Many people talk about God being "beyond time," but what exactly does this mean? Before I go any further, it's important to note the distinction between philosophy and theology. Specifically:
1. PHILOSOPHY seeks to solve problems and answer questions through the application of logic and reason.
2. THEOLOGY seeks to ascertain truth through the application of the Scriptures.
It is impossible to reach a theological truth without some degree of philosophy because at a bare minimum, one must have a base philosophical premise for how to go about interpreting the Scriptures (ex. exegesis vs. eisegesis
). However, the less philosophy that goes into reaching theological conclusions the better. That is, one should not develop a logical idea and then go to the Scriptures to see what it says about the matter. Instead, one should begin with the Scriptures to use them as the foundation for their theological conclusions.
That being said, when we talk about God's relationship to time, we are talking about philosophical concepts based on current levels of understanding of the space-time continuum, gravity, and all sorts of other math, physics, and scientific models for understanding our universe. As a result, we can only, at best, develop an understanding that is consistent with Scriptures. We cannot conclude that the Bible has any definitive stance on these issues. With that in mind...
Basic concepts of relative time
It is a measurable fact that time runs at different rates under different circumstances. This concept comes predominantly from Einstein's theory of relativity, as well as the many appending theories that have been attached thereafter for clarification. The basic idea is that time and space are inextricably linked as part of a single continuum. So, when space bends, so does time. As a result, time has fluctuations based on the curvature of space and relative motion. This is why, for example, people often associate black holes with time travel — because the intense amount of mass at the core of a black hole (and mass is the primary factor affecting the curvature of space — the more mass, the more curvature) causes space to be curved so heavily that time would have to bend to a noticeable degree.
Consider a clock ticking in a field as a train rushes by. There is a person next to the clock in the field who observes the clock pendulum tick from left to right, indicating one second has passed. During that same period of time, a person on the train when it is 10 meters away and to the left will see the pendulum in the far left position. When the train is immediately in front of the clock, it is only 1 meter away and the pendulum is in the right position. To that person on the train, it takes longer for the light to travel 10 meters than 1 meter, so he will not see the pendulum in the left position as quickly as he will see the pendulum in the right position. The resulting effect is that the person on the train will get a compressed perspective of time. Accordingly, whereas the person in the field experiences one second go by, the person on the train will experience less than one second — because he will observe the pendulum swing at different rates depending on how fast he is moving relative to the pendulum. The result is that the person on the moving object will experience time at a slower rate than the person on the ground, even when the person on the train has a stop-watch that is perfectly synchronized to the clock in the field.
Now, the illustration above demonstrates the concept of relativity quite well, but it fails when it comes to explaining time inconsistencies because that is simply a perception difference. However, tests have been run numerous times with perfectly synchronized atomic clocks on earth and in space and have consistently concluded that those people moving at faster velocities do actually experience time at a different rate than those on earth. Specifically, those perfectly synchronized atomic clocks, without any mechanical defect or malfunction, demonstrate that a year moving at the rate of the International Space Station's orbital speed, for example, results in the people in space experiencing 0.01 seconds less than everyone else on earth. If this speed were increased to, say, 86.6 percent of the speed of light, then it would be a factor of 2 such that 1 year at that speed would equate to 2 years to everyone else. But this is an exponential relationship, so at smaller velocities that we see on earth, the differences are entirely unnoticeable.
How creation relates to an understanding of time in our universe
In the midst of all of this, virtually everyone agrees that time has a beginning. Stephen Hawking estimates that this beginning was about 15 billion years ago. Evolutionary creationists wouldn't dispute this number. Young earth creationists would say that time was created about 6,000 years ago when God created everything. My personal view on creation is what I call "Star Wars Creationism", which essentially says that God created an inherent history into the universe that he created. For example, no young earth creationist contends that Adam was created as a fetus in some non-existent womb. Instead, virtually everyone agrees that on the first day God created male and female (Genesis 1:27) and thus Adam was created at least old enough to have a rib, old enough for God to see that it wasn't good for him to be alone, and presumably old enough for God to communicate the first command to "be fruitful and multiply." So, if Adam was created with some inherent age about him, who is to say the trees weren't created fully-grown as well, as opposed to saplings? Or that God created the fish as fish and not as some pre-hatched embryo.
If we accept the concept that God created everything with an inherent history, things start to make a lot more sense and it fits in this mold of "relative time" that I described above. Specifically, the reason I call it "Star Wars Creationism" is as follows. Star Wars was released on May 25, 1977. On May 26, 1977, how old is the Star Wars universe?
1. One person might argue that it is only one day old, as the movie was just released "yesterday."
2. Another person would argue that it would have taken millions or billions of years for their universe to develop to the point that the events in the movie would unfold and that it would be ridiculous for Luke to believe that he was only a day old when he first purchased C-3P0 and R2-D2.
