What is “Ex Nihilo”?

Ex nihilo is a Latin phrase meaning “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 it 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 creatio ex deo (creation out of the being of God). Creatio continua is the ongoing divine creation.

The phrase ex nihilo also appears in the classical philosophical formulation ex nihilo nihil fit, which means “out of nothing comes nothing”.

When used outside of religious or metaphysical contexts, ex nihilo also refers to something coming from nothing. For example, in a conversation, one might call a topic “ex nihilo” if it bears no relation to the previous topic of discussion.

History

Ancient Near Eastern mythologies and classical creation myths in Greek mythology envisioned the creation of the world as resulting from the actions of a god or gods upon already-existing primeval matter, known as chaos.

An early conflation of Greek philosophy with the narratives in the Hebrew Bible came from Philo of Alexandria (d.AD50), writing in the context of Hellenistic Judaism. Philo equated the Hebrew creator deity, Yahweh, with Aristotle’s primum movens (First Cause) in an attempt to prove that the Jews had held monotheistic views even before the Greeks. However, this was still within the context of creation from pre-existing materials (i.e., “moving” or “changing” a material substratum.)

Tree of Life by Eli Content at the Joods Historisch Museum. The Tree of Life, or Etz haChayim (עץ החיים) in Hebrew, is a mystical symbol used in the Kabbalah of esoteric Judaism to describe the path to HaShem and the manner in which He created the world ex nihilo (out of nothing).

The classical tradition of creation from chaos first came under question in Hellenistic philosophy (on a priori grounds), which developed the idea that the primum movens must have created the world out of nothing. Theologians debate whether the Bible itself teaches creation ex nihilo. Traditional interpreters argue on grammatical and syntactical grounds that this is the meaning of Genesis 1:1, which is commonly rendered: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” They find further support for this view in New Testament passages such as Hebrews 11:3—”By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible” and Revelation 4:11, “For you [God] created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” However, other interpreters understand creation ex nihilo as a second-century theological development. According to this view, church fathers opposed notions appearing in pre-Christian creation myths and in Gnosticism—notions of creation by a demiurge out of a primordial state of matter (known in religious studies as chaos after the Greek term used by Hesiod in his Theogony). Jewish thinkers took up the idea, which became important to Judaism, to ongoing strands in the Christian tradition, and—as a corollary—to Islam.

The first sentence of the Greek version of Genesis in the Septuagint starts with the words: ἐν ἀρχῇ ἐποίησεν, translatable as “in the beginning he made”.

A verse of 2 Maccabees (a book written in Koine Greek in the same sphere of Hellenized Judaism of Alexandria, but predating Philo by about a century) expresses the following: “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.” (2Maccabees 7:28, KJV). While those who believe in ex nihilo point to God creating “things that were not”, those who reject creation out of nothing point out that the context mentions the creation of man, who was “made from the dust” and not from absolutely “nothing”. Many ancient texts tend to have similar issues, and those on each side tend to interpret the text according to their understanding.

Max Weber summarizes a sociological view of the overall development and corollaries of the theological idea:

[…] As otherworldly expectations become increasingly important, the problem of the basic relationship of god to the world and the problem of the world’s imperfections press into the foreground of thought; this happens the more life here on earth comes to be regarded as a merely provisional form of existence when compared to that beyond, the more the world comes to be viewed as something created by god ex nihilo, and therefore subject to decline, the more god himself is conceived as a subject to transcendental goals and values, and the more a person’s behavior in this world becomes oriented to his fate in the next. […]

Supporting arguments

Logical

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

An expansion of the first cause argument is the Kalam cosmological argument, which also requires creatio ex nihilo:

  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause
  2. The universe began to exist
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.
  4. If the universe has a cause, then an uncaused, personal creator of the universe exists, who without the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and infinitely powerful.
  5. Therefore, an uncaused, personal creator of the universe exists, who without the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and infinitely powerful.

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.

Ancient Greek

Some scholars have argued that Plethon viewed Plato as positing ex nihilo creation in his Timaeus. Eric Voegelin detects in Hesiod’s chaos a creatio ex nihilo. The School of Chartres understood the creation account in Plato’s Timaeus to refer to creatio ex nihilo.

In Jewish philosophy

Main article: Jewish philosophy

In The Book of the Articles of Faith and Doctrines of Dogma (Kitāb al-Amānāt wa l-IʿtiqādātEmunoth ve-Deoth, completed 933) written by Saadia Gaon (c. 882−942) the metaphysical problems of the creation of the world and the unity of the Creator are discussed. In this book, Saadia Gaon gives four proofs for the doctrine of the creation of the world ex nihilo (yesh me-ayin).

To harmonize the biblical statement of the creation ex nihilo with the doctrine of the primordial elements, the Sefer Yetzirah assumes a double creation, one ideal and the other real.

In introducing Sefer Yetzirah’s theory of creation Saadia Gaon makes a distinction between the Biblical account of creation ex nihilo, in which no process of creation is described, and matter formed by speech as described in Sefer Yetzirah. The cosmogony of Sefer Yetzirah is even omitted from the discussion of creation in his magnum opus Emunoth ve-Deoth.

Islamic

Early Islamic philosophy, as well as key Muslim schools of thought, have argued a wide array of views, the basis always being that the creator is an eternal being who is outside of the creation (i.e., any materially based entities within all of creation), and is not a part of creation. Several schools of thought stemming from the first cause argument, and a great deal of philosophical works from Muslim scholars such as Al-Ghazali, came from the following verses in the Qur’an. The following quotations come from Muhammad Asad’s translation, The Message of The Qur’an:

52:35: “Were they created by nothing? Or were they themselves the creators?”

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 while at one point they were 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 (formal singular) 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, is most competent over all things.”

