It’s never easy trying to comprehend God – even for Christians. Maybe He serves as a nice explanation for things, but then how do we explain Him? How can He have always existed? How can He know everything that’s going to happen? How can He work things out according to His will if we’re allowed to make our own choices? How can He interact with mankind, much less become one of them? And how could Jesus Christ be God in the flesh and the Son of God at the same time?
To answer these questions, I would suggest looking at God as a storyteller.
And to begin, I’ll use one of my favorite movies (and the book on which it’s based) as an illustration. In The Neverending Story, a boy named Bastian reads about a magical world called Fantasia, which turns out to be real when he falls in and meets the characters. They have some awareness of the outside world from which Bastian hails. But imagine if he had found them debating the cause of their existence. He might have said, “You’re all characters in a book” and thus credited the author for creating them. But might they not have argued against this explanation, as it doesn’t account for the author’s existence as well? Real world atheists might be inclined to agree – until they’re reminded that the Fantasians are mistaken. There was an author who created them (at least in reality – I don’t remember this question being addressed in the book, but it’s certainly not clear in the movie that there even was an author).
The reason the Fantasians would be mistaken – as Bastian might have explained – is because they’re applying the same rules of existence to their creator as to the universe he created. But in fact, the only way to explain the existence of any story or work of art is by attributing it to some outside force. It couldn’t have begun to exist on its own; Fantasia couldn’t have created itself. The only correct answer – whether the Fantasians know it or not – is to look outside of themselves to that which they can’t fully comprehend. If asked what page of the book the author might be found on, Bastian would’ve had to say, “He doesn’t exist on the pages of this book, so you may as well stop looking for him there.”
It’s the same way with God. However the universe began, it must have come from something outside of itself – one that can’t be discovered within. Call it what you will – most people use “God” – but it doesn’t change the need for a higher power to explain where everything came from. Some try to dodge this by claiming we’re then back to square one: “Where did God come from?” But that’s a moot point. All that matters is that something exists outside of the physical universe (because all physical things must have started somewhere) and therefore beyond the realm of science. Whatever this source of existence is and wherever it came from, the rules of our universe don’t apply to it; and if there are any rules by which this higher power exists, they would be impossible to understand from our perspective. Case in point: the author who created Fantasia existed by a different set of rules than they did… but he was still real and still responsible for their own existence.
But just where did God come from? Christianity teaches that God has always existed and always will. It’s not that hard to imagine things without end; most of us behave as if our own lives will go on forever. But the idea of no beginning is unfathomable, even for adults. I think that’s because it’s a misunderstanding, like imagining God on a physical throne somewhere in outer space. God doesn’t belong to space or time; they belong to Him. The only reason we move through time is so that we can experience things in sequence, learn gradually, and better understand reality.
A little over a year ago, I read David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. The lead character in the story goes from fatherless child to married man, with many years passing along the way. As I read it, the characters seemed to age… but only until I put the book down. I could stop in the middle for as long as I pleased and essentially put Copperfield’s life on hold. I could have dinner, go to bed, or take a vacation; the story was still there when I came back, because I exist outside of it.
In this way, the timeline of the story is beholden to the reader. I’m not bound by its rules. I can read it in a week or eighteen months. Either way, Copperfield’s life goes by much quicker for me than for him; and yet I could drag out his wedding for days by simply putting down the book in the middle of a scene. Every time I pick it up, the characters will be right where I left them – unless I choose to backtrack or flip ahead. Whatever page I’m on becomes the present. And when I finish, I can re-read it as if it’s happening again in real time. Wherever I turn, the rest of the story continues to exist, but the characters experience it in chronological order. The past, present, and future of Copperfield’s life are all the same to me – always happening, if I just turn to the right page.
This is even more true for the author. He might know the entire story before ever writing it. He only needs to think of a moment and it becomes the present. It exists all at once within his mind, without which it would never exist at all. And that’s how the universe is for God. He simply willed it into existence. As part of the story, we all exist within time, but God does not. He’s not just infinitely older than time, but literally timeless. He sees the whole story at once, beginning to end. That’s why He knows the future as well as the past, why biblical prophets always spoke as if it had already happened: because it’s all the same to God. A day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as a day (2 Peter 3:8).
To further illustrate this, allow me to borrow from C. S. Lewis. In the final appendix of his book Miracles, he offered the analogy of red and black lines crossing on a page. One line, black and wavy, represents the lifetime of a single human being. Every point along the way – from left to right – is a different moment in time, during which the human being can remember the past (to the left), but not the future (to the right). To them, the left side is gone and the right is yet to come. But to anyone looking down at the page, it all exists at once. This is how time appears to God – not as a series of events, but as one single line.
