St. Augustine and the Beginning of Time

Christian tradition has always held that the world had a beginning. However, many pagans of ancient times rejected this idea, and some even mocked it.  They posed the following question as a challenge or a taunt to Christians:  What was your Creator God doing for all that infinite time before he got around to making the world? Why did he sit idle for those infinite ages? What was he waiting for?    

The story is often told1 that when St. Augustine was asked this, he replied, “God was creating hell for people who ask such questions.”  Some find this response amusing. Others see it as a perfect illustration of how religion discourages the asking of questions and requires blind faith of its adherents.

But here’s the thing: St. Augustine never said this and, in fact, severely criticized the person who did.  Here is what the saint actually said:

“I do not give the answer that someone is said to have given (evading by a joke the force of the objection), ‘He was preparing hell for those who pry into such deep subjects.’ … I do not answer in this way. I would rather respond, ‘I do not know,’ concerning what I do not know than say something for which a man inquiring about such profound matters is laughed at, while the one giving a false answer is praised.” 2

This is a wonderful statement and completely characteristic of that great Church Father. Far from seeing faith as putting an end to questions, St. Augustine saw faith as a spur to inquiry.  In one of his commentaries on the Gospel of John, he famously wrote:

“For understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore, do not seek to understand in order to believe, but believe so that you may understand.” 3

St. Augustine’s writings are full of questions and earnest pleas to God to enlighten his mind and grant him greater understanding. Rather than avoiding the pagans’ challenging question, he gave it serious consideration in Book XI of his Confessions, where he was striving to get deeper insight into the first verse of the Bible: “In the beginning, God created heaven and earth.”  One sees St. Augustine’s intense thirst for understanding in these words from that part of his Confessions:

“[O Lord], let me hear and understand how ‘in the beginning’ you ‘made heaven and earth.’ Moses wrote those words … [but] he is not now here before me. If he were, I would catch hold of him, and I would ask him, and through you I would beseech him to make these things plain to me.  … [But] since I cannot question him …, I entreat you, O Truth, I entreat you, O my God. … .  [As you] granted to him, your servant, to speak true words, grant to me that I may understand them.” 4

In the course of answering the pagans’ question, St. Augustine reflected very deeply about the nature of time itself.  The famous philosopher Bertrand Russell, though no friend of religion, lamented the fact that most college students are only assigned  the first ten Books of the Confessions to read, for Russell was deeply impressed by what he called St. Augustine’s “admirable relativistic theory of time.” 5 I should explain that St. Augustine’s ideas on time were not “relativistic” in the technical sense of Einstein’s theory of relativity, but they did anticipate in a profound way some of the insights about time that physicists developed in the twentieth century, fifteen centuries after St. Augustine’s death.  Indeed, as noted by the physics Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, “Book XI of Augustine’s Confessions contains a famous discussion of the nature of time, and it seems to have become a tradition to quote from this chapter in writing about quantum cosmology.” 6

St. Augustine’s reflections on time started with the fact that time is a measure of change. As such, it presupposes the existence of things that change --- which, of course, must be created things. Consequently, he said,  “there can be no time without creation.” 7  Time is thus an aspect of the created world and is itself a creation of God:  “What times would there be that were not made by you, [O Lord]?” 8 And this led St. Augustine to a most remarkable insight, which is that it is meaningless to speak about “times before creation.” For if time is passing, then something created is already in existence, namely changing things and time itself, meaning that all times must be times after creation. As St. Augustine wrote,

“You [O Lord] made that very time, and no time could pass by before you made those times. But if there was no time before heaven and earth, why do they ask what you did ‘then’? There was no ‘then,’ where there was no time.” 9

God was not waiting around for infinite ages before the beginning of the world, because there were no such ages: the beginning of the created world was the beginning of time itself.  That was the profound answer that St. Augustine gave to the question of the pagans.

Modern physics arrived at essentially the same insight in the twentieth century.  Whereas St. Augustine began with the notion that time is something created, modern physics starts with the notion that time  --- or space-time --- is something physical.  Einstein’s theory of General Relativity (his theory of gravity) tells us that space-time is a dynamic entity: it can bend and have ripples in it. One of the most dramatic scientific breakthroughs of recent years was the detection of such “gravitational waves” by the LIGO experiment in 2015.10 These ripples of space-time carry energy and momentum just as other kinds of physical waves do.  If space-time is an aspect or part of the physical universe, it follows that the beginning of the physical universe must have been the beginning of space and time itself. That means that one cannot meaningfully speak of a “time before the beginning of the physical universe.”  If, say, the universe is 13.8 billion years old (as in the simplest versions of the Big Bang theory), then it simply makes no sense to ask what was happening 20 billion years ago.  It would be like asking what lies North of the North Pole. (It’s not that there is “nothing there.” It’s that there’s no such place as North of the North pole. Nor is there such a time in the standard Big Bang theory as before the Big Bang.)

