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#240 Must the Universe Have a Material Cause?

November 21, 2011

Dear Professor Craig,

To start I would like to thank you for your service to the Christian community, and for guiding me in my quest to understand Christian theology.

Likewise, my question deals with the doctrine of creation which you (and mainstream Christianity) hold to. That doctrine, is that God created the world ex-nil-ho, and the universe (by which I mean, all of reality) was created literally out of nothing. The problem with this concept, which I just can't seem to shake off, is that it seems to violate a basic principle of causation. So for a casual event to occur, you would need potentiality and an agent or object to actualize it.

For example, a block of wood has the potentiality to be carved into a wooden train, and a skilled worker would be the agent which actualizes the possibility of a wooden train carved from said block of wood.

However, according to you, God's initial act of causation was different than the example provided above, as it did not involve a material cause, but only an efficient cause. But here comes the problem, by taking out the material cause from the initial act of creation, aren't you taking out the potentiality of God creating anything. The material cause seems to be the carrier of the potential in the act of causation. So when you rule out a material cause, you are simultaneously ruling out the potentiality of an agent causing anything. So to clarify and conclude:

1. A casual event requires an agent to actualize an event (or an object), and the potentiality of the event to occur.

2. "Nothingness" contains no potentiality, or else it would be "something" (which would completely undermine Judea Christian theology, as something cannot exist alongside god eternally).

3. Therefore, since creation ex-nil-ho tries to bring an object/agent out of nothing (with no potentiality), it is logically impossible.

I have tried to find ways out of this conundrum, but all of them have failed. For example, if you believe that you do not need potentiality for a casual event to occur, you end up with a logical contradiction. So for example:

A block of wood does not have the potentiality to become the number 3, however, a skilled worker can still actualize a non potentiality, and make a block of wood the number 3. Obviously, this leads to metaphysical absurdities, which cannot possibly exist.

The other solution, which I have thought of is for God to also serve as the "potentiality", however this would no longer be creation ex-nil-ho (from nothing) but creation ex-deli-ho (out of God) as God would be using himself and his existing potential to create the universe. However, this would be an appeal to pantheism, and would no longer serve as a viable option for a Christian theist. This has forced me into concluding God created the universe from forms already existing in his mind (which still seems to be an appeal to pantheism, and conceptualism). I would like to ask what your solution to the problem is, I have presented and whether I have made any fallacies in my train of thought. Basically, how do you overcome this hurdle in creation ex-nil-ho. Sorry for the very long question, and thank you for your time.

God Bless,


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Dr. craig’s response


I’ve addressed this issue before in one of its many guises (see QoW #216), but since you present the question in yet another form and it seems to be of interest, let me take it up again.

Let me begin by affirming that Christian theology is committed to creatio ex nihilo, that is to say, the doctrine that God created the universe without any material cause. God is the efficient cause which produced the universe, and there was no material cause. He Himself created the matter and energy. When we say that the matter and energy were created out of nothing, we mean merely that, although created, they were not created out of anything.

Let me also affirm that, as you put it, “for a casual event to occur, you would need potentiality and an agent or object to actualize it.” For that reason, something’s coming into being spontaneously from nothing is metaphysically impossible. For, as you say, non-being has no potentialities, no powers, no properties—it is not anything. That’s why being comes only from being. Ex nihilo nihil fit—out of nothing nothing comes. So if something has an absolute beginning of existence, there must exist an actual being which produces the thing in existence.

The question, then, is whether there is a conflict between the principle Ex nihilo nihil fit and creatio ex nihilo. Clearly not! For in creatio ex nihilo there is an efficient cause of the effect, whereas the principle Ex nihilo nihil fit concerns something’s beginning to be in the absence of any sort of cause.

But is there a problem with creatio ex nihilo? I agree with your premiss

1. A causal event requires an agent to actualize an event (or an object), and the potentiality of the event to occur.

Moreover, I also agree with your second premiss

2. "Nothingness" contains no potentiality, or else it would be "something."

But your conclusion just doesn’t follow from (1) and (2). Your conclusion assumes that in creatio ex nihilo, the potentiality of the universe’s existence must lie (impossibly) in the nothingness that preceded it. But, as Thomas Aquinas pointed out, in creatio ex nihilo the potentiality of the universe lay in the power of God to create it. Since God has the power to create the universe, then even in the state of affairs of God’s existing alone, there is the potential for a universe to exist. That potential resides, not in some non-existent object or in nothing, but in God Himself and His ability to cause the universe.

This solution is very different from the panentheistic solution you mention and rightly reject, that the universe is made out of God’s own being. Rather the idea is that God has causal powers and therefore there is a potential for the universe to be actualized.

This account underlines the fact that creatio ex nihilo is not a type of change. For in creation there is no enduring subject which goes from non-being into being. It is an absolute beginning of existence. It is not as though there were something with a passive potentiality to be actualized and God acts on that potentiality to actualize it. Rather the potentiality lies wholly in God’s power to create.

- William Lane Craig