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  • Frank Macchia

A Universe out of Nothing? An Old Mystery Still Remains

Updated: Sep 17, 2021

The Christian faith has long held that God created everything from “nothing” (ex nihilo or out of nothing). Though Genesis starts with creation already in process from some kind of primordial “something” (dark, deep waters, Gen. 1:1-3), the implication even here is that all things are dependent for their existence on the sovereign Lord of creation alone. This “all things” would I think include these “waters!” Romans 4:17 makes this point by noting that God “calls into being things that were not” (Rom. 4:17b; cf., Heb. 11:3). Later, theologians refined this concept of “things that were not” by turning it into a reference to what was thought as absolute nothing or nonbeing, a concept that was necessitated by the sovereignty of God (God is dependent on nothing in the absolute sense of that term when creating). The result was that creation from nothing became a puzzling mystery that the mind cannot fathom. Try imagining absolute nothing. Whatever you imagine will include something, like light or space. Even if empty, we have learned from physicists that space is still something, even that which physicists claim preceded it. This insight again points to the inconceivable nature of nothing. Unimaginable? Yes! And this is indeed the point. God is unimaginably free and sovereign and the original act of creation was unimaginably dependent on the Word and Spirit of God alone.

It was in the light of the unfathomable problem of conceiving of “something” coming from “nothing” that I turned with interest to physicist Lawrence Krauss’ provocative book, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing? [1] I was disappointed with it, but the reason for my disappointment turned out to be enlightening for me. I think Krauss was unaware when writing the book that he would provoke a significant pushback from philosophers of religion, not all of whom have any faith commitment. They noted that Krauss used the term “nothing” in a way that actually implied “something,” namely, a “quantum vacuum.” [2] Krauss claimed to have tackled an ancient philosophical problem through the lens of science but ended up sidestepping it in the process, or at least so redefining it that he failed to understand and directly deal with the issue.

Krauss’s response to those who challenged him (found in part now in his prefaces) is indeed telling. He pushed back just as hard claiming that he was actually clarifying the problem of “something” arising from “nothing” by redefining “nothing” so that it makes some kind of literal sense. Viewing “nothing” as some unimaginably absolute nothing is an “idealized” notion of nothingness that makes no sense, since it has no concrete point of reference that we can discuss rationally or talk about in relation to the real world as we know it. He thus refers to the intellectual “bankruptcy” of theology and “some forms of modern philosophy” for failing to realize that “surely ‘nothing’ is every bit as physical as ‘something.’” [3] However, his reframing the problem of something coming from nothing so that the terms are accessible to science moves him beyond and away from the original problem he imagined he was tackling.

The nonsensical nature of “something” arising from “nothing” is precisely the point in this ancient philosophical discussion; it is the reason why the problem is so philosophically vexing and, I might add, irresistible. Of course, Krauss is free to say that the philosophical category of nothing is nonsensical and that the reality accessible to scientific reasoning is simply a brute fact, as far back as one could reasonably go in any discussion of origins. Ok then. But then he is no longer dealing with the depth of mystery implied by the problem. Theological reasoning cannot fathom that mystery but it can name it. Strangely for many, Christian theology locates the problem of creation from nothing in the context of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead by the Spirit of God. According to Paul, Abraham “believed the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not” (Rom. 4:17b). Krauss scratches his head when looking at this reframing of the issue and says, “I don’t understand that.” Precisely. Neither do I. Here’s the point: The link between creation from absolute nothing and resurrection in Romans 4:17 implies that creation from the beginning is earmarked for resurrection, having its place of origin in the miracle of God's free and sovereign grace. Paul implies as much in 2 Corinthians 5:4–5 when writing about our mortal bodies as a “tent”: “For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God.” No wonder creation groans for the miracle of immortality according to Paul (Rom. 8:22). Krauss got it wrong, but his misunderstanding clarified the heart of the issue for me.

[1] Krauss, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing? (NY: Atria Books, 2013). [2] The term he accepts for the state of nothingness, Preface, xx. See Columbia University philosopher, David Albert’s response in “On the Origin of Everything: A Universe from Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss,” New York Times, Sunday Book Review (May 23, 2012). [3] Krauss, “Preface,” A Universe from Nothing, xxiv.

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