One of the difficulties believers face understanding the place of the cross in Christian theology is directly related to a prior commitment (usually without reflective consideration) to the philosophical concept of the Greek idea of time. Examination of this assumption demonstrates that it is the philosophical concept itself that produces confusion about the role of the cross, and when this assumption is unveiled, the Hebraic idea of temporal passage makes the role of the cross far more intelligible.
Let’s start with the Greek idea of time. In Greek philosophy, time is conceived as if it were like a river. The present moment is determined by the position of the observer on the riverbank. The contents of the river downstream is the equivalent of the past while contents upstream is equated to the future. All fictional accounts of time travel depend on this model since time travel assumes that the position of the riverbank observer is independent of the actual content and flow of the stream itself. In the Greek model, all temporal events are already fixed in the “river of time,” just as all the contents floating on a river are already in place in the water. The only difference between those events in the past and the “yet-to-occur” events in the future is the relative position of the riverbank observer. Therefore, if it were possible for someone to move upstream, that person would actually observe events that have yet to occur from the perspective of a person at a different point downstream. The observer would experience events once apprehended to be in the future as though they were now “present” to the observer.
Several major implications result from this model of temporal passage. First, the observer remains effectively “outside” the actual sequence of fixed events in the river. In other words, the content of the river is already determined. The only variable is the position of the hypothetical observer. While human beings are not capable of voluntary movement along the riverbank, the possibility of such movement is incorporated into this model. Therefore, the model implies that a being capable of movement along the river bank would be able to traverse the human boundaries of temporal position. For example, a divine being might not be limited to a single fixed position of the riverbank and therefore would be capable of experiencing upstream events “before” they become known and experienced by those observers who are stationary. This also implies that such a being could communicate information about these future fixed events to a stationary observer so that the observer would “know” the reality of these events prior to their observable reality from the fixed position on the riverbank. This is essentially the view of a prophetic revelation in Greek thinking. The prophet, either through some divine communication or some extra-human ability to “see” the future stream of events, knows in advance of the arrival of the events at our fixed position what those events are because the event already exist in the upstream river of time.
Secondly, the Greek model implies that some being could exist in a realm “outside” the parameters of the river and its relationships to observers. With this model in mind, theologians who accept the Greek idea speak of God as “outside of time.” God’s relative position to the entire length of the river means the He is able to “see” the whole flow of the river at once, as if (suggests Aquinas) He were positioned on a high mountain overlooking the river from its source to its mouth. From this perspective, God knows all the fixed events in the river in a single “eternal” moment. Theologians who accept this Greek model speak as though God exists in a ex-temporal realm called “eternity,” where “eternity” does not mean the endless succession of temporal events into the past and the future but rather a state that exists apart from and outside of any prescribed relationship to the entire temporal flow. One of the consequences of this assumption has a direct bearing on the doctrine of omniscience. Omniscience is a attribute of God because God exists in this extemporal realm and is therefore capable of “seeing” all events at once. Because God “sees” everything in the river of time, He knows in advance of our position everything that will happen (from our perspective). He is all-knowing precisely because He does not share our limited observer point of view. And since He sees all the content of the river in one eternal moment, He can never be wrong about any description of these events no matter when (in relation to us) He chooses to reveal them. In other words, in this view what God knows about the content of the river is certain because it is already fixed in time.
A direct consequence of this model is the challenge to any experiential concept of free will. The river model assumes that all events already exist in the river. The only thing that makes some events future events as opposed to past of present events is the relative position of the observer. As the river flows in front of the fixed position of the observer, events that at one time were unknown to the observer because they existed in the river “upstream” become known to the observer because they now pass before his fixed position on the riverbank. The critical assumption is this: the events existed as actual occurrences prior to the particular observer’s awareness. This means that there are really no “future” events yet to be determined. The description of these events as “future” depends only on the relative position of the observer. All events equally exist. It is only their awareness to the observer that changes. This implies that every choice and every consequence already exists as an actual reality in the flow of time. These choices only appear to be the exercise of selecting various options, but since the actual decisions already exist in the river, only those options that already exist can actually be chosen. In other words, while we experience the feeling of choosing freely, in reality we are only exercising those outcomes that are already fixed in the upstream river. Since one cannot undo the “future” actual events, free choice is merely a human delusion.
Obviously, this logical consequence of the Greek model causes serious repercussions for human beings, and a great deal of philosophical and theological gymnastics attempts to find a solution compatible with the universal experience of free choice among human beings in spite of the logical denial of that reality. For example, Augustine wrestled with this consequence, suggesting that we what “choose” are actually the already existing “free choices” in the future. But Augustine’s argument, like so many others, fails to resolve the logical dilemma. A discussion of the success of failure of these attempts is beyond the scope of this investigation. Nevertheless, one particularly knotty problem emerges for exegesis; a problem that we will try to unravel.
