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The Case for Creation from Nothing

There seems to be biblical evidence opposing creation ex nihilo. But that’s reading it wrong

Trent Horn

Mormons believe that the world is eternal—that it never had a beginning—and God is only a being who exists within it. The God of this world created it in the same way a baker “creates” a cake: by combining preexisting ingredients. Eric Shuster, a Mormon convert from Catholicism, writes, “Latter-day Saint doctrine holds that the universe was formed and organized, not created ex nihilo, ‘out of nothing,’ as Catholic doctrine holds.”

But the Bible teaches that God created all things from nothing, and there is nothing uncreated that exists alongside God as a kind of ingredient for him to “bake” a universe. Hebrews 11:3 says that “the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear” (in some other translations, “was not made out of visible things”).

Likewise, Colossians says that it was in Christ that “all things were created, in heaven and on Earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (1:16-17).

Process theologian Thomas Oord writes, “An increasing number of biblical scholars say Genesis does not speak of creation ex nihilo, and the theory is absent in the Bible” (Theologies of Creation, 2). But contrary to what critics such as Oord say, testimony to creation ex nihilo can be found throughout the Old Testament, especially in the first few centuries before the birth of Christ.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Scripture bears witness to faith in creation ‘out of nothing’ as a truth full of promise and hope” (297) and the provides a specific example from the second book of Maccabees. It describes a mother comforting her sons who will be executed because they refused a Gentile king’s command that they violate Jewish kosher laws that prohibit eating unclean foods such as pork. She tells them that God will raise them up to a better a resurrection and he has the power to do that because he made the world from nothing. She says:

I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. Therefore the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of man and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws. . . . Look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. Thus also mankind comes into being (2 Mac. 7:22-23, 28).

However, some critics say the deuterocanonical books of Scripture do not agree that God created the universe from nothing. They point to the book of Wisdom, which says “For thy all-powerful hand, which created the world out of formless matter, did not lack the means to send upon them a multitude of bears, or bold lions” (11:17, emphasis added). Rather than being a denial of creation from nothing, this passage affirms an important part of creation from nothing: God’s organization of what he created. To see why, carefully read Genesis 1:1-2:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.

Wisdom’s reference to “formless” matter is an echo of Genesis’s statement that the Earth was initially formless. Wisdom is simply restating what Genesis says, so we need to look more closely at Genesis.

Ex nihilo deniers

Scholars who deny creation ex nihilo say that Genesis 1:1-2 is best understood as saying, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was without form and void.” According to them, God brought creation out of a preexisting “formless matter” and did not create the world from nothing.

But there are several reasons to reject this interpretation of the creation account. First, the Hebrew word bara, translated “create” in Genesis 1:1, only ever has God as its subject. It doesn’t always mean “creation from absolute nothing,” but it does refer to a special kind of divine ability to create that belongs to God alone, such as the ability to “create” a new heart in us (Psalm 51:10). Scholar Henri Blocher puts it this way:

The verb which we translate “create” (bara) carries very substantial force in Hebrew. The Old Testament uses it most sparingly and, in that form, exclusively of the God of Israel. Never is any material mentioned. The creative act appears supremely effortless and its result sometimes miraculous (Exod. 34:10), frequently new (Ps. 51:10, 104:30; Isa. 48:7, 65:17; Jer. 31:22) [cited in Paul Copan, Creation Out of Nothing, 54].

Second, the phrase “the heavens and the earth” is a Hebrew merism, or an expression that is not a reference to two separate realms but instead a way of describing all that exists between two “bookends.” Modern day merisms include “the rich and the poor” or “the young and old,” which don’t mention middle-class or middle-aged people but include them within phrases that refer to all age groups and social classes. This means Genesis is not describing God fashioning two places, heaven and Earth, from preexisting matter. Instead, Genesis is saying God created heaven, Earth, and all that exists in between—in other words, God created everything.

