What is time? We’ve probably all pondered that baffling question at one ‘time’ or another. The best answer ever? ‘Time… is what keeps everything from happening all at once.’ So true! And yet it sounds like a joke from a Christmas cracker. That ingenious answer was posited by the eminent physicist John Wheeler in a personal letter to Russian cosmologist Igor Novikov. But it’s no definition – more like an anti-definition.
The concept of time is one of the most bewildering and convoluted problems in all of human existence, perplexing the greatest minds from ancient to contemporary, bringing together philosophy, science, and theology in mutual disagreement and despair. Way back in the 5th Century, Augustine (one of greatest philosopher-theologians ever), famously penned the words, ‘What is time? If no one asks me, I know; but if I wish to explain it to someone who asks, I know not.’
If you think this is an esoteric question that isn’t relevant to your life, guess again. Is God in time or outside of time? Can anything actually happen outside of time? Is eternity limitless time, or the absence of time? Does time ‘end’ at death? We could go on and on. If God is timeless (outside of time), He has no before or after, past or future; God cannot answer our prayers because prayer involves changing a situation from before to after. In fact, timelessness is a very problematic concept indeed. Yet Christians love to insist that God is ‘beyond time’ – yet operates ‘within time’! Philosophically however, it’s logically impossible for an entity to exist both in time and outside of time at one and the same______. There’s no word. Timelessness and temporality are mutually exclusive.
In case you think science has the answers (after all, didn’t Einstein conclusively determine that all time is relative?), there’s no agreement there either. One of the greatest physicists this century, Sir John Polkinghorne wrote, ‘If physics proves incapable of accommodating so basic an element of the human encounter with reality as flowing time, then so much the worse for physics.’ Without a past, present and future, we’re stagnant; and so is God. Yet God can only truly know the future if he created it and it already exists (even if only in his mind). But then it cannot change. So does God not know?
My conclusion? Oh dear, I’m afraid we’re out of ______.