Creation Out of Nothing
Conversation with William Lane Craig
Creation Out of Nothing
Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, Christianity teaches creation ex nihilo. What does that mean?
Dr. Craig: Creation out of nothing. It means that God didn’t use any material stuff in creating the world but that he created the stuff itself.
Kevin Harris: Much like the scientist who went before God and said, “God, we can do anything that you can.” And God said, “Show me.” “Well, we can make a life.” God said, “Show me.” “Well, first we get a bunch of dirt.” And God said, “Wait a minute. Get your own dirt!” It really is that kind of a thing. So there was no material for God to use to create. He created the material itself?
Dr. Craig: Yes, that is exactly right. That is the doctrine.
Kevin Harris: Is there a possibility that God could have created out of himself whatever his essence is?
Dr. Craig: Well, there is a philosophy that holds that. It is called Neo-Platonism. This arose in the first few centuries after Christ and is a kind of offshoot of Plato’s philosophy. What people like Plotinus and Proclus who were famous Neo-Platonists believed is that God is a sort of undifferentiated unity. Sometimes they called it “The One.” It is very similar to Eastern pantheistic views of reality where the absolute is undifferentiated. Nothing can be said about it because there are no distinctions, no predications about it. In fact, you can’t even say it exists. But The One is this absolute undifferentiated unity which is the source of all reality. Out of The One there emanates a kind of stair step progression of beings. The mind comes out of The One and then out of the mind emanates the world in its various facets such as the stars and the moon and then finally the terrestrial globe and so forth. So on this Neo-Platonism everything in a sense emanates out of the being of God or The Absolute of The One. That would be probably an example of the sort of thing that you described although it wouldn’t be creation because this isn’t done by the free will of The One. The One is not a person. This would be just a sort of necessary out-flowing like the rays of the sun from the sun rather than a volitional act of creating.
Kevin Harris: So we can pretty much rule out the first one – God creating out of pre-existing material – because he made the material itself from nothing, out of nothing. What is wrong with this God creating from himself or out of himself which you just described?
Dr. Craig: Doctrinally speaking it would blur the distinction between creator and creature. On the Christian view, everything other than God is a created thing that depends upon God for its existence and is the freely willed production of God. God could have freely willed to refrain from creation and just remained alone, and everything that does exist exists because he has brought it into being. Therefore, emanationism would be unacceptable from a Christian point of view. Also, I think one would have to say it is hard to make sense of emanationism, too, because it is very hard to understand how a concrete material realm could emanate out of an absolutely undifferentiated unity that has no material, no matter, or anything.
Kevin Harris: No parts.
Dr. Craig: Exactly. It really doesn’t seem to make sense. You kind of run into Plato’s so-called Third Man Argument in that between The One and any differentiated entity you’ve always got some other entity in between. It is hard to see how you could ever have something that would immediately emanate out of The One because immediately you would have differentiation arise and where does that come from if The One is undifferentiated? And where would material and space and time come from if The One is beyond all those distinctions? So I don’t think it really makes sense even to speak of this much less to think it would be in accord with the biblical view.
Kevin Harris: So creation out of nothing – I hear a lot of people seem to think that that means that God took a handful of nothing and made something out of it.
Dr. Craig: Right and that would be a mistake. When we say creation out of nothing we don’t mean that nothingness is a sort of something out of which God made the world. Rather, we can express it more clearly by using a negative – God did not create out of anything. He created but he did not create out of anything. That is what we mean when we say he created out of nothing. We don’t mean that nothing is something, we mean not anything.
Kevin Harris: So there was nothing and then there was something. God brought about something where otherwise there was nothing. Or am I making a mistake by saying “where.”
Dr. Craig: Almost. Yes, exactly, and using the word “then” as well. There was nothing and then there was something. It would just be better to say that there was not anything prior to the beginning of the universe, or prior to the moment of creation there was not anything.
Kevin Harris: Then how did God do that? [laughter]
Dr. Craig: Well, of course, I don’t think anyone knows. It is sort of like asking how can God be omnipotent? God simply has the power to do everything that is logically possible and there is no logical incoherence in creating something without a material cause. We can give some analogies to this. For example, in physics you have what appear to be analogies of creation out of nothing. For example, in the expansion of the universe – as the universe grows, space seems to come into being out of nothing because there is more space now than there used to be when the universe was denser. So in that sense, space if you think of it is something that is coming into being out of nothing. Or even energy. For example, virtual particles that come out of the vacuum. The vacuum has just as much energy afterward as it did before the virtual particles appeared. So it hasn’t been depleted in any way by the appearance of these particles. In that sense it seems that they originate without any material cause. They have been caused by the vacuum but there doesn’t seem to be any material cause. And in human productions, many people think that things like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina exist and they are not identical to particular marks on paper or particular published books. These exist as sort of abstract entities. A physical copy of Anna Karenina or a score from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is just an instance of that. It is not the thing itself. Now, where did these come from? Well, most people would say they were created by Tolstoy and Beethoven – they created these things. So some people would say these would be examples of things that exist that have been created out of nothing. That example is, I think, especially provocative because in this case you have the creation of something by sheer thought, by a mind. And God is a mind, so maybe as an infinite mind God has somehow thought the universe into being. Maybe by thought he produces and creates a physical universe just as we by thought can create a symphony or a novel.
