What was God doing before he created the universe?
It’s a question without an obvious answer, prompting some to snarkily respond, “preparing Hell for people who ask such questions.” But that doesn’t get to the real heart of the question. If God spent innumerable ages doing nothing, why did He suddenly break the trend and create Heaven and Earth? What changed His mind? Why won’t He go back to doing nothing in the future?
Augustine’s answer is both simple and confusing:
Let him wake up and consider that he wonders at a faulty concept. From where could innumerable ages come, which you have not made, since you are the Author and Creator of all ages? Of what times should there be which have not been created by you? Or how shall they pass by if they had never been? For you made that very time. But if there was no time before heaven and earth, why is it asked what you did then? For there was no then when time was not.
The question, Augustine says, is flawed. Time itself is a part of the created world. There is no before before God created time. And since time is just another creation of God, it is not a thing that God himself is subject to.
The Big Bang
At this point, it’s worth looking back a century from our own time. For much of the 1900s, the general scientific consensus was that the universe had no beginning. It had been in existence for eternity, and would continue for eternity (this was also Plato’s view). That the Bible taught it had been created was just another example of religion contradicting science.
Now, of course, the Big Bang theory enjoys near unanimous support. We now know that the universe began at a specific moment in time. More than that, we know that not only did matter come into existence at this moment of creation; time itself did. It is probably not a coincidence that this theory was proposed by a Catholic priest; he had probably read Augustine, who had figured this out long ago. To reiterate: If you went to the best schools in the 1920s and were tutored under the top physicists of the day, you were actually less knowledgeable about the origins of the universe than if you simply read St. Augustine, writing a thousand years before Science was even invented, with only his wits and Scripture as his guide.
The Eternal Now
God being eternal means much more than that He has always existed and will keep existing forever and ever and ever. It means that God is actually outside of time itself. Page 214:
For eternity by definition is fixed and cannot be compared to the moments we experience, which are never fixed. How do we know that a long time has become long? We sense the passing by of many moments and changes. Were there no motions or changes there would be no lengths of movements to call “time.” In the eternal realm the whole must be present. In our minds we cannot imagine time in that totality now. For us, all time past is driven on by time to come, and all to come follows upon the past. But in God’s timetable of creation, all past and future are one design, flowing out of one now.
What is time, anyway?
By this point, it should not surprise you that Augustine moves on to trying to figure out what time itself is. He notes that everyone seems to think they know what time is, until they are asked to define it.
Augustine starts with the Past. But what is the Past, except something which does not exist anymore? Likewise, the Future does not exist. Only the Present can be said to actually exist, and even that passes away in an instant. If time is defined by things arriving and then immediately passing away, then time is little more than a march towards non-existence. He declares that “we cannot truly say that time exists except in the sense that it tends toward non-existence.”
He spends a long time on this idea and its paradoxes. After all, we can measure time. How can we measure an hour if all parts of the hour that are outside of Now do not even exist?
Ultimately, the best Augustine can say is that the soul is stretched out into an apparent succession of events, perhaps as part of our fall away from God and His eternal present.
Taking his ideas of time as a guide, Augustine turns to the book of Genesis, which even back then had many contentious interpretations.
But among so many truths which occur to inquirers in those words, understood as they are in different ways, which of us shall so discover that one meaning as to state, “This is what Moses thought,” and, “That is what he wanted understood in that narrative,” as confidently as he would say, “This is true, whether Moses thought this or that?”
Augustine separates the debate over interpretations into two categories: those concerned with the truth of the matter, and those concerned with the intent of the author. He largely dismisses the second category as unknowable.
As for the truth of the matter, Augustine argues that scripture can allow for many different “true” readings, though I hasten to add that he is not supporting relativism here. He does not believe that any possible interpretation is valid, but he is rather easy on simplistic and literalistic interpretations, so long as they act as a step towards faith in God as the creator of the universe. He additionally argues that Moses may well have been aware of the many ways his words could be interpreted, and intended all of them.