The Ongoing Creation Ex-Nihilo of Humanity

Is it possible to glimpse the nothing from out of which creation came and is coming? I do not mean in the Buddhist or Heideggerian sense in which nothing is an ontological category – a necessity for the something. The Christian nothing is not a dialectical necessity that accompanies all that is something, though the primordial darkness can only break through in the cracks of what is. It is not the ontological empty space into which God inserted creation. Christian nothing, or the ex-nihilo, is not something that precedes, grounds, or serves as a point of expansion; rather, the Christian nothing from out of which God called creation bears no quality and does not show itself other than through dissolution, absence, and death.  The nothing may take on a dynamic, but it is the dynamic of destruction. Creation ex-nihilo that is, opens the possibility of evil as the return to the nothing from out of which creation arose.  On the other hand, to picture creation as anything less than having an infinite destiny (theosis or divinization) makes of creation a dynamic of nothingness. Existence as something less than union with the divine entails turning creation over to the ex-nihilo from out which it arose. Creation without final cause and purpose which sinks back into the oblivion from which it arose is a creation dominated, not by God, but by nothing. On the other hand, a creation (especially of the rational kind) which is continually called forth from its beginning into exultant praise and participation in the divine life, fully and forever sheds itself of the remnants or possibility of the nothingness from which it arose.

The play and possibility of the nothing – the possibility of evil – is perhaps best understood and approached in Paul’s depiction of the dissolution of the dynamic of death in the believer. The “I” that is crucified with Christ is subject to dissolution as there is a dynamic taken up with the human interplay between the ego (a transliteration of Paul’s word for “I”), the law and what Paul calls the “body of death,” all of which is undone in Paul’s depiction of baptism (Romans 6:1-6). On the other hand, in the psychoanalytic approach to Paul there is the demonstration of how this nothingness – the deception of sin – can play a central and competing role in human life.

In Slavoj Žižek’s picture, the Subject arises from out of nothing, with the implication that this nothing precedes the Subject and is the primary “substance” constituting the Subject. In Žižek’s atheistic creation ex-nihilo (a creation from nothing) God and truth, subject and object, are preceded by death and nothingness, which he does not hesitate to call evil, but it is out of this originary evil that the Subject arises. However, there is only one step from Paul to Žižek, if it is understood that Žižek is expanding upon Paul’s sinful, deceived Subject.

For Žižek, evil is subject to manipulation but, inasmuch as it is prime reality, it is not something that can be finally and completely overcome; nor would one want to overcome it, as this nothingness is the only possible ground for the absolute freedom of the Subject. Absolute freedom and autonomy, the point of departure for German idealism (Žižek’s key resource), cannot, by definition, be constrained by a prior Good. The absolutely free, autonomous Subject can be preceded by nothing, and this is the Nothing and negation Žižek links to death drive (the primary dynamic in the Subject).

Even for God, in the depiction of Friedrich Schelling, if nothingness precedes and comes after God or perhaps God’s creation, then nothingness is the predominant ontological condition. The passage from nothing (the eternal nothing without beginning or end) to something (the beginning of God) is an act that is eternally repeated in the passage from eternity to time. In other words, everything, including God, ultimately arises from and tends towards this absolute nothing. In any case, even if it is only the human Subject that arises from nothing and returns to that nothing, then Žižek’s description fits with a so-called “Christian vision” in regards to most of the human race (in Augustinianism and Calvinism).

The theological import of this is that evil is a necessary part of the good. The gap in reality – nothingness, sin, death drive, and evil – is not overcome but accounted for and accommodated. Evil is not finally and fully subject to the good but the good arises from and is ultimately subject to the evil which precedes it. The Fall is at the origin of the Subject, so that transgression, sin, and evil, precede the very possibility of the “good.”  In biblical terms, the very possibility of the “knowledge of good and evil” (of the symbolic) in Genesis is preceded by the serpent, temptation, and death.

The death of Christ, in this atheistic theology, does not overcome the gap but suspends the desire to overcome the reality of death and nothingness. The Hegelian notion of the “death of God” in Christ amounts to the death of the “transcendent Beyond” and this brings about the opening of reality from within (Metastases of Enjoyment, 39). The dynamic of nothingness (death drive), for Žižek, is necessarily at the foundation of subjectivity and its reconstitution, as it is in and through the death drive that “Nothingness is counted as Something” which gives rise to the Subject (Ticklish Subject , 157). Ultimately death or nothingness is the ontological (un)reality over which the Lacanian Subject is constructed (and which is the motive force behind the sacrifices in the name of the law (subjection to the punishing Superego).

What if this, though, is a true picture of the dynamic of the lie that is displaced in Christ? Then it is possible to speak of self-participation – even a freedom of choice – in the creation of the Subject. That is, we are responsible for our own creation or lack thereof, as we can name the nothingness which clings to us and out of which we are arising.

