What happened before anything happened? St. Augustine tackled this issue in the fourth century CE and concluded the question was meaningless. He reasoned that time did not exist before the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth. And since God was eternal, existing wholly outside of time, there was no “before” as such. Interestingly, cosmologists who ponder the origins of the universe today have arrived at pretty much the same conclusion without bringing God into it. According to prevailing theory, our universe of galaxies, stars and planets is essentially a vast debris field left over from an explosion of superheated plasma called the Big Bang some 13.7 billion years ago. Before that, there was nothing, not even time and space, so there was no “before.”
The question of what happened before anything happened arises only because we have come to believe creation had a beginning, which hasn’t always been the case. The debris field left over from the Big Bang did not wander about randomly in the cosmos but moved in cyclical patterns. The movements of the heavenly bodies were so precise you could set your watch by them – or could have if our Pleistocene ancestors had watches. They took note of the astronomical cycles and other recurring natural phenomena, such as the coming of the rainy season, to mark the intervals between events in their lives. Since these measurements were based on cycles of nature, there was no sense of a beginning or an end, only eternal recurrences.
Hunter-gatherer tribes had no concept of abstract linear time apart from events, nor did they need to. They certainly had to be aware of seasonal changes but, unlike sedentary farmers, they did not have to plan activities based on annual cycles. The language of the Amazonian Amondawa tribe, which had no contact with the outside world prior to 1986, includes no words for “time” or increments of time, such as “month” or “year.” Aborigines in central Australia measure time in “sleeps,” which is how my granddaughter did it as a two-year-old. When she wanted to know how long before her grandparents came for their next visit, she might be told they would arrive in two more “sleeps,” or days.
As adults, we are so immersed in the grammar of linear time that we find eternity to be almost beyond reckoning. "There was no time…when thou hadst not made anything, because thou hadst made time itself," Augustine wrote of God. But how can there be no time before time began? How can there be no “before” before the beginning of everything? We can understand eternity as unending time but not as timelessness. As Augustine put it: “Who shall lay hold upon the mind of man, that it may stand and see that time with its past and future must be determined by eternity, which stands and does not pass, which has in itself no past or future."
What exactly passes when we talk about the passage of time? We would be hard-pressed to point to anything tangible. Whatever time is, it cannot be perceived directly by any of our five senses. We can remember things happening before that are different from what is happening right now, but all we can tangibly grasp at this moment is the moment itself. We think of the present moment as a way station between past and future, but past and future are really just thoughts. The present moment is all there is, always -- even if the contents of this moment are in perpetual flux.
If it is eternity we seek, we do not need to harken back to some primordial cosmic event that set the machinery of time in motion. We do not even need to harken back to Pleistocene ancestors who lived in an eternal present and had no concept of linear time. We can look to our own lives before clocks began ticking in our heads. We might be tempted to think this was long ago, back in the mists of time. But that, of course, is just another thought ticking away in our heads. We must let go of all such thoughts, of what once was or what might yet be. We must allow the present moment to stand and not to pass. And then we have it: eternity.
Augustine of Hippo, Confessions