Monday, August 3, 2009

In the beginning was the beginning

You can read in the Bible that in the beginning God made the heaven and earth. But unfortunately the Bible doesn’t quite explain what that means. The whole notion of the “beginning” is actually very problematic--for it invites the question, which many have raised: “What was God doing for all those eons before He created the world, and why did He wait so long?” The great early Christian thinker St Augustine (354-430) notes his own temptation to give the jesting answer: “He was getting Hell ready for people who pry too deep.” But he admits that the question deserves a genuine answer. He is quite sure that before God created the world He did nothing at all, as His creating occurred “in the beginning.” But that still leaves us with many problems.

For example, if prior to creation God spent vast ages doing nothing, then what could have suddenly moved Him to create? And could God, whom many conceive to be eternal and unchanging, even undergo the sort of change required to transition from not creating to creating? But if not, if one insists that God is eternally unchanging, then His will must also be eternally unchanging. But His will is that by which He acts; He does things by willing them. If His will (like He) is eternally unchanging, then shouldn’t the world created by His will also have existed eternally, as long as He has, in which case it has no beginning? In short, how could an eternal and unchanging God suddenly create the world at a given time, when prior to that act of creation there was nothing other than Him?

So what was God doing before He created the world?

Nothing. But not quite in the sense you might think.

For one must recognize, Augustine observes, that time itself is something created by God, and the “beginning” of the world is also the beginning of time. So understood, it’s not the case that countless ages passed before God’s creative activity; before God created the world--heaven, and earth, and time--there was simply no time at all. But then it makes no sense to ask what God was doing “before” He created anything since there was no “before.” And since time itself begins with the world, at all actual times, beginning with that first moment, God has been busy creating the world and keeping it in existence. We don’t have to say that God suddenly switched from first not creating to subsequently creating. There never was a moment when God wasn’t creating.

Of course this now raises a new problem. For if there was no time “before” the cosmos, then the world has existed at all times--and so itself seems to be as eternal as God! But wouldn’t that put the world on a level with God? Isn’t what makes God unique precisely that He is the only being that exists eternally, while all other things come and go?

True, Augustine replies, the world has existed at all times--since time itself arose with the creation of the world--but God Himself is eternal in a different, more profound sense: He is outside of time altogether. Every created thing comes and goes, waxes and wanes, with the passage of time, but the eternity of God is like His entire being existing unchangingly, permanently, all at once.

So the world has existed since the beginning, but only God simply exists, period, eternally immune from the ravages of passing time.

Source: Augustine, The Confessions of St Augustine, Book 11.


  1. In Andrew's blogic"In the beginning was the beginning "
    he suggests that God was doing nothing before creation, but not in the sense that we usually think.
    When I see my daughter doing Mathletics rather than FaceBook I think that she is at last doing something rather than nothing but my dog thinks she is doing nothing either way and tries to get her to do something physical, like feed him or play with him. He barks at her.

    I suggest that God was doing nothing physical before creation but that he was doing plenty non-physical..
    Maybe some of it was mathletics?
    Some of the way Genesis is written suggests a super mathlete wrote it.

    So what was God doing before He created the world? - Matletics

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