What Was God Doing Before He Made Heaven and Earth? Augustine’s Reply

I’ve been told that it was Augustine who answered the question, “What was God doing before he made heaven and earth?, with “He was preparing hell for those who ask such questions.” The citation comes from The Confessions of Saint Augustine and I’ve discovered that it is not correct. Here’s what Augustine wrote (bold print is mine for emphasis):

See, I answer the man who says, ‘What did God do before he made heaven and earth?’ I do not give the answer that someone is said to have given, evading by a joke the force of the objection: ‘He was preparing hell,’ he said, ‘for those prying into such deep subjects.’ It is one thing to see the objection; it is another to make a joke of it. I do not answer in this way. I would rather respond, ‘I do not know,’ concerning what I do not know rather than say something for which a man inquiring about such profound matters is laughed at, while the one giving a false answer is praised. (Book 11, chapter 12)



About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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One Response to What Was God Doing Before He Made Heaven and Earth? Augustine’s Reply

  1. This statement by Augustine in the Confessions was alluded to in part by Calvin:

    “When a certain shameless fellow mockingly asked a pious old man what God had done before the creation of the world, the latter aptly countered that he had been building hell for the curious.”

    John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, in The Library of Christian Classics, gen. eds. John Baillie, John T. McNeill, and Henry P. Van Dusen (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), I:XIV:1, Vol. 1 pg. 160.

    Another translation of this quote from Calvin is:

    “It was a shrewd saying of a good old man, who when some one pertly asked in derision what God did before the world was created, answered he made a hell for the inquisitive (August. Confess., lib. 11 c. 12).”

    John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1997 from 1845 ed.), I:XIV:1, pg. 141; on Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.iii.xv.html [accessed 24 MAY 2013].

    Perhaps many ever since have operated on the assumption that the “pious old man” in Calvin’s allusion is Augustine without checking out the original material in the Confessions (as you have). It remains an open question who Augustine was referring to as “a certain one”. If anyone has any idea who this might be referring to I would be interested in knowing!

    The Latin for this section of the Confessions is:

    “ecce respondeo dicenti, `quid faciebat deus antequam faceret caelum et terram?’ respondeo non illud quod quidam respondisse perhibetur, ioculariter eludens quaestionis violentiam: `alta,’ inquit, `scrutantibus gehennas parabat.’ aliud est videre, aliud ridere: haec non respondeo. libentius enim responderim, `nescio quod nescio’ quam illud unde inridetur qui alta interrogavit et laudatur qui falsa respondit. sed dico te, deus noster, omnis creaturae creatorem et, si caeli et terrae nomine omnis creatura intellegitur, audenter dico, `antequam faceret deus caelum et terram, non faciebat aliquid.’ si enim faciebat, quid nisi creaturam faciebat? et utinam sic sciam quidquid utiliter scire cupio, quemadmodum scio quod nulla fiebat creatura antequam fieret ulla creatura.”

    James J. O’Donnell, Augustine: Confessions (Oxford, 1992), 11:12:14; on The Confessions of Augustin: An Electronic Edition, ed. James J. O’Donnell (n.p.: Stoa Consortium, 1999), on The Stoa Consortium at http://www.stoa.org/hippo/frames11.html [accessed 24 MAY 2013].


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