This is the fourth part of a series that follows The Catechism in a Year podcast. Dr. Matthew Minerd journeys with us and presents a “travel guide” through the major themes of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Creatio ex nihilo, “creation from nothing.” We need to be careful that the grammatical structure of these words does not deceive us. To say that things are created “from” nothing does not mean that nothingness is some sort of chaotic mass from which things would have been brought into existence, as some pagan creation myths hold. Creatio ex nihilo—creation from nothing—means that all things presuppose absolutely nothing in order to come into being. In whatever way that the first emergence of the universe physically took place (a question to be left to science), its very existence sprang forth at a first instant from nothingness, utterly dependent on God for every fiber of its being. Everything that exists, as well as all the ascent of life through the course of the ages, finds its source in him who is pure Unchanging Existence.
How amazing it is that we exist! We did not need to. The universe did not need to exist. Nonetheless, here we are! How great a gift, the foundation of all other gifts! In response to this immense fact, the honest soul can only exclaim:
“Let all the earth fear the Lord, let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him! For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood forth.”Psalm 33:8–9
This “fear” is not, however, a cowering before a tyrannical God, who with one nod brings all things into being and, with another, can blink it out of existence. Rather, it is a fear rooted in reverence of our awe-inspiring, loving Creator.
The Goodness of Creation
When we experience something good, we immediately want to share it with others. Goodness has a kind of inner propulsion toward “overflow” and diffusion. God, who is infinite Goodness, desired to bestow some reflection of himself, refracting through the whole universe the light of his perfection. Thus, like a refrain, the opening words of Sacred Scripture echo, over and again, the fundamental goodness of creation: “And God saw that it was good…”
All things in the created universe exist to reflect the glory of God. As we find in the words of the Canticle of the Three Young Men in the book of Daniel, the entire universe is gathered like a great chorus around the throne of God’s majesty:
“Bless the Lord, all you works of the Lord … you angels of the Lord … sun and moon … fire and heat … mountains and hills … you sons of men … bless the Lord.”see Daniel 3:52–90
All that is visible and material, all that is invisible and angelic, all created things, give voice to the goodness of God, uniquely reflected in each of us. How great the chorus that arises from the natural world, forever continuing its course of planetary revolutions and seasons; and how resounding is the praise of the angelic hosts of heaven giving voice to the glory of God:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”Isaiah 6:3
Majesty and Humility
Standing at the horizon of these two domains, the visible and the invisible, there is the human person, in whom the animal world meets the grandeur of spiritual being. Thus, man is a kind of paradox to himself—at once frail and material, so readily susceptible to injury and limitation, yet the only being in the visible universe in whose mind and heart is placed a desire for the Absolute, the only being who has been created in the “image and likeness” of God (see Genesis 1:26–27). The whole human person—body and soul—reflects both the majesty of spiritual beings and the humble, ever-changing nature of material reality.
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Created for Christ
What, however, was the ultimate motive for this creation? In short: the greatest of all goods that could be given, the Incarnation of Christ:
“He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation, for in him all things were created, in heaven and earth, visible and invisible .. all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”Colossians 1:15–17
Creation bears the stamp of Christ, the very center of history, and he is the source of its meaning and glory. He is the gift of the Eternal Word, “in whom the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). The mystery of divine Providence finds its deepest meaning in this “ultimate end” of the universe, Jesus Christ, who bestows on all creatures the gift of existence, as well as the possibility of participating in his very life through grace. As St. Paul tells us, all of creation is centered on Christ:
“Whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future, all are yours; and you are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s.”1 Corinthians 3:22–23
Walking Toward Eternity
Finding our only true happiness in this divine life, our hearts have been marked by a desire for eternity:
“He has put eternity into man’s mind.”Ecclesiastes 3:11
In Christ, the passing of time stretches toward the timelessness of the eternal life of God. From the very start of Scripture, then, the seventh day is marked as a day of rest (see Genesis 2:3), which the Fathers of the Church have likened to a kind of final “eighth day,” the beginning of eternity now in the resurrected Christ. The design of divine Providence is to bring us to the eternal Sabbath of his glorious and joyful “rest.”
