Agnosticism, Atheism, Christianity, Faith, God, Religion, Truth

If You Were Eternal, How Would You Know?

That may seem like a bizarre question, but it’s one I’ve thought about for a while. In the Bible, the Christian god claims to have always existed. Have you ever thought through what that would be like?

If you’ve spent much time around young children — say the 3 to 4 year old range — you’ll know that they have no concept of something happening before their existence. For instance, my middle child likes to watch old home movies from when she was a baby, and when she does, my youngest child always asks where he was during whatever event we’re watching. We tell him that he wasn’t born yet, but you can tell that doesn’t really register with him. He exists now… surely he existed then?

That got me thinking what it must be like to be God. If you’re the “first cause,” then before you created anything, there would be nothing (presumably). So if you’re simply an awareness surrounded by nothing, how do you know that nothing predates you? How can you mark the passage of eternity in a meaningful enough way to know that something didn’t cause you? It might be true — but how would you ever know?

It seems to me it’s the one thing God could not possibly know. To claim that nothing came before him would either be a lie, or it would be a display of the same kind of ignorance a child possesses when he’s incapable of imagining a time before his own existence.

Well, either that, or someone just made the whole thing up… 🙂

67 thoughts on “If You Were Eternal, How Would You Know?”

  1. Hmmm, I never thought about this concept quite this way. Nate, you are a master at stretching my brain WAY beyond what I normally think about (and amongst Evangelicals, I’m fairly box-less). Anyway, maybe the idea of God being eternal has more to do with His existence outside of what we are trapped in: forward linear time. The idea of God being the first cause can only be understood and interpreted in light of the existence of time. If God created time, then by being beyond, outside, above it (whatever you want to call it) makes Him eternal (from our perspective). Maybe this word is the only one that came close to describing the fact that God exists outside of the limitations of time?

    This is another one of those concepts that would be impossible for God to make us understand due to our 3-dimensional limitations.

    Hey, have you ever read The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis? He brings up a lot of the concepts you address (albeit couched in the format of science fiction – still quite cool).

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  2. I guess of there is not time, there is also no eternity… But I think as long as there is past, present and future, there is also time and I’m having a hard time seeing existence without past, present a future…

    this post certainly makes you think.

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  3. I’ve never heard of that trilogy — I’ll have to check it out! And thanks for the compliment, btw!

    You bring up a good point about God possibly being outside of time. That’s how I viewed it when I was a believer — it helped me think that God could know the future without causing the future. But since then, I’ve wondered if it’s even possible to really “be outside of time.”

    If time is just what we refer to in trying to describe changing or passing events, then it seems to me that God would be bound by time just as we are. If we go back to him being simply a consciousness surrounded by nothing, the moment he creates something, time has begun, because we now have the concepts “before” and “after.”

    Really, once he forms his first thought, time has begun.

    Maybe, as God, he can create different “bubbles” of time (can’t think of another way to describe it), just as the author of a book creates a timeline for his characters. So in that way, God might be outside our experience of time, but I don’t think he could truly be outside time itself.

    At least, that’s how it seems to me…

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  4. That Outside-of-Time loophole is always the one I fall back on with regard to mind-boggling questions such as this one. It seems to me that if memories exist, then certainly they exist because of time, and while God’s memory must be vastly different than ours (read: able to remember events *as they actually were*, not as one perceived them to be), it also views history as…history, especially in light of the biblical use of prophesy. (Because, really, without time, prophesy really isn’t that impressive.) One of God’s big points, as far proving His existence and credibility goes, is that whole prophesy thing. If He’s outside of time, then, really,prophesy is just Him manipulating the characters in His story, not actually correctly predicting “future” events.

    Using the idea that God is the creator and therefore outside of the control of time as an excuse does ring a bit hollow to me, almost like a cop-out or a cheat in a movie or story that leaves one feeling like Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s _Misery_: “It’s wrong! It’s a cheat! He didn’t get out of the cocka-doody car!”

    This comment illustrates how such questions leave me feeling all noodle-brained: it makes no sense whatsoever. Sigh.

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  5. Nate-
    You do come up with some really interesting thoughts. Kudos for that. However, you seem convinced that, in order for you to believe God exists, you must be able to understand and explain everything about him. I’m not sure where you got that idea, but I think it just doesn’t hold any water. I know we disagree there. That’s alright 🙂

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  6. Hi Nate, I like a challenging question or two myself, even though I don’t think we have any real basis to answer this one! I think, like others do, that the nature of time and eternity are the keys to this. A few extra thoughts …..

