The Age of the World in Tradition
The title of this chapter is a quotation of the rather imprecise expression used in ancient times for debates about the world’s age, whether one was arguing that it was endless or that it was finite. The relevance of this subject to cyclic time lies in the fact that the longer the time-span over which the world exists, the more scope and the more necessity there will be for universal change to proceed through cycles. A linear and continuous progression of history through tens of thousands of years would take the human race beyond the bounds of its terrestrial condition. But whatever the answer, the validity of the cyclic concept does not depend on an actual infinity of duration.
There are three possibilities, namely, that the duration of the world is infinite in terms of its own measures; that it is of indefinite length because it is beyond our means of computation; and that it is finite in length in terms of its own measures. The third answer is doubtful according to what was said about this in Chapter 3. It also gives rise to problems similar to those of a real infinity, since it supposes a finite between two infinites. The first answer, on the other hand, involves a phenomenal infinity which is beyond the possibility of proof. It must be borne in mind that the space and time of our experience are not the objective originals. They are structures which are reconstructed in a semi-subjective form by human faculties to suit the needs of our natural life. One does not need to go to the extreme with Kant and make our space and time completely different from the Thing in Itself in which they originate, however, because Platonic thought prescribes a law of analogy between the contents of experience and the objective originals of that experience. Between the Forms and the objects of our experience there exists the objective instantiated universe, the body, as it were, of the World-Soul. The space and time of that world can only be known at second-hand in our experience.
Consequently, there is no reason to ascribe infinity to human experience, whence an indefinite extension of world-time is best suited to define our position in regard to the sources which will be considered in this chapter. Where time is concerned, there is a significant difference between Christianity and Judaism, because Jewish tradition has no problem with the idea of successive worlds, whereas Christian doctrine for the most part takes Biblical texts to mean that ‘the world’ is a unique creation of finite length. This is owing to the historical position of Christianity as a religion for the Last Times, whence the idea of this world as one of a succession would conflict with the eschatological point of view. Nevertheless, this conflict is not logical but psychological, and it is in any case not a serious issue today because the traditional churches have long sense accepted the idea of immense cosmic time-scales from the natural sciences.
Cosmic Time in Judaism
Jewish ideas about the world in relation to God do not differ markedly from those of Greek tradition, as might be expected from the fact that Pythagoras acquired his knowledge from the Semitic religions of the Near East. According to Angelo Rappoport,
God and the world are, according to Jewish myth, two inseparable conceptions, standing to each other in the relation of cause and effect.
This is closely linked in the same passage to the manner of creation, where its origin is clearly outside time:
From absolute nothingness All-Father, the Creator, first produced a fine and subtle matter, which had no consistence whatever, but possessed the potential power to receive the imprint of form. This was the first matter, or what the Greeks called hyle.1
Such ideas imply that there must always be a creation of some kind, in order that God’s power may be manifest, and because the basis of creation is before all time. What God specifically creates out of nothing is the first matter, which is necessary for the formation of all the elements and all the beings formed from them. Such an account of the creation ex nihilo would explain why the Bible does not contain explicit references to God creating the world, or things in it, from nothing. The Book of Job, chapters 38 and 39 for example, while full of examples of God’s actions in creation, does not mention creation out of nothing. All acts of creation from the already existing presuppose the first matter or hyle, and given this substance, nothing else would need to be created from nothing. In accordance with the cause and effect relation between God and the world, it is held that:
The present world, however, is neither the first nor the only world in existence. Before the world was created, there existed already many others. The Eternal created many worlds and destroyed them until He produced the present cosmos. Nine hundred and seventy-four generations had existed before the creation of this world, but they were swept away because they were wicked and did not please the Lord of the Universe.
