Mere Christianity 21: Time and Beyond Time

In this chapter Lewis takes a brief detour to address a common stumbling block related to the subject of prayer.  It is this question:  How can God attend to all the prayers of all the people in the world if they are all praying to Him at the same time?

This question arises because we as humans live in time; life comes at us moment by moment, in a manner that we can conceptualize as a straight line.  We have a present, a past, and a future.  The present is what is happening now, the past is what has already happened, and the future is what has not yet happened.

So it is natural for us to think that God lives in time as well.  We conceive of Him as sitting there, listening to each person who prays as if they were all standing in one long line and waiting their turn.  We can imagine God doing this if everyone waits in line and addresses Him one at a time, and if God has an endless amount of time to listen to all these prayers.  But if all these prayers are coming at Him all at once, we cannot possibly imagine how He pulls it off.

The key is that God dwells outside of time.  Which means that God does not have a present, a past, or a future, like we do.  All moments are present for Him.

This is a very difficult concept to wrap your mind around, so Lewis uses the illustration of an author writing a book.  In his book, the author writes the following sentence:  “Mary laid down her work; next moment came a knock at the door!”  In the story, from Mary’s point of view, there is no interval of time between her putting down her work and the knock at the door; the two events happen in immediate succession.  But from the author’s point of view, those two events do not have to be in immediate succession.  The author could write the first half of that sentence and then stop and think about Mary and what is going to happen to her for several minutes, hours or even days, before writing the second half of the sentence.  He could even get up, walk around, fix himself a cup of coffee, perhaps go out with some friends for the evening, or perhaps even go on vacation for several days before returning to write the second half of the sentence.  None of this would show up at all in Mary’s world; for her the knock on the door would still come immediately after she puts down her work.

This illustration does have its limitations.  Chief among these is that the author is also living in time.  He is not living in the same time stream as the characters in his story; he can break out of that time stream by stopping his writing at any point.  But he is still in time; there is nothing he can do to break out of time altogether.

But this illustration is useful because it illustrates that God is not subject to the time stream of this universe any more than an author is subject to the time stream of the story that he is writing.  Thus God can devote infinite attention to every person and every prayer that comes His way, even if they are all coming at what we would consider the same time.

Another illustration is that of time as a straight line.  We live on the line and can only occupy one point at a time.  In order to get to point B we must leave point A behind, and then we must leave B behind in order to move on to C.  But if time is a line then God is the entire line, and the sheet of paper on which the line is drawn.  It is all there, directly in front of Him.  He does not have to leave A behind in order to get to B or C; He is A and B and C, and every other point on the line.

It is worthwhile trying to get your head around this, because if you do it will clear up other difficulties as well.  One has to do with the question of how the universe managed to go on doing its thing while God was on the earth in the form of Jesus Christ.  The answer to this is that since God is outside of time, He does not have a history the way that we do.  Thus there was no time in God’s life when His presence on earth was still in the future, and there was no time in His life when His time on earth was behind Him in the past.

But God has no history. He is too completely and utterly real to have one. For, of course, to have a history means losing part of your reality (because it had already slipped away into the past) and not yet having another part (because it is still in the future): in fact having nothing but the tiny little present, which has gone before you can speak about it. God forbid we should think God was like that. Even we may hope not to be always rationed in that way.

Another difficulty has to do with the question of how any actions on our part can be free if God knows in advance everything that we are going to do.  The key here is that since God is outside of time, there is no “in advance” for Him.  If God knows that you are doing something as you are doing it today, that does not make your action any less free.  But since God is outside of time, there is no tomorrow for Him.  All tomorrows are as today for Him.  Thus God does not foresee you doing anything tomorrow; he simply sees you doing it as if it were today, even though from your point of view it is still tomorrow.

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2 thoughts on “Mere Christianity 21: Time and Beyond Time

  1. If God is outside time (and I believe this is true as far as we can understand it), is he also outside “sequence”? Music, for instance? Music, at least as we know it, occurs in sequence of time.

  2. It’s like a movie film. Different frames viewed in sequence gives the illusion of a progression of time, but the frames can be viewed individually at random. Past and future are irrelevant as all frames are before you at all times.

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