Reading again through Saint Augustine’s “Confessions”: Day 19 (What was God doing before he made the heavens and the earth?)

Reading again through Saint Augustine’s “Confessions”: Day 19 (What was God doing before he made the heavens and the earth?)

“Those who ask ‘What was God doing before he made heaven and earth?’ are still steeped in error which they should have discarded.’If he was at rest’, they say, ‘and doing nothing, why did he not continue to do nothing for ever more, just as he had always done in the past? If the will to create something which he had never created before was new in him–if it was some new motion stirring in him–how can we say that his is true eternity, when a new will, which had never been before, could arise in it? For the will of God is not a created thing. It is there before any creation takes place, because nothing could be created unless the will of its Creator preceded its creation. The will of God, then, is part of his substance. Yet if something began to be in God’s substance, something which had not existed beforehand, we could not rightly say that his substance was eternal. But if God’s will that there should be creation was there from all eternity, why is it that what he has created is not also eternal?’

People who speak in this way have not learnt to understand you, Wisdom of God, Light of our minds. They do not yet understand how the things are made which come to be in you and through you. Try as they may to savour the taste of eternity, their thoughts still twist and turn upon the ebb and flow of things in past and future time. But if only their minds could be seized and held steady, they would be still for a while and, for that short moment, they would glimpse the splendour of eternity which is for ever still. They would contrast it with time, which is never still, and see that it is not comparable. They would see that time derives its length only from a great number of movements constantly following one another into the past, because they cannot all continue at once. But in eternity nothing moves into the past: all is present. Time, on the other hand, is never all present at once. The past is always driven on by the future, the future always follows on the heels of the past, and both the past and the future have their beginning and their end in the eternal present. If only men’s minds could be seized and held still! They would see how eternity, in which there is neither past nor future, determines both past and future time. Could mine be the hand strong enough to seize the minds of men? Could any words of mine have power to achieve so great a task?

My answer to those ask ‘What was God doing before he made heaven and earth?’ is not ‘He was preparing Hell for people who pry into mysteries’. This frivolous retort has been made before now, so were are told, in order to evade the point of the question. But is one thing to make fun of the questioner and another to find the answer. So I shall refrain from giving this reply. For in matters of which I am ignorant I would rather admit the fact than gain credit by giving the wrong answer and making a a laughing-stock of a man who asks a serious question.

Instead of this I will say that you, my God, are the Creator of all creation, and if we man the whole of creation when we speak of heaven and earth, I unreservedly say that before he made heaven and earth, Go made nothing. For if he did make anything, could it have been anything but a creature of his own creation? I only wish I knew everything that I could profit by knowing with as much certainty as I know that no creature was madebeforee any creation took place.”

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