An Evil World and a God Who Controls Others? – A New Doctrine of Creation 2

March 4th, 2013 / 13 Comments

In my previous essay, I argued that the Bible supports the notion that God initially creates from something. It doesn’t support creatio ex nihilo. Now I want to address two poor reasons some Christians have affirmed creatio ex nihilo.

If the Bible – the collection of writings many Christians deem decisive for matters of doctrine – says God creates from something, why would Christians adopt another view? A number of answers could be given. I want to examine two rather poor ones.

The World is Inherently Evil

Some people say God creates from absolutely nothing, because they believe God cannot be associated with an inherently evil world. In fact, this belief originally spawned the creatio ex nihilo hypothesis.

Historian Gerhard May offers an influential account of how creatio ex nihilo theory emerged. This account centers upon Gnostics eager to disassociate God entirely from a material world. Gnostics considered the physical world essentially evil. Most believed heavenly beings of lesser rank and capabilities — not God — created the universe. For most Gnostics, says May, “the origin of the cosmos is conceived as a disturbance of the original plan, caused by the self-exaltation of the demiurgical powers.”

May credits two renegade Gnostics, Basilides and Valentinus, as originators of creatio ex nihilo theory. Instead of saying lesser beings created the universe, they said God created the universe from absolutely nothing. This idea allowed them to continue affirming that a holy God would not associate with unholy materials. Basilides was especially influential in proposing this new view. “His supreme God,” reports May, “is much more like ‘heimarmene’ of the Stoics than the God of the Bible.”

Many early Christians believed God initially created out of something rather than nothing. For example, Justin, Athenagoras, Hermogenes, and Clement of Alexandria, says May, “could hold that acceptance of an unformed matter was entirely reconcilable with biblical monotheism and the omnipotence of God.” Throughout the second century and the early part of the third, many educated Christians believed God creates out of something that pre-exists our universe.

Most Christians today and in the past reject the view that creation is inherently evil. Reporting that those who think creation is inherently evil – Gnostics — originally concocted creatio ex nihilo should give contemporary Christians some reason to reconsider the ancient creation doctrine.

God Controls Everything

Other Christians adopted creatio ex nihilo to reconcile Christian theology with a God they deem omnipotent. An omnipotent God either controls all things or could do so but usually chooses not to wield controlling power.

Irenaeus, for instance, believed God is timelessly eternal, self-sufficient, simple, impassible, omnipotent, unaffected, and commands the world through the divine will. The omni-sovereignty of God was especially important in Irenaeus’s insistence upon creatio ex nihilo. “The will of God must rule and dominate in everything,” he argued, “everything else must give way to it, be subordinated to it, and be a servant to it.”

This particular view of God’s power – “the will of God must rule and dominate in everything” – is one reason some Christians accept creatio ex nihilo. “When it comes to creation,” says Genesis scholar, Jon Levenson, “there remains a strange but potent tendency to resort to static affirmations of God’s total power.” A God who can do absolutely anything can create ex nihilo.

Immense problems emerge from the idea God must rule and dominate everything. It directly or indirectly denies creaturely freedom and agency, for instance. It goes against our commonsense experience, which is that we possess freedom and agency at least partly our own.

Perhaps the chief problem with creatio ex nihilo and the omnipotence it requires is its implications for the problem of evil. To put it bluntly: The God capable of totally controlling others is culpable for all genuine evil.

Creatio ex nihilo implicity affirms that God can exert coercive power. By “coercive power,” I mean the capacity to control others entirely or determine any occurrence completely. Creating something from nothing requires the ability to determine an occurrence completely.

A God with the ability to coerce is morally responsible for permitting evil. The kind of omnipotence required for creating from nothing, therefore, creates problems for believing God expresses steadfast love.

Let me be quick to acknowledge that many present-day Christians deny that God controls everything. They believe creatures have some degree of freedom and/or agency. But many continue to affirm creatio ex nihilo. In doing so, however, they cannot offer a satisfying account for why a loving God capable of total control does not prevent genuine evils when they arise.

