Since the paper "On the Meaning of 'ta panta'" was printed in our issue of June, 1955 (Vol. 17, No.3) pressure has been put on me from several sources to go further into the matter. I have declined; not because of unwillingness to help, but because of the firm conviction that I was telling the truth when I wrote it and that there is no profit for us in demanding answers to questions when Scripture itself does not supply such answers.
Then why write this further paper? Simply this: I want to supply further evidence to show, and I hope I shall show, that the subject of its heading and of other related matters such as the nature of time and "eternity" are beyond the capacity of our minds to understand; and therefore that to 'talk about them as if we did understand them is to utter' meaningless nonsense.
This would not be very important if it were merely a matter of wasting time, for it is impossible to avoid doing so sometimes. The evil of such talk is, rather, that it not only diverts our attention from things which we can understand and which therefore are of importance but, worse, confuses our thinking about such things and often provides an insurmountable obstacle to clarity and to faith in God's Word. We simply cannot afford the luxury (such as it is) of speculating about the unknowable.
The aim of setting out some of such speculations in this paper is to discourage readers from indulging in them by showing something of what they are in themselves, of what they lead to, and of how dangerously misleading they can be. If this end can be achieved, the time spent in writing and reading it will not have been wasted. This time is an insignificant fraction of what is wasted by some of our correspondents in arguing about them and urging us to argue about them too. There is no shortage of real topics for research. Let us confine our attention to them and leave the guessing to those who have nothing better to do.
Although Scripture has something to say about various sides of it and related matters, it does not give a body of formal instruction on it, which in actual fact belongs rather to Philosophy and Metaphysics than to Theology.
Time is essentially different from space in that, like a river, it flows in one direction only and, unlike a river, it is irreversible. Water flows from the hill-top to the sea, and the mechanism of nature is continually replenishing the flow. With time there is no replenishment. Space does not "flow"; but, given the means, a body in space can move in any direction and back again. No directional constraint exists in space itself, as it does in time. Writers on "Relativity" speak, quite properly, of "time's arrow." It points only one way.
From this it follows that past and future are fundamentally different. Once a happening has passed through the present, so to speak, it is frozen into changelessness. Nothing can ever turn a happening into an "un-happening." What is done, is done. Again and again in our lives we stand at a moment of decision which determines in some way or other, unalterably so far as it goes, our whole future. Yet this determining is only "so far as it goes." To return to the river analogy, it changes to some extent the general direction of the river; but that does not imply that it predetermines every feature of its future course, or alters the location of its mouth. Presently a new moment of decision comes. If the previous decision had been otherwise, this new moment would never have come, but something else would in due course have come in its place.
Many people attempt to answer the question implied in this fact by pointing out that what we choose at any instant depends on what we are, and that our choice is thereby predetermined and as changelessly "frozen" as the past. From this they deduce that God is aware of every detail of the future, having indeed Himself decreed this predetermination. The very word" predetermine" implies an act of control by some Being Who has the necessary will and power.
The simplicity of this answer is a delusion, for it brings about more difficulties than it removes. If the future is thus "frozen," in what way can it differ from the past? What real difference does it make whether we travel forward or backward in time? We may even ask whether "forward" or "backward" have any meaning at all? The whole thing becomes like a cinematography film, which remains the same film whether we run it one way or the other. Moreover, if this idea is true, we ourselves do not differ in any significant way from the figures on the film. Nothing we do has any purpose, any meaning, because we are doing it under the compulsion of an inexorable decree from which we cannot depart one hair's breadth. "Can" or "cannot" cease to mean anything, we do not even "do" anything—we become shadows actuated by some force, carrying out a series of apparent operations entirely without significance in themselves because entirely automatic.
