04 October 2015

Creatio ex nihilo: a temporal or supratemporal act?

“In the beginning God created the heaven and earth.
Genesis 1:1

I believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth . . . .
Apostles' Creed

On this basic confession virtually all Christians agree. Where we disagree is over when and how God created. In the 17th century Archbishop James Ussher of Ireland famously asserted with confidence, based on the genealogies in the Old Testament, that God's initial act of creation occurred on the evening of 22 October 4004 BC, that is, slightly more than 6,000 years ago. While young-earth creationists may not necessarily accept this precise time, they nevertheless date God's initial creative act back only thousands or tens of thousands of years. Moreover, according to the modern rabbinic Jewish calendar, this year is 5776, which effectively dates the beginning of creation to 3761 BC. The Septuagint chronologies similarly date creation to 5509 BC.

Obvious difficulties abound with all of these chronologies. To begin with, we know that the light of the most distant stars visible on earth has been travelling for some 13 billion years prior to reaching us. This would appear to give us a readily discernible date for the beginning of the cosmos as we know it, often referred to as the Big Bang. Furthermore, the last of the dinosaurs died off some 65 million years ago, and the first hominid species appeared several million years ago, far too early for assigning such a late date to that initial act of creation.

Recognizing these realities has brought into being old-earth creationists who believe that that initial act of creation must be pushed back much, much further into the past. Perhaps the Big Bang marks the initial act of creation, when the universe initially exploded and began expanding outwards, as it continues to do today. Those Christians arguing for an old earth have considerable empirical support on their side, including the geological record, the length of time light takes to travel from one part of the universe to another, carbon-14 dating, and fossil and genetic evidence for the evolution of species across long stretches of time.

Which of these is correct? I strongly suspect that both are equally wrong in locating God's initial act of creation within or even at the beginning of the temporal succession of events. Could the Bible's “in the beginning” be atemporal or supratemporal? After all, if time is the creature of God, then he would have had to call time into existence as part of his initial creative act. But if we try to pinpoint a time when time was created, we are inadvertently proposing that time is not a creature at all, pre-existing or perhaps co-existing with God. This would effectively ascribe divinity to time, much as the ancient Greeks worshipped old Chronos (Χρόνος) himself. That, of course, would make God a subordinate being and less than fully God. No faithful small-o orthodox Christian could accept this possibility.

What then is the alternative? Admittedly, I am not a theologian and have no aspiration to become one. Thus what I propose here I do with due caution and modesty, and will not stake my reputation on it. I am, of course, open to correction. But could it be that that initial act of creation cannot be located at all along the temporal continuum of past, present and future? The Big Bang is not a satisfactory candidate, because the theory behind it still presupposes that matter pre-existed the Big Bang, which goes against the biblical notion of creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing. The Big Bang better fits into Plato's cosmology as set forth in the Timaeus than into a biblical worldview. Thus it cannot be the initial point of creation. It is often objected that six-day creationists assume that God brought everything into being a few thousand years ago and gave it the appearance of age by planting fossils and exposing the earth to starlight appearing to be billions of years old. They would thus seem to make God into a grand deceiver, tricking people into believing that the cosmos is older than it really is.

Yet what if God brought everything into being at once while giving it, not just the appearance of age, but a real history capable of being detected by his image-bearing human creatures? We may not be able to locate the temporal beginnings of matter and energy, but they nevertheless have their origins in the God who is outside history while nevertheless choosing to act within it, particularly in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus the moment before God created is a transcendental before, not to be located in the remote past but outside time itself within the nihil, or nothingness, of everything that is not God. This transcendental before is inaccessible to the human mind and experience; therefore it cannot properly be the object of theoretical thought any more than darkness can be visible to a blind eye or silence audible to the deaf.

