Gordon Clark writes, in The Atonement, “The extremely puzzling relationship between time and eternity is the worst complexity embedded… in all Biblical doctrines, for all are related to and depend on the eternal God.” The relationship is puzzling and complex, but it is not entirely beyond our ability to understand. Many misconceptions can be cleared away by adhering to some basic principles of Scripture and reason.
Defining Time and Eternity
Clark goes on to define eternity as omniscience:
There is no sequence of ideas in God’s mind: no temporal sequence. If there were, God would know some things today he did not know yesterday. But omniscience means that God always knows everything. Ideas do not come and go. His mind, that is, God himself, is immutable; he is not subject to change. Hence we talk of an eternal decree. God’s plan of the universe never began and was never altered…
Creatures such as men and angels are temporal beings. Without temporal sequence (the progression from one moment to the next), our minds would not function and our very existence would be paused, waiting for the next moment. God created us as temporal beings of sequential thought, and put us in a temporal environment of sequential experience. Even angels and saints in heaven are in a temporal environment. Expressions such as “eternal life” and “when time will be no more” are figurative. Eternal life is really everlasting life. One day, this age will end and time as we know it will be no more; but a new, everlasting age of glory will begin. Believers will experience time forever in heaven. As temporal beings, we require a temporal environment of sequential thought and experience. To be temporal is not necessarily to be temporary.
On the other hand, eternity is not an environment that contains God. There is and can be only one being “in” eternity, and that is God, since He is the only eternal being. Only God is without need of temporal progression or sequence of thought. But God needs no environment, either. Rather than an environment in which God exists, eternity simply is God. Specifically, it is the description we apply to the mind of God and the relation of His omniscience to the occupants and events of our temporal world.
Eternity is atemporality, or timelessness. It is often said that God is “outside of time,” and this is what is meant. Time is sequential progression of thought and events; and eternity is without any such sequential progression. However, it is a mistake to think of God as only outside of time, or as unable to comprehend and perceive sequential progression. Although it is a mystery, the God who is always outside of time is also within time, right here in this temporal world with us. Not only does He fully understand time, but He acts within time in temporal ways (and with perfect “timing”). The Bible reveals God as fully interactive within His creation. “In the Beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…” (Gen. 1:1). The act of creating was itself a temporal act. God stepped into time and created this world, and He has been here in it ever since.
The Bible is replete with temporal events in which God acted within time. At specific moments within time, God spoke to certain individuals, brought the flood of Noah’s day, parted the Red Sea, and did many other well-timed, chronologically specific acts. God clearly perceives time, assigns great importance to chronological sequence, and is active in temporal ways.
The ultimate expression of God stepping into time is the incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. By adding humanity to His divinity, the Person of the Son simultaneously experiences human sequential thought and divine nonsequential omniscience.
Foreknowledge is the word used to describe God’s view of temporal events from eternity. Much confusion results from not keeping the two domains properly defined. Most errors occur by importing characteristics of temporal progression into atemporal eternity. It is helpful to remember that foreknowledge is simply God’s atemporal knowledge of temporal events. From outside of time, God simultaneously sees all events in human history; but this foreknowledge is not really before time. The reason we call it foreknowledge is because the God who knows all events knows even those events which — from our perspective — have not yet occurred. However, when the temporal and atemporal are not kept distinct in our thinking, then we are led to conclude that foreknown events are necessary, due to the perceived “impossibility” that God’s foreknowledge can fail to be accurate. This is a common misunderstanding, that men can have no free will if events are foreknown.
Foreknowledge is perception and not causation. This is not to say that God does not guide or cause events, but such divine causation is not foreknowledge. God “simultaneously” perceives (or sees, or knows) all events, but He perceives them as they actually happen in their moment in time. His perception is outside of time, but what He perceives is the event happening within time. Such perception is not restrictive of events. Merely seeing something happen does not cause it to happen. God sees what happens in the future, but that sight does not affect what happens in the future. The mere fact that God sees you choosing to wear red socks tomorrow does not mean that you have no freedom to choose a different pair of socks. Rather, it means that whatever color you freely choose, God will have seen it from outside of time.
It is a false dilemma to ask of the hypothetical choosing of an alternative that was not foreseen by God, would God’s foreknowledge then fail? It is your freely made decision, and not a restricted one, that God sees outside of time. Mere foreknowledge does not render any future event necessary or even certain. In fact, the common view of this is backwards. It is the events themselves that determine God’s foreknowledge. By freely selecting red socks, you choose to “write that selection into the book” of God’s foreknowledge. If that seems absurd to you, it is only because you are attributing characteristics of temporal progression to the timeless knowledge of God. Outside of time, there is no “before” and no “after.”
