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God and the beginning of the universe

Published: 20 March 2021 (GMT+10)

Broly U. from Ukraine writes:


Is the Cosmological argument incoherent? This is from a fellow Christian.

“Craig and Loke’s talk of “initially changeless” is incoherent. If something exists timelessly, it is necessarily immutable. “Initially changeless” doesn’t actually mean “changeless”. It means “possesses the ability to change but just so happens not to be changing right now.” But of course there is no “right now” sans creation. Changeless = immutable. And there is no “initially” sans creation. So you can take the Kalam as usually pronounced and when you get to the part about the First Cause being “timeless” you can then dovetail nicely into Classical Theism. Changeless = no potential for change. Not, “just so happens not to be changing”. The change would have had to originated in God bcuz sans creation there is nowhere else for the change to come from. But, God is said to be initially changeless, so this change is basically popping into existence from nothing.”

CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:

Dear Broly,

Thanks for writing in. Your friend goes into very deep theological and philosophical questions! And I think they’re great to explore.

First of all, though, let me state this: The Christian faith doesn’t stand or fall on the success of the Kalam cosmological argument. We have defended it quite extensively on creation.com (and I personally have done a lot of that defending), and I believe it is a good argument. But if I came to believe it was flawed, I’d abandon using it, but I wouldn’t quit Christianity.

Moreover, the issue of God’s relation to time is something on which Christians can disagree. For instance, your friend adopts a position on God’s relation to time in good standing within the history of the church. I have defended the biblical legitimacy of an essentially timeless conception of God’s relation to time (How does God relate to time?). I want to stress this before engaging your friend’s arguments, because it’s easy to blow these sorts of matters out of proportion. The fact is the Bible underdetermines any sort of commitment to how God relates to time. As such, there are multiple views that are consistent with the Bible. Thus, there is room for Christians to disagree on this matter. So, all any of us can do is weigh up extrabiblical considerations (whether scientific, philosophical, or theological) and come to the conclusion that seems best to us.

With those caveats in mind, let’s now turn to the issue at hand. First, does “Changeless = immutable”? I don’t think so. ‘Changeless’ means ‘without change’, and ‘immutable’ means ‘cannot change’. These are not the same idea. The former describes how something actually is, the latter describes how something must be. In other words, ‘immutable’ isn’t equivalent to ‘changeless’, it’s equivalent to ‘necessarily changeless’.

But that leaves us with another potential option: could God, sans creation, be contingently changeless? In other words, is God, sans creation, completely static but able to change? This can come in two possible guises, as Loke points out:

Thus the First Cause must either have an actual infinite past without an actual infinite regress of events—this would imply an initially changeless state with an actual infinite past extension on a substantive view of time (Padgett 1992)—or be initially timeless and changeless at least sans the creation of time, as Craig (1998, p. 115) argues. In either case, the First Cause would be initially changeless”.1

How does your friend respond to this? He says:

“‘Initially changeless’ doesn’t actually mean ‘changeless’. It means ‘possesses the ability to change but just so happens not to be changing right now.’ But of course there is no ‘right now’ sans creation.”

This only rejects one form of ‘initial changelessness’. It rejects the former view: a changeless state (prior to creation) with an actual infinite past extension on a substantive view of time. This is the classical Newtonian view of God’s eternity. But it doesn’t reject Craig’s view: a timeless and changeless state sans creation on a relational view of time. Why? On Craig’s view, since God is timeless sans creation, there clearly can’t be a ‘right now’ sans creation.

But your friend does have an argument against both forms of contingent changelessness:

“The change would have had to originated in God bcuz sans creation there is nowhere else for the change to come from. But, God is said to be initially changeless, so this change is basically popping into existence from nothing.”

However, this seems confused. Yes, if God is contingently changeless, God doesn’t have to remain changeless. He can freely choose to change it. So yes, the change does come from God himself, and not anywhere else. Crucially, it comes from God’s freedom of choice (A personal cause for the universe?). Is this change popping into existence from nothing (which I take to mean ‘uncaused’)? That’s simply to misunderstand what agent causation is. There’s nothing uncaused except the First Cause from which the free choice to create the universe comes. The causal ‘buck’ stops with God.

Anyway, that’s Craig and Loke’s view. I don’t think your friend has shown it’s incoherent, and I don’t think it is incoherent. But does that mean it’s true? Not necessarily.

