“I figured, since time doesn’t exist, who needs a watch?”Ed Walters, I.Q. (1)
God is not governed by time. At least, I don’t think He is.
As human beings, we’re pretty familiar and obsessed with time. It rules our lives. We have to be at work on time, we have to schedule our time, we have to go to bed on time, we have to set time aside to do fun things or things we dread, we have to set timers, timeouts, etc.. Time is an integral part of our mortality here on Earth.
But what if I told you that time may not always be our master? What if I told you that we know someone deeply concerned with our lives who doesn’t have to deal with time? Someone who loves us, cares for us, and works tirelessly to help us get to an amazing place where we probably won’t have to worry about time anymore. That someone I’m referring to, of course, is God.
God, the Father of us all, is not governed by time, and, to paraphrase Joseph Smith, I am going to prove it to you with the scriptures. (2)
Okay, I know–that sounded super conceited. I don’t really KNOW for sure if He is free of the constraints of time, but I’d bet money on it. When I study the scriptures, examples of God’s timelessness seem to pervade the pages and fill me with a sense of wonder and amazement that’s hard to describe. Today, I hope I can share at least a sliver of that with you.
As you know, this blog is dedicated to reconciling the LDS faith with modern science, and guess what–the idea of an outside-of-time God can really help answer a lot of questions that arise while examining the subject. Trust me. It actually can help explain some things that may have bothered you about how science and religion can coexist. So, without further introduction, here’s my argument why God is not governed by time.
One: God dwells in eternity
A dude named Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, “If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.” I think he was on to something. We often ponder eternity as a very, very, very long time. But what if that’s wrong and eternity is just a state with no time at all? What if it’s a place where time stands still? Timelessness. (3)
In fact, despite Latter-day Saints thinking of eternity as forever, we actually also talk about it as being something different than time. How many LDS wedding announcements have you stuck to your fridge sporting the phrase “for time and all eternity”? If our mortal existence really was just a small fraction of infinitely advancing time, then saying you were being married for time AND all eternity is kind of redundant, isn’t it? It only makes sense if “time” is something that exists separate and not as a part of “eternity”. It only makes sense if eternity is “time”-less. (See also D&C 132:18, 72:3)
The Lord revealed in the Doctrine and Covenants that God “sitteth upon his throne, [and] is in the bosom of eternity, … in the midst of all things” (D&C 88:13). King Benjamin’s angel spoke of “the Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, who was, and is from all eternity to all eternity,” who “shall come down from heaven among the children of men, and shall dwell in a tabernacle of clay” (Mosiah 3:5). God is a Deity that seems to leave His throne in timelessness to enter a world of time to interact with and save His children. To me, it feels like this mortal life with time is not merely just an infinitesimally tiny part of eternity, but kind of its own thing; because eternity is a completely different sphere.
While giving a funeral sermon, Joseph Smith said, “We are looked upon by God, who dwells in eternity, as though we were in eternity, and when His commandments touch us it is in view of eternity. He does not view things as we do.” God dwells in eternity, and even though we do not, He looks at us like we are, and sees our potential with an eternal perspective, giving us commandments accordingly. (4)
I often hear people expressing worry about being married to the same person for all eternity, because, “Eternity is a very long time.” But I think looking at eternity as timelessness is not only freeing and much less scary, but makes way more sense. You’re not married to your spouse for an infinite number of days. You’re married to them for an infinitely long day–or one, satisfyingly joyful day that never seems to end. Imagine sharing with your loved one a gorgeous, colorful sunset that never fully falls below the horizon.
Eternity isn’t the endless ticking of time, but rather a place where that ticking can end and has no relevance or meaning. And I think God lives in it. And I think my man Ludwig was right!
Two: He is the same yesterday, today, and forever
While on my mission, I read The Lectures on Faith, and I immediately fell in love with it. Although it probably wasn’t written by Joseph Smith, there’s an idea from the book that often occupies my thoughts: It’s necessary to know that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, because if He did ever change, we couldn’t have faith in Him. (5)
“I am God,” said the Lord, “and I am a God of miracles; and I will show unto the world that I am the same yesterday, today, and forever” (2 Nephi 27:23). We can trust that He will keep His promises and love us, because He doesn’t change. Ever. And if He never changes, then we can have confidence that He will keep His promises and our actions of faith will be rewarded.
