God created the universe out of nothing (ex nihilo)

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By Spencer D Gear

Some Christians struggle with the view that God created the universe ex nihilo, which is the Latin phrase that means ‘out of nothing’. The Bible begins, ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ (Gen 1:1). From what did God create the universe?

Saint Augustine Portrait.jpg

St Augustine of Hippo (image courtesy Wikipedia)

3d-gold-star St Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430) wrote that ‘though God formed man of the dust of the earth, yet the earth itself, and every earthly material, is absolutely created out of nothing; and man’s soul, too, God created out of nothing, and joined to the body, when He made man’ (City of God 14.11).

Norm Geisler explains:[1]

The world must have been made out of nothing because it had a beginning; it came to be. It did not always exist; God did. The world is finite, temporal, and changing, while God is none of these. Hence, the world cannot be made out of God’s substance or essence. It must, then, have come into existence out of nothing by God’s power (Geisler 2003:431).

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Thomas Aquinas (image courtesy Wikipedia)

3d-gold-star Thomas Aquinas (AD1224-1274) wrote on the topic, ‘Whether to create is to make something from nothing?’ He admitted that one of the objections is: ‘To create is not to make something from nothing’, to which his response was:

On the contrary, On the text of Gn. 1, “In the beginning God created,” etc., the gloss has, “To create is to make something from nothing.”

I answer that, As said above (Q[44], A[2]), we must consider not only the emanation of a particular being from a particular agent, but also the emanation of all being from the universal cause, which is God; and this emanation we designate by the name of creation. Now what proceeds by particular emanation, is not presupposed to that emanation; as when a man is generated, he was not before, but man is made from “not-man,” and white from “not-white.” Hence if the emanation of the whole universal being from the first principle be considered, it is impossible that any being should be presupposed before this emanation. For nothing is the same as no being. Therefore as the generation of a man is from the “not-being” which is “not-man,” so creation, which is the emanation of all being, is from the “not-being” which is “nothing” (Summa Theologica, I.45).[2]

For an examination of this topic of God’s creating the universe from nothing (ex nihilo), we move from the sophisticated Aquinas in the thirteenth century to an everyday person on a Christian Internet forum in the 21st century.

Difficult to comprehend creation ex nihilo

A poster on a Christian Forum wrote:

I can’t comprehend ex nihilo. I can’t comprehend the “nothing” that God created the world out of. First I think of space as nothing but space is something. God created the universe, everything, out of NOTHING!’[3]

So do I.[4] But I struggle to even begin to reach a beginning understanding of the nature of the Almighty, omnipotent, omniscient, eternal God who bothers to provide salvation to a puny person like me.

As for creating out of ‘nothing’, let’s try. The Hebrew verb bara (created) in Genesis 1:1 expresses ‘something great, new and “epoch-making,” as only God can do it’ (Leupold 1942:40-41), but the verb does not have to eliminate existing material as we know from Isa 65:18b as an example. However, creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing) is indicated by passages such as Rom 4:17; Heb 11:3. See also Psalm 33:6, 9; Amos 4:13.

For my understanding, to create out of nothing is associated with the Kal use of bara create, which is only associated with divine creation and refers to the production of something (in this case, the universe – the heavens and the earth) that had no existence before this (Keil & Delitzsch n d:47). There was no word in Hebrew for ‘universe’ so ‘the heaven and the earth’ was the phrase God used. Keil & Delitzsch stated it this way, ‘There is nothing belonging to the composition of the universe, either in material or form, which had an existence out of God prior to this divine act in the beginning’ (Keil & Delitzsch n d:47).

I find it difficult to get my head around this concept, but when God has revealed that this happened this way, I accept it for the way it was because of who God is. The important thing for me to remember is: The universe (heaven and earth, and the first human beings) had a beginning. The universe is not eternal and the Lord God created them. He called the universe into existence because of who he is and the power he exerts.

