Why I Reject Creation from Nothing

June 17th, 2017 / 15 Comments

Few people wake up one morning and say, “Today, I will renounce the idea God created our universe from nothing.”

I suspect that most people have not even heard of the idea, which is expressed by the Latin words creatio ex nihilo. And those who have heard of creation from nothing probably have no reason to question the theory. Until we discover problems with our views, we continue believing them.

I’ve spent the last few days at a conference at which I was probably the only scholar who thinks Christians should renounce creatio ex nihilo. That experience prompts me to write this blog.

I want to tell a bit of my story about how I’ve come to reject creation from nothing.

My Testimony

Until the 1990s, I accepted creation from nothing. I had no reason to question the longstanding view of how God made the universe. The theory identified God as Creator, and I didn’t matter to me much how God created. In my view, the details were irrelevant.

I discovered during this time that the Bible provided little to no support for creation from nothing. Believers might read the theory into the text. But it wasn’t explicitly stated there.

Upon discovering that creatio ex nihilo isn’t explicitly stated in the Bible, I didn’t reject the theory immediately. After all, the Bible has little to no support for the theories of gravity, photosynthesis, or evolution, but I accept them. I had come to believe that science tells us what God creates and the Bible tells us that God creates. The how and the why of creation were not central to me, at least as I tried to make sense of how science and theology relate.

The Primacy of Love

During the 1990s, I also became convinced that God’s nature is love, and God always loves all creation. I believed that humans were to some extent free, and God did not control everything. I did not blame God for unnecessary pain and gratuitous suffering, because I believed God opposed evil. My orienting concern became the biblical claim that God is love, although I was just beginning to work out what this entails.

I also came to believe God calls us to live lives of love. As a Christian, I wanted to love God, others, myself, and all creation. I wanted to follow Jesus’ example and live in response to his life, death, and resurrection. I encouraged others to love too. To me, love mattered most both for understanding God and for understanding how I and others ought to act.

In the latter portion of the 1990s, I began to think in greater depth about God’s power and love. I realized that if God allowed genuine evil that God could have prevented, God could not be perfectly good. A truly good person prevents genuine evil if doing so is possible. To put it another way, a good person – whether human or divine – does not permit the unnecessary suffering that could be stopped.

Defending Belief in God

As I took graduate classes and eventually earned my doctoral degree in philosophy of religion and theology, I encountered sophisticated “defenses” for why God permits evil. Famous scholars offered excuses for why a loving God allegedly allows evil in our lives. But none of those defenses or excuses convinced me. I could think of no good reason why a loving and omnipotent God would allow unnecessary evil that God could have been prevented.

I recognized, of course, that God might not want to eliminate all discomfort, pain, and suffering. Our growth and ultimate happiness sometimes require difficulties. But a loving God would want to stop meaningless malevolence, unnecessary pain, and gratuitous suffering. These are genuine evils. Genuine evils make the world worse than it might otherwise have been had some other possible events occurred. We all believe in genuine evil — at least we act like we do. The Christian view of sin assumes that genuine evils occur, and our sin makes us culpable for at least some evils.

By the turn of the 21st century, I was convinced God must not have the power necessary to prevent evil by acting alone. To put it simply, God can’t prevent creatures or creation from doing evil. God can’t do so, because God’s love is self-giving, others-empowering, and uncontrolling. Consequently, I wrote several articles that addressed God’s power and love in light of evil. My most sophisticated argument to date is found in my book The Uncontrolling Love of God. If you’re interested in the details, I hope you consider getting the book.

But here’s the crux of my argument…

God Can’t Prevent Evil

Like just about everyone, I think genuine evils occur. Most if not all murder, rape, torture, incest, and genocide are genuinely evil. And we could list many other genuine evils. Such evils didn’t need to occur. They seem to serve no greater purpose. Because of them, our lives are worse than they might have been. A loving person with the power to stop genuine evil ought to do so. Love not only does good, it also prevents evil, if it can.

In my intellectual journey, I came to believe God cannot prevent genuine evil, at least not by acting alone. To put it in a sophisticated way, God cannot unilaterally determine any creature, situation, or natural law to stop genuine evil.

Some people are troubled when they hear me say God can’t do something. Most Christians don’t realize the Bible says there are things God cannot do. But thinking God’s power is limited is common among theologians and Christian philosophers. Most say God can’t act illogically, for instance. Many say God can’t contradict God’s own nature. If we think about it carefully, saying God cannot do some things isn’t so odd.

My argument says God cannot control others. God cannot do this, because controlling others would require God to contradict God’s own nature of love. I call my view “essential kenosis.”