To me, a God that never changes is a timeless God. Living things grow old, atoms decay, space expands; all the time we are learning new things and adapting to the world around us. We, who live in time, are changing all the time! If God wasn’t timeless, then like all things, He would also change over time. But He stays forever the same, “from all eternity to all eternity, the Great I AM.” (D&C 39:1)
When the Jews asked Jesus if He had seen Abraham, Jesus answered, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). Not only was He making a statement that didn’t make sense according to how we experience time, but He was likely making a statement about His timeless divinity. “I AM” in Hebrew is “hayah”, whose root word is an unconjugated verb meaning “to be”. Therefore, what Jesus really was saying was, “Before Abraham was, I was, I am, and I will be,” further confusing us time-bound beings who wonder how Christ’s past could have happened before Abraham’s present and after his future… Yeah. Think about that for a minute. (6)
Other questions arise from the scriptures. How could Jesus show His body to the Brother of Jared, and touch things, if He didn’t yet have a physical body (Ether 3:6-9,17) ? Or, how could the Savior be the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world”, if Christ definitely couldn’t have died before He was born, or before the earth was made (Revelation 13:1)? Abinadi taught the people of King Noah about the Messiah’s atonement as if He had already come and completed it, despite the fact that decades would pass before He was actually born (see Mosiah 16:6-8). (7)
“From eternity to eternity he is the same, and his years never fail” (D&C 76:4). He was the same before the world was created; He was the same for the Brother of Jared; He was the same for Abraham (Abraham 3:11-12); He was the same for the Nephites at the temple in Bountiful (3 Nephi 11:13-15); and He was the same for Joseph Smith in the sacred grove (JS-H 1:19). Christ is somehow always the same, no matter where on Earth’s timeline He chooses to appear. It seems to me that there are plenty of apparent time warps going on in the scriptures, and I don’t think these could happen unless God was timeless.
Three: He can see the past, present, and future
I read somewhere that 5 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every second. That’s 18,000 seconds of video per second. There is no possible way for one person to watch every single second of video on that website. It would take you 13 sleepless days to watch all the videos uploaded in the past minute. (8)
The scriptures tell us that “past, present, and future, … are continually before the Lord,” and that He “knoweth all things, for all things are present before [His] eyes” (D&C 130:7-9, 38:2). I mean, we already know that God sees everything we do, but apparently He can still see everything your grandparents did when they were young, and He can see everything your grandchildren will do even before they’re born. He can see all of time–be it the past, the present, or the future. And He sees it now.
So let’s think about this for a minute: If He can see the present, what part of it is He watching? Your present, or the present of someone else on the other side of the globe as they sleep? There is no way for Him to see every single thing in the present in real time. He would have to have an infinite number of cameras to see an infinite number of points in the present, and then an infinite amount of time in order to comprehensively watch them all.
The same goes for the future and the past. Which events in the past is He seeing? Is He watching the frantic attempts of my 5th great-grandfather at the Battle of Bunker Hill during the Revolutionary War (1775), or the escape of Lehi and his family from Jerusalem in 600 B.C.? Which events in the future is He looking at? The birth of your great-great-granddaughter in the year 2100, or the collision of the Milky Way with the Andromeda Galaxy in a few billion years from now? (9)
There is no way that He could see and comprehend EVERYTHING in all timelines “present before Him” unless He lived outside of the bonds of time. It would be like trying to watch every single YouTube video ever uploaded to the internet. It’s just not possible. There’s just not enough time. Therefore, to see all things in all timelines and to have all time periods in His present, God has to be timeless.
Four: He can reveal the future, past, and present to his prophets and seers
The Book of Mormon teaches that “a seer can know of things which are past, and also of things which are to come, … and also things shall be made known by them which otherwise could not be known” (Mosiah 8:17). Prophets usually prophesy or predict things that will happen in their future. The scriptures, Church history, and the Church now are chock-full of prophets, seers, and revelators, who see things that have not yet happened, but that will happen in the future.
If God really does live in a timeless state where past, present, and future are “continually before Him”, then why couldn’t He open that up to His prophets sometimes for them to see too? I mean, I don’t know the physics behind it, but I’d imagine it’d be pretty easy to show someone else just a few seconds of what He sees all the time.
Because, if God is indeed timeless, then He can show not just the future to prophets, but the past and the present too. Joseph Smith knew all sorts of things about the past, being shown them by the power of the Lord (for example: how the earth was made). Nephi, the son of Helaman, knew the chief judge had just been killed and “lieth in his blood”, even though Nephi was far removed from the location and couldn’t have otherwise known what was currently happening (Helaman 8:25–28; 9:1–38). (10)
God sees all things at all times, and so He can show anything at any time to His servants. And the prophets who describe the future are always right on the money! Their predictions wouldn’t be nearly as successful unless they were seeing reality… just ahead of schedule. God sees that reality. It’s His present because He’s timeless.