    1. In the Bible, “eternal” doesn’t mean “forever”, but “in or of the age to come”. (The Jews saw this present age as tough and evil, but in the age to come, all things would be put right.) So eternity isn’t necessarily timeless, that’s just our assumption.

    2. CS Lewis offers an interesting insight. Imagine a 2 dimensional world (instead of our 4 space-time dimensions) on a table – the length of the table is time and the width of the table is space. We exist by moving along the table timeline (we have no choice about this) and roaming around in the spatial dimension. But God is sitting outside the table, and sees the lot. It’s not so much that he doesn’t exist in time, but he he isn’t restricted by time. Slight difference I think, and may “work” to answer your question.

    I like the opportunity to consider an idle question without having to “argue”! 🙂

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  7. Thanks for the comment, Rodalena! (And loved the Misery reference, by the way — creepy book!)

    Josh, thanks for weighing in.

    Unklee, great to hear from you! You bring up a great point about the word “eternal” in the Bible. I’ve done some reading on that before, but it’s been a long time. I’ll have to check it out again.

    I like Lewis’s analogy, though to me, it sounds kind of like the writer/book example I gave earlier. I think God would still be bound by some kind of time, just because he thinks and acts. That produces changes, which result in the concepts of “before” and “after.” Again, that’s just how it seems to me. 🙂

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  8. Nate, thanks for the food for thought. I don’t believe time exists at all. We create time in our minds to try to explain our memories. We call past what our minds tell us happened, and future what our minds tell us might happen. So, in a sense, we are not even constrained by time, we just believe we are. We are actually always living in the present, and I believe that God can be found in this “eternal present.” Perhaps this is what the phrase “I am” refers to in the Bible: being in the present, such as in “I am who I am” and “I am the resurrection” (the resurrection is already here)… etc. Anyways, I have to agree with Josh, not understanding everything there is to know about God does not He does not exist at all. Nice topic!

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  9. I thought it would be good to just lay all out my thoughts on the bible and God. I was a bit hesitant at first to do this, but I feel that laying out different considerations is a healthy thing.

    I have shared this via email to a friend, these thoughts have been informed, like all thoughts, on what I have read and heard and read from other people 🙂 Sorry for the length.

    So here it is,

    I don’t think there is any way we can prove that the author of the Bible was right in their beliefs, since they are no longer here to ask.

    I think though, that Jesus taught that Gods Spirit leads into all truth, and The Holy Spirit is not the Bible.

    I think Jesus teaches that if we ask God, He will give His Spirit. So the Bible is not the full stop to an interaction with God. John 14:15-21 expresses how God reveals Himself:

    _______________________________________________

    “If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth.
    The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.

    Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.

    Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”

    _____________________________________________________________________

    It’s true that we can’t verify from the authors of the bible what they believed, but Jesus taught that we can ask and seek God, and that He will give Himself as Comforter:

    But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you (John 14:26).

    Even if the Bible in not infallible, the core message of Jesus and His teachings still continues through each translation of the books. I don’t think the Bible does present itself to be a complete picture; I think it presents itself as more of an account pointing to truth.

    For example, the author of John expresses that there were many other signs Jesus did in the presence of his disciples. He also supposed that if every one of them were written down, that the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.

    The author of John goes on to express that these accounts are written so that people might believe that Jesus is the Christ (John 21:25-31).

    In John 16 Jesus talks about Gods Spirit, that whatsoever people ask the Father in Christ’s name He will give, and that Gods Spirit will guide people into all truth. John 16 also talks about Gods love and of the time when Christ no longer speaks in proverbs.

    Gods Spirit I don’t think forces us to have any interaction with Him. Instead, I think God asks us to ask of Him, to invite Him in and to seek Him. I think the interaction of The Holy Spirit is a personal interaction, and this interaction is our choice to seek.

    Because of this, it may be a foundational truth to a person, but they cannot convince another person of this truth, because this interaction comes from each person themself seeking and asking.

    It’s not forced by God, but is instead an invitation by God. A decision is given to people to seek God, and then and to seek truth wherever it leads.

    I have it in my mind that it’s important to seek God. I don’t know where this will lead. I am inconsistent in many things, and I get angry at myself for that, but I think life (at least in this world) is too short to focus on mainly rhetoric and little action 🙂

    Now expressed all this, I feel I can move on.