By the way, this universe at the end of time will be destroyed by the same power of Almighty God (see 2 Peter 3:7; Rev 21). That’s hard to comprehend as well. It’s as certain to happen as the creation out of nothing was.

The person on the Christian forum continued:

It doesn’t make a difference to me as far as my faith is concerned whether God chose to create humans directly, like Adam as a full adult, or whether God chose evolution to develop the physical human body and then put an immortal soul into the body at some point.[5]

Same here. But when God has not told us that he used macro evolution, but created ex nihilo, I believe him rather than the God-denying evolutionists, especially with Darwin’s eminent promotion. We are dealing with the truthfulness of God. Since he is correct about eternal salvation, he is also correct about how he made the universe (limited though the details may be in Scripture).

The poster continued:

I always liked science. I was a biology major with minors in math and geology (long time ago) but I still try to keep up on things by subscribing to some magazines like Scientific American, etc. That stuff fascinates me because I can see the Hand of God in it,[6]

I’m a maths and science major from high school but didn’t pursue it further, although I went into university to become a science teacher but didn’t finish the course. It’s encouraging that you see the hand of God in science. Many scientists do not. In my recent 5th valve replacement heart surgery and an ICD (like a pacemaker) implant revealed the intricate nature of the heart’s electrical system. One nurse told me: ‘The heart has an amazing electrical system but there is no motor to drive it’. My response was that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, but that zoomed right past her.

The poster brought Darwin and God into the conversation:

I realize Darwin wanted to remove God from the equation but that’s just Darwin’s opinion. What counts — to me anyway — is that God won’t remove ME from God’s Equation![7]

It’s not just Darwin who wanted to remove God from the creation equation. Many other scientists and journalists do it, Richard Dawkins[8] and Christopher Hitchens[9] are overt examples of this anti-God attempt in the scientific world. Let’s check out what Dawkins and Hitchens thing.

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Richard Dawkins (photograph courtesy Wikipedia)

6pointblue Richard Dawkins wrote: ‘I never take part in debates with creationists’. His footnote at this point was, ‘I do not have the chutzpah to refuse on grounds offered by one of my most distinguished scientific colleagues, whenever a creationist tries to stage a formal debate with him (I shall not name him, but his words should be read in an Australian accent): “That would look great on your CV; not so good on mine”’ (Dawkins 2006:318).

So what’s Dawkins’ view of God and creation since he is the one who wrote The God delusion (2006)? Of natural selection of Darwinian evolution, Dawkins wrote that ‘it shatters the illusion of design within the domain of biology, and teaches us to be suspicious of any kind of design hypothesis in physics and cosmology as well’ (2006:143). Dawkins endorses other authors in what they write about God and creation. He favourably cited physicist Leonard Susskind who wrote, ‘Modern cosmology really began with Darwin and Wallace. Unlike anyone before them, they provided explanations of our existence that completely rejected supernatural agents’ (in Dawkins 2006:143).

He also referred to the prose poetry of Peter Atkins’ hypothesis of a ‘lazy God’, Dawkins summarised: ‘Step by step, Atkins succeeds in reducing the amount of work the lazy God has to do until he finally ends up doing nothing at all: he might as well not bother to exist’. Then Dawkins added what I, as an evangelical Christian, consider is a blasphemous statement, ‘My memory vividly hears Woody Allen’s perceptive whine: “If it turns out that there is a God, I don’t think that he’s evil. But the worst that you can say about him is that basically he’s an under-achiever’ (in Dawkins 2006:144).

Opposition to the Dawkins’ view of god

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Alister McGrath (photograph courtesy Wikipedia)

6pointblue Alister & Joanna McGrath examined the validity of Dawkins’ arguments in The God Delusion (Dawkins 2006) in The Dawkins Delusion? (McGrath & McGrath (2007). Their comments include these:

Whereas [Stephen Jay] Gould[10] at least tries to weigh the evidence, Dawkins simply offers the atheist equivalent of slick hellfire preaching, substituting turbocharged rhetoric and highly selective manipulation of facts for careful, evidence-based thinking. Curiously, there is surprisingly little scientific analysis in The God Delusion…. Dawkins preaches to his god-hating choirs….

