Anyone familiar with me knows that one of my interests is philosophy of time; questions surrounding the way God relates to time, what ‘time’ really is, how we relate to it, are all really fascinating to me. A good example of another such question is: “how do angels relate to time?”
First, we must be clear what we mean by Angel. An ‘Angel’ is, first of all, not a species. There is no such thing as an angelic nature; the nature of an Angel is spiritual. the word ‘Angel’ properly refers to the office, which is why we don’t call demons angels – they have a spiritual nature, but they are not realizing their office (they aren’t doing their job). Angels, moreover, do not have bodies of any kind, material or otherwise (it is possible to have a non-material body, but they don’t have these either) and this was outlined, I think, at the fourth Lateran council. Angels are, as Aquinas says, “thoughts that can think.” Concerning their knowledge, anyone who studies angels theologically will be aware that their knowledge of things is commonly held to be intuitive in the technical sense – that is, they have an immediate comprehension. For example, while a person who is only acquiring the skills to do mathematics by starting with their simple times tables, constantly in need of practice before they really understand it – an Angel who understands any math understands all Mathematics immediately by intuition. With all this in mind, we can now tackle the question of how these creatures relate to time.
On an A theory of time, angels, like God, are (likely) in time. God’s knowledge of future events is not modally constrained, and this allows him to know all things even which are not logically possible to know (a suggestion I am deeply opposed to, but I digress). Thus, save for some ‘causal chains’ of events which are deterministic, Angels could not intuitively know anything about the future. They could know that, where ball A is going to hit ball B and cause it to move in such and such a way and direction respectively, then all things being equal, B will end up at some distance ‘x’ from where it originally was. Now, if the whole world was deterministic then angels could immediately have exhaustive knowledge of the future by having exhaustive knowledge of the present. However, in a universe which includes libertarian free will, and thus includes the exercise of free will by human beings, God, or even other angels or angel-like beings (say, demons, for instance), it seems impossible for an angel to know what lies in the future, since they cannot know what a human being, God, or a fellow angel will choose to do. It seems difficult to see how they could have any more knowledge of the future than a sort of finite intuitive tenuous probabilistic knowledge. So, if we are simultaneously A theorists and determinists along with believing angels exist, we will be inclined to think that angels can have exhaustive knowledge of the future. If we believe in Libertarian Free Will, by contrast, then Angels cannot know very much about the future with certainty.
As a tangent, it is an interesting mental exercise to wonder whether a God who is ‘in time’ can create beings who lie outside of time – maybe the fact that he wouldn’t be able to, or else that if he did he would be creating beings who could do something which he could not do, could act as an argument against the A theory of time…
On a B theory, angels, it seems, exist outside of space-time though they can enter into it. However, it isn’t clear this implies that they can have intuitive knowledge of the future. Consider angelic knowledge in the Monadology, for instance, on which an Angel may not have the kind of complete knowledge which God has, since their perceptions are still confused in some sense. However, in principle, if Angels can relate to a B-world then they might be able to know everything about what we would call the future by knowing the B-world. All future contingent facts which are not deducible in principle from prior facts could, plausibly, be known as contingent facts by an Angel who has an exhaustive knowledge of the objectively tenseless world (or B-world). Perhaps Angels, then, could have some knowledge of the B-world without having an exhaustive knowledge of that world, and thus the question of whether they know the future, on a B theory, could plausibly go either way.
It is interesting to note that Angels can take bodily form and interact that way with the world, so that they can appear to be ‘in time’. Our modern notion of time usually conceives of something being an object in space-time, and thus if it isn’t extended in space it is difficult to imagine how it could be extended through time.
One of the curious problems I’ve always had with how angels relate to time is how, in the Bible, the Angel Gabriel was withheld by a demon called the Prince of Persia, and eventually had to have Michael fend him off so that he could answer Daniel’s prayers.
He said to me, ‘Daniel, greatly beloved, pay attention to the words that I am going to speak to you. Stand on your feet, for I have now been sent to you.’ So while he was speaking this word to me, I stood up trembling. He said to me, ‘Do not fear, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words. But the prince of the kingdom of Persia opposed me for twenty-one days. So Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, and I left him there with the prince of the kingdom of Persia,
Now, if Angels only enter into time by will, taking bodies in some interactive sense, then how could the angel Gabriel be held up for a duration of time from getting to Daniel until Michael came and helped him?
One might be tempted to dismiss this episode as merely political commentary using eschatological literary tropes, but that kind of attitude is, I think, not ultimately satisfying for me, since the scriptures have various senses, and it seems difficult for me to see read this passage such that it does not have the sense I suggested above.
This has led me to think that perhaps there is such a thing as time as something more objective, like William Lane Craig has advanced in his arguments. In other words, something like the Newtonian position that time exists even if no events occur. Curiously, Peter Kreeft has mentioned in passing that the Medieval philosophers used to champion the idea of ‘Avum’ which can be understood to be angelic time. Supposing that this ‘objective’ time exists, and is constituted by the Angels – and suppose further that God might still be outside of that, and recognizes ‘Avum’ in the same was as we imagine him to recognize a B-world. That is, Avum is not objective in the sense an A theory would require, but is nevertheless this Newtonian kind of ‘time’ absent events. I’m just playing with ideas here, to be honest, but it seems worth thinking about. After all;
“even angels long to look into these things.”
~1 Peter 1:12
Interestingly this verse may serve as Biblical evidence that Angels do not know all future events, as it implies that they do not know all things (not all things are events of course, but many are). The only way this verse can be taken for somebody who does think all Angels are either omniscient or else at least know all events in the future is for them to say that Angels long to look into these things in the same way that somebody longs to get to the punchline to their favorite joke – even if they know it, it provides them no end of pleasure to contemplate it.