This goes a long way toward explaining God’s providence. If He knows the entire story before it starts, He can plan ahead for everything. (As someone who spent years developing a fictional story, I know exactly how this works. But God is able to do infinitely more, because He’s not restricted by time.) To demonstrate, Lewis offered another analogy – this one more relevant – of a writer who solves multiple problems with a single plot device: a railway accident, by which one character dies (before he can alter the contents of his will); another is delayed in her travels (allowing her to be won by the hero); and a third is reformed (as a result of the tragedy).
Just as a writer might use such an accident (in coordination with other events) to develop the lives of a few fictional characters for the story, God uses all events (in coordination with one another) to develop the lives of all people everywhere for His ultimate purpose. He orchestrates the destinies of every individual who ever lived throughout history – or “His story” – because He’s known the ending all along. But whereas most storytellers assume the backdrop of a larger world, God writes everything together – backdrop and all. He crafts every detail of nature, down to the quantum level, and there are no minor characters from His perspective (however little they may do). He knows every person who’s ever lived and what they’ll be doing at any given moment. He knows how people and nature will act and react along the way, and He knows when to incorporate the deus ex machina.
(If you don’t know, deus ex machina is Latin for “god out of the machine” – a term given to sudden and/or unlikely plot devices that resolve a story’s conflict in a typically unsatisfactory way. It usually means the storyteller has given up and decided to “play God” by inserting some miracle, coincidence, secret weapon, or freak accident where it’s most convenient. This is frowned upon precisely because the author takes “the easy way out” instead of finding a clever or believable solution. It tends to ruin a good story because such things almost never happen in the real world.)
The difference in all of this, of course, is that a human author deals with imaginary characters, not real ones; that’s why I started with the comparison to Fantasia. But there’s a sense in which every author still acts very much like God: he “dreams up” a world where characters make their own decisions apart from their creator. Within the context of the story, those characters have free will, even if they’re doing what he wrote them to do; but he could stop them any time he wants. Their entire universe is a product of his own mind. Every decision they make is a part of his plan, and they’re only allowed to live with his consent. Why? Because he has something to say, a story to tell. Certain things need to happen for that story to transpire, so he allows characters to make good and bad decisions to achieve the desired outcome. There may be tragedy along the way, but it serves the purpose of telling his story.
Some Christians would see this as an exact parallel to God – Calvinists, in particular, believe that free will is an illusion. Within the context of the story, it doesn’t really matter; we’re still making decisions, even if we’re being written to do so. But what of the belief that God intervenes in our lives as an answer to prayer? If we go back to the “life line” analogy from C. S. Lewis, we find a red line running through the black one to represent God. Since He knows our entire lives from the start – including our prayers – He knows ahead of time where to intervene in response to prayer and according to His will. If we multiply this by many billions of people throughout the history of the world (and trillions of other variables like animals and weather patterns), we begin to see how God can account for free will and everything else from the beginning. The entire interwoven web is just a speck from His point of view.
But it’s not a meaningless speck. God didn’t write this story to gather dust. He didn’t give us life (like the Fantasians) only to let us write our own ending. As I said, He had a story to tell, so He drew the red line where it was necessary and proper. Without it, we might never have known about Him; even if it’s logical, we might never have looked for Him outside of our universe if He hadn’t revealed Himself. For all of human history, we’ve been able to point back to Him as the Creator because He wrote us with that knowledge from the beginning. It’s in our DNA; all peoples and cultures throughout time have believed in some kind of god, because we knew about Him at the start. He gave us knowledge of His existence as the cause of our own… but He didn’t stop there.
Because He wrote us with free will, God saw our need for salvation; so He wrote Himself into the story to save us. He chose one faithful character to bear a child that would grow up to be Himself, God in the flesh, without natural conception. For Him, it was just a swipe of the pen to impregnate young Mary; but for us and other characters in the story, it’s a miracle. The character of Jesus Christ was both His offspring – conceived by sheer will – and His very person, living within the confines of the story as He wrote it from without. This was the Incarnation – the real and ultimate deus ex machina – the perfect hero who pointed all others to God by doing what no other character could. He lived as God wanted all of us to live and took our punishment so that we could be lifted out of the story to be with Him.
We’re more than just letters on a page. But there is a sense in which we’re much less “real” than God. He stepped into our world for a moment in time, but He invited us to follow Him back to reality. C. S. Lewis showed this very Plato-esque idea at the end of his “Chronicles of Narnia” series, when his characters discovered the real Narnia behind the one they always knew. Through Christ, we can look forward to the same experience.
This was always meant to be the story. God wrote the Creation, the Incarnation, and the end of time together, for His glory and our benefit. He let us make our own decisions, and when we made the wrong ones, He wrote Himself into the story to give us a happy ending – so long as we accept the offer.
From his point of view, that ending has been written the whole time. That’s why Jesus could say two thousand years ago, “It is finished.”