This nothingness or dynamic of death is the creative force in a Lacanian psychoanalytic frame, but the danger is that a Christianity that sees creation as subsumed by or returning to the nothing (in whole or part) is giving ontological priority to the ex-nihilo. Where reality is not finally and fully grounded in the divine it is not clear that any finite creature “exists” in the fulness of the term. Especially in the case of the rational or spiritual creature, how can this rationality or spirituality be fully so apart from having as its final end participation in the reality of God. The fully spiritual and rational creature then, can be said to continue the most direct role of co-creator (the responsibility assigned in the dominion mandate of Genesis) through direct participation, as David Hart puts it, “in their own origination from nothingness.”[1] To quote Hart at length:

And only by this primordial assent does humanity in its eternal “multi-hypostatic” reality— as the eternal Adam of the first creation— freely receive its being from its creator: and this even though that assent becomes, on the threshold between the heavenly Aeon and time, a recapitulation of the Fall, an individuating acceptance of entry into the world under the burden of sin, such that every soul is answerable for and somehow always remembers that original transgression. In that moment, the spiritual creature concurs in its own creation, and God hands the creature over to its own free self-determination. Here, naturally, the language of past and future can devolve all too easily into a mythology of individual guilt historically “prior” to any person’s actual life; but, of course, there was no fall “back then” in historical time, either for the race or for the individual. Rather, the Fall “happened” only as belonging to the temporal unfolding of that eternal assent. It “happened”— or, rather, is happening— only as the lingering resistance of nothingness to that final joyous confession, the diminishing residue of the creature’s emergence ex nihilo. For no creature can exist as spirit in God except under the condition of having arisen from nothingness in order to grow into his or her last end. That passage from nothingness into the infinite, which is always a free intentionality toward a final cause, is the very structure of created spiritual beings. They could not be spirit otherwise.[2]

This is not the self-positing “I” of the Cartesian cogito but is precisely the defeat and undoing of this psychoanalytic or Pauline “I” in that there is a relinquishing or willing deconstruction of this Subject.  The “I” that would posit itself through itself, freely and intentionally gives up on this project so as to be “in Christ” and thus through the Spirit to be joined to the Father. The Oedipal “I” or the Cartesian “I” would be its own father or originator. It is the free and willing abandonment of this project – the project of the Fall engaged by every human – that the Subject in its fullness emerges as one assenting to the eternal end, the continuation and completion of creation ex-nihilo.

A fundamental way of summarizing this understanding is the recognition that the play between life and death within the human creature is directly concerned with the life/Spirit given by God or a turning away from this Spirit so as to engage in death. Irenaeus (as I have shown here) describes the necessity of the Spirit of God, not as a force apart from man but as molding and blending the handiwork of God: “But when the Spirit here blended with the soul is united to God’s handiwork, the man is rendered spiritual and perfect because of the outpouring of the Spirit, and this is he who was made in the image and likeness of God.”[3]  That is, the Genesis account is only completed through the active participation of God in the man as Spirit.

While all three elements, body, soul and Spirit, constitute the image of God in which man was created, Irenaeus’ (who is following Paul) use of Spirit (sometimes seeming to refer to God and man simultaneously) portrays the perfection of full co-participation between the divine and human while also allowing for a diminishment of participation: “One of these does indeed preserve and fashion (the man)  – – this is the Spirit; while as to another it is united and formed–that is the flesh; then comes that which is between these two–that is the soul, which sometimes indeed, when it follows the Spirit, is raised by it, but sometimes it sympathizes with the flesh, and falls into carnal lusts.”[4] The Spirit “preserves and fashions” the man, so that there is no human apart from Spirit. The Spirit is not something added to man, and yet there is the possibility, in following lusts, that the role of the Spirit is diminished.

Hart, depicts how this beginning and end calls for willing surrender through free participation:

This is the ultimate reason that the first moment of the creature’s being is at once a vocation issued by God and yet also an act of free self-positing on the part of the creature. Just as the Holy Spirit is not some limited psychological individual consciousness possessed of an isolated self, who is first himself and who then only latterly assents to the Father’s self-utterance in the Logos, but is instead hypostatic as God’s own eternal assent to and delight in his own essence as manifested in the Son; so also the spirit in us is nothing but a finite participation in that eternal and infinite act of divine affirmation and love. The spiritual creature exists as always, in its origin and its end, wholly surrendered to God. And the chiasmus of the Spirit in us, in our creation and deification, is always the Spirit rejoicing in the love of Father and Son. The inmost reality of the spirit in each of us, that is, is nothing but that act of joyous accord with and ecstatic ascent into God.[5]

As he explains, “every creaturely spirit freely wills its own existence” but this is not a freedom exercised apart from God or who the creature is in God. “The eternal Yes of God to the creature is always already the creature’s eternal Yes to its creator, for the latter exists only within the eternal Yes of the Father to his own image in the Son, in the delight of the Spirit; and this is the Son’s Yes to the will of the Father; and this is also the Spirit’s eternal Yes to the Father’s full expression in the Son; and, in the end, these are all one and the same Yes.”[6]

There is a possible Yes and No to the unfolding creation and completion of the Subject in the life of the Spirit. The possibility of the ex-nihilo may threaten but for Paul the Subject precedes and exceeds the possibility of death and the constraints of the “I.”  There is not only the possibility but the necessity, (due to the goodness of God) of a Subject apart from sin (the fall back into nothingness). A Christianity which does not acknowledge the end of creation in participation in the divine (divinization, theosis, apocatastasis) may take on the look of an atheism in which Subjectivity requires death, sin and nothingness as its primary “substance.”


[1] David Bentley Hart, You Are Gods (Kindle Locations 2265-2268). University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Hart, 2269-2281.

[3] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 5, Chapter 6, paragraph 1.

[4] AH 5.6.1

[5] Hart, 2324-2328.

[6] Hart, 2330-2334.


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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