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The Doctrine of Creation from Nothing (Part One)

June 09, 2019     Time: 17:29

KEVIN HARRIS: Dr. Craig, the title of this essay in a blog is “God Created the Universe From Nothing—Or Did He?”[1] It is from Bob Seidensticker of the “Cross Examined” blog. We’ve interacted with Bob on several occasions. He always writes about interesting things, and he’s a good writer. You've written on this topic with Paul Copan.

DR. CRAIG: Yes. Paul and I published a book several years ago called Creation Out of Nothing with Baker. In it, Paul has four chapters that are dedicated to a detailed exegesis of the Old and New Testament passages concerning creatio ex nihilo, and then an examination of Jewish sources outside the Bible as well as the early church fathers. So what we have here from Bob in just two typewritten pages is more fully unfolded by Paul in these chapters in our book Creation Out of Nothing.

KEVIN HARRIS: Bob sets the case out by saying at the beginning,

The Christian idea of creation ex nihilo, that God created the universe from nothing, is a doctrine within many denominations. The problem appears when Christians try to find it in the Genesis six-day creation story. It’s not there.

Like so many confidently stated doctrines, the Bible doesn’t cooperate. Letting the Bible speak for itself exposes the unsupported claims.

DR. CRAIG: Let it be said right away that the doctrine of creation out of nothing doesn't rest upon just one Bible verse like Genesis 1:1. It rests upon the testimony of the entirety of Scripture – Old and New Testaments. I think when you consider Scripture in its entirety it does teach creation out of nothing, and I do think that it's implied in Genesis 1:1 as well as we'll see as we talk about Bob's blog.

KEVIN HARRIS: He begins,

“In the beginning . . .”

The first verse of the Bible says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1, NIV). It doesn’t say that God created out of nothing, and only the lack of specified materials that God worked with supports creation ex nihilo.

DR. CRAIG: I think that's understating the case that creation out of nothing is implied or implicit in this verse. The very expression “in the beginning” suggests an absolute beginning. Only God exists. There isn't anything else. There's no warring monsters. There's no chaos to be subdued. There is just God – “in the beginning … God.” And then God created. The Hebrew word is bara. This is a word which only God is the subject of this verb, and it does not presuppose a material substratum. It can have a material substratum, but bara can be used without a material substratum to indicate a sort of absolute creation. Then the expression “the heavens and the earth” is a totalizing phrase that is composed of opposites – the heavens above, the earth beneath. So this is meant to encompass the entire universe and, in fact, in the beginning God created the universe. I think it would have been unthinkable to the Hebrew author of Genesis that alongside God was some sort of uncreated primordial matter which he merely formed into a universe. For the Hebrew author, God is the absolute sovereign over all reality that exists apart from himself. He is the creator of the entire universe of the whole material realm, and the idea that there could have been some uncreated stuff existing co-eternally with God would have been, I think, unthinkable to the Hebrew author.

KEVIN HARRIS: He continues, and he brings up the Hebrew word bara. He says,

Look more closely at the word created (the Hebrew word bara). This word is used 55 times in the Old Testament. Most instances are translated as “create,” but not all, and few could be read as “create from nothing.” For example, it’s “make a signpost” in Ezekiel 21:19 and “create in me a pure heart” in Psalm 51:10, which are obviously talking about forming out of existing material. The NET Bible agrees: “The verb does not necessarily describe creation out of nothing . . . it often stresses forming anew, reforming, renewing.”

DR. CRAIG: The argument is not from the shear meaning of the word you can derive creation out of nothing anymore than you could from the English word “create.” They have a range of meanings, and it will be determined by the context, and the context here, as I say, is God's creation of the whole of physical reality – everything that exists apart from himself.

KEVIN HARRIS: He says, “Early church fathers like Justin Martyr and Origen also held that the Genesis creation was from something.”

DR. CRAIG: I’d have to verify that. I'm skeptical of that. I know in his chapter on the church fathers Paul Copan lists extensively the teaching of the church fathers with respect to creation out of nothing and finds that again and again they affirm the doctrine.

KEVIN HARRIS: Bob continues,

One intriguing hypothesis is that that verse should read, “In the beginning God separated the heavens and the earth” since the universe in Genesis 1 is built with separations. Light is separated from darkness (verse 1:4), water above is separated from water below (1:7), and land is separated from water (1:9).

DR. CRAIG: I’m not aware of any commentator who would translate bara as God separated the heavens and the earth. The actions of separation, as he points out, come after the creation of the heavens and Earth in which God separates light from darkness, the waters above from the waters below. But that would simply be a mistranslation of the opening verse to translate that as “separated.” There is no separation here of heavens and earth. It's the creation of the heavens and the earth.

KEVIN HARRIS: He continues, “You can respond that this is educated guesswork . . .”

DR. CRAIG: Or uneducated guesswork [laughter]

KEVIN HARRIS:

…and that “create” might still be the best word, but it still doesn’t say “create from nothing.” (And, of course, centuries separate the original Genesis from our best copies and it was oral history before that, so it’s also guesswork what the original said.)

DR. CRAIG: Which is irrelevant because it is the received Scripture that Christians take to be authoritative and inspired by God. And so the question is what does the text of Genesis read as we have it? And as it stands, it says “created.”

KEVIN HARRIS:

The next story in Genesis, the centuries-older Garden of Eden story, also has God creating, but here he creates using something else—for example, Eve was created from Adam’s rib, and Adam was created from dust.

