After finishing a school assembly recently, a few of the children came up to ask some questions. Two, independently of each other, asked the same one: ‘How old is God?’
How do you answer that in a couple of minutes! It’s not the first time I’ve been asked that by a child. Many years ago, I can recall a real smart little ‘cookie’ I taught getting exasperated with me and saying, ‘But Mr Woolley, God has to have begun somewhere. He cannot always have been alive!’
I think poor Kate thought I had lost the plot when I said God was outside time. How do you begin to explain that God had no beginning? How can we created beings grasp conceptually one who has always existed?
Rightly, in our understanding, creation and time are inseparable twins; one goes with the other. Created things begun in time, live in time and cease existing when their time here comes to an end. Time marks the beginning of all existence. But an uncreated being, who does not know what it is to have a beginning, has no age.
Do we just dismiss it as a childish question? We teach little ones to count to ten, but do they really understand the idea of ten as a quantity? How can we expect a child who cannot conceive the quantity of ten to have a concept of endless time?
‘Eternity in their hearts’
However, doesn’t the question rather say something about us as human beings? One suspects they were genuine questions asked by those trying to find an answer to what they realised is a conundrum.
They had not yet learnt the way we adults find to avoid answering such questions, by either dismissing them as irrelevant or choosing to live with incomplete and unsatisfactory answers covering up the gaping hole in our understanding — a hole like an unhealed wound that leaves an ache in our daily lives.
This ache arising from us being creatures who live in time, but have innate in us, hard-wired in our psyche, the enigma of fallen humanity. We are confined in time, yet with an awareness of eternity. As Solomon wrote, ‘He has put eternity in their hearts’ (Ecclesiastes 3:11). We are creatures of time, yet know there is something more, and long for more than the existence in time that we know.
The question, then, was the product of a child’s genuine curiosity, but reflected our obsession with time and fascination with the question, ‘How do we fit an eternal God into the time frame of our understanding?’
We human beings are obsessed with the idea of time; and yet we spend it, our most precious commodity, like there is no tomorrow! Time dominates us, yet we have no power over it nor can we alter it. As the songster wrote, ‘Time may change me, but I can’t trace time … strange fascination’ (D. Bowie).
Oh yes, we can measure time! We flatter ourselves that, by being able to measure time, we control it. We pay astronomical prices for beautifully crafted time-pieces, not realising all the while they are just chains around our wrists binding us as slaves to time.
Some find their best hope in the fertile imagination of Jules Verne with his time machine or in Star Trek’s screen-writers, but time travel is still only a figment of our imagination.
We ask about God’s age, as if he must be like us. How then can we begin to grasp one who stands above time, outside its unbreakable confines? Our best attempts to define ‘everlasting’ goes no further than the inadequate answer of ‘long-lasting’.
‘From everlasting to everlasting’
In Psalm 90 Moses celebrated the eternity of God. As he struggled with this concept, he wrote in language inspired by the Holy Spirit,‘Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting you are God … a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is passed, like a watch in the night’ (Psalm 90:1, 4).
God answers the question of his age when he says that he is ‘the High and Lofty One who inhabits eternity, who is holy’, yet dwells with those who are ‘humble and contrite in spirit’ (Isaiah 57:15); when he says that his name is ‘Yahweh’, ‘I AM who I AM’.
He is the God who forever dwells in the perfect present; the past and the future are alike to him. He sees them as but a moment in his eternal being. As Tozer wrote, ‘God lives in an everlasting now; he has no past or future’.
‘Time dwells in God’,and God is simultaneously at the beginning and end of time. It was C. S. Lewis who spoke of time as a small line drawn on an endless sheet of paper. How awesome then is the title our Lord Jesus gives to himself as ‘the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last’ (Revelation 1:11).
It is in the person of Jesus Christ that time and eternity find their deepest mystery. At the advent season Christians celebrate his birth. What is it they remember? ‘The mystery of godliness’ (1 Timothy 3:16); the eternal second person of the Trinity, the Son, took on flesh and entered into time.
Do we worship, in awe of the eternal God who stepped into time and subjected himself to its constraints? Do we wonder at the eternal God, who took time to grow in grace and knowledge over 33 years?
A perfect, eternal present
How do we begin to make sense of one who said, ‘Before Abraham was, I am’(John 8:58)? Jesus said he was ‘before’ — in a perfect, eternal present — a man who had lived nearly 2,000 years before him!
Do we rejoice in him of whom Paul wrote, ‘Our Saviour Jesus Christ, who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel?’ (2 Timothy 1:10). It is the gift of faith alone that enables us to begin to understand that, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the deep mystery of time and eternity meet and are exquisitely displayed.
How old is God? Well, he is without age, above time. Yet, in the person of his Son Jesus, God chose to step into time and confine himself to its limitation. Jesus accrued, in the space of his 33 years of time, a perfect and sufficient righteousness for all his people, so that they can stand one day before the eternal God in Christ’s righteousness.
The climax of Jesus’ duration on earth came when, in his 33rd year, the eternal Son of God offered his perfect life to be hung on a tree. Jesus’ sufferings at Calvary marked that occasion in history where time and eternity met, when the eternal Son of God endured in time the eternal consequences of our sins.
Over the space of six hours (360 minutes, as Earth spun in its journey round the sun), Jesus bore in the place of sinners, in his holy, eternal being, the eternal punishment we deserve for our sins. His hours on the cross procured us an eternal salvation.
The most urgent question we must answer about time and eternity is whether we have trusted, for our eternal well-being, in what the God-man endured on the cross as he bore the penalty for our sin?
Will we rejoice in an eternity of blessing because we have trusted in the eternal Christ who entered time and endured suffering in our place?
John Woolley is at present evangelist and church worker at Bethel Presbyterian Church, Ely, Cardiff