“Yes!” If that’s your default answer to the title of this post, you’re not alone. In fact, I would have even answered this way until just recently. A handful of years ago I was exposed to the open view of God and the idea that parts of the future could be open to possibilities (see: God of the Possible). Therefore, those parts of the future were also open to change and to the effects of our free will. Obviously, not everyone is comfortable with this view of God’s foreknowledge as it appears at first glance that He’s lacking something. Yet we also have to acknowledge that Biblically, as with stories of people like King Hezekiah, God sometimes changes His mind and what He intended to happen (see: 2 Kings 20:1-6). That doesn’t fit well with the typical Christian’s theology.
Now there are a number of ways I can explain how the open view of God makes the most sense to me. Yet I always did that with a shared assumption that God existed outside of time. I’ll admit this makes it trickier to understand how God’s created timeline could somehow be clouded or open to Him. What I hadn’t considered until just recently was that this very assumption is worth challenging.
I recently finished a book called Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek and have written previously about it (see: Bells Rung Simultaneously). Through that book I realized how much the Greek way of thinking shapes our view of time today. That is interesting by itself, but the real shocker is how differently the Hebrew mindset views time. While it might be tempting to view this as ancient versus modern thought, it’s more accurate to view this as Eastern versus Western thought. We tend to see our view of time as obvious today (and therefore the only right view), but consider that it’s just one way of looking at it. And this way of looking at time might be leading us to forced assumptions about the nature of God.
We see this in the languages themselves. “Greek developed definite verb-forms which could express the distinction between past, present, and future; Hebrew did not.” Just try to imagine time without thinking of it as past, present, future, and you’ll see how tied we are to this way of viewing it. “In the Indo-European languages the future is quite preponderantly thought to lie before us, while in Hebrew future events are always expressed as coming after us.” Much of the language we use to talk about time falls in this Greek mindset. “We think of a space of time, a point of time, a time span, a segment of time; the past lies behind us and the future before us… our verbs can be illustrated accurately by means of points on a straight line.” In Greek thought our past is behind us while in Hebrew thought our future is behind us.
The problem this Greek view can create for us is that “time, change, and transitoriness are synonymous terms.” In case that third word isn’t in your regular vocabulary, it means “” This presents a problem when applied to God. That’s why the Greek gods had to exist outside of time. And that’s where we get the impression that the Biblical God must follow suit.
The logic goes something like this (stay with me): time is transitory but God is not, therefore God cannot exist within time, therefore God exists outside of time, therefore time is a separate creation apart from God, and therefore God logically knows all future events in time. This Greek line of thinking captures the dominant view of most Christians today. But what if the problem was our view of time, not God’s role with it? If we are willing to suspend this Greek view for a moment (and I encourage you to try), what would we consider in its place?
“The Hebrews, therefore, have two tenses: complete… and incomplete…” What we view as past would be the Hebrew idea of complete, and what we view as future would be the Hebrew idea of incomplete. Consider whether this distinction might not provide us a better framework to consider time. “From the psychological viewpoint it is absurd to say that we have the future before us and the past behind us, as though the future were visible to us and the past occluded. Quite the reverse is true. What our forebears have accomplished lies before us as their completed works… the present and the future are, on the contrary, still in process of coming and becoming.”
With this Hebrew thought in mind, we have what God has completed, and what God has not yet done. There’s no need for God to exist outside of this understanding. And it’s also no challenge to consider that God does not definitely know what He is going to complete since He hasn’t completed it yet. If time isn’t a ‘timeline,’ God can more easily join His creation in the present moment without a predetermined future.
You might be mentally stuck on passages like Psalm 90:2, which tell us that “Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” Yet to the Hebrew way of thinking (from which this passage comes), “the expression…. from eternity to eternity, demonstrates that the endlessness of time stretches backward as well as forward.” Basically, God has completed a lot but He’s not done yet.
The author of my recent book provacatively points out that “it is no accident, therefore, that the Semites who can live without boundaries have been responsible for three world-religions; for them infinity or boundlessness is no problem.” That’s a crazy thought to consider and to connect it (possibly) to their understanding of time. Said differently, how much does this Greek way of viewing time (even though it’s widely accepted) put restraints on our thinking? As the book suggests, “We must then ask whether the tenses of Hebrew verbs do not express time more clearly than do our own tenses.” I think they do.
History is a compilation of the actions of both God and people. As we look ahead we can anticipate what we and those who come after us will complete in addition to God Himself. All the while, God can easily exist in the moment with us without having to be apart from us in this most basic sense. When God exists in the moment with us we find a much more engaged God.