Scripture states that the Messiah fulfilled the sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins on the heavenly altar “before the foundation of the world.” But the historical event of the cross, an event that Christianity designates as the point at which human sins were forgiven, did not occur prior to the foundation of the world. Therefore, it seems as if the claim that the forgiveness of sins was accomplished on the heavenly altar at a time prior to creation is in conflict with the historical reality of the cross. And in the Greek model, this is patently true. And event cannot occur twice. Either the sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin occurred prior to creation or it occurred at the cross, but not both! If the Greek model is correct, the linear extension of time prevents any unique action from occurring more than once in the river. As the Greek philosophers say, “No man steps into the same river twice.”
We might resolve this problem by suggesting that the sacrifice on the heavenly altar is merely symbolic; that the true sacrifice occurs on the cross. But the author of Hebrews doesn’t seem to portray the heavenly sacrifice as a symbol or an intention. He claims that such a sacrifice actually took place as a real event prior to the foundation of the world. We cannot assert that the death of Yeshua on the cross was merely symbolic since it occupies a crucial place in Christian thought, but it seems as if we cannot assert that the heavenly sacrifice is anything less than real as well. To complicate the matter, the death on the cross does not fit the requirements of a sacrifice for intentional sin. That raises the question, “What is the relationship between the event of the crucifixion and the sacrifice in heaven?”
Perhaps we can answer this question and resolve the apparent dilemma when we understand the Hebraic model of temporal passage. In the Hebrew model, time is not linear. The temporal realm is a series of dependent circles. Like the rotation of a wheel, temporal events can reoccur, albeit in slightly altered form. But unlike other Eastern views of time, the Hebraic wheel is also moving, not merely spinning. So temporal passage has a direction as well as a rotation. Therefore, while the circle can repeat itself in patterns, the actual events that comprise the repetition are individually unique. If we think of the progression of Hebraic temporal experience, we can conceive of a series of turns of the wheel as it travels along a road viewed from time-lapse photography. We would see the wheel turning around and around leaving images of loops. Each loop contains some overlapping with other loops before and after the completion of a cycle while the entire progress of the rotating loops of the wheel moves toward some goal. Where these loops overlap, a particular event might in fact actually repeat itself, even if it is modified by its altered relative position to the observer, that is, by the progress of the wheel in some direction.
This view of time actually portrays a feature of space-time relativity. Suppose you observe a man bouncing a ball up and down in a railroad car. If you are traveling at the same speed as the car while you observe this event, the ball will appear to travel straight down and return straight up. But if the one bouncing the ball is traveling in a railroad car at a different rate of speed relative to your observation point, the ball will appear to travel at an angle relative to your movement. In other words, the same phenomenon will appear as two different events depending on the relative relationship of the observer to the event. Now let’s apply this insight to the exegesis of Scripture.
Suppose that the event of the sacrifice on the heavenly altar and the death on the cross are actually the same event repeated in pattern but observed as uniquely different relative to the human frame of reference. That means that the sacrifice in heaven is the occurrence of the forgiveness of sin as Scripture says and it is also manifest in the death on the cross as human history records the event. The forgiveness of sin (the pattern of God’s redemptive action) is both the completion of the sacrifice before the foundation of the world and the manifestation of that sacrificial pattern in the death on the cross. One cannot exist without the other. Neither is sufficient to explain the full reality. And both occur at the same time from the perspective of a divine observer. The death on the cross is not observed as a sacrifice. It does not meet the requirements of a sacrifice. Nevertheless, a divine observer sees that this death is intimately tied to the sacrifice in heaven, and the divine observer (who does not share the same frame of reference that we do) communicates this information to us. We need both elements to understand the event.
What does this imply about the choice Yeshua makes to accomplish the fulfillment of the sacrifice in heaven as it is manifested in the death on the cross? It means that at the moment He chooses to fulfill the repeated pattern, other alternative universes were possible, alternative universes that, had they been chosen, would have rewritten the past and alterable all prior rotations of the circle. What is at stake in not simply the redemption of human beings. What is at stake is the continuation of the possible world that God envisioned when the first instance of the pattern of the sacrifice was fulfilled. If Yeshua decides otherwise, the universe as we know it would have been altered, rewritten from the beginning. What is at stake in the Garden is not simply the stake of the cross. It is the entire existing universe!
What is accomplished (the words of Yeshua on the cross) is the fulfillment of the pattern set in motion before the foundation of the world, the guarantee that the world as God envisioned it at creation is now established and cannot be overturned or reversed.