Five: One day with God is as what exactly to us?
You’ve probably heard that one day on Kolob is a thousand years on Earth. That’s cool and all, and it makes a fun math problem to work out, but I don’t like how people call it “God’s time”, as if He lives solely under the dictation of the passage of time on Kolob. So I’m just gonna come out and say it: Kolob time is NOT God’s time. No, God’s time is so much grander and mysterious than that. It’s timelessness.
For example, the Apostle Peter said, “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8). That’s almost like Kolob time, but notice that it includes both ways: a day to God is a thousand years to us AND a thousand years to God is one day to us. How could it work both ways? How could God’s time be slower than ours AND faster than ours simultaneously?
The simple answer is the Lord is not governed by time at all–be it our time, Kolob time, deep time, or dinnertime. “All is as one day with God,” said Alma, “and time only is measured unto men” (Alma 40:8, emphasis added). Whether it be a thousand years, a thousand seconds, a thousand millennia, the past, the present, or the future, it’s all like one big day to the Almighty.
I think the most important example of the timelessness of God comes in the story of the Savior’s atonement. While in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ took upon Himself the “the pains and the sicknesses of his people … that his bowels may be filled with mercy,” that he could know perfectly “how to succor his people according to their infirmities (Alma 7:11-12).” He did that for everyone. Simple math shows that if He suffered just 1 second for each of the 7 billion people currently on Earth, then He would’ve needed to be in the garden for over 221 years. But we’re told He was only there for around 3 hours (Matt. 26:40-46). How? … Further, if we assume that He really did experience everything that you did or will experience in your life and everyone else’s life, then He must have suffered an entire lifetime for each person, which means that He must have been in the garden for over 504 billion years! And that’s just for people alive today. What about for the people who lived before Him or after us? What about the fact that He has already suffered for sins that you haven’t committed yet? (11)
Do you see the timelessness that was required? Do you see why the atonement had to be infinite (Alma 34:12)? Do you see why it was something that only a God could do? Jesus had to slip into eternity that night. What seemed by our clocks to be only 3 hours on a night 2,000 years ago is still going on today for each of us in some cosmic, infinite, eternal, timeless way.
Thinking along these lines perhaps gives special meaning to the Savior’s question to His three sleepy disciples in the Garden: “What, could ye not watch with me one hour?”; because to their point of view, it really only was an hour (Matt. 26:40), but to His point of view it could have been much longer. It could’ve been eons.
Arguments Against a Timeless God
As cool as God being timeless sounds, there are those who would disagree. A few arguments that I’ve heard are from a Latter-day Saint philosopher. Now, I know I’m not going to represent his arguments very well, but I’ll do my best from what I understand of his reasoning.
The first is that if God indeed was a man who lived on another earth, as Joseph Smith taught, then how could He be timeless? Surely that other earth was in our past as God is no longer a mortal man. This shows that God has a past and therefore could not be timeless. (12)
The second is that God cannot be timeless and be embodied. He says that God has a physical body that takes time to move around in space, and this proves that He could not be timeless. (13)
I see his point, as yes, God does seem to be following some timeline in His own development; and yes, it would take time for the Lord to reach out His hand and touch His nose, just like it takes a second or so for you to reach up and touch your nose. But I don’t understand why these are such big problems. If we leave this timed, mortal existence upon our resurrection and enter a timeless eternity, wouldn’t the same have happened for God? Just because He’s timeless now doesn’t mean there wasn’t a place in His journey where He was subject to time. Remember, time in our universe began at the Big Bang–even the question “What happened before the Big Bang?” may make no physical sense to us because of this. If God truly is the Creator of the universe, then His past world must have been in another universe, which would have incidentally had its own passage of time–its own timeline in a completely different “sphere” than ours (see D&C 93:30, 77:3, Moses 3:9, Abraham 3:3&9). So God may have been governed by time in another sphere, but can still be timeless in this one. (14)
Another argument is that if God knew the future, it would destroy the free agency of human beings since God would basically be determining the choices that we are going to make in our future. Or instead of determining our choices, our “free will” could alter what God knew what the future would be in His past, and so our free will is therefore incompatible with God’s foreknowledge. A view such as this leads one to conclude that God doesn’t know the future, but rather knows all the probabilities and is a good guesser of future outcomes. (15)
I take a lot of beef with that. I mean, I don’t think the scriptures could be clearer that all things past, present, and future are continually before God. The fact that He knows the choices you are going to make doesn’t mean that He determines those choices for you. He’s always allowed us to choose. Say you’re headed down a forbidden path which would have led to your destruction, but at length you come to yourself and decide to course correct and get back on the straight and narrow. Did God know all along that you were going to repent? Absolutely! Did He interfere in your life by forcing you to come back to Him? Not at all. Where you end up after all is said and done is ultimately your decision, for you “are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death” (2 Nephi 2:27). We say that God has foreknowledge, but I don’t think that’s the right way to say it. Sure, to our point of view, it’s foreknowledge, but to His point of view, it’s just knowledge. He just knows how things turn out because He can see all the things. The future is present to Him. He knows the end from the beginning (see Abraham 2:8). He sees it all at once.