Finally, Genesis 1:1-2 can be read as describing a two-stage theory of creation where God first creates “the heavens and the earth,” or all of reality. This act of creation results in the existence of a world that is “without form and void.” God then organizes this formless void into realms of sea, air, and light and populates the realms with beings that rule over them (e.g., sun and moon) and beings that dwell in them (e.g., birds, fish, and crawling things).

So, when Wisdom says God “created the world out of formless matter,” it is referring to this second stage of the creation story and not the initial creation event. Of these references in Wisdom, Protestant scholar Paul Copan says, “It is plausible to argue that the hyle (primal matter) out of which the cosmos was made was the uninhabited ‘earth [ge],’ which was already created in Genesis 1:1. God shaped the world out of material he previously created” (Creation Out of Nothing, 61).

In fact, as we will see, the Church Fathers viewed the book of Genesis as providing a “two-stage” description of a creation from nothing, and to deny God created the world from nothing would be tantamount to denying the existence of God himself.

The gnostic error

In the early Church, Christians confronted gnostic heretics who believed there were two gods: a superior one who created spiritual things and was represented by the God of the New Testament, and an inferior one who created material things and was represented by the God of the Old Testament. Gnostics preached that salvation could be achieved only through a secret knowledge (Greek, gnosis) of God’s plan of salvation given to a select few—i.e., to themselves.

Even during the time of the apostles, you can see glimpses of the Church’s conflicts with this group. John refers to deceivers who “who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh” (2 John 1:7) and believed he was just a spiritual being who pretended to have a human body. St. Paul warned Timothy in his first letter to him about what is “falsely called knowledge [gnoseos]” (6:20) and described “liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage” (4:2-3), because marriage focuses on allegedly material evils such as sexual union.

In response to these heretics, the Church affirmed that there is only one God, and he made all things, both spiritual and material. Moreover, the Church taught that God is the unlimited source of all existence, and so if he only reorganized eternally existing matter he wouldn’t be the true God. St. Athanasius put it this way:

Others take the view expressed by Plato, that giant among the Greeks. He said that God had made all things out of preexistent and uncreated matter, just as the carpenter makes things only out of wood that already exists. But those who hold this view do not realize that to deny that God is himself the Cause of matter is to impute limitation to him, just as it is undoubtedly a limitation on the part of the carpenter that he can make nothing unless he has the wood. . . . If he only worked up existing matter and did not himself bring matter into being, he would be not the Creator but only a craftsman (The Incarnation of the Word of God).

Two hundred years earlier, St. Irenaeus said of God, “He grants to all others this very thing, existence; but the things which have been made by him have received a beginning. . . . He indeed who made all things can alone, together with his Word, properly be termed God and Lord” (Against Heresies, 3.8.3).

At the end of the first century, the Shepherd of Hermas (which was so popular—and orthodox—that it was read aloud in churches) declared, “First of all, believe that there is one God who created and finished all things and made all things out of nothing. He alone is able to contain the whole but himself cannot be contained” (2.1.1).

The two-stage creation view

But some scholars object to the idea that the early Church affirmed creation from nothing. Thomas Oord writes, “Early Christian theologians embraced the idea God created the world out of something” (The Nature of Love, 105) and goes on to cite St. Justin Martyr and St. Athenagoras as two examples. But when it comes to these and other citations from the Church Fathers, we need to remember three things.

First, many of them espoused the two-stage creation view, and so some of their writings describe creation from “formless matter,” but they saw this event as the continuation of a previous creation from nothing. St. Augustine describes such a view in his commentary on Genesis when he writes, “First there was made confused and formless matter so that out of it there might be made all the things that God distinguished and formed. . . . We correctly believe that God made all things from nothing. For, though all formed things were made from this matter, this matter itself was still made from absolutely nothing” (On Genesis, 6).

