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.

“You Are Gods”: The Biblical Picture

Jesus references Psalm 82:6, “You are gods,” as a response to the Jewish attempt to stone him after he claims, “I and the Father are one” (Jn 10:30). When Jesus asks what particular good work they were stoning him for, they answered, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God.” Instead of narrowing his claim or qualifying it, Jesus suggests that human beings were made to be gods – according to the Law: “Has it not been written in your Law, ‘I SAID, YOU ARE GODS’? “If he called them gods, to whom the word of God came (and the Scripture cannot be broken), do you say of Him, whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?” (Jn 10:34–36). In the Psalm, God judges “in the midst of the rulers” accusing them of judging unjustly and showing partiality to the wicked, rather than defending the weak and the fatherless (Ps. 82:1-3). The Psalm makes the point that these rulers, appointed to a divine like authority, have failed in their duty. “I said, ‘You are gods, and all of you are sons of the Most High. ‘Nevertheless, you will die like men and fall like any one of the princes’” (Ps. 82:6).

Jesus, in the context of his quoting the Psalm, presumes the reference applies to humanity and not to angelic or spiritual sons. The reference may be to the divine image in which humans were created and the dominion they were given over creation: “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth’” (Gen. 1:26). The idea is that the humans would not simply dominate but would, as the Psalm indicates, offer a benevolent reign over creation. As Bnonn Tennant notes, the Hebrew term kibshu has the double meaning of “subdue,” as in a military campaign but also the idea of a forceful or vigorous ordering. “God is not merely making man a custodian in Genesis; he isn’t giving him mere supervision of the earth, like a middle-manager. He is making him a king; giving him free rein over the world. The creation mandate is a dominion mandate.”[1] Creation care would certainly be involved in this reign, but as is now clear in the nuclear age and an age of global warming, humans can also manipulate creation so as to destroy it.

The garden may be a model or guide for what man is to do throughout creation. Adam is on the order of a coparticipant in God’s creating and ordering activity. He names the animals, tends and organizes the Garden, but extension of the Edenic Kingdom into all the world (they are to “subdue the earth,” Gen. 1:28) is part of the rule or kingship exercised by the original royal pair. This is indicated in that the “image and likeness” which God impressed on the first couple is subsequently an image Adam impresses on his son Seth (Gen. 5:1-3). The success, but mostly the failure to rightly exercise this rule, to order God’s kingdom, is the story of Scripture. “The entire Bible, one way or another, is concerned with tracing its decline, division, reunion, and eventual restoration.”[2]

The battle joined between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15) involves the entire human race in both the flood and at Babel (Gen. 11). Babel marks a united attempt to order the human kingdom on the basis of a unified world government and religion, due to improved technology and heightened presumption. Rather than spreading out, multiplying and filling the earth, the people of Babel refuse the dominion mandate and decide to arrange a kingdom that would make their name endure in a very limited region (the plain of Shinar). It is an organized rebellion – an attempt to order the kingdom by human standards and means. The unified attempt to organize, instead becomes a confusion of languages and religions.

Amar Annus, a scholar of the ancient near east, notes, “There was a broad tradition in the Babylonian scribal milieu that the seventh antediluvian figure, a king or a sage, ascended to heaven and received insights into divine wisdom. The seventh antediluvian king according to several lists was Enmeduranki, the king of Sippar, who distinguished himself with divine knowledge from the gods Adad and Shamash.”[3] Sippar, according to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, was one of the states located in Shinar.[4] Where “Babylonian mythology puts a positive spin on this event, representing the sons of God, the Apkallu, as the ones who founded Babylon and imparted knowledge of culture and technology, Jewish  Second Temple writings describe the Apkallu as the ones who taught mankind things like idolatry and witchcraft.”[5]

It is significant that Abram is called (in Gen. 12) immediately subsequent to the multiplication of tongues and religion at Babel (Gen. 11). Even the household of Abram are carrying household idols (Gen. 31:19) and in the midrash Genesis Rabbah, Abram is depicted as a young boy working in his father’s idol shop. Abram is called from out of Babel to form a people who will bring forth the second Adam. Meanwhile the other nations are allowed to continue in their religious idolatry or in, what the New Testament will describe as, the worship of demons. As Deuteronomy explains, “When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. But the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage” (Dt. 32:8–9). These particular “sons of God” may refer to spiritual forces which have displaced God. The Septuagint translates the “sons of God” as “angels of God.” The gloss that Deuteronomy 4 puts upon this indicates that it is indeed spiritual forces that control the nations.