    I enjoy the discussions on this blog; I hope we all get closer to the truth. I don’t know where the truth will lead, but I’m glad I’ve found a forum where thoughts can be respectfully expressed.

    Ryan.

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  10. I feel I should clarify myself – I don’t believe God is just a thought, but that God is truth.

    When it comes to focusing on God, I think I should always be honest with myself and others. A truth cannot be expressed through a lie or deception, for then it is not truth.

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  11. Just to clarify further 🙂 sorry I don’t want to be misunderstood.

    believing in God doesn’t mean I’m going to close myself off to information, reading and discussion. If I did that with any belief, then I figure I would be forced to a conclusion based on ignoring other perspectives, rather than having truth defined from error.

    Thanks, Ryan

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  12. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts, Ryan. The way I see it, everyone that comments on this blog is undertaking his or her own journey toward truth. Hopefully, none of us has just plopped down on the road somewhere and decided we’ve found it. It should be an ongoing process that lasts as long as we live. So no matter where you are on your journey, I’m glad you feel like you can share it with us. 🙂

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  13. Rephrase that- not truth defined from error. What I was trying to convey was the openness of information allows truth to be highlighted from error

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  14. Thanks, Nate

    I think the bible, like all texts, can be abused and mistranslated; I don’t believe it is perfect, since language itself hangs on definitions that shift, since meaning in language develops over time.

    If there is a Perfect Bible -Then there is a Perfect translation,

    Which then means only some people have access to the perfect translation?

    However, because of the nature of language, translations might focus on one defining word instead of another.

    Jesus made emphasis on asking

    Luke 11:9-13 expresses that Jesus teaching:
    _____________________________________________

    “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

    “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
    ______________________________________________

    My understanding is that Jesus is referring to His Spirit. He gives to those who follow his commandments and ask. In other passages, I think this can be misconstrued that God will grant “anything” people ask – for that would things that are not according to His will. The Holy Spirit Himself guides people to truth and understanding. I think the Bible is a reference.

    The books themselves are a printed and bound collection, of a pattern of symbols, arranged to structure meanings. That’s what written words are, as I understand it, meaning is attached to the symbols.

    If the Bible is perfect, then is salvation only available to those who can read? Or those who have the books read to them? If this is true, and God desires none to perish, then how is salvation and truth available to all?

    I believe The Holy Spirit Himself comforts, guides and helps people to truth and understanding. And I don’t think His guidance is just confined to helping us understand the Bible. I believe that if we invite and follow, then God guides us.

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  15. And me writing before that “I think” Gods Spirit does not force us – what I mean to say is that I believe Gods Spirit does not force us. Its a choice that is given to us 🙂

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  16. Sorry, one more thing to clarify 🙂

    I’m not saying that a perfect translation of the Bible does not exist,

    But I do ask – how relevant is such a translation if it is only accessible to a few?

    Furthermore, what of those people in other countries that have no access to any translation of the Bible?

    I believe God interacts with humanity through His Spirit, and not just the bible.

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  17. The main difficulty I see is how do you tell the difference between the Holy Spirit and yourself? I knew a guy who once told me that he felt the Lord was leading him toward a new job opportunity. When I ran into him later, I asked how the new job was going, but he told me he never took it because it wasn’t enough money. Now, did he ignore the Holy Spirit? Or was he never influenced by it to begin with?

    Lots of people claim to be following the Holy Spirit, yet their beliefs diverge wildly from one another. Is the Holy Spirit a practical joker? Are only a few of them really hearing the Holy Spirit and the rest are deluded? Or have they all taken their own desires and attributed them to the Holy Spirit?

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  18. Nate, all of those are very GREAT questions regarding hearing the Holy Spirit. After 30+ years trying to do that, I’ve become a complete skeptic. I’m not even certain anymore that what people in the Bible thought they were hearing God say was really something He was saying! Whenever anyone tells me they heard something from the Holy Spirit, I just take it with a grain of salt, weigh it against the CLEAR teaching of the whole of Scripture, and move on (I don’t find myself much affected by all of that anymore).

    Now, back to the theme of this post … I wanted to just mention that my idea of eternal has more to do with dimensions than with time. Time is one aspect of dimension, in my thinking. But then, I’m not a scientist by ANY stretch… 😉

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