Many have been disturbed by Dawkins’s crude stereotypes, vastly oversimplified binary oppositions (science is good; religion is bad), straw men and hostility toward religion…. Dawkins relies so excessively on rhetoric rather than the evidence that would otherwise be his natural stock in trade clearly indicates that something is wrong with his case. Ironically the ultimate achievement of The God Delusion for modern atheism may be to suggest that this emperor has no clothes to wear. Might atheism be a delusion about God? (McGrath & McGrath 2007:11, 97).

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Christopher Hitchens (photograph courtesy Wikipedia)

6pointblue This was Christopher Hitchens’ view:

It’s, as I say in my book, it’s an optional belief now. It’s been optional ever since LaPlace, when demonstrating the workings of the universe, was asked well, there doesn’t seem to be a God in this design of yours, he said well, it actually operates perfectly well without that assumption. So you can make it if you want, but it’s completely superfluous. It can’t be integral to it. It doesn’t explain anything. Einstein did say he was not an atheist, but he went on to say that he had no belief whatever in a personal God. He was a spinozist, which is a very exact way of saying that you do not believe that God intervenes in human affairs….

It seems to me, though, that the really unbelievable thing, the thing that cannot be believed, is that we on this very tiny speck of a planet in a solar system that has otherwise only dead planets, and the death of which we can all anticipate almost to the hour, the heat death of our known universe, that it’s on the very, very edge of a whirling, unimaginable space with other galaxies, that we are the point of all this creation. It’s just not possible for me, at any rate, to believe that….

Many people of high intelligence and fervent conscience have been devout believers. I say that I think the belief is stupid and unfounded and false, and potentially, latently, always wicked, because it is both servile in one way, and arrogant in another. And that’s why I dare to say that it’s ab initio, a poison. But I certainly do not say of people who have faith that they are dumb. Isaac Newton was practically a spiritualist. Alfred Russel Wallace, who did a lot of Darwin’s work for him, had weird, supernatural beliefs as well. These things are compatible with high intelligence and great morality. But we would be better off if we left them behind….

You know, if there’s a God, why have I got cancer? What a silly question. It would be, I wouldn’t have any idea why He would want that. I would just have to accept it. But I mean, I don’t, I do not go in for this game at all, and I don’t know why anybody does. (Roberts 2007).

Mark D Roberts (photograph courtesy Patheos)

In his debate with Christopher Hitchens, Dr Mark Roberts concluded:

I think what I would want to say is that we can look at the wonder of Creation, or that’s perhaps begging the question, of the universe as it is, and we can get to the point of saying either that’s all there is, and it is wonderful, or we can get to the point of saying there must be something beyond this, some sort of God, can’t be proved, but one can’t say that it doesn’t matter whether there is that God or not (Roberts 2007).

portrait of R. Douglas Geivett

(R Douglas Geivett, photograph courtesy Talbot School of Theology)

6pointblue Christian apologist, William Lane Craig debated Christopher Hitchens at Biola University, California, on April 5, 2009. Christian apologist, Doug Geivett was at that debate and recorded his comments on the night of the debate in, ‘William Lane Craig vs. Christopher Hitchens: First Report’. The topic of the debate was, ‘Does God exist?’ These are a few grabs from Geivett’s early assessment:

