Ex Nihilo

Given the frenetic pace of my life at the moment, I’m not sure how it was that I ended up watching about twenty minutes of CrossTV, an evangelical Christian television network, which was broadcasting an episode to warn most of the world that they’re going straight to hell. They cited Revelation 21:8, about how all liars will be cast into a lake of fire on Judgment Day. “You can look it up!” the guy said cheerfully. (I haven’t looked it up, but I’ll take his word for it.)

Since all of us, at one time or another, have told a lie, all of us are guilty. The show had a preacher asking people on the street whether they’d ever told a lie, whether they’d ever stolen something, whether they’d ever lusted after anyone in their heart. They read another scripture that implied that if you’re guilty of even the smallest offense, you’re guilty of breaking the whole law. It doesn’t matter if you’re Adolf Hitler or you canned peaches on the Sabbath once – both will earn you the same eternal trip to the lake of fire.

I found this disturbing on many levels, not the least of which was the solution. Say this little ten-second prayer, the guy said, and invite Jesus into your life. Once you do that, the law has no hold on you, and it’s heaven all the way! Isn’t that great? Except if you’re born in outer Borneo and never get a chance to hear about the magic words you have to say, then I hope you enjoy bathing in lava. And someone who’s lived perfectly besides their penchant for Sabbath peach canning can expect an endless lava bath, too, whereas someone who says the little prayer can pretty much go into the Jedi temple and slaughter all the younglings and still be OK, because the prayer is a ticket to a free ride past the pearly gates.

I like to think I’m tolerant and somewhat ecumenical, and I flinch when evangelicals start saying we Mormons don’t believe in the same God or Jesus that they do. I still don’t think that’s entirely true, but when I get close enough to their doctrines to take a look at them, I start to wonder.

Having pondered this over the weekend, I have decided there are three doctrines that are embraced by the sectarian world that I fully reject.

1) Ex Nihilo Creation
2) Static Hell
3) Cheap Grace

I’ll address each in turn. Today, I’ll stick with Ex Nihilo Creation and broach the other subjects later in the week.

The doctrine of Creatio Ex Nihilo, or Creation Out of Nothing, is central to much of the Christian world. As I understand it, the idea is that there was nothing in the universe, or even no universe itself. There was only God. And at one point, God decided He wanted there to be Something instead of Nothing. And so, out of Nothing, he made Something, and voila! Here we are!

This idea is the source of much mischief.

Those who propose it think that any other explanation diminishes God’s omnipotence. Take the Mormon view, for instance. It claims that the elements are eternal, and that intelligence is eternal, too. In some form or another, each of us is a unique, eternal Intelligence, co-existent with God, and God has designed the universe and organized matter and intelligence to create a circumstance by which we can become more like Him. Ex Nihilists insist that the Mormon God, therefore, is not omnipotent, because he can’t create matter or intelligence out of nothing.

It’s because of this tension that there are some very pointless arguments to be had as to what the definition of omnipotence is. The most famous is the question, “Can God create a rock so large that He can’t move it?” Or, in other words, can God do something he can’t do? Answers to questions like these end up serving the same purpose as imponderables like, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Or “what would happen if everyone on earth flushed their toilet at exactly the same time?” (OK, that second one isn’t very profound. But it’s something to think about!)

I would define omnipotence, therefore, as the capability to do everything that can be done.

Ex Nihilists reject this. They say there is nothing that cannot be done, because God can do everything. OK, fine. Then you have to answer questions that don’t make God look like a very pleasant guy.

For example: You, Mr. Ex Nihilist, you believe God can do anything? Then why didn’t he create a universe free of evil, pain, and suffering? Why did make us capable of sin? Why did he create a circumstance where a great deal of his supreme creations are doomed to spend an eternity in a lake of fire? What’s the point?

The famous literary figure Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide concludes that since this is the only world we’ve got, and God is perfect, then this is, by definition, the best of all possible worlds, so stop complaining. The problem, of course, is that this places certain limits on God, too. If this is the best he could do, and even us flawed humans can see there are significant problems, then he isn’t as omnipotent as Ex Nihilists think he is, is he?

Mormons don’t have all the answers about suffering and evil, but they do have a context for it that the rest of the world doesn’t have. What’s happening in this life was colored by what happened in the eternity before it, and it will be mitigated by what happens in the eternity after. Many people use this truth to make rash assumptions about this life’s inequities. Clearly, if I’m stronger, happier, richer, or better looking than you, then I must have been a better guy before I got here, no? Well, no. We don’t know that. Maybe you were too big a wimp to be able to handle the rough life of someone else. We haven’t been given the information, but just knowing that there is more to the story helps us understand why some things don’t seem to gibe with what we ought to expect.

The point is that Ex Nihilo creation makes good squarely responsible for all the rotgut in the universe, and it’s no use saying otherwise. My understanding of a merciful and omnipotent deity doesn’t allow for that kind of nonsense.

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