God, Space and Time

by John Allister

A lot of misunderstandings I encounter about God and what the Bible teaches about him are to do with how he relates to space and time. One of the early cosmonauts was wheeled out by the USSR to say that they had not seen God in space and that therefore God did not exist. Although few people would be so naive now, I have still heard not seeing God quoted as evidence for his non-existence and I have been asked "Where is God?" by intelligent people. This issue needs addressing.

What does the Bible say about God's relationship to the universe? Firstly, it says that he made it, and so he cannot be part of it. However far you travel, in whatever direction, you remain in the universe. Therefore, God is not in the universe in the sense of wholly contained in the universe. Secondly, the Bible teaches that God can act everywhere in the universe and is in a sense everywhere in the universe. One way of understanding this as a physicist, and one that I use sometimes as a model, is that God might be in a higher dimension. Not a lower dimension which is present in the universe but "curled up so tightly that we can't see it", but one that means he can reach into this one at any point. It is not at all physically impossible.

More amazingly in a way, we find in the Bible that God is not constrained by time. He created time and lives in eternity. This might seem mind-blowing; in a sense, it is. However, an important part of large chunks of physics today is that time can be treated like a dimension of space (and gets curved in General Relativity). For me, that makes it a lot easier to see how God can be outside it. The surface of a ball is like two dimensions curved round on itself so that it doesn't have a boundary. It is said that the universe is like that done with three dimensions instead of two. Now if time is treated like a dimension of space as well, it is vaguely possible to imagine how someone can be outside time. [You don't have to be able to imagine the thing with the ball - it's just in case anyone reading this has a mind that works perversely in similar ways to mine.] One reason I am fond of physics as a subject is that I find it helps me to understand how the world works better and hence some of how God works.

As far as I can tell, seeing God as independent of time makes some ideas in the Bible a lot easier to understand. For example, understanding how God can have freely decided that something is going to happen (for example me repenting), and then me freely deciding to do that. In our normal experience, that would be impossible - one person would be forcing the issue. But, since God is independent of time, that objection doesn't hold since you can't actually put a time to when God decided. It is simply an eternal decision. Another analogy from physics [sorry these analogies don't tend to be more accessible to those from different backgrounds]: Einstein showed that truly simultaneous events are impossible unless they are in the same place at the same time, in which case they are the same event. But that doesn't work if one event is the existence of the universe and the other event is a pencil falling on the floor, since the universe is there before, after and during the pencil falling, meaning that they can be said to be simultaneous.

All of that doesn't make God any less real than us. In fact, if anything, it means that he is more real than we are. We have a beginning as people and, at least in this world, an end as well. God doesn't. We are constrained by time. He isn't. When God revealed his name in the Old Testament, he said he was "I am". Apparently the Hebrew for that means "I am, always have been and will continue to be". God is the one true constant, going beyond the universe. What is amazing then is that in Jesus there is someone who is God and yet is confined within space and time. People could literally see and touch God. It is not amazing that God could do this - after all, he is omnipotent. Rather what is amazing is that he loves us so much that the eternal Second Person of the Godhead became confined within space and time for us. Ultimately, a good test of whether it is worth saying something is whether it causes people to glorify God more. I think that this certainly does that.

Copyright © 1999 John Allister. Used by Permission.

You can find more articles by John Allister on his homepage.