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The Latin phrase ex nihilo means "out of nothing". It often appears in conjunction with the concept of creation, as in creatio ex nihilo, meaning "creation out of nothing" — chiefly in philosophical or theological contexts, but also occurs in other fields.

In theology, the common phrase creatio ex nihilo ("creation out of nothing"), contrasts with creatio ex materia (creation out of some pre-existent, eternal matter) and with creatio ex deo (creation out of the being of God). The teaching of a ex nihilo is due to the Church Fathers from the 2nd century, who opposed notions of creation by a demiurge out of a primordial state of matter in pre-Christian creation myths, in religious studies known as chaos after the Greek term used by Hesiod in his Theogony.

The phrase 'ex nihilo' also appears in the classical philosophical formulation ex nihilo nihil fit, which means "Out of nothing comes nothing".

Ex nihilo when used outside of a religious/metaphysical context also refers to something coming from nothing. For example, in a conversation, one might raise a topic "ex nihilo" if it bears no relation to the previous topic of discussion. The term also has specific meaning in military and computer-science contexts.

History of the the idea of creatio ex nihilo

Ancient Near Eastern mythologies, and derived from them classical creation myths in Greek mythology and in the Hebrew Bible envisioned the creation of the world as resulting from the actions of a god or gods upon already-existing primeval matter, known as chaos, often personified in the form of a fight between a culture hero deity and a chaos monster in the form of a dragon, the chaoskampf motif.

The Greek philosophers came to question this (on a priori grounds), discussing the idea that a primum movens must have created the world out of nothing.An early conflation of these tenets of Greek philosophy with the narratives in the Hebrew Bible is due toPhilo of Alexandria (d. AD 50), the main author of Hellenistic Judaism. Philo equated the Hebrew creator deity Yahweh with the primum movens in Plato in an attempt to prove that the Jews had held monotheistic views even before the Greeks.A similar idea is expressed in a verse of 2 Maccabees, a book written in Koine Greek in the same sphere of Hellenised Judaism of Alexandriamarker, but predating Philo by about a century:
"I beseech thee, my son, look upon the heaven and the earth, and all that is therein, and consider that God made them of things that were not; and so was mankind made likewise. " (2 Maccabees 7:28, KJV)


The Church Fathers from the 2nd century seized upon this identification and developed itinto the idea of creation ex nihilo by the Christian God.Jewish thinkers then took up the idea, which became important to Judaism, to Christianity and, later, to Islam.

Creation of the universe

Approaches favoring ex nihilo creation

Biblical citations

Some verses from the Christian Bible cited in support of ex nihilo creation by God include:
  • "All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made."

  • "... even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were."

  • "And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are"

  • "Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear."

  • "My son, have pity on me; I carried you nine months in the womb and suckled you three years.... I implore you, my child, observe heaven and earth, consider all that is in them, and acknowledge that God made them out of what did not exist, and that mankind comes into being in the same way. Do not fear this executioner, but prove yourself worthy of your brothers, and make death welcome, so that in the day of mercy I may receive you back in your brothers' company."
    Jerusalem Bible


Logical approaches

Not all ex nihilo thought specifies a divine creator.

A major argument for creatio ex nihilo, the First cause argument, states in summary:
  1. everything that begins to exist has a cause
  2. the universe began to exist
  3. therefore, the universe must have a cause


Another argument for ex nihilo creation comes from Claude Nowell's Summum philosophy that states before anything existed, nothing existed, and if nothing existed, then it must have been possible for nothing to be. If it is possible for nothing to be (the argument goes), then it must be possible for everything to be.

Other support for creatio ex nihilo belief comes from the idea that something cannot arise from nothing; that would involve a contradiction (compare ex nihilo nihil fit). Therefore something must always have existed. But (this account continues) it is scientifically impossible for matter to always have existed. Moreover, matter is contingent: it is not logically impossible for it not to exist, and nothing else depends on it. Hence one deduces a Creator, non-contingent and not composed of matter: God.

