Monday, October 3, 2016

What was God doing before he made the world?

In books 10 and 11 of the Confessions, Augustine takes up the mystery of time and eternity. He deals at length with a question that is often posed by children, but that is not a childish at all: What was God doing before he made the world? There was a stock answer to this question (which Calvin repeated a thousand years after Augustine): “He was busy creating hell for overly curious people like you!” Augustine was aware of this joke, but he knew that it was not a sufficient reply to the serious intent behind the question, and so he gave a different answer. This is what he said: It makes sense to ask what God was doing before he made the world if, and only if, both God and the world are separate items within the same temporal continuum. But they are not. God’s years, unlike ours, do not come and go. They are succeeded by no yesterday, and they give way to no tomorrow. “It is not in time that you precede all times, O Lord. You precede all past times in the sublimity of an ever-present reality. You have made all times and are before all times.” 

So what was this eternal God doing before he made the world? On Augustine’s reading, there was no such “before.” There was no “then” then. Eternity is the dimension of God’s own life. It has no beginning and no end, no parameters or margins or boundaries outside of God himself. On the other hand, time was willed and created by God as a reality distinct from himself. In his treatment of the world, Augustine again proves to be original in his thinking. He says not only that time and the world were created by God but that they were at once created together. They were co-created, so to speak, for time is coextensive with the world. This is how Augustine puts it: God created the world not in time but with time. What this means is that time is not some primordial container—an infinite bucket of moments—in which certain events happen. Time is not a receptacle; it is a relationship.