Guest post by Andrew Hollingsworth, based on a forthcoming paper.
Bio: Andrew Hollingsworth (Ph.D., New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary) is Assistant Professor of Theology and Christian Philosophy at Brewton-Parker College in Mt. Vernon, GA, where he also serves as an Online Instructional Design Specialist. He is the author of God in the Labyrinth: A Semiotic Approach to Christian Theology (Wipf & Stock, 2019), editor of Theology for the Future: The Enduring Promise of Wolfhart Pannenberg (Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2021), and co-editor with R. T Mullins of The Incarnation: Four Views (Cascade Books, forthcoming). His research has appeared in Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie, Philosophia Christi: The Journal of the Evangelical Philosophical Society, Irish Theological Quarterly, The Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies, The Global Anglican, The Global Journal of Classical Theology, and other venues.
CHRISTIANS believe that a day is coming when God will eradicate all sin and evil once and for all, and that they will dwell with God in his eternal kingdom in perfect bliss. However, most Christians do not think about the implications this belief has for their other beliefs concerning the nature of time, specifically which moments of time exist. Granted, most Christians probably do not think about the nature of time or which moments of time exist—but perhaps they should. The branch of metaphysics known as the philosophy of time is a fascinating discipline with an even more fascinating literature. Discussions of time are interdisciplinary discussions that often bring together philosophy, science, and even theology. One important discussion that occurs within the philosophy of time is what is known as the ontology of time.
The ontology of time discussion concerns itself with which moments of time exist. What is a moment of time? As R. T. Mullins helpfully puts it, a temporal moment is way that things are but subsequently could be otherwise (Mullins 2020, 211). At a particular moment, the world is a certain way, but it could change and be another way. This is what is meant by “subsequently could be otherwise.” Philosophers of time debate with one another which moments of time actually exist. For example, we are all pretty confident that the present moment exists since we are experiencing it right now. But what about a moment that was, say, five minutes ago? Does this five-minutes-ago moment exist? What about a moment that will be five minutes from now? Does this moment exist too? These are some important questions that are discussed in the ontology of time.
The two most popular theories on the ontology of time are eternalism and presentism. Though there are other important theories discussed in the ontology-of-time literature, such as the growing-block theory, the moving-spotlight theory, and various hypertime theories, we can focus just on eternalism and presentism in this article.
Eternalism is the theory that claims all moments of time exist concretely and equally. All past moments exist, the present moment exists, and all future moments exist (Emery, Markosian, and Sullivan 2020). If one could step outside of the timeline and look down on it, they could see 492 BCE, 2022 CE, and perhaps 3487 CE (presuming the future lasts this long). Such a view of temporal moments entails that there is no particular moment that is metaphysically privileged, and there is no particular moment that could serve as an objective present moment. If someone on the timeline were to say, for example, “Let’s go eat right now,” the indexical term “now” would pick out that particular moment when the imperative was uttered. However, suppose someone five years into the future also said “Let’s go eat right now,” then “now” would pick out that particular moment of the utterance. However, for both speakers, “now” would pick out what was present to them at that moment. The implication is that there is no universally acknowledged moment of time that could serve as the present moment, i.e., there is no objective present (Rea 2003).
A theory that often, though not always, goes hand in hand with eternalism is a theory of the persistence of objects through time known as perdurantism. Perdurantism posits that objects are four-dimensional, extend over various temporal moments, and are composed of temporal parts (Hawley 2020). This idea of temporal parts finds a useful analogy in spatial parts. Consider my foot. My foot is spatially extended over multiple spatial locations; it is not confined to a single spatial location. My big toe is “here,” but my heel is “there.” Temporal parts are like this. One temporal part is at t1, and another temporal part is at t2. In the same way that I stretch out over multiple spatial locations, I also stretch out over multiple temporal locations. This is what is meant by perdurantism, and many eternalists affirm this theory of object persistence.
Presentism is very different from eternalism. Whereas eternalism claims that all moments of time exist equally and concretely, presentism claims that only a single moment of time exists, and that moment is the present moment. As soon as the present moment comes into being it immediately passes out of being. On presentism, past moments no longer exist, and future moments do not yet exist. The present exhausts reality (Emery, Markosian, and Sullivan 2020) . If I were to say, “I had a great lunch yesterday,” I would be referring to a time and even that no longer exists. If I were to say, “I’m going to eat a steak for dinner tomorrow night,” I would be referring to a time that does not yet exist.
The theory of object persistence that most organically fits with presentism is what is called endurantism. Endurantism claims that objects are three-dimensional, are wholly present at each and every temporal moment at which they exist and are not composed of temporal parts. All of an object is present at t1, and all of that same object is present at t2. Though I may stretch out over multiple spatial locations, I do not stretch out over multiple temporal locations. When combined with presentism, I do not stretch out over multiple temporal locations because only one temporal location exists, and that is the present (Hawley 2020).
Now, what does this philosophy of time stuff have to do with Christian eschatology? A lot, actually. Again, Christians believe that at the consummation of God’s kingdom, God will eradicate sin and evil once and for all. This belief has important implications for which ontology of time can be considered coherent with it.
