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Richard Swinburne and God’s Timelessness

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 29, 2010

Richard Swinburne is a remarkable scholar, but in this particular case I’m not quite sure what to do with him. He’s written a number of books, commended by many deeply committed Christians (including Catholics), which seek to set forth a sort of philosophical theology, a step-by-step rational discussion of the very great likelihood that a personal Trinitarian God exists, and that the basic doctrines of Christianity are true.

The former Nolloth Professor at Oxford has developed a comprehensive natural theology in both scholarly and popular works covering the existence of God, faith and reason, revelation, providence and the problem of evil, responsibility and atonement, and the Resurrection. At least two of his books are available in paperbacks of modest length and price, designed for readers with no prior philosophical background: Is There a God? and Was Jesus God?. Reading Swinburne is a delight to all those who enjoy a sustained and lucid examination of why Christian doctrine is exactly what any rational persons ought to expect to be true.

And yet for some reason Richard Swinburne does not seem to have grasped what it means for God to be outside of time.

Cruising along very enjoyably in Was Jesus God?, the reader suddenly stumbles over Swinburne’s conclusion about God’s foreknowledge:

[I]t looks as if it is not logically possible for God to know infallibly beforehand what a free agent will do…. But since God is omnipotent, it is only because he permits this that we have free will…. God is himself responsible for there being limits to his knowledge of how we will act; and he can take away our free will and so these limits to his knowledge of the future, whenever he chooses. (p. 9)

This is Swinburne’s effort to show that it does not detract from the idea of God that He does not know the future in cases where He has created freedom in others to determine that future. It is the same type of argument we make when we say that it does not detract from God’s omnipotence that He cannot make a square circle, for that is a logical impossibility. But Christians believe (or ought to believe) that God really does know “the future” perfectly (the reason for the quotes will soon become clear). Therefore, the Christian reader suspects (or ought to suspect) that Swinburne is using the wrong argument to solve this particular puzzle.

It is, of course, a perennial puzzle. Non-believers or those in doubt almost inevitably wonder how human free will and God’s foreknowledge can possibly be reconciled. At first brush, it seems highly likely that if God knows the outcome, then He must in fact determine the outcome. That this is not the case seems not so much a Christian mystery as a Christian impossibility. Yet many have made refreshingly short work of this alleged impossibility, and one wonders why Swinburne—who is typically on target—fails to do so.

A few pages later, one discovers exactly why. It comes out in Swinburne’s discussion of “eternity” as an attribute of God:

God is eternal. But this has been understood in two different senses: either as the claim that God is timeless (he does not exist in time, or at any rate in our time) or as the claim that God is everlasting (he existed at every moment of past time, exists now, and will exist at every moment of future time). In my opinion the timeless view is incompatible with everything else that religious believers have wanted to say about God. For example, it does seem strongly that God being omniscient entails that he hears the prayers of humans at the same time as they utter them; yet on the timeless view God does not exist at the same time as (simultaneously with) any moment in our timescale. For this and other reasons I shall in future understand God being eternal as God being everlasting…. (p. 12)

The reason, then, that Swinburne cannot affirm simultaneously God’s knowledge of “the future” and the freedom of the human will is that Swinburne has not at all grasped what it means for God to be outside time.

Precisely because He is eternal, God is necessarily outside time. Time is His creation just like everything else. Just as when God creates a man or a woman He not only knows but sees intimately every aspect of his or her being, inside and out, so too when He creates a duration, He not only knows but sees every moment of that duration in His eternity. He does not have to wait for the duration to work itself through any more than He has to wait for the person to reveal himself. God is not like us; He is not locked within time. He knows the future because every moment of time is present to Him. As the saying goes, with God all times are soon.

This is why I put the word “future” in quotes. God knows our future because it is not future at all to one who is outside of time. Both philosophers and physicists often discuss time as a fourth dimension. Humans can see three dimension but not the fourth. Humans can even build things in three dimensions but not the fourth. But God creates every aspect of every thing, including its duration and the way it operates in different phases of its duration, and the way it experiences that duration (if it is conscious). Indeed, the time dimension is visible to God even more clearly than length and width and height are visible to us. For this reason, there is no conflict at all between free will and God’s knowledge (or “fore”-knowledge, as we generally call it, adopting the human perspective).

This is no reason to avoid Swinburne, whose work I think most CatholicCulture.org users will find both fascinating and useful. This work constitutes, after all, the consummate response to Ditchkins (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and the other new atheists). But if you read him, you should remember his goal is to provide a natural exploration of the likelihood of the tenets of our faith; it is not the faith itself. Otherwise there may be times—however few—when you may not be quite sure what to do with him.

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  • Posted by: Cornelius - Oct. 01, 2010 10:52 AM ET USA

    Our free will can co-exist with God's "fore"-knowledge (divine intellect). More difficult to explain, however, is how our free will co-exists with God's providential plan (divine will) for creation. God not only sees the "future", He brings it about in accord with His will.

  • Posted by: bnewman - Sep. 30, 2010 10:11 PM ET USA

    Jeff Mirus has this exactly right. As a physicist it seems to me that Swinburne thinks in terms of a Newtonian Universe, which has an infinite past and an infinite future. Special and general relativity theories have superceded Newton's theory and lead finally to the conclusion that space and time began (were created by God I believe) about 13.6 billion years ago.

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