What the created being does is determined by what it is, true enough. Judas, Annas, Caiaphas and Pilate, on the one hand, Abraham, Peter, Paul, Timothy, on the other, did what they did precisely because they were what they were. Yet, surely, they became what they were through their own choice, to some extent at least. They played their allotted parts in history. Yet it is far easier to believe that they were cast for their parts because they were the right men in the right place than that they were pre-selected for their parts whether they desired them or not.
REALITY IN TIME
Some have suggested that the past is neither more "real" nor less "real" than the future and that reality exists only in the present. There are two convincing objections to this. First, the present can hardly be described as existing at all, that is, apart from the immediate past. Take this last sentence, for instance. While the word "past" was being written, the remainder of the sentence had already slipped into the past. While its final "t" was being written the "pas" had already gone. The sentence, once written, has continued to exist; but before it was written, it existed only in the mind of its writer and was subject to change even while being written. We cannot in any circumstances pin down and examine the present, for, as we contemplate it, lo! it becomes past and slips away. We can know it only as past.
Second, both present and past determine the future, which can never determine them. Others may cavil at the word "determine," arguing that modern Physics has shown that certain events in atoms are indeterminate and causeless. This statement is hardly in accord with the facts. We know that it is impossible to predict the instant of the break-down of some particular radio-active atom and we believe that no reason is knowable to us why some particular atom should break down at some particular instant; but we also know something else—that it is impossible for us to distinguish one particular atom of a given substance from another, or one particular electron from another of the same kind. So the former problem may be linked in some way with the last fact. Moreover, the circumstance that we can never know the cause of a particular happening does not necessarily mean that no cause exists, but merely that we cannot detect it.
Such randomness is the cause of the bulk of the phenomena studied in Physics. Matter acts as it does because its particles are moving or have moved at random. Even the regularity of a crystal depends on the temporary catching-up of its particles in a framework the nature of which is determined by certain mathematical considerations, not by rigid "laws" imposed on them. Seldom is a crystal even approximately perfect in shape, for seldom does chance permit the mathematical considerations to operate unhindered.
When we toss a number of coins, we know from mathematics that, provided the tosses are entirely random, we shall get "heads" and "tails" in about equal numbers. If we got all "heads" in a great number of tosses, we know that the tosses are not random. On the other hand, we can set out a number of coins with "heads" and "tails" in equal numbers, by the operation of conscious intelligence.
This is where the layman in such matters becomes confused. The same approximation to order can be obtained either by conscious selection or by the random behaviour of a very large number of objects. There is no need for God to determine the action of each electron in the universe because He can, and does, obtain the same result by allowing the mathematical laws of Probability to operate in them.
But when we come to living matter the position is altogether different. Life implies order. An orchid, a cabbage, a cedar, a cat, an elephant, are what they are because that is the law of their being. For a cabbage seed will grow into a cabbage, and in no circumstances a cedar. It is in living things, not lifeless matter, that law operates. The material particles in the living thing are still random in themselves, but they are subject to some ruling force, which we call life, but the precise nature of which we still do not understand.
When we get to humanity, we take a further step. As living things we are subject to the law of our being. As human creatures we have also a certain freedom which other things have not got—the power of conscious choice. It is this which creates the problem of free-will.
What we choose depends on what we are. Yes; but let us never forget that if we had no choice, we could not choose. You cannot choose to do something which, anyhow, you are going to do. If we feel we must accept some form of fatalism, let us at least be as rational as possible and cut out from our writing all words which implicitly or explicitly deny that fatalism. In those who cannot think clearly, there is some slight excuse for fatalism in the fact that though we can plan to determine a future event; at best the occurrence itself can never until it happens be more than a fair probability, the details of it very uncertain, and the course of subsequent events rapidly more and more indeterminate as they progress. Yet, nevertheless, we can plan and very often carry out our plan.
Only God can absolutely predetermine events; and it may well be that He chooses to do so only for the few which are of critical. importance. If everything were completely predetermined by Him, His creatures could never be more than actors playing a part; they would have no volition of their own.