If eternalism, and thus perdurantism, is true, then the question arises what the eschatological elimination of sin and evil mean for those sins and evils that exist in the past. For example, on eternalism and perdurantism, the past moments of time at which David commits adultery with Bathsheba and has her husband, Uriah, killed exist, and so do their respective objects and events. Supposing that God is “outside of time,” these moments of time and their respective objects and events are present to him along with his consummated eschatological kingdom. But if God eradicates all sin and evil at the eschaton, do these past atrocities still exist? If so, then how is this the eradication of all sin and evil? Perhaps God’s eschatological promise only means that, from the eschaton onward, sin and evil will exist no more. But this doesn’t satisfy the problem, especially when one considers the implications of perdurantism. Uriah, for example, may experience eternal bliss at the eschaton onward, but his temporal part that suffers murder in the past “still” suffers that evil—from God’s perspective. Evil and sin are not eradicated for his past temporal part. Consider also Jesus. While Jesus is reigning as king at the eschaton, his past temporal part is “still” being crucified in 30 CE. Sin and evil are a very real problem “still” for his past temporal part.
But could God not erase all of the evil and sin from the past? Perhaps he could; however, this would result in the timeline being re-written. Suppose that God erased Adam and Eve’s original sin in the garden from existence. The following moments of time along with their respective objects and events would be re-written, and Jesus would never need to make any atonement for sin and evil—presuming God’s elimination of sin and evil is truly absolute. Would this be that big of a problem? For all of those people who were born out of wedlock but still placed their faith in Christ in response to his eschatological promises, it would be a huge problem, for they would cease to exist! This is but one example of how deleting evil and sin from the past would create huge problems for us.
As it currently stands, eternalism is unable to facilitate God’s eschatological eradication of evil without creating further problems. Eternalism, however, isn’t the only theory that has this problem. Any theory of time that posits the concrete existence of past moments, which includes most four-dimensionalist theories of time, is going to be inconsistent with this Christian belief. While some philosophers, such as Samuel Lebens, Tyron Goldschmidt, and Hud Hudson, have proposed solutions for the four-dimensionalist using insights from hypertime theory, such proposals come at the cost of taking on a host of metaphysical baggage that is undesirable.
Presentism, on the other hand, seems to foot the bill just fine. On presentism, past moments no longer exist; on endurantism, objects and persons do not have temporal parts, so no temporal part of an object/person exists in the past. On presentism, when God eradicates sin and evil in its totality, he eradicates that sin and evil that exist at the present moment. Since the past does not exist, and since endurantism denies the existence of temporal parts, there simply is nothing in the past that God needs to erase in order to successfully eradicate all sin and evil. Since Christ’s atonement purifies believers of the personal properties of being a sinner and having committed a sinful/evil action, then there truly is an absolute elimination of evil at the consummation of God’s eschatological kingdom.
Some may object, however, arguing that presentism isn’t consistent with what we know to be true about time from relativity theory and other insights from physics. This simply isn’t true. While space does not allow for a treatment of this objection, suffice it to say that the presentist does have options for responding to this objection. Readers are encouraged to read (Crisp 2003), (Zimmerman 2011), and (Craig 2001) for further information on these options.
In conclusion, theories on the ontology of time such as eternalism, and most other four-dimensionalist theories, are inconsistent with the Christian belief that God will absolutely eliminate sin and evil at the consummation of his eschatological kingdom. Presentism, on the other hand, is able to facilitate this belief in the most straightforward way, and it does so with very few costs for the Christian. The Christian belief in God’s eschatological elimination of evil is best supported by presentism, which means that no sin or evil whatsoever will always be a problem.
Callender, Craig., ed. 2011. The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Time. (Oxford University Press).
Craig, William Lane. 2001. Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time. (Crossway).
Crisp, Thomas M. 2003. “Presentism.” In The Oxford Handbook of Metaphysics. Edited by Michael J. Loux and Dean W. Zimmerman. (Oxford University Press).
Emery, Nina, Ned Markosian, and Meghan Sullivan. 2020. “Time.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by E. Zalta. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2020/entries/time/.
Fiocco, Marcello Oreste. 2017. “What Is Time?” Manuscrito 40.1: 43-65.
Hawley, Katherine. 2020. “Temporal Parts.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by E. Zalta. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2020/entries/temporal-parts/.
Loux, Michael J. and Dean W. Zimmerman, eds. 2003. The Oxford Handbook of Metaphysics. (Oxford University Press).
Mullins, R. T. 2020. “The Divine Timemaker.” Philosophia Christi: The Journal of the Evangelical Philosophical Society. 22.2: 207-234.
Power, Sean Enda. 2021. Philosophy of Time: A Contemporary Introduction. (Routledge).
Rea, Michael C. 2003. “Four-Dimensionalism.” In The Oxford Handbook of Metaphysics. Edited by Michael J. Loux and Dean W. Zimmerman. (Oxford University Press).
Zimmerman, Dean. 2011. “Presentism and the Space-Time Manifold.” In The Oxford Handbook of the Philosophy of Time. Edited by Craig Callender. (Oxford University Press).
Will Sin and Evil Always Be a Problem? Eschatology and the Ontology of Time
Guest post by Andrew Hollingsworth, based on a forthcoming paper.