Thus many worlds preceded the creation of the present one. . . . Apart from our cosmos, there are numerous other cosmic systems. God, teach the Rabbis, has many cosmic worlds, and, carried upon the wings of the Cherubim, He manifests His presence in all of them. 2
While teaching the idea of successive creations and the existence of other universes at the same time as this one, the question as to whether the number of other creations is finite or not is left open. There is a suggestion that this number is finite, whereas proportionality between cause and effect would imply that God’s infinity would be reflected in a kind of infinity in creation, but in any case cosmic time is said to extend far beyond the bounds of the present universe. There is, however, no doubt as to which text is responsible for the belief that only the present world is created, and that it is of finite duration. Non-Rabbinical interpreters have long derived this idea from Genesis 1:1: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’
To many minds, even up to the present day, this text seems necessarily to imply a beginning of a finite world in time. Because of the modern rejection of metaphysics, modern scholarship usually takes the text in this sense, 3 but the fact remains that this can only be justified if the words ‘In the beginning’ translate not merely a possible meaning of the original, but its principal meaning as well. In this instance, a long-established practice of translating the first words in a way which does not involve a metaphysical conception dictates that it be rendered ‘In the beginning,’ even though this is not its primary meaning. The Hebrew word in question is Bereshith, 4 which is translated into Greek as ( en arche) and into Latin as in principio. These Hebrew, Greek, and Latin words all agree in admitting a timeless meaning, whereas if a temporal beginning had been the principal idea, the Greek could have rendered it more precisely as (protista) 5 and the Latin could have used the words inceptium or initium. The timeless meaning, however, would require it to be rendered in the sense of ‘in the principle’, that is, in the metaphysical power by which things are given their forms. According to Fabre d’ Olivet, by the word principle ‘they [the Jews] conceived a sort of absolute power, by means of which every relative being is constituted as such.’ 6
This, he says, they represented by a point at the center of a circle. The function of this conception is reflected in the way in which a Form causes instantiations of itself in matter. The same author points out that the emphasis given to the temporal idea of ‘beginning’ introduces the idea of temporal succession into the different acts of creation in the first chapter of Genesis, where it is misleading. Nevertheless, nearly all translations have ignored this because of their failure to translate Bereshith as ‘in principle’ or ‘at first in principle,’ and many misconceptions have resulted:
In fact, if the word Bereshith signified simply, in the beginning, in the beginning of time, as it was said, why did not the heavens and the earth, created at that epoch, already exist at that time; why should there be need of successive development; why should they have rested an eternity in darkness; why should the light have been made after the heavens and before the sun. 7
Such seeming paradoxes as heavens without light, or the creation of night and day before the sun and moon, which determine them, or the creation of light before the luminaries, are all resolved by the operative word meaning ‘in the principle’ rather than ‘in the beginning’. This meaning, according to the same author, also comprises ‘not yet in action, but in power,’ and this agrees with the way in which Saint Augustine interpreted it. The idea that the world was created at a moment of time through a certain chronological sequence is thus not dictated by the opening words of Genesis, even if it is allowed. Clearly, this is an issue which cannot be settled by means of an English Bible, even in modern translations. But if the Days of creation are not literally a chronological sequence, they certainly suggest it, and this may well mean that they are a paradigm or Formal cause of cosmogonic sequences.
It can be seen that the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria was true to his own tradition in this regard, even while combining it as far as possible with Platonic thought. Where he speaks of the beginning and end of the world, he does so in a way consistent with what has been argued above. He states that there are only two reasons why God would destroy the world, these being either to create another world or to give up creation as such. The latter alternative is said to be impossible because God’s work is that of bringing order out of disorder, not that of reducing order to disorder. The alternative of creating another world is logical, but confused by the question as to whether this was in a relative or an absolute sense. While referring to the Stoic teaching concerning the final conflagration of the world, he denies that this event could mean a final end of the world, by using the argument that God cannot be conceived to be idle:
Moreover, if all things are as they say consumed in the conflagration, what will God be doing during that time? Will He do nothing at all? That surely is the natural inference. For at present He surveys each thing, guardian of all as though He were indeed their father, guiding in very truth the chariot and steering the barque of the universe, the defender of the sun and moon and stars whether fixed or wandering and also the air and the other parts of the world, co-operating in all that is needful for the preservation of the whole and the faultless management of it which right reason demands. But if all things are annihilated inactivity and dire unemployment will render His life unworthy of the name, and what could be more monstrous than this? I shrink from saying, for the very thought is a blasphemy, that quiescence will entail as a consequence the death of God, for if you annihilate the perpetual motion of the soul you will annihilate the soul itself also and, according to our opponents, God is the soul of the world. 8
