Previously, we noted that the church has unanimously taught the doctrine of creation ex nihilo throughout its history (part 1) (part 2) (part 3) (part 4). This was considered fundamental doctrine and was even included in key creedal statements. The doctrine of creation ex nihilo does, however, have one curious implication: a beginning of time. In other words, if matter has a beginning (i.e., is not eternal) then shouldn’t time have a beginning as well?
This question inspired thoughtful speculation from the early church fathers, but it also provoked strong criticism from their Greco-Roman counterparts who believed that a beginning of time was absurd and incoherent. A common argument against the biblical notion of a beginning was the simple question, “What was God doing before he created the world?” For most Greeks, the obvious solution was to hold that matter was eternal and uncreated; hence there was no “before.” Creation ex nihilo and its notion of a beginning posed a significant apologetics challenge for the church.
It is important to note that a belief in a beginning of time is directly supported by Scripture itself in at least two passages:
This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time….(2 Timothy 1:9 NIV, emphasis mine)
…God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time….(Titus 1:2 NIV, emphasis mine)
That time had a beginning was broadly recognized by the early church; however, there was little agreement over just how to understand it. At least six different ideas were put forth by different church fathers.
Time began with the first creation day -
Justin Martyr (2nd century) argued that time was created along with the heavens (Hortatory Address to the Greeks 33). That is, the heavenly bodies are needed to mark the passage of time, so there could be no time before there were bodies to mark its passage. He specifically associated the beginning of time with the first day (Genesis 1:5). He did not, however, address the stickier question of what God was doing before this beginning.
It is a mystery -
Irenaeus (2nd century) responded to the Greek objection “what was God doing before the beginning before He made the world” by stating that the “answer to the question lies with God Himself” (Against Heresies 2.28.3). He did firmly state that there was a beginning but recognized that Scripture was silent on what that meant.
Time began with the fourth creation day -
This position is similar to the view espoused by Justin Martyr, except that it specifically associates the beginning of time with the creation of the Sun, Moon, and stars on the fourth creation day. Clement of Alexandria (3rd century, Miscellaneous 6.16) and Tertullian (3rd century, Against Marcion 2.3) held this position and also the Jewish scholar, Philo (1st century, Allegorical Interpretations 1.2).
Cycle of worlds -
Origen (3rd century) developed the most original response to the Greek objection to a beginning. He recognized that Scripture teaches that our world had a beginning in the recent past (less than 10,000 years before) and that it will be destroyed by God in the future. So while our world would have a beginning in time, God had created and destroyed a long series of worlds before that and will do so also in the future (First Principles 3.5.3). This means that our world would have a definite beginning in time while there was no absolute beginning to time itself. Accordingly, God would continually be creating and destroying worlds, so there would be no point at which God would be idle, thus answering the Greek objection.
Beginning applies only to the visible realm -
Basil (3rd century) argued that the visible (material) world of the senses had its beginning in the recent past. The invisible (spiritual and intellectual) realm, however, would have existed prior to the creation of the visible world. (Whether the invisible realm had a beginning or not is unstated.) The “in the beginning” (Genesis 1:1), therefore, was only in reference to our visible world and time began on the first creation day (similar to Justin Martyr).
An absolute beginning of time -
Augustine (5th century) argued that time had an absolute beginning—there was no “before” the beginning. This cut the ground out from beneath pagan objections by rendering the question of God’s activity “before” the beginning inherently meaningless (Confessions 11.30(40)).
In considering the disagreement over the nature of the “beginning,” it is easy to dismiss this as merely a theological exercise. As with creation ex nihilo, the debate about time has implications for us in the present. The notion of a beginning was repugnant to the Greeks and others during the early days of the church but quickly began to dominate Western thinking as Christianity spread. This idea continued largely unchallenged until the time of Immanuel Kant (18th century) who proposed an eternal (uncreated) universe (“Creation Ex Nihilo”, part 4).
Kant’s view dominated science until Einstein introduced his general theory of relativity in the beginning of the 20th century. The new theory led to the development of the “big bang” model and the recognition that matter has a beginning (i.e., creation ex nihilo). From 1967-1970, Roger Penrose, Stephen Hawking, and George Ellis formed their singularity theorems, which demonstrated that space and time must also have a beginning (see Hugh Ross). These scientific advances confirmed what Augustine had argued 15 centuries before, based on his understanding of Scripture. What a marvelous vindication of biblical teaching.
The information presented here is based on research that is currently unpublished. Inquiries regarding it should be directed to the author (KansasCity@reasons.org).
Dr. John Millam
Dr. Millam received his doctorate in theoretical chemistry from Rice University in 1997, and currently serves as a programmer for Semichem in Kansas City.