I had a dialogue on social media recently with someone who objected to the idea that God created the world “out of” or “from” nothing. That brief interaction (which I’ll provide in a moment) gives us the opportunity to think further on what creation ex nihilo means and doesn’t mean.
Creation Ex Nihilo
The early chapters of Genesis describe how God created the totality of all things. Every reader of the Bible is familiar with the creation days of Genesis chapter 1. This critical doctrine is also discussed in various parts of both the Old and New Testaments. And affirmations of creation form the first stanzas of the ancient creeds of Christendom (Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds).
A central feature of how Christians have understood God’s initial role in creation involves the expression creation ex nihilo: creation out of or from nothing. Historical theologian Richard Muller defines the Latin term ex nihilo as a reference to “the divine creation of the world not of preexistent, and therefore eternal, materials, but out of nothing.”1The doctrine of creation ex nihilo is derived from various biblical passages (Genesis 1:1; Romans 4:17; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 11:3).
Clarifying What Christians Mean by “From Nothing”
With that context, here now is the paraphrased discussion I had with an inquirer on social media:
Correspondent: God most certainly didn’t create “out of” or “from” nothing. Not even the all-powerful Lord could perform such an act. God merely brought that which didn’t previously exist into existence. What he created “from” was himself (who and what he is), not from nothing.
My response: I respectfully think you have misunderstood the historic definition of “out of” or “from” nothing. The historic Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo says nothing existed but the triune God and then God called all contingent (dependent) entities and beings into existence from nonexistence. God didn’t create out of himself (creation ex Deo) rather he called all things into existence that previously didn’t exist (ergo out of or from nothing). Thus creation ex nihilo means “bring into existence that which did not exist prior.” Creation ex nihilo is historically the biblical and Christian response to the Platonic claim that a deity (the Demiurge) created out of preexistent entities. I hope that helps.
Correspondent: Nothing? What was there other than God from which to bring forth something? Either it came out of God (as the source of all being) or from nothing, the latter of which sounds like hocus-pocus magic.
My response: God, through his incalculable wisdom and power alone, created that which previously didn’t exist. Instead of using preexistent matter or some other substance, God brought all things into existence from nonexistence. I think your misunderstanding is in thinking that nonexistence is a substance. It’s not. It is literally no thing. “Out of” or “from nothing” is not a magical substance. It just means God alone called all things into existence that previously didn’t exist.
Further, the source of creation is God’s power and wisdom and “out of” nonexistence simply means that which previously didn’t exist. So creation is by God but from nothing (no preexistent materials were used in creating). I think your basic description that “God merely brought that which didn’t previously exist into existence” actually matches with creation ex nihilo, though you have to be careful not to imply that God created out of himself which is known as creation ex Deo and is similar to the Eastern religious view (pantheism).
In thinking carefully about creation it is equally important to understand what the doctrine of creation ex nihilodoes not mean. Consider these three points:
- The cosmos was not created either in God or out of God’s being.
- The cosmos was not made of preexisting materials, such as matter.
- God didn’t create the cosmos out of a nothing that was an actual something.
Creation testifies to God’s infinite wisdom and power. Thus, studying the Bible and observing the natural world should lead God’s redeemed people to worship the triune Creator.
Reflections: Your Turn
Does observing nature lead you to worship?
- For further study of creation ex nihilo, see Kenneth Richard Samples, 7 Truths That Changed the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012), chapters 5 and 6.
- For an understanding of science and Christianity, see Kenneth Richard Samples, Christianity Cross-Examined(Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2021), chapters 1 and 2.
- Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1985), s.v. “ex nihilo.”