This argument does not depend on God’s being literally the soul of the world, but on an extension of the way in which Platonism understands the soul. It is thought to be of the very essence of the soul that it be a fount of self-generated activity, and consequently upon this, it may be argued that if this is true for the soul, how much more it must be true of God who is its creator and exemplar. While this argument is applied to the question of God’s making an absolute end of the world, it applies to an absolute beginning as well. By such arguments, Philo is thinking in a manner which accords with both Judaism and Platonism, but lest it should appear that his thought is more indebted to Platonism, such doubts can be settled by one of the greatest authorities of Judaism, the twelfth-century philosopher Moses Maimonides. In Maimonides’ writings the eternity of the universe is denied, while its perpetuity and its indestructibility are affirmed. Biblical teachings as to the end of the world are to be taken figuratively, he says, while speaking for Jewish tradition. He also denies that belief in the destruction of the world should follow from belief in its creation, and explains his conception of its perpetuity:
The following are the words that refer to the indestructibility of the Universe: ‘And the earth remaineth for ever.’ And those who do not agree with me as regards the above distinction [between the indestructibility and the Eternity of the Universe], are compelled to explain the term le-’olam [lit., ‘for ever’], to mean ‘the time fixed for the existence of the earth.’ Similarly they explain the words of God, ‘Yet all the days of the earth’ [Gen. 8:22] to signify the days fixed for its existence. But I wonder how they would explain the words of David: ‘He laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be moved for ever’ [Ps. 104:5]. If they maintain here also that the term le-’olam va-’ed (lit., ‘for ever’) does not imply perpetuity, they must come to the conclusion that God exists only for a fixed period, since the same term is employed in describing the perpetuity of God, ‘The Lord will reign [le’olam] for ever’ [Exod. 15:18, or Ps. 10:16].9
According to the meaning of the Hebrew words, then, the perpetuity of God is mirrored by that of the world, and this cannot be denied of the one without denying it of the other. Maimonides also shows that the Psalms speak of the incorruptibility of the heavens, of the laws that govern them, and of the celestial beings, while also asserting that they are created. The term ‘for ever’ is used frequently in connection with many aspects of creation. The teaching that the works of God are perfect, and admit neither increase nor decrease, and must stand for ever, will also be found in the Platonic tradition in the following chapter. There was no question that either Philo or Maimonides could have been misled by translations of the first verse of Genesis into thinking it stated the beginning of a chronological sequence, because of their familiarity with the Hebrew, and the Old Testament as a whole reads consistently with the timeless conception of the creation. I have dwelt on Jewish tradition so as to make it clear that later developments in the Judeo-Christian tradition took place only on Christian initiatives for various reasons, of which some will be examined in a later chapter. Up to a point the changes made to the doctrine arose only from a need to define the cosmological setting which would answer to the salvation of the soul, but this became exaggerated by a human desire to escape from a wisdom of non-Christian origin.
Christian Adaptations of Tradition
Before considering the development of these ideas in Christian thought, a few points must be made clear. Firstly, the argument will, for the present chapter, rely only on quotations from ancient sources rather than on philosophical reasoning, and is not meant to be taken as conclusive. Secondly, part of the purpose of this procedure is to show that Christian belief is not tied necessarily to finitist beliefs about creation, and that it has always been compatible with a world-view quite different from the one depicted by modern scholarship. While scholarship has achieved many new insights into the meanings of biblical texts, its spiritual value is limited by the fact that these advances have been made mostly in a direction dictated by the humanist mindset of modern man. An intelligence distorted by an excess of the reasoning faculty and an atrophy of the intellectual faculty cannot outweigh the wisdom of early tradition, which will be allowed to speak for itself, therefore.
The early Christians lived in a world which was generally believed to have existed for endless ages, and while this idea was not acceptable to Christians as it stood, one can see from Origen’s writings that the necessary modifications to it did not have to be too drastic, since the Bible is open to both finite and non-finite views of creation. Origen makes it clear that Christian belief, as much as Jewish, requires that this present world-order should have a beginning in time. Because it is said to be of temporal origin, this world is held to be corruptible, and with the passage of time human weakness and corruption increase to the extent that they can have no human remedy, and only Christ’s Incarnation was capable of restoring man to his true nature. Moreover, there was no difficulty in answering the idleness argument concerning what God must have been doing before the world was, if it had a beginning in time, according to the way in which Origen understood the matter:
God did not begin to work for the first time when he made this visible world, but just as after the dissolution of this world there will be another one, so also we believe that there were others before this one existed. Both of these beliefs will be confirmed by the authority of divine scripture. For Isaiah teaches that there will be another world after this, when he says ‘There shall be a new heaven and a new earth, which I will cause to endure in my sight, saith the Lord.’ And that there were other worlds before this one Ecclesiastes shows when he says, ‘What is it that hath been? Even that which shall be. And what is it that shall be created? That very thing that is to be created. . . .’
