Recently, I was asked: “How was God always there? From a human perspective, all we understand is that everything has a beginning and an end?”
This is a challenging question because of the limitations of our thinking. Right up front, then, I want to clarify between an absurdity and a mystery. An absurdity is something that is logically impossible like a round square. A mystery is an idea that goes beyond humans’ ability to think about it. A mystery is not without a logical basis; indeed it is logical at its base, but its full meaning “extends” beyond the human mind’s ability. When I say “mystery,” I am saying two things: first, a mystery is understandable as far as the human mind can go, and, second, a mystery’s full meaning cannot be adequately explained without loosing the mystery we were trying to understand in the first place.
Before I move into the bulk of the question, humans who have a “human perspective” see from the position of contingency, that is, we are limited, changeable, and ultimately not our own explanation of ourselves. Thus, we must be careful not to attribute to God what creatures are since we know that we have came from somewhere else and need someone else to give us meaning beyond death. God, as we will see, is not contingent.
There are a number of ways to answer the question, but I will offer one that fits with modern science. Cosmologists, (e.g., Borde, Guth, Vilenkin, Sean Carroll) are much agreed that the universe had a beginning point, what they call “a first moment in time.” A well known principle in philosophy is that from nothing, nothing comes. I mean “nothing” here in the sense of absolute negation, no space, no time, no particles, and thus no quantum mechanics. So now we have two things to deal with: the fact that the universe “began” and the fact that the universe did not create itself. This requires a hypothesis to explain the universe’s existence. There are only two eternal things the human mind can have clear knowledge about: abstract ideas like numbers or an eternal mind — not linked to a material brain though. Abstract ideas can’t create anything, however, leaving us with only the eternal mind thesis, which we call “God.” I say this to show that the universe is on the one hand not an explanation of itself, but God on the other hand is.
Traditionally, theologians have described that God is a necessary Being. This means that it is impossible to conceive a world without God. The current status of science largely upholds the notion that God is a necessary Being because the universe cannot create itself. For any universe to begin necessarily requires a being to start it: God. This necessary Being, God, would have to have existence in Himself, not taken from elsewhere otherwise He would no longer be a necessary Being. Theologians summarize all of this into an attribute they call Aseity (self-sufficient, necessary). It is to be recalled that cosmologists affirm that both time and space began at the first moment of time. Thus, God, “prior to” His fashioning of time cannot be thought about in terms of time. God’s Aseity excludes the possibility that He could have a beginning and an end. At this point, we have arrived at the edge of the mystery. We have given a logical basis to the mystery, however. Further, the mystery is partly understandable to the human mind, but not completely understandable. We know what it means to exist, because we do. We know in part what it means to be sufficient, yet not utterly self-sufficient like God. We know when something is necessary, and we can imagine, through abstract reasoning, an interval of endless duration by extending our experience of passing through limited durations. All of this points to the fact that the human mind is capable of attending to the mystery of God, “getting” some of it while never depriving it of it mysterious “beyondness.” Theologians have a saying for this, “God always conceals Himself in every revealing”; mind you, this is logical and not a nonsensical paradox.
All of this long discussion to say, God’s attribute of Aseity eliminates the possibility that He could have not been, or was created, or had a starting point. Once someone thinks God could have at one point not have been, they have now thought of another god other than the traditional Deity of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It is likewise important to see that postulating an eternal set of causes is endless, and thus impossible by reductio ad absurbum (by reduction to the absurd). I am putting up a great discussion and debate of this very point between renowned biologist Richard Dawkins and Mathematician and Philosopher John Lennox. The specific question is asked at 45:17 and 52:18.