Instantaneous Creatio Ex Nihilo Today

The God who can create ex nihilo is also essentially capable of creating something from nothing now, in any moment. Nothing could prevent instantaneous creation of something from nothing. For if God could bring something from nothing at one time – e.g., initial creation – God would be capable of doing so instantaneously at other times.

In his recent book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, esteemed philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, affirms creatio ex nihilo in an instant. “There is nothing to prevent God from … creating ex nihilo a full-grown horse in the middle of Times Square,” says Plantinga. He adds, “It is entirely possible for God to create a full-grown horse in the middle of Times Square without violating the principle of conservation of energy.”

But if God is capable of bringing something from nothing in any instant, a loving God should use such powers to prevent genuine evils. In other words, Plantinga’s view of God’s power makes the problem of evil unsolvable for him and those who affirm creatio ex nihilo. (Thankfully, Plantinga admits this in his book, appealing to mystery on the subject.)

Because this is an important point, let me illustrate it. Suppose a raging maniac enters a restaurant with a semi-automatic pistol and begins firing. The God who can create something out of nothing would be able to create miniature walls to deflect bullets directed at people. In doing this ex nihilo creating, God would not violate the gunman’s free will. The gunman fired freely.

If instantaneously building bullet-deflecting walls requires God’s violation of the so-called laws of nature – laws that a God who created ex nihilo would be able to violate – such violation would be justified for the sake of love. Alvin Plantinga would apparently agree, given the quote above. And if your loved one were killed in the example I offer, wouldn’t you think God’s temporary violation of a so-called natural law would be justified?

Once one begins to imagine all the ways the God capable of creating ex nihilo should prevent evil, the problem of evil becomes overwhelming!

Of course, we may think of reasons in particular situations why God would not prevent pain and suffering that is not evil – presumably because God hopes for greater good to occur. But it is impossible for me – and I think for most people – to believe a loving God capable of creating obstacles out of nothing nevertheless always fails to do so because it somehow makes the world a better place. To believe this is to believe God allowed every actual rape, holocaust, genocide, murder, torture, or other evil for some greater good.

The way we live our lives suggests we don’t really believe this kind of greater good argument!

All or Nothing Intervention?

Some say, “If God were to intervene to stop some particular evil, God would need to intervene to stop every evil.” This “all or nothing” argument wrongly says we have to choose between an all-controlling God or a God who could control but never does so.

Besides, most Christians attracted to this second all or nothing argument still say God intervenes sometimes: e.g., to resurrect Jesus, to do miracles, to culminate history. This means they really think God sometimes intervenes. It’s not “all or nothing” after all!

Even worse, when they affirm occassional intervention, they apparently think God only intervenes in really important matters. But the implication of this thinking is that every actual rape, genocide, torture, or other evil was not important enough for God to prevent! I don’t find this logic convincing, because it does not support the claim that God’s love is steadfast.

We need a different view of God’s power that does not include the idea God can control others entirely. And this means we need a new view of creation instead of creatio ex nihilo.


These are unconvincing reasons for affirming creatio ex nihilo. Christians should not think (1) the world is inherently evil or (2) God’s sovereignty means God is capable of or actually controlling others entirely.

I will argue in a future blog that we can avoid both problems by affirming the biblical notion that God always creates out of creation in love.


[1] Gerhard May, Creatio Ex Nihilo: The Doctrine of ‘Creation out of Nothing’ in Early Thought Trans. A. S. Worrall (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1994), 6-8. May notes two other studies that “finally demonstrate” that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is not present in Scripture. These are H. F. Weiss, Untersuchungen zur Kosmologie des hellenistischen und palastinischen Judentums (1966), and G. Schmuttermayr, “Schöpfung aus dem Nichts” in 2 Macc. 7:28?” BZ N. F. 17 (1973): 203-228.

[1] For a close examination of creatio ex nihilo in the early church, see James N. Hubler, “Creatio ex Nihilo: Matter, Creation, and the Body in Classical and Christian Philosophy through Aquinas” (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1995). Hubler generally agrees with May’s description of the emergence of creation ex nihilo, although they differ on some details.

[1] For extensive arguments about the influence of Greek metaphysics upon early Christian embrace of creatio ex nihilo, see Hubler, “Creatio ex Nihilo, 1995.