By these testimonies each proposition is proved at the same time, namely, that there were ages in the past and that there will be others hereafter. 10
The biblical teaching that there will be a new heaven and a new earth occurs not only in Isa. 66:22 as quoted by Origen, but also in 2 Pet. 3:13, and in Rev. 21:1, and this is what one would expect if it is true that this world is one of a series of different creations, even though traditional interpretations also treat this as a prophecy of the Redemption. In Origen’s treatment of the question, a just balance is achieved between the perspective of this present world and that of the ultimate range of creation. He succeeds at the same time in excluding endless recurrence from the successive worlds by means of a comparison between the lifetime of a world and the outpouring of a bushel of grain, showing a sense of the laws of probability. The idea is that if even two successive worlds should be the same, it would be as though one could pour out a bushel of grain, sweep it all up, and pour it out a second time so that every grain fell in the same spot, in contact with the same other grains as before. Origen alleges that these processes of outpouring and regathering could be repeated for endless ages without there ever being an identical repetition of the order in which the grains fell out. Whether such successive worlds are innumerable or not, he does not venture to decide, but since the contents of a world are incalculably more numerous and diverse than those of a bushel of grain, it would be natural to take the series of creations to be perpetual.
This is supported elsewhere in the same work, 11 where Origen quotes the Epistles in connection with the ‘consummation of the ages’ as in Heb. 9:26. The present age is said to be made for the consummation of other ages, and there will be yet more ages to come, because Saint Paul again says ‘that in the ages to come he might show the exceeding richness of his grace in kindness toward us.’ 12 There is at any rate a sufficiency of biblical texts supporting the idea that the process of creation as such is so extended as to have no definable limits, even if there were no direct theological arguments for it. From Origen to Saint Augustine the same basic idea of cosmic time is pursued in a way which agrees with the Christian idea of salvation without too large a divergence from the traditional wisdom. Like Origen, Augustine argues primarily for the uniqueness of each world, whether they be few or numerous or innumerable. The cyclic conception which requires universal recurrence is reasonably seen as the very negation of what religion is there to do, since it would require that immortal souls which had attained wisdom would nevertheless be re-immersed in the world of ignorance and sin after only a limited period of release from it. Whatever sacrifices had been made for salvation, even the grace of Christ, the ultimate result would be as though they had never happened at all.
Nevertheless, Augustine knows better than to try to exclude such a possibility by claiming that ‘there was a time when there was no time.’ 13 This, he says, is like saying that there was a man when men were not, or that there was a world when the world was not. Such absurdities may look verbally similar to statements that there was a time when Rome was not, for example, but the difference between them is essential. This unwillingness to restrict the range of created being can be seen to follow from Augustine’s idea of the Creator:
Wherefore, if God always has been Lord, He has always had creatures under His dominion—creatures, however, not begotten of Him, but created by Him out of nothing; nor co-eternal with Him, for He was before them though at no time without them, because He preceded them, not only by the lapse of time, but by His abiding eternity.14
The importance of this text lies in the way it shows that God’s priority over the creation does not mean that it must be limited at its own level. The eternal has a logical and ontological priority over the whole series of created beings, and this priority is so absolute that one could not increase it by affixing arbitrary limitations to the content of the world. Augustine also quotes Saint Paul in regard to the ages of the world and the ‘eternal times’, saying that the Apostle speaks as though time were eternal, in relation to both past and future equally, since he says ‘In hope of eternal life, which God promised before the eternal times, () but hath in due times manifested His word.’15
This is a literal translation by Augustine from the Greek, and it confirms that there is no objection to the idea of ‘eternal times’ as long as they do not imply eternal recurrence. In a text relating to the above, Augustine argues that the divine goodness cannot be conceived as ever having been idle, because the idea of God’s repenting of a time of idleness contradicts the idea of divine perfection. The supposition that the boundless extension of creation in time must mean the exact repetition of everything in the course of its cycles is said to reveal only the limitations of human minds, since they assume God to be as limited as themselves. Repetition of persons and events would exclude the possibility of salvation for reasons already given. Another consequence of God’s being eternal and not temporal is spelled out in Bk. xii, chap. 17, where the fact that God has different purposes in relation to different parts of time does not imply any temporal succession among these purposes, inasmuch as they reside in God. The same eternal and unchangeable will can bring about different things at different times, and can will an unlimited number of different things over an unlimited time. The idea of ‘ages of ages’ is treated in relation to creation, and however literally it is to be taken, it gives no grounds for supposing that omnipotence could be obliged to repeat the same things. This is also consistent with what Augustine says about the ‘heaven of heavens’.16
The treatment given by Augustine to this subject shows how Christian thought resolved the fundamental contradiction in nearly all pre-Christian religion, namely, the conflict between the quest for salvation and a doctrine which denied that salvation could ever be finally achieved. (Modern cults which believe in reincarnation are merely revivals of the same confusion.) The above conclusions are arrived at without any need for the dubious ideas about time and creation which were to come later.