And beware lest you lift up your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven [צבא השמים— tsaba ha’shamayim, the standard nomenclature for the armies of heaven], you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, which Yahweh your God has allotted [חלק] to all the peoples under the whole heaven.[6]

In contrast Israel was saved out of Egypt or “out of the iron furnace” so as to be a people “of his (God’s) own inheritance” (Dt. 4:20).

The nations are turned over to spiritual forces (represented by “the sun and the moon and the stars”) or a force other than that for which they were made. Their failure to rule rightly means they have been usurped. As Psalm 82 indicates, they are subject to death though they were meant to be princes, kings, and rulers. They have apparently been turned over to the spirits or spirit behind false religion and idolatry.

The New Testament pictures this power over the nations in a variety of images: “rulers and authorities”, “world forces of darkness,” “spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places,” “the prince of the power of the air,” or simply cosmic powers of darkness.[7] The various combination of “rulers and authorities” and heavenly spiritual forces combined with imagery referencing nations and kings, indicates a continuum between the human realm and cosmic and spiritual powers. The book of Revelation speaks of “the dragon, the serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan” (Rev. 20:2), but it also describes a beast with seven horns and ten heads, which fronts for the dragon and which elicits the worship of all the world (Rev. 13:1-4). Whether this beast is the Roman God Emperor, or some combination of political powers, the world is forced to bow before a unified religion opposed to the rule of Yahweh.

In both Daniel and Revelation, the combination of spiritual power and political embodiment is given a beastly representation. Daniel describes a Revelation like beast and its destruction by “the Ancient of Days”: “And as I looked, the beast was killed, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time” (Da. 7:11–12). Daniel is given an interpretation of the vision that identifies the beasts as “four kings who shall arise out of the earth” (Da. 7:17). The saints (ESV) or the “sons of God” will take possession or receive the kingdom (7:18), from the “son of man” who has secured it on their behalf (7:14).

Paul refers to “so-called gods” but goes on to say “indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is but one God, the Father” (I Cor. 8:56). He later explains that Gentiles “sacrifice to demons and not to God” (I Cor. 10:20) so that the “many gods and many lords,” unlike the idol itself, is not simply nothing (I Cor. 8:4) but an actually existing power, force, or spirit. There is an ambiguity surrounding the exact nature and provenance of these powers (or this power), but there is an alignment between nations, idolatrous religion, and subjection to the powers of darkness.

If we presume that Jesus inaugurates the kingdom and subdues the powers with the incarnation (the teaching of the New Testament), this must have occurred in Jesus’ confrontation with the earthly powers during the time of Roman rule. As Tennant notes, Daniel’s description of the son of man coming on the clouds is not his coming to earth but his coming to the throne of God in heaven.[8] This occurred in the first century, in which Luke records the ascension, echoing the language of Daniel:

And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1: 9-11).

Daniel’s title “son of man” is taken by Jesus, and the synoptic Gospels (also in the imagery of Daniel) picture the kingdom being ushered in with his generation: “For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Lk 21:26–28). Or in summary of a host of signs:

From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matthew 24: 29– 34; par. Mark 13: 24– 30; Luke 21: 25– 32).

The images of cosmic upheaval (e.g., a darkened sun and blood moon, representative of spiritual forces) are images of a heavenly regime change. The reality of Jesus being seated at the right hand of the Father is pictured in the imagery of unruly spiritual powers being subdued. At the same time, the gods of Psalm 82, subjected to death, with the resurrection of Christ are being restored through his reign. The “greatness of his power toward us who believe” is restoring Adam’s reign, as Christ raised from the dead is seated “at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Eph. 1:20-21).

To return to the point of departure, the call of the Psalm, which Jesus is applying to himself and his followers, is for God to repossess the nations: “Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations!” (Ps 82:8). He will restore to those designated “gods” the eternal life that fits their station: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (Jn. 10:28). The Fall, the turn to other gods, the continual rebellion and idolatry, are here reversed and this gain is irreversible. “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (Jn. 10:29-30).

As Peter describes it, this god-like status does not describe an innate nature but a partaking or participation in the divine nature opened to all through Christ:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. (2 Peter 1:3-4)

[1] Bnonn DominicTennant, The Spine of Scripture: God’s Kingdom from Eden to Eternity (pp. 18-19). Information Highwayman. Kindle Edition.  Very much appreciate the recommendation, Leigh. Thank you.

[2] Ibid. 21-22.

[3] Amar Annus, “On the Origin of Watchers: A Comparative Study of the Antediluvian Wisdom in Mesopotamian and Jewish Traditions” Estoniain  Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha · May 2010


[5] Tennant, 70.

[6] From Tennant, 73.

[7] Col. 2:15-17; Eph. 2:2; 6:12; John 1:5 respectively.

[8] Tennant, 85.