Sep 18, 2020

In the Beginning...

7 Min Read

The first sentence of sacred Scripture sets forth the affirmation upon which everything else is established: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). Three fundamental points are affirmed in that first sentence of Scripture: (1) there was a beginning; (2) there is a God; and, (3) there is a creation. One would think that if the first point can be established firmly, the other two would follow by logical necessity. In other words, if there was indeed a beginning to the universe, then there must be something or someone responsible for that beginning; and if there was a beginning, there must be some kind of creation.

For the most part, although not universally, those who adopt secularism acknowledge that the universe had a beginning in time. Advocates of the big bang theory, for example, say that fifteen to eighteen billion years ago, the universe began as a result of a gigantic explosion. However, if the universe exploded into being, what did it explode out of? Did it explode from nonbeing? That is an absurd idea. It is ironic that most secularists grant that the universe had a beginning yet reject the idea of creation and the existence of God.

Virtually all agree that there is such a thing as a universe. Some may plead the case that the universe or external reality—even our self-consciousness—is nothing but an illusion, yet only the most recalcitrant solipsist tries to argue that nothing exists. One must exist in order to make the argument that nothing exists. Given the truth that something exists and that there is a universe, philosophers and theologians historically have asked, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” That is perhaps the oldest of all philosophical questions. Those who have sought to answer it have realized that there are only three basic options to explain reality as we encounter it in our lives.

The first option is that the universe is self-existent and eternal. We have already noted that the overwhelming majority of secularists believe that the universe did have a beginning and is not eternal. The second option is that the material world is self-existent and eternal, and there are those who, in the past and even today, have made this argument. These options have one important common element: both argue that something is self-existent and eternal.

The third option is that the universe was self-created. Those who hold to this option believe that the universe came into being suddenly and dramatically by its own power, although proponents of this view do not use the language of self-creation because they understand that this concept is a logical absurdity. In order for anything to create itself, it must be its own creator, which means that it would have to exist before it was, which means it would have to be and not be at the same time and in the same relationship. That violates the most fundamental law of reason—the law of noncontradiction. Therefore, the concept of self-creation is manifestly absurd, contradictory, and irrational. To hold to such a view is bad theology and equally bad philosophy and science, because both philosophy and science rest upon the ironclad laws of reason.

One of the main aspects of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment was the assumption that “the God hypothesis” had become an unnecessary way to explain the presence of the external universe. Up until that time, the church had enjoyed respect in the philosophical realm. Throughout the Middle Ages, philosophers had not been able to gainsay the rational necessity of an eternal first cause, but by the time of the Enlightenment, science had advanced to such a degree that an alternative explanation could be used to explain the presence of the universe without an appeal to a transcendent, self-existent, eternal first cause or to God.

The theory was spontaneous generation—the idea that the world popped into existence on its own. There is no difference between this and the self-contradictory language of self-creation, however, so when spontaneous generation was reduced to absurdity in the scientific world, alternative concepts arose. An essay by a Nobel Prize–winning physicist acknowledged that while spontaneous generation is a philosophical impossibility, that is not the case with gradual spontaneous generation. He theorized that given enough time, nothingness can somehow work up the power to bring something into being.

The term usually used in place of self-creation is chance creation, and here another logical fallacy is brought into play—the fallacy of equivocation. The fallacy of equivocation happens when, sometimes very subtly, the key words in an argument change their meaning. This happened with the word chance. The term chance is useful in scientific investigations because it describes mathematical possibilities. If there are fifty thousand flies in a closed room, statistical odds can be used to show the likelihood of a certain number of flies being in any given square inch of that room at any given time. So in the effort to predict things scientifically, working out complex equations of possibility quotients is an important and legitimate vocation.

However, it is one thing to use the term chance to describe a mathematical possibility and quite another to shift the usage of the term to refer to something that has actual creative power. For chance to have any effect on anything in the world, it would have to be a thing that possesses power, but chance is not a thing. Chance is simply an intellectual concept that describes mathematical possibilities. Since it has no being, it has no power. Therefore, to say that the universe came into being by chance—that chance exercised some power to bring the universe into being—merely takes us back to the idea of self-creation, because chance is nothing.

If we can eliminate this concept altogether, and reason demands that we do so, then we are left with one of the first two options: that the universe is self-existent and eternal or that the material world is self-existent and eternal. Both of those options, as we mentioned, agree that if anything exists now, then something somewhere must be self-existent. If that were not the case, nothing could exist at the present time. An absolute law of science is ex nihilo nihil fit, which means “out of nothing, nothing comes.” If all we have is nothing, that is all we will ever have, because nothing cannot produce something. If there ever was a time when there was absolutely nothing, then we could be absolutely certain that today, at this very moment, there would still be absolutely nothing. Something has to be self-existent; something must have the power of being within it for anything to exist at all.

Both of these options pose many problems. As we have noted, nearly everyone agrees that the universe has not existed eternally, so the first option is not viable. Likewise, since virtually everything we examine in the material world manifests contingency and mutation, philosophers are loath to assert that this aspect of the universe is self-existent and eternal, because that which is self-existent and eternal is not given to mutation or change. So the argument is made that somewhere in the depths of the universe lies a hidden, pulsating core or power supply that is self-existent and eternal, and everything else in the universe owes its origin to that thing. At this point, materialists argue that there is no need for a transcendent God to explain the material universe because the eternal, pulsating core of existence can be found inside the universe rather than out there in the great beyond.

That is the point at which a linguistic error is made. When the Bible speaks of God as transcendent, it is not describing God’s location. It is not saying that God lives “up there” or “out there” somewhere. When we say that God is above and beyond the universe, we are saying that He is above and beyond the universe in terms of His being. He is ontologically transcendent. Anything that has the power of being within itself and is self-existent must be distinguished from anything that is derived and dependent. So if there is something self-existent at the core of the universe, it transcends everything else by its very nature. We do not care where God lives. We are concerned about His nature, His eternal being, and the dependence of everything else in the universe upon Him.

The classical Christian view of creation is that God created the world ex nihilo, “out of nothing,” which seems to contradict the absolute law of ex nihilo nihil fit, “out of nothing, nothing comes.” People have argued against creation ex nihilo on those very grounds. However, when Christian theologians say that God created the world ex nihilo, it is not the same as saying that once there was nothing and then, out of that nothing, something came. The Christian view is, “In the beginning, God…” God is not nothing. God is something. God is self-existent and eternal in His being, and He alone has the ability to create things out of nothing. God can call worlds into existence. This is the power of creativity in its absolute sense, and only God has it. He alone has the ability to create matter, not merely reshape it from some preexisting material.

An artist can take a square block of marble and form it into a beautiful statue or take a plain canvas and transform it by arranging paint pigments into a beautiful pattern, but that is not how God created the universe. God called the world into being, and His creation was absolute in the sense that He did not simply reshape things that already existed. Scripture gives us only the briefest description of how He did it. We find therein the “divine imperative” or the “divine fiat,” whereby God created by the power and authority of His command. God said, “Let there be…,” and there was. That is the divine imperative. Nothing can resist the command of God, who brought the world and everything in it into being.

This excerpt is from Everyone's A Theologian by R.C. Sproul