Even though ideas about cosmic time were to change in the West, the change was by no means universal. In the centuries after Saint Augustine, ideas in this realm continued in a similar manner in the Eastern Church, as can be seen from the writings of Saint Maximus the Confessor, in the seventh century:
According to Scripture, there are temporal ages in themselves, and temporal ages which encompass the consummation of other ages. This is clear from the text: ‘But now once at the consummation of the ages’ [Heb. 9:26]. Again there are other ages or aeons, free of a temporal nature, after this temporal age established at the consummation of the ages. This is shown by the text: ‘. . . so that in the ages to come He might display the overflowing richness’ [Eph. 2:7]. But we also find in Scripture a large number of past, present, and future ages: there are references to ‘ages of ages’ [Ps. 84:4 lxx], ‘age of age’ [Ps. 9:5 lxx], ‘agelong times’ [2 Tim. 1 :9], and ‘generations joined together by the ages’ [Gen. 9:12].17
Here again, we have more than enough indication that there need be no conflict between Christian beliefs and a universal conception of time and the world, and that for many centuries no such thing was thought of. When it finally did emerge, it was as a result of undue weight being given to metaphysical arguments which were in any case never very well understood.
Transition to Theoretical Arguments
There is a necessary difference between the points of view of metaphysical thought and religious belief, but there is no need for any conflict between them on the present subject. Where this does arise, it is probably owing to a misunderstanding as to what the created universe really consists of. The modern tendency is usually to make the universe a mere accident in relation to God. However, this position expresses an unconscious assumption that the universe is primarily a material thing, made up of material parts. If this were true, the modern attitude could be easily justified because there is no reason why God should be committed to a realm of mere objects. However, this is a materialistic view of the world, and an absurd one for the religious mind. Everything is changed when the universe is seen for what it really is, a community of spirits among whom the material structure of the world is subordinate to the souls and intellects which are its principal content.
God’s relations with spiritual creatures thus form an integral part of the divine subjective life, and so there is no reason to think that these relations should be curtailed by applying limitations to the scale of creation. Moreover, it is a matter of particular importance from the religious point of view that many ensouled beings participate in the divine nature: divinity is by this means not confined wholly to God, but is shared by innumerable spiritual beings throughout time and space. This collectivity is included in the meaning of the word ‘Church,’ and because it is an essential part of creation there is no reason to think that God would put an end to creation as a whole in any absolute sense. The idea of the world as a material artifact which is both external to and independent of the craftsman as soon as it is made is also completely at variance with the religious idea that all created beings are continually guided, nourished and preserved by God. Only if it were merely a physical artifact could it possibly be justifiable to make it a mere contingency in relation to God.18
At this point religious belief is at one with Plotinus’s ideas concerning the Intellectual-Principle.19 This is where he argues that the self-vision of the intellect is inseparable from its vision of the multiple and external, and without the power of vision it could not be said to exist for any purpose. The transcendental principle therefore requires the lower reality for its cognitive act. Thus there follows an argument which will appear more fully in the next chapter, that the higher being does in some sense depend on the lower; that the relation of dependence between them cannot be all one-way. What Plotinus says in this text presents interesting parallels with what was quoted from Philo in this chapter. The very idea of the spiritual principle reducing itself to a ‘memberless unity’ seems to be self-contradictory, since even this act would involve an act of selective attention which implies the existence of other realities. The following chapters will pursue the philosophical arguments which have arisen in relation to this subject, and which form the background and basis for the cyclic conception of time.
1. Angelo Rappoport, Ancient Israel, chap. 1, p. 5.
2. Ibid., pp. 9–10.
3. See Richard Sorabji, Time, Creation and the Continuum, chap. 13
4. As in Gen. 1:1, Bereshith bara Elohim aeth-ha-shamaim w’aeth-ha-aretz
5. As in Hesiod’s H toi men prvtista Xaos genet, ‘Verily at the first, Chaos came to be’ (Theogony 116).
6. Fabre d’ Olivet, The Hebraic Tongue Restored, pt. 2, p. 25.
7. I.e., the Heavens named in verse 1. Ibid., pt. 2, p. 29.
8. Philo, The Eternity of the World, xvi, 83.
9. Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, pt. 2, chap. 28.
10. Origen, On First Principles, Bk. iii, chap. 5, 3.
11. Ibid., Bk. ii, chaps. 3, 4, and 5.
12. Eph. 2:7
13. City of God, Bk. xii, chap. 15.
15. Titus 1:2–3.
16. See chap. 12, p.164.
17. The Philokalia, vol. 2, tr. Palmer, Sherrard, and Ware, 1981, Saint Maximos the Confessor, Second Century on Theology, 85.
18. See A. Seth Pringle-Pattison, The Idea of God, Lecture xvi.
19. Enn.v, 3, 10.