I have had trouble writing this because God’s Creation is so astoundingly complex that it has taken me over three months to settle on a narrative that avoids rabbit trails that are vitally interesting to me, but probably boringly obtuse to many of my readers.
My intention here is to explore two of God’s divine attributes that I think are very closely related, and to speculate, in the simplest terms I can come up with, how they might have additional implications in the light of modern physics.
Any formal study of God and His creation is going to start with a textbook categorized as a “systematic theology.” The section of that book concerned with the nature and characteristics of God Himself is called a “theology proper.”
Intelligently discussing God’s Attributes is a tough task, because God Himself told us only what He determined we need to know, and the Bible was written in an age when both the inspired human writers and the intended readers couldn’t begin to understand all of what was written, or the vast majority of the topic that remained unwritten. In some cases, it seems to us as if some really important explanation is omitted that we would very much like to know. For instance, the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit can only be inferred from “hints” scattered throughout Scripture. Even the term “Godhead,” which at least sounds somewhat Trinitarian, is merely an infrequent translation of the Greek qeoteß, (theotes), which actually means simply “deity.” Paul used the term as a polemic against Colossian, gnostic pantheism, not as a theological description of the Trinity.
Why is there no specific Biblical mention of the Trinity? Well, perhaps it is because the ancient writers (and to a lesser extent, even today’s highly educated theologians) had no scientific or linguistic tools sufficient for the task. Explaining the Trinity is beyond the ability of even 21st Century Theologians. There is no known analog to make it clear to us. I suppose, personally, that it has something to do with the nature of sentience (consciousness—having senses and perceptions) without physical substance. “Spirit,” in the Biblical sense, is something that our best modern science can’t detect or explain. It isn’t matter. It isn’t energy. It is independent of either and in God’s case, it is superior to both.
Author and educator John C. Lennox suggests that man’s spirit, which is, in life, associated with his body, is what God means by His “image.” Dictionary definitions of “image” include terms like “reproduction”, “imitation”, “likeness”, etc., most of which imply that an image is in some way inferior to the original. God is spirit, whereas man’s spirit is confined to a physical body now, and even when that body is glorified, will still be constrained to locality.
Many Christians, if asked, would say that only Scripture is valid truth. I believe that the perceptions of man’s imperfect spirit are capable of much understanding, even of issues that aren’t fully addressed in Scripture. To this end, I am going to blend in a little human science.
Scientists do two things, for the most part really well: they collect data; and they propose explanations. In either order; in fact, frequently in iterations. Sometimes the explanations have a devious political or theological aim, but more often than not, it’s just enquiring minds wanting to know. Honest data collection can’t possibly hurt us, because it is our God who provides the data!
I am going to combine the concepts of God’s omnipresence and eternity in following sections, but classically they were considered to be entirely separate Divine Attributes.
God’s omnipresence means that He is present, everywhere in the cosmos, simultaneously and fully. He is here and aware of His surroundings, at this moment, in my home office where I am typing this post. At the exact same instant, He is present and aware of plasma currents in the heart of a star billions of light-years from my office. Not just one star—all of them, everywhere. And then, there are also the falling sparrows…
At the same time, He is present on a throne at a location we call “heaven,” where the Bible pictures Him communicating with angels, prophets and sundry other beings. Where His throne and its setting are described in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and Revelation, I think that the prophetic visions are not to be interpreted as a specific place, but rather as an interface between God and others, depicted in such a way as to convey glory and holiness to limited ancient understandings.
Of course, the Bible also depicts God as from time to time present at specific localities, for example: in a burning bush; outside a cave on Mt. Horeb; in a pillar of cloud and fire; above the Ark of the Covenant; and in the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle and later the Temple. These “theophanies” were instances where God chose to show a localized physical manifestation of his presence to reassure His people that He is more than just a disembodied concept.
Defining the cosmos
The astronomical term “cosmos” is defined by Merriam Webster as “an orderly harmonious systematic universe.” After millennia of honest science by many Christians and non-Christians, the current most popular view is that our universe (in my view, the only universe there is) is about 93 billion lightyears (550,000 billion-billion miles) in diameter—and that’s just the part we can see! A rough estimate that has been cited for years is that there are at least a hundred billion galaxies in the universe, with an average of a hundred billion stars per galaxy. That is probably conservative. It appears that most stars are associated with planetary systems like our Solar System. Most planets probably have one or more moons. But there is so much more out there than stars, planets and moons!
