Is God above time? Can anything really new occur in history, or is everything set in an absolute divine plan? Terence Fretheim, in The Suffering of God argues that in the Bible, God is not beyond time.
One very familiar biblical idea is that of heaven and earth. The first verse of the Bible says that God made heaven and earth. The Lord’s Prayer asks that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
For such a familiar idea, it is probably one of the most misunderstood in the Bible. We know what earth is. But what is heaven? It is where we go when we die in many people’s minds. Yet the Bible speaks of heaven and earth as the entirety of this creation. Heaven is part of the same space and time as the earth. God created it in the beginning and there are passages that speak of its end. It is on a time line from beginning to end just like the earth. It participates in time and history.
Fretheim makes a good deal of the fact that, in the Bible, heaven is where God dwells yet it is not a wholly other dimension. When God is in heaven it doesn’t mean he is out of space and time. The Bible also often speaks of God’s presence on earth. Heaven is not an eternal realm in contrast to earth as a historical one. God dwells in heaven and becomes present on earth. Both are God’s creations. Thus the biblical God dwells within his own creation.
Fretheim qualifies this by making clear that this is not necessarily a metaphysical doctrine about God. God may well transcend heaven and earth. But the Bible has him present in his creation. This may be a matter of God limiting himself and choosing to stoop to a lower level. For Christians who see God as having limited himself and even emptied himself to be present in Jesus, the idea of a self-limiting God is not that extraordinary.
We notice that the God of the Bible makes plans and sometimes changes those plans. Fretheim argues that this means that in the Biblical cosmology God participates in time. He uses lots of examples. Isaiah 54:7-8 will serve to show the kind of thing they all show.
“For a short time I abandoned you,but with great compassion I will gather you.In a burst of anger I rejected you momentarily,but with lasting devotion I will have compassion on you,”says your protector, the Lord. (NET Bible).
This puts God in the midst of time and has him altering his attitude from past to future.
Two stories to consider are those where a human talks God into changing his mind.
One is in Genesis 18:22 ff., where Abraham intercedes for Sodom. Even though Sodom ultimately falls, Abraham succeeds in getting God to change the conditions of his judgment. If even ten righteous turn up there, God will not destroy.
Then there is the scene in Exodus 32 where Moses has come upon the people worshiping the calf. God feels like destroying them. God wants Moses to “leave me alone” in wrath (v. 10). But Moses won’t leave God alone and pleads for the people. Does God really want to undo what he has done in bringing the people out of Egypt? Does God want the Egyptians to think that God was playing an evil trick on the Hebrews? Will God forget about his commitment to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel? With these arguments Moses succeeds in changing God’s mind.
Some would say that all this is just a way of speaking. But Fretheim sees the stories as reflecting a truth about God: that God chooses to share in the uncertainty and contingency of history.
For spirituality, this has an important implication. It means that prayer has a chance of working, of influencing events. God has not made unalterable plans. Fate does not rule. History and our lives are not predestined in a way that cannot change. God is in this time-bound struggle with us. And it is a real struggle. Certainly we believe God can bring good out of history. But, if we are in a real struggle, nothing is inevitable and we need to invest all our passion and effort in choosing and seeking the good.