Essential Kenosis

In his letter to the Church in Philippi, the Apostle Paul says Jesus reveals God’s kenosis. I think kenosis is God’s self-giving, others-empowering love. In kenotic love, God provides freedom, agency, self-organization, and/or existence to creatures and creation. God’s love gives, does good, but cannot control others.

Because love comes first logically in God’s nature, God’s must self-give and others-empower. God cannot not love, to use the double negative. Love is God’s heart, and God “cannot deny himself,” to quote the Apostle Paul (2 Tim. 2:13). God’s gifts are “irrevocable,” to quote Paul again (Rom. 11:29). God always and necessarily expresses self-giving, others-empowering love.

Essential kenosis says God cannot control others, in the sense of unilaterally determining what they do. I’m using the phrase “cannot control others” in the way philosophers might use the phrase “sufficient cause.” More specifically, God cannot withdraw, withhold, or override the freedom, agency, self-organization, or existence God necessarily gives creatures and creation.

In short, I believe God can’t control others.

Because God cannot control, God is not morally responsible for failing to prevent evil. The uncontrolling God of love neither causes nor allows genuine evil. Creatures and creation are evil’s source. Stopping evil requires both 1) God’s loving action and 2) creaturely cooperation or appropriate creaturely conditions. In other words, creation plays an essential role in preventing evil.

Essential kenosis solves the central riddle in the problem of evil. It rejects the idea that God voluntarily refrains from controlling others. Some kenosis theologies affirm such voluntarily self-limitation. But a voluntarily self-limited God should sometimes freely become un-self-limited, in the name of love, to prevent genuine evil. Theologians who say God voluntarily self-limits, therefore, cannot solve the problem of evil.

My view says God’s nature of love regulates God’s power, which means, in part, that God cannot control others. Self-giving, others-empowering, and therefore uncontrolling love is essential to God’s nature, and God always loves. That’s why I call my view essential kenosis.

Essential kenosis rejects the idea that external forces limit God. Rather than outside powers, agents, or natural laws placing limits on God, God’s own nature limits divine power. Exterior authorities don’t box God in or put God in a metaphysical straightjacket. God’s own nature of love orders what God can and cannot do.

God cannot control others, because God’s nature is uncontrolling love.

The Problem of Evil and Creation from Nothing

Because I think genuine evils occur often in the world, I came to believe creatio ex nihilo ought to be abandoned.

There are other reasons I think we ought to reject creation from nothing. I’ll address those in due time. But I’m walking through my intellectual journey to show the connection between the problem of evil and rejecting creatio ex nihilo.

I came to see that the creation from nothing theory assumes a view of divine power that makes God culpable for failing to prevent evil. In other words, a God who can create from nothing could stop unnecessary evil. A God culpable for evil isn’t a consistently loving God. Because I think God always loves and is never morally blameworthy, creatio ex nihilo had to go. And because I believe God’s motive for creating is love, I needed a theory of initial creation that put love front and center.

I’m currently working on a book that explores these issues in greater depth.  My main point for this essay, however, is to indicate a bit of my journey to rejecting creation from nothing. In short, I cannot affirm creation from nothing and also explain well why a loving and powerful God fails to prevent genuine evil.

In the name of love, I reject creatio ex nihilo.

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Comments

John Mears

Hi Tom,
Great post.
I have a couple of question that my little mind can’t quite grasp, hope you can help me out.
My question is to “be” love, surely, God has to be loving something. If there is nothing for God to be loving, is he still love?
And if he could not love (and be love) before creation, could he not hence, as being by nature creative (let’s assume creativity can exist in void) create ex nihilo or ex foecunditas? Upon perception of creation, fall in love, become by nature love and the rest is history.
My second question would be why creatio ex nihilo and non-coerciveness are incompatible? If there is nothing, and you can create ex nihilo, you are not controlling but empowering, but as soon as you create ex nihilo when there is something, if it coerces or controls it can’t be (going against love), but if it doesn’t control or coerce it is possible?
Fully enjoy reading your pieces as always.
Hope the conference went well,
J.


Scott Rose

Well, I think that creatio ex nihilo references the fact that God did not create the universe from pre-existing matter. We know how to change matter into energy, at least partially. Some theorize that matter can be changed completely to energy. Well God changed the energy of His Word into matter and formed the universe.


Todd Holden

It would seem at the very least this path necessarily leads to believing that God is not all powerful and never has been. There are things God cannot do and creating out of nothing is just another one of those things.

As I say that thought I wonder in that framework is or would God be considered to be the most powerful? The answer is quite important. If God is the most powerful then this view still meshes together. If God is not the most powerful then that brings up many other questions and seriously re shapes our theology.