Ancient Greek speculation

Eric Voegelin detects in Hesiod's chaos a creatio ex nihilo.

Islamic views

Several Qur'anic verses explicitly state that God created man, the heavens and the earth, out of nothing. The following quotations come from Muhammad Asad's translation, The Message of the Quran:
  • 2:117: "The Originator is He of the heavens and the earth: and when He wills a thing to be, He but says unto it, 'Be' - and it is."
  • 19:67: "But does man not bear in mind that We have created him aforetime out of nothing?"
  • 21:30: "ARE, THEN, they who are bent on denying the truth not aware that the heavens and the earth were [once] one single entity, which We then parted asunder? – and [that] We made out of water every living thing? Will they not, then, [begin to] believe?"
  • 21:56: "He answered: 'Nay, but your [true] Sustainer is the Sustainer of the heavens and the earth - He who has brought them into being: and I am one of those who bear witness to this [truth]!'"
  • 35:1: "ALL PRAISE is due to God, Originator of the heavens and the earth, who causes the angels to be (His) message-bearers, endowed with wings, two, or three, or four. He adds to His creation whatever He wills: for, verily, God has the power to will anything."
  • 51:47: "It is We who have built the universe with (Our creative) power; and, verily, it is We who are steadily expanding it."


Arguments against ex nihilo creation

Opposition within the Christian theological tradition

Believers within the Judaeo-Christian tradition can cite Genesis 1:1 as evidence for Divine creation out of nothing. The quotation, in (for example) the King James Version English-language translation, reads: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth."However, this translation fails to capture the inherent ambiguity in the Hebrew, which might translate with equal validity as "In the beginning God created...", and as "When God began to create...the earth was a formless void",implying that God worked with pre-existing materials. In addition the first chapter of Genesis concentrates on the creation of this Earth and surrounding space , therefore the phrase "in the beginning God created the heaven and the earth" refers to this earth — not to the Universe as a whole as many interpret it in order to support the Big Bang theory.

A widely accepted 20th-century translation of the Hebrew text by the Jewish Publication Society offers:

When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God's breath hovering over the water, God said, "Let there be light." And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good, and God divided the light from the darkness...


interpretable as the use of pre-existing materials, opposed to creatio ex nihilo.

Gen:1:8-9 also says:

Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together so that dry land will appear


again showing pre-existing materials (the deep exists, prior to God beginning to create heaven and earth, and also land exists (as opposed to earth.)

Thomas Jay Oord (born 1965), a Christian philosopher and theologian, argues that Christians should abandon the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Oord points to the work of biblical scholars, such as Jon D. Levenson, who point out that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo does not appear in Genesis. Oord speculates that God created our particular universe billions of years ago from primordial chaos. This chaos did not predate God, however, for God would have created the chaotic elements as well. Oord suggests that God can create all things without creating from absolute nothingness.

Oord offers nine objections to creatio ex nihilo:

  1. Theoretical problem: One cannot conceive absolute nothingness.
  2. Biblical problem: Scripture – in Genesis, 2 Peter, and elsewhere – suggests creation from something (water, deep, chaos, etc.), not creation from absolutely nothing.
  3. Historical problem: The Gnostic Basilides and Valentinus first proposed creatio ex nihilo on the basis of assuming the inherently evil nature of creation, and in the belief that God does not act in history. Early Christian theologians adopted the idea to affirm the kind of absolute divine power that many Christians now reject.
  4. Empirical problem: We have no evidence that our universe originally came into being from absolutely nothing.
  5. Creation-at-an-instant problem: We have no evidence in the history of the universe after the big bang that entities can emerge instantaneously from absolute nothingness. As the earliest philosophers noted, out of nothing comes nothing (ex nihilo, nihil fit).
  6. Solitary power problem: Creatio ex nihilo assumes that a powerful God once acted alone. But power, as a social concept, only becomes meaningful in relation to others.
  7. Errant revelation problem: The God with the capacity to create something from absolutely nothing would apparently have the power to guarantee an unambiguous and inerrant message of salvation (for example: inerrant Bible). An unambiguously clear and inerrant divine revelation does not exist.
  8. Evil problem: If God once had the power to create from absolutely nothing, God essentially retains that power. But a God of love with this capacity appears culpable for failing to prevent genuine evil.
  9. Empire Problem: The kind of divine power implied in creatio ex nihilo supports a theology of empire, based upon unilateral force and control of others.


