Jun 10, 2010
If God exists, then God created everything. That’s the big idea, right? That’s what most people believe. But I’m bothered by questions.
Did God create out of “nothing”? Absolutely nothing? If so, what is absolutely nothing?
Suppose there was no beginning to the cosmos—the universe is a “steady state” or goes through endless cycles—what then?
How about the rules of logic? Or the existence of numbers, like 2 or 5? Philosophers call these “abstract objects”—and they seem to exist without any cause, not needing any creator.
So what does it mean to say God is the creator?
Christian philosopher William Lane Craig defines “the doctrine of creation” as meaning that “God is the source of all reality outside himself, that apart from God everything else has been brought into being by God.”
How does Craig define “everything else?” It would be “all physical concrete objects, and time and space as well,” he says. “It would also be any realms of spiritual realities that you might believe exist, such as angels and other spiritual beings. And it would include any sort of abstract objects, such as sets and numbers and propositions, if you think that those sorts of things exist. The primary point is that everything that exists owes its being to God and was brought into being by God at a specific time, which implies that the creation of the world or reality outside of God has not always existed.”
Craig adds that, “Most people don’t understand that the idea of creation is inherently bound up with temporal considerations. These things are not just dependent upon God for their being, but they were brought into being by God. Creation, as I’ve defined it, is bringing things into being from nothing.”
He continues: “Now in addition to that initial act of creation, theologians have typically talked about God’s conservation of the world in being; that is, he preserves all things in being. And were he to withdraw his conserving power, the world would be annihilated, it would vanish in the blink of an eye.”
With respect to the thought experiment of God eliminating the universe, what would be the deep difference between a passive act of withdrawal and an active act of destruction?
“By thinking of annihilation as the withdrawal of God’s sustaining power rather than as an act of destruction, it underlines the contingency of the world upon God in a way that exalts God’s power and majesty,” Craig explains. “On the other hand, if the world has some sort of positive inertia in being on its own that would require God to blast it out of existence, it would tend to make the world less contingent on God, more independent of God, and therefore might be thought to diminish God’s greatness and power.”
What do we learn from the claim that God, at least the God of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, created the world “from nothing?”
“The doctrine of creation out of nothing underscores the distinction between God and the universe,” Craig says. “It undermines all attempts to divinize the world, to say that the universe is necessarily existent, eternal, and divine. Surprisingly, this is a conclusion of momentous significance because apart from the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, there is no doctrine of creation out of nothing in the other major world religions. Think of the pantheistic religions of the East: Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, or the polytheistic religions of ancient Greece and Rome and other societies. In none of these is there a robust doctrine of creation out of nothing—so that if the doctrine of creation out of nothing is true, it serves to distinguish the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition from that of all of the other world’s religions, including pantheism.”
What else would it say about God’s own eternal characteristics? Craig answers: “It’s hard to imagine any other doctrine that would underscore God’s omnipotence, his self-existence, his necessity, his distinction from the world, in a way that the doctrine of creation out of nothing does. If there is good reason to believe in creation out of nothing, either through philosophical argument or scientific evidence, this provides evidence for the existence of God that would otherwise be lacking.”
Craig continues: “Typically, atheists have affirmed that the universe is eternal and uncaused and it’s just there and that’s all [i.e., the universe is either necessary in its existence or in some way caused itself]. The demonstration that the universe is not eternal in the past points to the contingency of the universe and to its grounding in a supernatural cause which transcends space and time and which brought it into being.”
All created things have existed for a finite time. No thing, other than God, has existed forever. (But what about those abstract objects? I won’t forget them!) The claim is that God is the creator of everything. All that exists came to exist because of God. Furthermore, Craig asserts, God created from nothing. But what does “from nothing”—ex nihilo—really mean?
Robert Russell says that “modern cosmology, big-bang cosmology, talks about t=0, which means that there was an absolute beginning of time. If that’s true, would it be relevant to an ex nihilo creation? Some say it’s directly relevant, almost a proof. Others have a completely opposite view, saying that it is totally irrelevant because science and religion are in separate worlds—they simply don’t relate, and to try to relate them is to confuse both.”
Russell is chary to take any scientific theory as supposed proof of God. “Married today, widowed tomorrow,” he says. “The science changes and you’ve lost your connection.” In the context of creation ex-nihilo, he says, “What it really means is that without God, there wouldn’t be anything in the first place, no matter how the science turns out. For St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, the basic meaning of ex nihilo was this philosophical contingency that the universe couldn’t exist without God. Aquinas was dealing with Aristotelian cosmology, which held that the universe was eternal—finite in size, but eternal in time. And he said, ‘That’s fine because an eternal universe is not a self-explanatory universe.’ Just because the universe is eternal does not say why it exists. How it exists is eternal, but why it exists is another matter.”
