Creation Ex Nihilo
by Derek Thomas
No sentence is more pregnant with meaning than the opening one of the Bible: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). It tells us several things all at once, four of which are worth reflecting upon: First and foremost, it tells us that God is the ultimate Being. Before there was a universe, there was God. He exists independently of matter and sequence of time. God transcends space and time. He is not limited by spatial considerations (He is everywhere in His fullness continually). Nor is He locked into the present in any way. It is not strictly accurate to say that before the universe was created there was “nothing,” for this, too, is a spatial and temporal idea: before the created universe existed, there was God. Theologians speak of God’s immensity, infinity, and transcendence to describe this and our minds race at the thought of it, unable to take it in. All we can do is acquiesce and worship.
Second, everything that exists originates from God. Genesis employs a special Hebrew verb for the act of creation (bārā’) the subject of which is always God. No other subject is employed or implied. Man, too, “creates” (poetry, music, literature, architectural wonders, for example) but not in this sense. “To create” is exclusively an act of God, and by employing it in the first and last verse of the creation story (1:1 and 2:4), the writer is employing something that looks like “bookends” that encase the central idea that God is at work. Easy as this is to write (and read!), try to imagine the power it takes to bring into existence the entire cosmos!
Third, He creates “out of nothing.” A grammatical possibility has given rise to at least one translation of the opening verses suggesting that when God began His work of creation, matter already existed: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void” (nrsv). Contrast that with the English Standard Version: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void.” The point of this second rendition is to emphasize a crucial issue that God created out of nothing (ex nihilo). Other ancient Near Eastern creation stories (from Egypt and Mesopotamia, for example) assume that their gods worked with material that already existed. However, biblical testimony here and elsewhere insists that at the point of the beginning there was nothing apart from God (Heb. 11:3; Rev. 4:11), and what exists apart from God was brought into being by Him.
Fourth, and this is particularly interesting, that which He initially creates is not its final form. He creates in order to employ further artistry and design. Beginners in Hebrew at seminaries can often be heard repeating a phrase from Genesis 1:2: “The earth was without form and void.” What God initially brought into being was “tōhu vabōhu,” “formless and empty mass.” Initially, the created universe had no distinctive shape; its structure would be formed by the artistry and design of God. In this sense, we are like God. We, too, fashion and mold and make things that are often beautiful. It is, in part, what Genesis 1:26–27 means by saying that Adam was created “in the image of God.” Man, too, creates, or better, re-creates, shapes his environment in such a way as to reflect something pleasing and good. Once man fell, this capacity became as much a liability as a blessing: his capacity to fashion became a means to idolatry.
What should we make of this? Again, several responsive features are worth consideration, but two will suffice here:
In the first place, God is to be worshiped as the Creator; creation is to be viewed as a reflection of the signature of God. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1). “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures” (Ps. 104:24). We live out our lives in a world that He has created and sustains. All around us and within us there are fingerprints betraying His handiwork. Knowing this (as we do whether we acknowledge it or not) should make us live dependently, reverently, and expectantly.
In the second place, creation is never to be viewed as inherently evil (as some philosophies have taught). God intends in His plan of salvation to re-create this fallen world and provide for His redeemed children “a new heavens and new earth” in which to live. Even now, the present creation waits (8:19) — subjected to futility as it has been by sin (Rom. 8:20) — groaning in sounds that resemble childbirth (8:22), for the “new world” (Matt 19:28), the home of the righteous (2 Peter 3:13). The resurrected redeemed will thus dwell in a (transformed) physical universe in union and communion with their resurrected Lord. This strand of biblical teaching ensures that we never view creation (and our physical bodies) apart from God’s claim of ownership and demand for holiness. We are, as Paul insists, to present our “bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” as an act of “spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1). The story of creation signals that we are God’s handiwork — made by Him and for Him and that (through redemption) forever.