Easter for the Universe

| By on Reading the Book of Nature

Edward HicksThe Peaceable Kingdom (1826- 1828), The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas. A committed Pennsylvania Quaker preacher, Hicks painted dozens of versions of this eschatological theme from the eleventh chapter of Isaiah. Like all of the others I have seen, this version puts William Penn’s legendary signing of a treaty with the Indians, another theme Hicks’s art depicted, literally into the picture, near the left edge, on the banks of the Delaware River where it is said to have happened. Hicks wrote the poetic version of the biblical text that decorates the frame.

Will the universe have an Easter of its own? Will the present world be transformed someday into a new heaven and earth, in which the lamb will lie down with the lion and there will be no more death? This is the very thought with which Ted Peters concludes his essay: “The primary reason for defending the concept of creatio ex nihilo in concert withcreatio continua is that the primordial experience of God doing something new leads us in this direction. The Hebrew prophets promised that God would do something new in Israel. The New Testament promises us that God will yet do something new for the cosmos on the model of what God has already done for Jesus on Easter, namely, establish a new creation.”

To see what this has to do with cosmology, read on…

What Does Creatio Continua Mean?

To Fred Hoyle creatio continua means the constant process of bringing de novo into existence things which hitherto had not existed. Thomas did not use the term creatio continua. Had he accepted Hoyle’s definition he might have argued that it still does not mean changing things which already exist. Hence Hoyle and Thomas would disagree as to when this continuous creation, as creation, occurs. Hoyle would say that there never was a beginning, that the cosmos is now and always has been in a steady state of creative activity. Although there are new beginnings every day, there never was an absolute beginning to all these absolute beginnings. Thomas, in contrast, would say that creation happened once at the beginning of all things, and that today's intra-cosmic events are watched over by God’s conserving care (conservatio). For Hoyle there is no creator and creation is contemporary. For Thomas there is a creator and creation is past. If we were to avoid the strictures of Barbour and Gilkey and mix science and religion, then we would observe that the Thomistic view has greater consonance with Big Bang theory than it does with Hoyle’s steady state theory.

Why then are theologians such as [Ian] Barbour sympathetic with creatio continua? Oddly enough, one reason for advocating continuing creation has to do with re-mixing science and religion. Theologians today commonly assume that modern understandings of nature reveal a basically dynamic rather than a static worldview. Because it is assumed that the ancients who formulated creatio ex nihilo had lived in a static cosmos, and that we moderns now live in a dynamic cosmos, it follows that we need a modern understanding of creation that is more dynamic. Creatio continua seems at first glance to fit the bill. Barbour supports continuing creation by arguing that, “today the world as known to science is dynamic and incomplete. Ours is an unfinished universe which is still in the process of appearing. Surely the coming-to-be of life from matter can represent divine creativity as suitably as any postulated primeval production of matter ‘out of nothing.’ Creation occurs throughout time.” [Barbour, Issues in Science and Religion, p. 385.]

Is Barbour consistent? Here he asserts that our modern scientifically produced picture of a dynamic world is in fact relevant to the theological doctrine of creation. He is assuming that some sort of dynamism in theology should parallel the dynamism found in science. Having committed himself now to following the scientific lead, one would expect him to affirm a temporal beginning over against continuing creation. After all, that is where the preponderance of scientific evidence lies. But instead he reaffirms continuing creation and not ex nihilo.

What does Barbour mean by continuing creation? From the passage cited above, we can see that this is notcreatio de novo as proffered by Hoyle. It is, following the model of biological evolution, the process of bringing life out of already existing matter. It is what Thomas would call “change.” Barbour wants the doctrine of creation to refer to God’s continuing activity within the world, not the creation of the world per se. What this amounts to, it appears to me, is a merging of creation with providence. Barbour is not alone in doing this. [Langdon] Gilkey also uses the term “continuing creation” to combine creation and preservation. “Creation is seen now to take place throughout the unfolding temporal process ... thus, creation and providential rule seem to melt into one another. ... The symbol of God’s creation of the world points not to an event at the beginning…” [Gilkey, Message and Existence: An Introduction to Christian Theology, p. 90.] What theologians used to call preservation or providence has been renamed “creation.”