Overall, I think that the physics of a timeless being would need to be further explored in order to rule out God’s timelessness due to His current corporeality, His past mortal life, or the implications of Him knowing all future things. There’s probably a lot more nuance to it than we time-bound humans can see on the surface.
Timelessness in Science
Speaking of physics–Now, I’m not going to endeavor to get into those physics to explain how God can be timeless. That’s a discussion for another day. But I can tell you that the idea of timelessness is not something wholly confined to the scriptures. Modern physicists talk quite a lot about it too.
“For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”Albert Einstein (16)
Albert Einstein is famous for discovering that time passes differently relative to different observers, due to speed and gravity, and a lot of mathy stuff (relativity). The only reason the GPS on our phones works and we can ever get to anywhere new is because of this discovery. If time can pass differently for us on Earth relative to an astronaut in space, then time can pass differently (or not all) to God. Some would say that time doesn’t really even exist, or that its divisions between past, present, and future are merely convincing illusions. (17)
Light is timeless. Each photon that travels along in a beam of light is literally timeless because of relativity. The north star, Polaris is around 433 light years away. That means when you look up to it at night, the light you see took 433 years to reach your eyeballs. To your point of view, those photons traveled for 433 years through space until being absorbed by your retinas, but to their point of view (the photons’ viewpoint), they left the surface of the star and arrived at your eyes in the very same moment because, due to their light-speed velocity, they are timeless and experience no time. Pretty trippy, huh? But what’s even cooler is that light is a symbol of Christ, a Being who, Himself, may very well be timeless (see John 8:12). (18)
Black holes are timeless. According to math, time completely stops inside the event horizon of a black hole. Inside a black hole, there is no time. If you have a hard time accepting that God is timeless, that’s fine; just remember that there are estimated to be over ten million black holes in our galaxy alone, which means there are something like ten million locations in our galactic neighborhood experiencing timelessness right now as you read this (not to mention the countless other black holes in trillions of other galaxies throughout the universe). (19)
Timelessness exists in reality. So why not for the one true God, the Creator of that reality?
Why is this so important?
You may be wondering, “Why is this important when it comes to reconciling science with our religion?” Well, a timeless God actually helps to clear up many things in that regard, some of which include:
- How God can hear and answer billions of prayers daily.
- How God can move across the universe seemingly faster than light.
- How the days of creation can be long and of indeterminate length.
- How God can know the future.
- How God can reveal the past.
- How God can know everything.
- How God can be in more than one place at a time.
- Even how eternal marriage works in the afterlife (and even plural marriages too).
Once these questions have a possible answer to them, then reconciling science with the gospel becomes much easier to do.
When you realize that God is timeless, you suddenly get less concerned about how old the earth is–it very well could have taken God billions of years to make it. It’s more plausible that scientists are right about when the great dinosaurs lived (between 300 and 66 million years ago)–because that totally works for a God who’s timeless. And even the question of human evolution becomes more believable–because why not take millions of years to slowly create the human form by degrees when time is no issue? All of this stuff makes a lot more sense if God is timeless because long timescales wouldn’t really matter to Him, would they? What’s a few more hundred million years to a Deity that isn’t bound by the constraints of time? What’s another eon or two to a God that has all the past, present, and future continually before Him? All is as one day with God.
I think God is timeless. I don’t think He has to worry about it nor is He subject to it. The scriptures give ample evidence that this is so, and the universe as we know it provides many examples of timelessness. And if the universe has elements of timelessness, then I think it’s safe to assume the God who created it is timeless as well.