For instance, your friend mentioned ‘classical theism’. That’s an astute observation. Craig and Loke reject the absolute immutability of God, which is part of the ‘classical theism’ of Augustine and especially Aquinas. So, they are not classical theists in the Thomistic/Augustinian mould. Their view has been dubbed ‘theistic personalism’, but I’m not sure how accurate that label is. The operative point is that they have a different conception of God’s absolute perfection from the ‘classical theism’ of medieval theology. Their theology is Anselmian (i.e. it understands God as the greatest conceivable being) in method, but the results of their method are a little different from much of medieval theology. For instance, they think God’s freedom of choice entails the falsity of his absolute immutability. They of course confess that there are many important ways that God cannot change: e.g. He’s necessarily existent, self-existent, eternal, indestructible, good, omnipotent, and omniscient. But their view of divine immutability isn’t as ‘stringent’ as e.g. the ‘classical theism’ of Thomas Aquinas, who considers God completely static and has all his attributes essentially.

So, the question arises: which conception of God is more likely to be true? Scripture largely underdetermines this question at the level of philosophical theology we’re beginning to work at, now. All I say, then, is this: stick closely to Scripture, and do your best to bring all such theologies to the bar of Scripture. If Scripture doesn’t say anything clear on the topic, follow the arguments to the conclusion that seems most reasonable to you.

Kind regards,
Shaun Doyle
Creation Ministries International

References and notes

  1. Loke, A.T.E., God and Ultimate Origins: A Novel Cosmological Argument, Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, Switzerland, pp. 96–97, 2017. Return to text.

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Readers’ comments

Doug L.
In response to Shaun's response:

Oh absolutely Shaun. Totally agree that we should try to answer people to help them through these ideas. That's the wonderful thing about a ministry like CMI and others.

And as a matter of fact even Paul, in Eph 1:4 says "For he chose us in him before the creation of the world...", even though it doesn't make any sense to us to actually speak of "before creation" (for the reasons I put in my other post.) But God sometimes has to speak to us in words which we can understand. Note that Paul doesn't attempt to elaborate on what that means. He just states it simply and leaves it at that. That's all we need to know about it and that should be a comforting thought.

It's kind of along the lines of "the secret things belong to the Lord our God" as Moses wrote.

My only suggestion on this "before creation" topic is that whatever answers we give, we should always direct people to the Bible, not to Man's philosophy, his own thinking. If it's about God it just seems like we must use the Bible to respond to questions.
Doug L.
You know what I think? I think ... some people think too much. :)

A famous doctor once quipped that a little patience goes a long way but too much patience goes absolutely nowhere! The same can be said about thinking. Too much of it and you'll get nowhere.

It's absolutely pointless to try to speculate about "before creation" because that's talking about being outside of space and time. We cannot possible even begin to understand that because we are totally creatures of space and time. All we CAN understand is what we have experienced. It's a little like the hypothetical two-dimensional beings of "Flatland" the two dimensional universe: they could not possibly envision "up" or even have any way to describe it.

We are sort of like that when attempting to envision God "before" creation. The idea of "before time began" doesn't even actually make any sense because the word "before" implies another point IN TIME. So we can't understand God "before creation". Trying to do it ... it would just make your head explode. Seriously.

One observation I have to make is that the writer of the question never mentions a single verse from the Bible. If we want to talk about anything related to God, it has to be by correctly using what HE says about himself. You have to start and end WITH the Bible. If we don't have a Bible-centric view we're just spinning our wheels. So good luck to Craig and Loke. There's got to be a better use of our time and mental energy. :)
Shaun Doyle
I understand the frustration. Why not just leave these things in God's hands?

But we humans are a curious bunch. And I think we can get around many linguistic barriers to talk meaningfully of even 'before creation'. For instance, we can specify what we mean by 'before': 'logically prior' or 'explanatorily prior'. These concepts need not imply temporal priority (please see Simultaneous causation and the beginning of time).

