Creation Out of Nothing
In this selection, Ted Peters explains the biblical and theological origins of creation from nothing, underscoring the deep connection between creation, redemption, the resurrection of Jesus, and eschatology. Many Christians don’t fully appreciate the connection between these four doctrines, but it’s crucial to our faith—and crucial to the conversation with science.
Peters realizes this. As he wrote recently, “The link between the historical Jesus and the advent of the new creation is a theological link; it is a link between a probable historical judgment [that the resurrection happened] and an eschatological hope” (The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N. T. Wright in Dialogue p. 149). Relating this more fully to science, he adds, “Theologians working with a Humean definition of miracle would look on the Easter resurrection of Jesus as a moment when God abrogated the existing laws of nature. But this misses the eschatological import. It misses the intrinsic connection between what happened historically on Easter and what the Scriptures promise will happen in the eschatological future, namely the advent of the new creation. The biblically envisioned new creation cannot operate exhaustively with the laws of nature as we currently know them. The creator will need to do some re-creating” (p. 166). Clearly, Peters understands that the laws of nature are contingent creations that are not binding on the Creator—the same view held by Robert Boyle at the founding of modern science, and the same view held by John Polkinghorne, Robert Russell, and many evangelical advocates of “Theistic Evolution” today.
Let me situate Peters’ position more fully. The modern “dialogue” of science and religion has been dominated for many years by scholars who do not (or did not) believe in the actual divine origination of the universe, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, or the new world yet to come. Peters, Polkinghorne, and Russell have been major dissenting voices, representing an orthodox Christian perspective in genuine conversation with science. In this series of columns, Peters seeks to re-invigorate theology by reviving a robust doctrine of creation from nothing.
Peters’ essay was originally published in 1988, about a quarter century after the discovery of microwave background radiation, a startling confirmation of the “Big Bang” theory that moved more than a few secular scientists to utter the words “God” and “creation” in close proximity. This certainly made Peters’ task a bit less difficult, and in an upcoming excerpt he will talk about it. In this excerpt, however, he sticks with theological and biblical arguments.
He begins by saying something that might sound almost shocking, at first: the idea of creation from nothing “does not come initially from speculation regarding the origin of the cosmos.” To see his point, read carefully—and share your thoughts with us.
Creation Out of Nothing
Some say that Christians should give up the idea of creation out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo), especially when it is formulated in terms of an original beginning of time and space. Because the concepts of ongoing change and evolutionary development have so imbued our modern scientific culture, the argument is that creatio ex nihilo is now an anachronism. It is out of date. It is no longer intelligible to a mind which has been influenced by the scientific worldview. I disagree. I submit that there is surprising and salutary consonance between this theological concept and contemporary astrophysics, especially thermodynamics and the Big Bang cosmogony, and that we should not compromise on this theological commitment.
Where does the Christian idea of creation out of nothing come from? It does not come initially from speculation regarding the origin of the cosmos. What provokes the idea is, in fact, the experience of divine redemption. It is the intra-cosmic experience of God’s redeeming activity which leads eventually to the idea of God’s act of cosmic creation.
In the Old Testament, for example, Hebrew consciousness begins with the Exodus, with the creation of Israel, not with the creation of the world. “The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” we find in the credo statement of Deuteronomy 26:5-9. Remembering the Exodus comes first in Hebrew consciousness; thinking about the ordering of the cosmos comes later. But it does come. The book of Genesis does get written. Genesis gets written because what we speculate about the creation must be consistent with what we have experienced with redemption. Psalm 136 opens by offering doxologies to the creator who “spread out the earth upon the waters ... who made the great lights ... the sun to rule over the day ... the moon and stars to rule over the night.” Then the Psalm follows immediately by telling the Exodus story, how God “brought Israel out ... with a strong hand and an outstretched arm ... and gave their land as a heritage.” No one in Israel experienced the actual creation of the cosmos at the beginning. Rather, the biblical writers described creation on the basis of their experience with redemption.
