Does Time Act Differently In God’s Presence?

“Christians want to be under rather than over Scripture, yet we do not want to be anti-science. So what do we do with this apparent antinomy* between the book of Scripture and the book of nature?”  — Jud Davis

Believe it or not, I don’t always have a science/faith book in progress. But, prior to the Defeating Darwinism book I mentioned a few weeks ago, I worked my way through Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation. I found it a bit challenging — partially because I didn’t fully agree with any of the essay contributors –, but I think it stretched my mind in good ways.

The essays in question resulted from a Fall 2011 symposium organized and hosted by the Bryan Institute for Critical Thought & Practice in Tennessee. The primary contributors were not from Bryan College (named after William Jennings Bryan of Scopes Trial fame), but the book ended with two essays by Bryan College faculty, Kenneth J. Turner and Jud Davis. I was not familiar with Dr. Davis, but he is Professor of Greek and a Young Earth Creationist (YEC). In his chapter, “Unresolved Major Questions: Evangelicals and Genesis 1-2”, Davis writes a lot about antinomies* — both within Scripture and between interpretations of Scripture and nature — and our attempts to resolve them. In particular, when looking at the issue of time and the age of the Earth/Universe, Davis makes an interesting supposition that I had never heard/read from a YEC (though that doesn’t mean others haven’t done so, since I admittedly don’t read much YEC literature these days).

“[A]ny number of scriptural texts suggest that time and/or the effects of time do strange things in the presence of God. The Bible affirms, for example, that for God a thousand years are as a day, and a day is as a thousand years (Ps 90:4; 2 Pet 3:8). In other words, God does not experience time the same way we experience it. Luther has an interesting comment in this regard:

‘Now since before God there is no reckoning of time, before Him a thousand years must be as one day. Therefore Adam, the first man, is just as close to Him as the man who will be born last before the Last Day…. Beginning with Adam, we must count one year after the other until the Last Day. But in God’s sight everything is in one heap. What is long for us is short for Him and vice versa. Here there is neither measure nor number.’

This strange teaching about God and time is furthered when the biblical text teaches that the lamb of God was slain “before” the foundation of the world. This was an event millennia in the future at the creation of the world, but it is described as already having taken place in Scripture (Rev 13:8). The text and Jesus say similar things about the judgment of the world and the salvation of sinners. Isaac Watts said it well:

‘It is in this sense that our Lord Jesus Christ is said to be “the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world”;… even “before God laid the foundation of the world”; Eph. i.4,5. He appeared as the Lamb slain… in the eye of God, who sees all things in one single view, whether they be things past, present, or to come.

Similarly, Aaron’s rod, a dead stick, when placed in the unmediated presence of God, not only came alive (i.e., the effects of time apparently reversed) but then grew branches and leaves and bore almonds (Num 17:2-8). That is, what should have taken months or even years was accomplished in but one night in the presence of God. From an observer’s vantage point, a few hours passed. How much time, according to science, would have passed for this growth and these nuts?

Replicas of Aaron’s rod, the stone tablets, and manna

Moses spent forty days in the presence of God, yet the effect of the forty days seems very short in terms of the effect on his body (he was able to pass forty days without food, water, or apparently sleep [Exod 24:18; 34:28]). This strange effect of God on the passage of time happens in Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine (John 2:1-11). We are told that the miracle happened in an instant, but from the water-turned-wine’s perspective months seemed to have passed. How much time would today’s vintner say had passed for the water/wine to have become good wine?

Ephrem the Syrian raised this question long ago in terms of the original creation. When God made the trees of creation, we are told that it happened in an instant. If cameras had been present, what would they have seen? Would the normal growth process be collapsed to an instant or an hour or a day? Was this process from sprout to fruit? If this happened in a short period of time, how old would a woodsman say the tree was if he cut down the tree and counted its rings? Would not both the woodman’s estimate and the short actual time be, in some measure, a true description of what happened to the tree in the presence of a timeless God? Would not the tree bear some marks of a long passage of time because of its interaction with a timeless God?

I am happy to know geologists with secular, terminal degrees who believe it is possible to reconcile the traditional view with the geological record. Some of these have made fortunes in geology, so I am inclined to believe that they have some expertise in the subject. I have other friends in geology, also evangelical Christians, who tell me that the world looks old as in “the long ages of science old.” I, as a biblical studies student, am in little position to judge, but if there are marks of long time in creation, this is what I think: God knew of the antinomy which would face twentieth- and twenty-first-century Christians in regard to the Bible’s data and that of science. I believe that God means this antinomy to teach something very precise about himself: when his timeless presence interacts with material creation, that creation does strange things bearing the marks of age though the actual time is short. God means the immensity of those marks to be testimony to his timeless and infinite greatness.”