That’s the big stuff. Looking at the small stuff, most of you are somewhat familiar with the concept of atoms and molecules. You know that atoms consist of protons, neutrons and electrons. Actually, there is a whole “zoo” of other particles around us that are less familiar. Stars mostly burn Hydrogen. Our own sun burns around 200 million tons of hydrogen, the lightest of all elements, every second, and has enough left to keep burning for 4.5 billion more years.
God in the cosmos
God’s omnipresence means that He is present throughout the universe, as well as enfolding its entirety within the envelope of His presence. His omniscience (all-knowingness) assures that He is aware of every last particle within that volume, and His omnipotence (all-powerfulness) assures that His control extends to even the smallest sub-atomic particle within the volume. Does this mean that He is constantly propping everything up, or “micro-managing”? Clearly, He can fiddle wherever He wants to, and clearly (from Scripture), He occasionally does, but He is the author of the laws of physics, and I’m quite sure He is more than capable of having designed it to be self-sustaining! An automotive engineer can design and build a car, but he can also drive it without manually spooning gasoline to each cylinder. I trust my God, and I also trust what He has built and what He is continuously supervising.
The late Henry Morris rejected the “uniformitarian” concept that geological processes worked the same way in the past that they do today. But throughout his book, he mischaracterized the concept, as he did the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Both of those principles are valid only in a closed system, meaning no external interference. Both principles would say that an acorn dropping from the oak tree outside my office window will fall to the ground. But if I reach out and catch it, I haven’t violated the principle, I’ve simply violated the explicit assumption that the tree, the acorn and the ground was a closed system. My hand invalidated the assumption by making the system “open“. Was a world-wide flood possible without God’s intervention? Actually, yes, the physical laws make it highly unlikely, but don’t prohibit it. But we know that God intervened, so the laws didn’t apply in that case. (See Fountains of the Deep.)
Parenthetic: Is God’s omnipotence limited?
I think that most conservative theologians would say that it is! For example, Wayne Grudem states:
…it is not entirely accurate to say that God can do anything. Even [Scripture passages] must be understood in their contexts to mean that God can do anything he wills to do or anything that is consistent with his character. Although God’s power is infinite, his use of that power is qualified by his other attributes (just as all God’s attributes qualify all his actions). This is therefore another instance where misunderstanding would result if one attribute were isolated from the rest of God’s character and emphasized in a disproportionate way.Grudem’s Systematic Theology (2nd ed.)
Many have added what I think should be self-evident, that God can’t violate simple logic. No, He can’t make a rock so heavy that He can’t lift if. That is a paradoxical absurdity. And no, He can’t make 2 plus 2 equal 6 (need I add, “in base 10”?). It is what it is.
God’s attribute of eternity is comparable to His omnipresence, in that it defines His all-encompassing span of existence in time, rather than space. He is not only everywhere, but also everywhen. He is Alpha and Omega, Beginning and End. His temporal span is from eternity past through eternity future. When, at the burning bush, Moses asked Him His name, God replied in two ways. First,
God said to Moshe, “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh [I am/will be what I am/will be],” and added, “Here is what to say to the people of Isra’el: ‘Ehyeh [אֶהְיֶה, I Am or I Will Be] has sent me to you.’”
—Exodus 3:14 CJB
The above is commonly taken to be an expression of God’s timeless existence; effectively, “I am now what I always have been and always will be.” This, however, is not so much a name of God as a statement of His nature. His “covenant name” delivered in the following verse, is a wordplay on the Hebrew ehyeh:
God said further to Moshe, “Say this to the people of Isra’el: ‘Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh [ADONAI], the God of your fathers, the God of Avraham, the God of Yitz’chak and the God of Ya‘akov, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever; this is how I am to be remembered generation after generation.
—Exodus 3:15 CJB
The 4-letter Hebrew name given here, יהוה, known as the “Tetragrammaton,” is commonly transliterated and pronounced as Yahweh (or, Jehovah), but the vowels, and thus the pronunciation, are inferred rather than known. Strong’s defines it as “(the) self-Existent or Eternal“, but again, I think that this is an inferred, not a known, meaning, and based on the wordplay, I prefer to regard it as a proper name.
Time, of course, is the concept that you perceive the present, remember (or not) the past, and anticipate (or not) the future. Physicists relate this to entropy, which some define as randomness, but that definition is deceptive. More accurately, a quantity called “degrees of freedom” increases. Newton’s Second Law says that, in a closed system (see above), entropy increases. At the risk of depressing you, an organism eats and assimilates its food, and grows. It may appear to be getting less “random” and more like an “organized” entity, but the fact is that each cell and biochemical molecule is simply part of a cycle of maturation and eventual death and decay. More cells mean more degrees of freedom. More stuff to go wrong. Scattered raw materials can be gathered and processed, and a useful machine can be manufactured, but all such constructs eventually wear out and fail, becoming scrap. “Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.”