Put another way, from the perspective of the creator (George Lucas), the Star Wars universe was only a day old. But from the perspective of the characters within the story, it was billions of years old. This is why Einstein developed the concept of relativity. In his words, he said, essentially, "It is not enough to ask how fast something is moving; we must ask how fast it is moving relative to the perspective of something else." When it comes to understanding the age of our universe, I say the same: "It is not enough to ask how old the universe is; we must ask how old it is relative to the perspective of something else."
Creation of time
Just to be more clear, because both non-Christians and Christians alike agree that time had a definitive beginning, it is clear that time is a "created" entity. It stands to reason, then, that even in the absence of Scripture, God must have been the one to create it.
Going back to Scripture, we see that Genesis 1:4 says that when God created the light and separated it from the darkness, "there was evening and there was morning, the first day." Many interpret this to mean that God created time exactly then. Others point to the stuff that seemed to happen in the spiritual realm before Satan initiated the first sin in the garden (usually from Ezekiel 28) and would say that "the first day" means the first day for Earth, but that God had created time long before this.
It really doesn't matter, as long as we realize that God is not constrained by time. Specifically, we see passages like 2 Peter 3:8, where he says, "With the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day," meaning that God perceives time very differently than we do and that it goes both ways — not just that he's so old that time flies for him (ergo "a thousand years is like a day"), but the reverse as well — that he also perceives every infinitesimal detail of every second (ergo "a day is like a thousand years"). Accordingly, it is not enough to say that God is immortal and will experience all of time; we must go further to say that God perceives time differently from us as well.
God's unchanging nature
Another simple concept to understand is that most people define time by change. That is, everything in the universe has an altered state from one moment to the next. Even if it does not do anything immediately observable, its molecules would still be vibrating. Even if something were able to reach absolute 0 temperature (when all motion stops, including molecules and electrons), it would still have variable temperature, changed position in universal space (due to the rotation and revolution of the earth), etc.
However, the Bible tells us that God does not change (Malachi 3:6, for example). Some people interpret this to mean that God's character is constant. This is absolutely true and undisputed. But they go the next step of arguing that his temperament or emotional disposition toward humanity changes, or the way he communicates changes, or the nature of the old versus new covenant changed, etc., and thus there are numerous stark changes that God expresses to the degree that God's unchanging nature can only be a references to his character and core identity.
But this isn't a necessary conclusion; rather, it is a philosophically permissible one, as opposed to a theologically mandated conclusion. An alternative conclusion could be that God is static — everything he has done, is doing, and will ever do has been set in stone instantaneously such that his plan will never be altered — but that when he set this unchanging plan in stone he accounted for all possible variations of time and all possible prayer requests and all possible free-will decisions and then created it. And when God "accounted for" all of those things, this all happened instantaneously with creation itself — that God processes things so quickly that whereas a router might take 1 second to process a webpage, and a computer may take a nanosecond to process a keystroke, but God processes everything in 0 seconds — and thus all things are simultaneous to him.
As a result, he could quite literally be unchanging, yet from our relative perspective, because we are confined by time, we can only see certain aspects of his unchanging nature and plan at different times, and thus we incorrectly perceive it as change. Put another way, it's not that God loved Israel at one time and then was mad at them and then loved them again; rather, it's that God was simultaneously loving and enraged at Israel in his unchanging timelessness, but has expressed each aspect at appropriate times (from our perspective) for the best interests of his overarching plan.
A final illustration
That is not to say that God must be outside of "all" concepts of time. Rather, God may experience something very much alike to what we know as time, but on a different level entirely. For example, consider that I have written a book. In my book I have determined that certain events would happen and at what time they happen and how long it would take from one event to the next. So, the characters in my book experience time in a way that I imagine time would work in my story, which is actually identical to the way I experience time. But it's not as though they are actually experiencing the same time with me. If I pick up the book and spend 1 hour reading through events that unfold during exactly the span of 1 hour in book-time, that's great. But if I stop reading for several weeks and return to that same spot of the book, I can then read the next hour of book-time without things having changed for the characters.
I believe this is similar to how our perception of time differs from God's perception — he can look at the whole of the story and start or stop wherever he pleases, making changes at his discretion. If someone on page 150 were to pray that something on page 8 never happened, God could re-write the story from page 8 and make all appropriate adjustments and thus the prayer on page 150 would never be prayed, but it would still be accounted for. And yet the value in our prayers is that we must still ask, even if things are predetermined, because we never know which prayers God will account for and not — and we know that God does not account for things that we do not ask for (James 4:2-3).
The key difference in all of this is that I create a concept of time in my book that is similar to how I experience time from the reference point of the characters, because I don't know any other way to express time. But God may not experience time our way at all — it could be an entirely created concept, in which case he would be even more transcendent over our concepts of time than I am over the concept of time the characters in my book may have.
God's infinite qualities are certainly mind-boggling to explore.