The key point of continuity between redemption and creation is the idea that the future can be different from the past, i.e., the key is eschatology. More abstractly put, God does new things. The prophets constantly reiterate the theme of newness: there will be a new Exodus, a new covenant, a new Moses. [SNIP] The God of our future salvation—the God beyond the present state of reality—is not dependent upon what already exists. Looking backward toward the beginning, then, God must not have been dependent upon any past before there was a beginning. The origin of the cosmos was not limited to making order out of a pre-existing chaos. The origin was itself the advent of something new. This is the point made by II Maccabees 7:28, which emphasizes that God did not create heaven and earth out of anything that already existed (“I beg you, child, to look at the heavens and the earth and see all that is in them; then you will know that God did not make them out of existing things,” etc.). This is reiterated by St. Paul in the New Testament who describes God as calling “into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17b).
Turning to the New Testament, we can further reconstruct the movement from redemption to creation. Here the Gospel is the experienced power of new life in the Easter resurrection that provides the foundation for our faith and trust in God to fulfill his promise to establish a new creation in the future.
The world as we know it is replete with death, with the precedent that dead people remain dead. But now something new has happened. God has raised Jesus to eternity, never to die again, and God promises us a share in this resurrection when the consummate Kingdom of God comes into its fullness. Now we can ask: What does it take to raise the dead? What does it take to consummate history into a new and everlasting kingdom? It takes mastery over the created order. It takes a loving Father who cares, but who is also a creator whose power is undisputed and unrivaled.
The Gospel begins with the story of Jesus told with its significance. Its significance is that in this historical person, Jesus Christ, the eternal God who is the creator of all things has acted in the course of time to bring salvation to all the things he has created. Salvation consists here in the forgiveness of sins and the promise of a final redemption from evil to be attained through the eschatological resurrection of the dead. The logic here is: the God who saves must also be the God who creates. Nothing less will do. Langdon Gilkey expresses it well: “it is because of the knowledge of the love of God gained in Jesus Christ that the meaning and purpose of creation are known, and it is because of the power of God as Creator that redemption through Jesus Christ can be effected and our faith in Him made valid. ... Thus the promise of the Gospel that nothing can separate us from the love of God depends upon the belief that all powers in nature and history are, as we are, creatures of God and so subject to his will. Only a creator of all can be the guardian of [our] destiny.” [Maker of Heaven and Earth, pp. 269 and 279.]
Here we have the seeds of what will flower into the idea of creatio ex nihilo and its corollaries: asymmetrical time (a one-way arrow), the historical character of nature and God’s activity in the world, and the promise of an eschatological new creation. What fertilized the seed and caused it to sprout was the challenge of an alternative viewpoint, namely the belief that the material of the universe had always existed. This challenge came from two competitors to the Christian view in the early centuries of the church: dualism and pantheism.
Peters has much more to say about the Christian doctrine of creation, but this is enough for one sitting. The next excerpt compares the Christian view of God and nature to that of Plato—whose creation story, Timaeus, profoundly influenced Western thinking about God and nature for nearly two thousand years. As we will see, the differences between Christian and Platonic conceptions are neither trivial nor irrelevant to our understanding of ultimate reality.
References and Credits
Excerpts from Ted Peters, “On Creating the Cosmos,” in Physics, Philosophy and Theology: A Common Quest for Understanding (1988), ed. Robert John Russell, William R. Stoeger, S.J., and George V. Coyne, S.J., copyright Vatican Observatory Foundation, are reproduced by kind permission of Ted Peters and Vatican Observatory Foundation. We gratefully acknowledge their cooperation in bringing this material to our readers.
Most of the editing for these excerpts involves removing the odd sentence or two, or in some cases entire paragraphs—which I indicate by putting [SNIP] or an ellipsis at the appropriate point(s). I also insert annotations where warranted [enclosed in square brackets] to provide background information, often citing information from Peters’ own footnotes when it’s important for our readers.