What does it mean to say that God has created the universe out of nothing?
We have to be careful here. It’s easy to misunderstand or to be misunderstood. For example, in his book Theology and Sanity Frank Sheed writes: “God made it. And He made it of nothing. What else was there for Him to make it of? … If God, having made the universe, left it, the universe would have to rely for its continuance in existence upon the material it was made of: namely nothing” (chap. 10). These ill-phrased sentences earned the ire of Herbert McCabe. It’s hard to resist the temptation of reifying nothing. But as Denys Turner states, “the making that is ‘out of nothing’ is not to be thought of as if there were some soupy kind of undifferentiated lawless stuff called ‘nothing’ out of which what there is was made by some explanatory causal process” (Thomas Aquinas, p. 142). The creatio ex nihilo simply denies that God made the world out of anything. Hence God’s creation of the universe cannot be identified with the beginning of the universe of which cosmologists speak:
There is a making here, but it is a making with no “out of” at all, no process, no antecedent conditions, no “random fluctuations in a vacuum,” no explanatory law of emergence, and, there being nothing for the “something” to be “out of,” there can be no physics, not yet, for there is nothing yet for physics to get an explanatory grip on. (Turner, p. 142; also see “Much Ado About Nothing“)
A making that is not a making.
Just as we cannot conceive of God, so we cannot conceive of nothing. We can comprehend emptiness; we cannot grasp non-existence. Physicists may complain that it’s a waste of time thinking about metaphysical nothingness; but mystics and philosophers know that precisely at this point we confront the utter mystery and wonder of being … and Being.
We know what it means to make something. We put a glass of water into the freezer, and ice is made. We take a block of marble and chisel at it, and a statue is made. We dip our brush into some paint and brush it onto the canvas, and a painting is made. We take planks of wood and hammer them together with nails, and a house is made. We type a bunch of symbols into a computer, and a software program is made. The list of making goes on and on. But the one thing we cannot do is make something out of nothing. We need something to make something. Hence our language of making presupposes the semantic world of things, whether those things be solid objects or mathematical entities: by our makings we change pre-existing somethings. An Aristotelian philosopher might describe a making as the actualization of the potentialities in some kind of material. Tomatoes, mushrooms, and meat can be made into a stew. By putting the ingredients together and heating them on the stove, we fulfill this possibility. Aristotle wrote of two kinds of changes: accidental change (Socrates becomes pale) and substantial change (bronze becomes a statue). Hence it always makes sense to ask of something that has been made “What is it made of?” (accidental change) or “What is it made out of?” (substantial change).
But when we speak of God making the world, we immediately see that it makes no sense to think of the divine act of creation as effecting either an accidental change or a substantial change. McCabe elaborates:
There is nothing for the universe to be made of or made out of. In other words creation could not have made any difference to anything—there was nothing for it to make a difference to. If God created the world he operated at a different level, or in a different dimension, from making as we understand it. To bring it about, in this sense, that something should exist is not to make any difference to it or to anything else, it is not to change it in any way. It is just for this reason that Aquinas denies that creation is a change (Ia.45.2.ad 2). But what sense can we making of a making that does not change anything? …
Consider once more the case of creation: we know what it is to make, say, a statue by carving and altering a piece of wood; we are also familiar with a more fundamental change in which stuff is changed into a different kind of stuff, as in cooking or digestion—here not just a new shape but a new thing has come into existence. Now we extrapolate from here to speak of a coming into existence which is not out of anything at all, a making which is not an operation upon anything—evidently we cannot conceive this, we do not understand what we are saying. (God Matters, pp. 147, 149)
It seems counter-intuitive to think of the creatio ex nihilo as not making a difference to the world. But to make a difference to something presupposes the present existence of that something. Here we are speaking not of a transition from one kind of thing to another kind of thing; we are attempting, rather, to think of “the ‘change’ from non-existence to existence. In thinking of something as creature we are not thinking of it in contrast and distinction from other creatures, we are thinking of it, or trying to think of it, as existing instead of not existing” (p. 150). When God makes the world, he does not make it different; he makes it to be. We cannot comprehend this radical kind of making—it makes no sense in an Aristotelian worldview or any worldview—yet we have to speak of it nonetheless. Hence we use words like “make” and “create,” understanding all the while that our language is necessarily metaphorical.
But nothing is great fun. Above I quoted Frank Sheed. I suspect that Sheed knew full well what he was doing when he treated nothing as a kind of stuff—he was just playing with words. Theologians have long enjoyed pushing the linguistic envelope. John Scotus Eriugena (9th century), who translated the works of Pseudo-Denys from Greek into Latin, listed Nihil as one of the ineffable titles of God. Does that mean that Nothing created the world out of nothing?
We believe that he made all things out of nothing, unless perhaps this nothing is he himself, who—since he is extolled as super-essential above all things and is glorified above everything that is said or understood—is not unreasonably said to be “nothing” through excellence, since he can in no way be placed among the number of all things that are. For if he himself is at once all things that are and that are not, who would say that he is or is not something, since he is the being and more than being of all things? Or, if he is not something, by excellence and not by privation, it follows that he is nothing, by infinity. (Exp. 4.73-82)
Let’s all sing together: “God’s got plenty of nuttin’ …”