The eternity of God

I am Alpha, I am Omega, the beginning of all things and their end, says the Lord God; he who is, and ever was, and is still to come, the Almighty.” (Rev 1:8.)

The young daughter of a friend asks: Who created God? (Ex ore infantium, right?) So what of it, what can be said to that?

The bad news is that there is probably no answer that will satisfy her—or, truth to tell, any inquiring mind. To take the easier part first, the one God exists in three “facets” or “persons,” and “God the Son” and the “God the Holy Ghost” can be said to originate in “God the Father,”even if there was never a time when the one God was not three. 1 But God the Father has no beginning. He was not created, not even by himself. He is and He always was—eternal, outside of time, uncreated, with neither beginning nor end. 

It may be helpful to consider this through the lens of Aquinas’ first proof of the existence of God: Anything that moves was put in motion by something else, which in turn must have been put in motion by something that came before it, and that by something else before it, and so on. 2 “But this cannot go on to infinity, says Aquinas, so at some point as we trace the “family tree” of motion, so to speak, we must reach the “first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.” Father Robert Barron’s series Catholicism puts this in slightly more concrete terms: If we look at a beautiful cloud coming down off of the beautiful Grand Tetons, the cloud was created by weather patterns. The weather patterns were created by the flow of air over mountains. Who or what created the mountains? We can say that the mountains were created by A, and A by B, and B by C, and so on, but no matter how many letters we go through, we must, unless there is an infinite regress, be a point at which we reach something that is created without itself having been created. And there we find God. (I don’t think that this is too advanced for children to understand—or at least, I think it can be put in terms that children can understand.) 

This is mind-bending to an adult of our era, and we have marinated our entire lives in the era of Einstein, in which we are all supposed to know, intellectually if not emotionally, that time is not linear, and that it is entirely plausible to speak of things that transcend “time.” On the other hand, both Genesis and John open with these words: “In principio.” “In the beginning.” That implies that there is a beginning, doesn’t it? So the idea of a God who always was is very difficult for us, I think. For a child, I fear that it may seem total nonsense. 

At this point, an observation from my own conversion story might be helpful. Part of the reason that I did not believe in God, I suppose, was that I could not comprehend how one might believe in a God who, as He has been described above, seems impossible—indeed, incomprehensible. How can motion proceed from stillness? How can something exist before, above, and beyond time? How can existence be uncreated? Once we start paring away the gauzy, romantic ideas about God and start asking the kind of concrete questions that Aquinas addressed in the Summa, it becomes mind-bending stuff: What is God? How can he be omnipresent, immutable, infinite, invisible, perfectly-simple, and so on? Can we really know anything from what might seem to be the national myths of ancient Israel? 

For me, the answer was no until (in the vernacular of conversion stories) I met Jesus of Nazareth, who claimed to be the Messiah of Israel and the Son of the God of the Hebrews. Those claims demand an answer. 3 My faith is Christocentric insofar as I did not first believe in God and then believe in Jesus (as did the first disciples), but rather, because I came to believe that Jesus was precisely who and what He claimed to be, and because of what that implies, I came to believe that this impossible, incomprehensible Father must be precisely what His Son has revealed to us (as presumably did the early gentile converts). Jesus “vouches” for God, if you will, and vouches for the truth of the Old Testament, just as the New Testament discussion of Adam and Eve vouches for the essential truth of the Old Testament discussion of Adam and Eve. 

So while I don’t understand God, and while I don’t understand the unavoidable answer to my friend’s daughter’s question—I doubt that I ever will, this side of heaven—I know that that is the answer. We can have faith in Him whom we do not understand because we believe in Him whom we know and who is “the true likeness of the God we cannot see (Col 1:15). If we believe in Jesus, we must believe in the mystery and grandeur of Him whose Son He is. 

Notes:

  1. See Jn 1:1; see generally Matthias Premm, Dogmatic Theology for the Laity 39 ff. (Heimann, trns. 1977); Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity 163 ff. (1968) (Foster, trns. 2004); Charles Coppens, A Systematic Study of the Catholic Religion 111 ff. (1907).
  2. Newton’s first law of motion, which postdates Aquinas by four centuries, puts the same truth this way: Corpus omne perseverare in statu suo quiescendi vel movendi uniformiter in directum, nisi quatenus a viribus impressis cogitur statum illum mutare, every body persists in its state of being at rest or of moving uniformly straight forward, except insofar as it is compelled to change its state by force impressed.
  3. I would have described myself as an agnostic. We should observe that as a general matter, we would say that there are two kinds of agnosticism, hard agnosticism, which says “we cannot know,” and soft agnosticism, which says “I do not know.” The latter was what I would have said. But having been one, and with the benefit of hindsight, I would suggest that there is no such thing. Soft agnosticism is self-delusion; let us call it what it is: It is lazy atheism. The claims of Jesus demand an answer—they are unimportant if they are false, they are supremely important if they are true, but what they cannot be, as C.S. Lewis points out, is moderately important. Faced with this dilemma, then, one that minimally has lifelong consequences and at most has eternal consequences, it would be preposterous to offer the dog-ate-my-homework excuse “I dunno, sir.” That is not an answer with which any thinking person could be satisfied.