For Russell to defend God as creator, his priority is, first, the universe exists—with or without a beginning. And then, second, if there is a scientific beginning, this fact would strengthen the argument for God by “adding more support, more layers.” If the debate were held in a court of law, Russell says, the fact that the universe has a scientific beginning would be “a character witness, not an eyewitness.” He says t=0 would “provide evidence that this universe looks like the kind of universe that a God would create,” but adds, “it is not the reason why I believe the universe was created by God. I believe in that because I believe in God.”
To the Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne, a quantum physicist who became an Anglican priest, “The first important thing is to recognize that calling God ‘creator’ isn’t answering the question, ‘Who lit the blue touch paper, or triggered the big bang, and started the universe?’ Creation is about why things exist, not how they began. When Stephen Hawking produced his speculative cosmology, he suggested that although the universe has a finite age, it has no datable beginning; he went on to say, ‘What place, then, for a creator?’ That was being pretty naïve, I have to say.”
Polkinghorne continues: “God’s role is to hold the universe in being. God is as much the creator today as God was 13.7 billion years ago when the universe we observe today sprang forth from the singularity of the big bang. At the end of his book, Hawking says, ‘What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?’ That’s the question that is answered by saying: The will of God lies behind the order of the world. Thus, to speak of God as creator is to say that there is a divine mind and a divine purpose underlying the whole of cosmic history. And that would have been true even if the universe, in fact, turned out to be a steady-state universe without a beginning of any observable kind. I believe that if God did not will the world to remain in being, the world would disappear.”
Does this mean that Polkinghorne sees no theological difference between a big-bang theology and a steady state? “No fundamental difference,” he asserts. “I think that’s right. I think that was never an issue.”
He expands his understanding of God as creator: “I think God interacts with his creation in two ways. One is simply holding it in being. That’s the transcendent aspect of God, if you like, the God who is the ground of all being. I also think that God is immanently active. God isn’t just holding the world in being waiting to see what happens, but God interacts with the unfolding history of the world, God acts through history. There is a God of providence as well as a God of creation.”
I pose to Polkinghorne one of the arguments against God as creator. If one considers the rarity of life on Earth juxtaposed with the vastness of the universe—hundreds of billions of stars in hundreds of billions of galaxies—it seems that only a profligate God would create all of this just for our little isolated island of self-consciousness.
“Well, one can stand that argument on its head,” Polkinghorne responds. “One can say: ‘Gosh, because it’s so important to have self-conscious beings—God-conscious beings—God is prepared to lay all that out to make it happen. One of the insights is that if all those trillions of stars weren’t there, we wouldn’t be here to be possibly upset at the thought of them. Because it’s only a universe that’s as big as ours, and lasts as long as ours (13.7 billions years), which can generate self-conscious life. There’s a natural timescale for it. So even if we are the only self-conscious life (or the only life) in the universe—which we don’t know, of course—it would still mean that those stars aren’t redundant; they are a necessary part of the whole process.”
And then the argument becomes: So God made all of that just for us?
“That might be so, or God may have made it for little green men as well,” Polkinghorne says. “I don’t think there’s a theological stake in saying that human beings are the only self-conscious/God-conscious beings in the universe. We can allow God a certain generosity, both in the resources that God utilizes and the purpose that God is trying to fulfill.”
I persist: Wouldn’t the vast periods of time and the vast quantities of matter and energy be way out of proportion to what has been created?
“Who’s to say what’s in proportion?” Polkinghorne exclaims. “Pascal was thinking at the time when people were just beginning to realize how big the universe is, and he said that he was frightened by the thought of those eternal spaces. But he also said that human beings are just reeds—insubstantial beings in this vast world—but we are thinking reeds, and that makes us greater than all the stars because we know them and ourselves and they know nothing. Size and significance are not the same thing.”
God sustaining the universe, Polkinghorne says, is more significant than God starting it, and God participates actively in the unfolding of God’s creation.
But I’m still bothered by those “abstract objects”—as philosophers call the general form of things, or “universals,” such as numbers, logic, properties, even the presence of possibilities (e.g., “It is now true that I might quit my job.”). Or ideas like morality and goodness (e.g., “It is never good to torture babies.”). Abstract objects would seem to exist even if no concrete objects ever existed, which would mean that abstract objects exist independently from God. So wouldn’t “abstract objects” disqualify God as a complete creator of literally everything?