Kevin Harris: One of the differences would be that there may be various outside influences that might come into play in the creation of that symphony, but with God there wouldn’t be any external influences influencing him one way or the other.
Dr. Craig: That is right. God would be very, very original [laughter] in his artistic creations whereas obviously Beethoven or Tolstoy have a whole range of societal influences upon them.
Kevin Harris: I still think it is a good analogy.
Dr. Craig: Oh yeah. It doesn’t affect that they created it out of nothing. But it is just to say, as you said, their creative powers were shaped by past influences whereas God is just totally original.
Kevin Harris: String theory has some people thinking. I’ve tried to think maybe God created those little strings, those little vibrating strings of energy that make up everything. Then I thought, well, you’ve got to have space in order to vibrate in. Then those little strings are, even if they are energy, of a physical, material nature. So God didn’t make everything out of strings even if they are the smallest component. You still have to account for them.
Dr. Craig: Yeah, that’s right. They would just be an alternative way of thinking of the fundamental building blocks of matter and one would want to say that God has brought these fundamental building blocks (whatever they are) into being without any sort of further cause beyond them. He just produced them into being.
Kevin Harris: It appears you are saying, Bill, that there are only so many options and we can get to creation ex nihilo by process of elimination.
Dr. Craig: That is the burden of the kalam cosmological argument actually. Your alternatives are that either matter is eternal and uncaused, or matter is temporally finite and uncaused, or that matter is temporally finite and caused. And I think of the three options the last one is the most plausible – that matter and energy are temporally finite and that they are caused by a transcendent creator who brought them into being.
Kevin Harris: Just because we don’t know how God did something doesn’t mean that we don’t know that he did it?
Dr. Craig: Of course. That ought to be obvious to us. When we are dealing with an omnipotent being, why in the world would we expect to be able to answer “how” questions? It will be sufficient, at least for the apologist’s purposes, to show that there is no logical incoherence involved in this idea, that there is no metaphysical impossibility involved in the idea.
Kevin Harris: I heard an atheist philosopher once say that you don’t need God to account for the beginning of the universe; it could have just come from some uncaused matter, some metaphysical material.
Dr. Craig: Yeah.
Kevin Harris: Well, he is getting toward God at that point.
Dr. Craig: You have to be really careful or you are just describing God using another label, metaphysical matter.
Kevin Harris: A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
Dr. Craig: Exactly. I mean, all matter and energy came into being in the Big Bang, if the standard model is correct. So it doesn’t make sense to talk about metaphysical matter unless you are talking about an immaterial being that transcends space and time and brought it into existence. That is exactly a God concept.
Kevin Harris: Are there any others that we’ve left out? Creation out of pre-existing material, creation out of God – the stuff of him, or creation out of nothing.
Dr. Craig: The other one would be that things just spontaneously pop into being with no cause.
Kevin Harris: The atheist has to pretty much assume that, especially on Big Bang then. That everything just came about uncaused, out of nothing, from nothing, and for nothing.
Dr. Craig: Yeah. Unless you are going to try to have an eternal universe it seems to me that those are the atheistic alternatives. Either eternal and uncaused or temporally finite and uncaused. I am persuaded that neither one of those works, and therefore we should say temporarily finite but caused.
Kevin Harris: The Big Bang cosmology – Big Bang theory – has been around for a while. And it appears that some cosmologists are trying to come up with alternate theories of the Big Bang.
Dr. Craig: That is nothing new. That has been happening since the 1930s really; trying to craft alternative models that would avoid the beginning predicted by the standard model. In a sense, the history of 20th century cosmology is a history of one failed attempt after another to avert the absolute beginning predicted in the standard model. Laypeople often think cosmology is a field of science in constant flux where there are no lasting or permanent results, one theory being over turned after another. But that is a misimpression that arises from the turnover and failure of these alternative theories to attempt to avoid the beginning predicted by the standard model. The standard model has in fact endured through eighty years or more of incredible ferment and advance, both in observational astronomy and in very creative theoretical physics, and is the best model that we still have for the origin of the universe. All theories which are alternatives to the standard model which are still viable alternatives also involve an absolute beginning of the universe at some point in the past. It is those models which attempt to have an eternal past that again and again are shown either to be untenable or to imply the very finitude of the past that they sought to avoid.
Kevin Harris: Why do cosmologists want to avoid that ultimate beginning?