Another common error is to think that all events are simultaneous to God, as if God exists in an “eternal now,” where past and future in human events have no meaning. Thus, it is reasoned that God does not perceive temporal sequence at all. But this does not follow. Although it can be said that God “simultaneously” sees all events, He does not see all events as simultaneous events. Part of the difficulty here is that the word simultaneous is only figuratively used to describe atemporal perception. Simultaneity is a chronological concept, and is meaningless outside of time. But it is a category error to assume that because there is no temporal progression (or, chronological sequence) involved in God’s knowing or perceiving, then God cannot know or perceive such progression and sequence.
The time-worn illustration of the train is useful here. A man in a train station looks out the window and sees each car of a passing train, one car at a time as it passes the window. A man on the mountain looks down on the plain and sees the entire train at once. Like the man in the station, we see one moment at a time, while God sees the entire “train” of time at once. However, God never loses track of the order of the cars on the train. The sequential order and relationship are not lost on God, but are ever maintained in His omniscient mind.
God’s Knowledge of Alternative Possibilities
God has knowledge of more than the set of events that will actually happen. He also has knowledge of all possible alternative sets of events that will not actually happen. In other words, God knows what would have happened, in the case of every decision, if the option not chosen had instead been chosen. In many cases, a minor decision by one person can result in major changes for many people. God has full knowledge of all of this. A Scriptural example is found in the account of David inquiring of the Lord at Keilah:
1 Sam. 23 ESV
9 David knew that Saul was plotting harm against him. And he said to Abiathar the priest, “Bring the ephod here.” 10 Then David said, “O Lord, the God of Israel, your servant has surely heard that Saul seeks to come to Keilah, to destroy the city on my account. 11 Will the men of Keilah surrender me into his hand? Will Saul come down, as your servant has heard? O Lord, the God of Israel, please tell your servant.” And the Lord said, “He will come down.” 12 Then David said, “Will the men of Keilah surrender me and my men into the hand of Saul?” And the Lord said, “They will surrender you.” 13 Then David and his men, who were about six hundred, arose and departed from Keilah, and they went wherever they could go. When Saul was told that David had escaped from Keilah, he gave up the expedition.
If David had remained at Keilah, then Saul would come down there. But since David departed, then Saul did not come down. Such is an example of how a change in one detail can change the trajectory of events. This account establishes that God knows contingent outcomes as well as actual outcomes. It also establishes that the contingent outcome is as valid an outcome as the actual until the pivotal event occurs or the pivotal decision is made, since God does not lie. God told David that Saul “will come down.” He did not say, “Saul will not come down because you will not be here.” Therefore, it was true that Saul would come down, but it was only true until the pivotal event of David leaving Keilah. This is not to say that God did not know that David would leave and Saul would not come down. Rather, David’s inquiry presupposed that David would remain in Keilah, and God told him what the true outcome of that course of action would be.
There is another account in Scripture that illuminates this principle:
Matthew 26 ESV
51 And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. 52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. 53 Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”
If there was any event in human history that was necessary, it was the central event of the crucifixion of the Savior. But here we have the surprising revelation of Jesus that alternative courses of action were indeed possible. His question to Peter serves well as a rebuttal to all who think that the foreknowledge or the sovereign plan of God invalidate or preclude the possibility of alternative choices or actions: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” Those who think that there are no genuinely possible alternatives would have to answer Him, “No, I do not think You can.” And although Christ implicitly affirmed the possibility of the alternative, he also affirmed that the Scriptures will indeed be fulfilled (God’s foreknown plan will indeed be carried out): “But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” The balance is found in God’s use of certainty, rather than necessity, to carry out His perfect plan. If He had used necessity, then no other alternative choices or courses of action would be possible. But by using certainty, God left intact all alternative possibilities within our temporal world. God’s plan is unfailingly carried out not because men cannot do otherwise, but because they will not do otherwise.
Truth corresponds to temporal reality. But the future is not yet temporal reality. Every change in present action changes the trajectory of the future. We see in the two accounts, above, that every such trajectory has an equal validity. Alternative choices in the present are choices between equally valid possibilities. God knows the actual outcome of all things, but that outcome will result from men choosing between genuinely possible courses of action and freely choosing according to what God has sovereignly planned.
