What does the purpose of our lives really depend upon? On how we got here— what else? As the oak is in the acorn, so our end is in our beginning.
And what does that mean?
Two primary, overarching views of human origins exist. The first sees the universe and everything in it as a product of purely material things that arose by chance. Everything— from the Andromeda Galaxy to our deepest longings—has a materialist origin and existence and consists of atoms and nothing more. All that exists is what some ancient materialists called “atoms and the void.”
Modern materialists describe this position in the following way.
About 15 billion years ago a tremendous explosion brought forth matter, energy, time, and space— all at once, in an event called “the big bang.” Atoms created in this explosion formed gaseous clouds that coalesced into stars, and amid this interstellar panoply of light and heat molten globules cooled and hardened into the planets, including ours—third orb out. After billions of years, pools of water filled with increasingly complex chemicals. Simple life forms emerged from a mix of amino acids, and they evolved over eons into human beings.
The crucial point is that these processes had no purpose, no intention, no goal, beginning with the big bang itself. They just happened. “Our universe,” one scientist commented, “is simply one of those things which happen from time to time.”1
If this view is correct, then our end, and our middle, too, both of which come out of our origins, are as dismal as I’ve suggested. Our existence has no purpose. Because the original mix had no goals or intent, the final product contains none either. We’re just one of those things that occurs from time to time. As a jack-in-the-box pops out only because something put it in there to begin with, if whatever made us has no meaning, then none can come out of the metaphoric box with us.
In short, the prevailing scientific view of our origins leaves us with little to hope for beyond our flimsy and uncertain existence here. As the twentieth century’s leading atheist expressed it: “All the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness ofhuman genius . . . the whole temple of man’s achievements must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.”2
So, to return to our questions: “Is this life, with all its toils, struggles, and disappointments, the sum of all that we are, or could be? And then, to top it off, the often sad and miserable story of our lives—punctuated with a few lines, or paragraphs, or pages of happiness, if we’re lucky— ends in dust? Is this our fate?” Well, yes, if the above view of our origins is correct. But on the other hand . . .
The God hypothesis
On the other hand, what? On the other hand, we have another overarching view of our origins, one that encompasses a perspective grander and broader than the narrow confines of the scientific materialistic one. This other position argues that everything created came from a Creator—from a God who brought everything into existence. In this view, we’re here not by chance, but for a purpose. And we can understand something about that purpose through the creation, which itself testifies to the existence of God. After all, just as a painting implies a painter, doesn’t a creation imply a Creator?
In contrast, the idea of a Creator, particularly a loving one, opens up a whole new realm of hope, of something beyond the hopelessness of the modern scientific worldview, in which destruction ends a universe that lacked purpose to begin with. “Only God, it seems to me, can take from death the last word,” English author John Polkinghorne observed. “If the human intuition of hope—that all will be well, that the world makes ultimate sense—is not a vain delusion, then God must exist.”3
The atheistic materialistic view offers no possibility of any future other than that of cold dust drifting through a worn-out cosmos. Deity alone offers us the possibility of more. Again, God is no guarantee of a good end, only the possibility of one. In contrast, the scientific worldview guarantees us only a death much longer than whatever precedes it. “It’s not that life is so short,” a T-shirt declares, “it’s just that death is so long.”
Our most pressing and important question, then, deals with origins— for only in how we began can we find the answers about our life and, even more important, about our end. Just as the color of our eyes originates in our genes, our ends originates in our beginnings. “As our fate is totally dependent upon the matrix that produced and sustains us,” Huston Smith commented, “interest in its nature is the holiest interest that can visit us.”4
What produced us? What sustains us? Purposeless, cold forces, or deity of one kind or another? Are we here alone, or does God exist? And if so, does this God come “only in silent shadows and dreams,” or can we know more about Him?
Of the two options, then, which one follows it better?
Suppose one day you came home and found a massive zebra drinking out of your kitchen sink. Surprised, you ask your spouse (or whomever you live with), “Where did this zebra come from?”
“It came from nothing,” the other person responds.