Craig agrees that if abstract objects exist necessarily—meaning that God didn’t create them—God would be undermined. “Right,” he says. “It would be incompatible with the Judeo-Christian concept of God, which has God as uniquely self-existent.”
So if we have something else that’s self-existent, then God is just one of an innumerable number of self-existing things and God is part of this panoply. “It would literally be innumerable things, infinities of infinities of infinities of things, all of which would exist independently of God,” Craig says. “This would compromise both God’s unique self-existence and his creation of everything else out of nothing. It would mean, in fact, that most things are not created.”
I ask Craig whether this means that, as a Christian theist, he has a problem.
“I remember when I first encountered this issue, it struck me deeply,” he says. “I thought this was a dagger at the heart of my faith in God.”
Christian philosopher Brian Leftow says, “Absolutely everything comes from God; absolutely everything depends on God. Nothing was a given for God. For us, there are always things we just inherit. For God, he inherited nothing. It all comes from him in some way or other. This would obviously include the concrete things—matter, energy, space, time. But what about abstract things or abstract objects? Abstract objects are not material, not involved in causation, not located in space, probably not located in time either. It’s plausible that there are these abstract things as well as concrete things. And so when you believe that God is the source of absolutely everything, you have to ask the question: Is God also the source of abstract objects?”
He continues: “Now one obvious response to the question is, ‘Who cares?’ Well, if God didn’t create abstract objects, if God is not in some way behind them, then they stand independent of God and in a way they’re superior to God. Why? God has to learn about them. And God has to depend on them. For example, if there were no property of being divine, God couldn’t be divine because God wouldn’t have the property to be so. If there were no property of omnipotence, God couldn’t be omnipotent because there would be no such thing for him to be. So God derives his very nature from the abstract realm, if it’s out there independent of God. So, if this were the way of the world, God would be a pawn, if you will, in thrall to these perennial concepts, which in some causal sense would have existed prior to God.”
There is more. “One of the properties that God has by virtue of his nature is perfect goodness,” Leftow says. “Perfect goodness puts severe constraints on what God can do. So if perfect goodness is something independent of God, something imposed on God as part of God’s nature, it and the rest of the abstract realm comes first, and God comes second. It’s as if abstract objects put grooves in reality and God has to roll along them. It’s really not up to God what God does except within narrow limits.”
Leftow seeks a solution. “If God is really the ultimate reality, if everything somehow traces back to God, then abstract objects trace back to God, too. They’re not outside of God; they’re rooted within God.”
I suspect circular reasoning. Leftow’s fundamental assumption is that God created everything, so it would then “follow” that God in some way “created” abstract objects. To probe, I ask: If there were no God, if God did not exist, would two plus two still equal four?
“If there were no God, absolutely nothing would exist,” he responds. “That’s what’s involved in the saying that God is the creator. If you want to trace even mathematics back to God, then you would have to say, yes, if there were no God, two plus two would not make four. They wouldn’t make anything else either. There wouldn’t be anything for the number 2 to refer to. There would be an absolute nothingness. But notice we’re talking about an impossible situation here. For two plus two not to make four is an absolute impossibility. It is equally an absolute impossibility that God doesn’t exist because I believe that God exists necessarily. Thus, the one impossibility is rooted in the other.”
Leftow concludes: “If God exists, God has implications for every part of reality, and all those implications have to hang together and make sense if the idea of God is going to hang together and make sense.”
What do I make of all this? The question of “God as creator” is rich and vast. If God does exist, it explores the essence of God. If God does not exist, it reveals incoherence, perhaps contradiction, in the concept of God.
There’s the factual question of whether God created from nothing, whether there was a point when, other than God, nothing else existed. Next, if God as sustainer is more fundamental than God as creator, then both God and cosmos change.
What about those pesky “abstract objects”—like numbers and logic—whose necessary existence seems stronger than God’s existence! Do abstract objects sabotage a sovereign and totally free God? I like thinking about this.
Imagining how God could be creator helps inform whether God could exist, and if God does exist, how God works.
Is any of this closer to truth?
Robert Lawrence Kuhn speaks with William Lane Craig, Robert Russell, the Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne, and Brian Leftow in “How Is God the Creator?”—the 19th episode in the new season of the Closer To Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series (58th in total).
The series airs on PBS World (often Thursdays, twice) and many other PBS and noncommercial stations. Every Thursday, participants will discuss the current episode.
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