Sources and Notes
- Joseph Smith said, in the King Follett discourse (7 Apr 1844): “What kind of a being was God in the beginning, before the world was? I will go back to the beginning to show you. I will tell you, so open your ears and eyes, all ye ends of the earth, and hear, for I am going to prove it to you with the Bible.” http://signaturebookslibrary.org/essential-joseph-smith-48/
- https://www.reddit.com/r/askphilosophy/comments/2btjik/what_does_wittgenstein_mean_by_this_quote/; https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/wittgenstein/
- http://signaturebookslibrary.org/essential-joseph-smith-48/ , 7 Apr 1844
- https://ldsperspectives.com/2017/07/12/lectures-faith/; http://lecturesonfaith.com/3/
- https://biblehub.com/hebrew/1961.htm; This I learned in an institute class called “Finding Christ in the Old Testament”. Wish I had a better reference for it though.
- In Ether 3, the Brother of Jared sees Jesus Christ. Christ touches the stones in front of Him with His finger–a physical act. We typically teach that since this appearance of the Savior predates the birth of Christ, He came as a spirit. If that is true, how could He have physically touched the stones? The Lord says to the Brother of Jared, “Behold, this body, which ye now behold, is the body of my spirit; and man have I created after the body of my spirit; and even as I appear unto thee to be in the spirit will I appear unto my people in the flesh” (Ether 3:16). First, He says He has a body. Second, He does say that this body is the body of His spirit–which leads many of us to conclude that yes, He came as a spirit because He was yet to be born; that He came in His spirit body. BUT, would it be wrong for you, a living, breathing mortal, to say that your current body is “the body of your spirit”? No it wouldn’t, because your body does indeed house your spirit. Moroni goes on to say that “Jesus showed himself unto this man in the spirit, even after the manner and in the likeness of the same body even as he showed himself unto the Nephites” (Ether 3:17) The same body He showed to the Bro. of J. as He showed himself to the people in the Land Bountiful after His resurrection. Did this Jesus have marks from the nails on His hands as He reached out to touch the rocks? Did Jesus appear to the Bro. of J. in His physical body? And if so, how in the world could He have if He wasn’t born yet? There must have been some time warp going on. He must be timeless… I should just write a separate post about this. There are many other examples I could get into.
- 5th great grandfather John Pulsipher fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill?; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Jerusalem_(587_BC); https://www.space.com/43267-milky-way-andromeda-collision-later.html
- One example of Joseph knowing things of the past: “From this time forth Joseph continued to receive instructions from time to time and every evening we gathered our children togather [together]…In the course of our evening conversations Joseph would give us some of the most ammusing [amusing] recitals which could be immagined [imagined]. he would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent their dress their man[n]er of traveling the animals which they rode The cities that were built by them the structure of their buildings with every particular of their mode of warfare their religious worship as particularly as though he had spent his life with them..”–Lucy Mack Smith, https://www.fairmormon.org/answers/Joseph_Smith/%22Amusing_recitals%22_of_ancient_American_inhabitants.
- Number found using an average life expectancy of 72 years (7 billion X 72 years = 504 billion years). 504 billion years is about 37 times as long as the universe has even existed (13.8 billion years). Could Jesus have been suffering in the Garden for longer than the universe itself has been a thing?
- http://scripturalmormonism.blogspot.com/2015/07/did-joseph-smith-teach-god-exists-in.html; http://signaturebookslibrary.org/essential-joseph-smith-48/ , 7 Apr 1844
- http://www.hawking.org.uk/the-beginning-of-time.html; https://www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2019/06/07/does-time-have-a-beginning/#1ae1e4a8513b
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polaris; https://phys.org/news/2014-05-does-light-experience-time.html
- https://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/focus-areas/black-holes; https://www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2018/10/18/this-is-how-we-know-there-are-two-trillion-galaxies-in-the-universe/#32c7bcaa5a67
- Simple time vs eternity diagram drawn by me.
- Brother of Jared image found here: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/media/image/lord-finger-veil-brother-jared-e42b24f?lang=eng
- Christ in Gethsamane image found here: https://thirdhour.org/blog/faith/need-atonement-life-not-just-sin/
- Image of Black Hole from the movie Interstellar found here: https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/blackhole-simulation-created-interstellar-was-so-good-it%E2%80%99s-helping-real-scientists