Are the Past and the Future Real?
The Church doesn’t have an official teaching on this, and orthodox Catholics have different positions on it, but I have to conclude that there are good theological reasons for ‘eternalism’.
Some people think that only the present is real and that the past and the future don’t exist.
This view—known as “presentism”—encounters problems if God exists changelessly, outside of time in an “eternal now” alongside the changing “temporal now” that we exist in.
We looked at some of these problems recently. For example:
- God’s changeless knowledge of what is real would seem to change if only the present is real and the current time changes from one moment to another. Thus, at one point God would know that 12:01 a.m. is the only real moment, but later he would know that 12:02 a.m. is the only real moment, and so on.
- God’s changeless knowledge of what is real also seems to change as the contents of the universe assume different configurations over time. Thus, at a point shortly after creation, God would know that stars and planets are not yet real, but later he would know that stars and planets are real.
- God’s creative/conserving action seems to change in that he must stop conserving one configuration of things in the universe to allow another to come to pass. Thus, he must first create/conserve the universe in one condition (such as before stars and planets exist) and then stop conserving it in this state so that a new condition (when stars and planets do exist) can come about.
None of these would be problems if God were inside of time like we are and thus capable of changing in his actions and his knowledge of what is real.
But the Church teaches that God is outside of time and changeless.
These aren’t the only problems with the idea only that the present exists. Here are two more . . .
New Creations from Nothing
Not only does God conserve everything in existence, it seems that God engages in a form of ongoing creation from nothing. In 1950, Pius XII taught that:
The Catholic Faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God (Humani Generis 36).
Our souls thus are not inherited from our parents the way our bodies are. They are “immediately created by God.”
Furthermore, this teaching is understood to exclude the idea that our souls exist before conception.
If that’s the case, then for the vast majority of the history of the universe, God had not created your soul, or mine.
Then, all of a sudden, he started creating/conserving us, beginning at the moments of our conceptions.
Bang! New creations—apparently ex nihilo—long after the initial creation of the world.
But if the only moment that exists is the present, that would mean God accomplished our creation at a different time than he created the world.
If God is outside of time then he must, in the eternal now, be simultaneously creating/conserving both the physical world and our souls.
But if presentism is true and only the present moment of time exists then when God created the world there would be no other place in time to put our souls except its first moment, and our souls would have had to exist at the beginning of the universe.
Now let’s consider the Incarnation of God’s Son.
If God is outside of time then he must, in the eternal now, be incarnating as Jesus Christ.
But when in time is he incarnating?
If only the present is real then, when God created the universe, God would have had to incarnate at that moment. There was no other time in which the Son could incarnate.
The Incarnation of Christ in Mary’s womb would thus have taken place before the stars were formed, before life was created, and before Mary herself was created.
The only way around this would be to say either that God is not outside of time—so that he could create the universe and then, long ages later, change his mode of action so that he became incarnate—or that there is more than one real moment of time.
The Growing Block Theory
We’ve seen that problems arise if only the present moment of time is real, but that isn’t the only view of time.
Another is the “growing block” theory of time, according to which both the past and the present (but not the future) are real. Time is like a block that grows with the course of events, with the present at the leading edge of the block.
What if this theory is true? Would it encounter similar problems?
We’d need to rephrase some of them, but the same fundamental problems would arise. For example, consider the initial puzzle about God’s knowledge of what times are real.
If we asked this question at the first moment of creation, it would turn out that:
- In the eternal now, God knows that at the first moment of creation that 12:01 a.m. is real and 12:02 a.m. is not real.
But if we waited a minute and asked the same question, it would turn out that:
- In the eternal now, God knows that both 12:01 a.m. and 12:02 a.m. are real.
Again, we’ve got a problem with God possessing changeless knowledge of what is real, because that knowledge would need to continually change as new moments arrive and get added to the “growing block” of real moments.
The same is true of all the other puzzles, such as God changelessly incarnating in Mary’s womb from the eternal now when only the first moment of time was real, long before Mary even existed.
Positing the growing block theory thus does not get us around the difficulties.
What about eternalism?—the view that all moments of history are real and the present (the temporal now) is simply the moment we are presently experiencing?
This view solves all of the puzzles:
- In the eternal now, God changelessly knows all of the moments of time he is creating. Thus he knows that 12:01 a.m., 12:02 a.m., 12:03 a.m., and all subsequent moments are real.
- In the eternal now, God changelessly knows the configuration of all of the matter and energy in the universe at every moment of its history—and he knows that these configurations are real at the different points in time he is creating.
- In the eternal now, God simultaneously creates/conserves everything in creation, including all of the different configurations of what the universe contains at different times.
- In the eternal now, God changelessly creates both the world and our individual souls, but because all times in history are real, he is able to put the creation of the world at one point and the creations of our souls at much later points.
- In the eternal now, God is changelessly incarnating as Jesus of Nazareth, but because all times in history are real, he is able to place the beginning of the world at one point and the moment of the Incarnation at a later point.
In view of the problems with presentism and the growing block theory, I find myself concluding that we have good theological reasons for saying that the past, present, and future are all real, and that God creates all of history all at once from his eternal perspective.
This view is also supported by modern physics and by various philosophical arguments.
I don’t agree with everything said by every eternalist. In particular, I reject the claim made by some—particularly among physicists and philosophers—that time is “an illusion” or that it doesn’t pass. Both of these claims are manifestly untrue, and eternalists shoot themselves in the foot when they say such things.
I also recognize that not all theologians, philosophers, and physicists agree with eternalism.
The Church doesn’t have an official teaching on this, and, as I’ve mentioned, orthodox Catholics have different positions on it.
However, I personally don’t see how to get around the puzzles I’ve mentioned here if only the present (or the present and the past) are real.
I thus conclude there are good theological reasons for eternalism.