A few early Jewish and Christian theologians and philosophers, including Philo, Justin, Athenagoras, Hermogenes, Clement of Alexandria, and, later, Johannes Scotus Eriugena made statements that seem to indicate that they did not hold to the concept of the creation-out-of-nothing. Philo, for instance, postulated pre-existent matter alongside God.

Process theologians argue that humans have always related a God to some “world” or another.

Critics also claim that rejecting creatio ex nihilo provides the opportunity to affirm that God has everlastingly created and related with some realm of non-divine actualities or another (compare continous creation). According to this alternative God-world theory, no non-divine thing exists without the creative activity of God, and nothing can terminate God’s necessary existence.

Joseph Smith, founder of the Latter Day Saint movement, dismissed creation ex nihilo, and introduced revelation that specifically countered this concept.The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that matter is both eternal and infinite and that it can be neither created nor destroyed.Latter-day Saint apologists have commented on Colossians 1:16 that the "Greek text does not teach ex nihilo, but creation out of pre-existing raw materials, since the verb ktidzo 'carried an architectural connotation...as in to build or establish a city....Thus, the verb presupposes the presence of already existing material.'"

While the idea of God everlastingly relating with creatures may seem strange because of its novelty, even its opponents in Christian history – like Thomas Aquinas – admitted it as a logical possibility.

Cosmological arguments

Physicists Paul Steinhardt (Princeton University) and Neil Turok (Cambridge University) offer an alternative to ex nihilo creation. Their proposal stems from the ancient idea that space and time have always existed in some form. Using developments in string theory, Steinhardt and Turok suggest the Big Bang of our universe as a bridge to a pre-existing universe, and speculate that creation undergoes an eternal succession of universes, with possibly trillions of years of evolution in each. Gravity and the transition from Big Crunch to Big Bang characterize an everlasting succession of universes. However, this view does not take into account the problems of infinite regression.

Hindu views

The Vedanta schools of Hinduism reject the concept of creation ex nihilo for several reasons:

  1. both types of revelatory texts (śruti and smṛti) designate matter as eternal although completely dependent on God — the Absolute Truth (param satyam)
  2. believers then have to attribute all the evil ingrained in material life to God, making Him partial and arbitrary, which does not logically accord with His nature


The Bhagavad Gita (BG) states the eternality of matter and its transformability clearly and succinctly: "Material nature and the living entities should be understood to be beginningless. Their transformations and the modes of matter are products of material nature." ( Bhagavad Gita 13.19 or 20) The opening words of Krishna in BG 2.12-13 also imply this, as do the doctrines referred to in BG 16.8 as explained by the commentator Vadiraja Tirtha.

See also



Notes

  1. G.May, Schöpfung aus dem Nichts. Die Entstehung der Lehre von der creatio ex nihilo , AKG 48, Berlin / New York, 1978, 151f.
  2. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Bible_(King_James)/Genesis
  3. http://books.google.com/books?id=DsPwO1YDeNIC&pg=PA240&dq=Thomas+Jay+Oord&lr=
  4. ; ;
  5. Creatio ex nihilo - FAIRMormon
  6. Creation in Colossians 1:16 - FAIRMormon
  7. See Sri Vadiraja's commentary on the Bhagavad Gita


Suggested reading

  • Thomas Jay Oord, Science of Love: The Wisdom of Well-Being (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2005), especially chapter 2.
  • Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Pressmarker, 1994; New York: Harper & Row, 1987).
  • Sjoerd L. Bonting, Chaos Theology: A Revised Creation Theology [Ottawa: Novalis, 2002].
  • David Ray Griffin, "Creation out of Chaos and The Problem of Evil" in



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