If we could foresee a future event; it would either be inevitable, in which case we could be no more than automata with regard to it; or we could alter it, and it would not be a future event at all.
It is our hope to see God as He is (1. John 3:2). Then we shall be like Him and see all things as they are. I suggest that progress in spiritual life is measured by the extent of our approach towards ability to see things as they are, and particularly ourselves as we are. One of the essential stages in this approach is clearing our minds in matters such. as the present discussion and casting out all guessing and metaphysical speculation. We are creatures conditioned by time; we cannot think of anything except in terms of time, of past, present and future. What is more, we would not encounter all these puzzles if we were content to accept things as they are and to refrain from inventing ideas which actually are meaningless. For instance, some argue that God, being perfect, cannot change, since change from perfection can only be to imperfection. This, furthermore, is asserted to imply that God, being perfect, must contemplate events from a standpoint above time. From this, the deduction is made that God must survey all time as "a single eternal now."
This all sounds very clever—until one asks oneself what precisely it all means. What do we mean in this context by perfect? Why should perfection mean inability to change? If perfection means what this proposition seems to mean, how can God be "perfect" if there is anything He cannot do, such as change? Just what does "above time" mean?
The fact is, either these propositions are tautologies, or they are meaningless. If we define a perfect being as a changeless being, then a perfect being must be a changeless being—and we are not one hair's breadth further forward. If we do not define "a perfect being" in this way, but in some other way, any other way; then we have still to answer the four questions in the preceding paragraph; and before we can even start, we have to show that they have meaning and to state what that meaning is. This cannot be done.
Perhaps the point can best be made clear by asking a similar type of question relating to a wholly different matter: "What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?" This so obviously involves a contradiction in terms, that anyone will, rightly, laugh it away as meaningless nonsense. I submit that the four questions, above, also involve meaningless nonsense, though not so obviously. By this, I am not arguing that God is, not "perfect" but simply that we can neither conceive nor define what "perfect" means in this connection, and therefore that it is nonsensical to talk as if we could. It is always foolish to make assertions which we cannot prove: it is utter folly to make assertions which we cannot even understand.
From a recent correspondence in the London paper "The Sunday Times" comes the following, in a letter to the Editor:
The idea of "existence outside time" or of "timelessness" is wholly foreign to the universe as known to us. As mentioned in a paper which it is hoped to publish shortly, it is wholly foreign to and inconsistent with the Apostle Paul's teaching in Acts 17:27-29. Scripture does not consider such an idea or anything even remotely like it. It does not come from God's Word, but from human speculation. It is utterly unimaginable and, what is more, if it should be true of God's existence, then it is impossible for the human mind to imagine how such a God could, as it were, break into the time sequence at all. Either the future exists "now" or it does not exist "now," but is wholly future and wholly indeterminate "now." One or other is the truth, but both cannot be.
Some assert that we ought to bow our heads in awe and silent reverence before these "mysteries." The priests of idols have always made this sort of claim. For such "mysteries" are idols, none the less idols by being abstractions created by the guesses of men whose hearts are turned away from the One true God. Let us turn back to God from these idols, to serve God living and true and to wait for His Son out of the heavens; not for some unimaginable abstract existence outside of time and space.
This is not intended to mean that good and evil do not exist among purely spiritual beings, but that they do not have the same mode of existence among them. A being without a physical body obviously cannot suffer physical pain, or even mental pain as we suffer it; but that does not imply that such cannot suffer some sort of pain, as when we suffer anguish of mind. The truth is; we do not know and cannot imagine the nature of their mode of existence, and it is futile to speculate about it.
What is plain is that we who are both spiritual and physical are confronted with entirely different circumstances from those other beings. When God created matter, He created something new; and when He went on to create living matter, it was yet another new creative act; and when He went on to create man, there was yet another; and when He began His New Creation in Christ Jesus, a further step was taken vaster than any. Yet each is a step on the way which began when God began the first fearful venture of creating the material universe; and it is a Way which He has chosen for us to tread with Him to new glories unimaginable otherwise.