But once we do, we want to know more. And sometimes, that desire to know leads us doubt paths of doubt. This is where discussions like this become important. It's not always about getting at the absolute truth of the matter; that is often beyond us. The best we can do is think about these things as consistently and cogently as we can. That's as close to the truth on these matters we'll ever get. But that also provides a help for those wo doubt God because of these issues. Since there are cogent and consistent ways of talking about God and the beginning of creation (while of course not being able to be comprehensive), it can help ease doubts about such matters.
Renton M.
Before God created, the three persons of the Godhead were in relationship with each other. I assume they talked to each other, and thus were not 'static' or 'changeless'. Nor do I understand how God can be 'simple'...not sure what that means. Surely God must be the most complex being there is. He has made a complex world. Surely he is more complex than it. Prior to creating, I assume God designed the creation and all its parts, before speaking it into existence. This would have been activity (thinking, and perhaps discussion) he conducted prior to having made anything....thus again he cannot be static or changeless...changeless in an absolute sense. When changelessness is referred to, what precisely is being meant? It must allow for the above things...
Shaun Doyle
'Changelessness' means 'no change of any kind'. Down to the thoughts of the divine persons. Is it a strange state for us to contemplate? Sure. But if God exists alone, why would there be any change? God knows everything, so has no need for deliberation. God willing his own goodness, and the sharing in communion between the divine persons need not involve any change, since they'd be fully aware of everything the others are in a state of 'eternal embrace' with each other. Change couldn't add to that communion (unless God wanted to create something other than himself), so God apart from creation has no need to change. As such, I don't think changlessness apart from creation is a problem for God. See How does God relate to time? and Simultaneous causation and the beginning of time for more details.
Andrew N.
This is not a sterile Philosophical or Theological position, does it not have direct bearing on the Fundamental Trinitarian formulation of the Filiation of The Son and the Spiration of The Holy Spirit?
Shaun Doyle
These questions obviously have theological consequences. But I'm not sure exactly who you're targeting. Those who follow more the modern Anglo-American analytical philosophy tradition like Craig are quite suspicious of Thomistic theology because they think its notion of the divine persons as 'subsistent relations' is far too thin to imply true personhood. To them, it renders the divine persons the mere properties of paternity, filiation, and spiration, or even to the 'subjectivities' of 'me, myself, and I', which seems nothing more than modalism. On the other hand, much of the modern Anglo-American analytical philosophy tradition largely embraces social trinitarianism, which often seems to foreground the divine persons so much that their ontological unity is threatened. Tritheism is a real worry, here. We obviously want to avoid both modalism and tritheism. The divine persons are eternal, essential, and distinct. But God is definitely one in being. What's the best model to keep all that in balance? It should be clear the Bible doesn't give us all the information on that matter. All it does is give us enough to rationally believe that God is triune.
Larry F.
Thank you for a great response to a legitimate question. I studied philosophical apologetics for a season and was impressed with Craig's Kalam proposal. But as you suggest it is of primary importance that we study scripture to ground our theology. My season of apologetics was very grounding, in certain ways, but ultimately not as compelling as the words of Jesus. "If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him... Whoever has seen me has seen the Father."
I've been settled in here for a while, because I realized that all of those questions people ask about what God is like, Jesus has already answered. In another place Jesus prays for us all to be joined in union with Him and the Father the way they were before the Creation of the world.
More importantly Jesus makes it clear that Eternal life is only found in knowing Him and the Father, not in knowing 'about' them. I don't need to be very smart to figure out what is important for me now that I have heard what Jesus prayed for. And He even included everyone who would believe in future time and space, right where we are today.
Steven F.
Although I don't agree with Dr. Craig on the age of the earth and his obvious mental gymnastics and bows to fallible secular science when he interprets Genesis as "Mytho-history" or non-literal poetry, I am fascinated by Craig's philosophical defenses of Christianity. The depth to which the logic holds in the arguments he uses is tremendous. The TRUTH in the philosophical arguments, and the evidence of creation presented by CMI are what brought me back to Christianity during a very painful, dark and doubtful time in my walk with God. Thank you Shaun Doyle, CMI, AND Dr. Craig for saving my soul!
Tim L.
Can you comment, or is there an article you have addressing Danny Faulkner's criticism of the Kalam argument? Specifically, he argues that since God created time itself in Gen. 1, it doesn't make sense to talk about cause and effect because a cause necessarily precedes the effect. Craig has answered this with an illustration of a bowling ball sitting on a pillow and suggesting that even if the bowling ball were sitting on the pillow for all eternity, it would still be legitimate to say the ball caused the depression in the pillow. However, this seems to be a pretty clear misunderstanding of physics because in order to say the ball caused the depression, you have to assume the state of the pillow before the ball was on it. Since it's entirely possible for the pillow to have had the depression before the ball was on it (e.g., maybe the pillow is made of stone), it cannot be said to be caused by the ball.

Ultimately, I'd say that Danny's critique is correct that a Kalam argument cannot be used (because simultaneous causation doesn't make sense) unless we are also willing to argue that there is metaphysical time (e.g., maybe God counted down 3... 2... 1... before creating physical time) that exists separately from the time that was created in Gen. 1.