  • In the rebuttal, cross-examination, and response portions of the debate that followed, Bill Craig pressed Christopher Hitchens on his conception of atheism, his reasons for being an atheist, and his responses to the arguments presented in Craig’s opening speech. In this respect, Craig was in greater control of themes in the debate. This was helped immensely by the clear progression, crisp identification, and repetition of his original arguments. Hitchens resisted Craig’s efforts to extract a more precise definition of Hitchens’s atheism than his simple denial that there is adequate evidence for theism. Hitchens claimed that if you believe the universe is designed, then you also have to believe the designer is short on the excellence attributed by theists to God. There is a tension between there being a god who is completely indifferent to human suffering, or a god who provides a bizarre remedy in the form of having “someone tortured to death during the Bronze Age” and Roman rule, a god who demands conformity to his requirements in order to be saved from damnation, and, in any case, who leaves countless individuals without opportunity to hear about and accept this remedy.
  • The most noteworthy difference between these debaters consists in this: preparation. One may agree or disagree with Bill Craig’s claims, but there can be no question that he was thoroughly prepared for every aspect of the debate and never faltered in his response to objections by Hitchens. Christopher Hitchens, on the other hand, dropped several of Craig’s opening arguments, and seriously misunderstood or distorted the moral argument, the argument from the resurrection of Jesus, and Craig’s appeal to experience. I think Craig was most successful in demonstrating the error in Hitchens’s discombobulated rendition of Craig’s moral argument. Whether the audience followed the competing interpretations of N. T. Wright’s historical argument concerning the probability of the resurrection is another matter. But I can vouch for Craig’s construal of Wright’s argument, and, for that matter, for Hitchens’s confusion on the point. As for the appeal to experience of God (and the witness of the Holy Spirit), I might have put the point differently than Craig did and treat it as a kind of evidence that serves the subject of the experience without the need for argument. But Bill Craig and I may have a different view of the epistemology of such experience….
  • Returning, finally, to something I mentioned previously, this debate exposed a difference in preparation on the part of these two debaters. This is far more significant than it might seem at first. William Lane Craig has debated this topic dozens of times, without wavering from the same basic pattern of argument. He presents the same arguments in the same form, and presses his opponents in the same way for arguments in defense of their own worldviews. He’s consistent. He’s predictable. One might think that this is a liability, that it’s too risky to face a new opponent who has so much opportunity to review Craig’s specific strategy. But tonight’s debate proves otherwise. Hitchens can have no excuse for dropping arguments when he knows—or should know—exactly what to expect. Suppose one replies that William Craig is a more experienced debater and a trained philosopher, while Christopher Hitchens is a journalist working outside the Academy. That simply won’t do as a defense of Hitchens. First, Hitchens is no stranger to debate. Second, he is clearly a skillful polemicist. Third—and most important—Hitchens published a book, god Is Not Great, in which he makes bold claims against religion in general and Christianity in particular. With his book, he threw down the challenge. To his credit, he rose to meet a skillful challenger. But did he rise to the occasion? Did he acquit himself well? At one point he acknowledged that some of his objections to the designer argument were “layman’s” objections. His book, I believe, is also the work of a layman. It appears to have been written for popular consumption and without concern for accountability to Christians whose lives are dedicated to the defense of the Gospel (Geivett 2009a).

6pointblue Elsewhere, Geivett reviewed Hitchens’ book, god is not great (Hitchens 2007). Part of that review stated:

Ignoring Reasonable Christianity. To begin chapter 5, Hitchens quotes (without attribution) several Christian thinkers to the effect that Christianity is opposed to reason. He quotes Thomas Aquinas as saying, “I am a man of one book” (63), for example, and includes other similar quotes. This misleads the unsuspecting reader into thinking that Christianity always pits religious faith against reason. This is laughably false in the case of Aquinas, who is famous for his rational arguments for God’s existence. There may be rough strands and pockets of anti-intellectualism in Christian history, but there also is a rich and deep current of vigorous intellectualism, as evidenced by historic Christian thinkers such as Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Pascal, and Edwards, as well as by modern intellectuals such as G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, J.P. Moreland, and William Lane Craig. Rather than engaging Christian theism (or any other religion) at its rational best,8 however, Hitchens scavenges around for the worst examples of illogic, ignorance, and outright stupidity in religion. The straw man makes many loud-mouthed appearances in god Is Not Great (Geivett 2009b).