[1] Irenaeus, Adversus haereses, II, ed. W. W. Harvey (n/a), 34:4; May, Creatio Ex Nihilo, 174.

[1] Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil, xxi.

[1] For my more theological arguments against creatio ex nihilo, see Thomas Jay Oord, The Nature of Love: A Theology (St. Louis, Mo.: Chalice, 2010), chs. 4-5. For my more philosophical and scientific arguments against creatio ex nihilo, see Thomas Jay Oord, Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific, and Theological Engagement (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos, 2010), ch. 5.

[1] Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 78-79.

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Michael Tonn

Dr. Oord,

I agree with a lot of what you are saying, but I don’t necessarily agree some of your inferences.  For example, there could be dozens of reasons why a “all-powerful” God that creates something out of nothing doesn’t prevent evil.  I am not really sure if your argument needs to address the problem of evil.  There are too many other premises that cause the general problem of “how a loving, all-powerful God allows evil.”

That isn’t to say I disagree with you though.  I have been contemplating the idea of God creating out of something, but I didn’t think anyone else shared my heretical muses. 

To chime in a bit here, I tend to look at the creation account in a similar way… with God ordering the void… Adam and Eve are created and placed in a “good” ordered creation.  Now the problem with sin and evil (void/chaos) happens with the whole Fall incident.  With their God given freedom and responsibility to watch over the world, Adam and Eve literally start poking holes into the “good” creation allowing void to pour in.  Therefore sinful choices to push God’s presence from themselves effectively pushes God’s order away from the “good” creation.

Dennis Bratcher, whom you already know of, has inspired me contemplate these concepts.

Hans Deventer

Tom, do you think that one single concern or concept can carry an entire theology? In other words, is the problem of theodicy strong enough to be an all controlling factor in creating one’s theology? Myself, I tend to think we need more controlling concerns than one, and preferably, hold several in tension.

Thomas Jay Oord

Thanks for your good comments and questions, Michael and Hans.

As to your question, Hans, I don’t think theology should rely solely on one issue, including theodicy. My theology definitely does not. But I do think a persuasive theology will be consistent and coherent. And the issue of divine power has far reaching implications, no matter what view of divine power one embraces.

If by “tension,” you mean that theology should embrace rational inconsistency, I think differently. But if by “tension,” you mean we must account for a wide variety of experiences and ideas if we are to have a full-bodied theology, then I agree.



Hans Deventer

Tom, I don’t believe we should embrace rational inconsistency. If we did, we end up with a statement like “Wednesday is green”. It makes no sense.

However, I also believe that if we have created an all encompassing system, we can be certain God won’t fit in.

Perhaps another example will help, with apologies for the very non-relational character of the example.

I tend to see theology as a jigsaw puzzle, where a couple of pieces are missing. We (thankfully) have lots of good pieces, and they say something and do create a certain image. We can therefore say, since some of the pieces fit together, that certain theologies are more true to the Scriptures, fit better, than others. But there are always holes in the entire picture.

May we try to extrapolate? Try to fill in the missing pieces? Yes, we may. But always understanding that at such a point, we’re trying to fill in space where we don’t actually have a piece.

Does that explain somewhat how I see the tension?

Tony Scialdone

>> A God with the ability to coerce is morally responsible for permitting evil.

Naturally. The Bible affirms this many times, as in “how long will you allow evil to prosper”.

>> But if God is capable of bringing something from nothing in any instant, a loving God should use such powers to prevent genuine evils.

From where does your “should” come? Reading your words leads me in either of two directions:

1. Either God isn’t loving because He ‘does nothing’ to prevent genuine evils, or

2. God is loving, but ‘isn’t capable’ of preventing evil.

This argument sounds very familiar.

>> Once one begins to imagine all the ways the God capable of creating ex nihilo should prevent evil, the problem of evil becomes overwhelming!

Again: from where does your “should” come? On what basis do you extend your expectations of God’s behavior as the basis for sound theology? The only reason I can think of that might cause one to consider the problem of evil overwhelming is if they believe that God is impotent.

Thomas Jay Oord

Hans and Tony,

Thanks for your good comments! Here are brief responses.