Such considerations are incompatible with any idea of God existing outside time. What His ultimate nature is, we cannot guess; what we do know is that God in Christ is not some strange, altogether other, and eternally different being from ourselves, but is indeed our Kin.
It is as well that this protest should be made, even though it is a mistaken one; for it does, at least supply a corrective to going to another extreme. Quite properly it is stressed that God's authority is absolute. We must never, in any circumstances, receive any doctrine which runs counter to this.
Yet we must not lose sight of the fact that if His authority is absolute, He necessarily will have the right and power to surrender some of it if and when He chooses. If He had not, His authority would not be absolute.
If He actually has given us some freedom of choice, in the material universe He must take the consequences of His action. In some other universe than this, in other circumstances unthinkable to us, this might for all we can tell not be necessary; but in this universe, when we were given freedom, the risks of this gift had to be faced and could not be evaded. And, as a matter of historical fact, God did take this risk. It led His Son to the Cross, because it had led His kin whom He created into the depths of sin and suffering and evil.
To say this is not to say that God surrendered control. There is no reason whatever to suppose that the ultimate success of God's plans has ever been in doubt. What has been and still is, in some measure, undecided, is just how it will all work out, how much further suffering awaits Him and His creation; in fact, precisely how long and how rough the path will prove to be and, within limits, just how glorious the goal will turn out to become.
The fact that God has left it to you, yourself, as you read this, and to me as I write it, to decide whether we will believe His Word in this matter or that, how well or how ill we shall serve Him, how uprightly we shall live and act, necessarily means that to some extent the eventual outcome has been left to us to settle. However much we individually may dislike the idea that some responsibility for our actions and their consequences has been left on our shoulders; the fact remains that, as we are individuals, what we decide does matter. No doubt God is perpetually making adjustments to counterbalance human follies and sins and to some extent save us from their consequences; yet it stands to reason that the final result of these adjustments must differ in some way from what the result would have been if they had not been made necessary.
It is not a question of whether God does or does not rule the universe, but of whether all acts in it are performed by Himself solely or by His creatures as well. In point of fact, it is meaningless to declare that He rules all things if, in reality, He does all things. If He is an autocrat, in the exact sense that all effective action is in and by His hands and that the effectiveness of any other actions is an illusion, then we must not talk of rule. Puppets are worked, not ruled.
This brings us back to our original theme. If we really are no more than a puppet show, the whole of the concepts of right or wrong, righteousness or sin, good or evil, love or hate, lose every scrap of meaning. A being who has no power of choice cannot sin, cannot be a sinner, cannot miss the mark because there is no mark to miss; but this is not to be counted for righteousness, because the being really cannot do anything at all. In truth, it is not a "being" at all in any intelligible sense.
The suggestion that we do not know we are automata, mere puppets, and that we therefore think we have a choice, is a mere evasion. Even if this were true, whatever difference could it make? And, indeed, how can a mere automaton really think? How can it even "read" the thoughts which are passed through it by the being who has made it? If it has any "individuality" at all, it is only in the sense that a motor car, say, has individuality; in that on it are impressed certain features which distinguish it from another car. The individuality is rather like that of the old lady's boots in the story. She never needed to buy new boots; because when the soles of her old boots wore out, she had them re-soled; and when the uppers wore out, she had them re-uppered.
For God to delegate to us, in part, control of the future while yet arranging that His ultimate purpose cannot by any means be deflected, is a far greater marvel than any puppet show, however disguised, and does not deny to us all meaning and all dignity.
Our conclusion must be that we have a measure of freedom: complete freedom within limits. In consequence, this life has an importance to us, and to God, transcending anything possible under the automaton idea. What we do, we really do ourselves; and what we do, really does make a difference, and matter to God.
R. B. WITHERS Last updated 18.6.2006