It is important to recognize that God foresees not only what men will do, but what He Himself will do. God’s plan in eternity past had to take into account not only every event and action of men but also every act of God within time, which would then cause ripples of change proceeding out from that. The eternal plan had to be constructed in such a way that every foreseen event and action of both men and God would interject changes in cause, effect, action and reaction, like some sort of great cosmic dance between Creator and creatures. Therefore, God’s foreknowledge of what will occur was not (as we might imagine it) a “first glance” picture, free of any planned interaction on God’s part. Instead, God’s view of what will actually happen is a “fully processed” orchestration, of which God has worked out every infinitely complex interaction between what men will do and what God will do (and how men will react and how God will react) down to the last detail.
While actual events occurring in time determine foreknowledge, it is God’s plan that determines the actual events that occur in time. And while God’s plan was an expression of His will to accomplish His purposes, it proceeded from His knowledge of all alternative possibilities, reactions and ramifications. It is God’s plan that provides certainty to the temporal events of this world.
God is in full control of events, while man is completely free to do as he pleases. The Bible affirms both, and it is only when either of these two principles are denied that one falls into misunderstanding. Merely because you will do only that which was divinely planned does not mean that your freedom was denied or that the potential alternative courses of action were impossible. Certainty does not invalidate alternative possibilities or infringe freedom of will.
By incorporating the permitting of sin into His plan, God set up a moral tension between the inclination of men toward evil and the divine influences toward the good, by which any degree of moral action could be planned with utter certainty. All that is sinful that occurs was included in God’s plan merely by His knowledge of what sinful men would freely do; while all that is good that occurs was made part of God’s plan by His determination to cause it to happen. Andrew Fuller states this well:
…God has ever maintained these two principles: All that is evil is of the creature, and to him belongs the blame of it; and all that is good is of Himself, and to Him belongs the praise of it. To acquiesce in both these positions is too much for the carnal heart. The advocates for free-will would seem to yield the former, acknowledging themselves blameworthy for the evil; but they cannot admit the latter. Whatever honour they may allow to the general grace of God, they are for ascribing the preponderance in favour of virtue and eternal life to their own good improvement of it. Others, who profess to be advocates for free grace, appear to be willing that God should have all the honour of their salvation, in case they should be saved; but they discover the strongest aversion to take to themselves the blame of their destruction in case they should be lost. To yield both these points to God is to fall under in the grand controversy with him, and to acquiesce in his revealed will; which acquiescence includes “repentance towards God, and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ.”
All good is caused by God in some way, while all that is evil is of the creatures alone. In both cases, creatures freely choose; but in the case of chosen good, the ultimate credit must go to God, while in the case of chosen evil, the ultimate credit rests with the sinner. Unless God graciously intervenes to suppress the evil and effect the good, men would continually be as sinful as possible. This is because mankind sinned in Adam. Now, all men are depraved and there is no good within us apart from God’s intervention. Therefore, if there is to be anything good within human events, God must intervene and bring it about. Those parts of God’s plan that include sin need no divine intervention, as men are naturally quite willing to sin on their own. God can restrain evil to whatever degree suits His purposes, He can use the evil for good, and He can divert the evil to a different direction, like diverting the flow of water to either direction. God is not obligated to restrain the evil of men, and so He is free to permit it, mitigate it, or prevent it as He sees fit to accomplish His plan.
Either God orchestrates and controls the events of our lives or the eternal destinies of men are left to a virtual form of chance circumstance. The result of denying that God is in control of events is to put the control of events into the combined but independent wills of innumerable mankind — billions of independent wills bearing on the events of every individual (not to mention the practical randomness of natural factors, such as weather, earthquakes, etc.). With such a myriad of uncontrolled factors, random chance is the virtual result, and we are chained by each other’s freedom. If all men are “free” to determine their own destiny, then no man is really free.
You see, we can choose whatever we want, but, as Millard Erickson explains, we are never free to choose what our influences are or what we find desireable:
What does it mean to say that I am free? It means that I am not under constraint. Thus, I am free to do whatever pleases me. But am I free with respect to what pleases me and what does not? To put it differently, I may choose one action over another because it holds more appeal for me. But I am not fully in control of the appeal which each of those actions holds for me. That is quite a different matter. I make all my decisions, but those decisions are in large measure influenced by certain characteristics of mine which I am not capable of altering by my own choice…
I am free to choose among various options. But my choice will be influenced by who I am. Therefore, my freedom must be understood as my ability to choose among options in light of who I am. And who I am is a result of God’s decision and activity. God is in control of all the circumstances that bear upon my situation in life. He may bring to bear (or permit to be brought to bear) factors which will make a particular option appealing, even powerfully appealing, to me. Through all the factors that have come into my experience in time past he has influenced the type of person I now am…
These things, in every system, are out of our control. In a consistent theistic system, we attribute the control of these to God. But in a libertarian system, they must be attributed to the virtual chance and circumstances that randomly result when the free wills of billions of people interact and collide. Chance circumstance will decide what opportunities and influences come your way, as it all depends upon the myriad of decisions of others, both present and past.