Ridiculous! Why? Because nothing comes from nothing. The old Latin phrase ex nihilo, nihil fit (“out of nothing, nothing comes”) is an obvious first principle, a truth too basic even to debate. How could anything arise from nothing? Zebras (whether in the jungle or in the kitchen) must originate from something, not from “nothing,” because “out of nothing, nothing comes.” It would be easier to get six out of three than to get something—anything— out of nothing.
Then what about the earth, the sky, the stars? Or you, your shoes, your mother? Certainly they, like the zebra, couldn’t have come from nothing, could they? Anything created, anything that once was not but came to be, did so only by something other than itself, by something previous to it. The shoemaker obviously existed prior to your shoe.
For many years people believed that the universe was eternal. Being uncreated, it had always existed. There was never a time when the universe was not. Despite the difficult philosophical questions such a position raised, of a Creator. The universe didn’t have a Creator because always existing, it didn’t require one.
Scientists now believe, however, that the universe was not eternal but had a beginning. Yes, at some point in the past, it did not exist. Stephen Hawking, perhaps the greatest scientist since Einstein, wrote that “almost everyone now believes that the universe, and time itself, had a beginning at the big bang.”5 Like your shoe, the universe wasn’t always there.
The conclusion that the universe had a beginning leads to the obvious question: If the universe had a starting point, then what or who set it in motion? If it’s absurd to believe that a zebra in your kitchen came from nothing, how much more so to believe that the universe and all that it contains—ourselves and zebras included—did as well. Therefore, before the big bang, before the universe was, something had already had to be—something powerful enough to set the forces in motion that led to life on earth, not to mention the existence of billions of galaxies and stars. And other than God, who or what could that be?
Once scientists agreed that the universe came into being at some time, they forced upon themselves the inescapable question of “God.” As Hawking conceded, “So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator.”6
The nothing argument
“Suppose” is right. The implications surrounding a created universe point so strongly to God that some scientists have been compelled by the obvious to embrace the absurd. Instead of God being the Creator of the universe, they argue that “nothing” was the creator.
That’s what some are saying.
“Conceivably,” physicist Alan Guth suggests, “everything can be created from nothing. And ‘everything’ might include a lot more than we can see. . . . It is fair to say that the universe is the ultimate free lunch.”7
How is “nothing” able to create “everything”? Through quantum fluctuations, some scientists theorize.
Quantum fluctuations are complicated physical processes that, supposedly, created the universe. If so, that theory begs the question. Where did the laws of physics (much less the energy) needed to produce those quantum fluctuations come from?
As one critic mocks: “Alan Guth writes in pleased astonishment that the universe did arise from essentially . . . nothing at all:’ as it happens a false vacuum patch ‘10-26 centimeters in diameter’ and ‘10-32 solar masses.’ It would appear, then, that ‘essentially nothing’ has both spatial extension and mass. While these facts may strike Guth as inconspicuous, others may suspect that nothingness, like death, is not a matter of degrees.”8
Or as another critic of this everything- out-of-nothing hypothesis remarks, “How do we account for the situation within which one or more gigantic quantum fluctuations could occur? The atheist says we just have to assume it and treat it as a given.”9
Scientific intricacies and nuances of quantum fluctuations aside, the critics’ points are well taken. Whatever a quantum fluctuation is supposed to be, it’s certainly not “nothing.” It has mass, energy, and physical laws, and these things—like the zebra in your kitchen—had to come from somewhere.
The question, again, is: From where?
Of the two positions—that the universe was created by “nothing,” or that it’s the result of a powerful God—which remains more logical, more reasonable? Which better fits the evidence: All that exists (stars, clouds, people, trees, etc.) sprang from “nothing,” or came from a Creator? Is it sensible to accept as a given the physical processes needed for quantum fluctuations, or to acknowledge a creator God, One who always existed?
Nothing as creator is, really, the only logical option for the atheist. Why? Because if something other than an eternal God—that is, a God who always existed—made the universe, then whatever it was, it had to be created by something before it, which had to be originated by something before it . . . and on and on endlessly. Thus the universe could never have had a starting point. It would have to be, like God, from eternity. But the universe doesn’t endlessly go back in time. Once it just wasn’t there. And because there was a time that the universe did not exist, something obviously had to start it, and who or what could that be, other than God? Unless, of course, nothing created it.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1, emphasis added). Or was it “In the beginning nothing created the heavens and the earth”?