“What time is it?” Sometimes I’m asked that question by a complete stranger. It’s an easy question to answer. I just check my phone or watch, and I state the time. But no stranger has ever asked me, “What is time itself?” That’s a much more complex question to answer. On the one hand, we know what time is, because we use it every day. We start our day with an alarm buzzing, we check the clock throughout the day to be sure we’re on schedule, and we go to bed hoping we get several hours of sleep. We also know that time has a cumulative effect. Children grow up and become adults. Relationships change. Seasons pass.
On the other hand, it’s hard to know what time is, exactly. We know it involves measurement—not in spatial units such as inches or centimeters but in temporal units such as seconds and days. Yet, we can’t define time merely by how we measure it. If we did, it would be like defining a birthday cake merely by its ingredients: quantities of butter, eggs, sugar, and flour. The idea of measurement, however, must be part of the definition, because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to speak about time coherently. So, in addition to time’s being something that is measured, we could also say that time proceeds by events occurring one after another. We experience life moment by moment, not all at once. So, for the sake of defining things, we could say that time is a “nonspatial” dimension that we measure by successive moments.
It’s strange to think about time so abstractly, but it gets even stranger when we think about how that simple definition doesn’t encapsulate everything about time. For example, sometimes it can feel like time speeds up, slows down, or even stands still. What’s to account for that? Augustine of Hippo was one early thinker who considered the mystery of time:
What do we refer to more familiarly and knowingly than time? Certainly we understand it when we speak about it; we understand it also when we hear it described by another. What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to someone who asks me, I don’t know.
Like Augustine, we cannot understand time entirely. Nevertheless, we know that we are creatures made to exist in and through time. We can’t even fathom what it would mean to be strictly timeless.
The Creator of Time
Yet there is One who is timeless—God. “From everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Ps. 90:2). God made the universe, and so He created time. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). But was there “a time” before God created time? Augustine also thought about this question:
Nor did You precede time by any time; because then You would not precede all times. But in the excellency of an ever-present eternity, You precede all times past, and survive all future times, because they are future, and when they have come they will be past; but “You are the same, and Your years shall have no end.”
According to Augustine, God precedes time by His “ever-present eternity,” because He’s the very Creator of time. To be ever-present is to exist in such a state that all times are equally present. Admittedly, in describing things like this, we are a bit like fish hypothesizing about walking on the moon. The very phrase “ever-present” shows the limitations of our language. Ever and present are words that derive their very meaning from time to describe One who is strictly timeless. Theologians through the centuries have described this timelessness as God’s eternality. It’s a difficult concept to grasp given our nature as time-bound creatures.