The only real alternative that is both Biblical and reasonable is that God is really in control. Men do have free will, and that was orchestrated into God’s plan. But every end result is predetermined by that plan. Erickson expounds the Old Testament view of God’s plan:
What is now coming to pass is doing so because it is (and has always been) part of God’s plan. He will most assuredly bring to actual occurrence everything in his plan. What he has promised, he will do. Isaiah 46:10-11 puts it this way: “I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it”…
It is particularly in the wisdom literature and the prophets that the idea of an all-inclusive divine purpose is most prominent. God has from the beginning, from all eternity, had an inclusive plan encompassing the whole of reality and extending even to the minor details of life. “The LORD has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble” (Prov. 16:4; cf. 3:19-20; Job 38, especially v. 4; Isa. 40:12; Jer. 10:12-13). Even what is ordinarily thought of as an occurrence of chance, such as the casting of lots, is represented as the Lord’s doing (Prov. 16:33). Nothing can deter or frustrate the accomplishment of his purpose. Proverbs 19:21 says, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will be established” (cf. 21:30-31; Jer. 10:23-24)…
In this life, men do choose, and freely so; but as A. W. Tozer put it, the “master choice” is God’s:
By a complete misunderstanding of the noble and true doctrine of the freedom of the human will, salvation is made to depend perilously upon the will of man instead of upon the will of God. However deep the mystery, however many the paradoxes involved, it is still true that men become saints not at their own whim but by sovereign calling. Has not God by such words as these taken out of our hands the ultimate choice?
It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing. . . . No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him. . . . No man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father. . . . Thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him. . . . It pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, to reveal his Son in me. (John 6:63, 44, 65; 17:2; Galatians 1:15-16)
God has made us in His likeness, and one mark of that likeness is our free will. We hear God say, “Whosoever will, let him come.” We know by bitter experience the woe of an unsurrendered will and the blessedness or terror which may hang upon our human choice. But back of all this and preceding it is the sovereign right of God to call saints and determine human destinies. The master choice is His, the secondary choice is ours. Salvation is from our side a choice, from the divine side it is a seizing upon, an apprehending, a conquest of the Most High God. Our “accepting” and “willing” are reactions rather than actions. The right of determination must always remain with God.
Within our rightful purview, we are free agents. It is my purview to make a choice in those decisions with which I am faced. But it is not my purview to make a choice in the decisions with which God is faced. How God works out His plan is His purview alone, and as long as the decisions that I make in my tiny part of that big world are freely made then I have no valid complaint regarding how God works it all together for His purposes. The fact that He controls events through the free will of men rather than by overriding the free will of men is not something anyone can fully explain without actually being God. But no one needs to be God to see that the two alternatives to this are unbiblical and unworkable. The idea that God controls events by overriding the free will of men is inconsistent both with Scripture and with the innate knowledge of every man. The idea that God is not in control of events, leaving men to the mercy or cruelty of chance alone, is just as inconsistent with Scripture.
This leaves us with the responsibility of knowing that we are free agents and rightly accountable for our actions, and it provides us with the profound comfort of knowing that God is completely in control.
 Gordon Clark, The Atonement (Jefferson: Trinity Foundation, 1987), p. 11.
 Ibid., p. 12.
 Although it is unlikely that time has an everlasting past, it cannot have any moment preceding it in which God created time. Therefore, time itself necessarily flows from the nature of God as something eternally generated.
 The seeming circularity of this comes from the limitation of our sequential thinking. To say that God has “worked out,” “processed” or “constructed” His plan is to speak in anthropomorphic terms. God has never really had to figure out anything, as He has always known the perfect plan; and whatever complexities were involved, the perfect solution has always (from the “start”) been known by Him. However, like the ultimate mathematics problem, the eternal existence of the solution does not mean that the solution does not contain within its nature due consideration for the same factors that bear on a sequential process to find a solution. In other words, the fact that God did not take any time to figure out His plan does not mean that He did not take into account all of the factors involved at every point in the plan; but rather, it means that such considerations were just as timeless and eternal as the plan itself.
 Andrew Fuller, “The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation,” The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, (Harrisonburg: Sprinkle, 1988), p. 330.
 Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), pp. 357-358.
 Ibid., pp. 348-349.
 A. W. Tozer, God’s Pursuit of Man (Camp Hill: Christian Publications, 1993), pp. 33-35.