Although a two-dimensional diagram may not be the best way to portray visually God's creative activity, the following may serve to illuminate my proposal:





If my proposal is correct, then the argument between young-earth creationists and those holding to an old earth may rest on a false dichotomy. If God's initial creative activity cannot be located along the temporal succession of events, then it may be time (!) at last to lay this verbal conflict to rest and to come up with a fresh way to articulate an ancient truth.

5 comments:

George van Popta said...

David, this is an intriguing idea. I am neither a theologian nor a scientist, but a pastor, and I am very interested to read what theologians and/or scientists say about your idea. I see there is no discussion here but is there elsewhere? George

George van Popta said...

OK, I see discussion on your Facebook.....

Fairly Reasonable said...

David, here's a modified reply from what you already received by email:
(a young-earth creationist reply)

David: “we know that the light of the most distant stars visible on earth has been travelling for some 13 billion years prior to reaching us.”
Martin: You are missing the point. The age of the universe is irrelevant to the age of the Earth. YECs claim the Earth is young. The universe may well be older. It is a moot point.

David: “the last of the dinosaurs died off some 65 million years ago, and the first hominid species appeared several million years ago”
Martin: No, they didn’t. There are ample reports on intact blood cells found in dinosaur bones, which should not be the case if they were millions of years old. The first hominid species appear several thousands years ago. You can go to any museum of anthropology and will find the first traces of culture date back some thousand years only. Before that, we have fireplaces being carbon-dated to up to 30,000 years (the limit of carbon dating) and then, fossils being dated with other dubious methods. The problem is, as a researcher you can simply select the dating method that you expect will give you the right date, and reject whatever other dates you may get with different methods. Radiometric dating is about the most unscientific approach out there.

David: “Those Christians arguing for an old earth have considerable empirical support on their side, including the geological record, the length of time light takes to travel from one part of the universe to another, carbon-14 dating, and fossil and genetic evidence for the evolution of species across long stretches of time.”
Martin: The opposite is the case. The geological record supports special creation at least as well as it does old-earthers (only think of the Cambrian explosion, stasis, and the sudden appearance of new species in the record without any intermediate forms preceding them). The latter must rely on notoriously unreliable dating methods where carbon-14 dating on diamonds has actually shown that even according to long-age theories, the world can’t be that old (since diamonds aren’t) - see http://creation.com/age-of-diamonds. I would also challenge you to provide any evidence whatsoever in favour of evolution - especially in light of recent findings disproving any concepts around junk DNA and the idea that different beings have a lot in common with their supposed ancestors (see e.g., http://creation.com/is-the-evolutionary-tree-changing-into-a-creationist-orchard).

Fairly Reasonable said...

David: “But if we try to pinpoint a time when time was created…"
Martin: If the universe has a beginning then that is when time was created, together with the physical universe. I don’t know of anyone who would doubt that we can date a beginning - we only differ as to when this beginning was (billions or thousands of years, from an earthly perspective). You are right with respect to the big bang, which presupposes that something already existed - it is a materialist concept catering to the idea of an eternal universe, not to the creation ex nihilo idea.

David: “It is often objected that six-day creationists assume that God brought everything into being a few thousand years ago and gave it the appearance of age by planting fossils and exposing the earth to starlight appearing to be billions of years old.”
Martin: This argument must stem from the seventies or so; no YEC of any repute today argues this way, so I don’t see the value of even mentioning it.
(Part 2)
David: TIME IS GOD’s CREATION diagram.
Martin: My question on your diagram is, what is the meaning of the surface area within the oval in your diagram? Whereas I coincide with you that the “transcendental before” is beyond our imagination, it also seems to me that the two-dimensional area around the time arrow is beyond our imagination. I would not know what it is supposed to mean. To complicate things further, I am led to believe that heaven will be a reality where time still exists - only it no longer has any limiting character, and is not perceived as an enemy in terms of “time is up”. So the arrow head really points towards yet another type of eternity, one that is not timeless.

David Koyzis said...

I think I may inadvertently have deleted a comment here. Feel free to repost, if it was yours. Thanks.

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