Thomas Jay Oord

Todd – Thanks for your comments. I do believe God is almighty, and one of the ways God is almighty is by being the mightiest being. I agree that without this attribute, serious changes would need to be made in theology.


thomasjayoord

John – Great questions! Here are some brief responses.

I think that if God is necessarily loving, there must be others whom God loves. And those others must go beyond members of the Trinity, which would amount to self-love. My view says God always creates and always love, because God’s nature is love and there are always creatures God has created for God to love.

Your second question is also good, and I give a couple of short chapters to it in the book. I’ll probably post those soon to get your (and others) feedback. In brief, I say the God who could create something from nothing in the past could do so now. And creating something from nothing now would not mean controlling any existing creatures. God SHOULD create something from nothing now (if God were able) to prevent genuine evil. Because God doesn’t prevent genuine evil today using this creation method, we have good grounds to think God doesn’t have this capacity at all. Make sense?

Thanks again!

Tom


thomasjayoord

Thanks for the response, Scott. I may be wrong, but your position sounds like creatio ex deo: God creating from Godself. This seems to be pantheism. If you distinguish God from God’s word, I wonder what this word entails. If its energy, this seems to be something either outside of God (and hence not God) or Godself (which, again, seems like panetheism).

Can you see my worries with your view?


Todd Holden

Tom

Another question that comes to mind is if God cannot create out of nothing then what God creates from was already existing before God created. This is also in light of that you have already established that God cannot also create from God’s self.

What was “what God created from”? Where did this creative material originate? It seems that somewhere in my reading I had read from you that existence is created then dies and then is created again. Which if is the case also informs the answer to what God used to create and certainly informs our theology as well.


Alan Besherse

I agree with you Tom. Genisis 1:2 says, “the earth was without form and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”

Clearly something was there when God began the creation process of life and exsistance as we now know it. I think it could be argued that in creating God drew together matter and energy that excisted already (possibly leftovers from His previous creations).

Of course I don’t KNOW any of this and I dont think ANYONE can. I think the important issue with creation is not “how” (science) but “that” (Bible) God created and therefore His creation ultimately will answer to Him. Can He stop evil from happening? I am fully convinced and persuaded that He cannot. He even said at the tower of Babble that if Humans were allowed to continue totally united NOBODY could stop them. I believe God’s interaction with evil has been more of a damage control holding pattern type strategy to prevent evil’s total control of His creation. But in the end evil will answer to a sovereign Creator. Justice will be served because of God’s nature of love.


Todd Holden

Given the two posts that you sent would it be fair to say that we should not think of an ultimate beginning but only accept that God is the creator?

If I am understanding correctly it would be helpful then to dispose of the notion of the linear view of time altogether. And again, if I am understanding this correctly a purely Western mindset is not entirely helpful as well in that, as in a more Eastern mindset, we should become more comfortable with what appears to be a paradox.

I am now more than ever looking forward to your book!


John Mears

Hi Tom,
Thanks for your response,
Fully agree with you on your response to my first question, albeit, see God’s nature hatching in his act of creation. Would you be submitting that God has been creating and interacting with creation from eternity past, and that there was no such thing as a beginning? Logical questions from that would be how does Jesus’ redemptive act fit in? Surely, the cross couldn’t have been the only time he redeemed creation? Is it a recurrent thing? And where does that leave humanity’s relationship with God with relation to the rest of creation? And finally, in the second post you directed Todd to, you affirm that everything (other than God) is temporary. As such would you deny the classical concept of eternal life?
As to your response to my second question, well I’m eagerly anticipating your forthcoming book.


thomasjayoord

Alan – You and I seem to be pretty much on the same page here! I’m finding more and more people who find this general approach attractive.


thomasjayoord

Thanks for the followup question, John M. I do think God has always been creating, which means everlastingly in the past. As far as redemption goes, I’m very open to the possibility that God uses other means on other planets for redemption. As far as life without end for creatures in the future, I’m open to that possibility. But because such creatures had a beginning, I wouldn’t say their lives are literally everlasting.

Thanks again,

Tom


Todd Holden

Given your answer to John, wouldn’t that make Jesus just the Savior of the earth alone? If that is so wouldn’t that then effect our doctrine of the trinity? Shouldn’t God be God no matter where in creation one would find themselves?


Bev Mitchell

Tom,

Thinking this through to its logical end, as you do, puts us into territory where many will not tread. It is often more comfortable to play the mystery card before crossing the line, or it ‘feels’ more pious to place God’s power as his primary attribute and thus demote love to something he choses to do and not something he is and therefore must do. A God who is less relational seems a bit safer – until you think it through.

Thanks for pushing and challenging us in this area. Even when all that is accomplished is to make us think about the limitations of our positions much more carefully, progress is being made. We want to be comfortable with where we play a mystery card. You have discomfited us.


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