When Did God Create the Cosmos?
Time is one of my favorite subjects to ponder. Early in my theological training I took a course in philosophy in which the professor challenged our concept of time, and God's relationship to time. The question was posed to the professor: "What was God doing before He created the cosmos?" The professor responded:
To even pose that question presupposes the existence of time before its creation. Notice you used the word 'before,' which is a time word. It is impossible for there to be a 'before' creation because time did not exist before creation for the word 'before' to have any meaning 'at that time.' But as you have probably noticed I too have used the words 'before' and 'at that time' to describe events before the creation of time (see, I did it again). While it is possible to apprehend the idea of time's non-existence prior to creation, it is simply impossible for us time-bound creatures to accurately express it via language. We are bound to think and speak in temporal terms.
Needless to say I was baffled by my professor's remarks, and this produced in me an intense desire to comprehend God's relationship to time. Years later I still find myself racking my brain, trying to comprehend the lack of temporality before creation and desperately trying to find a way to express it in words.
My latest quest for understanding concerns the timing of creation. When did God decide to create the cosmos? When did He finally create the cosmos? How long was it after having decided to create before God finally engaged in the act of creating? Why did He wait so long? While the answer to these questions is rather simple to apprehend, it is not so simple to comprehend. On top of the existing conceptual difficulties we also face the linguistic difficulty of conveying such lofty ideas in finite and limited words. The following is my best attempt to do so.
To answer these questions in the simplest and most direct way possible, there was no time at which God decided to create the universe, no time at which God created the universe, and no lapse of time between His having decided to create and His act of creation. Explaining why this is so is not as direct and not so simple!
God's plan to create was an eternal plan, and His act of creation was an eternal act. Neither existed in a temporal realm, and neither are related by temporal relations. We must keep in mind that as an eternal being God existed atemporally without creation. Time itself began with creation, arising "concomitantly with the universe ex nihilo."1 The universe did not begin in time, but with time.2 God's decision to create and His act of creation, then, are only logically and causally prior to creation, not chronologically prior. The creation event itself is the boundary of time.
If there was a point in time at which God created the universe God could not have been timeless without creation because points of time do not exist in a timeless state. He would have been temporal, existing and acting in successive moments bound together by temporal relations of before and after, earlier than and later than. Since time began to exist concomitantly with the universe, however, God must be atemporal without creation, and in an atemporal world there is no point in time from which one goes from not having a plan to having a plan, or from not creating to creating, because succession and duration are non-existent relations. There is no past, present, and future in eternity; there is no before and after; there is no first, second, and third. For lack of a more comprehensible term we might say there was only an "eternal now." William Lane Craig explained this timeless state well when he wrote:
There is no moment, say, one hour before creation. God existing alone without the universe would thus not endure through an infinite number of say, hours, prior to the moment of creation. One must maintain that prior to creation there literally are no intervals of time at all. There would be no earlier and later, no enduring through successive intervals, and hence, no waiting, no temporal becoming. This changeless state would pass away, not successively, but as a whole, at the moment of creation, when metric [linear] time begins.3
Only as a temporal being in a temporal existence could God have gone from having no plan to create to having a plan to create, and from not creating to creating, but that is not the God described in Scripture. Indeed, that kind of God that cannot exist philosophically speaking. Why? It's because a God who exists in a temporal realm without creation to experience such succession is necessarily finite. That which is finite must have a beginning, because it is impossible to exist for an infinite amount of time. God's temporal finiteness forces us to ask Who created God, and Who created the one who created that God?, and "Who created the one who created the one that created God? ad infinitum. Just as it is impossible to have an infinite amount of time it is impossible to have an infinite amount of causes, leading us to conclude that there must be a beginning to time by a cause that is itself timeless.4 God must be that eternal, uncaused cause. And if God brought time into existence from eternity, it is simply impossible to determine when God created because the concepts of when and succession simply do not exist. The act of creation must be a timeless act.
It is true that there was a specific point at which the universe came into being, but to ask how long it took for God to create the universe after having decided to do so presumes the existence of time before there was time. It presumes a succession in thought before succession existed, so that at one point God had not decided something, and then at a later point He did. It also presumes a succession of acts so that at one point God was not creating, and then at another point He was. But there is no succession in an eternal world/existence. In an eternal existence--such as that experienced by God--it is impossible to begin to decide something, and impossible for there to be a measurable lapse between a decision to create and the act of creation itself. So why did God wait so long to create the universe? He did not wait long. In fact, He didn't wait at all!
We know God is the cause of the universe and we know time (succession) did not exist "prior to" the beginning of the universe, so if God caused the universe to come into being He had to do so before time. But it is impossible to have a "before time" because before is itself a temporal word. Talking about what happened before time is like talking about what is north of the North Pole, or talking about temperatures lower than absolute zero. There is nothing north of north, and nothing lower than zero. These are mental constructs only, having no ontological basis in reality. The beginning of time is a boundary beyond which only our imagination can travel.5 Trying to find time before the beginning is like trying to cross the boundary of space into spacelessness. There is no space on the other side of space in which to cross over into, and likewise there is no time on the other side of the beginning to go back to.
Rather than thinking of God's existence in terms of before and after creation, it is better to think of God's existence in terms of without and with creation. It is meaningless to even think of God's decision to create, and His act of creation in terms of when. God simply created from eternity.
We still might ask, But at what point in time did the universe emerge from eternity? At the beginning of time. One may quip, But that does not answer the question! It does answer the question, but not in a way we temporally-bound creatures can wrap our minds around. We exist in a time-space-matter continuum, and as such we can only think in terms of time and space.6 Because every thought and act in our world is measured by time it is difficult for us to comprehend and accept the notion that God's pre-creation existence was void of temporal relations. The simple fact remains that asking when the universe emerged from eternity is like asking what was before time, which is an oxymoron. Maybe we could answer the question, When did God create the cosmos? by saying In no time at all!
1. William Lane Craig, "God, Time, and Eternity," Religious Studies 14 (1979): 497-503; available from http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/eternity.html; Internet; accessed 26 November 2004.
2. Time is part of the created realm, but it is not manufactured. Time is not an object of creation, but the byproduct of creation. In the same way that we do not create the relation"next to" when we place two books "next to" each other, God did not create time when He brought the material world into existence. Time is automatically there by virtue of the creation of matter. Time is simply that which measures the rate of change in physical objects. We know time has passed, not because time is a physical thing that we have directly observed and measured, but because we have witnessed duration from one movement of matter to the next.
3. William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 514.
4. See my article titled "An Argument for Theism" for a more detailed argument concerning the philosophical impossibility of an infinite amount of time.
5. William Lane Craig, "God, Time, and Eternity."
6. This is why when we think of God's omnipresence we tend to think of Him as filling up the biggest amount of space we can imagine in our mind. This is a false understanding of omnipresence, for it is clear that God is not spatially located in, nor spatially extended through space because an incorporeal and infinite being such as God cannot be confined as such.
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