Hans – I agree that we aren’t likely to have all the pieces of the puzzle. But I also think some pieces of the puzzle are so crucial that when they are missing, the puzzle makes little overall sense. I think issues of God’s love and power are such puzzle pieces.

Tony – The “should” is probably finally based on my view that what we call loving must be similar to what we think God does when loving. If the two are disanalogous, it makes little sense to continue using the word “loving” to describe what God does. So just as I think a loving human parent “should” act in certain ways to prevent evil to her children (if doing so is possible), I think God should also act in certain ways to prevent genuine evil. Because such evil occurs (horrors, holocausts, genocide, rape, etc.), I presume a loving God must not have the kind of controlling power that makes God capable of preventing that evil.

Thanks again to both of you (and others)…


Hans – ‘Wednesday is green’ while irrational to you, makes perfect sense within a poem, or a metaphor – how arid the world would be without poetry.

And maybe the genesis creation is an extended epic poem, written at the dawn of civilisation, for the purpose of communicating a fundamental mystery.

If so called theologians still debate endlessly about these origins, I think this shows an absence of rationality.


Um … all the big werds and deep thinkin’ give me a pain between the ears. I was wondering, though … where’d the stuff come from? I mean, like the stuff that was laying around that God used to create other stuff? My accomplice in life says maybe it’s from previous attempts by God to put something together that he liked, but didn’t, so he took it apart, like Legos. Or perhaps PlayDoh would be more in keeping with Scriptural reference?

Or … many of not most of us have had that ‘God is all-powerful and all-knowing (like the Wizard of Oz)’ shoved down our throats ad nauseam in Sunday school and catechism, and here you are, kicking down the sand castle of theology, like that thug on the beach in the old Charles Atlas commercials. Well, probably not; that had to do with bullies on the beach, and I don’t think you’re a bully. You do beat up my brains pretty well though. But … atheists and agnostics and other doubters like to point out that a God that would allow all the evil of the world, much less inflict such horrors as ‘judgment’ is difficult to separate from a Satanic performance … so your arguments here seem to try to rationalize away their arguments? God doesn’t really have the juice to stop all the evil in the world? 

OTOH … perhaps there is no evil in the world other than what man inflicts upon himself. Mary Lee the Great White Shark spent a lot of time meandering up and down the eastern seaboard these past few months. If she had gobbled a bunch of swimmers, would that have been ‘evil’? Or simply the natural result of inserting oneself into the food chain of a magnificent apex predator? (see for more on that little diversion). Is Mary Lee evil? Or just peckish? How about “The Grey”? Were the wolves evil? What about Neeson’s character near the end, when he challenges God (I rather liked that)? Much of what we think is ‘evil’ is not. Perhaps even the shooter you described is just a variation on Mary Lee and the wolves. Natural order of things, and God doesn’t much care one way or the other, which is why he didn’t respond to Neeson. He wasn’t even listening. I don’t know if any of this makes any sense. I think it may have, to someone, somewhere … but I ain’t bettin’ on it.

Jason Jolly

“In doing so, however, they cannot offer a satisfying account for why a loving God capable of total control does not prevent genuine evils when they arise.”

Dr. Oord,

I just picked up “Creation Made Free”, so maybe my question will be answered as I start reading it. I’ve justed begun considering “open theology” as I’ve been listening to Greg Boyd and I’m finding myself very…“open” to it (yeah, I know, bad pun).

So as someone new to the Openness debate forgive my ignorance, but couldn’t God have created out of nothing and then limit His involvement in a particular way with His creatures for the purpose of genuine creaturely freedom and a genuine love relationship with His creatures? I think Greg Boyd speaks in this manner with regard to God’s limiting Himself for the purpose of the hope of genuine love. Couldn’t this be possible without the necessary denial of creatio ex nihilo?

Personally, it doesn’t really matter to me whether or not God created out of something or nothing—should it? Are there necessary implications that should cause me to embrace the “creation out of something stance” instead of creatio ex nihilo?

I just stumbled upon your site and I look forward to some stimulating reading.


Rob Gailey


Thank you for some interesting and helpful reading. I have two questions after reading through your posts, people’s responses, and your replies.