Space and Time: Spacetime
Both spacial and temporal location can be specified either relatively (here, there, now, then) or absolutely, using coordinates (for example, with rulers and clocks). But—think about this—are space and time merely abstract concepts, or are they real, tangible, things?
Space is most definitely real. It is not, as once thought, just the vacuum through which the “stuff” of the universe floats and moves. Now, observation and theoretical research suggest that space itself has properties that differentiate it from whatever is outside the universe. Time is evidently one of those properties, so also must be a real thing. Hold on to this concept: In the “old days”, the universe was thought to be an area in space; now we consider the universe to be space, time, and everything else that we know exists. Except, in my Christian “worldview”, for God and His realm, which are both outside the universe and permeating it to the smallest subatomic particle.
In 1905, Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity provided a theoretical framework for unifying the concepts of space and time. It turns out that there is a physical and geometrical relationship between the two seemingly unrelated concepts. To greatly oversimplify, if an accelerating object passes you at a high velocity, it will appear to you that it is foreshortened in the direction of motion, and that time is passing more slowly on it than on your own platform. The important thing in the present context (this post) is that both space and time appear to be—and in fact are—distorted, and their distortions are mathematically related. These effects are not easily seen except at velocities that are a significant proportion of the speed of light. It certainly does sound counterintuitive, but by now, the physics has long since been proved and integrated into modern technology.
God in time
Apologist author William Lane Craig, in his book Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time, examines the question of whether God’s Eternality implies that He exists within the framework of time or outside of time, looking in. In rather tedious detail, he approaches the question from the standpoints of theology, physics, and philosophy, and reaches the conclusion that God must exist within time in order to keep His bearings, since there would evidently be no temporal landmarks to go by.
Hmm… Lane is a very smart man who clearly embraces God in all His majesty, and he has obviously devoted a lot of thought and research into the subject. But his logic here, frankly, escapes me. God’s omnipresence means that He both envelopes and inhabits everything outside and inside the universe. His attribute of eternity implies the same with respect to time. The relativistic connection of space and time reinforces that implication. I see no reason that He should ever be disoriented, in any fashion. An expanded definition of “omnipresence”, then would state that
God simultaneously and instantaneously sees and remembers everything that exists and occurs at all locations in both space and time.
Note that I threw in the word “instantaneously” because, while nothing in the universe can travel faster than the constant speed of light, that is a limitation of space itself. Space with its enclosed stuff is expanding faster than the speed of light. There is no speed limit outside the universe.
What does Quantum Physics add to the picture?
A lot, and I only recently began probing the theological implications.
Newton’s First Law of motion states that, “An object at rest remains at rest, and an object in motion remains in motion at constant speed and in a straight line unless acted on by an unbalanced force.“ We call that tendency “inertia.”
It turns out that this law doesn’t hold for extremely small objects. We’ve known for about a hundred years that small objects like electrons and photons move in ways that are fundamentally unpredictable. The best you can ever do is calculate a probability distribution. Which was hard for many physicists, including Einstein, to accept, because they believed in a “deterministic universe“—if you know where everything is now, and the forces on it all, then theoretically you can predict the future. Einstein famously said, “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.” Make no mistake, he wasn’t a theist. What he meant was that he didn’t believe in a future determined by chance.
What does this randomness in nature mean, theologically? Warning: from here on, this is just my own speculation, not something from either science or theology. Take it or leave it. If there is randomness in the universe, then that can only be because God wanted it that way and designed it that way. If the future is truly random, then presumably even He can’t predict the future. <shock!!!> But God needn’t predict the future when He can see it! Remember, He lives in all times simultaneously. God fore-knows because He fore-sees.
Why would God have designed it this way? Perhaps it’s because He wanted to give the denizens of the universe freewill! That does not mean He’s lost control of the universe. Three reasons:
- Large objects, like stars, planets and even baseballs and marbles, have enough inertia to obey the First Law.
- If you flip a coin once, you’re equally as likely to achieve one result as the other, but if you flip it a thousand times, it’s virtually 100% sure that the total number of heads and tails will be very close to equal.
- And, of course, God not only sees the future, but He can nudge it in any way that He sees fit. His sovereignty means He can, not that he necessarily does!