On the Empty Universe


Our cosmos, our universe, is said to be devoid of meaning, that is, of a reason why it is as it is. This “lack of cosmic order” thesis has ulterior motives lurking in its advocate’s mind. We have, it is said, developed elaborate creation “myths” about the origins and apparent order of things. Such theories of an ordered universe are but intellectual “super-structures” with no foundations in things.

Those who claim that a God is needed to explain what order seems to be there are merely projecting their desires onto things. The mind, when it examines the world, finds nothing there except chance and more chance. Since chance could be otherwise at every instant, nothing is really out there to be found. Nothing has ever happened. Nothing “caused” something else to take place. Just how, by this same chance, a “mind” came about that could “see” that no order existed is something of a problem.

At first sight, this empty universe view seems exhilarating. Many think it to be the basis of “humanism.” If nothing is found “out there,” then human beings are “free.” No law or logos exists to hamper us. We are beholden to nothing but ourselves. Our nobility lies in imposing our ideas, whatever they are, on a “meaning-less” reality. Our wills, not our intelligence, define reality.

But since we obviously do not all have the same ideas, we have no criteria but power for judging which idea is better than another. We must, evidently, allow for even contradictory ideas lest we raise the unsettling question of why one idea is “better” than another. Yet, recurring stabilities appear in the universe. Our human nature seems to be one of them.

If what we call our human nature were, at bottom, itself a constantly changing chance, we must conclude that we ourselves really do not exist. This alternative seems for many preferable to one holding that man knows a reality and is responsible for what he finds there.

In Colossians, after stating that Christ is “the image of the invisible God,” Paul added that He “is before all that is.” Thus, all that is does not just sit there as if it were related to nothing but itself. The universe did not sound so empty to Paul. But he recognized that man did claim to be unable to see God’s order in the world.

        The False Mirror by René Magritte, 1928

How did Paul explain this situation? “You yourselves were once alienated from him (Christ); you nourished hostility in your hearts because of your evil deeds.” (1:15, 21) That memorable passage suggests that theories implying an empty universe do not really arise from experience or science. They arise rather in order to make “evil deeds” seem normal and permissible. Thus, we have no desire to confront them or change them. What we do is what we want to do, not what we ought to do.

It is too facile to propose that behind every aberrant intellectual theory, especially those that presuppose an empty universe, lay a moral problem in the soul of its advocate. But I suspect that it is true in the vast majority of the cases.

Something curious goes on here. I have often been struck by the phrase in the Canticle of Zechariah that asks the Lord to “free us from the hands of all those who hate us.” (Luke 1: 71) In some sense, the empty universe is the result of hatred for a universe of meaning and order that finds its origin in a Logos, in a God who is the truth. The burden of much of modern thought is precisely to rid the universe of the vestiges of God. God is hated because He expects us to use our intelligence and good sense to live an ordered, even noble life.

The problem is not that we often try and fail. That is the realm of forgiveness. We recognize our need of God when we acknowledge our need of forgiveness.

Lucifer was one of the most brilliant of the angels. His “fall,” from all we can tell, had to do with his refusal to accept the order that God had set in the world. His fall did not mean that he lost his intelligence. It meant that he used his intelligence to foil the plans of God as it existed in the souls of men.

Those who want to empty the universe of all order do so because they want to eliminate the possibility of anyone finding God in His creation. What they are left with is their own freedom. That is all. It is called hell in other contexts. In the end, the empty universe leaves us only looking at ourselves, to the exclusion of the wonders of a creation whose gift to us is not just ourselves, but everything else that is.



James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

  • On Hell - Monday, February 25, 2019