DR. CRAIG: Often the story in Genesis 2 of the creation of mankind is represented as an alternative creation story to chapter 1. But I think that that's quite mistaken. When you look at Ancient Near Eastern myths, you will find that in addition to cosmogonies (that is to say, stories about the origin of the world, of the universe) there are also stories about how the gods create humanity. That's what you have in chapter 2. This isn't an alternative creation account. This is an account about the creation of mankind. In their case, they're not created ex nihilo but out of the dust of the Earth. So what you have in chapter 1 is a sort of panoramic view of all of creation with mankind created on the sixth day, and then in Genesis 2 the focus narrows in on that sixth day and gives a detailed account of the creation of humankind on this Earth.

KEVIN HARRIS: Bob continues, and he calls this section, “God did use existing matter—water”:

Let’s continue the Genesis 1 creation story with verse 2: “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” The “deep” is the ocean, and the metaphorically relevant aspect here is the ocean as chaos. The six-day creation story shows God creating order from chaos.

DR. CRAIG: It is certainly true that a great number of, I think, careless commentators have described this initial state as “chaos” but that is a great misunderstanding both of the text of Genesis and of the word “chaos.” Chaos is a lawless state totally without order in which anything can happen. You have this kind of chaos featured, for example, in certain Egyptian creation myths where the world emerges from chaos, or in certain Greek myths that will use the word “chaos.” But the state that's described on the primitive Earth in Genesis 1:2 is not a chaos; rather, it is simply a primeval ocean cloaked in darkness. Unlike the Egyptian myths, this ocean is not unbounded but rather it exists on the Earth. It covers the land which will eventually emerge from it, and it has a surface over which the wind is blowing. It is not characterless or lawless, but rather it's the same water that will eventually fill the seas in which marine life will thrive and which will fall from the sky as rain. It is not unordered or chaotic. It has the properties of water with which ancient Israelites would have been familiar like liquidity, weight, surface tension, buoyancy, solvency, potability, and so forth. The primeval ocean is no more a chaos in the proper sense of that term then is a ravaged landscape which is also described in the Old Testament by this same phrase “without form and void” in Jeremiah 4:23; namely, this is an uninhabitable waste is what this means. So an ancient Israelite reading Genesis 1:2 would probably have pictured the state of the early Earth to be like a pitch-black night out on the Mediterranean Sea when no moon and stars were visible. This would have been a condition that Israelite sailors themselves would have experienced in their sailing or voyages on the Mediterranean Sea and in the Persian Gulf. This state of affairs is completely unlike the amorphous chaotic sort of condition described in Egyptian myths. So I think it's a real misrepresentation and misunderstanding of Genesis to describe this initial state as chaos.

KEVIN HARRIS: He continues talking about the water here, “This water wasn’t made by God but was material that he worked with.”

DR. CRAIG: Why does he say that? Verse 1 says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (that's the big picture), and then verse 2 focuses in on the Earth, “and the earth was formless and empty and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” So it describes the condition of the Earth after God has created the heavens and the Earth in verse 1, and the condition of the early Earth was this primeval ocean covering the land.

KEVIN HARRIS: He says, “He separated the water into two parts, the sky (held up by a vault) and the ocean (Gen. 1:7).”

DR. CRAIG: This again, I think, is a very common misunderstanding. The Hebrew word there is rakia, and some people have said that the ancients interpreted this to be like a hard dome, sort of like an inverted bowl over the Earth. Descriptions of this so-called dome in ancient Babylonian astronomical texts will describe it as made out of precious stone like lapis lazuli and other precious stones. But what these biblical interpreters fail to understand is that these are literary metaphors. It's not that the ancient Babylonians thought that there were literally these stone shells around the Earth grinding against each other and scraping each other. This is evident in the fact that the different heavenly bodies like the sun, the moon, and the stars were placed in different spheres so to speak of the sky, and therefore they would be invisible if these were hard surfaces made out of stone. You couldn't see through them to see the upper layer. You couldn't see the stars. But here's the decisive consideration that I discovered. In reading the ancient Babylonian astronomical texts, and just by the way, observational astronomy was invented by these ancient Babylonians. These Babylonian astrologers and astronomers were masters of observation and kept detailed meticulous records of solar motions, of eclipses, rising and setting of the stars, and so forth. These have been preserved in cuneiform tablets so we can read these Babylonian astronomical texts today. What you discover is that they characterize different paths in the sky that would be followed by different stars as you watch them over time. They move at different rates. And then of course the planets wander with respect to the fixed stars. So what you've got is these three paths of Anu, Enlil, and Aya. Those are the three gods, and their three paths followed by these stars through the night sky. These are described, as I say, using these metaphors of these hard lapis lazuli shells and shells of other precious stones. But that this is merely a metaphor is evident from the fact that the planets wander across these paths, and the moon and the sun move across these paths, which would be impossible if they thought that these heavenly bodies were stuck in this firmament, and as the shell grinds around the stars move around. That would be impossible. It's very clear that this is a metaphor for the heavens they're observing, and they thought that the planets, the sun, and moon were in motion across the paths of Anu, Enlil, and Aya. And, similarly, when you get to Genesis, there's no indication in Genesis that they thought that this was some kind of a hard shell in which the stars, sun, and moon were embedded. If this was in line with ancient Babylonian thought, this would have just been a metaphor to speak of the expanse of the sky in which God places the sun, moon, and stars.

KEVIN HARRIS: Let’s stop right there. We'll pick it up right there next time. In the meantime, go to Defenders class online. You can go to ReasonableFaith.org. The latest Defenders Series that Dr. Craig has been teaching deals with the topic that we’re talking about today. That’s ReasonableFaith.org. We’ll continue with part two next time.[2]

 

[2]           Total Running Time: 17:29 (Copyright © 2019 William Lane Craig)