Alright, so most traditional Christians believe that God created the universe out of nothing, or, in Latin, creatio ex nihilo. Latter-day Saints, on the other hand, believe that chaotic matter already existed, and God brought order to the chaos, giving it form and purpose. Or, in Latin, creatio ex materia. This is something taught in our scriptures and by our leaders. But in this episode, we’re going to dive into this topic a bit deeper and see what else we can find out about the history of these beliefs.
Creation ex nihilo is a long-beloved doctrine of mainstream Christianity, and I want to be respectful of those beliefs even while disagreeing with them. To that end, if you’re interested in a more traditional defense of creation out of nothing, here are a few resources that might interest you. In the rest of this video, I’ll be offering a different perspective.
Latter-day Saints, among many others, as we’ll see, do not believe that the Bible teaches creation out of nothing. But if not from the Bible, where does this belief come from? Non-Latter-day Saint Bible scholar James Hubler found that creation ex nihilo initially came about as a defense of the Christian teaching of a bodily resurrection in the second century c.e. Let me explain.
This is an oversimplification, but according to Greek thought, in the second century, matter was separate from and inferior to God. Matter could change, it could be corrupted, and it could be destroyed. It could not be eternal. Thus, the goal within this line of Greek thought was to escape materiality. That was one of the advantages of death—you escaped the confines of the physical world. So when Christians came around saying that your physical, material body would one day be resurrected and eternal, Greek thinkers were unconvinced. “The doctrine of bodily resurrection seemed offensive to the Greeks because it implies that persons would be eternally embodied in corruptible material forms.”
So Christians needed to address this issue. Many Gnostic Christians answered this question by denying Christ’s bodily resurrection altogether. Others jumped on board with Christian apologists Tatian and Theophilus, who attempted to change the Greek concept of materialism by asserting that matter is actually good and can be eternal. Why? The necessary conclusion was that matter could be good and eternal because all matter was created by God, who is good and eternal. AKA, creation ex-nihilo. The idea stuck, was formalized in the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, and these are the lenses through which many people read the Bible today.
“Creatio ex nihilo appeared suddenly in the latter half of the second-century c.e. … the doctrine was not forced upon the Christian community by their revealed tradition, either in Biblical texts or the Early Jewish interpretation of them. …It was not a position attested in the New Testament doctrine or even sub-apostolic writings. It was a position taken by the apologists of the late second century, Tatian and Theophilus, and developed by various ecclesiastical writers thereafter, by Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen. Creation ex nihilo represents an innovation in the interpretive traditions of revelation and cannot be explained merely as a continuation of tradition.”
Now, it’s true that the Bible is full of verses that say that God created “all things,” both visible and invisible. But these verses do not say that all things were created out of nothing. And it begs the question, what did it mean anciently for something to come into existence?
“…in the ancient world, something existed when it had a function — a role to play.” Non-being or non-existence did not mean there was nothing there, but rather that the chaotic somethingness had not yet been given form, function, and purpose. And that should sound familiar because that’s the way we think about creation in pretty much every other context. When a contractor creates a house, he’s not creating the materials out of nothing, he’s giving materials form, function, and purpose. In the words of Catholic theologian Robert Butterworth, “The notion of ‘nothing’ was unimaginable to the unsophisticated author.”
Now you might be thinking, what about Genesis 1? Isn’t creation out of nothing at least implied in the first few verses of the Bible? I’ll leave you some resources in the YouTube description if you want to dive deeper into this subject, but it sufficeth to say, as scholar Gary Anderson acknowledged, “The consensus among scholars … is that the first three verses depict God forming the world out of preexistent matter.” You’re welcome to disagree with the consensus, but I hope you’re seeing that the Latter-day Saints’ rejection of creation out of nothing is not particularly uncommon these days.
Beyond Genesis 1, scholar Ronald Simkins noted that “Creation in the Bible is never creation ex nihilo, ‘from nothing.’ … In the biblical tradition, and in the ancient Near East in general, God always works with some material that is either primordial or simply already there when God begins to create….” Now, what did this pre-existing material look like? What form or non-form was it in? I don’t know. As far as the Biblical creation story is concerned, non-Latter-day Saint scholars such as Paul Cho, Roger Whybray, Gary Rendsburg, and even the HarperCollins NRSV Study Bible point to the dark, cosmic waters of Genesis 1:2. God separates and divides these waters in order to bring forth the dry ground, etc. I’m not one to assert that this is scientifically or historically how the creation went down, but this is what is portrayed in the creation story. The New Testament even hearkens back to this point in 2 Peter 3:5: “by the word of God heavens existed long ago, and an earth formed out of water and by means of water….”
And this idea of creation ex materia is expressed by other notable sources as well before creatio ex nihilo became the accepted doctrine. For example, in the Wisdom of Solomon, which is canonized in the Catholic Bible, we read, “For not without means was your almighty hand, that had fashioned the universe from formless matter….” Clement of Rome wrote that the Lord “didst make manifest the everlasting fabric of the world. Thou, Lord, didst create the earth.” Justin Martyr wrote in the first century, “God, in the beginning, in His goodness, made everything out of shapeless matter for the sake of men.”
Now, we’ve barely scratched the surface of this topic. In this video, I have not specifically addressed every Biblical or Apocryphal verse commonly used to support creation out of nothing, but before you cite them in the comments please please please pause and read the various quotes I’m about to show you. You’ll see some of those verses addressed there, including Hebrews 11:3 & 2 Maccabees 7:28. Check out the resources in the YouTube description for more info on this. Watch some of our other videos while you’re here, and have a great day.
- For a fantastic compilation of 40 quotes from 40 different scholars (both Christian and non-Christian) about creation ex nihilo in Genesis and the Bible as a whole, please check out this post from Jaxon Washburn: http://bit.ly/3Wn866d
- Some non-Latter-day Saint sources:
- “Creatio ex Nihilo: Matter, Creation, and the Body in Classical Christian Philosophy Through Aquinas,” by James N. Hubler: https://bit.ly/3H56DwW
- “Creatio ex Nihilo theology in Genesis Rabbah in Light of Christian Exegesis,” by Maren R. Niehoff, The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 99, No. 1 (Jan. 2006), pp. 37-64: https://bit.ly/3XfER66
- “Creatio ex Nihilo: The Doctrine of ‘Creation out of Nothing’ in Early Christian Thought,” by May Gerhard (German theologian): https://bit.ly/3jTmIwi
- “’Creatio ex Nihilo’: A Context for the Emergence of the Christian Doctrine of Creation,” by Frances Young, Scottish Journal of Theology, Volume 44, Issue 2, May 1991, pp. 139 – 152: https://bit.ly/3CAZHVy
- Some Latter-day Saint sources:
- “Ancient Views of Creation and the Doctrine of Creation ex Nihilo,” by Stephen D. Ricks (BYU Studies): https://bit.ly/3W1KL9I
- “Out of Nothing: A History of Creation ex Nihilo in Early Christian Thought,” by Blake Ostler (BYU Studies): https://bit.ly/3IB0lGh
- “Creation Ex Nihilo in the Bible?” by Dan McClellan (is LDS): https://bit.ly/3GrJgMf
- “Examining Six Key Concepts in Joseph Smith’s Understanding of Genesis 1:1,” by Kevin Barney (BYU Studies): https://bit.ly/3CyqVfi