A Story About Nothing

Challenge Central: a CBC devotional

By: Casey Korstanje

I want you to think about nothing.

I don’t mean “clear your mind.” I want you to actively think about the idea of “nothing.” It’s hard, right, trying to imagine “nothing.”

 In fact, there is a way to approach the idea of “nothing” in stages, which I happily borrow from American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

It goes like this. Picture a box of some sort – like a fish tank, maybe – with a strong decompressor attached to it that sucks out all the air. There, now there is “nothing” in the box, right? We’ve created a vacuum.

Maybe? When it comes to air, or any gas, a cubic metre (m3 ) contains approximately a septillion (1024) molecules. To put it another way, that’s 10 trillion trillion molecules. I think the best decompressor in the best lab in the world can maybe cut that down to 10 billion molecules per (m3 ). Pretty good, but nowhere near “nothing.”

 So let’s leave earth and head into the “vacuum of space.” Now we are getting somewhere. Outside our space shuttle, it’s a thousand times less dense, but we are still talking 10 million particles per (m3 ).

Okay, let’s go farther out still, beyond the solar system into Voyager 1 territory – Interstellar Space: 500,000 particles per (m3 ). Not bad. But not there yet.

Now let’s really step way out into Intergalactic Space, that area between the galaxies. Here we are talking about just a few particles floating around in every ten cubic metres of space.

Close! But not quite.

So, imagine getting rid of those last few particles altogether, all of the material gone. There. Is that nothing?

Not quite. Through quantum physics, we have discovered that there are things called “virtual particles.” They pop into and out of existence before you can actually measure them. We know they exist because they apparently disturb other things in measurable ways… whatever. Let’s take that away too. No freaky virtual particles. Is that nothing?

Not yet, because here in our empty region of space, the “laws of physics” apparently still apply. So let’s remove them, which leaves us with just the empty “fabric of space,” which I understand can be bent or warped, and is still affected by time, so still something, not nothing.

To achieve nothing, we must remove everything, no particles, no laws of physics, no quantum mechanics, no time and finally, no words to describe it.

Even language must disappear because there can be no words to describe that which is impossible to imagine. We’ve entered philosophy here. That nothing, not even the idea or our ability to imagine it, can exist.

“Creatio ex nihilo” is the Christian doctrine of creation out of nothing. That all matter and all that exists had a beginning and was created by a Divine act. “In the beginning, God….”

Okay, now I want you to think of “nobody.”

I don’t mean clear your mind of people; I mean, what is “a nobody.”

I suggest we talk about the perfect “invisible person.” A “no body.” Someone with no rights, no influence, no value, someone that can be used or not, and cast away or not, depending on another’s needs or desires.

In Genesis, which opens with the staggering statement, “In the beginning, God….” we find just such a person, a nobody, an invisible.

Her name is Hagar, an Egyptian slave belonging to Sarai, Abram’s wife.

And you know the story. Abram is 86 years old, Sarai is barren, and so Sarai gives Hagar to Abram to act as a surrogate. Hagar is chattel, a slave, a means to an end. Giving her to Abram, from Sarai’s perspective, is like me loaning you my cell phone. Neither Hagar nor the cell phone has a say in the matter because they are things.

This is born out by Abram’s response when Sarai becomes angry with Hagar.

“Abram said to Sarai, ‘Behold, your servant is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her.’” Gen 16:6

And then this “nobody” says something that shakes the universe. That, in my case, anyway, flipped my worldview upside down.

You know the story. The Angel of the Lord appears to her and tells her to go back to Sarai and that she will bear a son and call him Ishmael…

Then this absolute nobody says: “You are the God who sees me.” Gen 16:13 NIV.

Remember “Creatio ex nihilo.” He, who created everything from nothing, sees Hagar-a nobody.

And He sees you.

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