St. Augustine’s insights about time have many important corollaries. One is that we should not think of the Church’s doctrine that God created the universe “ex nihilo” (“out of nothing”) as meaning that there was once a time when there was nothing, out of which the universe was later made. As St. Augustine pointed out, it would make no sense to speak of a time when there was nothing. Rather, creation ex nihilo means that there was not ever a time when there was something out of which the universe was later made.  In other words, divine creation was not a process by which God merely arranged some pre-existing stuff, i.e. stuff that God did not make but found lying around somewhere. All things whatsoever, except God himself, depend upon God for their existence --- and this includes the very stuff of which things are composed and the very space and time in which they exist. 

“But how do you make them? O God, how have you made heaven and earth? Truly, neither in heaven nor upon earth, have you made heaven and earth. Nor was it in the air, nor in the waters, for these too belong to heaven and earth. Nor was it in the one wide world that you made that one wide world, for before it was caused to be there was no place where it could be made. You did not hold in your hand something out of which to make heaven and earth: whence would you obtain this thing not made by you, out of which you would make a new thing? What exists, for any reason except that you exist?” 11

Another corollary is that God himself is, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “beyond space and time.” 12 Had God not chosen to create space and time, there would be no such things as space and time; so spatial and temporal categories cannot possibly apply to God’s own nature. God is “eternal” not in the sense of unlimited duration, but in the sense of timeless existence.  As St. Thomas Aquinas put it, God lives in the “nunc stans”, “the now that stands still.” The passage of time is the constant gaining of some things and the loss of others; but the fullness and perfection of being that is the divine nature can lose nothing that it has, nor gain anything that it lacks, as there is nothing that it lacks.  God neither learns nor forgets but grasps all things in one infinite, perfect, and unchanging act of knowing and understanding.  All things are therefore “present” to him, not in a past that he has to dredge up from memory, nor in a future that he has to anticipate. As St. Augustine put it, God dwells “in the sublimity of an ever-present eternity.” 13 

This is hard to grasp, because we ourselves are changing beings in a world of changing beings, and our own thoughts are constantly in flux. We cannot imagine timelessness. Perhaps the closest we can approach to it is to think of timeless truth, such as the truths of mathematics. We do not say “2 + 2 will be 4”, or “2 + 2 was 4.” That would be absurd. Rather “2 + 2 is 4.” It is so in a timeless way.  The timelessness of God is one meaning theologians have seen in the name which God revealed to Moses from the burning bush: “I AM WHO AM”, or simply “I AM.” “Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel: ‘I AM’ hath sent me unto you.” (Ex 3:14) And Christ says of himself, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” (John 8:58)

As God is beyond space and time, all things, wherever they are located in space and time, are equally present to him and he is equally present to them and is equally the cause of their being and reality. He “uphold[s] all things by the power of his word.” (Heb 1:3) So it is not just the things that existed at the beginning of time that were created by God. All things that have ever existed or ever will exist have their existence from God.  You are, right now, being created by God, as he is “upholding” you in existence “by the power of his word.”

So why does Genesis say that God created “in the beginning”? St. Augustine and with him the whole of Catholic tradition see more than one level of meaning in this phrase. At the most obvious level, it refers to the temporal beginning of the universe, which, as St. Augustine profoundly realized, was the beginning of time itself.  But “beginning” here also means, at a deeper level, the ultimate origin or source of the world. That origin stands outside of time altogether and is the power and wisdom of God. St. John’s Gospel calls it the “Logos” of God, which means both Word and Reason.  “In the Beginning was the Logos. … through Him all things were made.” (Jn 1:1) Thus St. Augustine sums up his understanding of creation in this way:

“In the beginning, O God, you made heaven and earth in your Word, in your Son, in your Power, in your Wisdom, in your Truth, speaking in a wondrous way, and working in a wondrous way. … ‘How great are your works, O Lord, you have made all things in wisdom!’ (Ps 103:24) That wisdom is the beginning, and in that beginning you have made heaven and earth.” 14 

References

1… Robert Jastrow told this story both in his popular book God and the Astronomers (Norton, 1st edition, 1978) and in an article “Have Astronomers Found God?” New York Times, June 25, 1978.  But he merely gave new life to an old myth that has been repeated in many places.

2… St. Augustine, Confessions, trans. John K. Ryan (New York: Doubleday and Co.. Inc., 1960), bk. 11, ch. 12.

3… St. Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John (XXIX, 6) http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1701029.htm

4… St. Augustine, Confessions, bk. 11, ch. 3.

5… Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (New York: Allen and Unwin, 1946), p. 373.

6… S. Weinberg, Reviews of Modern Physics 61 (1989), p. 15, n. 15.

7… St. Augustine, Confessions, bk. 11, ch. 30.

8… St. Augustine, Confessions, bk. 11, ch. 13.

9… ibid.

10… Abbott, B.P., et al. (LIGO Scientific Collaboration and Virgo Collaboration) (2016). “Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger,” Physical Review Letters116 (6): 061102. arXiv:1602.03837

11… St. Augustine, Confessions, bk. 11, ch. 5.

12… Catechism of the Catholic Church, sec. 205.

13… St. Augustine, Confessions, bk. 11, ch. 13.

14… St. Augustine, Confessions, bk. 11, ch. 9.