Creatio Ex Nihilo: The Problem
I believe God created the heavens, the earth, and every living thing. But I think Christians should reject the idea that God created the universe from absolutely nothing.
Theologians typically use the Latin label, “creatio ex nihilo,” to identify the idea that God created the universe from absolutely nothing. While a few have said that the nothing of “nihilo” refers to chaos, the vast majority of theologians have insisted on the literal meaning of nothing. God began with absolutely nothing when creating our universe.
I find few Christians who seriously consider the assets and liabilities of creatio ex nihilo. Few study the biblical, historical, theological, and scientific dimensions of the doctrine. This is in many ways understandable. Until we have some reason to question traditional assumptions, we tend to accept what we’re told.
I first became suspicious of creatio ex nihilo in the mid 1990s. At first, my worry was what the doctrine implied about God’s power and the problem of evil. If God had the power to create something from absolutely nothing, God would have the power to prevent genuine evil unilaterally. Genuine evils exist that a loving God would want to prevent. So I began to entertain the idea that creatio ex nihilo may not be worth affirming.
Over the years, I’ve realized that the doctrine has many other significant problems. I list nine below. For most of the nine, I add a brief sentence giving support or justification.
The Bible plays a central role in my theology. But I list the biblical problem with creatio ex nihilo last, so I can supplement it with a few quotes from biblical scholars.
Problems with Creatio Ex Nihilo
Theoretical problem: absolute nothingness cannot be conceived.
Historical problem: Creatio ex nihilo was first proposed by Gnostics – Basilides and Valentinus – who assumed that creation was inherently evil and that God does not act in history. It was adopted by early Christian theologians to affirm the kind of absolute divine power that many Christians – especially Wesleyans – now reject.
Empirical problem: We have no evidence that our universe originally came into being from absolutely nothing.
Creation at an instant problem: We have no evidence in the history of the universe after the big bang that entities can emerge instantaneously from absolute nothingness. Out of nothing comes nothing (ex nihil, nihil fit).
Solitary power problem: Creatio ex nihilo assumes that a powerful God once acted alone. But power is a social concept only meaningful in relation to others.
Errant revelation problem: The God with the capacity to create something from absolutely nothing would apparently have the power to guarantee an unambiguous and inerrant message of salvation (e.g, inerrant Bible). An unambiguously clear and inerrant divine revelation does not exist.
Evil problem: If God once had the power to create from absolutely nothing, God essentially retains that power. But a God of love with this capacity is culpable for failing to use it periodically to prevent genuine evil.
Empire Problem: The kind of divine power implied in creatio ex nihilo supports a theology of empire, which is based upon unilateral force and control of others.
Biblical problem: Scripture – in Genesis, 2 Peter, and elsewhere – suggests creation from something (water, deep, chaos, invisible things, etc.), not creation from absolutely nothing.
Genesis 1 and other biblical passages do not claim that God created the world from absolutely nothing. Here is what biblical scholars say:
Jon Levenson: “Properly understood,” Genesis 1:1—2:3 “cannot be invoked in support of the developed Jewish, Christian, and Muslim doctrine of creatio ex nihilo.”
Claus Westermann: creatio ex nihilo “is foreign to both the language and thought of P (the unknown author of Genesis 1); it is clear that there can be here no question of a creatio ex nihilo; our query about the origin of matter is not answered; the idea of an initial chaos goes back to mythical and premythical thinking.”
Terrence Fretheim: “God’s creating in Genesis 1…includes ordering that which already exists…. God works creatively with already existing reality to bring about newness.”
Rolf P. Knierim: “it can be said that Yahweh is the creator of the world because he is its liberator from chaos, just as he is the creator of Israel because he is its liberator from oppression.”
Catherine Keller summarizes recent biblical scholarship: “Among biblical scholars there has existed on this matter a near, if nervous, consensus for decades. The Bible knows only of the divine formation of the world out of a chaotic something.”
The only significant thing creatio ex nihilo has going for it is that so many Christians through the ages have supported it. The earliest Christians, however, embraced the idea God created the world out of something.
For instance, Philo postulated a pre-existent matter alongside God. Justin, Athenagoras, Hermogenes, and Clement of Alexandria spoke about the creation of the world. Origen of Alexandria and, later, John Scotus Erigena argued that God is essentially creative.
Historian Gerhard May, when noting the early Christian theologian who did not affirm creatio ex nihilo, says they “could hold that acceptance of an unformed matter was entirely reconcilable with biblical monotheism and the omnipotence of God.”
But the majority of later Christian theologians affirmed creatio ex nihilo. There’s no getting around this. And because Christian tradition is important to me, I do not take lightly the idea that I oppose the majority.
In my mind, however, the nine problems I have listed above are so strong that opposing the majority of the Christian tradition seems the sensible thing to do. Besides, the tradition does not jibe with the biblical witness on this issue. I typically opt for the Bible over tradition.
I happen to think that pointing out problems in the existing theory is not enough. A constructive Christian theologian like me should suggest a replacement. I will propose an alternative theory of creation in a subsequent essay. I call it creatio ex creare en amore — God creating out of creation in love.