(Peter Hitchens, photograph courtesy Wikipedia)

There is an interesting perspective that is provided by Peter Hitchens, Christopher’s brother and a Christian. I encourage you to read this article, ‘Old Answers to the New Atheism: An Interview with Peter Hitchens’ (Ligonier Ministries 2014). On the death of his brother, Christopher, on 16 December 2011, the British newspaper, Mail Online, published Peter’s article, ‘In Memoriam, my courageous brother Christopher, 1949-2011’. In this article, Peter recounts:

Here’s a thing I will say now without hesitation, unqualified and important. The one word that comes to mind when I think of my brother is ‘courage’. By this I don’t mean the lack of fear which some people have, which enables them to do very dangerous or frightening things because they have no idea what it is to be afraid. I mean a courage which overcomes real fear, while actually experiencing it….

People sometimes tell me that I have been ‘courageous’ to say something moderately controversial in a public place. Not a bit of it. This is not courage. Courage is deliberately taking a known risk, sometimes physical, sometimes to your livelihood, because you think it is too important not to.

My brother possessed this virtue to the very end, and if I often disagreed with the purposes for which he used it, I never doubted the quality or ceased to admire it. I’ve mentioned here before C.S.Lewis’s statement that courage is the supreme virtue, making all the others possible. It should be praised and celebrated, and is the thing I‘d most wish to remember.

God’s plan for the present and future

God doesn’t remove any human being from the equation (we all will have to answer to him), but the new heavens and new earth also are in God’s plan for our future. The person on the Christian forum stated:

Theories change. New ideas pop up and people work on them and research them and argue them. Some are proven and some can never be proven. God doesn’t change. God is, was and always will be.[11]

I say, ‘Amen’, to the last 2 sentences. But I agree that theories change but God doesn’t. That’s why I’m so pleased that God has revealed his nature and actions – past, present, and future – in Scripture, on a limited scale.
To this person, I stated that this sure reads like she is convinced by the awesome revelation of God in creation and Scripture. I urged her to continue promoting it on the forum.

Dr Norman Geisler responds

6pointblue I checked what Norman Geisler said of ‘creation out of nothing’ as his understanding of issues has had input from Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, since the time of Geisler’s PhD in philosophy that he earned from Loyola University, Chicago. Geisler wrote:

Aquinas argued that creation must be out of nothing. By definition, “Nothing is the same as non-being.” However, “when anything is said to be made from nothing, the preposition from does not signify a material cause, but only an order” (Summa Theologica 1.45.2). Likewise, we speak of midday coming from morning, meaning after morning but not literally out of it.
To create from nothing is really a negative concept: “The sense is … it is not made from anything; just as if we were to say, He speaks of nothing, because he does not speak of anything” (ibid., 1.45.2). The ancient dictum that “nothing comes from nothing” is not to be understood absolutely: It means that something cannot be caused by nothing, but not that something cannot come after nothing. That is, something can be created from nothing but not by nothing (Geisler 2003:432-433).

I had never thought of and understood creation ex nihilo that way, but this helped me get a better understanding on some of its meaning, thanks to Aquinas and Geisler.

Works consulted

Aquinas, T 1947. Summa Theologica (online). Tr English Dominican Province. Bensinger Bros edition, available at: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/summa/ (Accessed 28 January 2014).

Dawkins, R 2006. The God delusion. London: Black Swan (Transworld Publishers).

Geisler, N 2003. Systematic theology: God, creation, vol 2. Minneapolis, Minnesota: BethanyHouse.

Geivett, D 2009a. Doug Geivett’s Blog, ‘William Lane Craig vs. Christopher Hitchens: First Report’ (online), April 5. Available at: http://douggeivett.wordpress.com/2009/04/05/william-lane-craig-vs-christopher-hitchens-first-report/ (Accessed 28 January 2014).

Geivett, D 2009b. god is not great: How religion poisons everything (book review), Christian Research Journal, June 11. Available at: http://www.equip.org/articles/god-is-not-great-how-religion-poisons-everything/ (Accessed 28 January 2014).