1. If God does not create out of nothing but creates out of what God has created before, when did God first create and when God did first create, what did God create from? I can affirm God may have created the universe that we now know out of something God created before – but, if using that logic and affirming all creation flows out of God, eventually won’t I have to determine that God created the first created thing out of nothing?

2. I appreciated Tony’s reply to this post since I was thinking along the same lines. In your reply to him, you used a parenting analogy that I still have problems with. There are several times as I parent that the decision I make as a parent gets interpreted by my child’s developing understanding of the world (sees dimly) to be unfair and unjust. Sometimes, a simple explanation of the reasoning for my decision solves the child’s concern. This happens more frequently as they children get older and are able to think outside of their own concerns to consider the concerns of others. However, many times my children still do not “get” the logic behind my actions/decisions. In such circumstances, I often reply to them, “someday, when you are a parent, you can weigh the same conditions I am now faced with and make a decision you think is best/most fair.” I am fairly confident that when they become a parent, they will make the same decision I just made. I can relate to their thinking/understanding (though I differ with them as their parent) because I remember thinking the same way when I was the child. When I became an adult (without kids), my perspectives changed significantly. Now that I am a parent to two children, my understanding and perspective has changed even more. Could it be that our understanding of evil (and God’s seeming inaction in the face of it) is partly a result of us still seeing God’s creation and love dimly rather than evidence that God is unable to stop it?

Thanks for stimulating an important dialogue!

Thomas Jay Oord


Thanks for your questions!

As to 1, I’m saying there never was a first, in the sense of the first in a series. I do think God acts first in each moment, but I think God has been doing this everlastingly. To say God always creates from that which God previously created and God has been doing so everlastingly is no different, logically, than saying God has been existing everlastingly, with no beginning.

Your second point is also a good one. But if we say our understanding of good and evil can never align with God’s, we have no good reason to avoid saying “God is evil” as well as “God is love.” While I agree that we cannot know all and our view of good and evil is never perfect, we at least must have some dim understanding of good and evil if our language about God being good is to make any sense. So… yes, we see through a glass darkly—but we still see something!

Thanks again!

Thomas Jay Oord


Thanks for the note, and I hope you like Creation Made Free. May I also recommend my book, The Nature of Love? It explores some answers to the good questions you pose.

Some open theists affirm creatio ex nihilo. Others do not. I’m offering in a series of blog posts my reasons for why I don’t affirm it. And, perhaps more importantly, I’m offering an alternative that I think is more faithful to Scripture and presents a more consistent view of God.


Can we, not being God, truly know or understand the mind of God? Or think feel and act as God does? Is God a thing that can be labeled? Boxed in? Weighed and stamped and identified? How little we know as humans in this vast creation. How little we know of who started it or how. All we can do is question. And the questions lead to… surprise! more questions.

If a true God exists it is possible he/she/it is multiple gods in one with many faces and personalities and sexes just as humans (the creation) are. If God truly exists it is possible God is both evil and good and fashions his/her/it’s world just the same using itself as the basis for a model.

We are so limited and finite on this planet that we cannot even presume or begin to fathom why we were put here, by whom or what, and for what purpose. All we know is that all of creation and people in it are both “good” and “evil” and capable of both. Perhaps the reason we are here is not to question or get angry or confused but to live our life and make a choice to please this God or being who put us here.

Maybe we have to decide, are we good or evil? Do we choose good or evil? In order to please this God who is both and also has to make up its own mind based on the findings of what it watches or evaluates us to be doing? It is quite possible that all of the cosmos is a testing or proving ground to see what works the best for the “next model” that this God will make.

What if all we are is just an ever changing, ever shifting, ever evolving mass, that has a form but can be molded constantly into different things? What if this process will never end? Or what if it does and evil wins? Hopefully good will win? The point is we cannot know and never will we can only question and post theories.

But to kill one another over it or argue to the point of hatred of one another over it is pointless and a waste of time that could otherwise be spent loving and being good to one another. Perhaps that was the idea and point all along in God’s mind.

But again, I digress, who really knows? Were just human and here along for the ride. Let’s wait and see or hope we ever come to see and get answers.

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