This is an intriguing and (I think) novel way of understanding what is said and what occurred in these biblical events. But, I see no reason to jump to Davis’ hypothesis for explanation. Even the quotes from Luther and Watts don’t point to it. The way I have always understood these passages, even when I was a YEC, is that God acted “in real time” (i.e., within the time dimension that he created and placed us in) to temporarily affect the relevant natural processes in a miraculous way.

Regarding the thousand-years-as-a-day and vice-versa thing, Davis summed it up well enough: God does not experience time the same way we experience it. But, taken in context, not only is 1000 years an immeasurably short period to an eternal God, He is patient, and we can be assured that He will work out His plan come what may, according to His sovereign decree. Speaking of His decree, if “the biblical text teaches that the lamb of God was slain ‘before’ the foundation of the world,” this may very well be a reference to the fact that those things God intends to happen via His eternal decree are as good as done. However, while some Bible translations (e.g., KJV, NKJV, NIV) have this reading, many others (e.g., NASB, ESV, (H)CSB, NET) recognize that the phrase “from/since/before the foundation of the world” more likely modifies the verb “written”, which jibes with the unambiguous Rev. 17:8.

In regards to the other examples, He revivified Aaron’s rod and briefly stimulated accelerated growth, presumably including the provision of necessary nutrients. He sustained Moses’ body either through supernaturally infusing it with the requisite nutrients, or perhaps he was quite literally energized from being in God’s presence. (Scripture says his face shone as a result of it.) Incidentally, Davis says that Moses also “apparently” went without sleep for those 40 days and nights, but there is nothing “apparent” about it from the scriptural text. This is just a possible inference. As for the water-turned-to-wine, no amount of time will turn mere water into wine. This reads like a true transformation miracle, so Davis’ hypothesis does not apply.

White Oak tree

Finally, the assertion that God created the first trees “in an instant” is a YEC assumption and not something clear from the biblical text. In fact, investigation into that passage about Creation Day 3 brings up questions about what sort of “vegetation”/”plant-life” was actually being described, though I won’t get into that here. Perhaps even more importantly, the wording does not allow us to be certain of how much time took place or how much natural-vs-supernatural activity was involved.

“Genesis 1:1 says that God caused dry land to abound with vegetation, not that all forms of land vegetation appeared at this early date. The Hebrew verb used in this passage (dasha) means “to bring forth” or “produce.” Some interpreters take this verse to mean that plants arose through natural processes. An equally accurate reading of the text says that plants arose by supernatural intervention. Any combination of divine intervention and natural processes would be an acceptable interpretation, from a linguistic point of view. In other words, this particular text makes no definitive statement about the extent to which God may or may not have allowed natural processes to produce plant life. The answer remains open to scientific determination.”  — Dr. Hugh Ross, Navigating Genesis

Getting back to Davis’ questions, if the first trees were indeed created fully grown in an instant, or even accelerated to “adult” status in a matter of minutes or hours, what would the hypothetical woodsman have seen? I do not believe he would have seen tree rings or any other indicators of normal aging, because that would be a deceptive record of a false history, and God does not lie. Davis ends by asking, “Would not the tree bear some marks of a long passage of time because of its interaction with a timeless God?” Answer: Why would I assume that?

The point is, in all of these cases, it would have happened under otherwise normal conditions. No need to appeal to time acting all wibbly-wobbly. (My Whovian readers will get the reference.) Maybe I’m wrong. Davis may in fact be onto something. God certainly has the power to manipulate time or make it particularly sensitive to His presence. But, the standard way of understanding these events seems somehow simpler and more satisfying than introducing the concept of the time dimension acting oddly — even differently in its effects from event to event — in God’s presence.

Davis’ hypothesis also doesn’t explain why there is no biblical record of any other temporal anomalies in other instances of God’s presence (however muted) on Earth, such as during the rest of the 40 years that He led the Hebrews through the wilderness, appearing alternately as a pillar of cloud and of fire, or inhabited the Holy of Holies. I suppose Davis might argue that God simply chose not to let time do anything strange the rest of the, um, time. But, that introduces the idea that God actively did something rather than time just naturally(?) (re-)acting strangely in His presence. If God is directly acting, why not stick with the usual explanations?

* “antinomy” is a term used in logic and epistemology to refer to a real or apparent mutual incompatibility of two laws or truths; in Christian theology, it refers to an apparent contradiction in Scripture or theological doctrines/concepts

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