Where Stephen Hawking and Augustine Agree

What, then, is time? If no one [asks] me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not. Yet I say with confidence, that I know that if nothing passed away, there would not be past time; and if nothing were coming, there would not be future time; and if nothing were, there would not be present time. (Augustine, Confessions, 11.14.17)

Citing the above passage from the Confessions of Augustine, Huw Price commented in Time’s Arrow and Archimedes’ Point that despite some notable advances in science and philosophy since the time of Augustine, “Time has retained this unusual dual nature.” It is simultaneously familiar and profoundly mysterious.

We live and move and have our being within the space and time of the creation. So when Scripture says in Genesis 1:1 that: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” it makes a statement of eternal truth that we have difficulty comprehending. How could there be a beginning to all things, including time? What did God do before the beginning?

These and other questions were put to early Christians in response to their insistence, from Genesis 1, that the world had a temporal beginning, that matter was created out of nothing, and that God created freely and not out of necessity. Widely accepted philosophical and religious ideas of the time believed in an eternal world that God shaped—but did not create—out of pre-existent matter. So opponents of Christianity often ridiculed elements of biblical creation that seemed questionable to them. Particularly that there was a beginning to all things, including time and matter. There were also similar “heretical currents” within the church. “Gnosticism, Marcionism, Manichiesm, and Priscillianism called for a theological explanation that would oppose any form of dualism” (Edmund Hill, On Genesis, John Rotelle, ed., p. 18).

Augustine, whose quote on time was given above, left the Manichee sect, and converted to Christianity in 386 AD. Over a period of thirty years, he wrote five commentaries on the biblical creation stories. His first Genesis work was to refute the teachings of the Manichees. In his later classic work, the Confessions, Augustine devoted the last three books to a commentary on Genesis 1. In yet another one of his Genesis commentaries, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Augustine said that not only had he written against the Manichees to refute their ravings, but “also to prod them into looking for the Christian and evangelical faith in the writings which they hate.”

Just before the above opening quote from the Confessions, Augustine said: “Thou hast made all time; and before all times Thou art, nor in any time was there not time” (11.13.16). God created time, so the question of what God did before He made the heavens and the earth is nonsensical—because before the heavens and earth were created, there was no time. In On Genesis: A Refutation of the Manicheees (1.2.3), Augustine said: “God, after all, also made times, and that is why there were no times before he made any.” We cannot say there was a time when God had not yet made anything, because how could there be a time which God had not made, “seeing that he is the one who forges all times.”

Stephen Hawking disagrees with Augustine on the necessary existence of God. He said in an ABC interview about his book The Grand Design, you cannot prove that God does not exist. “But science makes God unnecessary. The laws of physics can explain the universe without the need for a creator.” Hawking suggested in his essay, “The Beginning of Time,” that despite the Big Bang, we don’t have to appeal “to something outside of the universe, to determine how the universe began.” Yet Hawking does agree that there was a beginning for both time and the universe: “The universe, and time itself, had a beginning in the Big Bang.”

In Hawking’s recent autobiography, “The Reason We Are Here,” he said: “To ask what happened before the beginning of the universe would thus become a meaningless question.” He also agreed that the universe was made out of nothing. Using the concept of imaginary time, a real scientific idea, he asserted that the beginning of the universe was governed by the laws of science and removed the age-old objection that the universe had a beginning, where the normal laws of physics broke down. “We had side-stepped the scientific and philosophical difficulty of time having a beginning by turning it into a direction in space. The no-boundary condition implies, that the universe will be spontaneously created out of nothing.”

So then for a beginning to time and creation ex nihilo, out of nothing, Hawking seems to agree with modern Christians and Augustine. But since the laws of physics can explain the universe without a creator, “science makes God unnecessary.”  Nevertheless, I think I’ll agree with Augustine on this last assertion, since even Stephen Hawking admits that you can’t prove that God doesn’t exist: “Thou, our God art the Creator of every creature.”