In the end, the argument Danny ends up making for God's existence (setting the 1st and 2nd laws of thermo in opposition to each other to show that the universe has to have a metaphysical source) is essentially the Kalam (the laws of physics are an effect that requires a metaphysical cause), but it would seem that he's unwilling to admit it for some reason.
Shaun Doyle
Please see Simultaneous causation and the beginning of time, which addresses these issues.
John W.
Thank you for these excellent responses on such a deep subject. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is also described as the ‘arrow of time’. Humanity has an experience only of a fallen effect and understanding of time. We sense and understand time not only as a measure of sequential events but also, through the inexorable winding down to heat death of physical existence, as the mechanism of change.
Carl Wieland gives a wonderful revelation of this foundational, understanding. The Fall caused the perfect state of the physical universe to become subject to change by divorcing creation from the eternal restoring power of its Creator. Whilst sequential events would happen in perfection, everything would function according to its perfect design and therefore time would not matter anymore. Any and every ‘change’ would only be a constant maintenance of perfection. This renders all understandings of what time actually is, if based on fallen experience of a fallen state, inadequate. Even someone with the mental capacity of Stephen Hawkins is confounded within the bounds of a fallen material universe.
The Creator is eternally changeless. No sequence of events or power can change Him. It is Creation that is subject to ‘change’. God purposely created the arrow of time as the constant for the physical universe to move in only one direction, but just as created things can never be greater than the One that creates them, this Law that we His creation, exist in, is entirely at His command. The limits of our ability to define what time is and how it works, even in a physical sense, is where our understanding of our transcendent Creator and the wonders He has created begins.
Shaun Doyle
The metaphysical nature of time really goes beyond scientific matters. This includes relativity theory and thermodynamics. A simple thought experiment can show why: can God, existing all alone, count in sequence? You know, like: 1 ... 2 ... 3 and so on. If He is in time, He can. If He must be timeless, He can't. (After all, if God is necessarily timeless, there cannot be any temporal sequence in His life, so He cannot count in sequence.) But here's the point: relativity and thermodynamics are utterly irrelevant to this question. As is whether the world is fallen or not. Indeed, even the existence of the world itself is irrelevant to the question. Thus, the metaphysical nature of time is fundamentally about God's relation to time. And I have written on this elsewhere How does God relate to time? But yes, this question goes beyond our ability to be sure, and gets into the heights of God's greatness. Humility is a must when treading on these grounds.
Michal K.
God must be immutable by his own nature because he is a necessary being. If a being could change his essence from X to Y, that would mean that his essence X is not necessary, since it could also possibly exist with the essence Y, and hence it would not be a necessary being. Since God is a necessary being, he must be simple, because his essence must be equal to his existence. If his essence were different from his existence, a being with such essence would not have to exist, and wouldn't be necessary. Divine simplicity and Anselm's ontological argument do not contradict each other: the reason why the greatest conceivable being could not fail to exist is because in such a being essence and existence are equal to each other. This is why a being imperfect in some arbitrary way would not be necessary: it would be a composite. The Kalam argument and creation of the Universe do not contradict divine simplicity because only the Universe was created and began to exist, but God didn't change in the process. But the Kalam argument is not the best argument: the real issue is not whether or not the Universe had a beginning, but whether or not it is a necessary being. The Universe is an essence-existence composite, and hence is not a necessary being. Even if it were possible for the Universe to be eternal (which I don't think is the case), it would not be inconsistent with God maintaining it in existence.
Shaun Doyle
Just for clarification, I never said divine simplicity or immutability were inconsistent with Anselm's 'that than which nothing greater can be conceived'. The question is rather: which theological model provides the best conception of divine perfection? As I said in my response, I think Scripture underdetermines this question at the levels we were beginning to operate at in my response, so I think Bible believing Christians can disagree.
Leopold H.
The question needs to be asked: is our concept of God and the universe ultimately an outgrowth of Greek philosophy which made its way into the early church and became entrenched? That God is timeless and changeless and everything ultimately is God's will, including good AND evil (for how else can you explain predestination or election) is a form of pantheism. It is also NOT what the Bible teaches. Time is a function of existence. God is a being who exists in time like everyone else but is not limited by it. God also interacts with humans, and gives them free choice. It is by free choice that sin entered heaven, and entered the world, and it is by free choice that people receive salvation.
Shaun Doyle
I don't think it's that simple: Plato and Christianity. At any rate, the relation between divine sovereignty and human freedom isn't necessarily related to the issue of God's relation to time. There's no inconsistency in rejecting libertarian free will for creatures and believing God is in time, and there's no inconsistency in accepting libertarian freedom for creatures and believing God is necessarily timeless.

And I don't think any combination of these views collapses into pantheism, since they all maintain an ontological distinction between God and creation. For instance, every one of these views will hold that God necessarily exists, and creation contingently exists. They will all hold that God alone is self-sufficient, and everything else depends on God for its existence and persistence. The distinctions between God and creation implied in these contrasting attributes is enough to make God and creation ontologically distinct. In other words, they show that no reading of these issues of time or determinism implies pantheism, i.e. that God and creation are identical to each other. Note, I'm not committing myself here for any view on free will, or any view on God's relation to time. I'm just saying that divine immutability plus universal divine causal determinism doesn't imply pantheism. God and creation are demonstrably ontologically distinct even on this view.

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