Did God Make All Out of Nothing? Or Did Nothing Turn Itself Into All?

‘Atheism is not the knowledge that God does not exist,’ says Archbishop Sheen, ‘but only the wish that he did not, in order that one could sin without challenge.’

The Tarantula Nebula, as captured in September 2022 by the James Webb Space Telescope’s Near-Infrared Camera Instrument (NIRCam).
The Tarantula Nebula, as captured in September 2022 by the James Webb Space Telescope’s Near-Infrared Camera Instrument (NIRCam). (photo: ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team / NASA / CC BY 2.0)

According to the self-styled experts, who like to remind the rest of us how little we know about the origins of the universe, for the longest time before the world began, there was nothing at all. And during all those endless eons of nothing, nothing at all happened to all that nothing. But, then, as if by magic, all that nothing suddenly burst into something, collating itself into countless self-replicating bits to produce life as we know it. What could be more obvious? And that the whole blooming process, moving from atoms to acorns to Adam, should take place without a single superintending Intelligence, either to jumpstart the story or, once begun, to sustain it along the way.

Welcome to Atheism 101, for which the only prerequisite for admission is a willing suspension of disbelief concerning the basic premise of the course, which is that behind all the matter of the universe, there is no Mind. Thus, there can never be any meaning abiding in matter, which leaves the poor pupil totally confused and bereft, untethered by a single truth save the following, which is that nothing will ever matter and that is why we must never mind.

How nicely the inimitable Chesterton captured the atheist dogma by declaring how perfectly absurd it was “to complain that it is unthinkable for an admittedly unthinkable God to make everything out of nothing, and then pretend that it is more thinkable that nothing should then turn itself into everything.”

Is it at all surprising, therefore, that the proponents of such learned nonsense should routinely refuse to make even the least intellectually credible defense of their position, preferring instead to dismiss the rest of us as mindless bigots steeped in antique superstition? So much easier to engage in ridicule than reason. Which may be why, of course, the case for atheism so often becomes an operation of the will and not the intellect. “Atheism is never the conclusion of any theory, philosophical or scientific,” says John Courtney Murray in an elegant little work called The Problem of God. “It is a decision, a free act of choice that antedates all theories.” First you determine to rid yourself and the world of God, then you cast about for arguments to justify the fact.

It all devolves into an exercise of “the outlaw conscience,” to use Newman’s phrase, whose highest ambition is to abolish God in order to fashion a world in which no one can say no to arrant presumption. Do away with God and man is thereby free to annihilate whoever gets in his way. Such has ever been the proud boast of the godless, that since I — the sovereign, imperial self — have decided he does not exist, everything is now permitted. 

“Atheism is not,” writes Fulton Sheen, nailing the matter as nicely as Chesterton, “the knowledge that God does not exist, but only the wish that he did not, in order that one could sin without challenge. The pillars upon which atheism mounts are sensuality and pride.” 

Such a world, have you noticed, makes no one happy. Certainly not the atheist, whose misery deepens each time he discovers that the matter he has appointed himself master and manipulator of, leaves him emptier than ever. Do away with God and what are you left with? The mindless pursuit of pleasure, power and profit. How’s that working out for your average atheist? How pathetically little the endless odyssey of the self-centered self has to commend. “There will never be,” writes Karl Rahner, “a serene atheism in harmony with itself.”

Who among us is so insensate as to welcome such a world? A world structured on nihilism, which is the operative word in the atheist creed, telling us that nothing can be of any value, that all is equally worthless? Who could endure it? Because, in the absence of a God who alone confers meaning upon being, one is left with mere emptiness and ennui. Not a story most men would care to read. “The twenty-first century,” Andre Malraux has reminded us, “will be religious or it will not be at all.” 

Christ or chaos might be a better way of putting it.

And please note that the operative word here is not spiritual, but religious — a word which, when you unpack the etymology of it (re-ligare), evokes a ground or truth that is both real and universal in its application, and to which we are all bound as if to a point of origin rooted in absolute being itself. Here then is the one fixed point in which one’s entire identity as a human person may be found, fastened and made secure by a truth finally transcendent to the self. 

“What is man,” asks the Psalmist, “that you should keep him in mind, mortal man that you should care for him?” 

Luigi Giussani, in a moving commentary on this text, has written that no other question in his life has held his attention so much as that single question put to God. And that there has been only one Man in the entire history of the world who could answer the question, which he does by asking another: “What would it profit a man if he gained the whole world, and then lost himself? Or what could a man give in exchange for himself?” He says:

I was never asked a question that took my breath away so much as this question of Christ. … The fundamental question for the human person, for any person, in any time until the end of history, ever since the message that God became man was brought, entered the world, the greatest question of life is this. No greater question is conceivable, that is, the human person cannot imagine a greater question for his freedom. Christ, yes or no?

We have, then, but two choices, leaving no room to maneuver between them. Either we love God, whom we acknowledge as Lord and Ruler of the universe — who, having brought it out of nothingness, and holding it from moment to moment in being, is thus entitled to our submission — or we acknowledge ourselves as totally and absolutely in charge of everything.

God or Nothing. Christ or Chaos.