Second, the Greeks’ criticism of Christianity was that it was an intellectually inferior novelty in comparison to their ancient, lofty philosophies. Paul himself said, “Greeks seek wisdom,” and they considered it “folly” to preach salvation through Christ’s crucifixion (1 Cor. 1:22-23). As a result, the Church Fathers often used language and rhetoric that would be appealing to Greek philosophers.

A similar kind of rhetorical style can be seen in Paul’s preaching at Athens when he quoted Greek poets such as Aratus, who said, “We are God’s offspring” (Acts 17:28), even though Paul believed we are God’s spiritually adopted children (Rom. 8:15) and not his literal, biological offspring.

But in some cases the rhetoric can lead to ambiguities, as can be seen in Justin’s description of how the whole world came from “formless matter” or “the substrate,” which the Greeks took to be an eternally preexisting matter. This may simply be Justin’s reflections on the “formless matter” of Genesis 1:2 that we’ve seen would constitute the second stage of a creation from nothing.

According to Leslie Barnard in his book on Justin Martyr, “It is idle to speculate how Justin interpreted Genesis 1:1. . . . It is equally uncertain whether Justin believed in the eternity of matter in the Platonic sense as an antithesis to God” (Justin Martyr, 112).

In Justin’s dialogue with Rabbi Trypho, an old man asks Justin, “[Souls] are not then immortal?” Justin replies, “No, since the world has appeared to us to be begotten” (Dialogue with Trypho, 5). This is evidence that Justin saw the world as something that was not co-eternal with God but something he created.

A majority of Fathers

Even if Justin did affirm creation from eternally existing matter (which, as we’ve seen, is not obvious), a minority of the Church Fathers also held views that would later come to be defined as outside the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy. The majority of the Fathers affirmed that although God is uncreated, matter is created—it’s not another uncreated entity that exists alongside God and allows him to create.

For example, Athenagoras writes that Christians “distinguish God from matter and teach that matter is one thing and God another and that they are separated by a wide interval (for that the Deity is uncreated and eternal, to be beheld by the understanding and reason alone, while matter is created and perishable)” (A Plea for Christians, 4).

Near the end of the second century, in words that apply with equal force today, St. Theophilus of Antioch summarized why the distinction between creation from nothing and creation from substrate is so important:

What great thing is it if God made the world out of existent materials? For even a human artist, when he gets material from someone, makes of it what he pleases. But the power of God is manifested in this, that out of things that are not he makes whatever he pleases; just as the bestowal of life and motion is the prerogative of no other than God alone (To Autolycus, 2.4).

This is why Catholics affirm as a dogma, or a truth of divine revelation, that the Church has infallibly divined to be true that God created the world from nothing. We affirm with unflinching resolve the doctrine of creation ex nihilo that was first defined formally at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, which held that God is “creator of all things invisible and visible, spiritual and corporeal; who by his almighty power at the beginning of time created from nothing both spiritual and corporeal creatures, that is to say angelic and earthly.”

Through this doctrine we can know that God is all-powerful, and the same God who can make something from nothing could never be hindered in his ability to carry out his will, especially in regard to our salvation. Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17).

Just as the first creation was not a mere recognizing of what was already existing, the new creation in each of us doesn’t merely rearrange our fallen human nature; it brings into existence a grace that wasn’t there before that is sufficient to attain eternal life with God, the Creator of all things.

Sidebar: St. Peter on God’s Faithfulness

Some critics cite 2 Peter 3:5-6, which says “that by the word of God heavens existed long ago, and an earth formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished.” But this passage is not about whether the world was created ex nihilo. It’s about God’s faithfulness in the face of those who scoff at his coming at the end of the world.

Notice also that Peter is speaking of the Earth being formed out of water, not all of creation. This corresponds to the description in Genesis of the world being formed out of primordial waters that God created. As we’ve seen in writings from Church Fathers such as St. Augustine, there is no contradiction in describing the world being created out of something and it’s having been created ex nihilo, because God made all things from nothing, including the very substances that would form the foundation of his creation.

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