A generation or so ago, our universe was thought by many scientists to be a closed system that had neither beginning nor end. The existence of the cosmos was regarded as a "brute fact" and needed nothing to produce it. The modern and well-nigh universally accepted theory of the big bang changed all that.

If the universe did have a beginning, it becomes not only reasonable but also unavoidable that we would ask what generated that beginning. Now, however, we have left physics (i.e., how nature works) for meta-physics (i.e., why nature exists at all).

This is the point at which a theist calls attention to a traditional and powerful argument for God's existence. If the material universe has not existed forever, the possibilities are limited. Either it somehow called itself into being or was brought into being by an eternal Creative God. From Plato to Polkinghorne, Aristotle to Aquinas, Darwin to Davies, this argument has been offered.

In his book The Grand Design, scheduled for release this week, Stephen Hawking gives this answer: "As recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going."

Hawking insists the "laws of gravity" and "quantum mechanics" explain how something comes from nothing. But gravity cannot be defined without mass, and quantum mechanics accounts for certain interactions between energy and matter. Both have demonstrated value for understanding how existing things function; neither has obvious value to account for the origin of those things.

We need not pretend that ultimate questions such as Hawking raises are too profound for "ordinary souls" to contemplate; they are central to defining oneself and deciding on the value and meaning of one's life. Neither should we pretend that statements such as "something can come from nothing" or "life arose spontaneously and inevitably produced intelligent human life" is somehow plausible because spoken by a brilliant physicist; both are undemonstrated theories that deny the more obvious and direct conclusion of a Grand Designer.

If there had ever been a time when absolutely nothing existed, nothing could exist now. Since something clearly has existed forever, you take your pick: Person or matter, Intelligence or gravity, Creative God or quantum mechanics.

To say the least, the following thesis is reasonable: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1).

Rubel Shelly has preached for the Woodmont Hills Church of Christ in Nashville since 1978. During that time, he has also taught at David Lipscomb University and Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He is the author of more than 20 books, including several which have been translated into languages such as Korean, Japanese, Portuguese, Italian, French, and Russian. He is married to the former Myra Shappley, and they are the parents of three children: Mrs. David (Michelle) Arms, Tim, and Tom. To contact Rubel or to subscribe to his newsletter, Fax of Life, send email to faxOfLife@woodmont.org