12. Did the Universe Always Exist?
The articles in this series are based upon ideas expressed in the Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim (The Guide for the Perplexed). Numbers in brackets represent the book and chapter of Moreh Nevuchim where these ideas are discussed.
Did the universe always exist?
No. We believe it was created, as per the Torah's narrative of creation. And while science may quibble with the age of the universe as it appears from a literal reading of Genesis, science and Torah do agree that the universe was, in fact, created. Such was not always the case. Formerly, the Torah's description of a creation was challenged by philosophies that felt that the universe has always existed in a form pretty much as it is today.
A number of people were under the impression that King Soloman, the wisest of all men, supported the idea of an eternal universe. The Rambam is quick to dispel this notion. [II, 28] How could Solomon adhere to a philosophy that goes counter to the Torah? And if he did, wouldn't the prophets of his day and the Sages of the Talmud criticize him for it? After all, we see that they didn't hesitate to criticize Solomon for other lapses in judgment, such as marrying the daughters of foreign kings in order to cement treaties with them. (This error in judgment led to these wives worshipping idols in Solomon's own palace, for which he was held responsible.)
The reason that some people think that Solomon believed in an eternal universe is because they misunderstand what he writes in Koheles (the book of Ecclesiastes). The Talmud tells us (Shabbos 30b) that the Sages originally hesitated to make Koheles part of the Biblical canon because it contained some ideas that could mislead people. If taken literally, these ideas would contradict the Torah, therefore they must be understood figuratively. The Rambam informs us, however, that the idea of an eternal universe is not even among those expressed in Koheles.
So what is in Koheles that people misunderstood? The idea of a never-ending universe ("the Earth remains forever" - Koheles 1:4). This idea is consistent with the Torah but some people inferred that if the universe will always exist, then it must always have existed. Such is not the case.
The idea of a never-ending universe typically goes hand-in-hand with that of an eternal universe. It's harder to juxtapose the idea that the universe had a beginning with the idea that it will have no end. The Rambam is therefore aware that some may differ with him and wish to say that the universe is not never-ending. Such people will say that the word "l'olam" in Koheles 1:4 does not really mean "forever," but "as long as God has decreed it shall exist." Such an interpretation, however, falls apart when applied to other verses.
Even if one argued on the meaning of the word "l'olam" when used alone, it's more difficult to maintain such a position when the word "ad" is added, either before ("ad olam") or after ("olam va'ed"). Such a phrase certainly suggests "forever." If a person wanted to contend that "He laid the foundation of the Earth so that it should not be moved olam va'ed" (Psalms 104:5) does not mean "forever," what would he do with "God will reign l'olam va'ed" (Exodus 15:18) and "God is King olam va'ed" (Psalms 10:16)? One must either propose that the Torah is saying that God will not always exist - a daring position to say the least! - or concede that the phrase "olam va'ed" means "forever."
While one might try to argue semantics with Koheles 1:4, other verses make it abundantly clear that the universe was created but is never-ending. First, we have the aforementioned Psalms 104:5, "He laid the foundation of the Earth so that it should not be moved forever," which tells us (a) that God laid the foundation of the world (so it did not always exist) and (b) that it will not be moved forever.
Similarly, King David has written, "Praise God from the heavens... He commanded and created them. He has established them forever and ever. He has made a decree that will not pass away" (Psalms 148:1-6). Again, we see (a) that God established the heavens and (b) He has decreed that they will not pass away.
David was not the only one to express such ideas. Jeremiah said, "He made the sun for light by day and the ordinances of the moon and the stars for light by night... If these ordinances pass from before me, says God, then the children of Israel will cease to be a nation before Me forever" (Jeremiah 31:34-35). Again we see the idea that the universe had a beginning but that it will have no end.
Even Solomon, whose statement in Koheles started this conversation, actually supports the idea of a created but never-ending universe. In Koheles 3:14 he writes, "Whatever God does, it will be forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing can be taken away from it." Not only does Solomon tell us that God made the universe and that it will last forever, he gives us the reason: change happens to correct defects, adding that which is missing and removing that which is unnecessary. God's handiwork is perfect, requiring neither additions nor deletions. (See, for example, Deuteronomy 32:4, "...His work is perfect.") This is why the universe is to remain as it is forever. (Incidental to this point, Solomon addresses the concept of miracles, which represent a deviation from nature: "God does it so that men should be in awe before Him" - Koheles 3:14 again.)
And so we see that the Torah describes a created universe that, once created, will endure forever. Solomon's statement in Koheles 1:4 about a never-ending universe not only does not suggest an eternal universe, it is consistent with many other statements throughout Tanach that describe the universe as both created and never-ending.