Dr. Craig: That is a very good question. I think one can show that for some of them at least there were definitely metaphysical motivations for this. Dennis Sciama, Fred Hoyle, and certain other astronomers wanted to avoid a beginning because it smacked of creation out of nothing. It looked too much like the Genesis account of creation. With respect to the standard model, I think though there is a good scientific reason for wanting to avoid the singular beginning, namely, that is the point at which the theories all break down. So it would be very nice to have a model in which the universe has a beginning but it is not a singularity. And that is what Jim Hartle and Stephen Hawking have proposed. In the Hartle-Hawking model, you have a beginning of the universe, it is not infinite in the past, it is finite, it comes into being, but it doesn’t do so at a singularity, a point of infinite density, pressure, temperature, spacetime curvature at which all the laws of physics breakdown. That would be one of the alternatives to the standard model that is still viable today. And as I say it also involves the prediction of an absolute beginning.
Kevin Harris: Models like multiverses, brane theory, and things like that tend to try to get this eternal universe in the past; that we are just one of many universes that has been banging from all eternity?
Dr. Craig: That was the attempt that was made. Andre Linde, who is a Russian cosmologist and a very fertile inflationary theorist, tried to extend his inflationary model into the infinite past so the universe would have no beginning. But this was subverted by the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem which showed that inflationary models cannot have an infinite past. It is significant that Alan Guth was involved in that because he is recognized as the father of inflationary cosmology. They were able to show that these inflationary models had to have an absolute beginning. Moreover, they were able to extend their theorem to show that it also applies to these string cosmologies and higher dimensional brane cosmologies that have been proposed by people like Paul Steinhardt at Princeton and Neil Turok at Cambridge University. These also cannot in fact be extended into the infinite past. So these have also been shown to involve an absolute beginning to the universe just like the standard model.
Kevin Harris: So Dr. Guth no longer holds to the bubble universe that he tried to posit?
Dr. Craig: They still hold to a universe that may be inflating toward the future in terms of producing many bubbles – a multiverse of many bubble universes within the big mother universe. But the point is that the theorem that Guth developed with Borde and Vilenkin also applies to the multiverse. The multiverse itself must have a beginning. That mother universe that contains all these bubbles cannot be extended infinitely into the past. I found on the ResonableFaith.org website in the forums that many people don’t understand this. They think that somehow the multiverse will avoid an absolute beginning because our universe is just one bubble within the womb of this wider mother universe. Well, in fact, that is incorrect because the Borde-Guth-Vilekin theorem applies not just to our universe, it applies to the multiverse so that it too is finite in the past. So, as I say, Vilenkin himself has said that cosmologists can no longer avoid the problem of a cosmic beginning. They have got to face the problem of how the universe came into being.
Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, as we conclude, let’s make a practical application. A lot of people tend to want to put God kind of on the blackboard, leave him up there, not commit to him, and just wait and see what the latest scientific advances are. The problem with that it seems is that you could wait forever or you could wait for the end of your life. That is one of my thoughts.
Dr. Craig: I think that is absolutely right. You could always put off believing in the hopes that some new theory will be discovered which will overturn the present theories. I find this really very hypocritical shall I say. It seems that whenever science contradicts religion, that people jump on the bandwagon of science and proclaim another victory in the warfare between science and religion. But the minute that science begins confirming a religious conclusion, you find people jumping off the bandwagon and all these grave intonations about how uncertain and tentative science is and that it has no final conclusions and so forth. Well, that is just a double standard. If you think for example that evolutionary biological theory has disproved the Bible or theism, then why do you accept that theory as not being tentative and possibly going to be overthrown but you deny the absolute beginning of the universe which is predicted by astrophysical cosmology?
Kevin Harris: Our question of the day, Dr. Craig: Dear Dr. Craig, why doesn’t God still do big miracles like parting the Red Sea?
Dr. Craig: I think these stupendous miracles were given at special junctures in salvation history to dramatically reveal God’s saving acts at that particular point in history. When you look at the miracles in the Bible, you find that they tend to cluster around the Exodus in the Old Testament – think of the ten plagues upon Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea, the pillar of smoke by day and fire by night and so forth, the manna from heaven. And then in the New Testament they cluster around the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth – he was born of a virgin, healed various people, exorcised demons, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven. These stupendous miracles of God were given at these special junctures of revelation history to indicate God’s mighty acts of deliverance in bringing his people out of bondage in the Old Testament and then bringing the savior of the world into history in the person of Christ. Therefore, these are unique, and these kinds of miracles are not repeated today.
Kevin Harris: Certainly, if God wanted to part some more seas he could do it.
Dr. Craig: Sure, it is not like God lacks the ability to do that but it is simply that in the course of salvation history, his plan for humanity, these sorts of acts are not necessary at this juncture in history.
 Total Running Time: 22:02 (Copyright © 2008 William Lane Craig)