Yet, so early in human history, in the very days of our first parents, creation was marked also by the tragedy of sin. As a creature, man stands at the border of the nothingness from which he came; the light of existence and grace come solely from God. Thus, as St. Thomas Aquinas writes,
“The creature is darkness in comparison with the excellence of the Divine Light.”Summa theologiae I, q. 64, a. 1, ad 3
This is not to deny the fundamental goodness of creation. Rather, these words express the precarious situation of being a creature—the possibility of sin is our constant companion, from birth to death.
Why Does God Allow Sin?
The possibility of sin and its actual commission were foreseen by God. This does not mean, however, that he is the cause of sin. All that exists comes from God and is good. Sin, though, is the result of our misuse of the freedom God gave us to choose the good; sin introduces a kind of “non-being” into creation. But, as Jesus tells us:
“Apart from me you can do nothing.”John 15:5
Since God is the source of all that is, all that we can do “on our own” is to fall into the nothingness from which we came. As Sirach tells us:
“It was [the Lord] who created man in the beginning, and he left him in the power of his own inclination.”Sirach 15:14
Though we have been created for the eternal Sabbath rest, man’s inclination has been to turn away from God and reject his ways:
“To whom did he swear that they should never enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient?”Hebrews 3:18
The Sin of the Angels
With particular drama, all of this holds true for the angels as well. At the first instant of their creation, they burst forth into existence like a great host of immense spiritual radiance. Immediately aware of their place in the cosmos, they clearly understood that they were made as reflections of God and that they were called to live in his service. All that was required of them was the humble acceptance that they are creatures, receiving all things from God. Yet some, from a prideful self-love, rebelled against God, and thus, disobedience entered the scene of creation. Sin entered the angelic realm, and a line of division separated those who were confirmed in the love of God—the angels—and those who turned away from God with a malice that is beyond comprehension, becoming a spiritual plague upon all of creation—the demons.
The Great Loss
Alas, our first parents, scorning God’s clear command and choosing instead to be the masters of good and evil, abandoned the path of loving God above all else, choosing instead the pit of nothingness that is self-love. In original sin, humanity severed its bonds of communion with God and no longer lived the life of divine friendship for which we were created. All of us are born into this “state of sin” due to this choice of our first parents, so that “in Adam all die” (1 Corinthians 15:22).
Although human nature was not totally corrupted by original sin, it was greatly debilitated—man’s intellect became darkened and his will weakened. Humanity became marked by concupiscence, a tendency to sin, which is like an enslaving master. He now experiences pain and suffering, needing to earn his bread with a sweat-covered brow and a sore back (see Genesis 3:19). In this state of sin, man’s body is no longer naturally subject to the spirit, and he finds himself the slave of the world, experiencing every day a slow decay that reaches to the depths of his being. Eventually, the fruit of sin gives rise to its greatest evil—death.
Our Source of Hope
To address man’s self-imposed state of separation, the creating and indwelling action of God takes on a new modality—salvation. The first pages of salvation history were written by God from the very moment of the Fall. The Church Fathers interpreted the words of the third chapter of Genesis as foretelling the merciful love of the Cross, prophesying that from Eve there would come forth the One who will ultimately return creation to the end for which it was made—Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God. Thus, in response to the cataclysm of the Fall, the Good News was already announced, a kind of “first Gospel,” a Protoevangelium, a first light shining over all of salvation history to follow, a history that will find its culmination in the Incarnation.
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Dr. Matthew Minerd is a Ruthenian Catholic, husband, and father, serving as a professor of philosophy and moral theology at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Pittsburgh. His academic and popular writing has been published in the journals Nova et Vetera, The American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, The Review of Metaphysics, Études Maritainiennes, Downside Review, and Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He has also served as a translator or editor for volumes published by The Catholic University of America Press, Emmaus Academic, and Cluny Media. He is the author of Made by God, Made for God: Catholic Morality Explained.