Hitchens, C 2007. god is not great: How religion poisons everything. New York, NY: Twelve (Hachette Book Group, Inc.).

Keil, C F & Delitzsch, F n d. Commentary on the Old Testament: The Pentateuch, vol 1. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Leupold, H C 1942. Exposition of Genesis, vols 1 & 2. London: Evangelical Press (The Wartburg Press USA)
McGrath, A E & McGrath, J C 2007. The Dawkins delusion? Atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books.

Roberts, M D 2007. Christopher Hitchens: Our three-hour debate (online). Patheos. Available at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markdroberts/series/christopher-hitchens-our-three-hour-debate/ (Accessed 28 January 2014).


[1] On the homepage of Dr Norman L Geisler, it states:

Dr. Norman Geisler, PhD, is a prolific author, veteran professor, speaker, lecturer, traveler, philosopher, apologist, evangelist, and theologian.  To those who ask, “Who is Norm Geisler?” some have suggested, “Well, imagine a cross between Thomas Aquinas and Billy Graham and you’re not too far off.” Norm has authored/coauthored over 80 books and hundreds of articles. He has taught theology, philosophy, and apologetics on the college or graduate level for over 50 years.  He has served as a professor at some of the finest Seminaries in the United States, including Trinity Evangelical Seminary, Dallas Seminary, and Southern Evangelical Seminary.  He now lends his talents to Veritas Evangelical Seminary in Murrieta, California, as the Distinguished Professor of Apologetics (available at: http://www.normgeisler.com, accessed 28 January 2014).

[2] This is from Aquinas’s ‘Treatise on the creation [Qs 44-49]. Question 45, ‘The mode of emanation of things from the first principle (eight articles)’, St. Thomas Aquinas 1947. Summa Theologica, transl. by Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Benziger Bros.edn. Available at: http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/aquinas/summa/index.htm (Accessed 28 January 2014).

[3] Christian Fellowship Forum, The Fellowship Hall, ‘Dinosaurs’, charma#36, available at: http://community.compuserve.com/n/pfx/forum.aspx?msg=122590.36&nav=messages&webtag=ws-fellowship&redirCnt=1 (Accessed 28 January 2014).

[4] The following includes my response as ozspen#41, ibid.

[5] Op cit., charma#36.

[6] Ibid., charma#36.

[7] Ibid., charma#36.

[8]From 1967 to 1969, Richard Dawkins, a scientist, was an assistant professor of zoology at the University of California, Berkeley. From 1995-2008, he was the Charles Simonyi Professor for Public Understanding of Science, Oxford University. At the time of writing The God delusion, Dawkins also was a fellow of New College (Dawkins 2006:1). Alister McGrath (D. Phil., Oxford University) is the primary author of a response to Dawkins’ atheism, The Dawkins Delusion? (McGrath & McGrath 2007). McGrath is professor of historical theology at Oxford University. ‘After studying chemistry at Oxford, he did research in molecular biophysics, developing new methods for investigating biological membranes. He then studied Christian theology, specializing in the history of Christian thought and especially in issues of science and religion’ (McGrath & McGrath 2007: inside back flap).

[9] The late Christopher Hitchens was an author, polemicist and journalist. He died in 2011 at the age of 62. He was a prolific writer and prominent in his promotion of the evolutionary cause. One of his most famous books was titled, god is not great: How religion poisons everything (Hitchens 2007).

[10] According to The New York Times, Gould, a Harvard University evolutionary theorist, died in 2002 of cancer at the age of 60. See ‘Stephen Jay Gould, 60, Is Dead; Enlivened Evolutionary Theory’ (Accessed 28 January 2014). Hitchens labels Professor Stephen Jay Gould as a ‘celebrated atheist’ (Roberts 2007).

[11] Op cit., charma#36.


Copyright © 2014 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 3 September 2016.