Abraham simply believed. I think, in this way, Abraham was saved not by the sacrifice of his own son, but by the sacrifice of the Son of God. By the Cross. You may or may not believe that the story of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah is historically true. Regardless, I hope you see the Truth in it!
If the Truth of God is timeless, then He is not limited to acting one event at a time. He is not limited to listening to my prayer, then the prayer of my neighbor, then the prayer of someone in Africa, and so on. Indeed, millions of prayers are lifted to him simultaneously, within one human moment. The Son of God, the Cross, and Salvation through the Cross were in Eden, on Mount Moriah, in Babylon, in the early great civilizations of Asia and the Americas, and of course in Jerusalem the day Jesus was crucified. Acts of God that are timeless often simply make themselves visible at a specific place and time, and they are viewed only by those who are there to witness them, and they are known as history only if they are recorded as such.