Have we arrived at anything more important than a change in vocabulary, a change which tends to hide the issues? Whereas Thomas used the term “creatio,” to refer to the ultimate temporal beginning of things and to distinguish this from ongoing change, theologians such as Barbour, Gilkey, and [Arthur] Peacocke use "creation" to refer to the process of change within already existing creation. [For more on these thinkers, see a previous column. Here Peters has an important digression in a footnote: “The idea of continuing creation for Barbour and Peacocke seems to be drawn from consonance with biological evolution, whereas the idea of a point of origin overlaps with astrophysics. Hence, these are not mutually exclusive by any means. We might observe further that the notion of emergence as Barbour and Peacocke employ it probably represents a more thoroughgoing understanding of change than was conceived by Thomas and hence, properly deserves the title ‘continuing creation’. [SNIP] Creation will be complete only in the eschaton.”] The apparent motive for the switch is to merge creation with preservation or providence, but the result risks a total elimination of any theological commitment to a temporal beginning. In fact, such a beginning cannot even be discussed theologically, because we have lost the word for it. For temporal beginnings we must listen to the scientists.


Perhaps one of the ironic values of seeking consonance between religious and scientific discourse will be the impetus for Christian thinkers to return to the classic commitment to creatio ex nihilo while, at the same time, gaining a deeper appreciation for creatio continua. It simply makes sense these days to speak of t=0, to conceive of a point at which the entire cosmos makes its appearance along with the spacetime continuum within which it is observed and understood. If we identify the concept of creation out of nothing with the point of temporal beginning or perhaps even the source of the singularity, we have sufficient consonance with which to proceed further in the discussion.

Contemporary scientists do not support either a dualist or pantheist alternative, nor do they favor the idea that the stuff of the universe as we know it has an infinite past. On this particular issue, the scientific community of today is not the adversary to Christian theology that the pagan philosophies of ancient Greece and Rome were. Christian theologians can approach the matter with the positive anticipation that further inquiry may lead to constructive results.

The idea of continuing creation may obtain a more profound meaning through Prigogine’s usage of the second law of thermodynamics as it combines the irreversibility of time with the creation of order out of far-from-equilibrium chaos. Cosmic entropy is complemented by local creativity. What happens locally is that genuinely new things appear. The structures of reality are not reducible to, nor fully pre-determined by, the existence of past material. Thus, what Thomas Aquinas understood as mere change in already existing things is qualified: though the cosmic conservation of energy remains intact, there really do arise events in which new structures occur. We might call these new things “transformations” of reality, but the degree of unpredictable newness certainly exceeds what the medieval mind of Thomas conceived.

Mosaic: “The Last Judgment”
The Last Judgment, eleventh or twelfth century Byzantine-Ravennate mosaic, Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello, Venice. The angel rolling up the starry scroll as the trumpets sound illustrates Revelation 6:14, “The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.” (NIV) I cannot recall ever seeing another art work based on that particular text, let alone one as magnificent as this. If you ever get a chance to visit Venice, be sure to venture off the beaten track and spend some time on the little island of Torcello.

The primary reason for defending the concept of creatio ex nihilo in concert with creatio continua is that the primordial experience of God doing something new leads us in this direction. The Hebrew prophets promised that God would do something new in Israel. The New Testament promises us that God will yet do something new for the cosmos on the model of what God has already done for Jesus on Easter, namely, establish a new creation. What these things imply is that, when looking backward to the beginning of all things, we speculate that God’s initial act of creation was not dependent upon anything which preceded it. To speak of creation out of nothing is a way of emphasizing this point. Similarly, creation activity, whether divine or natural, has by no means ceased. It continues.

Creation is not simply a thing but rather a whole course of natural and historical events in which new things happen every day, a course of events which is bound by its finite future. The end of the cosmos will be something new too. The question which remains is whether the anticipated heat death constitutes a sort of cosmic Good Friday, and whether it makes sense to hope that beyond it lies an Easter for the universe.

Photo: John Polkinghorne
Many contemporary thinkers in the “dialogue” of science and religion are exploring eschatology, speculation about the end times. Probably no one has written more thoughtfully about this than John Polkinghorne. To hear him explain his position, listen to this clip, in which historian John Hedley Brooke introduces him. Like Peters, Polkinghorne realizes that science provides no basis for a future hope: this must come from revelation and religious experience.

Looking Ahead

This concludes our series on Ted Peters’ essay, “On Creating the Cosmos.” At BioLogos, we are keen to bring you the best ideas about Evolutionary Creation. Often those ideas were not written last week and put online the next day for anyone to find them with a search engine. Nor were they written for a wide audience of “real people” who are not specialists in the relevant academic field(s). Instead, as in this case, they were first published in print many years ago, in books and journals that “real people” don’t ordinarily pick up. If you’ve appreciated what we’ve done here, then please consider making a gift to BioLogos: knowledge isn’t free.

Nor is print obsolete, not just yet. Indeed, the software to read it is pretty likely to be around a lot longer than the software you need to read this. No periodic upgrades necessary, either.

When I return in a couple of weeks the topic will be different. I won’t show my hand here—you’ll just have to come back to find out!

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.

Editorial Policy

Most of the editing for these excerpts from Ted Peters 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.


About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.

More posts by Ted Davis