51:47: “It is We (formal singular) who have built the heaven with (Our creative) power; and, verily, it is We who are steadily expanding it.”

Christian

Biblical scholars and theologians within the Christian tradition such as Augustine (354–430), John Calvin (1509–1564), John Wesley (1703–1791), and Matthew Henry (1662–1714) cite Genesis1:1 in support of the idea of Divine creation out of nothing.

Some of the early Christian Church Fathers with a Platonic background argued that the act of creation itself involved pre-existent matter, but made that matter in turn to have been created out of nothing.

Hindu

The RigVeda quotes

“If in the beginning there was neither Being nor Non-Being, neither air nor sky, what was there? Who or what oversaw it? What was it when there was no darkness, light, life, or death? We can only say that there was the One, that which breathed of itself deep in the void, that which was heat and became desire and the germ of spirit,”

which is suggestive of the fact that Ex nihilo creator was always there and he is not controlled by time or by any previous creation.

Modern physical

A widely supported hypothesis in modern physics is the zero-energy universe which states that the total amount of energy in the universe is exactly zero. It has been argued that this is the only kind of universe that could come from nothing. Such a universe would have to be flat in shape, a state which does not contradict current observations that the universe is flat with a 0.5% margin of error.

The paper “The Creation of the Universe as a Quantum Phenomenon” provides a model for a way the Universe could have been created by a quantum symmetry breaking process from a flat empty space.

The paper “Spontaneous creation of the Universe Ex Nihilo” provides a model for a way the Universe could have been created from pure ‘nothing’ in information terms.

Opposing arguments

Logical

The “first cause” argument was rooted in ancient Greek philosophy and based on observation in physics. Originally, it was understood in the context of creation from chaos. The observed phenomenon seen in reality is that nothing moves by itself. In other words, motion is not self-caused; thus, the Classic Greek thinkers argued that the cosmos must have had a “prime mover” primum movens. However, this scientific observation of motion does not logically extend to the idea of existence, and therefore does not necessarily indicate creation from absolutely nothing.

In theology, ex nihilo creation states that there was a beginning to one’s existence, and anything that exists has a beginning. This idea of a required beginning appears to contradict the proposed creator who existed without a beginning. In other words, people are considered to be contingent beings, and their existence depends upon a non-contingent being. However, if non-contingency is possible, then there is no basis for arguing that contingency is required for existence, nor can it be logically concluded that the number of non-contingent beings or non-contingent things is limited to one single substance or one single Being.

David Ray Griffin expressed his thoughts on this as follows:

“No special philosophical problems are raised by this view: If it is intelligible to hold that the existence of God requires no explanation, since something must exist necessarily and “of itself,” then it is not unintelligible to hold that that which exists necessarily is God and a realm of non-divine actualities.”

Christian

Bruce K. Waltke wrote an extensive Biblical study of creation theology in which he argues for creation from chaos rather than from nothing – based on the Hebrew Torah and the New Testament texts. The Western Conservative Baptist Seminary published this work in 1974 and again in 1981. On a historical basis, many scholars agree that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo was not the original intent of the Biblical authors, but instead a change in the interpretation of the texts that began to evolve in the mid-second century AD in the atmosphere of Hellenistic philosophy. The idea solidified around 200AD in arguments and in response to the Gnostics, Stoics, and Middle Platonists.

Thomas Jay Oord, 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 points 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, however, did not predate God, 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 Gnostics 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. Problem of Evil: 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 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.

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

Some non-trinitarian Christian churches do not teach the ex nihilo doctrine:

  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) teaches that Jehovah (whom they identify as the heavenly form of Jesus Christ), under the direction of God the Father, organized this world and others like it out of eternal, pre-existing materials. The first modern (non-biblical) prophet of the religion, Joseph Smith, explained the LDS view as follows: “Now, the word create does not mean to create out of nothing; it means to organize… God had materials to organize the world out of chaos… The pure principles of element are principles which can never be destroyed; they may be organized and reorganized, but not destroyed. They had no beginning and can have no end” Debate continues on the issue of creation Ex Nihilo versus creation Ex Materia between evangelical authors Paul Copan and William Lane Craig and LDS/Mormon apologist Blake Ostler.
  • Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that God used the energy he possesses to create the Universe based on their interpretation of Isaiah 40:26. They believe this harmonizes with the scientific idea of the relationship between matter and energy. They distinguish Jehovah from Jesus Christ, teaching that before he created the physical universe, Jehovah created Jesus and that Michael is the heavenly form of Jesus.

Hindu

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

  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.” The opening words of Krishna in BG2.12-13 also imply this, as do the doctrines referred to in BG16.8 as explained by the commentator Vadiraja Tirtha.

Most philosophical schools in Hinduism maintain that material creation started with some minute particle (or seed) which had to be co-eternal or a part of ultimate reality (Brahman). This minute starting point is also the point into which all creation contracts at the end of each cycle. This concept varies between various traditions, such as the Vishishtadvaita tradition (which asserts that the Universe forms a part of God, created from some aspect of His divinity) and Tamil Shaiva Siddhanta traditions (which state that the minute initial particle (shuddha Maya) has always existed and was never created).

Linguistic and textual

Scholars have suggested alternative translations from the Biblical Hebrew for the concept often rendered as “created” in English-language versions of Genesis 1. Van Volde, for example, suggests that the Genesis account tells of the “separation” of existing material rather than of creation ex nihilo.

Note that ordinary language may lack a concise definitive native expression for “creation ex nihilo” – hence the need for the technical Latinate phrase itself. The English-language word “create” itself comes from the Latin creare (to make, bring forth, produce, beget), with a root cognate with crescere (to arise, to grow) and allied to the English word crescent (originally meaning “growing”).

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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